by Robert Weintraub
Every time a team wins one for a fallen teammate, coach, family member, or what have you, the talk is of destiny and the hidden hand of fate. So what Sniglet can we come up with for the empty sensation lodged in the gullets of the Connecticut program? The Huskies were on the verge of one of those memorable "Do it for Johnny!" victories, playing hard in memory of Jasper Howard, the cornerback killed in a bar fight last week. A deep slant from Cody Endres to Marcus Easley went for 88 astounding yards with four minutes to play, and UConn was ahead of West Virginia 24-21. The usually less-than-classy Mountaineer fans (of couch-igniting infamy) had given the Huskies a standing ovation as they ran onto the field, a touching gesture. Now, it seemed, they were to regret the show of sportsmanship.
But in an ironic twist that must make atheists like Bill Maher smile, not only was UConn not touched by an angel, the team was denied by the Devine. Noel Devine, that is. He sprinted 56 yards for the winning, and stunning, score. It's been a quietly excellent season for the hugely-hyped-in-high-school but underwhelming-in-Morgantown Devine -- he's third in the nation with 130 yards per game and has 10 touchdowns. He's not likely to score another sixer as bittersweet.
Down southern way, the story continues to be the officiating, somehow, rather than a conference sporting the top two teams in the land. Two more suspect instances Saturday involved Nos. 1 and 2.
Dan Mullen of Mississippi State used his inside information on the tendencies of Team Tebow to force a competitive evening in Starkville. The Cowbells couldn't budge the Gators defense, but a pair of pick-sixes off Tebow by Johnthan (no ‘a') Banks kept the Bulldogs very much in the game. But it was a Gator interception pick-6 that caused the contretemps. Dustin (John) Doe clearly coughed up the ball while stylin' before he crossed the plain. But the replay official upheld the on-field ruling. This was plainly incorrect, and Mullen has a right to be upset. On the other hand, he blew the game himself by faking a punt deep in his turf down by three late in the game. One thing no one ever talks about when an assistant coach faces his old team -- yes, Mullen knew plenty about the Gators' strengths and weaknesses, but Urban Meyer and his staff know Mullen pretty well, too. The Gators saw the fake coming, stuffed it, scored, then iced the game on that dubious Doe pick.
East a piece from StarkVegas, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Tennessee played a throwback game so hard-hitting, the Bear should have been pacing the sidelines. Alabama survived 12-10 thanks to some old-school special teams. You know how the boola boola types still chant "Block that kick!" through those loudspeakers, even though few kicks are ever blocked? Credit the Tide cheerleaders, or Terrance (Mount) Cody, anyway, because he rejected two kicks, including the potential game-winner. Boy Wonder Lane Kiffin smarmily blamed the referees without actually saying so in the postgame presser. Lane has a future as a White House press secretary if he so chooses. Like Mullen, Kiffin should look in the mirror -- he played the final seconds content with a long field goal try, with a jittery kicker and a fiendish max block unit ready to leap. Kiffin has been enthusiastic and energetic in Knoxville, but also a bit complacent -- he acted as though he was still in the pro game at the end, and it cost him a program-defining victory.
Bigger picture, GatorTide II remains on target for December, but this is the most vulnerable the two programs have looked all season. "As an offense, we're not well right now," Meyer said about the Gators -- and that's putting it mildly. Alabama can still count on outstanding running back Mark Ingram, but his fourth quarter fumble almost cost them a shot at the title. The Tide's problems have come in the red zone. Its 44-percent touchdown conversion rating is near the bottom of the SEC, ahead of only LSU and Vandy. Alabama dominated Tennessee for 59 minutes on Saturday, but because they were unable to punch the ball in, they nearly lost a shocker.
Aside -- technically, Cody should have been called for unsportsmanlike conduct for ripping off his helmet after blocking the field goal, while the ball was still bouncing around. Discuss.
On the opposite coast, the top teams had little trouble scoring, in the red zone or anywhere else. USC and Oregon State played an even better game than last season's riveting upset in Corvallis. The Trojans built a big lead behind the bullying running of Allen Bradford. USC is like a shark's teeth when it comes to tailbacks -- when one falls out, another one revolves in to take its place, just like new. Joe McKnight dings his hands, Stefon Johnson's spotter takes an inopportune water break -- no worries, just rotate in another five-star recruit. Bradford banged for 147 yards, and the Men Of Troy led by 42-23. But OSU tore through the USC defense like it was 2008 (first half), led by Super Sibs JacQuizz and James Rodgers. Quizz missed an entire quarter with a bum ankle, but he still put up 113 yards and a touchdown. If the Beavers had gotten the ball once more, there is little doubt one or the other Rodgers would have scored the game-winner. But USC did a masterful job of keep away over the final five minutes and escaped with a 42-36 win. Next up -- a trip to Autzen Stadium, and a game for the conference title with Oregon. The Ducks waxed Washington in every facet, and "overmatched" coach Chip Kelly is now 6-1, running a team that looks as good as anyone in the country.
One team that might not look as good as others, but may be better than almost all of them, is Georgia Tech. Mad scientist Paul Johnson has his option attack running at top gear. The Jackets embody the old boxing maxim "kill the body and the head must die." They rained body blows on Virginia in the rain Saturday, with touchdown drives of 10, 10, 11, and a punitive 18 plays. That last Bataan Death March opened the second half, and when it was over, Virginia's offense had to reintroduce themselves to techniques like blocking and the forward pass. Tech doesn't use the latter too often -- only one ball was thrown on that long drive. He's too outside the box for it to ever happen, but a powerful argument can be made for Josh Nesbitt as the Heisman front-runner. He's cutting a swath through the ACC, one zone read at a time. And Tech appears BCS-bound, so attention should be paid.
- You knew something was amiss in Morgantown when UConn got that nice ovation from the West Virginia crowd, got jacked up into a seething mass of emotion -- and then gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown to start the game.
- The scouts came to see Jevan Snead battle Ryan Mallet in Oxford, but Dexter McCluster was the best player on the field. Somehow, Houston Nutt seems to have forgotten about Dex this season, but when he gets the rock, good things happen.
- Pop quiz hotshot -- Who is the better out-of-nowhere star named Lewis? Duke quarterback Thaddeus, or Pitt running back Dion? I'd vote for Dion, if only because Thad gets to be coached by quarterback guru David Cutcliffe, while Dion has Dave Wannstedt's mustache.
- Miami has been labeled "arrogant" in lots of situations over the years, but kicking to Clemson's C.J. Spiller at the end of the first half is one that came back to haunt The U more directly than usual. Clemson got away with playing for overtime at the end of regulation, a decision for which Dabo Sweeney should be getting intense heat. Instead, he's got the biggest win of his coaching career.
- My Idaho Vandals fell back to earth with a Skylab-like thud. They were Kaepernicked -- Colin Kaepernick, that is. The Wolfpack quarterback ran for four touchdowns and 230 yards, and threw for another two in a buzzsaw attack: 70-45 was the final. The game mostly resembled the dice football games my buddy Mark and I used to play. We never could get the defense right.
- Under-the-radar star of the week, brought to you by the folks who build the Predator drone -- Iowa State linebacker Jesse Smith, the only Big 12 player to average more than 10 tackles a game, and a sideline-to-sideline force. His interception ended Nebraska's turnover cavalcade in Lincoln, where the Huskers handed it over eight times and lost to the Cyclones 9-7. Smith was even better than Ndamukong Suh, who was his usual excellent self -- two blocked kicks in addition to the expected caving in of the middle of the line.
- Paul Johnson may be gone, but the sea shanty remains the same at Navy. The Middies beat Wake 13-10 without throwing a single pass. They ran it 64 times for 338 yards. There's a landlubber joke in there somewhere, but I'd rather not look for it.
- Iowa ran eight plays in the fourth quarter from inside Michigan State's 10-yard line, and the Spartans repelled them all. On the ninth, Ricky Stanzi hit Marvin McNutt with the game-winning touchdown pass with no time remaining. It was as excruciating a loss for MSU as it was for UConn, minus the emotional baggage. And Iowa continues to pull out games and win ugly, much like Ohio State circa 2002 -- a team that won a (referee-aided) BCS title. What could be more appropriate in this controversy-laden, aesthetically unpleasant season?
The OFI Top 25
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Lurking: Arizona, Oregon State, Temple