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?
17 Oct 2006
by Russell Levine
I generally get one Michigan road trip per season. That's the standing agreement that helps maintain family harmony in my house. Three weeks ago, I attended the Michigan-Wisconsin game in Ann Arbor, hung out with old friends, and generally was unkind to my liver.
So what was I doing in Happy Valley Saturday evening?
First of all, my wife is a saint. She understands my sickness. She even kept a straight face when I invoked the "national championship implications corollary" to justify a second road trip this season. It was the first chance I'd had to break that one out since the arrival of kids generally curtailed my Michigan travels.
There were a lot of reasons I didn't want to miss this game. For one, State College, a four-hour drive from my New Jersey home, is about as close as the Wolverines ever come to me. It was a night game, with an atmosphere that promised to put the typical polite gatherings at Michigan Stadium to shame. Plus, it's Penn State, far and away my favorite road trip in the Big Ten, or anywhere for that matter.
State College is serious nowhere-ville. It pops up as an exit off Intersate 80 after 200 miles of farms, not a significant town anywhere in site. If you head anywhere near it on a home football Saturday, you'll get caught up in the RV caravan. Southerners may have invented the football RV caravan, but nobody does it quite like Penn State. About every fifth vehicle on the road on Friday was an RV with some sort of Penn State adornment.
The parking lots outside Beaver Stadium appear to go on for miles in every direction. It's RVs as far as the eye can see. The attendance for Saturday night's game was 110,000, but there has to be two or three times that number in the lots in the hours leading up to kickoff.
In Ann Arbor, a big game generates some buzz and there's plenty of tailgating. But there are also plenty of people in and around town with no connection to the university and no reason to care about the game. In State College, everyone cares, and most of them wear their team gear from the time they arrive in town until the moment they leave.
They're also unfailingly good-natured, which is the main reason I try never to miss a Penn State trip. Penn State fans are as good a bunch as you'll find. When you wear your visiting team colors around town or to the game, you're just as likely to get welcomed as you are to get harassed. And even when somebody does give you a hard time, it's usually with a laugh and followed with an offer of good luck or congratulations following the game.
The atmosphere in the stadium was outstanding, despite the over-reliance on canned sound effects (Zombie Nation? Guns n' Roses? Blur's Song #2? Was I at a Jets game?), the students were tremendous, standing the entire game in their "white out" and sticking it out to the very end. When they were loud, they were deafening.
As for the game itself, I wasn't at all bothered by the closeness of the final score. Despite the seven-point margin of victory, this was a physical mugging and a dominant display by the Michigan front seven. The totals included seven sacks, -14 yards rushing (in college, yardage lost on sacks counts against the team's rushing total), and two quarterbacks concussed. Even when Penn State had a chance to tie in the final minute, I never felt threatened.
Offensively, the fear from the Michigan side was that the Wolverines would go into a conservative shell without Mario Manningham at receiver. Instead, Michigan came with one of its most aggressive gameplans of the year, consistently bucking its tendency by throwing on first down. They didn't throw downfield much, but they were aggressive enough to pass Penn State out of some of the eight-man fronts that slowed the running game early.
Nine years ago, Michigan was enjoying a nice season when it went to play undefeated and third-ranked Penn State. After a 34-8 thrashing, Michigan left Happy Valley with the top spot in the AP poll secured and would go on to win a share of the national championship.
This game was obviously much closer on the scoreboard, and this Penn State team is not as good as the 1997 version, but still this game had a similar feel to it. It served as a statement of Michigan's intentions to play for more than just the Big Ten title this season.
Michigan and Ohio State are each four wins away from what could be one of the most-anticipated regular-season games in college football history. Historic rivals, potentially meeting as the top two teams in the polls, with a trip to the national-title game at stake. The Columbus Police Department is stocking up on pepper spray as we speak.
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Elsewhere Saturday, there were two big storylines: the officiating in the Florida-Auburn game and the brawl between Miami and Florida International.
It continues to amaze me that the replay officials in college football simply don't know their own rule book. This is why I advocate having the on-field referee serve as the replay official as in the NFL.
The play in which Florida's Chris Leak "fumbled" to kill a potential scoring drive is not even up for debate. It surprises me that TV commentators and message board posters continue to do just that. The rule on forward passes in college football is exactly the same as in the NFL. That is, the rulebook says only that the forward motion of the arm makes it a forward pass. Here's the exact passage from the book:
b. When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward toward the neutral zone, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts the forward pass. If a Team B player contacts the passer or ball after forward movement begins and the ball leaves the passer's hand, a forward pass is ruled regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player (A.R. 2-19-2-I).
c. When in question, the ball is passed and not fumbled during an attempted forward pass.
There is no reason for the on-field or replay officials to judge Chris Leak's intent. That leak was pump-faking or attempting to pull the ball down matters not at all. His arm was going forward so this is an incomplete pass. Case closed. If replay officials can't overturn that call, there's no point in having them.
As for the fracas in Miami, enough people have already gotten on their soapboxes about that one. I will say this. If you haven't had a chance to hear Lamar Thomas's color commentary on the Miami telecast, in which he offers such pearls of wisdom as "That's what I'm talking about," do so now before it gets yanked by the YouTube police. It has already been announced that Thomas's commentary will be edited out when the game is re-broadcast later this week, and Thomas was fired Monday night.
It will be very interesting to see how this situation develops over the next few days. It's pretty apparent that the FIU administration is not happy. Late Monday, it was announced that two players who had earlier been suspended for one game would be dismissed from the team and that the other 16 that had been suspended would have their bans extended indefinitely.
With the ball back in Miami's court, UM announced that Anthony Reddick, who was seen using his helmet as a weapon in the fight's early stages, would be suspended indefinitely and that the school would continue to consider its options. It sounds to me like Miami president Donna Shalala has her finger up in the air and is trying to gauge the winds of public opinion on this one. As of Monday night, Shalala was claiming to be satisfied with the suspensions. My guess is that the she will end up similarly throwing the book at several more players, including Brandon Meriweather, seen repeatedly stomping on the legs of an FIU player.
The Seventh Day Adventure commenters made this one easy for me. I didn't see a whole lot of football Saturday, owning to the fact that I spent much of the afternoon wading among the RVs outside Beaver Stadium. Arizona State's Dirk Koetter is the obvious winner, electing to punt on fourth-and-28 when trailing USC by seven points in the final two minutes. USC was able to run out the clock without even getting to fourth down.
Koetter, who's in danger of getting fired after the season anyway, earns an obvious JLS award for failing basic math and for quitting on his team. Was he hoping a seven-point loss would help his job security more than a 14-point one?
This is probably the trickiest ballot of the year. I'm not sure Arkansas deserves to be ranked that high, but I feel comfortable about Florida and Auburn belonging where they do, and Arkansas's win over Auburn makes it tough to put the Hogs any lower.
68 comments, Last at 19 Oct 2006, 12:42am by NewsToTom