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?
14 Oct 2013
by Matt Hinton
Johnny Manziel has been so good, so fast, on such a consistent basis, that it's very easy to take his unique brilliance for granted. Consider that Saturday night's come-from-behind, 41–38 win at Ole Miss was only Manziel's 18th game as Texas A&M's starting quarterback: In half of those games, he's eclipsed 400 yards of total offense, including record-breaking turns against the likes of Alabama and Oklahoma, and could have done it in most of the other half had it been remotely necessary. In 13 of those games, A&M has scored at least 40 points. In 16, Manziel has accounted for multiple touchdowns. Put him across from the most consistently dominant defense of his generation, geared specifically toward neutralizing him, and he will rip it to ribbons in unprecedented fashion. What's left to say that hasn't been said? As long as the NCAA stays out of the way, the kid is automatic.
Statistically speaking, that's no less true after Saturday night, when Manziel accounted for 459 of A&M's 587 total yards against the Rebels in yet another high-scoring victory over an unranked opponent. For the first time in a long time, though, the bonanza didn't come with the usual air of inevitability: In fact, after the invincible Johnny Football went down in the first half with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, it felt like dumb, random luck that he was back on the field for the rest of the game at all. The way he dropped to the turf, untouched, grabbing for his knee in mid-fall, implied the worst. So did the fact that he couldn't leave the field under his own power. For a few brief, nervous minutes, a banner season and potentially a one-of-a-kind career hung in the balance, a brutally unfair twist in a story that, really, had only just begun to…
And then here comes, back on the field, Manzielian as ever, wheeling past bewildered defenders who probably accepted the role of "spy" thinking this was a great idea for containing him. In the second half, A&M scored touchdowns on drives covering 63, 75 and 75 yards, respectively – the latter two coming with Ole Miss in front by a touchdown, just waiting to slam the door if the Aggies couldn't return serve – then drove 56 yards for the game-winning field goal as time expired. Of the 269 yards traversed on those four possessions, Manziel accounted for 220. He finished with 346 yards passing and 124 rushing, the fourth time in his career he's broken the 300/100 barrier in one game. No other major college quarterback has ever done it more than twice. For once, there was no overlooking the obvious.
So the Texas that strode out of the Cotton Bowl wearing the Golden Hat is an even more inscrutable mystery than the Texas that limped in seemingly bracing for the worst. The Longhorns dominated the game in every phase: Offensively, they outgained OU by 182 total yards, and nearly doubled up the Sooners on the ground, 255 yards to 130; defensively, they limited OU to a single touchdown; on third down, they converted 13-of-20 to Oklahoma's 2-of-13; on special teams, they took a punt to the house for the decisive, "this is really happening" score in the third quarter. By any standard, it was Texas' best performance in four years, arguably the first time in that span it's looked like a team deserving of the top-ten hype it had so consistently failed to justify.
Which means… what, exactly? The Longhorns are 3–0 in the Big 12 with three consecutive wins and no obvious overlord standing between them and a conference title. They've also been far too volatile for far too long to deserve the benefit of the doubt based on one impressive turn in a big game. This is the same team that, before Saturday, was last seen being clearly outplayed by Iowa State on national television. But the opportunity is there: Its next three games are against three unranked teams, TCU, Kansas and West Virginia, offering an opportunity to move back into the polls themselves with a head of steam going into the stretch run against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor. If the trip to Waco on December 7 is a meaningful one where the Big 12 title and/or a BCS bowl are concerned, Mack Brown may still be master of his own fate. Otherwise, Saturday's triumph will go down as one final mirage in a long journey into the desert.
VIRGINIA TECH'S PASS RUSH. The Hokies were too dominant against Pittsburgh to restrict to the Lowsman Trophy watch (see below), racking up eight sacks by six different players in a 19–9 win that wasn't that close. (Tech also credited defenders with 20 quarterback hurries, which captures the reality even if hurries are a notoriously unreliable statistic from team to team.) The bonanza left the Hokies with more sacks for the season (27) than any other FBS defense, and Pitt's Tom Savage as the second-most-sacked quarterback behind Idaho's Chad Chalich.
ALLEN ROBINSON • WR, Penn State. Robinson has had bigger games, statistically, but he's never had a bigger play than the dramatic, high-wire grab he brought down at the end of regulation against Michigan, an incredible feat of levitation that effectively sent the game into overtime. (Quarterback Christian Hackenberg took it the final half-yard on the next play.)
The cornerback defending on the play, Channing Stribling, is listed at 6-foot-2, and got a pretty good jump himself, so yeah, Robinson is way, way up there. Just prior to that, Robinson also had an impressive sideline catch to open the drive that required him to turn into Plastic Man to keep a foot inbounds. If there was ever a guy who gets a pass for a potentially devastating fumble in triple overtime, he's the guy. (And of course, Michigan missed the subsequent field goal to win, anyway .)
ANTWAN GOODLEY and TEVIN REESE • WR, Baylor. The Bears completed just 12 passes against Kansas State, matching their fewest in any game in the last five years, but made them count by averaging 27.7 yards per completion in a 35–25 win. Nine of those dozen balls went to Goodley and Reese, who combined for 313 yards with touchdowns covering 93, 72 and 54 yards, respectively, thereby overcoming a 19-minute deficit in time of possession. Predictably, Goodley and Reese came out of the weekend ranked first and second nationally in yards per catch.
GREG ROBINSON • Defensive Coordinator, Texas. Again, it is not safe to bite on Texas as a resurgent power over any extended period of time. But for one week, at least, Robinson – not-so-affectionately known as "Gerg" for his dismal track record as head coach at Syracuse and defensive coordinator at Michigan – commands real, non-ironic credit for resuscitating a unit that was left for dead. When Robinson was thrust into the job last month, Texas ranked dead last nationally against the run and had just fired his predecessor, Manny Diaz, in the wake of a humiliating flop at BYU. In Robinson's first game, the Longhorns were ripped again in a lopsided home loss to Ole Miss. Just last week, they allowed 463 yards and 30 points in a narrow, controversial escape at Iowa State. Against Oklahoma, the defense yielded 236 yards and a single offensive touchdown (on a short field, at that), its best performance opposite a Big 12 attack in nearly two full years.
At the same time, that marked the Sooners' worst output against any defense since a September 2007 loss at Colorado. Three of their 12 offensive possessions resulted in points; the other nine yielded six punts, two interceptions – one of which was returned for a Texas touchdown – and a turnover on downs.
BOGUS TARGETING PENALTIES. Overzealous, arbitrary application of a well-meaning rule has been a recurring theme all season. This week's targeting target is Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who was flagged and automatically ejected in the first half for what appeared to be a routine hit on Purdue's Dalyn Dawkins in the flat.
(If you need another view, you can scrutinize this gif for hours.) Unlike most dubious targeting victims, Jean-Baptiste's ejection was actually upheld on review. Which didn't affect Nebraska's secondary in the slightest – Purdue finished 14-of-35 passing and didn't score until the final minute of a 44–7 blowout – but did add to the general sense that the boundaries of what qualifies as "targeting" not only differ from official to official, but seem to be gradually expanding by the week.
WASHINGTON STATE LOSES ITS GRIP. The Cougars closed a late-night game with Oregon State by committing six turnovers in the final 18 plays – two fumbles, four interceptions – allowing the Beavers to turn a 24–17 deficit late in the third quarter into a 52–24 win. Aided by the turnovers, the Beavers ripped off five unanswered touchdowns in a little under ten minutes, denying Wazzu a breakthrough win in the process.
SETTLING FOR THE FIELD GOAL. Virginia finished with significant edges in total offense, time of possession and turnover margin at Maryland… and still lost, 27–26, after settling for field goals on four separate trips inside the Maryland 15–yard line. (A fifth attempt to win sailed wide in the final seconds.) East Carolina finished with a 233-yard edge in total offense, punted only once and didn't allow an offensive touchdown in regulation at Tulane… and still lost, 36–33 in triple overtime, after settling for six field goal attempts on eight trips inside the Green Wave 30-yard line in regulation. (Four kicks were good, two missed.) Michigan, having already missed a field goal to win at the end of regulation, made no attempt to gain a first down after holding Penn State scoreless in overtime, only to have a 40-yard attempt to win by Brendan Gibbons blocked in an eventual quadruple-OT loss. (Gibbons missed another kick to win in the third overtime; Penn State subsequently won with a touchdown.) Sometimes you need a kicker to come through. When it's every time, you have a problem.
1. ALABAMA (6–0). Ignore the "slow start" meme against Kentucky: After a couple of early fumbles in UK territory, Bama scored on eight straight possessions and finished with 668 yards of total offense, a new high in the Nick Saban era.
2. OREGON (6–0). With three touchdown passes against Washington, Marcus Mariota extended his touchdown-to-interception ratio for the season to 17–0, easily the best in the nation; dating back to last year, Mariota has 236 consecutive passes without a pick, the longest active streak. The only other quarterback who's attempted at least 100 passes in 2013 without an INT is South Carolina's Connor Shaw.
3. CLEMSON (6–0). Tigers failed to score on five of six trips into Boston College territory in the first half, but went three-for-three in the second half to secure a come-from-behind, 24–14 win that was not quite as close as it looked.
4. FLORIDA STATE (5–0). Given that Miami has never quite been Miami since joining the conference, this week's FSU-Clemson clash may be the biggest game in ACC history.
5. OHIO STATE (6–0). Buckeyes may be the primary beneficiaries of losses by Stanford, Oklahoma and Georgia, but really needed Michigan to carry its weight as a headline opponent into the season finale. As it is, no one on OSU's schedule is currently ranked in the top 20 of either major poll.
6. LSU (6–1). Tigers returned to their plodding, cloud-of-dust roots against Florida, but between Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, still boast as much frontline firepower as any offense in the country.
7. MISSOURI (6–0). Tigers deserve this spot for now, and maybe even a little better according to the numbers. Too bad they have to justify it over the next month without their most valuable player.
8. BAYLOR (5–0). It says a lot about the rest of the conference that the Bears' first Big 12 road win since 2011 makes them look like models of consistency.
9. UCLA (6–0). Like Washington the past two weeks, the Bruins' perfect start is about to run smack into back-to-back dates with Stanford and Oregon, both on the road. (At least Washington got the Ducks at home.) Why so hostile to your intriguing darkhorses, Pac-12?
10. TEXAS A&M (5–1). Unlike Mariota, Manziel still occasionally struggles with giveaways: He had two in his otherwise spectacular night against Ole Miss (one fumble, one INT), and had the two killer picks in the otherwise spectacular September loss to Alabama.Those lapses might wind up costing A&M a shot at a national championship.
11. STANFORD (5–1). Cardinal overcame an early, out-of-nowhere upset to claim a conference championship in 2012, but good luck finding any takers on this team ambushing Oregon for the second year in a row.
12. GEORGIA (4–2). With their top two tailbacks on ice, UGA attempted 45 passes to just 31 runs in the loss to Missouri, the most pass-heavy ratio of Aaron Murray's career as a starting quarterback. Before Saturday, Murray had only attempted 40 passes in a game once, finishing 16-for-40 in a lopsided loss to LSU in the 2011 SEC title game.
13. SOUTH CAROLINA (5–1). Of all the plausible routes to the East Division crown, most of them still require another Georgia loss to get the Gamecocks past the head-to-head tiebreaker.
14. MIAMI (5–0). You know it's been a hard decade at Miami when an undefeated outfit at midseason has yet to really enter the national conversation.
15. LOUISVILLE (6–0). Defense dominated against Rutgers, but a relatively middling turn from Teddy Bridgewater on national TV left too many viewers cold.
16. VIRGINIA TECH (6–1). Impenetrable defense keeps the Hokies in the ACC/BCS picture, but Logan Thomas isn't productive enough on his own to keep accounting for 70 percent of the offense
17. OKLAHOMA (5–1). Is Blake Bell the answer at quarterback? There were no questions going into the Texas game, but after a 12-of-26, two-interception performance in the loss, coming out there were nothing but.
18. WASHINGTON (4–2). It's unfair to compare college kids to Hall-of-Famers, but if you're going to advertise a current college running back as the "second coming of Emmitt Smith," then Bishop Sankey is definitely that back.
19. TEXAS TECH (6–0). Red Raiders finished minus–3 in turnover margin and allowed a kickoff return for touchdown against Iowa State, still not enough to overcome a 355-yard margin in total offense.
20. AUBURN (5–1). Tigers have come a long, long way from their last-place flop in 2012, but winning at Texas A&M this weekend is still a reach.
21. OKLAHOMA STATE (4–1). The way the offense looked against West Virginia and Kansas State, Cowboys' rep improves a bit by virtue of their taking the weekend off.
22. MICHIGAN STATE (5–1). MSU offense dropped 473 yards on Indiana, its best number in a Big Ten game since October 2010.
23. OREGON STATE (5–1). Beavers fell off the radar after an opening-day upset at the hands of an FCS school, Eastern Washington, but in the meantime have been exactly the team they were supposed to be. (For what it's worth, the latest rankings from Jeff Sagarin place Eastern Washington ahead of two Pac-12 teams, Colorado and Cal, as well as nine others from a "Big Six" BCS conference.) Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks have emerged as the most productive pass-catch combo in the nation.
24. UTAH (4–2). Upset over Stanford was the Utes' first win over a top-10 opponent since the offensive coordinator, Brian Johnson, was the starting quarterback in a 2009 Sugar Bowl ambush of Alabama.
25. FRESNO STATE (5–0). Bulldogs have moved up eight spots in the AP poll in three weeks, from 25th to 17th, courtesy of wins over Hawaii and Idaho (combined record: 1–12) and a bye week. Get used to it: Based on current records, their toughest remaining tests are against Wyoming and UNLV.
– – –
In: Michigan State, Oregon State, Utah.
Out: Florida, Michigan, Northwestern.
Waiting: Florida, Nebraska, Michigan, Notre Dame, Arizona State.
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. DADI NICOLAS • DE, Virginia Tech.
Nicolas is the token rep for the rest of the Hokies' ferocious front four, finishing with a team-high seven tackles and three sacks in the win over Pitt. Unusually, Nicolas spent most of his time Saturday in the "Whip" position, coming off the edge as a standup outside linebacker rather than as a conventional end. (Seniors James Gayle and J.R. Collins are holding down the end spots just fine, thanks.) Here's guessing he won't be giving it up anytime soon.
2. TEXAS' OFFENSIVE LINE.
The answer to the question, "What is Texas' basic offensive philosophy?" changes from one week to the next, occasionally from one quarter to the next. Against Oklahoma, though, the game plan began up front, with Kennedy Estelle, Mason Walters, Dominic Espinosa, Trey Hopkins and Donald Hawkins, and never wavered. Running against a depleted OU front seven, Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown combined for 243 yards on 52 carries, becoming the first Texas backs in the history of the series to go over 100 yards apiece in the same game; with the Sooners increasingly focused on the run, Case McCoy had time to carve up the secondary in the second half, and wasn't sacked all game.
3. NATE ORCHARD • DE, Utah.
Once recruited as a wide receiver, Orchard created all kinds of havoc in the upset over Stanford, finishing with five tackles and a pair of sacks in the second half that both resulted in fumbles by Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan.
4a. ISAIAH NEWSOME • FS, Louisiana–Monroe.
With the WarHawk offense stuck in neutral against Texas State, Newsome took matters into his own hands by taking a pair of interceptions to the house from 71 and 75 yards out, respectively, supplying the first two of Monroe's three touchdowns in a defensively driven, 21–14 win. It certainly needed them: For the game, ULM finished with a grand total of 192 yards of total offense, 75 of them coming on a game-winning drive for its only offensive score in the final three minutes.
4b. DERRICK STROZIER • CB, Tulane.
Last week, Strozier returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown against North Texas, a decisive play in a narrow, 24–21 win. Against East Carolina, he struck again on a 99-yard interception return for the Green Wave's only touchdown in regulation, a decisive play in an eventual 36–33 upset in triple overtime. (Brace yourself: The win improved Tulane – Tulane, which is Tulane – to 5–2 for the season.) He also added eight tackles (one for loss) and a pair of passes broken up, helping keep ECU out of the end zone until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
5. JERMAURIA RASCO • DE, LSU.
Rounding out our tour of the Bayou State… Although Rasco was credited with just four tackles against Florida – only one solo, only one for loss – he stood out as the most disruptive member of a rotation that much more closely resembled a vintage LSU front than it has at any point this year. The Gators were held without a touchdown in a 17–6 loss, and Rasco was credited with four of the team's five official QB hurries.
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