One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams
One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Robert Weintraub

This column has always had a soft spot for special teams, the "third phase" that wins or loses so many games in the shadows of sports radio chatter about this quarterback or that linebacker. So I was fascinated to see three games decided by special teams plays Saturday.

You can always rely on Auburn to be one half of the hardest hitting game of the year. Who can forget the 7-3 bloodbath with LSU in 2006, the pigskin equivalent of the Battle of the Somme? Saturday against Clemson, an SEC wannabe which played with the fiery intensity of a team auditioning for future inclusion in the nation's top conference, more dudes got lit up than did on the night Prohibition ended.

The crackerjack game went to overtime, and the home Tigers (Auburn) took a three-point lead. The visiting Tigers appeared to knot the game, but the officials alertly noted that Clemson snapper Matt Sanders moved the ball before passing it back to the holder, a five-yard penalty. On take two, kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed, touching off a V-J Day-level celebration on campus.

Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker missed an open receiver in the end zone on the play before the bizarre sequence, thanks to a brutal shot he took to the kidneys. Parker, a top draft choice of the Colorado Rockies this summer, was seen ruing his decision to return to campus to play football after almost every play thereafter.

Another missed kick sunk a golden chance at a road upset for Arizona State. Wisconsin safety Jay Valai took advantage of the Sun Devil wingback making a cardinal mistake -- he blocked the outside man, leaving an inside gap for Valai, who blocked an extra point that would have tied the game at 20. The Badgers then ran out the final four minutes, helped by an unnecessary roughness penalty. Arizona State had the most penalties of any FBS school in 2009, and Dennis Erickson once again has an undisciplined bunch.

But they should have won Saturday, and they might have but for an awesome effort by Wisconsin's Shelton Johnson, who ran down the speedy Kyle Middlebrooks on a kickoff return and tackled him on the one-yard line as the first half expired. Middlebrooks, who strangely wears the same number 7 as ASU middle linebacker/Wildman Vontaze Burfict, will be seeing that one yard the rest of his life.

Another Big Ten school got a "W" thanks to the ballsiest call of the season. Michigan State trailed Notre Dame 31-28 in overtime, and lined up to kick the tying field goal. Instead, coach Mark D'Antonio called "Little Giants," a fake that had the holder Aaron Bates throw a pass. The defender covering Charlie Gantt was bowled over, leaving Gantt all alone for the easy score and a 34-31 win, simultaneously thrilling the special teams maven in me and paining me when I realized I had the Spartans giving 3 1/2! Irish fans could argue that State didn't get the play off in time -- the clock hit zero before the snap, but it was close enough that they wouldn't get much sympathy.

D'Antonio shockingly and sadly suffered a mild heart attack late Saturday night, apparently while realizing the ramifications of his call. He will be OK, it is being reported, and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell will lead Sparty in his absence. Best wishes to the coach.

(An aside -- did you hear about this tragic accident? Only in Texas can a quarterback drop dead on the field and the game continue. Rest in peace, Reggie Garrett.)

The state that brought us Friday Night Lights and good cash money for top recruits didn't offer much of a prime-time game, as Texas banged up Texas Tech quarterback Taylor Potts, then holstered the Red Raiders "guns up" salute with a 24-14 win, mainly thanks to watertight coverage by the Texas secondary. The Longhorns haven't settled their running game issues at all, and, unsurprisingly, new starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert is suffering the same growing pains as Aaron Murray, John Brantley, and all the other top recruits from whom the fans expect instant greatness. After all, thanks to Rivals and its ilk, we've been hearing about how amazing these kids are for years now. Someone forgot to mention that they still have to learn how to play at this level. The only way to do that is by getting bloodied a few times.

By the way, you should see this kid, he's a can't miss star ...

Elsewhere, Mark Ingram returned from knee surgery and two missed games to breeze through Duke's overmatched defense for 119 yards and two touchdowns ... in the first quarter. Somewhere, Gale Sayers weeps. The poor Blue Devils couldn't even knock the Tide runners out of bounds given 15-yard heads of steam -- the 62-13 massacre was the definition of men against boys. Duke hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski could be seen wincing in the crowd. The Tide clearly wanted vengeance after Coach K cut 'Bama grad Gerald Wallace from the World Championship team.

Next week Alabama steps up in class, traveling to Arkansas. The Hogs were comfortably whipping Georgia when Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, feeling the seat underneath him getting hotter, rallied the troops with a fire-and-brimstone imitation of Rockne before the fourth quarter. It was better than the clichéd holding up of four fingers, anyway. Sure enough, Georgia scored two touchdowns to seize momentum and appeared to have the game in their hands with the ball near midfield and a minute left. But offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, about as popular as Barack Obama in rural Georgia these days, called a third-down pass play that had all the receivers running 20-plus yards downfield. Before anyone could complete his route, quarterback Aaron Murray was nearly decapitated, sacked so hard his helmet flew nearly 15 yards.

Ryan Mallett fared better in the dying seconds. After hitting tight end D.J. Williams against Georgia's Cover-2 on back-to-back passes, the Georgia corner bit down on Williams on the third play. Wideout Greg Childs was left exposed for just enough time on the perimeter before the safety could arrive, and Mallet threw an NFL-quality dart to Childs, who made the safety miss and went for a game-winning touchdown scamper that sucked the life out of Sanford Stadium.

Mallett is far more pro-ready than Jake Locker, who somehow continues to top draft boards. I told you last week that he stinks, and that was after watching him against Syracuse. Against a somewhat stiffer defense, Nebraska's Black Shirts, Locker went 4-for-20 with two picks, and the Huskers blew out the Huskies (say that five times fast). However, I also thought Cal's Kevin Riley was the top Pac-10 quarterback. That was before he threw three picks as Nevada demolished the Golden Bears 52-31. Cal was at or near the top of several of our efficiency rankings, including a first in defensive success rate. That proved to be a function of weak opposition, something Messrs. Connolly and Fremeau struggled to quantify last week. Not so with the second-most successful offense, Nevada, who rolled up 497 yards of offense. So the point is -- when in doubt, go with the team that has Colin Kaepernick, apparently.


  • As those of us who drafted Case Keenum first round in our college fantasy drafts already know, the Houston quarterback was lost for the season to a knee injury in a 31-13 loss at UCLA Saturday night. Unlike last week, however, his backup was also sent packing -- Cotton Turner broke his collarbone. The job of piloting the complex Cougars offense falls to Terrance (Not Ready For) Broadway as Houston hosts Tulane next week.
  • Greg Robinson simply cannot coach, and Michigan will soon discover that its defense is in bad hands when playing a team it cannot simply outscore, as it did against FCS power UMass, winning a 42-37 shootout.
  • A better defensive mind is Charlie Strong, Florida defensive coordinator turned Louisville head coach. Strong's Cardinals played Oregon State very tough before falling 35-28, but it's just a matter of time until Strong has the Cardinals back competing for the Big East crown.
  • Ohio State unsurprisingly ripped Ohio on Saturday. What is surprising is that OSU hasn't lost to another Ohio school since 1921! You'd think at some point the Bobcats or Redhawks or some animal would have pulled an upset.
  • The Buckeyes main competition for the conference title, Iowa, took a blow out in the desert, falling to Arizona 34-27. The Hawkeyes fell behind due to a raucous crowd, a blocked punt, and a pick-six, but gutted its way back to a 27-27 tie. But Arizona quarterback Nick Foles showed immense poise leading the 'Cats on a go-ahead touchdown march. Arizona then sacked Ricky Stanzi three straight times to seal the upset. Iowa has a bad history of losing when it travels west. Mike Stoops has a dangerous team building in Tempe.
  • Tennessee fans took the low road before the annual clash with Florida, making T-shirts mocking Chris Rainey's stalking arrest ("Time To Die" read the shirts, referring to Rainey's text message to a former girlfriend). Had Vol Nation been more clever, they would have mocked Rainey for being the inferior player to his older brother, Rod Smart, aka "He Hate Me" of XFL fame. Then perhaps Tennessee might have played four quarters and beaten Florida, instead of sagging late in the contest to a 31-17 defeat.
  • Still hearing that N.C. State Wolfpack howl from Carter-Finley Stadium on Thursday night in my sleep ...
  • On the subject, I had a feeling the beleaguered ACC couldn't be as bad as it looked last Saturday, and indeed N.C. State, Virginia Tech, and Florida State had good wins, while Clemson acquitted itself well.
  • The Blood Field had its desired effect! The debut of the scarlet-colored gridiron at Eastern Washington either scared FCS No. 6 Montana or slowed their thinking as the Grizz wondered why good money was spent on such a fool's errand during a recession. Whatever, it was all good for the EW Eagles, who won 36-27. A home-and-home with Boise State can't be far in the future.
  • And let's hear it for my Syracuse Orange, 2-1 after walloping the Maine Black Bears. Yes, Maine has a football team. Quarterback Ryan Nassib tossed five touchdowns in the 38-14 win. Bring on Colgate!


1. Alabama
2. Ohio State
3. Boise State
4. Oregon
5. TCU
6. Nebraska
7. Oklahoma
8. Texas
9. Florida
10. Arkansas
11. Wisconsin
12. Iowa
13. South Carolina
14. Auburn
15. Stanford
16. Utah
17. Michigan
18. LSU
19. USC
20. Utah
21. Arizona
22. Nevada
23. West Virginia
24. Oregon State
25. Penn State

Lowsman Watch

1. Josh Bynes, linebacker, Auburn. Auburn underestimated Clemson's speed at first (C.J. Who?), but Bynes clamped down on the Paw Boys in a savage performance.

2. Jay Valai and Shelton Johnson, safeties, Wisconsin. See above.

3. Omar Bolden, cornerback, Arizona State. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown and was all over the field defensively, helping the small but speedy Sun Devils hang in against the powerful Badgers.

4. Scott Smith, defensive end, Texas Tech. Can't blame Smith for the loss to Texas -- he had two deflected passes, one an interception he made and another that was returned by a teammate for a touchdown, plus two sacks and a forced fumble.

5. Offensive line, Nevada. Don't want to single out any one player on a line that demolished Cal's highly touted front seven, so cheers to John Bender, Jose Acuna, Chris Barker, Jeff Meads, and Steve Haley.


23 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2010, 3:58pm

2 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

If Michigan fans haven't realized GERG cannot coach by now, they probably never will. Fortunately for us Orange fans, the guy they ran off actually can coach, so now we have an actual defense (no matter what happened in Seattle).

4 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

Oh, Michigan fans have realized. We realized that last year sometime in between:

watching them defend bubble screens against MSU with one defender 12 yards off the line:


watching them defend a 10 yard out pass against Penn State with a safety 20 yards off the line and in the middle of the field:

Both of those plays were repeated ad nauseam in those games with no defensive adjustments. ARGH.

7 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

This season, the effect of the coordinator on the defense is probably less than it would be otherwise (I assume the article is actually talking about his ability as DC; clearly there are some people who are terrible head coaches and good coordinators).

The problem isn't whether or not GERG can improve Michigan's defense as much as it is that there simply aren't any experienced, healthy players left in the secondary. There is a limit to what you can do to protect a weak secondary, and if you don't have a fearsome front six/seven (which Michigan definitely does not; there are talented players but not enough), at some point you are going to take your lumps.

20 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

The guy ran off certainly couldn't coach in Michigan -- some of the stuff he did was utterly bizarre and completely ineffective. No one was sad to see him go, and he had FAR more talent to work with than what GERG has.

That said, GERG should probably just be a linebackers coach -- he's actually done a pretty good job with them. Reference Stevie Brown, who was beyond hopeless for his Michigan career until GERG got a hold of him and turned him into a guy who actually was drafted, and the other guy he was responsible for last year was Roh, who was pretty darn good for a true freshman; GERG is now responsible for all the linebackers, and magically Jonas Mouton is finally starting to play to his talent. However as a coordinator GERG's defenses weren't good in the NFL either, at least his last few years. I don't see how he's the guy to get Michigan's D back to a, well, Michigan D (except this time able to defend spread teams plz).

But realistically, there ain't a coordinator in the US who could make Michigan's D look good because the secondary is completely decimated. Their secondary consists of: a sophomore corner who was terrible last year, a senior who converted from WR to CB I believe during the season last year, a sophomore walkon, and a redshirt freshman who only started playing safety this spring (he had been a WR). If you want to include the fifth guy (sort of a LB, sort of a S) that's been played by a true freshman and after he got hurt, a redshirt freshman. Their run D had been ok their first two games, I think that performance Saturday was an anomaly. There simply is no way to cover for the secondary though -- they're going to have to play bend-but-don't-break and hope for a mistake by the other team.

3 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

Then perhaps Tennessee might have played four quarters and beaten Florida, instead of sagging late in the contest to a 31-17 defeat.

Florida fan here, but I don't think anyone who actually watched that game thinks that's what happened. Tennessee's laid some huge second-half eggs against the Gators in years past (my personal favorite was the 1995 contest, with 2007 right behind it), but Saturday the Vols gave played all four quarters. They have nothing to be ashamed of - they just got worn down by a team that had the ball 13 minutes longer and ran 49 rushing plays.

I know that you're just trying to be clever with the whole Rod Smart connection, but leave the cheap shots out of it.

9 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

Weintraub doesn't actually watch the games. He just checks the box scores and makes the game fit his pre-conceived story. You see, it is funnier to blame the loss on the "Time To Die" tee-shirts instead of on Tennessee's lack of depth/talent.

The Vols indeed played hard to the finish.

12 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

Like Strannix, I'm a Gator fan who actually watched the entire game (pacing around my living room, often enough)... and you guys are both right. Tennessee played hard all the way through, Florida just had better players and a lot more of them. It was pretty much the same thing that happened to USF last week, and to Miami (OH) the week before... and to lots of other teams the Gators have played since Meyer took over.

14 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

ESPN drive chart shows yardage for Tennessee about 115-60 in the fourth quarter. Appreciate everyone working together to clear the record...whether it's wrong cities, wrong words, double-listed teams in the rankings, or mis-representations of reality. Hope the author and editors will address these issues in the future...

18 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

I'm hoping this is a 2008-type scenario, where the O takes a few games to get itself together and then starts really clicking... but I fear it's going to be more like '06 & '09, when the O never quite gelled, and grinding out wins was the order of the day. Of course, in those two seasons the Gators racked up a record of 26-2, national & conference titles, and two top-3 finishes, so only a real grinch (and they're out there) can complain about the results. :) But putting teams away before half-time is definitely easier on the ticker, you know?

And yeah, at this point I fully expect Bama to leave cleat marks all over UF. But you can always absorb one loss to the West so long as you take care of business in the East (that's a solid Gator tradition right there.)

19 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

Yeah, UF should be able to handle the rest of the East teams. The only one that has an offense is South Carolina, and I have no faith in Stephen Garcia against a really good defense. UF's defense is really good. I'm not sure how well the "fart around offensively and wait for a huge run or the other defense to fall apart" strategy is going to work against better teams. Unless McElroy craps the bed (and he's stinkbomb-capable) that game could be a complete turfing the way both teams have looked so far.

6 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

"did you hear about this tragic accident? Only in Texas can a quarterback drop dead on the field and the game continue."

Still unclear in media reports about whether he died on the field. He arrived at the hospital at 8:30 p.m., and wasn't pronounced dead until 9:30 p.m. The game started at 7:30 p.m., and high school games usually take about two-and-a-half hours down here unless both teams are pass-happy and it's a shootout.

Could see stopping the game in the fourth quarter if there was a confirmed announcement. Seizures don't imply fatality, so it would have been odd to stop the game when it happened unless it was clear at the time to medical staff that there was nothing anyone could do. The school has cancelled this week's game.

Not sure what the "accident" was. Did you mean "incident?" It was definitely a tragic incident.

8 Ohio football lesson

Why is it surprising that OSU hasn't lost to an in-state rival since 1921? Did you know that in 1992, the Buckeyes' 17-6 win over Bowling Green snapped OSU's 57-year winless streak against in-state schools?

Yeah, they don't exactly play that often. OSU's record against I-A in-state schools:

Akron, 2-0
Bowling Green, 4-0
Cincinnati, 4-0
Kent State, 2-0
Miami, 2-0
Ohio, 3-0
Toledo, 2-0

So yeah, 19-0, woo. It is, of course, better than, say, 17-2, but it's hardly impressive, especially considering that the earliest of those games was the one I mentioned above in '92.

Look, you got sucked in by an out-of-context statistic. It's cool, it happens to the best of us. But let's put it into context: from 1937 (when the NCAA apparently began classifying schools) until 1946, Ohio State had no I-A in-state rivals to play. (Ohio State didn't really drop down to play small-college schools at all until modern times.) Cincinnati popped up then, but OSU didn't play them until 1999.

In the early '60s, four more schools made the jump - BGSU, Miami, Ohio, and Toledo - but still didn't appear on OSU's schedule. Akron joined them in '87. Finally, starting in 1992, OSU began making the rounds, roughing up other teams and making sure they knew who got to start their school name with an article.

Hey, that 19-game in-state winning streak is pretty good, isn't it? Even if you tack on the 21 games they won before that against smaller opponents (their 1931 win over Cincinnati is the only one against a current I-A team; all the others are DIII schools), it's not nearly as interesting as noting that the team that beat them in 1921 was Oberlin.

15 Re: One Foot Inbounds: Very Special Teams

"You'd think at some point the Bobcats or Redhawks or some animal would have pulled an upset. "

What about the Youngstown State Penguins?