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05 Nov 2012

OFI: Oregon's Most Important Number

by Matt Hinton

Writing about Oregon football means dealing with a lot of numbers, usually big ones, and they don't come much bigger than the 62-point, 720-yard bomb the Ducks just dropped on USC. The calculators were humming from the opening kickoff, and never stopped. Oregon's first touchdown drive of the night covered 75 yards in 65 seconds. The Ducks had 156 yards and 14 points before they faced a third down. Sixty-two points was the most ever against a USC defense. Seven hundred-twenty yards was a school record; tailback Kenjon Barner set another one with 325 yards rushing, and (by the way) scored five touchdowns. Forced to actually play a full four quarters for the first time in his career -– on the road, against a ranked opponent –- redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota was 20-of-23 passing for 304 yards, four touchdowns and an efficiency rating of 255.4. USC set multiple records of its own, including most points (51) in a loss.

But the number looming over the rest of the weekend is the one preceded by a decimal point: .9166. That's the Ducks' score in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings, which is nearly unchanged from their score in last week's standings, .9136, which came as a surprise to most BCS watchers. The slight bump was enough to move Oregon up a spot, from No. 4 to No. 3, at the expense of Notre Dame. But it wasn't enough to bypass Kansas State into the all-important No. 2 slot, and the apathetic reaction of the BCS computers challenged the assumption that a Ducks takeover is inevitable.

Before the new numbers were released on Sunday night, the prevailing wisdom held that the increased degree of difficulty on Oregon's schedule down the stretch –- beginning with the Trojans –- would be enough to bring the computers in line with the human polls, where the Ducks are a solid No. 2 behind the immovable object at the top, Alabama, and will almost certainly remain there as long as they keep winning. For all their firepower on the biggest stage of the season, though, the algorithms remained unmoved: out of six computer polls, Oregon moved up a spot in one, down a spot in another and held fast in the rest, resulting in the exact same score (.850) and average (5th) across all six computers as the week before. Where it counted, trashing the preseason favorite to win the national championship made almost no difference in the pursuit of K-State.

From here, the Ducks have four games left to make up that gap, beginning this weekend at 3-6 Cal, which does not figure to help much; after that, though, they're set for back-to-back dates with Stanford and Oregon State, both of which are currently ranked in the top 15 in all major polls -– human and computer alike -– and if everything goes as expected, the Pac-12 Championship Game against the winner of the Pac-12 South. Given that surprising Oregon State (7-1) has picked up some of the slack from USC's descent into mediocrity, that's as solid a closing stretch as the computers or anyone else has any right to ask for. But if Alabama and Kansas State keep winning, too, it is no longer certain that it will be enough to shake up the status quo.

TOE DRAGS

  • The heavyweight, winner-take-all showdown between Alabama and LSU lived up to the hype, and then some, in no small part because of the sudden, unlikely emergence of Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger against the best defense in college football. After four uninspiring performances in his first four SEC starts, Mettenberger lit up the Bama secondary for 298 yards passing, one touchdown, and no interceptions, delivering the best pass efficiency rating (147.9) by any quarterback against the Crimson Tide since Cam Newton broke Bama's heart back in 2010. As a team, LSU rushed for more yards (139), passed for more yards (296), averaged more yards per play (5.1), earned more first downs (22), converted a higher percentage of third downs (50), and scored more points (17) against Alabama than any FBS offense in the last two years, all while amassing a nearly 19-minute advantage in time of possession. And still lost, 21-17, thanks to the late, redemptive heroics of Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron, whose performance on the game-winning touchdown drive erased a dismal second half and lifted his team over the tallest hurdle in its path to another BCS Championship Game.
  • Notre Dame needed a fourth-quarter comeback and a bit of stunning overtime luck to keep its perfect record intact against Pittsburgh, but in the end the Irish lived to fight another week at 9-0. Frankly, it would be easier to dwell on the close call if a) the Irish hadn't already proven themselves (repeatedly) capable of stronger performances against better competition this season, and b) they hadn't also done tangible, non-lucky things like rallying from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, holding Pitt to 1-of-14 on third downs, and outgaining the Panthers by more than 200 yards of total offense. In other, equally tangible ways, it was their worst game of the season: the defense gave up 172 yards rushing to Ray Graham and failed to force a turnover; the offense gave it away three times and came up empty on multiple scoring opportunities in Pitt territory. But a harrowing ending doesn't change the fact that sometimes, mere survival is its own virtue.
  • Coming off a dismal October that ended with a fourth quarter benching at Kansas, Texas quarterback David Ash rediscovered his September form Saturday in a reassuring 31-22 win at Texas Tech. The Longhorns scored touchdowns the first three times they touched the ball, never turned it over, and never trailed en route to taking their third straight. The win temporarily buries the doubts about Ash's stability and creates the faintest hint of a BCS buzz if the winning streak picks up steam.
  • It took another late rally and a questionable pass interference call in the final minute –- "questionable" may be putting it mildly -– but Nebraska took another step to locking up the Big Ten's "Legends" Division with a come-from-behind 28-24 win at Michigan State. Of the Cornhuskers' four Big Ten wins, they've trailed by double digits in three of them, forcing them to rally from a 27-10 deficit to beat Wisconsin, 30-27; a 28-16 deficit to beat Northwestern, 29-28; and now a 24-14 deficit to vanquish the Spartans. The only B1G opponent Nebraska hasn't trailed is Michigan, a 23-9 loser in Lincoln on Oct. 27, and that may have had something to do with the fact that the Wolverines were forced to play the entire second half without their star quarterback, Denard Robinson.
  • There are many, many more to come over the next six weeks, but the first notable pink slip of the season was handed out Sunday to Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, one day after his team was shamed by Vanderbilt in a 40-0 blowout in front of a depressing home crowd in Lexington. The loss was Kentucky's eighth in a row since September, the sixth in that span by double digits, and left the Wildcats ranked dead-last nationally in total offense.

OFI TOP 25

1. Alabama (9-0). Bama looked mortal on the defense for the first time in years, and still managed to survive against the only team that can match them blue chip for blue chip.
2. Kansas State (9-0). Wildcats cruised to 9-0 against Oklahoma State, but 10-0 may depend on the short-term health of Collin Klein.
3. Oregon (9-0). Faces change, Ducks' prolific M.O. stays the same.
4. Notre Dame (9-0). Either the Irish are the proverbial "team of destiny," or they're setting themselves up for a painful reality check in a BCS game.
5. Florida (8-1). Gators still deserve to be rewarded for their unmatched triptych of wins over LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina, but the offense has been running on fumes for a month.
6. Georgia (8-1). Barring a catastrophe at Auburn -– or a miracle, depending on your perspective –- the Bulldogs are bound for another SEC Championship Game. Without having to play Alabama, LSU, or Texas A&M to get there.
7. Ohio State (10-0). Buckeyes get a much-needed bye week ahead of their biggest games of the year, against Wisconsin and Michigan.
8. LSU (7-2). Tigers may have earned more respect in a loss than in any of their wins.
9. Oregon State (7-1). Beavers put their first loss of the year behind them in a convincing win over Arizona State.
10. Florida State (8-1). Seminoles took the weekend off, which for once is not just a snarky euphemism for playing in the ACC.
11. Oklahoma (6-2). Sooners' hot-and-cold offense was back on track at Iowa State, but for how long?
12. Texas A&M (7-2). Aggies' eye-opening, 38-13 rout at Mississippi State was a warning shot to their next next target, Alabama.
13. South Carolina (7-2). Gamecocks are effectively out of the running in the SEC East, but not for a possible BCS bowl.
14. Stanford (7-2). If any defense in the Pac-12 can slow down Oregon, it's Stanford's, but the Cardinal are still struggling to score.
15. Louisville (9-0). Another week, another forgettable Big East also-ran bites the dust.
16. Clemson (8-1). Not that blowing out Duke is anything to write home about, but the Blue Devils are the Tigers' only victims currently boasting a winning record.
17. UCLA (7-2). Bruins obliterated Arizona, 66-10, and made themselves the new frontrunners to win the Pac-12 South in the process.
18. Nebraska (7-2). Clear sailing to the B1G title game if the Cornhuskers can get by Penn State on Saturday.
19. Texas (7-2). Longhorn fans have never been more relieved by a win over Texas Tech.
20. Texas Tech (6-3). Red Raiders are beginning to fade, but should clinch a winning season Saturday against Kansas.
21. Oklahoma State (6-3). Youth and uncertainty at quarterback caught up to the Cowboys again at K-State, and that may be the only reason they're not back in the Big 12 title hunt with a vastly improved defense.
22. TCU (6-3). Horned Frogs fought through multiple opportunities to pack it in at West Virginia, eventually winning on a do-or-die two-point conversion in double overtime.
23. West Virginia (6-3). Yes, I did just use five consecutive slots on half the membership of the Big 12. If you watched this conference on a weekly basis, you'd understand.
24. Toledo (8-1). Rockets have taken eight straight since taking Arizona to overtime in the season opener.
25. Penn State (6-3). Nittany Lions aren't playing for anything, in particular, due to NCAA sanctions, but still have to be seething over the 0-2 start against Ohio and Virginia, middling teams they would beat comfortably right now.

LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH

1. Allen Chapman, CB, Kansas State. In 2011, Chapman took his first career interception back for a touchdown against Oklahoma State. Saturday, he bit the Cowboys again with another pick-six that extended K-State's lead to 31-17 just before the half –- then proceeded to pick off two more passes as the Wildcats cruised to a double-digit win over the defending Big-12 champs. With five takeaways for the night, and zero giveaways from the offense, K-State now owns the best turnover margin in the nation at plus-21 for the season.

2. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon. In front of every record-breaking running back, there's a huge man calling out blocking assignments for his linemates, and Grasu got almost all of them right en route to another prolific night at USC. Earlier this year, coach Chip Kelly paid his sophomore center the highest compliment possible for an interior lineman, when he admitted he never has to think about Grasu anymore.

3. Matt Elam, S, Florida. The Gators' resident head hunter returns to the Lowsman Watch for the third time this year after racking up six tackles (two for loss) and an interception against Missouri, which he returned 42 yards to set up what turned out to be the decisive touchdown in a 14-7 Florida win. Offensively, the Gators have been held below 300 total yards three weeks in a row, but managed to win two of those games and nearly won the third thanks to 11 takeaways in the same span by the defense.

4. Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA. Going into last weekend, Arizona led the Pac-12 in total offense and boasted at least 35 points in four consecutive games, including 39 points in a major upset over USC. In the Rose Bowl, though, Zona ran into a wall, managing just 10 points on 257 yards of total offense -– nearly 30 points and 300 yards below its season averages –- and giving the ball away three times in a 66-10 debacle. No Bruin defender had more to do with that than Kendricks, who led the way with 13 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

5. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia. Ogletree turned in a team-high 11 tackles (two for loss) with an interception in the Bulldogs' 37-10 cruise over Ole Miss, who managed just 46 yards rushing with a long gain of eleven. In two weeks since being called out as "soft" by safety Shawn Wiliams, the UGA defense has forced nine turnovers while allowing a single touchdown.

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 05 Nov 2012

9 comments, Last at 27 Mar 2013, 5:43am by pawello

Comments

1
by Anger...rising (not verified) :: Mon, 11/05/2012 - 9:56pm

It's hard to justify crediting Notre Dame with a "non-lucky" rally while discrediting Nebraska for benefiting from "questionable" pass interference.

2
by erniecohen :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 12:12am

Particularly since Notre Dame's comeback was made possible by a completely phantom PI call on 4th and 10 in Pitt territory that led to a TD.

3
by anonhunter (not verified) :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 12:51am

The setup for the winning FG by Pitt in 2OT should have also had a flag since ND had 2x#2's on the field (refs missed). They could have not only had better position to kick but probably centered it.

4
by Thok :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 8:00am

Oregon chances of improving in the BCS are much better than it appears, since they're going to pass Florida in the computer polls if they keep winning, and that will close most of the gap on Kansas State. If they go undefeated, Oregon can overcome one of Kansas St and Notre Dame going undefeated, but it's unclear they can handle both teams going undefeated. (This assumes the voters don't start shifting their votes away from Oregon.)

5
by Will Allen :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 9:41am

I can't be the only one who thought Les Miles entirely overrated the value of running another 35 seconds off the clock on the Tigers' last possession of the game, at the risk of increasing the odds that they would give possession of the ball to The Tide. Third and longish, with your qb playing lights out, it seems to me you call the play that is most likely to allow you to keep the ball, and win the game. It wasn't as if there was 1:30 left on the clock.

6
by Adam H (not verified) :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 11:17am

Eh... it seemed reeeally unlikely that Alabama could get a touchdown in 1:30 after their last few had failed so miserably. An extra 35 seconds allows the threat of a power run play, which should make it easier to pass. So I don't think that was nearly as egregious a coaching mistake as playing so soft on defense with the game on the line. I couldn't believe they were giving them those 15 yard out routes so easily.

7
by Will Allen :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 11:33am

Well, it was the combination of being too willing to risk giving up possession of the ball, and then playing soft coverage, that was truly awful. Combining offensive and defensive strategy, into a coherent whole, really is the head coach's most important job on game day. Miles failed pretty badly in the closing minutes of the game.

I really do think a lot of coaches have failed to adjust to this offensive era, however, and are overestimating the value of running 35 seconds of the clock, with two to three minutes left in the game.

8
by lionsbob :: Tue, 11/06/2012 - 7:38pm

Not really soft coverage. LSU blitzed on a couple of plays and AJ and Alabama hit the open WR. The TD pass was on a blown assignment by a freshman CB (who blitzed when he probably should not have).

9
by pawello (not verified) :: Wed, 03/27/2013 - 5:43am

If they go undefeated, Oregon can overcome one of Kansas St and Notre Dame going undefeated, but it's unclear e-papierosy they can handle both teams going undefeated. (This assumes the voters don't start shifting their votes away from Oregon.)