In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
28 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
Ohio State began the season with one obvious, widely acknowledged hurdle to playing for a national championship –- the absence of another viable contender on the schedule, or in the Big Ten at large –- and soon ran into another: Although everyone still regarded them as the class of a mediocre conference, on the field the gap between the Buckeyes and the rabble was less obvious. Against Wisconsin, a roaring start fizzled into a slog, with OSU measuring out a seven-point win. Against Northwestern, a slow start forced a rally from a ten-point deficit in the second half. Against Iowa, Ohio State trailed at the half and was tied going into the fourth quarter. Before Saturday's prime time visit from Penn State, Ohio State's ongoing, eleven-game Big Ten winning streak included eight games that were either decided by one score or saw OSU trailing or tied in the second half. No wonder they'd fallen from No. 2 in the preseason polls to a soft fourth. While Florida State and Oregon were busy setting the curve on "style points," the Buckeyes were just getting by.
On the first point, Saturday's start-to-finish annihilation of Penn State changes nothing about the schedule: Ohio State still doesn't play anyone ranked in the top 20 of the latest BCS standings. Where style points are concerned, though –- that is, the general perception among voters and fans that they're watching a championship-caliber team, regardless of the competition –- it stands to change everything. Not that anyone was in any danger of mistaking Penn State in 2013 for one of the reliably domineering outfits of the Paterno era, but the Nittany Lions did come into Columbus with a 4–2 record, fresh from an over-the-top overtime triumph against Michigan. Certainly there was no reason to expect them to get knocked into the Victorian age. But the final score on Saturday, 63–14, made it the most lopsided defeat Penn State has endured since Nov. 25, 1899, in a 64–5 loss to the Duquesne Athletic Club, which was also the last time it allowed 60 points. In the intervening 114 years, only two other opponents scored 50 points against Penn State: West Virginia in 1988 and Navy in 1944, and that Navy team was stacked with ringers. Ohio State finished with 686 yards of total offense (408 rushing, 278 passing), unmatched in the 127-year history of Penn State football.
Dominance notwithstanding, the reality is that the Buckeyes are stuck at No. 4 in the BCS and every other poll until one (or two, or all three) of the current frontrunners finally loses; at the rate Alabama, Florida State and Oregon are going, it might be a long wait. And the BCS computer polls are constitutionally forbidden from considering margin of victory, anyway. While the schedule remains a glass ceiling, though, an historic humiliation of a name-brand opponent is a pretty effective way of solidifying the floor. If by some miracle of chaos the necessary dominoes at the top do fall in Ohio State's favor over the next month, pollsters will be far, far less likely than they would have been on Saturday morning to consider, say, an undefeated Baylor or a one-loss Alabama or Stanford as a viable alternative to an undefeated Ohio State in the championship game; if the Buckeyes are no higher than fourth in the pecking order, at least now there's little risk of falling lower.
That, of course, can change as quickly as perceptions changed this weekend. But it's as true as ever that where jockeying for position in the polls is concerned, perception is the only reality. For a few more weeks, at least, style points still matter, as much as they ever have: Even if you can't control how good your opponents happen to be, you can control how good you look in the process. Finally, Ohio State looks like a team that belongs in this conversation.
CONNOR SHAW, QB, South Carolina. Shaw had no intention of playing at Missouri after spraining his knee in last week's loss to Tennessee, not to mention a lingering shoulder injury from earlier in the season and "a little flu bug" that left him high and dry on Friday night. When Carolina was desperate, though, there he was, hobbling off the bench in the third quarter to erase a 17–0 deficit and salvage Carolina's chances of winning the SEC East. On three do-or-die scoring drives in the fourth quarter, Shaw was 16-of-21 for 174 yards and made throws to move the chains on fourth-and-10, third-and-7 and third-and-19; in overtime, he connected on the fourth-and-long equalizer to Bruce Ellington. If the Gamecocks wind up playing for a conference title, he's an instant folk hero. If they win it, people might name their babies after him.
TRACY CLAEYS, Interim Head Coach, Minnesota. Claeys stepped in earlier this month when his boss, Jerry Kill, announced a leave of absence due to epilepsy, and immediately delivered two of Minnesota's most validating wins in years. Saturday, the Gophers followed a road upset of Northwestern in Claeys' first game with an even more convincing turn against Nebraska, outmaneuvering and outmuscling the Cornhuskers in a 34–23 stunner that effectively clinches a bowl game. Initially, Minnesota thrived on gamesmanship, including a fourth-and-10 gambit in the first half that resulted in a 33-yard touchdown pass and an assortment of creative formations on a key touchdown drive in the third quarter; lacking anything like a go-to receiver, the Gophers moved the sticks on play-action throws to the tight ends instead. In the end, though, they were the more physical team, too, pounding out 271 yards rushing in mostly straight-ahead, between-the-tackles fashion, Minnesota's best number on the ground against a Big Ten defense since November 2005.
GARRETT GILBERT, QB, SMU. Gilbert is still known best as the blue-chip bust who flamed out as the heir apparent to Colt McCoy at Texas, but at least the record books will have something more flattering to remember him by after SMU's 59–49 win over Temple. Operating June Jones' run-and-shoot scheme at full throttle, Gilbert accounted for 635 yards of total offense and six touchdowns against the Owls, making him the first FBS player this season -– and only the sixth in the past decade –- to crack the 600-yard barrier in a single game. (His total on Saturday comes in at No. 7 on the all-time list.) With that, he's also your extremely improbable leader in total offense for the season.
VIRGINIA TECH'S OFFENSE. It's tempting to single out erratic, underachieving quarterback Logan Thomas, who threw four picks in the loss to Duke, but if not for Thomas the Hokies would have no offense at all. Against the Blue Devils, Thomas accounted for 315 of the team's 387 total yards (81 percent), including 101 yards rushing; for the season, he's accounting for 72 percent, the same share he carried in 2012, and the offense as a whole is faring even worse than it did in last year's slide to 7–6. Before Saturday, Virginia Tech had realistic visions of an ACC championship and BCS bowl; now, they look like just another team that isn't Florida State.
VIRGINIA'S DEFENSE. It takes a special degree of ineptitude to lose by double digits despite a plus-4 turnover margin, especially at home. But Virginia was up to the task in a 35–25 loss to Georgia Tech, allowing the Yellow Jackets to overcome five giveaways by giving up 507 yards of total offense, 394 on the ground alone. As usual, Tech tried to spread the wealth, getting ten different rushers involved in its triple-option scheme, but the vast majority of the damage came from just three of them -– Zach Laskey, Robert Godhigh and David Sims, who went over 100 yards apiece on just 33 carries, a collective average of 10.6 yards per carry. (It didn't help that the Virginia offense botched an opportunity to take the lead just before halftime by getting stuffed at the goal line as the clock ran out.) The loss was the Cavaliers' sixth in a row against FBS competition, each one a little more exasperating than the last. Accordingly, coach Mike London appears to be inching toward the exit.
SOUTHERN MISS' ONGOING DEATH SPIRAL North Texas outgained the Golden Eagles Saturday by 280 yards of total offense and led 44–7 at the half en route to a 55–14 massacre, extending the FBS' longest losing streak to 19 games and counting. (The latest humiliation clinches USM's first back-to-back losing seasons since the Great Depression.) UNT finished 11-of-17 on third-down conversions and rang up a 24-minute advantage in time of possession despite losing four turnovers -– in characteristic fashion, Southern Miss lost five, leaving the Eagles in the red in turnover margin for the seventh time in as many games.
1. ALABAMA (8–0).
2. FLORIDA STATE (7–0).
3. OREGON (8–0).
4. OHIO STATE (8–0).
5. STANFORD (7–1).
6. BAYLOR (7–0).
7. MISSOURI (7–1).
8. MIAMI (7–0).
9. CLEMSON (7–1).
10. OKLAHOMA (7–1).
11. LSU (7–2).
12. AUBURN (7–1).
13. SOUTH CAROLINA (6–2).
14. TEXAS A&M (6–2).
15. CENTRAL FLORIDA (6–1).
16. TEXAS TECH (7–1).
17. OKLAHOMA STATE (6–1).
18. ARIZONA STATE (5–2).
19. BYU (6–2).
20. MICHIGAN STATE (7–1).
21. UCLA (5–2).
22. MICHIGAN (6–1).
23. NOTRE DAME (6–2).
24. OLE MISS (5–3).
25. TEXAS (5–2).
– – –
In: BYU, Ole Miss, Texas.
Out: Virginia Tech, Oregon State, Fresno State.
Waiting: Louisville, Fresno State, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin, Washington.
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. TRENT MURPHY • LB, Stanford.
Stanford's defense was its usual, aggressive self against Oregon State, dropping Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion as many times in one night (8) as OSU's first seven opponents combined in a physical, 20–12 win. Murphy, a fifth-year senior, was the captain of the assault in every respect, finishing with eight tackles (3.5 for loss) and three of the eight sacks, leaving him as the Pac-12 leader for the season in both sacks and TFLs. (He also broke up a pass and blocked an extra point, for good measure.) Coming into the game, Oregon State was averaging 516 yards of total offense on 6.7 yards per play; on Saturday, it finished with 288 yards on 3.6 per play and failed to score on four separate trips into Cardinal territory.
2. AVERY PATTERSON • S, Oregon.
Patterson was everywhere in the Ducks' 42–14 rout over UCLA, finishing with seven tackles, three tackles for loss and an interception that lit the spark on a 21–0 run to close the game. Prior to that play, things were looking a little dicey, but not because of the defense: Both of UCLA's touchdowns were the result of short fields in the first half, and Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley finished with just 136 yards of total offense, eclipsing last week's total at Stanford (219 yards) as the worst of his career. In his previous 19 starts, Hundley had accounted for 300 yards in ten of them, and never been held to fewer than 250.
3. KENDALL FULLER • CB, Virginia Tech.
The offense against Duke was ghastly, but the Hokies D was at its best in the loss, limiting the frequently high-flying Devils to 198 yards of total offense, one touchdown, zero third-down conversions and four turnovers. Three of those takeaways came courtesy of three interceptions by Fuller, a true freshman playing in place of his All-American brother, Kyle, who sat out with a groin injury but was not missed: Duke QB Anthony Boone finished 7-of-25 for 107 yards and the aforementioned picks, and the Devils needed all the help they could get from the Hokie offense to reach 13 points.
4. MICHAEL SAM • DE, Missouri.
Before Connor Shaw came off the bench, the night belonged to the Missouri defense, and especially to Sam, who delivered a typically gaudy stat line -– five total tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, two hurries –- while helping hold Mike Davis and the rest of the South Carolina ground game to its worst night of the season by a mile. (Through their first seven games, the Gamecocks consistently churned out 200 yards rushing against the likes North Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Tennessee; against Missouri, they managed just 75 yards on 2.1 per carry.) With or without the zero in the loss column, Sam still leads the nation in both sacks and TFLs, and shows no sign of slowing down.
5. RA'SHEDE HAGEMAN • DT, Minnesota.
Hageman looked the part of a potential first-rounder against Nebraska, recording a sack, a second tackle for loss and a regular infusion of chaos in the Cornhusker backfield. Largely thanks to his disruptive presence in the middle of the line, Nebraska finished with a season-low 328 yards of total offense in the loss, only the fourth time in the last two years it's been held below 400, and QB Taylor Martinez turned in one of the worst efficiency ratings (96.6) of his career.
4 comments, Last at 29 Oct 2013, 10:56am by bucko