Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
30 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
The obituaries for Lane Kiffin's tenure at USC were written weeks ago, in the wake of an inexcusable loss to Washington State, and even then felt like exercises in restating the obvious. The guy got off the plane from Tennessee trying to justify his existence at a job almost no one thought he deserved. By the time his boss ditched him on the tarmac after Saturday's debacle at Arizona State, there was nothing left to add.
So we know the why: The once-mighty Trojans are 10–8 since opening the 2012 season atop the Associated Press poll, the last three of those losses coming at the hands of unranked teams. Arizona State, the anvil that broke the camel's back, is the second team in that span to tattoo 62 points onto the defense's chest, matching Oregon's indelible romp last November for the most points ever scored against USC. As of the wee hours of Sunday morning we know the when and (to everyone's delight) the where. Which leaves the really difficult question for any postmortem: the how. How did a team that seemed to have everything going for it 12 months ago get so bad, so fast?
Obviously, Kiffin inherited some rot from predecessor and mentor Pete Carroll, which was beginning to show in an unexpected slide to 9–4 in Carroll's final season, 2009; prior to that, USC had won at least eleven games and at least a share of the conference title in seven consecutive seasons, and finished in the top five in the polls following a BCS bowl in all seven years. There was also the matter of the heavy-handed scholarship restrictions handed down by the NCAA shortly after Kiffin's arrival, which seemed specifically designed to keep the Trojans from getting anywhere near a championship for the foreseeable future. (So far, so good.) But local expectations never quite followed that logic, and neither did the 2011 team, which rocketed into the top ten in the final polls on the strength of a four-game winning streak to close the season -– a run that included a season-defining 38–35 upset at Oregon that knocked the Ducks out of the BCS title game, and would have been even more dramatic if not for a triple-overtime loss to Andrew Luck-led, BCS-bound Stanford a few weeks earlier. That lineup returned virtually intact in 2012, with a Heisman frontrunner in Matt Barkley and every goal that was beyond the NCAA-imposed ceiling in 2011 suddenly well within reach. But success means expectations, and expectations meant no more safety net between the peak and the valley that has consumed most of the last year.
From afar, the aftermath of the scholarship penalties probably seems like a straightforward case of cause-and-effect: Sanctions imposed, record suffers, everyone learns a very valuable lesson about trying to buck the NCAA's enforcement regime. Up close, though, that assessment seems lazy. As far as the numbers go, the current roster is carrying the full, post-sanctions limit of 75 scholarship players, only ten below the standard 85-man limit imposed on everyone else. Seventy-one of those 75 were signed directly from high school or junior college (i.e. not former walk-ons), and 61 are in at least their second year on campus. That's a full three-deep.
More to the point, thanks to Kiffin's apparent success as a recruiter –- the only area in which he consistently excelled –- there is no way to argue that this lineup is not completely stacked.
Given that recruiting rankings have a predictably strong correlation with success, those numbers speak for themselves: More than 75 percent of the players USC signed under Kiffin came with a four or five-star rating, where no other team in the conference comes close to 50 percent. Nearly half of Kiffin's signees (36 of 77) were ranked among Rivals' top 100 prospects in their respective class, at any position. (That includes all three quarterbacks on the current roster, Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne.) Out of 22 starters against Arizona State, all but two (offensive linemen Marcus Martin and Chad Wheeler) came from that four- and five-star pool, which also supplied 16 players who came off the bench. Only one member of the starting lineup against ASU, safety Su'a Cravens, is a true freshman; only four others (Wheeler, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, and cornerback Kevon Seymour) are redshirts or true sophomores. Everyone else is in at least his third year in the program.
That's the kind of "depth problem" most coaches who are not Nick Saban dream about every night. The fundamental reality that swallowed Kiffin whole has not changed: Man-for-man, athlete-for-athlete, the Trojans are still as physically imposing as any lineup in America, and there is still no excuse for it to ever appear otherwise, against anyone, under any circumstances. When Carroll's teams lost a game, it felt like a seismic event with ripple effects across the country. When Kiffin's teams lost –- because it happened so often, and because it elicited such schadenfreude directed at Kiffin personally –- it felt like the chasm was opening up beneath him and him alone. At some point in his relatively brief tenure, USC lost to every team in the conference except California, Utah and Colorado. Against the top two teams in the league in the span, Oregon and Stanford, Kiffin was 1–5. Against Notre Dame, he was 1–2. Last November's loss to UCLA officially ceded the Los Angeles Football Monopoly to the Bruins. In the end, his team scored seven points in a loss to Washington State and allowed 62 in a loss to Arizona State in a span of three weeks. If not for the surge at the end of 2011, it might not have taken so long to arrive. But in retrospect, it was never really in doubt.
On the second score, he validated Manziel's freewheelin' joie de vivre by hauling down an ill-advised jump ball in the middle of triple coverage, proving again that the line between "fun" and "frustrating" is only as thick as your support staff.
The window for completing a pass on this throw was about as wide as completing a pass through the window of a car going 45 mph in an alley, right before it crashes into a wall. Landry held on despite getting a helmet-removing knee to the head from Tray Matthews, setting up a short touchdown run two plays later that tied the game at 34. Both of them should hang the gif above their fireplace, as soon as they can afford a fireplace. Which will be soon.
It's hard to imagine a cleaner, more technically sound hit under the current rule: Williams clearly leads with his shoulder, into the shoulder of an eligible receiver with the ball in his hands. Neither player's helmet makes contact with anything but his own scalp. Because Williams left his feet, though, officials felt obliged to throw the flag for "targeting," docking the Gamecocks 15 yards on a play that the same officials were forced to concede was as clean as it could be on replay. (Williams was initially ejected, by rule, until he was cleared by the video evidence; still, by rule, the penalty could not be overturned.) The same sequence unfolded later on in response to another hard but clean hit by Alabama's Eddie Jackson, moving Ole Miss into the Bama red zone.
Just another day at the races in 2013, when doing exactly what you're supposed to do can still cost you 15 yards if it makes anyone in stripes cringe. The emphasis on targeting is still a good rule on paper, and still impossible to apply with any kind of consistency by actual human beings.
Against Iowa, Leidner didn't see the field, Minnesota ran 27 times for 30 yards and finished with huge deficits in total offense (464 to 165) and time of possession (36:01 to 23:59) en route to a 23–7 loss that wasn't nearly that close. The Gopher offense failed to cross midfield a single time, its only points coming on the heels of a long kickoff return to the Iowa 34 in the third quarter. Nelson, coming off a hamstring injury, took advantage of his job security by completing 12-of-24 passes for 135 yards and two interceptions. Coach Jerry Kill defended his decision to relegate Leidner to the bench by telling reporters "Philip was our first team quarterback and he played well until he got hurt," and "How we use [the quarterbacks] will be dictated by what the situation in the game is and where we're at." But if that situation doesn't arise in the course of seven consecutive series ending in a punt or turnover to start the game, when will it?
1. ALABAMA (4–0).
2. OREGON (4–0).
3. CLEMSON (4–0).
4. STANFORD (4–0).
5. OHIO STATE (5–0).
6. GEORGIA (3–1).
7. FLORIDA STATE (4–0).
8. LSU (4–1).
9. SOUTH CAROLINA (3–1).
10. TEXAS A&M (4–1).
11. WASHINGTON (4–0).
12. OKLAHOMA (3–0).
13. UCLA (3–0).
14. LOUISVILLE (4–0).
15. NORTHWESTERN (4–0).
16. MIAMI (4–0).
17. BAYLOR (3–0).
18. MICHIGAN (4–0).
19. FLORIDA (3–1).
20. FRESNO STATE (4–0).
21. VIRGINIA TECH (4–1).
22. ARIZONA STATE (3–1).
23. OLE MISS (3–1).
24. OKLAHOMA STATE (3–1).
25. MARYLAND (4–0).
– – –
In: Virginia Tech, Arizona State.
Out: Notre Dame, Georgia Tech.
Waiting: Texas Tech, Missouri, East Carolina, Northern Illinois, Iowa.
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. BRADLEY ROBY • CB, Ohio State.
Roby spent the non-conference schedule paying his dues, showing contrition for an offseason arrest by sitting out one game and coming off the bench in two others. With slightly higher stakes on the line Saturday, Roby was back to All-American form against Wisconsin, accounting for eight tackles (one for loss), three passes defended and the only takeaway of the game, a third-quarter interception that set up Ohio State's final touchdown. As per his scouting report, Roby stands out from the handful of elite cover corners in the 2014 draft class by proving equally valuable against the run.
2. CHRIS BORLAND • LB, Wisconsin.
Not to be outdone, Borland picks up his second Lowsman nod of the month for a 16-tackle performance against the Buckeyes that sounded as impressive in real time as it looks in the box score:
I don't know if I believe Borland is 5-foot-11 and 246 pounds, as Wisconsin claims, but I bet Carlos Hyde does.
3a. DERRICK HOPKINS • DT, Virginia Tech,
3b. KYLE FULLER • CB, Virginia Tech.
Hopkins and Fuller played a game of "Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside" to shut down Georgia Tech's triple-option attack, relying on Hopkins' strength to eliminate dives up the middle and Fuller's quickness to shoot gaps in the line, disrupting the quarterback's rhythm on his second read. The result: The Yellow Jackets managed just 129 yards rushing on 3.1 per carry, barely a third of the way to their season average, in a 17–10 loss that put the Hokies in the driver's seat in the ACC Coastal. Although Hopkins won on the stat sheet with a team-high seven tackles, Fuller was everywhere, taking on offensive linemen, forcing Georgia Tech to adjust its blocking schemes to account for him personally and generally harassing Jackets quarterback Vad Lee on every play that wasn't a handoff up the gut. Officially, he was credited with two tackles for loss and a forced fumble that set up Virginia Tech's first touchdown, but here's guessing he left a much more enduring mark on Paul Johnson's offense.
4. GEORGIA'S OFFENSIVE LINE.
Talented as it may be, clearly LSU's front seven hasn't reloaded as quickly as expected from the departures of Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Bennie Logan and Kevin Minter. (After that kind of exodus, it speaks volumes to the reputation of LSU's front seven that everyone just assumed they would.) Still, it's a testament to the starting five -– Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee, David Andrews, Chris Burnette and Kolton Houston -– that the Tigers struggled to lay a hand on Aaron Murray in Athens, and that the running game didn't miss a beat in the absence of Todd Gurley. Since 2007, LSU has averaged seven tackles for loss per game; on Saturday, it only managed two.
5. HA'SEAN CLINTON–DIX • S, Alabama.
Clinton–Dix led the Crimson Tide with eight tackles (6 solo, 2 assists) and a pair of passes broken up against Ole Miss, which failed to score in Tuscaloosa after putting 39 points at Vanderbilt and 44 at Texas. The Rebels managed a grand total of 205 yards of total offense on 3.6 per play, and also turned the ball over on downs on all three trips inside the Alabama 30-yard line, thereby becoming the 19th team Bama has held without an offensive touchdown since 2008.
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