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?
30 Nov 2009
by Robert Weintraub
Nothing can turn a mediocre season around quite as fast as whipping your archrival at home in front of your fans -- especially when the hated foes are having a better season and are ranked. Suddenly, the alumni remember where they have hidden their checkbooks, the coaches don't feel so guilty when hitting the ATM, and the mamas of prized recruits dish out homemade pie during home visits.
No less than six teams enjoyed home dog status and made a good account of themselves, with four winning outright. Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, and South Carolina all go into the offseason with a smile, having taken down hated intrastate rivals.
Two teams came close not just to enjoying some braggin' rights, but crashing the Ponzi scheme called the BCS as well. Thanksgiving night, Texas A&M nearly went point for point with No. 3 Texas, undone in the end by the brilliance of Colt McCoy and horrid special teams. The Aggies gave up a crucial kickoff return for six then missed a had-to-have-it field goal in the final minutes. The Longhorns now need only gore Nebraska in the Big 12 showcase to reach the BCS title game.
The next day, a national audience hauled out the turkey sandwiches and tattered remnants of the pecan pie to witness a typically intense Iron Bowl between No. 2 Alabama and Auburn. War Eagle Nation has been quietly rooting on their hated rival all season, just for the chance to ruin an undefeated campaign, and damned if they didn't almost pull it off.
The Tigers were up 14-0 before Nick Saban could utter his fifth profanity, and the fans were in a frenzy on the Plains. But henceforth, save a broken coverage touchdown bomb to wideout Darvin Adams in the third quarter, the Tide simply didn't allow Auburn to do a thing on offense. It was a strangling reminiscent of Florida against South Carolina -- when winning time arrived, the defense totally crushed out any chance of an upset.
Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes had a superb afternoon, almost single-handedly taking Heisman hopeful running back Mark Ingram out of the game, even before he limped off in the second half. Ingram was held to just 30 yards on 16 carries, but his understudy, freshman Trent Richardson, was on hand to make several big plays down the stretch.
"Down the stretch" of course refers to Alabama's season-saving touchdown drive to win the game -- 15 plays and 79 yards worth of heroics, culminating in the winning touchdown pass by quarterback Greg McElroy. Greggie was big-time on the drive, as was receiver Julio Jones, who had underwhelmed this season, given his jaw-dropping talent. Jones had four grabs for 33 yards on the drive, moving the chains and allowing Richardson room to operate as well. Rest assured, they'll be recreating that march down at Dreamland BBQ for decades to come.
The dirty secret Tide fans whisper to each other in dimly lit Tuscaloosa speakeasies (password for entry: "Rammer Jammer") is that, for all of Ingram's excellence, Richardson might be better. The frosh has better hands and can run outside as well as between the tackles. In the epic SEC title showdown on Saturday, Florida will have its hands full regardless of who totes the rock.
The Gators may just have sent Bobby Bowden out to pasture with a 37-10 trampling of FSU that wasn't nearly that close. The only thing that might bring Coach Dadgum back is the prospect of Tim Tebow taking shots from NFL linebackers next fall. It was an emotional farewell in Gainesville. The Swamp crowd wore Tebow's Bible-thumping eyeblack patches in tribute to their hero. Fortunately, those didn't smear when the tears started to fall.
Alabama's secondary will be under the microscope -- CBS did a nice job of isolating how Urban Meyer's scheme just abuses defensive backs. First, Tebow shoveled a pass to Aaron Hernandez while Korey Mangum went for the quarterback -- result, touchdown. Later in the half, Tebow faked that shovel, and when Mangum went for it, Tebow kept it and swept untouched into the end zone. That said, the Tide defense is a quantum leap removed from the confused bunch in maroon and gold, so the yards and points will be at a premium in the Georgia Dome. We'll preview it in detail Thursday in Seventh Day Adventure.
God rested on said seventh day, but apparently LSU head coach Les Miles spent the Sabbath studying Clock Management 101 after last week's debacle against Ole Miss. With Arkansas leading by three in Death Valley, the Tigers drove for the tying field goal without any timeouts, calmly working the boundary and the first down chains. LSU then won in overtime. Congrats, Les; now Cajun Country won't take the Golden Boot and boot you in the ass with it.
Speaking of seven days changing things, USC coach Pete Carroll ordered a touchdown bomb in the waning seconds while leading UCLA by two touchdowns. That's after irately quizzing Stanford's Jim Harbaugh for similarly running up the score on the Trojans last Saturday. Half the Bruin roster charged out to midfield and challenged the Men of Troy to some combat, but peace was restored before Vic Mackey and the Strike Team had to be called in (Lord, how I miss "The Shield").
Harbaugh had an interesting encore after humbling Carroll -- escorting Charlie Weis out of our college football lives for good. Notre Dame put up a tough fight against the Cardinal and their overmatched cornerbacks. Golden Tate looked like Lynn Swann out there. But Touchdown Toby Gerhart continued his Heisman march with 205 yards and three scores on the ground, including the game-winner in a 45-38 Thrillathon.
The game-tying score came via a Gerhart pass, a fourth-and-4 halfback option that was either the greatest or dumbest play call in recent memory. Surely, it was the gutsiest. Gerhart made it look good by lofting one that Ryan Whalen made a super grab of, bailing out Harbaugh and his staff.
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18 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2009, 1:37am by Will