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?
22 Oct 2012
by Matt Hinton
First, we should start by noting that, contrary to popular belief, Bill Snyder is not a wizard. Even as a very mortal coach toiling in the historical black hole of Manhattan, Kansas, he's well past the point of being underrated, underappreciated or overlooked. To the contrary, he's been feted pretty much nonstop as one of the best in the game for the better part of two decades, because it's so obviously true. After Kansas State's thorough, 55-14 rout at West Virginia on Saturday night to move to 7-0 for the season, it's as obvious as ever.
So it is worth considering again what a truly bizarre decision it was, in December 2008, for K-State to raise Snyder from the dark underground lair where he'd been resting comfortably in retirement to re-resurrect a struggling program that bore no trace of the improbable powerhouse he built in the nineties. Why? At the time, Snyder was old (69), he hadn't coached in three years, and his last two teams in 2004 and 2005 had both finished with losing records. He still looked like one of the tired grandfathers from your church whose house is probably full of spiders and bags of 25-year-old peppermints. He was a great coach, once. What gave anyone the idea that he still had the energy, stamina, patience, or relevance with young players to become one again, starting essentially from square one?
And yet: four years into Snyder's second term –- longer than a lot of people thought the project would last -– the 2012 Wildcats are the spitting image of the K-State outfits that lived in the top ten in his turn-of-the-century hey day. They're a smart, fundamentally sound, and ruthlessly efficient team. Underline efficient. Against West Virginia, KSU had just ten offensive possessions in the entire game, including garbage time, but scored on nine of them, including a run of seven consecutive touchdown drives covering 92, 64, 75, 78, 24, 16, and 77 yards. Behind human locomotive Collin Klein, the Wildcats were 6-of-9 on third down, moved the sticks 24 times, and amassed a seven-minute advantage in time of possession. All in just 62 snaps.
After two quarters, the high-flying, up-tempo Mountaineers had managed just 17 snaps on three offensive possessions, punted on all three, and trailed 31-7 going into the half. While Klein stole the show and the title of most celebrated quarterback in the nation, Geno Smith was knocked out of the fight almost before he'd had a chance to throw a punch.
The Wildcats did the same thing to Oklahoma in a much closer game back in September, and with convincing road wins over the Sooners and Mountaineers, they remain alone atop the Big 12 standings. They also solidified their place among a shrinking cadre of national frontrunners down the stretch, with five very winnable games –- at home against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, followed by road trips to TCU and Baylor, then back home to close against Texas –- standing between them and a perfect regular season. There's still plenty of race to be run, but in a conference full of hares, somehow the old tortoise keeps finding a way to come out ahead.
1. Florida (7-0). Offensive issues remain, but another impressive, defensively-driven triumph leaves the Gators one win away from punching their ticket to the SEC title game.
2. Kansas State (7-0). Remaining schedule is no cakewalk, but K-State is the only realistic contender that doesn't have at least one more realistic contender left to play over the final six weeks. Check back in a month to find out whether that's a blessing or a curse.
3. Alabama (7-0). On top of leading the nation in every major defensive category, as usual, the Crimson Tide are now leading the nation in pass efficiency on offense, too.
4. Oregon (7-0). Merciful Ducks decided to spare Arizona State's life on national television, settling for a routine 43-21 blowout after going ahead 43-7 less than four minutes into the second quarter.
5. Notre Dame (7-0). Fighting Irish finally allowed an offensive touchdown -– two of them, actually -– for the first time in more than a month, but also piled up 270 yards rushing in a by-the-book, 17-14 win over BYU.
6. Oregon State (6-0). Beavers have already doubled last year's dismal win total in half the time, with nary a cupcake in the bunch.
7. Oklahoma (5-1). Sooners probably have a better chance of jumping Kansas State in the polls with a Wildcat loss down the stretch than of actually taking the Big 12 title, which would require two K-State losses.
8. LSU (6-1). Tigers' come-from-behind win over A&M was nearly a beat-for-beat replay of their come-from-behind win over South Carolina.
9. Ohio State (8-0). Two weeks ago, the surging Buckeyes were openly talking about winning the AP national championship despite a one-year ban from the BCS. After too-close-for-comfort escapes against Indiana and Purdue, the banged-up Buckeyes are just trying to make it to the season-defining date with Michigan in one piece.
10. Texas Tech (6-1). Triple-overtime win over TCU gives the Red Raiders back-to-back wins over ranked teams for the first time since 2008.
11. Florida State (6-1). 'Noles are in cruise control until the season finale against Florida, but may be too far back among the ACC-hating computers to make a run at the top of the BCS standings.
12. USC (6-1). Trojans looked like contenders in a 50-6 romp over Colorado, but who doesn't?
13. Texas A&M (5-2). In eight losses over the last two years, the Aggies have blown a double-digit lead in seven of them.
14. South Carolina (5-2). When asked "How is the offense going to fare without Marcus Lattimore?" the correct answer was not "Fumble."
15. Stanford (5-2). If the Cardinal had any consistency in the passing game, they'd be in the mix for the national championship.
16. Mississippi State (7-0). Bulldogs have yet to beat another team with a winning record, but back-to-back-to-back dates with Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU over the next three weeks are a ... uh, golden opportunity?
17. Georgia (6-1). The SEC's other Bulldogs have yet to beat a team with a winning record, either, and struggled mightily to avoid an upset at Kentucky. But the SEC East is still within reach with a win over Florida.
18. Rutgers (7-0). The Scarlet Knights have held six-of-seven opponents at or below 15 points. If only any of them were actually good at offense.
19. Louisville (7-0). This week's Friday night visit from Cincinnati is still critical where the Big East standings are concerned, but lost a lot of luster with the Bearcats' first loss of the season.
20. Clemson (6-1). Convincing win over Virginia Tech adds to the momentum building toward the Tigers' inevitable November collapse.
21. West Virginia (5-2). Mountaineers hit the bye week having been outscored 104 to 28 in consecutive losses. In retrospect, maybe they deserve a break from the top 25, too.
22. UCLA (5-2). Bruins still have a lot to play for, and this week's trip to Arizona State will tell us if they actually plan to.
23. Oklahoma State (4-2). Cowboys lead the nation in total offense, but have to endure yet another quarterback change just as the Big 12 schedule starts to get steep.
24. Michigan (5-2). Wolverines ended a four-game skid against rival Michigan State in the most mind-numbing fashion possible.
25. Nebraska (5-2). Cornhuskers brought so many fans to Northwestern that the Wildcat offense was forced to go to a silent snap count in its own stadium on the final drive of the game.
- - -
In: Clemson, UCLA, Oklahoma State, Michigan, Nebraska. Out: Cincinnati, Arizona State, Iowa State, TCU, Ohio.
1. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford. Cal finished with a grand total of three points and three yards rushing in a lopsided "Big Game," a testament to Stanford's first-rate front seven as a whole in its first road win of the season. No member of that group was better Saturday than Thomas, who turned in a team-high seven tackles (three for loss), with one sack and a forced fumble. For the season, the Golden Bears were the third opposing offense Stanford has held below 30 yards on the ground, and the Cardinal have now recorded at least three sacks in five consecutive games.
This might also be the place to point out that, in two close low-scoring losses to Washington and Notre Dame, the defense was responsible for Stanford's only touchdown in both games.
2. Arthur Brown, LB, Kansas State. Last year, Brown was the first of only six players all season to intercept Robert Griffin, picking off the eventual Heisman winner to ice a 36-35 win over Baylor. Saturday, he was the first player this season to pick off former Heisman favorite Geno Smith, setting up a short-field touchdown in the third quarter of K-State's romp at West Virginia. For the game, Brown finished with eight tackles (two of them for loss) at the heart of a defense that shut out the Mountaineers' atomic passing attack for three-and-a-half quarters.
3. Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M. The SEC's best defensive lineman* terrorized LSU to the tune of 10 tackles, one sack, a pass broken up, and a steady diet of harassment on Tiger quarterback Zach Mettenberger, all on a gimpy knee, then complimented the LSU offensive line on its talent and "mean streak." With a pair of stops behind the line of scrimmage, Moore still leads the nation in tackles for loss, and moved into the national lead for sacks, as well, while continuing to lead his own team in both solo and total tackles.
(*This is a tall statement, and so far, completely justified.)
4. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida. Purifoy kicked off the fumble party in Gainesville by stripping South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw on a corner blitz on the first play from scrimmage, setting up a quick Gator touchdown that ignited the blowout. A few seconds later, Purifoy knocked the ball loose again from Carolina return man Bruce Ellington on the ensuing kickoff, the only one of four Gamecock fumbles that South Carolina managed to recover.
5a. Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State, and
5b. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan. The Wolverines' last-second, 12-10 win in Ann Arbor was largely unwatchable, featuring 14 punts, five field goals and a single offensive touchdown. That's largely due to Allen and Ryan, who led the anti-offense offensive from opposite sides with a combined 21 tackles, four tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
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