"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
16 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
Inevitably, Alabama's much-hyped trip to Texas A&M was billed not only as a revenge date for the defending champs, out to avenge their only loss of 2012, but as a clash of compelling opposites: The irresistible force of A&M's prolific, warp-speed offense, colliding at full tilt with the perennially immovable object that is Alabama's defense. Only one can survive. If that was the case, the vaunted Bama D was dead on arrival. Reprising last year's ambush in Tuscaloosa, the Aggies struck for two quick touchdowns on their first two chance with the ball, jumping out to a 14–0 lead in a little under half a quarter. They kept the pedal down from there, eventually racking up 42 points on 628 yards of total offense, 90 percent of it from the right arm and legs of Johnny Manziel alone. Cut those totals in half, and you've got a humbling day for a Nick Saban defense. As it is, all existing precedents against the Crimson Tide over the last five years have been rendered obsolete.
Well, all of them except the one where the Crimson Tide score more points, anyway. If only the Alabama offense was the plodding anachronism it's sometimes made out to be. Instead, with a proven senior quarterback and more incentive than ever to let 'er rip itself, Bama matched A&M salvo for salvo, pulling ahead in the second quarter on A.J. McCarron's arm and staying ahead in the second half on the strength of its characteristically methodical ground game. The result was a track meet that defied everything every written about "SEC defense" – between them, the offenses combined for just shy of 1,200 yards of total offense, 91 points, 62 first downs, 11 plays that gained at least 20 yards and a dozen touchdown drives covering 84, 59, 75, 80, 80, 93, 58, 83, 80, 96, 65 and 75 yards. (That's not including two 70-yard drives that didn't result in points.) As intensely hyped, intensely waged showdowns for SEC supremacy go, this one was about as far away as it could be from a 9–6 stalemate.
But such is life in the SEC in 2013. While its salt-of-the-earth fans were busy dismissing the prospects of, say, Oregon's "pop gun offense" against the big, bad, blue-chip defenses of the South, the conference that once prided itself on resisting the siren lures of the hurry-up and the "Air Raid" was quietly revving its engines. So far this year, we've already seen LSU rack up 448 yards and 37 points against a longtime defensive power, TCU, on the same day that 545 yards and 35 points wasn't quite enough to get Georgia past Clemson. On opening night, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt combined for 915 yards in a 39–35 barn-burner. In Week 2, Georgia and South Carolina combined for 992 yards, 71 points and just three punts.
On Saturday, the Gamecocks scored four touchdowns on their first four offensive possessions against Vanderbilt, finishing with 35 points on 579 total yards. Auburn, the worst offense in the conference in 2012, eclipsed 400 yards for the third week in a row with a 459-yard effort against Mississippi State, nearly doubling last year's average against SEC opponents in a 24–20 thriller. Outside of the conference, Ole Miss ripped Texas for 449 yards in a validating, 44–23 win in Austin, nearly two-thirds of that total coming on the ground. Even LSU, a reliably close-to-the-vest team against overmatched also-rans, continued its fast start by racking up more yards against Kent State (571) than it's gained in any game since 2007. In five head-to-head conference games over the first three weeks, SEC teams are averaging 34 points and 482 yards per game. So far, that's up roughly nine points and 110 yards per game over 2012.
No doubt that's skewed a bit by small sample size, and it would be misleading to suggest that the SEC is only just discovering "the spread" after Florida and Auburn have claimed BCS championships in spread-friendly systems. (Although it also has to be said that both of those cases involved heavy doses of traditional power running by a pair of oversized quarterbacks, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, who effectively doubled as workhorse tailbacks.) Still, after Texas A&M's version of the "Air Raid" smashed nearly every known SEC record in its first year removed from the much pass-happier Big 12, it shouldn't come as a surprise that more teams are willing to be more aggressive to keep pace -– especially with the glut of proven senior quarterbacks at Alabama (McCarron), Georgia (Aaron Murray), LSU (Zach Mettenberger), Missouri (James Franklin) and South Carolina (Connor Shaw). The only question is at exactly what point in the season the superiority complex adapts to the notion that it's really had the best offenses all along: The defenses were just that good.
The scenario: Arizona State leads, 32–30. Wisconsin has the ball, first-and-10 from the ASU 13, with the clock momentarily stopped at 18 seconds to move the chains. The Badgers are out of timeouts. From there, the confusion seems to begin over whether Wisconsin QB Joel Stave's knee actually touched the ground on his subsequent attempt to kneel the ball in the middle of the field –- even ESPN's play-by-play guy says right away, "he didn't take a knee, he just put the ball on the ground!" -– although photos from a different angle showed Stave's knee was on the ground. At any rate, officials clearly blow the play dead with 15 seconds to go, just enough time for the Badgers to line up and spike the ball on second down to stop the clock for a game-winning field goal attempt -– except that ASU players, ignoring the whistles, have used the ambiguity over whether Stave was actually down on the previous play as an excuse to flop on the ball as if it were a live fumble, preventing it from being set for a spike. Amid much confusion, the clock keeps ticking as the umpire –- neglecting to call a delay of game –- attempts to recover the ball from the bottom of the pile. By the time he does, it's too late: The clock expires before Wisconsin can get the snap off, clinching the win for ASU. That's the minimum amount of words necessary to explain that sequence, and that's only after watching the replay a couple dozen times. It's doubtful anyone involved (officials included) could have explained it with any more clarity immediately after it happened. Anyway, Arizona State is 2–0.
1. ALABAMA (2–0).
2. OREGON (3–0).
3. CLEMSON (2–0).
4. LSU (3–0).
5. FLORIDA STATE (2–0).
6. OHIO STATE (3–0).
7. STANFORD (2–0).
8. GEORGIA (1–1).
9. SOUTH CAROLINA (2–1).
10. TEXAS A&M (2–1).
11. WASHINGTON (2–0).
12. OKLAHOMA STATE (3–0).
13. UCLA (2–0).
14. LOUISVILLE (3–0).
15. MICHIGAN (3–0).
16. MIAMI (2–0).
17. OKLAHOMA (3–0).
18. OLE MISS (3–0).
19. NORTHWESTERN (3–0).
20. BAYLOR (2–0).
21. ARIZONA STATE (2–0).
22. VIRGINIA TECH (2–1).
23. FLORIDA (1–1).
24. NOTRE DAME (2–1).
25. AUBURN (3–0).
– – –
In: Arizona State, Auburn.
Out: BYU, TCU.
Waiting: Texas Tech, Central Florida, Michigan State, BYU, Georgia Tech.
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. ALABAMA'S OFFENSIVE LINE.
Last year's starting five achieved Emeritus status in this space for its thorough domination of Georgia and Notre Dame, respectively, in the SEC and BCS championship games. This year's front, featuring three new starters in place of departed All-Americans Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker, got off to a miserable start against Virginia Tech, allowing four sacks and being generally overrun despite a misleading, 35–10 score. Alabama averaged just 2.5 yards per carry against the Hokies, and finished with its worst game in terms of total offense (206 yards) since September 2008.
After a bye week to regroup, suddenly the new line (from left to right: Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie Kouandjio, Ryan Kelly, Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd) looked an awful lot like the old line in the win over Texas A&M: The Aggies barely laid a finger on McCarron, and Bama's top three backs combined for 236 yards on 6.6 per carry, despite a long gain of just 16 yards. When the priority shifted from fighting fire with fire in the first half to burning as much time as possible with the lead, the big men responded by paving the way for the two most time-consuming drives of the day. The first was an 11-play, 93-yard epic that took 6:23 off the clock, ending with the Tide's fourth consecutive touchdown just before the half; later, they embarked on a nine-play, 65-yard march that took 5:36 off the clock in the fourth quarter, ending with the icing touchdown pass from McCarron to Jalston Fowler. Meet the new boss, SEC, same as the old boss.
2. ANTHONY BARR • LB, UCLA.
Barr, a 6-foot-4, 248-pound senior coming off an All-Pac-12 campaign in 2012 -– his first as a linebacker, after being converted from fullback –- looked every inch the first-round talent he is supposed to be against Nebraska, finishing with 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in a 41–21 upset. Overall, UCLA's defense dominated to an even greater extent than the final score indicates: Two of the Cornhuskers' touchdowns en route to a quick, 21–3 lead covered just 28 and 26 yards, respectively, following an interception and a turnover on downs by the Bruin offense. Without the help, Nebraska's last eight possessions of the game resulted in six punts, a fumble and a turnover on downs.
3. CHRIS BORLAND • LB, Wisconsin.
Borland did all the usual things an All-Big Ten linebacker is expected to do against Arizona State, logging 11 tackles and a sack, but also played an improbable role in arguably the Badgers' biggest play of the night. Trailing by eight points, 32–24, with under eight minutes to play, Wisconsin dialed up an audacious fake punt that called for Borland -– not much of a running threat in the open field – to take a pitch from an upback on an apparent end-around, then pull up and hit tight end Jacob Pedersen for the first down. The only thing harder to believe than the fact someone actually attempted this at a crucial moment in an actual game is that it actually worked: Borland's first and only career pass was on the money for a first down, and given extra life, Wisconsin's offense went on to score on the possession, cutting ASU's lead to 32–30, while the wilting defense continued to catch its breath after allowing three straight touchdown drives.
4. SERDERIUS BRYANT • LB, Ole Miss.
All eyes when the Rebels are on defense tend to fall on their blue-chip freshman end, Robert Nkemdiche, an 18-year-old who is built like a Clydesdale. Against Texas, though, no defender was more active than Bryant, who ended the night with 11 tackles (6 solo, 5 assists), three tackles for loss and one pass broken up in Ole Miss' biggest win since he's been on campus. After putting up 23 points in the first half, the Longhorns didn't come close to scoring in the second, failing to cross the UM 40-yard line.
5. CHAZ SUTTON and KELCY QUARLES • DL, South Carolina.
While the offense was off to a fast start against Vanderbilt, so was the Carolina defense, forcing five consecutive punts on the Commodores' first five offensive possessions. No one played a bigger role in that than Sutton and Quarles, who each recorded a sack and a hurry during the Gamecocks' run to a 28–0 lead. Before Vandy finally got on the board in the second quarter -– the direct result of a turnover by the USC offense –- it had been outgained 303 yards to 45.
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