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?
07 Dec 2009
by Robert Weintraub
Isn't that just like sports to confound us all this way? We spend months waiting with bated breath for the SEC Championship game between undefeated No. 1 Florida and undefeated Alabama, and it turns out to be the only bad game of the day.
For me, first play from each team crystallized Alabama's 32-13 whipping of the Gators. Alabama took the ball after winning the toss (in itself unusual, as Nick Saban is a deferment guy), and came out in a spread formation. It was a wrinkle put in especially for this game, as Florida would have probably believed Bear Bryant would come out of the tunnel before the Tide went into the spread. Quarterback Greg McElroy hit Julio Jones for a 18-yard gain, and a pattern had begun -- Florida's normally attacking defense was made to look slow because they were kept off balance by the Tide's offensive maneuvering.
As for Florida, its first play was Urban Meyer's bread and butter -- spread shovel to tight end Aaron Hernandez. But Alabama had inserted a fourth down lineman specifically to take the tight end, and he stuffed the play. And another trend was established -- Florida never finding a rhythm or much room to operate on offense.
Way back in early September, after beating Virginia Tech in the same venue, the Georgia Dome, you'll recall I wrote that McElroy already was an upgrade over the previous Tide passer, John Parker Wilson (who coincidentally spends much time in the Dome as an Atlanta Falcon). McElroy hasn't been called upon to throw much this season, but he's a graduate of the OxBridge School for Spread Quarterbacks, Southlake Carroll High School outside of Dallas (other matriculates include Chase Daniel and Riley Dodge). McElroy showed he can carry a pass-heavy game plan and make defenses pay for keying on Mark Ingram.
That bell you hear at the mention of Mr. Ingram's name means it's time for my Heisman Trophy ballot. I've avoided getting caught in the stiff-arm hype all season, as the award is really won in the final weeks, and also, I find it rather boring. But it's my duty as your college commentator to give my thoughts on the nation's best player. And I think Ingram deserves it after Saturday's performance -- 189 total yards and three touchdowns against the nation's (previously) top defense.
My major criterion when splitting hairs at the top of the ballot is how a player performs in his team's biggest games. Ingram was dominant in the opener (185 total yards and two scores) and finale in Atlanta and had monster games at Ole Miss and against LSU as well.
The second place finisher played in the Big 12 title game -- and it sure as hell ain't Colt McCoy. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has tossed double teams aside like dandelions all season, and, Saturday night in JerryWorld, he simply shattered Texas' blocking. Suh had twelve tackles and 4.5 sacks, including one where he hurled McCoy down like King Kong Bundy. It was an exceptional display, one that could have -- should have -- upset the BCS apple cart.
Forget the Heisman -- McCoy is lucky he wasn't hunted down by a posse of Texas Rangers and strung up by his Buster Browns. His harebrained execution of the final seconds came thisclose to becoming one of sports' all-time gaffes. McCoy took a casual Friday approach as the clock wound down, and his heave out of bounds with the Longhorns in winning field goal position made landfall about .0000005 milliseconds before the clock struck zero. Only replay saved Colt's bacon. Then, as if Texas fans hadn't suffered enough, Hunter Lawrence slotted in the BCS Championship-saving field goal by mere inches for the 13-12 win. If you owned a defibrillator in Austin, you were a busy boy Saturday night.
(It was karmic payola for Texas fans, after missing out on last season's BCS title game by one second -- when Texas Tech and Michael Crabtree zinged the Longhorns with a single digit left. This time, the one tick works in their favor. Sports!)
So leave Colt out of my Heisman Five -- he was awful in Texas's two biggies, the conference championship and the Red River Shootout vs. Oklahoma (combined stats -- 41-of-75 for 311, with one touchdown and four picks, and one rushing TD). My ballot reads:
McCoy and Tim Tebow barely crack the next five, with Tebow getting docked points for his weepy post-game interview on CBS. Give me the less heralded but ferocious Alabama linebacker, Rolando McClain, over those two hype machines. McClain's run-down-and-rattle of Tebow Saturday afternoon may be a microcosm of Tim's pro hopes -- he won't be running nearly as easily when the linebackers are all bigger and faster than he.
It was an extraordinary day of football, one that exceeded the previous 13 Saturdays combined in terms of breathless action and finishes. The best was in the Steel City, where Cincinnati preserved its unbeaten season with a 45-44 thrill-a-thon over Pittsburgh in the snow (as I've mentioned before, imagine a playoff game played in the north or Midwest in such inclement conditions -- it would multiply the greatness of a classic like this tenfold). Pitt led 31-10, and I was calling on Brian Kelly to yank quarterback Tony Pike in favor of sturdy backup Zach Collaros. But soon-to-be Notre Dame head coaches know best, I guess. Pike stayed in and threw three touchdown passes, including the game winner with 33 seconds left. Wide receiver Mardy Gilyard was the star, with several big catches and kick returns. His late second-half touchdown return made it 31-17 and kept the Bearcats in it.
Of course, the real difference maker was Pitt holder Andrew Janocko, whose bobbled hold on an extra point with 96 ticks remaining left the door ajar for Pike and Cincy to walk through. I guess Pittsburgh just can't beat Cincinnati at any level this season.
The ACC title game was another great duel between Georgia Tech and Clemson. The first contest in Atlanta was decided with a late field goal by the Yellow Jackets. This time, it was a late touchdown run by Jonathan Dwyer that propelled Tech past the textile boys, 39-34. Tech got the win and the Orange Bowl berth (against Iowa), but it was Spiller who stole the show. He had four touchdowns, each more scintillating than the last. I pray he can stay healthy in the pros, because he has a shot of having a Chris Johnson-like impact.
So while Alabama and Texas will hold the uber-program battle for the crystal trophy, Boise State, Cincy, and TCU are left with their noses pressed against the window. The Horned Frogs and Broncos will meet up in the Fiesta Bowl. It's a rematch of last season's classic in the Poinsettia Bowl (check that -- the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl). TCU pulled out a 17-16 victory, thanks to a pre-game pep talk from LaDainian Tomlinson. The Bearcats will try to beat up on the shrugging Gators, a la Utah taking SEC runner-up Alabama out back for a beating a year ago.
I'll let you guys carry the anti-BCS, no-playoff rant in the comments -- you know my stance, and I just can't work up any vitriol at the moment. It stinks, but it's Chinatown, Jake. Having a playoff seems impossible at this point, but then we all thought Florida-Alabama was going to be a classic, too.
|Last week's ballot|
Note: I seriously considered dropping Texas. But in the end, I give them credit for finding a way to win under enormous pressure, despite being severely tested. So Hook ‘Em.
48 comments, Last at 29 Nov 2011, 11:25pm by huangkai