by Robert Weintraub
Theater, comic book, and rock 'n' roll fans, unite! The musical Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, a wall-crawling lavish Broadway epic with music by U2, is poised to be the season's big hit, despite what will no doubt be insane ticket prices. However, with only a few weeks remaining, the show is beset with technical problems, script issues, and a growing sense that this could be Ishtar on the Great White Way.
In other words, the clock is ticking down, and Kyle Brotzman is trotting in for the kick.
What the producers need isn't Peter Parker, but the Spectacular Cam Newton.
After Friday's breathless, noon-to-2 a.m. action, Saturday felt like one of those races that follow the Kentucky Derby on the card -- the gamblers are interested, but the casual fan is wrung out. I get so much wrong in prognosticating football (not unlike other aspects of life) that I feel compelled to point out something I managed to call correctly in Seventh Day Adventure. In an exact inverse of last season's Iron Bowl, Alabama jumped out to a big lead, but were slowly roped in by a relentless offense led by the Heisman Trophy front runner.
It was that shocking a development. Alabama was at home, with 101,000 or so screaming for Auburn blood. Greg McElroy came out like a combination of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. He broke his career high for yards passing in the first half, and before the pre-game meal of Dreamland Barbeque could be fully digested, the Tide were up 24-0.
Alabama could have put the game away in the first 30 minutes, but it came away empty on a couple of red zone journeys. Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter made a great play to run down and punch the ball from a rampaging Mark Ingram, forcing a touchback after a long run. Then the awesome Nick Fairley strip-sacked McElroy and fell on the ball around the 10-yard line. Auburn went to the half down 24-7, when it could have easily been 35-0.
Auburn has made so many second-half rallies this season that they surely believe they can do it every time, regardless of opponent. With Cam Newton at the helm, all things are indeed possible. He struck with a long bomb on the second play of the half (Tide safety Mark Barron took a poor angle to the ball and paid the price), and you could feel the huge crowd go "uh-oh." Later, Newton scored his 18th touchdown of the season on the ground, breaking the school record held by a pair of pretty fair backs, Bo Jackson and Cadillac Williams.
The comeback was completed thanks to a fourth-and-3 laser of a throw to keep the drive alive (everyone, including Alabama coach Nick Saban -- or Lou Saban, according to Verne Lundquist -- had to presume Cam was keeping it on this hypercritical play). Then he found Philip Lutzenkirchen (German for "wide open") in the end zone with just fewer than 12 minutes left for the winning score.
But for all of Cam's heroics, it was the Auburn defense that, uh, turned the tide. Shredded like fine parmesan in the first half, the Tigers altered their gaps slightly and began to get heavy pressure on McElroy. The unit also dialed the intensity way up, smacking Alabama around and knocking several offensive players out of the game. McElroy was knocked senseless by a late T'Sharvan Bell blitz (he certainly looked offsides). When Alabama had one last shot at winning, backup A.J. McCarron was throwing it. Unlike the 1993 Iron Bowl, when Patrick Nix won it for the Tigers off the bench, there would be no Forrest Gump ending for Alabama.
Auburn held on to win 28-27 in a game they will be talking about amid the southern longleaf pines of Talladega Forest and the shadow of Lookout Mountain for a long, long time.
They will also be remembering the final game of the day amid the slot machines and Keno parlors of Reno, Nevada. I warned Boise in that same fateful SDA last week that this was a road trip fraught with danger. Sure enough, Nevada roared back from a large deficit to shock the Broncos 34-31 in overtime. Every season, it seems, Boise goes out to a big lead against the Wolfpack and holds on for dear life.
This time, Nevada dominated the second half, possessing the ball for 24 minutes and rushing for 239 yards in the final two quarters. Boise's defense was sucking enough wind to start a cyclone. Nevada tied the game with 13 seconds left. Then the fantastic Kellen Moore hit Titus Young with a bomb that was 2007 Brady-to-Moss in its arrogant disregard for the defense -- Moore simply threw one down the middle of the field as far as he could, and Young ran it down, diving to make a play that seemed to keep Boise's BCS hopes afloat.
But Brotzman missed a short field goal -- although to the naked eye it appeared to go over the upright, just good. Replays were Rashoman-like in their ability to convince the viewer of either position. Brotzman than missed another in overtime, and Nevada didn't, and poof, Boise's outstanding season disappeared into the Reno night like so many marriages do in the divorce capital of the U.S.
Brotzman's botches cost Boise an estimated $4 million in missed payouts, according to sports money guru Darren Rovell. Worse, the loss prevents Boise from a desperately desired crack at one of the big boys. And it snaps the Broncos' 24-game winning streak, in a manner most un-Boise like. Special teams excellence, clutch play, smart football -- these are the hallmarks of Boise State in the last several seasons. But it all came apart for them. Give props to WAC champ Nevada, a superb team in its own right. In a just world, we'd see both teams in a playoff format. But we live in a world where nitwits like Gordon Gee hold sway, so we'll have to settle for drama only insomniacs and Pacific Time Zoners could enjoy.
And one last note -- some folks used Friday's dramatics to crow anti-playoff sentiment (looking at you, Jason Whitlock). Sorry, but these games and contexts would have been similarly amazing with a playoff system. Certainly Boise wouldn't be making an eight-team tournament after losing in its last game. For the final time: A playoff would not detract from the suspense of the regular season. Here endeth the Wetzel.
- Oregon needed to work some on Fantastic Friday, too, but when they hit the afterburners, Arizona and its tragicomic special teams were left far in the distance, 48-29. A 19-play, 99-yard drive in the third quarter was un-Duckish in its length and was kept alive by an offsides penalty that negated a missed Oregon field goal. Oregon's four other touchdown drives in the second half took 15 plays -- combined. Now only the Civil War remains between the Ducks and the Big Pond.
- Ducky the Oregon mascot has done a Navy Seals-worthy 2,636 pushups this season (he does one for every point UO has after every score). The buff mallard should put in for worker's comp at season's end.
- With Ohio State blasting Michigan, and Sparty taking out JoePa, Wisconsin needed to beat Northwestern with as much style as possible in order to keep in front of the other Big Ten co-champs in the BCS standings. How many points would be enough? Forty? Fifty?? Sixty??? Just in case, Wisconsin put up 70. It was enough to send Bucky Badger to the Rose Bowl. It was another impressive game on both lines, led by offensive tackle Gabe Carimi and defensive end J.J. Watt.
- Mississippi State beat Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, 31-23. No word on the final price this year's hot JuCo prospect was auctioned off for at halftime.
- Cyrus Gray continues to run wild for Texas A&M, which put an end to Texas' awful season with a 24-17 win in their annual Thanksgiving grudge match. Cyrus The Virus said Cy-onara to Texas defenders to the tune of 223 rushing yards, the sixth straight 100-plus-yard game for Gray after taking over for injured starter Christine Michael. There's a John Malkovich is better than Stephen King joke in there somewhere, but I can't seem to locate it.
- Big ups to Charlie Strong, who got Louisville bowl eligible with a pummeling of Rutgers. Look for the Cardinals in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl, which presumably is filled with rib bones. Strong is clearly missed at Florida, which succumbed to Florida State for the first time under Urban Meyer, 31-7.
- Elsewhere in Florida, Jacory Harris hadn't played for most of the month, but he came off the bench against South Florida and quickly reminded everyone of what they were missing. Harris led the moribund Hurricanes to 17 unanswered points before throwing a killer interception with Miami in field goal range with a few seconds remaining. Miami then lost in overtime. It was a coach-killing performance. Sure enough, The U didn't even wait until the day was over to can Randy Shannon.
- It wash hearts-in-mouths time in Fort Worth when quarterback Andy Dalton went down with an injury to his throwing shoulder in an otherwise boring rout of New Mexico. Fortunately, it seems Dalton will be OK in time for the Rose Bowl. That has a nicer ring than what my mother would say to me when I had a boo-boo -- "You'll be better by the time you're married."
- Oklahoma State down by two to Oklahoma, three minutes and change to play at home, Big 12 title game berth on the line. A second-down Sooners pass caroms off two defenders and hits the turf. The third-down pass goes for 86 yards and a score to Cameron Kenney. On such small matters history books are written. But hang on -- bedlam! OK State returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, putting the score at 40-38. And then OU hit back with a 76-yard touchdown pass on play-action with everyone on State up in the box. Score one for much-maligned offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson! The Sooners won 47-41, and they will appropriately take on Nebraska for the conference crown.
- Earlier in the game, Oklahoma State's Broderick Brown made one of the best plays you'll ever see, leaping to bat a Landry Jones pass that was sailing out of bounds back into play, where it was intercepted by a teammate. He looked like a basketball player saving a loose ball.
- Bad loss by Ohio at Kent State -- the Flashes kept the Bobcats from the MAC title game with a 28-6 pounding. Miami of Ohio now gets the dubious privilege of facing Northern Illinois, which hung a 71-3 beating on Eastern Michigan. The Huskies are whipping MAC opposition by 32 points per game.
- At the bottom of the MAC, congrats to the Akron Zips, which beat Buffalo 22-14 to avoid a winless season. Seldom has 1-11 felt so good.
- Ryan Mallet's sensational deep passes led Arkansas past LSU, 31-23, drove the final stake into the undead heart of The Lester, and pretty much guaranteed the Hogs a trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Bobby Petrino can relax in the knowledge that the Atlanta Falcons could well have that week off, in the form of a first-round playoff bye. I'm sure they will be yelling "Whoo Pig, Sooey!" in Flowery Branch.
- Tough day for Cincinnati Bearcats fans. Ex-Cat coaches in Notre Dame (upset win over USC) and Michigan State (11-1, conference co-champs) celebrated, while Cincinnati got demolished by Connecticut, 38-17, leaving them bowl-ineligible.
- Speaking of that Notre Dame win, USC backup Mitch Mustain was finally sighted in Crimson and Gold, starting in place of Matt Barkley. He deserved better, having a sure touchdown pass dropped in a SoCal downpour with one minute remaining, just before a game-ending pick.
- Maryland does it again to N.C. State. The Wolfpack have had several promising seasons ruined by the Terrapins. Saturday, dreams of a surprise trip to the ACC title game died in College Park, as Maryland won 38-31. The game ended after a horrible spot by the refs on a fourth-and-1. Florida State goes to Charlotte instead, to tangle with Virginia Tech, appropriate in this season of Michael Vick's renaissance.
- I thought of the Hokies as Boise was losing at Nevada. Virginia Tech quietly won its 10th in a row by crushing state rival/punching bag Virginia, cruising through ACC undefeated. It seems like yesterday when the Broncos and Hokies squared off at FedEx Field on Labor Day. As always, the football season has raced past far too quickly.
The OFI Top 25
6. Ohio State
8. Michigan State
9. Boise State
10. Virginia Tech
14. South Carolina
16. Texas A&M
19. Oklahoma State
20. Northern Illinois
21. Florida State
23. Central Florida
Auburn takes over as my No. 1 because the Iron Bowl was the most impressive victory of any by the unbeaten teams. This, of course, tickets the Tigers for almost certain defeat in the SEC title game. War Eagle!
1. Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, Auburn. I tweeted before the Auburn-Alabama game that, while Fairley has been awesome this season, he has benefited from a weekly national TV showcase. Then with more eyeballs on him than ever before, Fairley single-handedly kept the Tigers from getting routed in the first half, then caved in the Tide o-line in the second half. It was an Outland Trophy-worthy performance.
2. Brandon Hogan, cornerback, West Virginia. The Mountaineers had the double satisfaction of beating Pitt in the Backyard Brawl and likely ruining the Panthers shot at a BCS bid. Hogan was the key figure, with a forced fumble and recovery, an interception and long return that set up a WVU score, and blanket coverage on star Pitt wideout Jon Baldwin.
3. Brandon Burton, cornerback, Utah. The Holy War between Utah and BYU is underrated in its vitriol, and is almost always close. This season's edition, the last as a Mountain West Conference showdown, was no exception. The Cougars lined up to kick the game-winning field goal, but it was blocked by Burton to give the Utes a 17-16 win.
4. Von Miller, linebacker, Texas A&M. The senior All-American demolished the slickers from Austin with a night that included seven tackles, two sacks, three tackles for losses, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. The pick, off a deflected pass at his own 8-yard line, sealed the victory with 2:37 to play.
5. Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Boston College. Kuechly has been ultra-consistent this season, regularly ripping off games with double-digit tackles. He had 10 more in a win over my Syracuse Orange, the 21st-straight game he's had 10 or more tackles. Kuechly leads the country with 171 tackles.