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?
20 Sep 2010
by Robert Weintraub
This column has always had a soft spot for special teams, the "third phase" that wins or loses so many games in the shadows of sports radio chatter about this quarterback or that linebacker. So I was fascinated to see three games decided by special teams plays Saturday.
You can always rely on Auburn to be one half of the hardest hitting game of the year. Who can forget the 7-3 bloodbath with LSU in 2006, the pigskin equivalent of the Battle of the Somme? Saturday against Clemson, an SEC wannabe which played with the fiery intensity of a team auditioning for future inclusion in the nation's top conference, more dudes got lit up than did on the night Prohibition ended.
The crackerjack game went to overtime, and the home Tigers (Auburn) took a three-point lead. The visiting Tigers appeared to knot the game, but the officials alertly noted that Clemson snapper Matt Sanders moved the ball before passing it back to the holder, a five-yard penalty. On take two, kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed, touching off a V-J Day-level celebration on campus.
Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker missed an open receiver in the end zone on the play before the bizarre sequence, thanks to a brutal shot he took to the kidneys. Parker, a top draft choice of the Colorado Rockies this summer, was seen ruing his decision to return to campus to play football after almost every play thereafter.
Another missed kick sunk a golden chance at a road upset for Arizona State. Wisconsin safety Jay Valai took advantage of the Sun Devil wingback making a cardinal mistake -- he blocked the outside man, leaving an inside gap for Valai, who blocked an extra point that would have tied the game at 20. The Badgers then ran out the final four minutes, helped by an unnecessary roughness penalty. Arizona State had the most penalties of any FBS school in 2009, and Dennis Erickson once again has an undisciplined bunch.
But they should have won Saturday, and they might have but for an awesome effort by Wisconsin's Shelton Johnson, who ran down the speedy Kyle Middlebrooks on a kickoff return and tackled him on the one-yard line as the first half expired. Middlebrooks, who strangely wears the same number 7 as ASU middle linebacker/Wildman Vontaze Burfict, will be seeing that one yard the rest of his life.
Another Big Ten school got a "W" thanks to the ballsiest call of the season. Michigan State trailed Notre Dame 31-28 in overtime, and lined up to kick the tying field goal. Instead, coach Mark D'Antonio called "Little Giants," a fake that had the holder Aaron Bates throw a pass. The defender covering Charlie Gantt was bowled over, leaving Gantt all alone for the easy score and a 34-31 win, simultaneously thrilling the special teams maven in me and paining me when I realized I had the Spartans giving 3 1/2! Irish fans could argue that State didn't get the play off in time -- the clock hit zero before the snap, but it was close enough that they wouldn't get much sympathy.
D'Antonio shockingly and sadly suffered a mild heart attack late Saturday night, apparently while realizing the ramifications of his call. He will be OK, it is being reported, and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell will lead Sparty in his absence. Best wishes to the coach.
(An aside -- did you hear about this tragic accident? Only in Texas can a quarterback drop dead on the field and the game continue. Rest in peace, Reggie Garrett.)
The state that brought us Friday Night Lights and good cash money for top recruits didn't offer much of a prime-time game, as Texas banged up Texas Tech quarterback Taylor Potts, then holstered the Red Raiders "guns up" salute with a 24-14 win, mainly thanks to watertight coverage by the Texas secondary. The Longhorns haven't settled their running game issues at all, and, unsurprisingly, new starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert is suffering the same growing pains as Aaron Murray, John Brantley, and all the other top recruits from whom the fans expect instant greatness. After all, thanks to Rivals and its ilk, we've been hearing about how amazing these kids are for years now. Someone forgot to mention that they still have to learn how to play at this level. The only way to do that is by getting bloodied a few times.
By the way, you should see this kid, he's a can't miss star ...
Elsewhere, Mark Ingram returned from knee surgery and two missed games to breeze through Duke's overmatched defense for 119 yards and two touchdowns ... in the first quarter. Somewhere, Gale Sayers weeps. The poor Blue Devils couldn't even knock the Tide runners out of bounds given 15-yard heads of steam -- the 62-13 massacre was the definition of men against boys. Duke hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski could be seen wincing in the crowd. The Tide clearly wanted vengeance after Coach K cut 'Bama grad Gerald Wallace from the World Championship team.
Next week Alabama steps up in class, traveling to Arkansas. The Hogs were comfortably whipping Georgia when Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, feeling the seat underneath him getting hotter, rallied the troops with a fire-and-brimstone imitation of Rockne before the fourth quarter. It was better than the clichéd holding up of four fingers, anyway. Sure enough, Georgia scored two touchdowns to seize momentum and appeared to have the game in their hands with the ball near midfield and a minute left. But offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, about as popular as Barack Obama in rural Georgia these days, called a third-down pass play that had all the receivers running 20-plus yards downfield. Before anyone could complete his route, quarterback Aaron Murray was nearly decapitated, sacked so hard his helmet flew nearly 15 yards.
Ryan Mallett fared better in the dying seconds. After hitting tight end D.J. Williams against Georgia's Cover-2 on back-to-back passes, the Georgia corner bit down on Williams on the third play. Wideout Greg Childs was left exposed for just enough time on the perimeter before the safety could arrive, and Mallet threw an NFL-quality dart to Childs, who made the safety miss and went for a game-winning touchdown scamper that sucked the life out of Sanford Stadium.
Mallett is far more pro-ready than Jake Locker, who somehow continues to top draft boards. I told you last week that he stinks, and that was after watching him against Syracuse. Against a somewhat stiffer defense, Nebraska's Black Shirts, Locker went 4-for-20 with two picks, and the Huskers blew out the Huskies (say that five times fast). However, I also thought Cal's Kevin Riley was the top Pac-10 quarterback. That was before he threw three picks as Nevada demolished the Golden Bears 52-31. Cal was at or near the top of several of our efficiency rankings, including a first in defensive success rate. That proved to be a function of weak opposition, something Messrs. Connolly and Fremeau struggled to quantify last week. Not so with the second-most successful offense, Nevada, who rolled up 497 yards of offense. So the point is -- when in doubt, go with the team that has Colin Kaepernick, apparently.
2. Ohio State
3. Boise State
13. South Carolina
23. West Virginia
24. Oregon State
25. Penn State
1. Josh Bynes, linebacker, Auburn. Auburn underestimated Clemson's speed at first (C.J. Who?), but Bynes clamped down on the Paw Boys in a savage performance.
2. Jay Valai and Shelton Johnson, safeties, Wisconsin. See above.
3. Omar Bolden, cornerback, Arizona State. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown and was all over the field defensively, helping the small but speedy Sun Devils hang in against the powerful Badgers.
4. Scott Smith, defensive end, Texas Tech. Can't blame Smith for the loss to Texas -- he had two deflected passes, one an interception he made and another that was returned by a teammate for a touchdown, plus two sacks and a forced fumble.
5. Offensive line, Nevada. Don't want to single out any one player on a line that demolished Cal's highly touted front seven, so cheers to John Bender, Jose Acuna, Chris Barker, Jeff Meads, and Steve Haley.
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