"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
17 Nov 2006
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
By now, everyone knows the news that Bo Schembechler has passed away. RIP, Bo. Hope there's a nice recliner up there for you to watch Saturday's spectacle. You will be missed by everyone connected with the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
Russell: Here we are Vin. Football Armageddon is officially upon us. Have you finalized your plans for watching the game? Me, I'm going to remain at the home compound, avoiding all sports bars and viewing parties. I'm quite sure I won't be in any condition to be social. I may need to drink heavily, however.
Vinny: And you wonder why your son asked if you were drunk when you called home from State College last month? Not sure what my game plan is at this point. I'm choosing between a house party up in Marin County, a friend's place in Berkeley, the Michigan bar (Bayside) on Union Street, the Ohio State bar (Zeke's) on Third, or home with a license to throw glasses and cutlery at will. In a related story, remind me to do the dishes.
Russell: Remember when this was truly "Rivalry Week?" You could go up and down the dial and find a rivalry game on nearly every channel that shows college football. Now? Not so much, not unless you think Florida-Western Carolina and Wisconsin-Buffalo constitute rivalry games. Thanks, NCAA, for that 12-game schedule. It has really improved things.
Vinny: At least they overcompensated with the clock running during a change of possession, even at the end of both halves. And good ol' Rule 3-2-5-e, a.k.a. "The Bielema Principle" (or lack thereof if you're in the Penn State camp), mandating that the clock runs as soon as the ball is kicked on kickoffs.
Russell: Well, we do have the Iron Bowl and the Apple Cup on the docket this week in addition to the Biggest Game in the History of Western Civilization. In tOSU band fashion (that's the home of TBDBITL to you outsiders), perhaps we should just refer to it as TBGITHOWC. Rolls right off the tongue.
Russell: In a year of surprising teams and strange developments (Rutgers, anyone?), no conference has been wackier than the ACC. And since I can't make my Houston Nutt turning down Nebraska joke anymore, I feel compelled to point out that Boston College is the last of the Big East defectors that has a chance to contend in the ACC. Meanwhile, the poor, debilitated Big East has three teams in the thick of the national-title hunt.
Vinny: Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach connected for two long touchdown strikes to Darrius Heyward-Bey as the Terps held on to beat Miami 14-13 last week. Hollenbach's play is the big difference this year as Maryland is 8-2 and bowl eligible after missing the last couple of postseasons.
Russell: Here's the scenario for Boston College to reach the ACC championship game out of the Atlantic Division. The Eagles must beat Maryland and Miami next week, and hope Wake Forest loses twice. If Maryland wins this game and Wake Forest beats Virginia Tech Saturday, those two will face off next week for the right to play Coastal champ Georgia Tech in Jacksonville. Got all that?
Vinny: Not really. Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan is having a solid year (62 percent completions for 2,279 passing yards) and must be looking forward to playing against Maryland's mediocre pass defense.
Russell: Boston College is tough at home, where they've won 10 straight. But this line is way too high against a team that does nothing but play close games. Maryland is on a five-game winning streak by a combined 13 points. That's good enough for me to take the Terps and the points. Fear the turtle!
Vinny: On paper, this looks like a mismatch for the Eagles. But like you, Russ, I like the run the Terps are on right now. Give me Maryland as well.
Russell: You might be wondering why we're doing ECU-Rice during what is ostensibly rivalry week in college football. Well, these are actually a pair of pretty good reclamation projects. Rice was 1-10 last year, but now stands one win from a possible bowl bid. In other news, Conference USA has seven bowl tie-ins. Who knew?
Vinny: Uh, not me. The Owls run a lot of five-wide, spread formations and are aggressive on both sides of the ball. Think of John Jenkins's Houston teams, without running up the score and (hopefully) the rampant rules violations.
Russell: Speaking of rules violations, East Carolina is coached by Skip Holtz, son of you-know-who. He has the Pirates one win away from the C-USA championship game. ECU better watch out for receiver Jarrett Dillard, who has been putting up huge numbers all year. Good thing Rice scrapped the triple-option attack when Ken Hatfield stepped down following last season. I think the Owls ride Dillard to an upset win here to move a step closer to their first bowl since 1961.
Vinny: Looking at Skip Holtz is kind of scary -- you can sort of see his dad there smiling at you, telling you that ECU doesn't have a good team "by any stretch of the imagination." I haven't heard him speak, so I'm not sure if he has the same grating lisp. I'm annoyed just thinking about it. Rice covers.
Russell: How Holtz and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo make a living using their voices is one of life's eternal mysteries. I pity Rece Davis, stuck with the B-Team on the World-Wide Leader.
Russell: In the second half of our C-USA double-header, we take a look at yet another reclamation project in SMU, which is also one win from a bowl bid, which would be the Mustangs' first since before they endured the death penalty. I think people tend to forget that this was a national-title caliber program back when the Pony Express backfield was out-earning most NFL duos. The death penalty not only killed SMU's program, it helped kill the entire Southwest Conference. That's probably why it hasn't been used since (I'm looking at you, Alabama).
Vinny: SMU kickoff returner Jessie Henderson is a semi-finalist for the inaugural Randy Moss Return Man Award. And yes, I'm reading from a press release. I'm assuming the winner gets some sort of hydroponic device. He's averaging 36.9 yards per return, best in the NCAA, although he's missed three games with an ankle injury.
Russell: Apropos of nothing, my son used to use a Randy Moss bobblehead as a teething device. Randy's plastic bobble-braids were soothing to his gums. Tulsa won Conference-USA last year, but has lost two straight to fall out of contention. Still the Golden Hurricane are a potent bunch. The SMU pass defense is awful, so look for a big day from Tulsa QB Paul Smith. Tulsa rolls.
Vinny: The recently-released (and eagerly awaited) Coldwell Banker College Home Price Comparison Index just named Tulsa, Oklahoma as the most affordable college town in the country (average home price: $148,575). Good enough for me. The Golden Hurricane is the pick. (Incidentally, the average home price in Columbus, Ohio is $251,364 -- of course that was measured before everything in sight burns tomorrow night).
Russell: I guess there are a few other rivalry games on tap this week after all. For sheer hatred, nothing tops the Iron Bowl. Both teams are coming in off losses, but while Alabama has slipped back into mediocrity at 6-5, Auburn's loss to Georgia rudely ushered the Tigers from the national-title picture.
Vinny: Auburn managed a measly nine first downs and 179 yards in the loss to the Bulldogs. Yeesh. The running game was working, but once Georgia hung 23 points on the Tigers in the second quarter, it didn't matter.
Russell: Alabama has lost four straight to Auburn, and if coach Mike Shula isn't on the hot seat, he should be. I don't know how he got the job in the first place. Yes, his teams always play good defense, but there are high school offenses that run more sophisticated attacks. That's an accusation that will sound awful familiar to fans of the late-90s Buccaneers, where Shula served an incompetent term as offensive coordinator.
Vinny: Wow, Russ. If I didn't know any better, I would think you're a bitter Bucs fan. Shula is 0-3 against Auburn, and none of them have really been close. A win here would keep the wolves (read: RV dealers) at bay at booster club meetings.
Russell: I feel for Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox, a tough guy who has overcome an awful lot to get where he is. Last week, with a chance to keep Auburn in the thick of the title picture, he had the meltdown of all meltdowns: 4-of-12 for 35 yards and four interceptions. Ugh. The 'Bama defense is probably not the best unit to bounce back against, but I think Cox does so anyway. Auburn wins going away, as the Alabama boosters begin searching for Bobby Petrino's phone number.
Vinny: Cox has been gimpy on a bad knee, but if he's performing like he did last week, it's time to sit him down. I'm going to take a flyer on Alabama to cover the spread here.
Russell: This is one of those under-the-radar rivalry games that makes college football so great. Neither team is very good, but they'll both be jacked up to play this one in the Palouse, where I can pretty much guarantee two things: the weather will be crappy, and Barry Tompkins will be on the call.
Vinny: I don't think Tompkins or Gary Thorne even have a home other than for tax purposes. The Cougars were crushed by Arizona and Arizona State in successive weeks. The Wazzu defense has been a walking hospital, which doesn't help things. And receivers Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus were sidelined with ankle injuries last week against the Sun Devils.
Russell: Washington showed great promise the first part of the season, hanging tough in most of its losses, but things have fallen apart since quarterback Isiah Stanback was lost for the season. The Huskies lost to Stanford last week. Ouch. So much for that "Ty Willingham for Coach of the Year" movement. With Stanback, I'd give the Huskies a shot, but this team looks like it has packed it in and there are rumors of in-fighting on the squad. Sounds like a Wazzu pick to me.
Vinny: It's too bad, because like a lot of folks, I thought Ty had righted the ship back in September. Even with all the injuries, I think Wazzu covers at home.
Russell: Here's the lead on the AP's preview of the Wake Forest-Virginia Tech game: "The wins and the respect keep coming for Wake Forest." Umm, wins -- check. Respect? Not so much. Last week Wake opened as a touchdown underdog at awful Florida State and the line kept rising. Final score: Wake 30, FSU 0. So what happens this week at home against so-so Virginia Tech? The Demon Deacons are 'dogs again.
Vinny: I guess getting Jeff Bowden fired will have to be the feather in Wake's cap for now. Jim Grobe probably received a few fruit baskets from Seminoles fans this week. If you had told me that the Demon Deacons would have 10 wins this year, I would have slapped you, JLS-style. But hosting Virginia Tech and then traveling to Maryland for the finale, it could happen.
Russell: Virginia Tech is playing much better since losing to Georgia Tech and Boston College at midseason. But the Hokies don't have much to play for, having been eliminated from contention for the ACC title game. I give a big motivation edge to Wake in this one. This is bound to be a low-scoring affair, as both teams have stingy defenses. Virginia Tech has posted three shutouts this season, including a week ago over Kent State.
Vinny: Aren't they just "Kent" these days? A tip of the cap to Frank Beamer for his non-conference scheduling: Northeastern, Cincinnati, Southern Miss, and Kent. That slate would make Barry Alvarez blush.
Russell: Virginia Tech needs tailback Brandon Ore to get back to the dominating form he was showing a few weeks ago. If he has a big day, the Hokies probably win. But I can't pick against Wake, a team that is hungry for the first 10-win season in school history and is feeding off the lack of belief of others. Riley Skinner will make a big play to decide things as Wake sets up the huge game with Maryland next week with a big home win.
Vinny: Wake has been solid against the run this year, so maybe they can slow Ore down. I like the Haggards, er Demon Deacons, as well.
Russell: Hey, look who's back in the thick of the national-title picture? That would be the Trojans, who have watched the other one-loss contenders fall by the wayside since suffering their only loss, at Oregon State three weeks ago. It seems that Florida's shaky, one-point win over South Carolina was enough to move USC to the coveted third spot in the BCS standings. I really don't understand all the Trojan-bashing, either. This is a team that replaced two Heisman winners in the backfield and numerous other key contributors, then has gone 8-1 against a schedule that included SEC darling Arkansas, Nebraska, and Oregon.
Vinny: USC hasn't had the drop-off that I expected this year, and I think John David Booty is the biggest reason. To get your first-year starting quarterback to complete 63 percent of his passes while tossing 20 touchdowns and only six picks is ridiculous. Hats off to Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin for having him play at such a high level as soon as he took the reins from Matt Leinart.
Russell: Bad news for those who are sick of the Trojans playing for the title every year: They're finally healthy at receiver and their defense is rounding into form, allowing just 10 points the last two weeks and completing bottling up Oregon's explosive attack.
Vinny: USC has relied on a 3-4 scheme on defense for much of the season, but used a four-man front against Oregon last week with great success, limiting Oregon's Jonathan Stewart to 42 yards rushing.
Russell: Cal blew its shot at the national title by losing to Arizona last week, but is still playing for the Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl berth here. They'll be motivated, and DeSean Jackson will probably make a highlight-reel play or two, but it won't be enough. Pete Carroll's club continues its march to Glendale with a win here (my Fred Edelstein Lock).
Vinny: Standout corner Daymeion Hughes and the Cal secondary obviously can't shut down Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, but the Cal defense is opportunistic (nearly three turnovers forced per game). I think the Bears cover here.
Russell: Well here goes. I'm going to try really hard to not use "we" in the following preview and to avoid any semblance of trash talk. It's not easy, not when Michigan is warning its students not to drive to Columbus in cars with Michigan plates. Not when Michigan is sending its campus police to Columbus to protect its students. Not when library employees are running smack.
Vinny: I can't make any promises on the trash talk. Russ, we made the drive to Columbus in 1992 back when we were in school, but things certainly are more intense these days. Kudos to the Michigan fans with the huevos to make the trip this year. Meanwhile, I can't remember a regular season matchup getting this much hype. The USC-ND game comes to mind from last year, but that was mostly post-game hype for the classic finish.
Russell: How's your mental state, Vin? I'm not nearly as nervous as I thought I'd be leading up to what I suspect might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for us: a 1-vs-2 Michigan-Ohio State showdown to settle half the BCS title-game picture. Mostly, I'm just anxious for this game to get underway. I've spent way too much time on the Internet reading about the game this week. I've found some good material, some not so good. I will say this, I think the Michigan bloggers tend to be a bit more, um, literate than our counterparts at The OSU. Oops. So much for my pledge.
Vinny: At least you tried. It's no surprise that Ohio State is favored by about a touchdown. But I am heartened by the fact that ESPN wizards Mark May, Beano Cook and Dick Vitale all believe the Buckeyes will win. If that's not good karma for Michigan, I don't know what is. Not to mention Kirk Herbstreit's kind words for Steve Breaston.
Russell: We could probably devote a couple thousand words to discussing this game. There are so many matchups to talk about. The key one for me is this: Can Michigan run the ball and force Ohio State to bring the safeties up? If the Buckeyes contain Mike Hart in their base defense, I'm not thrilled with the Wolverines' chances. If that Ohio State defense has a vulnerability, it's against the run. Michigan has to take advantage. I'm not expecting huge numbers from Hart, but he has to move the chains and give Chad Henne a chance to throw downfield against a defense that has to play him honest.
Vinny: Agreed. Ohio State held Hart to 61 yards in 2004 before the Wolverines fell behind and took to the air. Last year, he was banged up and limited to 15 yards on nine carries. Hart has to be a workhorse like he was against Notre Dame, Penn State, and Iowa this year (31, 26, and 31 carries, respectively). That would keep the clock moving, the Michigan defense rested, and Troy Smith off the field. Meanwhile, I'm curious to see how much respect Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Heacock gives Mario Manningham early in the game. If Manningham is back in form, that's a huge plus.
Russell: Antonio Pittman is good. Troy Smith is very good. But neither is going to have a big day running against this defense. Do you realize Michigan used 6-foot-6, 330-pound Alan Branch to shadow Indiana's dual-threat quarterback Kellen Lewis last week? The point being that this front seven is far better than anything OSU has faced this year. Smith -- who will deserve the Heisman if he posts a third straight brilliant game against Michigan -- has been happy to stay in the pocket this year and pick teams apart. But I expect he will try to run some to slow the Michigan pass rush. He may have some success, but then again, he may join the growing list of QBs who've limped to the sidelines during Michigan games this year.
Vinny: As a Michigan guy, Smith reminds me of James Mason's character in "The Verdict" -- he's the Prince of F%$#ing Darkness. You know that, even if he looks dead to rights, he's going to improvise some huge plays. I can't believe I'm about to type this, but I really hope Smith does tuck it and run instead of buying time for Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzales to break free. Still, it's like picking your poison.
Russell: Provided Hart can move the chains, the game falls to Henne, who's had a really solid year after taking his lumps as a sophomore. Henne has been spotty at times in his Michigan career, but this is also a guy who rises to the occasion. He was brilliant against Texas in the Rose Bowl as a freshman. Last year, he played one of his best games in the loss to Ohio State. He was terrific against Notre Dame this year. I think he rises to the challenge and hits Manningham for a big play somewhere. This is going to be a low-scoring game; the defenses are too good. One big play could make the difference. I'm going with Michigan (as if anyone needed to read this entire article to figure that out).
Vinny: Even with all the plaudits for Laurinaitis, I'm honestly not sold on the Buckeyes linebackers. Michigan has really taken to the zone blocking scheme, and with Mike Massey and Tyler Ecker healthy, look for more double-tights sets. Bottom line: I think Hart has a big day and Michigan's front four gets to Smith just enough. And that's enough for the Wolverines to survive. Just to go over the top as a homer, I'll make this my Freddy.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
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("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
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240 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2006, 5:42pm by Weekly Journalist