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?
29 Nov 2010
by Robert Weintraub
Theater, comic book, and rock 'n' roll fans, unite! The musical Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, a wall-crawling lavish Broadway epic with music by U2, is poised to be the season's big hit, despite what will no doubt be insane ticket prices. However, with only a few weeks remaining, the show is beset with technical problems, script issues, and a growing sense that this could be Ishtar on the Great White Way.
In other words, the clock is ticking down, and Kyle Brotzman is trotting in for the kick.
What the producers need isn't Peter Parker, but the Spectacular Cam Newton.
After Friday's breathless, noon-to-2 a.m. action, Saturday felt like one of those races that follow the Kentucky Derby on the card -- the gamblers are interested, but the casual fan is wrung out. I get so much wrong in prognosticating football (not unlike other aspects of life) that I feel compelled to point out something I managed to call correctly in Seventh Day Adventure. In an exact inverse of last season's Iron Bowl, Alabama jumped out to a big lead, but were slowly roped in by a relentless offense led by the Heisman Trophy front runner.
It was that shocking a development. Alabama was at home, with 101,000 or so screaming for Auburn blood. Greg McElroy came out like a combination of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. He broke his career high for yards passing in the first half, and before the pre-game meal of Dreamland Barbeque could be fully digested, the Tide were up 24-0.
Alabama could have put the game away in the first 30 minutes, but it came away empty on a couple of red zone journeys. Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter made a great play to run down and punch the ball from a rampaging Mark Ingram, forcing a touchback after a long run. Then the awesome Nick Fairley strip-sacked McElroy and fell on the ball around the 10-yard line. Auburn went to the half down 24-7, when it could have easily been 35-0.
Auburn has made so many second-half rallies this season that they surely believe they can do it every time, regardless of opponent. With Cam Newton at the helm, all things are indeed possible. He struck with a long bomb on the second play of the half (Tide safety Mark Barron took a poor angle to the ball and paid the price), and you could feel the huge crowd go "uh-oh." Later, Newton scored his 18th touchdown of the season on the ground, breaking the school record held by a pair of pretty fair backs, Bo Jackson and Cadillac Williams.
The comeback was completed thanks to a fourth-and-3 laser of a throw to keep the drive alive (everyone, including Alabama coach Nick Saban -- or Lou Saban, according to Verne Lundquist -- had to presume Cam was keeping it on this hypercritical play). Then he found Philip Lutzenkirchen (German for "wide open") in the end zone with just fewer than 12 minutes left for the winning score.
But for all of Cam's heroics, it was the Auburn defense that, uh, turned the tide. Shredded like fine parmesan in the first half, the Tigers altered their gaps slightly and began to get heavy pressure on McElroy. The unit also dialed the intensity way up, smacking Alabama around and knocking several offensive players out of the game. McElroy was knocked senseless by a late T'Sharvan Bell blitz (he certainly looked offsides). When Alabama had one last shot at winning, backup A.J. McCarron was throwing it. Unlike the 1993 Iron Bowl, when Patrick Nix won it for the Tigers off the bench, there would be no Forrest Gump ending for Alabama.
Auburn held on to win 28-27 in a game they will be talking about amid the southern longleaf pines of Talladega Forest and the shadow of Lookout Mountain for a long, long time.
They will also be remembering the final game of the day amid the slot machines and Keno parlors of Reno, Nevada. I warned Boise in that same fateful SDA last week that this was a road trip fraught with danger. Sure enough, Nevada roared back from a large deficit to shock the Broncos 34-31 in overtime. Every season, it seems, Boise goes out to a big lead against the Wolfpack and holds on for dear life.
This time, Nevada dominated the second half, possessing the ball for 24 minutes and rushing for 239 yards in the final two quarters. Boise's defense was sucking enough wind to start a cyclone. Nevada tied the game with 13 seconds left. Then the fantastic Kellen Moore hit Titus Young with a bomb that was 2007 Brady-to-Moss in its arrogant disregard for the defense -- Moore simply threw one down the middle of the field as far as he could, and Young ran it down, diving to make a play that seemed to keep Boise's BCS hopes afloat.
But Brotzman missed a short field goal -- although to the naked eye it appeared to go over the upright, just good. Replays were Rashoman-like in their ability to convince the viewer of either position. Brotzman than missed another in overtime, and Nevada didn't, and poof, Boise's outstanding season disappeared into the Reno night like so many marriages do in the divorce capital of the U.S.
Brotzman's botches cost Boise an estimated $4 million in missed payouts, according to sports money guru Darren Rovell. Worse, the loss prevents Boise from a desperately desired crack at one of the big boys. And it snaps the Broncos' 24-game winning streak, in a manner most un-Boise like. Special teams excellence, clutch play, smart football -- these are the hallmarks of Boise State in the last several seasons. But it all came apart for them. Give props to WAC champ Nevada, a superb team in its own right. In a just world, we'd see both teams in a playoff format. But we live in a world where nitwits like Gordon Gee hold sway, so we'll have to settle for drama only insomniacs and Pacific Time Zoners could enjoy.
And one last note -- some folks used Friday's dramatics to crow anti-playoff sentiment (looking at you, Jason Whitlock). Sorry, but these games and contexts would have been similarly amazing with a playoff system. Certainly Boise wouldn't be making an eight-team tournament after losing in its last game. For the final time: A playoff would not detract from the suspense of the regular season. Here endeth the Wetzel.
6. Ohio State
8. Michigan State
9. Boise State
10. Virginia Tech
14. South Carolina
16. Texas A&M
19. Oklahoma State
20. Northern Illinois
21. Florida State
23. Central Florida
Auburn takes over as my No. 1 because the Iron Bowl was the most impressive victory of any by the unbeaten teams. This, of course, tickets the Tigers for almost certain defeat in the SEC title game. War Eagle!
1. Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn. I tweeted before the Auburn-Alabama game that, while Fairley has been awesome this season, he has benefited from a weekly national TV showcase. Then with more eyeballs on him than ever before, Fairley single-handedly kept the Tigers from getting routed in the first half, then caved in the Tide o-line in the second half. It was an Outland Trophy-worthy performance.
2. Brandon Hogan, cornerback, West Virginia. The Mountaineers had the double satisfaction of beating Pitt in the Backyard Brawl and likely ruining the Panthers shot at a BCS bid. Hogan was the key figure, with a forced fumble and recovery, an interception and long return that set up a WVU score, and blanket coverage on star Pitt wideout Jon Baldwin.
3. Brandon Burton, cornerback, Utah. The Holy War between Utah and BYU is underrated in its vitriol, and is almost always close. This season's edition, the last as a Mountain West Conference showdown, was no exception. The Cougars lined up to kick the game-winning field goal, but it was blocked by Burton to give the Utes a 17-16 win.
4. Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&M. The senior All-American demolished the slickers from Austin with a night that included seven tackles, two sacks, three tackles for losses, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. The pick, off a deflected pass at his own 8-yard line, sealed the victory with 2:37 to play.
5. Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Boston College. Kuechly has been ultra-consistent this season, regularly ripping off games with double-digit tackles. He had 10 more in a win over my Syracuse Orange, the 21st-straight game he's had 10 or more tackles. Kuechly leads the country with 171 tackles.
30 comments, Last at 04 Jan 2011, 1:52pm by Mikey Benny