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?
24 Oct 2011
by Robert Weintraub
What do you think, two more reps on the preacher curls? Four more pullups? Just a smidgen more time in the weight room, and perhaps Wisconsin’s Mike Taylor manages to keep Michigan State’s Keith Nichol from pushing that Hail Mary grab over the goal line? Perhaps the Badgers manage to win in overtime, and remain unbeaten, thus going on to the BCS title game. Instead, they lost 37-31 to Sparty. Ironically, a program that has been built around brute strength may be out of the race for All The Tostitos because one of its players wasn’t quite strong enough.
The insane ending capped a week of every pundit in America picking Michigan State, mainly due to its defense and the fact that Wisconsin’s gaudy record and stats were built on a tissue-thin schedule. The Badgers scored two quick touchdowns, then took about 50 minutes off before a pair of late scores knotted the game at 31 and set up the Hail Mary drama. Russell Wilson didn’t hurt his reputation much, especially in the fourth quarter, as he made plays to evade Sparty’s relentless pass rush. MSU flipped end Marcus Rush from side-to-side to confuse Wisconsin’s blocking assignments, and they came at the Badgers with far more speed than any defense had thus far.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema will probably get some undeserved static for using his timeouts at the end in order to try and get the ball back, a move that backfired when his defense twice couldn’t get off the field on big third downs. Anyway, hammering a coach for losing on a Hail Mary is the last refuge of the ultra-cynic.
Where does Kirk Cousins-to-Nichol rank on the all-time Hail Mary chart? Off the top of my head, I’d put it fifth, behind Doug Flutie-to-Gerard Phelan, Kordell Stewart-to-Michael Westbrook, LSU’s Miracle In The Bluegrass at Kentucky, and Jim McMahon’s Holiday Bowl prayer back in 1980. I’m sure there have been others, but none leap to mind -- and of course none that have been called short on the field and required replay to count. It certainly seemed to the naked eye that Nichol was in, so it was surprising the refs didn’t give it to him originally, especially at Spartan Stadium. But they got it right, touching off a wild celebration that probably is still ongoing.
We called for an overdue "Upset Saturday" in Seventh Day Adventure, and for most of the day we were treated by the football gods like bouncers would had we asked for entry to the club while wearing Bermuda shorts. But late in the evening, we slipped the beefy dude a fin and got in, as first Wiscy went down, then Oklahoma took the pipe at home against Texas Tech. Lightning delayed the game for almost two hours, which was approximately the amount of time the Sooners’ offense took off before belatedly getting in gear. By that time, the Red Raiders were ahead 31-7 en route to a 41-38 victory.
Tech ravaged the OU defense, who badly missed concussed middle linebacker Tom Wort, with crossing routes and savage downfield blocking. Teams have been complaining all season that Tech blocks illegally on many of its pass plays, and there was the occasional clip, but there were also decleaters like the one Eric Ward put on Javon Harris, leading to a big gainer. So long to OU’s 39-game home winning streak, its unbeaten season, and the potential of a massive Bedlam game in December.
The other undefeateds took care of bidness, including the other Sooner State power. Oklahoma State took care of Mizzou despite losing two of its top wideouts, 45-24. Running back Joseph Randle took the responsibility baton and ran for four scores. Missouri had a breath of life down 14 and in OSU terrain, but defensive linemen Jamie Blatnick (deflection) and Richetti Jones (juggling interception) combined to smother the Tigers' chances.
LSU was without its best running back and its best player, period, thanks to an ill-timed knock on the door from the pee-in-this-cup dude. The TMB crew (Too Many Ballers) scarcely noticed, obliterating Auburn 45-10. Alabama took the first half off, then dropped 31 unanswered points to win (and cover) against Tennessee. It will be interesting to see what effect that single bad half of football by Bama has on the spread when LSU comes to Tuscaloosa on November 5 (both teams are off next Saturday), and how much that line moves before the kick.
(Yes, I had a decent record in picks for once.)
Boise State’s players were practically invisible in those uniforms against the blue turf, so it's no surprise they beat Air Force 37-26. K-State demolished Sunflower State rival Kansas 59-21, and Houston embarrassed Marshall 63-28 (the Herd found an alternate route to their main goal: seeing Houston's backup quarterback). Stanford was extremely impressive in crushing Washington 65-21. Andrew Luck continues to be a Heisman frontrunner more on rep then actual 2011 greatness, as he was content merely to hand off and watch as the Cardinal steamrolled the Huskies for 446 yards on the ground, a school record. With USC winning impressively at Notre Dame 31-17, a Luck vs. Matt Barkley showdown at the Coliseum is next week’s marquee matchup.
Finally, Clemson continues to be the nation’s most impressive and varied offense. A 35-point third quarter sent North Carolina reeling, and showed off the Tigers’ entire quiver. Tahj Boyd threw for three scores and ran for a fourth. His first touchdown pass was as perfect a back shoulder throw as I’ve seen this season, on the money to Brandon Ford. Then Boyd found Sudden Sammy Watkins for his weekly explosive play: a skinny post that covered 42 yards. Finally, Boyd went over the middle to his superb tight end Dwayne Allen for another six. Clemson ran in a fumble for the rub-it-in score. Final? 59-38. Clemson’s defense isn’t championship quality, but who wouldn’t love to see the Tigers get a crack at any of the big name unbeatens?
Or even Wisconsin or Oklahoma.
3. Boise State
4. Oklahoma State
8. Kansas State
12. Virginia Tech
13. Michigan State
14. South Carolina
16. Texas A&M
18. Texas Tech
21. Arizona State
22. Southern Miss
24. Penn State
25. Syracuse (OK, fine, Cincinnati)
1. Five Big Boys, OL, Stanford. Can’t single out any one player on the Cardinal offensive line, which destroyed Washington for 446 yards on the ground.
2. Barkevious Mingo, DT, LSU. This slot could similarly have gone to the entire defensive front, or Tyrann Mathieu’s replacement Ron Brooks, who had a pick-six. But when you sport a name like Mingo does, the benefit of the doubt heads your way.
3. David Amerson, CB, NC State. Two more picks for the national leader in interceptions. Amerson has eight now, and that last one was a pick-six that iced the Wolfpack’s 28-14 win over Virginia.
4. Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas. The severely underrated Franklin is among the top active tacklers for an SEC career. He added seven more to his total, including a big safety, in the win over Ole Miss.
5. Kourtnei Brown, DE, Clemson. Brown scored on a fumble and an interception return in the Tigers rout of UNC.
17 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2011, 8:35pm by Lance