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?
06 Jan 2012
by Robert Weintraub
Early in the Fiesta Bowl, Stanford kick returner Ty Montgomery fielded a ball several yards deep in his end zone, and started to run out. His co-return man, senior Jeremy Stewart, prevented Montgomery from doing so by knocking the freshman returner on his backside while he remained in the painted area, and the Cards took a touchback.
Unfortunately, that was pretty much the best tackle of the 2011-12 bowl season.
After a schedule of seven-on-seven drills that passed for football games, I’m ready for a repeat of the November 5 slugfest between LSU and Alabama more than ever. There was harder hitting and better tackling on display in the Lingerie Bowl. Washington scored 56 points, with quarterback Keith Price accounting for seven touchdowns -- and lost to Baylor by 11. The offenses on display in the Rose and Fiesta Bowls turned decent defenses into swiss cheese. West Virginia hung a record 70 points on eleven cardboard cutouts wearing Clemson orange. West Virginia lost to Syracuse, for Pete’s sake!
And just wait for the GoDaddy.com Bowl Sunday night, featuring the unstoppable offenses and walk-on quality defenses of Northern Illinois and Arkansas State. The Mountaineers record, which ignited much couch-burning in Morgantown, is already in jeopardy.
There were other examples. Two supposedly outstanding defenses hooked up in the Outback Bowl: Georgia and Michigan State. Final score -- 33-30 (in triple overtime, but regulation ended 27-all). Toledo beat Air Force 42-41 in the Military Bowl (yes, an academy team lost the Military Bowl, I declare sacrilege) -- give the Rockets credit, though -- they did stop a two-point conversion to seal the game. Purdue was so unconfident in its ability to stop Western Michigan in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl that the Boilers onside kicked twice in the first half -- and would have done it a third time had WMU not changed an alignment at the last moment.
In all, only 11 of the 31 bowls played so far have seen both teams held to fewer than 30 points.
There are no shortage of culprits. First and foremost is probably the fact that few coaches put their teams through full padded practices in the postseason. The climate of player protection being what it is, coupled with offensive innovation and breathtaking athletes migrating toward the offensive side of the ball more often than ever, has left defenses in an atrocious state. Outside of Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, of course.
Washington probably feels the most violated, even moreso than Clemson, which checked out after a 99-yard fumble return turned a potential 24-21 lead into a 28-17 deficit. The Huskies shelled out $2.1 million over three years to defensive coordinator Nick Holt, making him one of the highest-paid assistant coaches in the nation. After Robert Griffin and running back Terrance Ganaway (21 carries for 200 yards and five touchdowns) left his unit in tatters, Holt and his staff were relieved of their duties. You-Dub faced both of the consensus top quarterbacks in the country, Griffin and Stanford’s Andrew Luck, this season. In both games, they surrendered over 400 yards rushing.
The Rajin’ Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette were likely to be taken apart by the potent San Diego State offense, but held off the Aztecs for a while thanks in part to an old-school method -- staging a good old-fashioned Oklahoma drill right on the Superdome turf before the New Orleans Bowl. Strength coach Rusty Whitt got involved as well, sans helmet, a decision that left him bleeding on the ULL sideline. Whitt left his forehead cracked open and the blood dripping down his face throughout the game, which had to have motivated his team -- hell, I was so fired up I put my head through the closet door of the St. Louis hotel room where I watched the game. In a breathless contest, the local favorites drove to a 50-yard field goal as time expired (it was a 55-yarder, but an "illegal spinning" penalty moved the ball up five critical yards), beating SDSU 32-30 in their first bowl game in the FBS. I’m a playoff believer, but you've got to love a team like ULL, generally picked as the absolute worst of the 120 FBS teams in the preseason, taking home a trophy at season’s end.
Along with shoddy defense, another leitmotif of the regular season was glaring errors in the kicking game, especially in the clutch. That trend carried over to the bowls, Brett Baer’s big kick for ULL notwithstanding (he missed a pair of extra points earlier, so don’t sing his praises too loudly).
Stanford’s unfortunate Jordan Williamson was the most visible failure, blowing what appeared to be Luck’s farewell gift to college football, a precision drive with no timeouts into chip shot range that would have given the Cardinal the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, Williamson yanked it, then missed another in the top of the first overtime. Oklahoma State appeared to score a touchdown for the miracle cover of -3.5, but replay decided Colton Chelf was a half-yard shy of paydirt. OSU then kneeled and kicked the winning field goal, which left me so bitter and angry you’d have thought I had actual cash on the game. I don’t want to hear any nonsense about how OK State is in play for a split national title should Alabama beat LSU. The Cowboys had no business beating Stanford, and they know it.
Virginia Tech is supposed to be the Sorbonne of special teams, but BeamerBall took an extended New Year’s holiday and missed the Sugar Bowl. After the top two Hokies’ kickers broke bad and were suspended for poor behavior, third-stringer Justin Myer blew an overtime kick of his own. That was after Tech roughed the punter, setting up a Michigan touchdown, fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, which became three more Michigan points, and gave the Wolverines three final points in regulation with a fake punt so horrendous that Patrick Chung may have called for it.
Michigan kicker Brandon Gibbons’ clearly false started on his game-winning kick in overtime, stutter-stepping to the ball like an Englishman approaching a penalty kick. But it wasn’t called, and the Wolverines won the "Neither Team Deserves To Be Here" Bowl.
At least Myer has an excuse -- he was planning on spending most of the game playing Angry Birds on the sideline, not actually kicking with the game on the line (and he did tie the game with a kick late in regulation). Georgia’s Blair Walsh was the preseason favorite for the Groza Award, but he missed two kicks in overtime (one was blocked) as UGA lost to Sparty in the Outback Bowl. Moreover, they were Walsh’s 13th and 14th missed field goals of the season! When the supposed best kicker in the country can’t put them between the uprights, it’s time to brush up on your fourth-down playcalling.
Dawgs coach Mark Richt may be off the hot seat in Athens, but he gets heavy criticism from me for essentially playing for the 40-yarder in overtime after Georgia got an interception in the top of the first overtime. Um, Mark, your kicker has already missed a dozen field goals this season. How about inching a tad closer? Any relation between my anger at Richt and the fact that I picked UGA to cover -3.5 is purely coincidental, I assure you.
After all, I’m equally mad at the Bulldog defense and their poor tackling.
34 comments, Last at 27 Mar 2013, 5:57am by pawello