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?
07 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
College fans are instinctive skeptics when it comes to gaudy, upstart offenses, and for good reason. This is the same sport that at one point was so swept off its feet by over-the-top passing stats that it awarded Heisman trophies to the likes of Andre Ware and Ty Detmer. (Don't even get us started on Jason White.) We've seen enough of these stories bloom and wither to know how they tend to end: With Hawaii getting turned into pineapple juice in the Sugar Bowl, or Texas Tech getting waylaid on the road, or West Virginia falling apart down the stretch. Even when things end on a relatively upbeat note – hey, Drew Bress passed Purdue all the way to the Rose Bowl! – the departure of a key player or coach makes the end clear enough.
So of course there is some reluctance to get on board the Baylor bandwagon, even after Saturday's 73–42 incineration of West Virginia accelerated the Bears' pace into the unknown. Through six weeks, Baylor is not just leading the nation in total offense: At 779.5 yards per game, it's outpacing the second-best average, Oregon's, by 149 yards. It's No. 1 in both passing yards and pass efficiency, and No. 2 in rushing. At 70.5 points per game, it's outpacing the Ducks' average by eleven points. The Bears are the first team since the 1930 LSU Tigers to score 70 points three games in a row. And frankly, they're not even trying that hard. Through four games, their average lead after two quarters is a little more than 41 points, at which point they effectively cut the engine. If all four games had been stopped at halftime, Baylor would still be leading the Big 12 in scoring.
Which means… what, exactly? Certainly more against West Virginia than it did against Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe in the first three games – the Bears put up as many points Saturday as three other ranked teams, Oklahoma, Maryland and Oklahoma State, scored on WVU combined – but in context, maybe not that much. Under Art Briles, Baylor has been putting up crazy offensive stats for years now. Robert Griffin III set every school record in 2010, broke them all en route to the Heisman in 2011, and watched Nick Florence break them all again in 2012. Awesome stuff. But those teams combined to go 14–12 in Big 12 games and ended their seasons in second and third-tier bowls. The 2012 team spent exactly one week in the Associated Press poll, at No. 25, in September. After a decade-plus of outright futility, that's significant progress. The 2013 edition is off to a good start. But four games in, none of them against an opponent in the remote vicinity of the national polls, do the Bears really deserve to be treated as championship material?
Let's try it from another angle: Taken as an extension of last year's finish, how can they not be? By the end of 2012, Baylor was the best team in the Big 12, at least, closing with a four-game winning streak that included an outright thrashing of undefeated, BCS-bound Kansas State that set the BCS standings on fire. (See also: Baylor's RGIII-led upset over Oklahoma in 2011, which had the same effect.) From there, they knocked off 24th-ranked Oklahoma State, and waylaid No. 17 UCLA in the Holiday Bowl. In those four games (along with a neutral-site win over Texas Tech), the Bears outpaced four of the best teams on their schedule by 100 yards and 16 points per game, and none of them were as close as the final score. Neither, terrifyingly, was Saturday's win over West Virginia.
And another angle: Given the state of the Big 12 through the first month of the season, who's going to beat them? The most imposing team on paper, Texas, has already been blown out twice and was last seen fighting for its life against bottom dweller Iowa State. Another preseason favorite, TCU, is 0–3 against winning teams and has shown no signs of life on offense. The defending champ, Kansas State, is effectively out of the league race after dropping to 0–2 in conference play Saturday against Oklahoma State, which has shown none of the offensive spark that led it to the title in 2011. This is the same Oklahoma State that walked into a 30–21 ambush last week at West Virginia, the same West Virginia that was subsequently humiliated in Waco. The same West Virginia that held the only other undefeated team in the conference, Oklahoma, to just 16 points.
Baylor has beaten all of the above at least once since 2011. Is it too much of a leap to imagine this edition, which has had to slam on the brakes in every game to avoid scoring in the triple digits, beating them all at once? As linked above, Football Outsiders colleague Bill Connelly insists the Bears should be regarded as a top-ten contender right now, four games in, based on "unprecedented" dominance. Some us put too much stock in strength of schedule, and have seen enough fast starts crash and burn, to go that far just yet. But let's just say it's a bad idea to put a ceiling on how far this team has the potential to rise.
Inevitably, the absence of doctors or any sort of official-sounding diagnosis in that answer left the door wide open to speculation that Clowney – who has been visibly frustrated himself over his lack of production in the early going – is less focused on the Gamecocks' immediate fortunes than he is on preserving his stock in next year's draft. (Exactly how missing time to an injury is supposed to accomplish this is a mystery.) On Sunday, Spurrier did everything he could to diffuse the drama, insisting Clowney's no-show was "not a big story," just a failure to communicate between coach and player: "You need to ask those questions to somebody else. Jadeveon was not suited up. And I said, ‘You’re not playing?’ He said, ‘Nope, I’m in pain.’ OK? That’s the story. I don’t know what else to tell you about it, but that’s the story. So I said, 'OK.’ When a player’s in pain, can’t play, he doesn’t play." There you have it. But if the most intensely scrutinized defensive player in recent memory doesn't play next week against Arkansas, just be forewarned that the Internet is going to need to see a doctor's note.
TY MONTGOMERY • WR/KR, Stanford. We knew the Cardinal could play defense, and we knew they could grind out tough yards behind a veteran offensive line. What we didn't know was who would emerge from an unproven group of skill players as the token big-play threat, a question Montgomery went a long way toward answering with 290 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a crucial, 31–28 win over Washington. Both touchdowns were of the explosive variety, the first coming on a 99-yard kickoff return on the opening kick, the second on a 39-yard streak in the second quarter. He also added a 26-yard run from the slot on Stanford's first play from scrimmage – its only other play that gained at least 20 yards.
CONNOR COOK • QB, Michigan State. As much fun as it is to make fun of the plodding MSU offense, Cook made it impossible against Iowa, solidifying his hold on the starting job by completing 25 of 44 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 26–14 barn-burner. (Sure, that's grading on a curve, but anytime Michigan State scores 20 points, the barn is in flames.) The touchdown passes, covering 46 yards to Macgarrett Kings and 37 yards to Bennie Fowler, respectively, are the Spartans' longest plays from scrimmage this season.
J.J. GREEN • RB, Georgia. UGA arrived in Tennessee without its best tailback, Keith Gurley, and lost fellow workhorse Keith Marshall to a torn ACL in the first half. By the second half, the offense had also lost proven receivers Justin Scott-Wesley (also out for the season with a torn ACL) and Michael Bennett. Enter Green, a true freshman, who delivered as the go-to back with 129 yards on 7.6 per carry in a 34–31 escape. That's reassuring result on both counts: Georgia remains alive in the national championship picture, and Green appears more than capable of serving as Plan A in the running game until Gurley's ankle is cleared for takeoff.
SOUTHERN MISS. As of two years ago, USM was a top-20 team celebrating its fifth Conference USA championship and 18th winning season in a row. As of Saturday, it's arguably the most hopeless program in the FBS, a distinction it earned in spades by committing four turnovers in a 24–23 loss to fellow doormat Florida International. Just to put that in context: In its first four games, FIU was outscored 187 to 23, and was last seen racking up more yards in penalties than in total offense in a 72–0 humiliation at Louisville; against Southern Miss, the Panthers came in as double-digit underdogs to an opponent riding the nation's longest losing streak. With the upset, the Golden Eagles have lost 17 in a row, still the longest skid in the country. To say there is no end in sight would a gross understatement.
KANSAS GOES FOR BROKE. Some coaches might get the benefit of the doubt when their punter decides to pull the ball down and run on fourth-and-long from inside his own 15-yard line. Kansas' Charlie Weis is definitely not one of those coaches.
If Weis' incredulous reaction on the sideline didn't get the point across, he confirmed in the aftermath of a 54–16 loss that junior Trevor Pardula made the call himself, based on a standing option to run – an option that Weis never anticipated would be deployed on 4th-and-13 in a tie game. From that point on, Kansas committed five more turnovers, Texas Tech scored 46 consecutive points and the Jayhawks' losing streak in Big 12 games climbed to 22 and counting.
MIKE DAVIS • WR, Texas. It was bad enough that Davis wasn't ejected for an obvious cheap shot on Iowa State cornerback Deon Broomfield at the end of a Longhorn touchdown run last Thursday night.
As it turns out, he wasn't suspended, either, earning only a public reprimand from Big 12 headquarters. What did he learn from this experience? "If we have another run–pass situation, I'd do the same thing," Davis told reporters on Monday. "If the DB's loafing, he deserves to get cut." As long as the message is getting across.
1. ALABAMA (5–0).
2. CLEMSON (5–0).
3. STANFORD (5–0).
4. OREGON (5–0).
5. FLORIDA STATE (5–0).
6. OHIO STATE (6–0).
7. GEORGIA (4–1).
8. OKLAHOMA (5–0).
9. LSU (5–1).
10. TEXAS A&M (4–1).
11. BAYLOR (4–0).
12. UCLA (5–0).
13. MIAMI (5–0).
14. WASHINGTON (4–1).
15. SOUTH CAROLINA (4–1).
16. LOUISVILLE (5–0).
17. VIRGINIA TECH (5–1).
18. FLORIDA (4–1).
19. TEXAS TECH (5–0).
20. MISSOURI (5–0).
21. MICHIGAN (5–0).
22. OKLAHOMA STATE (4–1).
23. FRESNO STATE (5–0).
24. AUBURN (4–1).
25. NORTHWESTERN (4–1).
– – –
In: Texas Tech, Missouri, Auburn.
Out: Arizona State, Ole Miss, Maryland.
Waiting: Nebraska, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Northern Illinois, Arizona State.
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. AUBURN'S DEFENSIVE LINE.
Don't be fooled by the stat line: Although Ole Miss finished with 464 yards of total offense, the game belonged to the Auburn pass rush, which sacked Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace six times and generally hounded him from start to finish in a validating, 30–22 win. Between them, starters Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae, Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens were in on 14 tackles, eight of them for loss, and true freshman Carl Lawson stole the show with four TFLs off the bench. (For what it's worth, the official box score also credits the defense as a whole with 17 QB hurries, although hurries are a notoriously unreliable statistic from team to team. Suffice to say, the Tigers brought the heat.) Given time, Wallace made some plays against the Auburn secondary, including a pair of touchdown passes to his top target, Donte Moncrief, that brought the Rebels within striking distance in the second half. Under such consistent pressure, though, with the running game relegated to an afterthought, he finished just 25-of-48 passing with a pair of interceptions. The first, a botched screen pass in the first quarter, was returned 78 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Robenson Therezie, extending Auburn's early lead to 13–3. The Rebels spent the rest of the game in catch-up mode, and paid the price.
2. PRINCE SHEMBO • LB, Notre Dame.
Through five games, Shembo had failed to record a single sack or tackle for loss, and Notre Dame's pass rush as a whole – a consistent strength in last year's run to the BCS title game – was MIA in losses to Michigan and Oklahoma. Against Arizona State, Shembo made up for it by dropping ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly three times, accounting for half of the Irish sack total in a 37–34 upset. One week after ripping USC for 261 yards on 7.5 per carry, the Sun Devils managed just 65 yards on 2.6 per carry against the Irish, including negative-52 yards on plays that ended behind the line of scrimmage.
3. SHAYNE SKOV • LB, Stanford.
Continuing a theme, Skov was the most active member of the Cardinal's typically aggressive front seven, racking up 15 total tackles and a pair of sacks in a hard-fought, 31–28 win over Washington. As a team, Stanford had six tackles for loss and five sacks, its best numbers of the season on both counts, and needed every one of them to bail out the secondary against the Huskies' superior receivers.
4. DAMIEN PROBY • LB, Northwestern.
Along with Collin Ellis and Tyler Scott, Proby made life as difficult for Ohio State as it's been at any point in the Buckeyes' winning streak, finishing with a team-high 12 tackles (7 solo, 5 assists) and a forced fumble that thwarted an impending OSU touchdown drive in the third quarter. At the time, the turnover preserved a 10-point lead, but couldn't put enough gas in the rest of the defense's tank to keep the Buckeyes from scoring on three of their next four possessions for the win.
5. SHAUN LEWIS, CALEB LAVEY and TYLER JOHNSON • LB, Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys' senior trio combined for 22 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two interceptions against Kansas State, just enough to get a very sluggish-looking offense out of a very bizarre game with Big 12 title hopes intact. All of the takeaways came in the second half, and although only two of the them led to points – and only a pair of field goals at that – it was all the help the offense needed in a 33–29 escape.
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