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?
12 Sep 2011
by Robert Weintraub
One is calm, the other fiery. One is deeply religious, the other works at a religious school. But one thing Mark Richt and Brian Kelly have in common -- they are both 0-2. The main difference between them is that, unless Notre Dame loses the next ten games as well, Kelly’s job is safe. Not so for Richt, who needs to run the table in order to hold off the dawgs baying for his head. After Georgia came up short in a thrilling, big play-laden, mistake-filled game against South Carolina, 45-42, the recriminations were loud outside Sanford Stadium. When a sprinkler system went off early and soaked dozens of departing fans, one wag noted that whoever set the timer was “the Mark Richt of irrigation.”
Hard to blame the coach for this one -- despite giving up a fake punt that went for a touchdown, a pick-six, and a strip sack that was taken to the house, UGA dominated for long stretches. Its offensive line showed life, as did true freshman Isaiah Crowell, who showed what all the fuss was about with 118 yards on the ground on 16 carries. Aaron Murray made several excellent throws, and by the end of the season could well be the best quarterback in the conference. But Steve Spurrier, to his credit, held nothing back from the gameplan, and the Cocks used several big plays to blunt the play-to-play dominion Georgia held.
Like last season, UGA couldn’t stop the brilliant Marcus Lattimore, who punished the Bulldogs for 176 yards (six yards shy of his total in the 2010 meeting), including the final few that iced the game on third-and-3. Lattimore is the main reason for South Cackalack’s resurgence, and, in a sense, Georgia’s decline. For although Lattimore is from in-state, he is precisely the sort of top-notch recruit that habitually left the Palmetto State to play for schools like Georgia. But when Spurrier roped him in, using whatever blandishments necessary, the worm turned. Good as Crowell may turn out to be, he’ll be hard pressed to match Lattimore’s production. That single failed recruitment may not be what costs Richt his job, but it’s a symbol of lost toughness on the field, and lost recruiting aura off it. That combo has allowed SC to move past UGA in the SEC East pecking order.
Any guesses on the number of expletives Brian Kelly let loose in the tunnel of Michigan Stadium after Notre Dame lost, 35-31, to perhaps its most hated rival? After letting that one get away, Kelly likely worked as blue as ND’s usual uniforms, while the game itself made him as sick as the green throwbacks the Irish wore Saturday night. Notre Dame controlled the action for three quarters, leading 24-7, and easily could have been up more. But they forgot that Shoelace is a nocturnal animal. Denard Robinson made the first ever night game at the Big House one that will go down with Anthony Carter’s fabled catch-and-run as time expired against Indiana in 1979 (Hoosiers head coach? Lee Corso.) in Wolverines history.
Robinson put up four scores in the final quarter, including a funky fumble recovery run and two passes. Said aerial scores came in the breathless final 1:12, when Michigan seized the lead, gave it back, then hit an absurd 56-yard pass to set up the winning play, a 16-yard pass from Robinson to Ray Roundtree that gave the Irish the final shaft. The ending gave new meaning to the word insane, but the cynic will note the blown coverages on both sides that allowed for the drama. Granted, Robinson unzips coverage schemes with the threat of his running, but there is no excuse for Notre Dame allowing Jeremy Gallon to be that wide open in the final seconds, the play that greased the skids for the win.
It’s the third straight year Michigan has beaten the Irish in the final minute. Look for Notre Dame to drop the Wolverines from its schedule within five years. Yet as fun as it was, Michigan followed the wild wins and scintillating streetball play from Robinson and Tate Forcier in 2008 and 2009 with mediocre performances against tough Big Ten defenses. And I’m certainly not convinced Robinson has Al Borges' new offense nailed yet. He scuffled mightily for 45 minutes. Still, 2-0 is better than 0-2, and while Notre Dame still has a shot at the BCS because of the name on the jersey, a remaining schedule that features Michigan State, Stanford, USC makes a ten-game winning streak seems unlikely. Especially after committing ten turnovers (five in the red zone) and 17 penalties in the first two games. Somewhere, Ty Willingham continues to smile...
Fans in Michigan would still be celebrating if the perfect storm had formed and Toledo finished off its upset bid at Ohio State, instead of falling 27-22. Fantastic-yet-unheralded wideout Eric Page dominated the Buckeyes secondary with 12 catches for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns. Page trails only Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State in consecutive games with five or more catches. But backup quarterback Terrance Owens couldn’t quite finish a late drive, capping a game of frustrating errors and let-offs that obscured the fact that the Rockets outplayed OSU as badly as Utah State did Auburn last week.
Ah, War Eagle. Did anyone really think the Tigers would either lose to Mississippi State, or win comfortably, as they appeared poised to do, up two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter? No, of course the Jordan-Hare faithful had to suffer through a seizure or two before Auburn stopped the Bulldogs about six inches from paydirt as time expired, winning 41-34. Backhoe-sized quarterback Chris Relf looked certain to tie it up on the final option keeper, but he was submarined by a perfect open-field tackle by safety Ryan Smith. Stud runner Vick Ballard was alone for the pitch and stroll in, but Relf kept it himself and came up juuuuuuuust shy.
That distance neatly encapsulates the difference between Relf and Cam Newton, who certainly would have gotten in the end zone under similar circumstances a year ago. It’s the distance between the two programs as well, as Auburn’s winning streak continues (17 straight) at the expense of an SEC West eleven that was poised to surpass them. Dan Mullen’s crew still might, but Auburn is in that magic zone last seen on the Plains during the glorious, if untitled season, of 2004.
Auburn head coach Gene Chizik will do well to remember these bountiful days. One day, maybe not soon but certainly over the horizon somewhere, he, like Richt and Kelly, also will be 0-2. And having to explain to angry alums and students how the dreams were dashed.
3. Boise State
5. Florida State
6. Oklahoma State
7. Texas A&M
10. South Carolina
13. Michigan State
15. Virginia Tech
16. West Virginia
17. South Florida
19. Arizona State
Nothing major save Bama taking the No. 2 spot from idle Boise with an impressive road win. Mississippi State is a hard-luck dropout.
1. Melvin Ingram, DT, South Carolina. No-brainer here -- the former high school running back took a fake punt 66 yards to change the game completely, juking past one man and outrunning the rest in the process. Then he scooped and scored the putaway TD late in the game, before deciding to recover the onside kick attempt that Georgia needed to have one more shot for giggles.
2. Ryan Smith, S, Auburn. Another no-brainer--see above.
3. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama. Two textbook helmet-on-ball hits forced fumbles that helped the Tide dominate Penn State for the second straight season.
4. Trey Barrow, P, Missouri. The Tigers fell in the Valley of the Sun, but don’t blame the field position flipper -- Barrow averaged 58 yards on four punts, including a 73-yard missile.
5. Justin Allen, LB, Rice. Allen blocked a field goal try at the gun, giving Rice a 24-22 win over Purdue. It was the first win over a major conference opponent after 22 straight losses.
7 comments, Last at 13 Sep 2011, 3:36pm by Kevin from Philly