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.
19 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
Some Saturdays are made for blockbusters. Already this season, the early schedule has given us half a dozen games between heavy hitters ranked in the top 20, almost all of which – but especially Georgia–Clemson and Alabama–Texas A&M – have lived up to the advance hype. This Saturday is not one of those Saturdays. Only one game on this weekend's slate pits two teams ranked anywhere in the current Associated Press poll: No. 23 Arizona State at No. 5 Stanford. Only two other games (Texas State at Texas Tech, Auburn at LSU) feature two undefeated FBS teams. And it's only week four.
What this Saturday does have is bad blood. A lot of it, with potentially far-reaching consequences. Tennessee, still groping for a foothold to lift itself out of the SEC cellar, can alter the trajectory of its season by pulling out of an eight-year skid against its old SEC East nemesis, Florida. Texas, sinking fast after back-to-back losses, can get off on the right foot in the Big 12 by beating the defending conference champ, Kansas State, for the first time in a decade. Maryland, off to an encouraging 3–0 start, aims to end a ten-year drought against West Virginia. Conference ambitions at Fresno State and North Carolina, respectively, require snapping losing streaks against Boise State and Georgia Tech. When all of that is said and done, the late-night "Holy War" clash between BYU and Utah needs no external rationale.
Then, of course, there are the surprises no one sees coming. Very often, these are the kinds of weekends that wind up shaping the rest of the season by virtue of the doors that remain open and those that get slammed shut. What is the ceiling for Michigan State? Is the BCS still in play for Notre Dame? Does Arizona State have darkhorse potential in the Pac-12? Does Texas have enough in the tank for a serious run in the Big 12? This is when things start to get real.
Barring a drastic change at the top of the conference pecking order, the standing assumption here is that Boise and Fresno are playing for the privilege of hosting the rematch in December, in the Mountain West Championship Game, set to go to the division champion with the highest ranking in the BCS standings at the end of the regular season. (Boise is the runaway favorite in the Mountain Division, where it stands at 1–0 after last week's win over Air Force; Fresno is the presumed frontrunner in the West.) At this point, though, a prospective edge a couple of months from now is small potatoes for the Bulldogs compared to vanquishing a decade a futility in this series. In the dozen years that Boise and Fresno have played as conference rivals – first in the WAC, now in the MWC – Boise has won 11 of 12 games by an average of 23 points, including five of six in Fresno. Last year's game, a 20–10 decision in Boise's favor, was the most competitive the Bulldogs have been in that span since their only victory, in 2005, and the first time they'd come within two touchdowns on the blue turf. In the previous four meetings, from 2008–11, the average margin was six touchdowns.
In that context, the fact that Fresno enters Friday night as a slight favorite says more about Boise's decline from the Kellen Moore years than Fresno's improvement under head coach Tim DeRuyter; the last time we saw the Broncos on the road, they were being dismantled in very un-Boise-like fashion in a 38–6 loss at Washington, where the offense failed to score a touchdown and the defense yielded more total yards (592) than any previous Bronco defense in any regulation game this century. Between quarterback Derek Carr and receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse, the Bulldogs more than enough firepower to match the Huskies' production through the air – they easily led the MWC last year in every passing category – and it's past due to go off: Despite averaging more than 450 yards and 46 points in its first two games, the offense is one of only three nationally yet to have a single play that's gained at least 30 yards.
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FRESNO STATE 34, Boise State 28
The numbers don't bode very well for North Carolina, and neither does the recent history: While no ACC defense has been better at churning out front-seven talent over the last four years – nine defensive linemen and linebackers have been drafted from UNC since 2010, seven in the first or second round – arguably no ACC defense has been worse in the face of Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. Last year, the Yellow Jackets racked up 386 yards and seven touchdowns rushing in Chapel Hill, good for their fourth consecutive win in the series, which also happened to be the third consecutive year that they finished with both more total yards and more yards per play against UNC than any other offense in the conference. Paul Johnson's scheme never changes, and in this case neither have the results.
Can North Carolina's offense keep pace? Answer vague; check again later. The Tar Heels' first two games have unfolded more or less according to script, with the offense struggling against a first-rate SEC defense (293 yards, 10 points in a loss to South Carolina) and subsequently torching an overmatched outfit from Conference USA (511 yards, 40 points in a win over Middle Tennessee). In 2012, Carolina was second only to Clemson as the most productive attack in the ACC in conference games, thanks in large part to a 497-yard, 50-point afternoon against Georgia Tech. If they need that much on Saturday, with no equivalent of Giovanni Bernard in sight, it's time to begin bracing for a long season.
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GEORGIA TECH 38, North Carolina 26
Has Michigan State found its offense? In an abrupt, uncharacteristic outburst, the Spartans scored more offensive touchdowns last Saturday in the first quarter (3) than they had managed in their first two games combined, on their way to a 55–17 rout over… uh, Youngstown State. So, yeah, Youngstown State is a middling outfit even by FCS standards. So what? After two weeks of watching the offense gasping for air in defensively driven wins over Western Michigan and South Florida – a pair of winless doormats that have both lost to middling FCS outfits themselves – any signs of life are welcome. For the game, the Spartans finished with 547 yards of total offense (277 rushing, 270 passing), most by MSU in any game since November 2009. Fifty-five points matched their previous high under Mark Dantonio, in his first game as head coach in 2007. For the first time since last November, the starting quarterback (Connor Cook) took every relevant snap prior to garbage time, and emerged as the unquestioned starter.
Still, even dubious, runaway optimism has to be put into context. So far, Notre Dame's defense bears little resemblance to the unit that led the nation in scoring defense last year en route to the BCS title game: In back-to-back weeks, Michigan (41) and Purdue (24) have both scored more points than the Irish allowed in any regular season game in 2012. But what does vast improvement mean for an attack that didn't come close to scoring a touchdown on Notre Dame in last year's loss in East Lansing and has continued to struggle? One trip to the end zone would be a step forward. Anything more than that may have to come from the defense, which has been more than willing to pick up a little slack.
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Notre Dame 20, MICHIGAN STATE 16
For a fleeting moment last week, Tennessee led Oregon in the first quarter, 7–0, and Volunteer fans who made the trip to Eugene enjoyed a brief flicker of the imposing, always-relevant program they grew up with. From there, the Ducks proceeded to score 59 consecutive points in what turned out to be the most lopsided loss the Vols have endured in more than 100 years. In retrospect, the No. 2 team in the nation probably was not the best measuring stick for Butch Jones' nascent rebuilding job.
Florida, on the other hand, might be a very good one. One of the most telling trends in Tennessee's decade-long slide into the SEC cellar is its ongoing, eight-game losing streak against the Gators, who (with the exception of the High Tebow era in 2008-09) have never seemed that far out of reach early in the year. Despite last week's debacle, they still don't: Florida is coming off its own reality check, a 21–16 flop at Miami that served to remind everyone just how much of a liability the lo-fi offense can be when it fails to take care of the ball. Miami only managed 212 yards of total offense in the upset, but forced Florida into three turnovers with the ball inside the UM 25-yard line, and scored two of its three touchdowns off Gators giveaways in their own territory. On paper, quarterback Jeff Driskel turned in a career-high with 291 yards passing, and still managed to look as unconvincing as ever in his 13th career start.
Neither offense in this game has anything resembling a proven, go-to playmaker, which is pretty incredible given the headliners that have played in this rivalry over the past two decades. As badly as Florida has struggled on offense the past three years, it's had no trouble against a series of vulnerable Volunteer defenses, and the coaching change appears to have changed very little on that side of the ball. Either way, the only light Tennessee's offense is going to see against the Gators defense is whatever the Gators offense gives it.
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Florida 26, TENNESSEE 13
Although the bizarro ending overshadowed everything else about Arizona State's controversial, 32–30 win over Wisconsin, the Sun Devils must feel pretty good about the offense, especially down the stretch. The first half was marred by missed opportunities – a turnover on downs inside the Badgers' 10-yard line, two field goals in the red zone – and the second half began with back-to-back turnovers on the Devils' first two possessions. Late in the third quarter, though, the light came on just in time to rip off three consecutive touchdown drives covering 91, 76 and 60 yards, turning an eight-point deficit into an eight-point cushion that held up by the narrowest of margins.
The red flag was the run defense: The Badgers' old-school, straight-ahead ground game gashed ASU for 238 yards on 8.2 per carry, the vast majority on the back of sophomore Melvin Gordon. (Although Gordon's gaudy, 13-yards-per-carry average was distorted by an 80-yard touchdown run, he still had 113 yards on his other 14 carries.) Stanford will attack the Devils the same way, pounding senior workhorse Tyler Gaffney behind a veteran line until an opening presents itself in the play-action game. Stanford doesn't have a home-run hitter who can match Gordon's speed in the open field, but it may have found the viable deep threat the offense has been missing in Ty Montgomery. Even if it hasn't, with this defense big plays have often been a luxury the Cardinal can afford to live without.
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STANFORD 31, Arizona State 19
It's too soon for any sweeping proclamations, but it is fair to say that Auburn's offense – worst in the SEC last year, by far – is a very different animal under first-year coach Gus Malzahn. Not that it comes as any surprise: Malzahn, offensive coordinator during the Tigers' 2010 BCS title run, was brought back to the Plains after a year as the head coach at Arkansas State for that exact purpose. So far it's paying off. Last week, Auburn finished with 459 yards of total offense in a dramatic, 24–20 win over Mississippi State, nearly doubling its average against SEC opponents in 2012. (In fact, the 2012 Tigers only cracked 300 yards once in conference play, putting up 321 in a 24–7 loss to Arkansas.) Against MSU, they exceeded that on the arm of quarterback Nick Marshall alone, which accounted for 339 yards and the game-winning touchdown – Auburn's first 300-yard passing game since Cam Newton went for 351 against South Carolina in the 2010 SEC Championship.
Unfortunately for those Tigers, another leading candidate for "Most Improved" on offense is LSU, which has followed up a 448-yard, 37-point debut against TCU with a pair of efficient, dominant outings over UAB and Kent State. In the latter, LSU scored on seven of its first eight offensive possessions, killed the remainder of the clock on the ninth and finished with more yards of total offense (571) than in any game since 2007. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, an inconsistent liability throughout much of his first season as a starter, currently ranks as the most efficient passer in the SEC. His top target, Odell Beckham Jr., is second in the conference in receiving and leads the nation in all-purpose yards. When you also have LSU's defense on the other side, that's really not fair.
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LSU 35, Auburn 16
Texas has enough problems at the moment, in all phases, without having to worry about some stupid "curse," but you won't find a more baffling losing streak in college football than the Longhorns' five-game skid against Kansas State. It's not even a Bill Snyder thing: The slide actually began in 2006, when K-State stunned Texas under the administration of coach Ron Prince, who repeated the feat in 2007. Against all other ranked opponents, Prince's teams were 0–9; against Texas, 2–0. Snyder has only kept the ball rolling the last three years against three underachieving, demoralized teams with nothing left to play for in the closing weeks of the season.
By contrast, the 2013 Longhorns have everything to play for, beginning with their head coach's job. The past two weeks have felt like the tipping point for Mack Brown, who acknowledged the urgency of the situation by firing his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, immediately following a 41–20 debacle at BYU in the second game. Things looked a little bit better last week, until they got worse in the second half of a 44–23 debacle against Ole Miss. Realistic fans are beginning to brace themselves for the inevitable. If ever a conference opener felt like a must-win, make-or-break game for the rest of the season – and very likely for Brown's future – this is it.
To that end, Texas is hoping for the return of starting quarterback David Ash, who missed last week due to a concussion and remains questionable for K-State. In his absence, senior Case McCoy was competent against Ole Miss, but ultimately could not command the Rebels' respect as a threat to throw downfield; once the defense tightened up against the run and screen passes in the second half, the Longhorns did not come close to scoring again. Ash is not a prototypical gunner, but he does have a stronger arm than McCoy, and his versatility as a runner gives the offense an additional threat that it badly needs. At some point, though, someone on offense must emerge who can do more than just move the chains.
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KANSAS STATE 24, Texas 20
Last year's "Holy War" in Salt Lake City turned into the most bizarre scene of the season, as hundreds of Utah fans wound up rushing the field in apparent victory not once, not twice, but three separate times before it finally stuck. That only underscored how close this rivalry really is: Since 2006, five of the last seven games in the series have been decided by a touchdown or less, four of them by a field goal or less. Three of the last four have come down to the final snap.
This year, even the quarterbacks look alike: Sophomores Taysom Hill (BYU) and Travis Wilson (Utah) are both big, dual-threat types coming off big games as runners – Hill having just set the school rushing record with 259 yards against Texas, and Wilson having just run for 142 yards and three touchdowns in an overtime loss to Oregon State. At 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, Wilson is astonishingly mobile for his size, and – three interceptions against OSU notwithstanding – more consistent than Hill as a passer. (Through two games, Hill is completing just a third of his passes, with a dismal efficiency rating of 71.0.) But Wilson is also facing a much stronger defense, one that finished tenth nationally last year in Defensive F/+ and has picked up right where it left off behind All-American linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Utah will badly miss last year's immovable object in the middle of the defensive line, Star Lotulelei, against an offense that could not possibly be further from the classic BYU run-and-shoot.
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BYU 23, UTAH 21
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