Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
02 Sep 2013
by Matt Hinton
Boise State was a slight underdog Saturday at Washington, but given the Broncos' impeccable track record under coach Chris Petersen, the 38–6 beatdown that ensued was shocking in all phases. Here was the sport's most bankable upstart, owner of the best winning percentage in the FBS over the past decade, conqueror of ranked opening-day opponents in three of the past four seasons, suddenly looking like just another mid-major scrub.
The 32-point margin marked the Broncos' most lopsided defeat since the 2005 opener at Georgia, before Petersen was promoted to the top job the following year; the last double-digit loss was a 2007 trip to then-undefeated Hawaii. All five losses between 2008 and 2012 came by a combined 11 points. At 11–2, there were enough close calls last year to mark it as an obvious step back from the Kellen Moore-led teams that repeatedly stormed the BCS walls, but green as they were, even the 2012 Broncos never lost big. And 2013 was supposed to be a step forward, with a more veteran lineup taking advantage of a more manageable schedule to put the big-money bowls back on notice.
Instead, it begins with a wholesale collapse. The failures of the offense, while not exactly expected, were all too familiar to anyone who watched Boise against a halfway conscious defense last year; the Broncos only managed one offensive touchdown in an early loss to Michigan State and didn't score at all on offense in a 7–6 escape against BYU. The defense, though, was a strength in 2012, finishing atop the Mountain West in yards and points allowed for the second year in a row, and was expected to remain a strength. In Seattle, it was a disaster, yielding 324 yards passing and 268 rushing to an outfit Boise defeated in a neck-and-neck game last December. Not that anyone was singing hosannas to the champions of the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl, but the team that won that game and the team that showed up on Saturday are many miles apart.
It might turn out that Washington, blessed with the most veteran roster in the Pac-12, is just that good all of a sudden. Or maybe it's time to begin thinking of 2013 as the year the fastest-rising stock in football over the last ten years finally emerged from the bubble. From here, the Broncos have a Friday night trip to Fresno State on Sept. 20, a nationally televised game that might wind up deciding not only the Mountain West title, as everyone expected coming into the season, but also whether Boise still belongs in that discussion. Barring a major leap across the board, especially from pedestrian quarterback Joe Southwick, there was no indication on Saturday that it does.
As always, the top 25 is more descriptive than predictive –- what a team has done is more important than what it can or will do. Preseason projections still carry some weight for the first few weeks of the season, but much less than actual performance.
– 1. ALABAMA (1–0). Offensive struggles notwithstanding, less than 16 minutes into the season the Crimson Tide had already scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams.
– 2. CLEMSON (1–0). After consective wins over top-ten, blue-chip SEC heavyweights, anyone who's still waiting to jump the Tajh Boyd bandwagon is never going to be convinced.
– 3. LSU (1–0). Tigers are replacing eight draft picks from the 2012 team, and looked exactly the same against TCU as every LSU team under Les Miles. Like Alabama, the faces change in Baton Rouge, but the blueprint never really does.
– 4. OREGON (1–0). Ducks ran 71 plays Saturday for 772 yards and 66 points, which is pretty much par for the course against the likes of Nicholls State. Doing it with a little under 20 minutes in time of possession is not.
– 5. FLORIDA STATE. Seminoles get the benefit of the doubt Monday night at Pittsburgh, although they've had a penchant for random lapses on the road and anything goes with a first-time starter at quarterback.
– 6. OHIO STATE (1–0). Look, Urban Meyer shares your frustration: He was so angry about Ohio State wasting its time with Buffalo that he took it out on the Bulls by going for two after each of the Buckeyes' first two touchdowns.
– 7. TEXAS (1–0). Longhorns committed turnovers on four of their first five possessions against New Mexico State, then proceeded to score five straight touchdowns en route to a school record for total offense.
– 8. NOTRE DAME (1–0). Senior Tommy Rees turned in a pass efficiency rating of 239.0 in the Irish's win over Temple, making him the first passer to crack 200 in a game in the Brian Kelly era.
– 9. STANFORD. Cardinal didn't play on opening weekend, but if they had their defensive statistics probably wouldn't look that much different.
– 10. WASHINGTON (1–0). Boise State may have lost a step, but the Huskies looked like an entirely different team, too: 592 yards against the Broncos marked Washington's best regular-season performance this century, exceeded only by the no-holds-barred shootout with Baylor in the 2011 Alamo Bowl.
– 11. SOUTH CAROLINA (1–0). We knew they could play defense, but early signs of life in the passing game are ominous for the rest of the SEC.
– 12. OKLAHOMA STATE (1–0). Cowboys failed to pass for 200 yards for the first time since 2009, but still cruised over Mississippi State behind defense and 286 yards on the ground.
– 13. GEORGIA (0–1). Bulldog offense was as-advertised in defeat, especially sophomore tailback Todd Gurley, who had 154 yards and two touchdowns on just a dozen carries.
– 14. LOUISVILLE (1–0). Teddy Bridgewater was 23-of-28 passing with five touchdowns against Ohio, and made it look about as difficult as lobbing tennis balls into a swimming pool.
– 15. TEXAS A&M (1–0). Defense is an ongoing concern, but no conclusions to be drawn from a shootout against Rice because half the starting D was out on temporary suspension.
– 16. OLE MISS (1–0). Wild Thursday-night win at Vanderbilt was critical for Rebels' hopes of making noise in the SEC West. Now they get a gimme against Southeast Missouri before embarking on a five-game stretch against Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, and LSU, the first three on the road.
– 17. PENN STATE (1–0). Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg looked like a noob on two interceptions against Syracuse, and like a star-in-waiting on two long touchdowns.
– 18. CINCINNATI (1–0). Bearcats obliterated Purdue, 42–7, handing the Big Ten one of its two opening-day losses.
– 19. FLORIDA (1–0). Gator receivers ranked next-to-last in the SEC last year at 10.4 yards per catch. Against Toledo, they averaged 9.0 per catch, with 13 of 17 completions going for 10 yards or less.
– 20. OKLAHOMA (1–0). Between redshirt freshman Trevor Knight and backup Blake Bell, Oklahoma finished with fewer yards passing (124) against UL-Monroe than in any game since a September 2007 loss at Colorado.
– 21. WISCONSIN (1–0). Badgers have a new head coach, Gary Andersen, but looked as Wisconsin as ever with 393 yards rushing in a shutout win over UMass.
– 22. MICHIGAN (1–0). Wolverines scored first on a blocked punt and kept the pedal down in a 59–9 trashing of Central Michigan.
– 23. FRESNO STATE (1–0). Derek Carr attempted 74 passes in an overtime win over Rutgers, which sounds only slightly less exhausting than spending the next three months listening to talking heads gush over his yardage and touchdown totals without putting the numbers into context.
– 24. TCU (0–1). Horned Frogs were physically overmatched against LSU, as expected, but hung with the Tigers well into the fourth quarter and did nothing to diminish their standing as Big 12 contenders.
– 25. VIRGINIA TECH (0–1). Defense was better than advertised, and at least the offense found a potential spark in redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds. Edmunds' 77-yard touchdown run in the second quarter covered twice the distance of the longest run Alabama allowed in 2012, and gave him more rushing yards on a single play than Bama allowed per game in 2011 (72.2) or 2012 (76.4).
– – –
Waiting: Michigan State, UCLA, USC, Nebraska, Northern Illinois.
Singling out the best linemen and defenders of the week.
1. CB KYLE FULLER and CB KENDALL FULLER, Virginia Tech. The Hokies were missing their top cover man, Antone Exum, who's still rehabbing a torn ACL from last winter. But they could not have asked for more from the Fuller Brothers, who allowed Alabama's receivers none of the space they enjoyed the last time we saw them, running free through Notre Dame's secondary in the BCS title game. Kyle, a senior, finished with four tackles, an interception and two passes broken up, amid several more incompletions in his direction. Kendall, a five-star freshman playing in his first college game, also recorded four tackles, and repeatedly held his own against arguably the best receiver in the nation, Amari Cooper.
But the proof is in the passer rating: A.J. McCarron, the most efficient passer in the nation in 2012, finished with a dismal 89.3 rating on Saturday, by far the worst of his career. And even with regard to that number, neither Fuller was in coverage on McCarron's only two completions beyond 12 yards.
2. DE DaQUAN JONES, Penn State. Between them, the offenses in Penn State's win over Syracuse averaged 1.7 yards per carry, finished 7-of-36 on third-down conversions and committed seven turnovers. Only appropriate, then, that top honors should go to a senior who delivered nine tackles, three for loss and one sack while helping hold the Orange to 71 yards rushing.
3. OT JAMES HURST, North Carolina. Unmoved by the offseason hype offensive for Jadeveon Clowney, Hurst was primarily responsible for holding college football's answer to Paul Bunyan without a sack or tackle for loss in the Tar Heels' loss to South Carolina -– thereby reinforcing his status as a potential first-rounder in his own right. UNC didn't get much done offensively. But at least it was not due to a dreadlocked giant devouring the quarterback whole, as it could have been.
4. LB COLLIN ELLIS, Northwestern. Making his first career start, Ellis found himself in the right place not once but twice at California, hauling in a pair of tipped passes in the second half and taking both to the house to supply the margin in a 44–30 Wildcat win. Together the returns covered 96 yards, at least temporarily leaving him third on the team in all-purpose production. Meanwhile, three additional passes broken up leaves him first in the nation in PBUs.
5. CB JALEN MILLS, LSU. A freshman All-American in 2012, Mills picked up where he left off with five tackles and an interception in the Tigers' 37–27 win over TCU. Between them, TCU quarterbacks Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin completed 15-of-28 passes for 145 yards, good for a paltry 5.2 yards per attempt, and did not have a touchdown pass, putting to bed most of the doubts about seven new starters on the LSU defense. Instead, two of the Horned Frogs' three touchdowns on the night came courtesy of the special teams, which allowed a 100-yard kickoff return in the first half, and the offense, which lost a fumble inside its own 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter; otherwise, the final score is not remotely as close as it appears.
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