Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
10 Nov 2006
by Vinny Gauri and Russell Levine
Russell: Well, Vin here we are. Not only are we one week out from potential Football Armageddon in Columbus, but I've got my tickets and I'm getting ready to venture down the Jersey Turnpike to take in an honest-to-goodness Rutgers game with national-title implications. All my Garden State pride is coming out tonight. I'm giddy. "What exit" jokes? Bring 'em on.
Vinny: You're off Exit 15W, right?
Russell: Umm, yeah. Western Spur -- respect. Anyway, I'm fired up for this one, and I didn't even go to Rutgers. I just want to be there to see Rutgers fans experience what you and I and college football diehards all over experience a couple times each fall. It's like being there for the birth of a child.
Vinny: Well, since I haven't experienced that, I'll offer another analogy: it's like you're a sophomore in college, you just moved out of the dorms, and you and your buddies are hosting your first keg party the weekend before school starts. And you walk into the party store and they're having specials on kegs of Milwaukee's Best, Schaefer, Goebel and Wiedemann's. And they're throwing in the plastic cups for free.
Russell: Goebel? (Shudders). I'm going with my buddy Chris, an SDA reader, an RU alum, and a huge sports fan (Mets/Giants/Rangers). You want fired up? This is a direct quote from him: "I have to say that I have not been this excited for a game since Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals and not this excited for a game I am actually going to since the 1986 NFC Championship Game."
Vinny: What about the Subway Series? Wrestlemania I at MSG in 1985? Doc Gooden's first positive cocaine test in 1987?
Russell: Those are three strong entries, to be sure.
Russell: I wrote a preview of this game for Thursday's New York Sun, and as much as I wanted to focus on some rather intriguing matchups -- Ray Rice against that porous-looking Louisville run defense from the West Virginia game, for example -- I just couldn't. This game isn't about matchups. It's about emotion. Rutgers has never played a game like this one. The stadium will be overflowing. National TV. A week off to prepare against a Louisville team coming off a huge emotional game of its own. Do you see where I'm going with this?
Russell: Emotion is the great equalizer in football. Think of the Saints-Falcons Monday Night game when the Superdome reopened. The Falcons didn't stand a chance that night. Louisville has more talent, and a huge edge at QB, but it might not matter if Rutgers runs them out of the stadium on an emotional tidal wave in the first 10 minutes.
Vinny: But then, the Knights might be so excited that they fumble the opening kickoff, get gashed by a flurry of Brian Brohm screen passes, and dig themselves a deep hole in the first quarter.
Russell: If Rutgers fails to start fast, they could be in trouble. Brohm has a bunch of giant receivers to throw to. Mario Urrutia will have eight inches on the Rutgers corners. Rutgers QB Mike Teel can't throw, and its defense hasn't faced an offense of this caliber since it played Louisville last year (final score, 56-5). I say it doesn't matter. There's no way Louisville can get itself "up" for this game like it was last week. The Cardinals are walking into an ambush. Ray Rice will go nuts. Jersey finally gets a taste of the big time. Rutgers wins outright (my Fred Edelstein Lock) and the New York media suddenly discovers college football.
Vinny: The ease with which West Virginia gashed the Cardinals for 318 rushing yards has to bode well for Rice and Brian Leonard. And I don't think Louisville can count on Rutgers to be as generous with the football as the Mountaineers were. Still, this is the first taste of the big time for Teel and especially Rutgers' heralded defense, and I say it tastes like humble pie. I think Bobby Petrino will have his team ready for the Knight's initial wave of emotion, and Brohm and Kolby Smith slice and dice their way to an easy cover for Louisville.
Russell: If you watch the game, look for an ESPN feature on my 110-year-old neighbor, Walter Seward, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. He won't be in attendance, but he will be watching.
If you missed the YouTube clips from the mayhem in Piscataway, you can find them here
Russell: Man, remember when Kentucky's Rich Brooks was easily the worst coach in America? When was that, about five weeks ago? Well look who has his team poised to go bowling. A win here and the 'Cats are eligible, thanks to a home upset of reeling Georgia last week.
Vinny: It was Kentucky's first win over Georgia in ten years. The Wildcats actually have a shot at winning out -- Louisiana-Monroe is next and then a struggling, banged up Tennessee team in the finale -- and finishing the regular season at 8-4. Quarterback Andre Woodson leads the SEC in touchdowns right now with 21.
Russell: Vandy has also had a surprising season. The Commodores can get to a bowl as well, but they'll have to win this game and then beat Tennessee next week to do it. This should be a shootout -- Kentucky's pass defense is awful and Vandy QB Chris Nickson has been getting better. He's coming off perhaps his best two-game stretch of the season.
Vinny: Amassing over 500 yards of offense against Duke is one thing, but Vandy gave Florida fits last week in a 25-19 loss for the 'dores. Nickson was 27-of-44 for 298 passing yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He was 12-of-17 for 153 yards in the fourth quarter. And he can run (seven rushing touchdowns).
Russell: This could be one of those last-team-with-the-ball-wins kind of games. I'm not sure how crazy I am about taking Kentucky in an important game they're expected to win, especially coming off their biggest victory of the season. Call it a pick for Dr. Browning. Vandy pulls the upset.
Vinny: Yeah, reading the press coming out of Lexington, I think the Wildcats will still be basking in last week's win by kickoff. I like the Commodores (and the points) as the more prepared team.
Russell: I was doing so well. I hadn't thrown things or screamed in anguish at the TV since Chad Henne's first pass of the Notre Dame game back in September. But the fourth quarter of last Saturday's near-debacle against Ball State almost put me on the ledge. Good thing Brian from MGoBlog talked me down. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr never wanted to play that game in the first place -- he was vehement in his opposition to the 12-game schedule -- and he treated it like a scrimmage. No hitting in practice. Leaving the second-teamers in on defense even after they gave up some big plays to make it interesting.
Vinny: The second half underscored the lack of depth at cornerback for the Wolverines. There's a big drop-off after Leon Hall and Morgan Trent. Starters or not, linebackers coach and quote machine Steve Szabo said the defense "embarrassed themselves" last week. And the lack of execution by the Michigan offense late against Ball State was a little disconcerting. Mario Manningham was back in the lineup but was only permitted to run fly patterns down the field. We'll see if he's allowed to make a few cuts this week on that surgically repaired knee. And tight ends Mike Massey and Tyler Ecker could also be back in action for the first time in a month.
Russell: Indiana is awful tough to figure. Two weeks ago, they bombed Michigan State to get within one win of a bowl berth. Last week, they gave up 63 points to a Minnesota team that nearly lost to North Dakota State a couple weeks back. Indiana does have a dangerous passing attack, and Michigan will see plenty of it since the Hoosiers won't be able to run the ball at all.
Vinny: Hoosiers coach Terry Hoeppner got his feathers ruffled last year when these teams met in Michigan Stadium, claiming that the Wolverines bullied the Hoosiers into a small corner of the field during pre-game warm-ups. Hoeppner sometimes goes a little overboard with his "us against the world" mentality, but when the guy is back on the sideline a few weeks after brain surgery, he's entitled to his methods.
Russell: Phew. I was afraid you were going to start ripping the guy. This is the week Michigan puts the hammer down. They won't do anything fancy, but they should be able to run at will and I expect Henne to find Manningham on a deep ball or two. Michigan will get up big early and coast, unlike last week. For once, I like the Wolverines laying the big number.
Vinny: Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis has developed some nice chemistry with receiver James Hardy. But I expect Lewis to spend most of Saturday picking himself off the turf. With Total, Utter and Complete Armageddon only a week away, the focus will be back for the Wolverines. Michigan routs Indiana (my Freddy).
Russell: I didn't see a single snap of Ohio State's 17-10 win over Illinois last week so I can't really speak to whether it was a genuinely tight game or if OSU basically took the same approach Michigan did against Ball State. The stats tell me that Troy Smith and the Buckeye offense were held largely in check, but did they shut things down after halftime and leave it to the defense?
Vinny: Senator Tressel was almost apolitical this week, taking the blame for his conservative play-calling in the second half against the Illini. But Smith was not his usual efficient self, going 13-of-23 for 108 yards and a pick. He admitted to having an injured thumb on his throwing hand and has been wearing a protective wrap the last couple weeks. Meanwhile, Ted Ginn Jr. has been hampered by a broken toe lately, and starting left tackle Alex Boone has been out of action. Just as the Wolverines are getting healthy, the Buckeyes are coming up limping.
Russell: You shouldn't take such joy in the suffering of others. Northwestern is another schizophrenic Big Ten team. The 'Cats lost at home to New Hampshire, yet they are coming off a win over Iowa last week. It's been a tough year, beginning with Randy Walker's shocking death over the summer, but I really admire how 31-year-old coach Pat Fitzgerald has held his team together. They've had every reason to pack things in, but have refused to do so.
Vinny: The Iowa win was definitely a nice feather in the cap for the 'Cats
(even if the Hawkeyes were without Drew Tate), and if they can beat Illinois in Evanston next week, they'll go into spring ball with some momentum. They have a young nucleus at the skill positions with quarterback C.J. Bacher, tailback Tyrell Sutton and receivers Ross Lane and Eric Peterman.
Russell: Northwestern may have found its quarterback of the future in Bacher. He really impressed me in their loss to Michigan, standing tall despite absorbing some huge hits in the pocket. He'll make some plays, but I think Ohio State is also going to be all business this week. No more close calls. I'll lay the big number on the Buckeyes.
Vinny: Agreed. The Fighting Sweatervests cover.
Russell: Tennesse and Michigan were the redemption stories of the early part of the season, but the Vols were staggered last week by a home loss to LSU in which the Tigers drove for the winning score in the final minutes, wasting a good effort by backup quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
Vinny: Crompton will get the nod again for the Vols as Erik Ainge is still out with a bad ankle. But Tennessee did receive some good news on the injury front as freshman tailback Lamarcus Coker is expected back for this one. Montario Hardesty will get the start at tailback though.
Russell: Don't forget about Arian Foster, who was suspended for the first half after getting arrested with two teammates following the LSU loss. Only the fact that Adrian Arrington has continued to play for Michigan following his legal issues prevents me from making a joke at Phil Fulmer's expense here.
Vinny: Arkansas's Mitch Mustain had completed 52 percent of his passes with ten touchdowns and eight interceptions, which earned him a seat on the bench in favor of Casey Dick last week. You have go give Nutt credit for making a change in the midst of an eight-game winning streak. Dick's back problems seem to be behind him (no pun intended). But the Hogs will also be short-handed for this one, as starting free safety Michael Grant is out for the year after suffering ligament damage in Arkansas's 26-20 win at South Carolina.
Russell: I'm worried about the mindset of Fulmer's club following the gut-wrenching loss and the legal problems. I'm not sure Tennessee can stop that Arkansas running game of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. I think Arkansas gets the cover.
Vinny: Tennessee should be able to muster some more offense than they managed against a tough LSU defense. And the Vols' defense should be up to the challenge against Arkansas's running game. I like Vols and the points here.
Russell: Talk about lack of respect. Wake Forest is 8-1 and is the school's best team in a generation. Florida State is 5-4 and is the school's worst team in a generation. Yet the line says the Seminoles are a touchdown favorite, and it's been climbing.
Vinny: Reputations die hard. FSU gets to close the season with four straight at home including a Thanksgiving weekend clash with rival Florida. I'm not sure if there's a unit in the country that's been hit as hard by injury as the Seminoles defense, which looks like it now has nine starters out for the year. It didn't matter much against hapless Virginia, who surrendered to the 'Noles to the tune of 33-0 last week. Xavier Lee is expected to start at quarterback again, as Drew Weatherford continues to mend his ankle after injuring it against BC a few weeks ago.
Russell: Wake has also had plenty of injuries this season, making their success (and coach Jim Grobe's impending raise) all that much more impressive. Win this game, and the Demon Deacons are in the driver's seat to reach the ACC title game.
Vinny: The ACC has been disappointing this season, but Wake is in the middle of the toughest stretch in the conference (BC, at FSU, Virginia Tech, at Maryland). And it's hard to expect too much from Wake after its students attacked the goalposts following the big win over BC last week. But I just don't trust this FSU team. If Wake is getting a touchdown, that's good enough for me. The Deacons cover on the road.
Russell: I'm with you. I just can't see laying a big number on a Florida State team that's injured and playing poorly. FSU might win this game, but it won't be a rout. I'll take Wake as well.
Russell: Finishing this column on Friday gives us some more insight to USC's situation, as the Trojans got the Louisville loss they -- and every other once-beaten team -- needed to get back in the title hunt. USC is a bit further back in the pack after losing to Oregon State a few weeks ago, but this game kicks off a closing stretch that also includes Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA. In other words, the Trojans still have plenty of chances to impress the voters.
Vinny: Pete Carroll's team did seem refocused after the loss. After weeks of close calls against lesser teams, they put the hammer to Stanford last week. Not that that means much, but it was still good to see if you're a USC fan.
Russell: Agreed. Still, USC's defense will get a real test from the Ducks, who have been scoring points in bunches all season. USC needs to generate a turnover or two.
Vinny: The Ducks have really missed Haloti Ngata in the middle of their defense this year, as their biggest weakness has been stopping the run. That's good news for Chauncey Washington and Emmanuel Moody.
Russell: I think USC will seize its opportunity here. John David Booty is playing his best football of the year, and the Ducks' defense can be scored upon. I like USC to cover the big number.
Vinny: Make that two of us. USC is the pick.
Vinny: Is Hawaii another of those stupid pet teams you have? Is that why we're picking this scintillating matchup?
Russell: You got me. I've been fascinated by the Rainbows (I'm old school, you won't catch me calling them Warriors) since the 80's, when they'd be on ESPN once a year and would always seem to put a scare into some powerhouse team out taking a little vacation in the islands.
Vinny: These days, Hawaii beats up on the poor stepchildren on the WAC. June Jones is no stranger to running up the score; then again when all your offense does is pass, it's kind of tough to call off the dogs.
Russell: Even playing in a league with no defense and throwing the ball on every play, Colt Brennan is putting up numbers that are eye-popping. He's thrown 21 TDs and just one interception in the past four games. The number is huge, but Hawaii scores in the 60s and covers.
Vinny: Louisiana Tech can chuck it a little bit too, with QB Zac Champion, who sounds like he has a stage name. But Hawaii buries bad teams at home. I'll take the Warriors (sorry Russ) as well.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||Vinny Says||Russell Says|
|Ohio State||-22.5||Northwestern||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|Wake Forest||+7||Florida State||Wake Forest||Wake Forest|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
251 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2006, 4:02pm by Nick Evans