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?
13 Sep 2010
by Robert Weintraub
Ohio State-Michigan. Contemplate the rivalry game for a minute, and you conjure images of smashed mouths and bruised flesh, three yards and a spray of blood, and quarterbacks with descriptions like "leader" and "game manager" -- telltale euphemisms for white dudes who are prone to getting clobbered from behind.
But this year's collision (November 27 in Columbus) will, barring injury, feature two of the more electric quarterbacks in the nation. Terrelle Pryor of the Buckeyes eluded the speedy but overeager Miami defenders to lead Ohio State past the Hurricanes in Saturday's most-hyped clash, 36-24. While Pryor was good, he looked like Automatic Otto Graham compared to the ever-disappointing Jacory Harris, who once again used the big-game stage to herald his understudy status. You've no doubt seen the lollipop Harris lobbed to Cameron Heyward as The U was threatening late in third quarter, one of his four interceptions on the afternoon. The Ohio State score that followed effectively ended Miami's hopes. Pryor had no such lapse, although Miami dropped several potential picks.
Denard "Shoelace" Robinson was superhuman, albeit against a far softer defense at Notre Dame. But 502 yards of offense and the game-winning touchdown run is a pretty dandy afternoon on any gridiron. Michigan dominated the second half of the game with its pass rush, save two plays. One the first, the Wolverines dropped eight, yet still allowed a tight end(!), Kyle Rudolph, to get behind the secondary for a 96-yard touchdown play. On the second, quarterback Dayne Crist had an eternity to throw, but Rudolph couldn't get free from the tuba players in the Irish band, where Christ's pass was thrown.
Michigan appears relevant once more, now that RichRod has a Pat White clone running the show. However, until Michigan's backs step up to a Steve Slaton/Owen Schmidt level, the maize-and-blue won't truly be national players. And let's recall that exactly a year ago, there was a new folk hero behind center at Michigan, and his name was Tate Forcier (who's now a backup). It's good to have some life back in Ann Arbor, though, and that Pryor-Robinson matchup should leave fans breathless, linebackers frustrated, and Woody and Bo purple with rage somewhere in the Great Beyond.
Back when he was being recruited, Pryor chose the drudgery of Columbus over the tedium of Happy Valley. Had he gone to play for JoePa, perhaps Penn State wouldn't have been beat down as badly as they were by Alabama's swarming defense. OK, instead of 24-3, it might have been 24-10. Duke might pose a stiffer offensive challenge to Mark Barron, Dont'a Hightower & Co. than the Nittany Lions did. On the same night, Penn State women's volleyball team lost to Stanford, ending a 109-match winning streak. A bleak Saturday in the Nittany Mountains.
As for Alabama, the Tide's third string is probably a top five team right now. I thought they might come back to the pack slightly, after such a heavy loss of stud defenders, but they look far better than anyone else after two weeks, admittedly a small sample size. If they don't go wire-to-wire, it would be a surprise. Anything can happen, of course -- the Tide almost gagged to Tennessee last year -- but the eyeball test suggests the October 9 game at South Carolina is the main chance to prevent another unbeaten regular season in Tuscaloosa (which would be three straight for the Nicktator).
The Gamecocks are completely transformed now that frosh face Marcus Lattimore is on campus and hauling the mail. He may be in danger of a Curse of 370 letdown in 2011 if Steve Spurrier keeps giving him 37 carries a game, as he did in Saturday's rock fight with Georgia. After the game, Spurrier said, Georgia coach Mark Richt told Spurrier that he "had a hell of a team" -- the first time he's heard that since taking over at South Carolina. Leaving aside what that says about Spurrier's half-decade in Columbia, there's no doubt that this may be the best group of Gamecocks since George Washington Rogers was punishing defenders.
On the subject of our Founding Fathers, Mickey Matthews, the coach of James Madison, had called the idea of beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg "comical" during the week. Well consider him coach Chris Rock, although few in Hokie Nation are laughing at the 21-16 loss to JMU, only the second time a ranked team has lost to an FBS (Division 1-AA) school. The main culprit in the upset was poor tackling by Virginia Tech, especially on a 77-yard swing pass turned touchdown by JMU's Jamal Sullivan. And when a little dose of Beamer Ball was required, late in the game and JMU punting, Tech roughed the punter. And the Dukes killed off the rest of the game.
Now everyone remembers Appalachian State's shock win in the Big House a couple of years back, and that seems like an all-time upset. But given the Wolverines collapse that season, and the obvious stupidity of their No. 5 preseason ranking, you could argue that this was a bigger surprise. I mean, the Hokies played hard and well on Labor Night -- losing in the final moments to Boise is hardly a bad loss. Clearly, the short turnaround and non-respect for the opponent played a hand in the loss, but give it up for JMU.
And to football in the Dakotas. Is there a rich, untapped vein of talent in the Black Hills, a latent powerhouse churning out players along the Bighorn River? Last week North Dakota State took out Kansas. This Saturday it was South Dakota's turn to knock off the big-state school with little pigskin tradition, Minnesota. The Coyotes star player, quarterback Dante Warren is from Illinois, not Deadwood, but damned if he doesn't combine the skill and backbone of Seth Bullock with the cunning and intimidation of Al Swearengen -- although he's only the size of E.B. Farnum. Warren accounted for five scores, including a stirring 36-yard dash midway through the fourth quarter to seal the win. Minny head coach Tim Brewster is now 14-24 in Prince's Town, and USC is coming next week. He is unlikely to see 2011.
Lane Kiffin's job is safe, but he was pretty well outcoached by new Virginia head man Mike London. USC escaped an upset by playing much better defense than last week's Hawaiian vacation, though they struggled to move the ball against London's defense, which was active before and after the snap. They clamped down on Matt Barkley and Ronald Johnson, even though star corner Ras-I Dowling didn't dress. A five minute stretch just before halftime was about the only good work turned in by the Southern Cal offense. The Trojans have a favorable schedule, but they'll need some major work if they are to compete with Oregon for the conference title.
(Editor's Note: We are having issues with the Blogpoll once again this week, but we should be fully functional by next week's column.)
2. Ohio State
3. Boise State
11. South Carolina
21. East Carolina
23. Air Force
25. Penn State
This space is saved for the non-skill players to get some love. Like these stars from Week 2:
1. Nick Fairly, defensive tackle, Auburn. Two years after the infamous 3-2 game set college sports back two decades, Auburn and Mississippi State played another, less torpid, defensive battle. Fairly helped ensure the Tigers won again, with 2.5 tackles for loss, a pick, a fumble recovery, and countless hurries.
2. Chimdi Chekwa, cornerback, Ohio State. Chekwa had two picks of Jacory Harris and was the best defender on the field, edging out teammate Cameron (Son Of Ironhead) Heyward.
3. Joe Lefeged, safety, Rutgers. Blocked two punts, had a pick, jarred two fumbles loose in a 19-14 win over Florida International, then pummeled The Situation later that evening in a New Brunswick watering hole.
4. Mike Mohamed, linebacker, Cal. He had an interception return for a touchdown and 14 tackles in the blowout over Colorado.
5. Devin Barclay, kicker, Ohio State. Five field goals in a big game on a soggy afternoon in Columbus. The five figgies ties a school record.
Lowsman winner after two weeks: Patrick Peterson, cornerback, LSU. He averaged 25 yards on two kick returns as the Tigers squashed Vandy 27-3.
26 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2010, 11:32am by horn