Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
The consensus after Texas' first two losses, double-digit flops against BYU and Ole Miss, cast the Longhorns as a talented team in the proverbial tank. When the tide began to turn against them in those games, they seemed to throw in the towel, blatantly enough in the first case that the defensive coordinator was immediately given the axe just two wees into the season. But the reality after Thursday night's come-from-behind, skin-of-the-teeth, 31–30 escape at Iowa State may be even bleaker. Texas hasn't quit on the season: It's just flat-out bad.
What other word is there? By all appearances, the Longhorns recognized the stakes in Ames and fought to the bitter end, battling back on a couple of occasions where a truly demoralized team might have thrown in the towel. That didn't happen. But for all their effort, at no point did the Horns look like a superior team, physically or otherwise. In the end, Iowa State -– a struggling, ostensibly outmanned outfit that lost its season opener to an FCS team, Northern Iowa –- finished with a 100-yard advantage in total offense and a very valid complaint that the decisive touchdown with less than a minute to play should have been negated by a decisive fumble at the goal line two plays earlier.
Without getting into the particulars of "Fumble or Not a Fumble," certainly a fumble in that situation would have been the most fitting ending to the night, thematically speaking. By that point, Texas had already done everything it could to give the game away, and repeatedly found no takers. Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Longhorns lost back-to-back fumbles, the first of which set up a short-field touchdown that gave ISU a 27–24 lead. A few minutes later, the Cyclones moved the ball inside the UT 5-yard line with a chance to salt the game away, only to settle for a field goal that left it within reach. Earlier in the half, poor safety play allowed Iowa State to turn a routine, third-down slant route into a 97-yard touchdown, the longest play in school history; on the subsequent drive, the Cyclones defense proceeded to give the Longhorns 30 yards on back-to-back pass interference penalties on the way to an answer. The same was true on the Horns' final drive, prior to the controversial fumble, which was set up by a facemask penalty and another pair of flags for pass interference. Texas didn't take anything that Iowa State didn't leave lying around.
Under different circumstances, it might be possible to overlook the many, many negatives, and focus on the positive: A conference win is a conference win, and this one moved Texas to 2–0 in the Big 12 standings. Under the actual circumstances, in the context of a head coach battling for his job on a weekly basis and a veteran lineup built to win now after two years of growing pains, it only reaffirmed the sense that this team is cut from the same cloth as its underachieving predecessors. No progress has been made. No corners have been turned. Heading into the defining game of every Texas season, against Oklahoma, the 2013 edition has even less to hang its hat on at this point than the much greener editions that were obliterated by the Sooners in both 2011 and 2012. Those outfits went into the OU game as ranked teams with a lot of optimism, and left with a much clearer of picture of just how far they still had to go. This one goes in knowing exactly what's coming.
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All games on Saturday 10/5 unless noted; all times Eastern. At this stage in the season, both F/+ and S&P+ ratings are a combination of preseason projections and performance to date. Although overall Offensive and Defensive S&P+ ratings are adjusted for opponent, ratings in each sub-category are based on raw, unadjusted numbers until week seven.
Most of the "Most Improved" buzz in September went to LSU's Zach Mettenberger, who more than backed it up last week at Georgia, but statistically speaking the title must belong to Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. In 2012, Scheelhaase managed just four touchdown passes to eight interceptions and finished dead last among regular Big Ten starters in pass efficiency; accordingly, the offense as whole came in dead last in terms of both yards and points, and failed to score more than two touchdowns in any conference game en route to an 0–8 finish. Through four games in 2013, Scheelhaase is the highest-rated passer in the B1G, his top three receivers are all averaging more than 20 yards per catch and the Illini's scoring average has leapt from 16.6 ppg to 40.3. In the second game, a 45–17 upset over Cincinnati, Scheelhaase had as many touchdown passes as he'd managed in his entire junior campaign. Last week, he surpassed that with five scoring strikes in a 50–14 win over Miami (Ohio), the most efficient performance of his career.
On the other hand, paeans to Scheelhaase's growth under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit still require some selective reading. He looked very much like his old self, for example, in a 34–24 loss to Washington, in which his stat line (9-of-25 passing, 156 yards, 93.6 efficiency) looked like something straight from the depths of last year's collapse. In that context, his success (or lack thereof) Saturday against the worst defense in the Big Ten to date will serve as a Rorschach test for both sides. If Scheelhaase manages to keep pace with his enigmatic-yet-prolific counterpart, Taylor Martinez, is that an indication that Illinois has truly turned a corner? Or only that Nebraska's defense really is as bad it looked against the likes of Wyoming and South Dakota State? If he struggles, can the Cornhuskers chalk it up as progress? Or is that just Scheelhaase being Scheelhaase against an opponent with a pulse? Answers will come later. Right now, both sides will take whatever they can get.
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Nebraska 35, Illinois 31
No one is taking Maryland seriously as a threat to Florida State or Clemson in the ACC Atlantic, but at 4–0, the Terps are ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2010, and this will be their first game as a ranked team against a ranked opponent since November 2006. Even then, there wasn't much at stake in a late-season matchup between No. 21 Maryland and No. 20 Boston College; in terms of what they stand to gain with an upset, this is the biggest game for the Terrapins since the 2002 Orange Bowl.
For the Seminoles, of course, Maryland is only the last fly to swat away before their big, season-defining trip to Clemson in two weeks, and their upset antennae should be on high alert after a sleepy start in last week's win over Boston College. FSU trailed 17–3 in the second quarter of that game, and wound up yielding 34 points to a ball-control offense with no reliable big-play threat; for the game, the Eagles pounded out 200 yards rushing and a six-and-a-half-minute advantage in time of possession. Maryland has a big-play threat in sophomore receiver/return man Stefon Diggs, who already has seven receptions covering at least 25 yards and averages 20 yards every time he touches the ball. If the Terps can find a way to keep the chains moving on the ground with tailback Brandon Ross and quarterback C.J. Brown, it might create enough room in the secondary for Diggs and fellow blue-chip Deon Long to make things interesting. If it comes down to Brown trying to outgun freshman phenom Jameis Winston, though, it's not going to stay that for very long.
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Florida State 41, Maryland 18
When is it safe to render a verdict on Miami's defense? It was a rock-bottom unit last year, worst in the ACC in terms of yards per game –- worse even than Duke, which is saying something –- due mainly to its inability to stop the run: At one point, eight consecutive opponents ran for at least 220 yards, and six of those eight scored at least 33 points. (Later on, Virginia and Duke scored 41 and 45 points, respectively, on the strength of big passing games.) By contrast, through four games this year the same Canes rank among the top ten nationally in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense, third-down defense, sacks and takeaways; according to the unadjusted S&P+ rankings, they're among the top 20 nationally on both standard downs and passing downs, and 15th in success rate. Which means ... what, exactly? Adjusted for the fact that three of those games were against Florida Atlantic, Savannah State and South Florida, the defense's overall S&P+ ranking plummets to 63rd. In the only game that might actually tell us something, against Florida, it was opportunistic enough to force five turnovers in a 21–16 upset, but also allowed 413 yards to one of the most lo-fi offenses in the SEC. Is that progress we can trust?
When it comes to Georgia Tech's triple-option attack, of course, all precedents against other types of offenses go out the window. Miami has fared relatively well against the Yellow Jackets in the course of its four-game winning streak in the series, holding them to season lows for both yards and points in 2009 and again in 2011; in 2010, Tech found a little more room to run, but still only managed 10 points in the most lopsided conference loss of Paul Johnson's tenure as head coach. Last year the offense came through with 287 yards and five touchdowns on the ground against Miami, only to lose in overtime, 42–36. As always, but for a handful of new names on the jerseys, the 2013 edition is effectively the same as the ones that went before it. The last time we saw them, the Jackets looked out of sorts against Virginia Tech, forced by the Hokies' disruptive front seven to put the ball in the air 24 times in a 17–10 loss. Miami doesn't have the same glut of NFL-bound defensive linemen that Va. Tech has, nor a single player as versatile as Hokie cornerback Kyle Fuller, who earned a Lowsman nod against the Jackets for his unorthodox seek-and-destroy role. If they've improved to get over the hump in the ACC Coastal, though, this is one of the games it badly needs to prove it.
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Miami 29, Georgia Tech 21
It may seem a little premature to start describing games in "must win" terms, especially in a conference like the Big 12, which has just enough parity to conceivably produce a champion with two losses. But the reality, for two teams off to an 0–1 start in the conference, is that an 0–2 start is a death knell. The loser in Stillwater can go ahead and kiss its chances of another title adios.
Both offenses here still seem to be struggling to establish some kind of identity, which makes more sense for Kansas State in the absence of their Atlas quarterback, Collin Klein. Right now, that seems to depend on which quarterback happens to be in the game at any given time. In their last game, a 31–21 loss at Texas, the Wildcats spent the first half trying to establish sophomore Daniel Sams as a runner out of the shotgun, a la Klein, to no avail once the Longhorns concluded that Sams is no threat whatsoever to put the ball in the air. (In four games, he's attempted four passes, none of them against Texas.) Later, with a double-digit margin to make up, Sams yielded to junior college transfer Jake Waters, who made virtually no impact as a runner (26 yards on 18 carries, plus a critical fumble late in the game) and struggled to complete passes to anyone aside from Tyler Lockett. Lockett was brilliant on that night, personally accounting for 13 of the team's 19 receptions and 237 of 275 receiving yards, but he can't be a one-man show every week, and Waters' limitations as an athlete make establishing the run in K-State's quarterback-centric system as difficult as keeping the secondary honest with Sams.
Oklahoma State has a better idea what it wants from sophomore J.W. Walsh, but doesn't know yet how consistently it's going to be able to get it. Last week's performance at West Virginia was one of the most erratic by a Cowboy quarterback in years: Despite a couple of gaudy entries on the stat sheet (322 yards, three touchdowns), Walsh was only 20-of-47 passing with two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. OSU also wants to exploit the quarterback as a runner -– it's the main reason Walsh has held down the job over senior Clint Chelf, who started the opener -– but not as the runner; when the Mountaineers neutralized tailback Jeremy Smith, holding him to one yard on 15 carries, they forced Walsh out of his comfort zone and into far too many mistakes. When he hits, it might be for a big play, but the more often he's forced into a must-pass situation, the more the boom-to-bust ratio skews in the wrong direction.
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Oklahoma State 33, Kansas State 24
Georgia's offense isn't the most prolific on paper –- partly due to the pace, partly due to facing three top-ten opponents in its first four games –- but piece-by-piece, it's as close as college football has right now to a perfect storm. Aaron Murray, owner of more career starts than any active FBS quarterback, is the most prolific passer in a loaded SEC quarterback class in terms of both yards and efficiency. Todd Gurley, the league's leading returning rusher from 2012, is averaging well over 100 yards per game (on more than 6.3 per carry) despite missing large chunks of the Clemson and LSU games. With top target Malcolm Mitchell out for the season, four others have emerged with double-digit receptions and multiple touchdowns. The starting five on the offensive line have combined for well over 100 career starts, and just picked up a Lowsman nod for keeping Murray cleaner than any quarterback has the right to expect against LSU. When Gurley left the game, they paved the way for 96 yards from Keith Marshall in his place. The Bulldogs only punted twice in that game, after kicking it away just once against South Carolina. They went over 40 points in both, and needed all of them.
All of which is to say we can probably rule out Tennessee's defense turning this one into a slugfest. Through five games, the Vols are well on their way to reprising their role as the most generous defense in the SEC, having already given up 59 points in three quarters at Oregon and 55 over the last two weeks to decidedly less competent attacks from Florida (which lost its starting quarterback early on) and South Alabama, which pushed them well into the fourth quarter last week in Knoxville. Unlike last year, though, when Tennessee took Georgia to the wire in a 51–44 shootout, there is no equivalent of Cordarrelle Patterson or Justin Hunter who gives them a chance to match fire with fire. Between Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman, the quarterback situation has been bad enough over the last three weeks that even the maddening, undrafted Tyler Bray would be welcomed back with open arms. The coaches seem to trust neither: Worley was unceremoniously benched following the debacle at Oregon, only to be handed the reins again after Peterman's first-half flameout at Florida. Last week, Worley was picked off three times by South Alabama, one of which led directly to a touchdown that sparked a late USA rally.
The Vols do have senior tailback Rajion Neal, who turned in a career game against UGA last year with 157 total yards and two touchdowns, and shouldered most of the load against South Alabama. Given that they're probably going to need at least five touchdowns on Saturday, though, he can only carry them so far.
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Georgia 44, Tennessee 17
After an initial detour at quarterback, Oklahoma has seen exactly what it hoped to see from junior Blake Bell, who continued to defy his one-dimensional, "Belldozer" reputation last week at Notre Dame and likely slammed the door on opening-day starter Trevor Knight in the process. Not that defenses can suddenly afford to ignore his legs: Although hardly a breakaway threat at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Bell still accounted for 59 yards on a dozen carries against the Irish, thereby satisfying the "dual threat" element his coaches hoped to exploit when they anointed Knight in the preseason. Unlike Knight, though, Bell has also moved seamlessly into the statuesque, Sam Bradford/Landry Jones role in the pocket. In two starts, he's completed 73 percent of his passes for 9.6 yards a pop, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. In his first road start, he also showed enough vision and wherewithal to make good things happen on the fly, as on his second touchdown pass of the first half, shown below.
Ideally, this is where TCU would be able to rely on the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Devonte Fields, to give Bell his first taste of real pressure. So far, though, Fields has been a no-show, sitting out the opener against LSU due to a suspension and last week's win over SMU due to a foot injury; in between, he made no impact in a 20–10 loss at Texas Tech. If he's able to go Saturday –- still an if –- getting to Bell without being forced to sacrifice linebackers and safeties on blitzes is a priority.
Offensively, TCU has had exactly the opposite problem. Since quarterback Casey Pachall suffered a broken arm in the second game, the Frogs have looked lethargic, managing a single touchdown at Texas Tech and just 10 points in the first 40 minutes against SMU. (And while, yes, they subsequently exploded for 38 points in the final 20 minutes of that game, two of the five touchdowns in that span came via kickoff and interception returns, and two others came on short fields set up by the defense.) As the full-time starter, sophomore Trevone Boykin hasn't done enough as a runner (158 yards on 3.4 per carry, no touchdowns) to offset his inefficacy as a passer in TCU's two losses. Historically, at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops has not been a very good place for struggling quarterbacks to find themselves.
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Oklahoma 36, TCU 19
Under any other circumstances, the 600-yard, 62-point bomb Arizona State dropped on USC last week would have been an obvious validation, at the expense of a blue-chip defense that, at kickoff, was ranked in the top ten nationally in every major category. As it was, the Sun Devils were relegated to bit players in the unfolding drama of The Kiffining. But while random collapses by the Trojan defense are nothing new, we've seen enough from this ASU attack to give it the benefit of whatever doubt may still exist. At their best, the Devils have specialized in the second-half ambush. Against Wisconsin, they scored on three consecutive, extended touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters, just enough to survive the Badgers' final counterpunch. After a miserable, scoreless first half at Stanford, they scored 28 points after the break to bring an impending blowout back from the brink. After falling behind against USC, 21–20, in the first minute of the third quarter, they drove the nail in Kiffin's coffin by ripping off 28 consecutive points in the next 12 minutes.
In all three games, the Devils have gotten at least 350 yards passing from quarterback Taylor Kelly, 100 yards receiving from juco transfer Jaelen Strong and 160 yards from scrimmage from tailbacks Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, both of whom can line up anywhere on the field. On the 74-yard touchdown pass that got the ball rolling downhill against USC, Foster burned the Trojans as a slot receiver, only one of many ways offensive coordinator Mike Norvell works to get all of his weapons involved in all phases. Preferably at maximum speed.
Other than, say, Oregon or Texas A&M, it's hard to imagine a worse match-up right now for Notre Dame's defense, which limps into the JerryDome having already been torched by two far less creative attacks from Michigan (41 points on 460 total yards) and Oklahoma (35 points on 450 yards), both of which were breaking in new quarterbacks. Athletically, Taylor Kelly is much closer to the Irish's beleaguered starter, Tommy Rees, than he is to Devin Gardner or Blake Bell, and on occasion he can be just as mistake-prone. (Kelly has thrown multiple interceptions in four of his 17 career starts, including the loss to Stanford.) Without better production from a surprisingly anemic pass rush, though, it will likely be up to Rees to keep pace in another game the Irish are not designed to play.
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Arizona State 34, Notre Dame 24
The headline in Ohio State's 31–24 win over Wisconsin was the healthy return of Braxton Miller, who accounted for 281 yards and all four OSU touchdowns off a two-game absence -– you know, par for the course. The really encouraging aspect of the win was the front seven, which held one of the most imposing, productive ground games in the country to just 104 yards on 3.9 per carry, and did it with four underclassmen making their first start in a Big Ten game. Denied their bread-and-butter, the Badgers were able to make a few plays in the passing game; quarterback Joel Stave finished with 295 yards and two touchdowns, the vast majority of it going to his All-B1G target, Jared Abbrederis. But they weren't able to keep the sticks moving on a consistent basis, converting on just three of 12 third-down attempts, and on just two of nine on third-and-8 or longer. Stave's only major mistake, an interception under pressure in the third quarter, came on a second-and-19 situation following one of Ohio State's two sacks. From there, the offense turned the pick into its only touchdown of the second half, supplying the eventual margin of victory.
Shutting down Northwestern's spread-based attack is a very different assignment than dealing with Wisconsin's power sets, but the main objective is the same: Get the Wildcats "off schedule" on early downs and into third-and-long situations as often as possible. Through four games, Northwestern has been excellent on third-and-short and third-and-medium, converting in those situations 26 times in 38 attempts (68.4 percent). On third-and-7 or longer, that rate plummets to 15 percent (three conversions in 20 attempts), and the Wildcats' best offensive weapon, run-first quarterback Kain Colter, is effectively neutralized. Nothing against Colter's replacement on passing downs, Trevor Siemian, but the more we see of him Saturday, the better for the Buckeyes.
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Ohio State 38, Northwestern 23
It would not have struck anyone looking at Washington's schedule in August as a great leap to project the Huskies to start 4–0 against Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State and Arizona. Their complete dominance in those games is another story. Against Boise, Washington administered the most lopsided beating the Broncos have endured since 2005. Against Illinois, the offense outgained the Illini by 288 yards. Against Arizona, the defense held an offense that had averaged 39 points on 508 yards of total offense in its first sixteen games under Rich Rodriguez to 13 points on 318 yards. Aside from Alabama, no team in the country has three better wins in terms of strength of schedule, and in Washington's case (unlike Alabama's), none of them have been close.
If it was a perennial contender carrying that resumé into Stanford, instead of a team that has not only finished 7–6 three years in a row, but actually counts that as significant progress from where it was four years ago, this might be one of the most-hyped collisions of the season. Instead, it's more of a litmus test: Are the Huskies really for real, or what? There are no such questions about the Cardinal, last seen devouring Washington State in a 55–17 massacre that wasn't as close as the score suggests. Prior to that, they put Arizona State in a 29–0 hole the Devils couldn't pass their way out of. Stanford is exactly the team everyone expected, which is to say, exactly like the teams that have played in three consecutive BCS bowls. Which is to say, a perfect measuring stick.
When Washington upset Stanford last year in Seattle, it was by virtue of the defense, which held the Cardinal to 238 yards and didn't allow an offensive touchdown. (Stanford's only touchdown in that game came courtesy of the defense, which makes a point of scoring whether the offense does or not: The Cardinal defense found the end zone six times last year, and actually accounted for the team's only touchdowns in each of two losses. They picked up the habit last week with a pair of interception returns for scores by linebacker Trent Murphy and safety Jordan Richards.) This meeting should be much livelier, due to a pair of veteran quarterbacks coming into their own: Kevin Hogan and Keith Price currently rank 1–2 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency, at the head of offenses running well ahead of last year's pace. In terms of total offense, Washington is actually running more than 200 yards ahead of its 2012 average, having racked up more yards in each of its first three games than in any previous regular-season game this century. Surely that cannot be sustained, especially against one of the most accomplished defenses in the country. If they come anywhere close, though, there will be no doubt that Steve Sarkisian has built a team to be reckoned with.
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Stanford 27, Washington 24
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