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?
26 Sep 2005
by Russell Levine
Football games tend to fall into one of a few predictable patterns. Take, for example, the plucky underdog attempting to pull off the huge upset -- which is a college specialty. They get a few breaks early, build a decent-sized lead, and then the favorite, sleepwalking through the game thus far, makes a single big play and momentum switches 180 degrees. Suddenly, the underdog can do nothing right. Positive plays are undone by penalties. Loose balls bounce off people and end up in the arms of the opponent.
That was the scenario that played out in Eugene, Oregon Saturday as the Oregon Ducks hosted USC. Oregon jumped out to a 13-0 lead, but the warning signs of the Ducks' imminent demise were visible even before USC got on the scoreboard. Penalties and mistakes forced Oregon to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. And even though USC had done absolutely nothing on offense to that point, you could just sense they were about to explode.
Upsets in the making in college football are like the NCAA tournament. You see the score on the bottom-of-the-screen ticker and can't believe your eyes. If you're an obsessive, DirecTV-enabled college fan with every game imaginable at your disposal (uh, that's me), you immediately flip to the game (unless of course, you're watching your alma mater melt down in the second half of its road opener, a pattern so familiar it should be named Michiganitis ... but more on that later). Otherwise you await the next "let's go back to the studio for a game break and find out what's brewing in Oregon" with keen interest. A buzz spreads around the viewing world as everyone wonders if the underdog has what it takes to pull the shocker.
But if the whole nation was curious as the Ducks took their lead, the uncertainty sure didn't appear to affect the USC players. Sure, Matt Leinart was flustered a few times in the first half, But overall, the Trojans looked calm and relaxed, and there was an air of inevitability about their comeback. And when the comeback came, it came in a hurry. A 13-0 lead became 13-10 by halftime, and 31-13 by the end of the third quarter. All that was left for the fourth quarter was for Bush to pad his Heisman resume with a spectacular 11-yard touchdown run in which he reversed field and covered approximately two miles of ground on his way to the end zone, with the final block thrown by Leinart.
The final was 45-13, just the latest no-sweat second-half comeback for USC during its current 25-game winning streak. There were similar games against Stanford and Oregon State last year, as well as the squeaker against Cal. And, with road trips remaining to Arizona State (this Saturday), Cal and Notre Dame, USC could have a few more close calls yet this season. But at this point, any loss by USC would have to rank among the all-time college upsets.
Some may point to USC's occasional habit of sleepwalking through a first half and see the Trojans as vulnerable, but I think it actually makes them a stronger team for having been tested a few times per year. College football history is rife with teams (the Kansas State squads of the late 1990s come to mind) that fatten up on easy competition, but never learn how to play in a close game. Dodging some bullets over the last couple of seasons has taught USC how to play in those games and to not panic when it falls behind. Texas has picked up similar experience recently, both in the Rose Bowl against Michigan last year and in their come-from-behind win over Ohio State earlier this month. That's one of the reasons why I like the Longhorns to end up facing USC in the Orange Bowl.
Of course, just playing in close games doesn't always teach teams how to win them. Case in point are my beloved Michigan Wolverines, whose loss at Wisconsin was all too familiar to my fellow maize and blue devotees. Michigan dominated early, but left several points on the field in the first half. Then, they played not to lose in the second half and the wheels came off when things got close. At 2-2, the AP's preseason No. 4 team is unranked and in danger of having its season fall completely apart with a visit to Michigan State coming up this Saturday.
In happier news, despite my f-bomb dropping, hat- and remote control-throwing, and in general acting like a jackass performance while watching the game on TV, I'm pleased to report that my theory that I was not taking the losses as hard as I did a few years ago continues to hold. A quick postgame commiseration call to my Seventh Day Adventure partner Vinny, and I could already feel my outlook improving. And yes, I was happy that my kids were asleep for most of my personal display of idiocy during the second half. Thank goodness for night games.
Not all our fellow Michigan fans took the loss as well. I share with you here an email exchange between Vinny and one of our Michigan classmates who favors the immediate dismissal of Lloyd Carr. Vin raised a number of excellent points in Carr's defense:
To: One Bitter Michigan Fan
Subject: Re: afloat in a sea of mediocrity...
OBMF, as painful as last night's game was, the one silver lining for me was that I wasn't watching the game with you. Now THAT would have been painful.
Lloyd Carr has won five Big Ten titles in his 10 years on the job. Who has won more? Nobody's even close.
Lloyd Carr is 4th among active coaches in winning percentage. Not good enough? OK, if you can get one of the top 3 active coaches, then go ahead and fire Carr.
Lloyd Carr has won a national title. How many active coaches have won more than 1 title? Three, and two of them are prehistoric. The other one is Pete Carroll. I'm sure he's available.
If that's not good enough, and if you want to win every single game at all costs, without regard to doing it the right way and running a clean program, just don the Scarlet and Gray and call yourself a Buckeye fan. That's what separates them from us.
* * *
Vin and I are on the same page on this one, and yes, Buckeyes, we Michigan fans are that arrogant about the way we do things in Ann Arbor compared to Columbus, but then you already knew that. Carr has done enough on and off the field during his time in Ann Arbor to earn the benefit of the doubt. He's not getting fired anytime soon, nor should he be. That doesn't mean I can't view the Wisconsin debacle with a critical eye, which leads me to...
Yes, Carr picks up the award this week, and it's for sending a mixed message to his team. On its first possession, Michigan faced a fourth-and-goal at the Wisconsin one, and Carr uncharacteristically went for it. Even though the run was stuffed, I thought, fine, we're going to be aggressive today. Yet, with another goal-to-go situation just before halftime, Carr elected to kick a short field goal on third down with nine seconds still left on the clock. Even without a timeout, there was still a chance to throw one more ball into the end zone. If you're trying to set the tone and be aggressive early, why go conservative here? Predictably, the Wolverines went into a shell in the second half, and despite a flea-flicker that resulted in a go-ahead score, were beaten by a late Wisconsin touchdown on a QB sneak.
Something that arose from last week's column reminded me not to fall into the easy trap of always criticizing while rarely pointing out those worthy of praise. More on that in a bit, but first I wanted to recognize two outstanding coaching points from the weekend. First, from the NFL, who else but Bill Belichick gets credit for yet another innovative move, this one little-noticed in the wake of New England's come-from-behind win at Pittsburgh.
After the Patriots kicked the go-ahead field goal, one second remained on the clock. Every team uses the squib kick in that situation to prevent a big return. Belichick took it one step further. He had Adam Vinitieri squib the ball all right, but not deep down the middle like every other team. Instead, he kicked it little further than he would for an onsides attempt, meaning the Patriots' front line only had 15-20 yards to cover to make the tackle. Pittsburgh never had time to start pitching the ball backwards, rugby-style. It's a tiny thing, but tiny details win plenty of games in the NFL, and Belichick seemingly never misses one. Somewhere, I'm sure he had his team practice the kickoff situation with three seconds or less to play, when a crazy return is the only possible way to lose and field position doesn't matter at all. When that situation presented itself Sunday, his team was ready.
The other coach who deserves singling out is Belichick disciple Charlie Weis of Notre Dame, but not for any strategic call. I'm sure by now most of you have read the story of how Weis allowed a dying 10-year-old boy to call the Irish's first play against Washington. That the boy, named Montana after Irish legend Joe, didn't live to see his play, "pass right," run is tragic, but the fact that Weis ran it anyway, despite the Irish's being backed up on their own one-yard line (it went for 13 yards and a first down) makes Weis and his program just a little more difficult for me to hate, and I'm an avowed Notre Dame hater. I'm also pretty cynical, but once in while it's all right for a feel good sports story to be just that -- a feel good story.
Actually, Weis began to win me over when I saw a halftime feature on his family during the Notre Dame-Michigan State game two weeks ago. The Weises have a daughter, Hannah, who has global developmental delay, an autism-like syndrome and they have started a foundation to help people like Hannah who come from less fortunate families. Autism and autistic disorders are a cause that is very near and dear to my heart, and I can imagine that dealing with something like that at home can only help Weis to keep things in perspective. I'm sure that none of his considerable professional accomplishments mean as much to him as the milestones his daughter has achieved.
I'm never going to root for Notre Dame, but count me as a Charlie Weis fan.
* * *
Last week in this column I spent some time criticizing NFL announcers, particularly Brent Jones, whom I cited for blowing a call at the end of the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game.
It never occurred to me that someone I criticized in this column might actually read it, so you can imagine my surprise when I found an email from one Brent Jones in my inbox on Tuesday morning.
Jones felt I was unfair in my criticism and suggested I review the tape of the game as he had done. And he was correct -- I erred in suggesting he had missed an offsides call on the final play. The Indianapolis lineman in question had flinched, but not entered the neutral zone.
More importantly, Jones -- who is one of the better color analysts out there (something I wished I'd pointed out even as I criticized him last week) -- is a devotee of DVOA and advanced statistical analysis and describes himself as "totally obsessed with real value." Now, all we need is for that approach to spread virally throughout the broadcasting ranks.
I, in turn, would love to learn more about what goes into bringing you a three-hour NFL telecast on Sundays, and soon as he and I can find the time to do it, I'm going to ask Jones those questions and include the answers in a future column.
1. Southern Cal (1): You'll see that Bush TD run again at the Heisman ceremony
2. Texas (2): T-minus two weeks until the revenge bowl in Dallas
3. Virginia Tech (4): Vintage Beamer Ball in rout of GaTech.
4. Florida (5): Chris Leak seems to be mastering Meyer's passing game.
5. Georgia (6): Who knew D.J. Shockley could throw like that?
6. Florida State (7): DNP
7. Ohio State (8): Smith getting comfortable at QB?
8. Miami (Florida) (9): Would it kill Miami fans to, you know, show up at the Orange Bowl?
9. Michigan State (15): They've yet to display a weakness.
10. Tennessee (10): Phil, if you play Ainge again after that Plummer-esque INT, we need to talk.
11. LSU (3): I know the Tigers have been through a lot, but giving away a game like that is unforgivable.
12. Arizona State (16): Offense should be able to score some vs. USC. They'll need to.
13. Cal (12): They'll get their chance to move up when the Trojans come calling.
14. Alabama (21): They have a real shot vs. Florida this week.
15. Notre Dame (17): Charlie Weis, I salute you.
16. Boston College (24): Didn't allow FSU disappointment to carry over.
17. Minnesota (NR): Congratulations on finally beating a decent team.
18. Wisconsin (NR): QB sneak for the game-winner was a great call.
19. Texas Tech (22): I repeat, play somebody!
20. Virginia (25): Chances against the ACC's big boys are coming up.
21. Purdue (13): Could still have a big say in the Big Ten race.
22. UCLA (NR): USC game might be very interesting this year.
23. Georgia Tech (14): Ran into a buzz saw at VaTech, and Ball was not himself.
24. Iowa State (NR): Pulled one out against a fired-up Army.
25. South Florida (NR): Congrats on bombing Louisville. Now enjoy your afternoon at the Orange Bowl.
Dropped out: Louisville (11), Michigan (18), Iowa (19), Clemson (20), Oregon (23).
Games I watched: Portions of Iowa State-Army, Purdue-Minnesota, Penn State-Northwestern, Notre Dame-Washington, Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech, Louisville-South Florida, Michigan-Wisconsin, USC-Oregon, Arizona State-Oregon State.
63 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2005, 1:12pm by Harris