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?
01 Nov 2004
By Russell Levine
In a year of almost unprecedented stability in the major college football polls, some observers pointed to this weekend as one in which the national championship picture would begin to come into sharper focus. They were right.
Southern California and Oklahoma have held the top two positions in both major polls without incident since the preseason, with an unusually large pack of undefeated teams lurking, hoping to move up and grab one of the coveted berths in the Orange Bowl. But if any Saturday could shake up the rankings, it was this one: Eight of the top 10 teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings were playing away from home (BCS No. 7 Wisconsin was idle).
Sure enough, it was a day of upsets, firsts, and rarities. One unbeaten team (Miami) lost, as did the highest-ranked one-loss team (Florida State). Oklahoma barely survived a scare from Oklahoma State, as did one-loss Georgia, which edged Florida in the annual "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" game in Jacksonville. Another one-loss team, Texas A&M, was caught looking ahead to next week's showdown against Oklahoma and fell to lightly-regarded Baylor in overtime. And in perhaps the best game of the day, one-loss Michigan rallied from a 17-point deficit in the final seven minutes before triumphing in three overtimes against Michigan State.
All-told, Saturday's action also showed what could be lost if Division I-A were to adopt a playoff system. As it stands, for the top contenders, every game of the regular season is a de facto playoff match. With seven undefeated teams entering Saturday's play, a loss all but knocked teams out of the championship picture, thus adding to the drama of games.
While a playoff might solve the issue of deciding a definitive champion, it would rob regular season games of their importance and drama. With a playoff in place, the upsets and near-upsets of this compelling weekend simply wouldn't mean as much.
* * *
The biggest shocker of the day, and maybe the entire season, came at North Carolina, where the Tar Heels knocked off BCS No. 3 Miami, 31â€“28, on a final-play field goal by freshman kicker Connor Barth. North Carolina, 3â€“4 entering the game, earned the first win over a top-five opponent in program history by running roughshod over Miami's defense. The Tar Heels amassed 551 yards of offense, the last 65 coming on the winning drive.
North Carolina coach John Bunting -- who may have saved his job with this win -- deserves accolades for remaining aggressive on the final possession. He eschewed playing for overtime, as many coaches would have, after being pinned at his own 10-yard line by a penalty. Maybe hearing rumors of his imminent dismissal gave Bunting the courage to play to win, or maybe he was convinced by the performance of his senior quarterback, Darian Durant, during the previous 58 minutes. Regardless, Durant proved him correct by calmly moving the Tar Heels into position for the winning kick, bleeding all but four seconds from the clock in the process to ensure that Miami's sublime kick returner, Devin Hester, would not get another chance at the ball.
Miami was lucky to win its two previous games. Its normally stout defense was manhandled by Louisville and North Carolina State, which combined for 947 yards of offense. This loss, coming at such a late date, almost assuredly knocked the Hurricanes out of the national championship picture. Miami fell to 10th in the coaches' poll and 11th in the AP rankings, and simply doesn't have enough games left to climb back into the title chase.
Miami's defense has been its calling card since the program first rose to national prominence in the 1980s, with names like Jerome Brown, Cortez Kennedy, and Ray Lewis parlaying stellar careers in Coral Gables into professional stardom. The 2004 NFL draft saw four Miami defenders claimed in the first round, and their young replacements have struggled the maintain the Hurricanes' typical level of excellence.
* * *
Florida State, which had managed to climb back into the championship picture despite a season-opening loss to the Hurricanes, also kissed its title hopes goodbye after an improbable loss to Maryland. The Terrapins had been 0â€“14 all-time against the Seminoles, never once managing to come within 14 points.
Neither streak seemed likely to end this year, as Maryland had scored just 17 total points -- gaining less than 400 total yards -- in losing three straight. But Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen rediscovered his offensive genius, orchestrating an attack that generated 333 yards passing by much-maligned quarterback Joel Statham. Friedgen propped up his struggling quarterback by telling anyone who would listen during the week that Statham was improving and that he believed in him. The shot of confidence did the trick, allowing Statham to find his rhythm early and often against the Seminoles, and giving him enough self-assurance to overcome his mistakes.
Combined with Florida's loss to Georgia, the Sunshine State's three premier programs all fell on the same day for the first time since October 14, 1978. Florida election officials can only hope Tuesday goes better.
* * *
Red Sox fans, I know how you feel.
That was my sentiment after sweating out every second of Michigan's 4 1/2 hour, triple-overtime win over Michigan State. I usually pride myself on being a rational fan -- not the type to throws things or yell at the TV, but I'm afraid I failed in all three areas while watching this one.
The yelling began in the first half, as Michigan State pushed a listless Michigan defense all over the field. It escalated when Michigan's Braylon Edwards fumbled to kill a promising drive early in the second half. But I think it was Michigan State's 133rd consecutive successful use of the shotgun, backside, counter-draw that sent the remote flying. That's why I was on my hands and knees, searching for the batteries moments after State's DeAndra Cobb broke off his second long touchdown run on that play, giving the Spartans a 17-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"It's over," my optimistic wife told me.
I reminded her that she's been watching Michigan games with me long enough to know that the Wolverines would do something in the final eight minutes to make me believe, for a fleeting instant at least, that they could win the game.
At that point she looked at me and promised to eat a section of the newspaper if Michigan came back to win.
Well, you probably know by now what happened next. Michigan, aided by some excellent decisions from coach Lloyd Carr, exploded to tie the game in just 3 1/2 minutes, and eventually won in the third overtime session. (Susan has yet to consume the paper, despite the fact that I set a place for her and everything.)
The critical sequence in the comeback came on Michigan's first possession following the Cobb touchdown. Too often, coaches facing a large deficit fall into the trap of believing that touchdowns are the only way to come back. Trailing 27â€“10 and facing a fourth down on the Michigan State seven-yard line with 6:27 remaining, Carr correctly called for a field goal, and didn't waste a timeout in the process. Coaches frequently waste critical timeouts in making a decision about a key play. By acting decisively and preserving his timeouts, Carr left his team with greater flexibility as it attempted to rally.
Because Michigan still had three timeouts after the field goal, the Wolverines maintained the option of a deep kickoff -- a fact that improved its odds of recovering the onsides kick Carr called for. Carr disguised his intentions by putting two kickers on the field -- his normal kickoff man, Troy Nienberg, as well as his placement specialist, Garrett Rivas. That forced Michigan State to respect the possibility of a deep kick. When Rivas' line-drive onsides attempt bounced off a Michigan State player, the Wolverines recovered and suddenly had new life.
Michigan's late-game heroics, including three touchdown passes from Chad Henne to Braylon Edwards to tie the score and win it in overtime, overshadowed an incredibly rare performance by the two featured running backs, Michigan's Mike Hart and Michigan State's Cobb. Each gained more than 200 yards on the day, which had happened just six times before.
With the win, the Wolverines' kept alive their hopes for a share of the Big 10 title and a bid to a BCS bowl. Since undefeated Wisconsin holds the tiebreaker advantage, and Utah is holding steady at No. 6 in the BCS standings -- the spot that would guarantee it a BCS invite -- Michigan still needs some help to grab the final at-large bid.
* * *
Another 200-yard rushing performance -- by Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson -- helped the Sooners avoid an upset bid by Oklahoma State. It was a bizarre game in which Oklahoma State, which struggles to pass the ball, got back into the contest by repeatedly throwing downfield in the second half.
But the Sooners were able to eke out the win, showing why they are better than last year's team that dominated the polls before stumbling in its final two games. The offense, in particular, is more balanced. Oklahoma's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jason White, now has the luxury of a superior rushing attack powered by Peterson, whose arrival transformed Oklahoma's rushing attack from a middle-of-the-pack unit to one of the nation's elite.
Last season, the Sooners ranked 65th nationally with 146.7 yards per game and a 3.8-yards per carry average. This season the numbers are 225.5 and 5.0, good for 16th in the nation. Even though White's numbers have declined slightly, the team's overall offensive production has risen by about 20 yards per contest. It's a far more dangerous attack because it is able to produce big plays in both the run game and the pass game. Peterson has produced enough highlight-reel plays on the ground that he may become the first freshman in history to win the Heisman.
Of course, Heisman fortunes can change in a hurry, a fact best understood by Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton. Three weeks ago, Orton appeared to be the prohibitive favorite for the award, but has fallen by the wayside after his team endured a three-game losing streak. Saturday, Orton found himself on the bench during the critical final moments of Purdue's loss to Northwestern.
* * *
Bye weeks are always tough on my NFL viewing. Tampa Bay's off day, combined with Halloween and emotional exhaustion from the Michigan-Michigan State epic, kept me from all of my appointed hours on the couch Sunday.
But I saw enough to make some observations about the weekend's NFL developments. The big story of the day was the end of New England's 21-game winning streak as the Patriots were soundly beaten by Pittsburgh.
New England fans should pay attention to this result for all of about two minutes. The Patriots had an incredible run, but it's nearly impossible to rise to the emotional level of your opponent every single week, especially when you carry the dual target of a record winning streak and the Super Bowl title. The Pats were bound to offer a flat performance one of these weeks, and a road date at Pittsburgh seemed like a likely possibility.
Of course, no coach ever wants to lose, but somewhere deep down Bill Belichick is probably cracking the tiniest of smiles. No team is without flaws, and Belichick -- as big a taskmaster as there is in the NFL -- no doubt has a laundry list of areas where his team needs improvement. It had to be getting difficult for the coach to deliver that message to his players as they kept winning. But by losing, and losing decisively after giving a poor performance, Belichick will be able to get his team's undivided attention once again. I would expect one of New England's best efforts of the season at St. Louis next week.
One team that just gave its best effort of the season is the Falcons. As noted, Sunday was Halloween and Michael Vick broke out the Superman costume for the Atlanta's road date with Denver. A week after one of the worst performances of his career in a blowout loss to Kansas City, Vick was back to his 2002 self, running for more than 100 yards and throwing accurately downfield.
I noticed the Falcons called at least one college-style option run for Vick, which he turned into a long gainer. A week ago, I wrote about Vick's struggles learning to be a pocket passer, something I feel he ultimately will need to master if he wants to fully realize his potential. It's possible the Atlanta coaching staff decided to add a few called runs for Vick to snap him out of the robotic play that plagued him in the KC loss. If that was the case, it sure did the trick, as Vick was a devastating dual threat against Denver.
In the long run, I still think less running is better for Vick, mostly because it will keep him on the field, but he certainly used his legs to good effectiveness Sunday.
* * *
It was a struggle to come up with a Mike Martz Award this week. After all, the Rams were off and there weren't any horrible two-point decisions in any of the big college upsets. I considered giving it to my daughter Lindsay, who offered me only the raisins from her Halloween candy haul, but realized that from her perspective, that was a solid strategic decision.
Had Michigan lost to Michigan State in regulation time, Carr might have taken the prize. After Michigan rallied to tie the game, they forced a punt by MSU with just over a minute left. Starting at their 20, they Wolverines decided to play it safe and take the game to overtime. Since MSU used its first timeout with the clock stopped on first down, Michigan should have been able to run out the clock. But UM snapped the ball with at least 15 seconds left on the play clock on second down, leaving enough time for a final punt to Michigan State. It almost cost UM the game, as the Wolverines were flagged for pass interference on the final play of regulation, allowing MSU to attempt a long field goal for the win. But since the kick was short, Carr skates.
Instead, the Martz award goes to Vikings coach Mike Tice, not for one particular play, but for his team's overall miserable performance against the Giants. I'm not sure there's another good team that loses as spectacularly as the Vikings, who sometimes appear to pack it in at the first sign of trouble. If Tice had one particularly bad call, it was in allowing injured Randy Moss to start for the second straight week. For the second straight week, Moss didn't contribute at all and was in street clothes before the game ended. Tice insists that these are not token starts to keep Moss' lengthy consecutive starts string alive, but you have to wonder exactly who is in charge when it comes to the Vikings' enigmatic star receiver.
Moss is a wonderful talent, and can be a great team guy -- as long as the Vikings are winning. If things turn south, he's often the first guy off the bandwagon. The bottom line is this: if Moss isn't healthy enough to contribute, he shouldn't be active -- and it shouldn't be left up to him. Tice isn't doing his team any favors by sending a gimpy Moss out on the field. He needs to take charge of the situation and sit Moss down until he's fully healthy, and let his players know early in the week that they will have to produce without No. 84.
(Note: edited portions of this column also appear in Russell's article on this weekend's college football results in the Monday edition of the New York Sun.)
1 comment, Last at 19 Sep 2006, 9:51am by Klassenreisus