OFI: Freshmen Trample Georgia Tailback Curse
by Matt Hinton
If any fan base knows great tailbacks, it's Georgia's, and the partisans are pretty certain they have a couple of them in freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Even before Saturday's 51-44 win over Tennessee, the locals had taken to calling the pair "Gurshall," an explicit comparison to the mythical freshman dominance of Herschel Walker that led Georgia to its last national championship thirty years ago. After Saturday, the rest of the country concedes the point. In their first game on a national stage, against a traditional SEC heavyweight, the terrifying tandem combined for 312 yards and five touchdowns, ripping off scoring runs of 75 yards (Marshall), 71 yards (Marshall) and 51 yards (Gurley) in the process. The only thing missing was Larry Munson barking, "My god, a freshman!"
Which is quite the turnaround from this summer, when the last blue-chip back saddled with the "Next Herschel Walker" tag, Isaiah Crowell, was sent packing following an arrest on felony weapons charges, ostensibly taking the fate of the Georgia ground game with him. At that point, the prevailing question wasn't whether Bulldog tailbacks are cursed -– that much was obvious -– but why? Before Crowell, the biggest bust of them all, UGA had endured a succession of would-be stars who eventually fizzled into flashes in the pan.
Kregg Lumpkin and D.J. Ware looked the part, but the production never matched. Washaun Ealey may have had the talent, but not the consistency, and ultimately lacked the discipline to remain on the team. Caleb King arrived with "Next Herschel?" hype, got hurt, and never fully recovered before being exiled as an academic casualty prior to last season. Even Crowell, en route to winning SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011, frustrated fans with a series of nagging injuries and petty off-field infractions that foreshadowed his eventual exit. Coming into 2012, only one Georgia tailback in the last ten years ( Knowshon Moreno in 2007 and 2008) had cracked 1,000 yards in a season.
Each half of "Gurshall" is well on his way to obliterating that barrier. Through five games, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in rushing as a team, and Gurley leads individual backs with 536 yards and nine touchdowns. Marshall and Gurley rank first and second, respectively, in yards per carry. Gurley has also run a kickoff back for a touchdown. They both arrived with blue-chip accolades from recruitniks, they're both prototype, every-down hammers in the 6-foot, 215-pound range, and they can both take it the distance. This week, they face not only the best defense they'll see this season at South Carolina, but also the reigning idol of versatile, bruising SEC running backs: Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore commanded instant hosannas himself as a freshman two years ago. If Gurley and Marshall keep pace, then Georgia may actually have something here.
- Appropriately for one of the highest-scoring weekends in college football history, no fewer than five different quarterbacks set major conference records for total offense or scoring. In the MAC, junior Zac Dysert of Miami (Ohio) set a new conference mark with 624 total yards against Akron, adding 108 yards rushing to 516 through the air in a 56-49 overtime win for the RedHawks. ... At the other Miami, Hurricane quarterback Stephen Morris set a new ACC record with 566 yards passing in a wild 44-37 win over N.C. State, the last 62 coming courtesy of a game-winning bomb to Phillip Dorsett. ... Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, brother of David, set a new Mountain West mark with 579 yards of total offense in a 52-40 win over San Diego State, in which the younger Carr completed 46-of-52 passes with five touchdowns. ... In the SEC, Texas A&M freshman Johnny Manziel went for 557 total yards against Arkansas –- 453 passing, 104 rushing –- breaking the conference record previously held by Archie Manning and Rohan Davey in just his fourth game. (As a team, A&M butchered the hapless Hogs for 716 yards on 9.1 per play.) ... And last, but certainly not least, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith merely tied a Big 12 record with eight touchdown passes in an adrenaline-fueled 70-63 track meet against Baylor that threatened to smash every known offensive barrier and keep right on going into an alternate dimension. For the game, Smith rang up 656 yards on 45-of-51 passing, giving him more touchdowns than incompletions.
- Between the two of them, the offenses of West Virginia and Baylor accounted for 1,507 yards, 133 points, 67 first downs, 19 touchdowns, 19 plays covering at least 20 yards, nine touchdowns covering at least 20 yards, six different players over 100 yards receiving, two players over 300 yards receiving and, yes, three punts. 18 of the game's 19 scoring drives covered at least 60 yards; 16 took less than three minutes. The final point total was three points shy of the highest-scoring game in NCAA history.
- Besides Manziel and Georgia's thundering freshmen, the other breakout player of the weekend was Texas sophomore quarterback David Ash, who (momentarily) vanquished all lingering doubts with a 304-yard, three-touchdown effort at Oklahoma State that culminated in a 75-yard march for the game-winning touchdown. On the road, in one of the toughest environments in the Big 12, Ash showed no signs of the gangly, turnover-prone freshman who struggled to hold down the starting job in 2011: If the Longhorns are in a BCS bowl in January, his do-or-die fourth-and-6 completion to D.J. Grant on the final drive will be one of the moments set to an orchestra. In the meantime, they have to deal with back-to-back dates against West Virginia and Oklahoma first.
- Wisconsin's first four offensive possessions at Nebraska resulted in three touchdowns and a 20-3 lead in the second quarter. From that point on, the Badgers' last nine possessions resulted in five punts, two fumbles, a missed field goal, and a short-field touchdown set up by a Nebraska turnover. That wasn't nearly enough to keep the Cornhuskers from storming back for a 30-27 win. Based on their slow start this season, it was exactly the wilting Wisconsin we'd come to expect: including negative yardage on sacks, the Badger ground game netted just 56 yards on 1.4 per carry, leaving the offense as a whole (still) sitting dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense and total offense –- categories they dominated during back-to-back Rose Bowl runs in 2010 and 2011.
- Iowa running back Mark Weisman continued his improbable, deity-defying rise Saturday against Minnesota, rumbling for 177 yards and a touchdown in a 31-13 Hawkeye romp. Since taking over the starting job under Job-like conditions three weeks ago –- when literally every other back on the Iowa roster was injured, suspended or otherwise indisposed -– the former sixth-string walk-on has delivered three consecutive 100-yard games on the ground and is currently tied for the Big Ten lead with seven touchdowns. If only there were some way to reward his accomplishments with a trophy that conveniently rhymes with "Weisman"...
OFI TOP 25
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1. Alabama (5-0). Offense looked very mortal against Ole Miss. Defense did not.
2. Oregon (5-0). Ducks scored 28 points in 13 minutes to turn a first-half struggle with Washington State into a second-half rout.
3. Florida State (5-0). Routine win over South Florida didn't inspire the hosannas that followed last week's blowout over Clemson, but against this schedule, "routine" will take the 'Noles a long way.
4. LSU (5-0). Blowout win over Washington a few weeks back just picked up a lot of unexpected value with the Huskies' upset over Stanford, at least until Washington plays another game.
5. Florida (4-0). Reality check this week against LSU, a test the Gators failed after fast starts in 2010 and 2011.
6. Kansas State (4-0). Wildcats had last weekend off to bask in the upset over Oklahoma, will have this weekend off against Kansas.
7. Notre Dame (4-0). Burgeoning Irish hype resumes this week for a Solider Field showdown with Miami.
8. Georgia (5-0). Offense is on a roll, but Bulldogs have to be concerned about a defense that yields 478 yards to Tennessee, or anyone else.
9. South Carolina (5-0). Gamecocks host Georgia Saturday in the first round of "SEC East Eliminator."
10. Texas (4-0). Congratulations: You survived Oklahoma State. Next up: West Virginia.
11. Oregon State (3-0). Beaver defense showed some cracks in Tucson, but nobody has three better wins than Wisconsin, UCLA and Arizona.
12. West Virginia (4-0). Exciting, yes, but that defense is not sustainable for an outfit with championship ambitions.
13. Ohio State (5-0).
14. Stanford (3-1). Every preseason concern was on prominent display at Washington.
15. USC (3-1). They're way back at the moment, but the Trojans still have a path back to the top once the Big 12 and SEC begin eating their own. Of course, that path includes beating Oregon.
16. UCLA (4-1). Bruins avoided a letdown at Colorado and do not appear to be going anywhere.
17. Clemson (4-1). Three of the Tigers' four wins have come without star receiver Sammy Watkins, which is not a trend they'd like to continue.
18. Northwestern (5-0). Wildcats unleashed quarterback Kain Colter in the "Slash" role against Indiana, and set a school record for total offense.
19. Cincinnati (4-0). Dramatic, Hail Mary upset over Virginia Tech is all the more important for keeping quarterback Munchie Legaux's name in the news.
20. Louisville (5-0). Cardinals came from behind to beat Southern Miss in a reenactment of the Biblical flood.
21. Rutgers (4-0). Scarlet Knights round out "Big East Row."
22. TCU (4-0). For now, Horned Frogs are back in their familiar perch in the national defensive rankings.
23. Mississippi State (4-0). Bulldogs didn't play, but plummet from the top 20 anyway upon reassessment of their early schedule.
24. Texas A&M (3-1). Arkansas is the exact opposite of its preseason ranking right now, but 48-point conference wins don't come along every day.
25. Texas Tech (4-0). Red Raiders should enjoy this whole "we play defense now!" thing while it lasts.
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In: Cincinnati, Texas A&M, Texas Tech. Out: Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan State.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
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1. Dee Milliner and Deion Belue, CBs, Alabama. The cornerbacks were supposed to be one of the Crimson Tide's few potential weaknesses, with two new, essentially untested starters taking over for draft picks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. But there has been no drop-off in the transition to Milliner and Belue, who combined Saturday for nine tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and an interception apiece in a predictable 33-14 thumping of Ole Miss. When opposing receivers were able to come up with a catch, it wasn't worth much: The Rebels averaged just 7.2 yards per completion, with only three going for longer than 10 yards.
For the season -– surprise! -– the "rebuilding" Crimson Tide defense is still No. 1 in the SEC in rushing defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, and takeaways, and back among the top five nationally in all six categories. Milliner is well on his way to following Kirkpatrick's first-round footsteps.
2. Steven Terrell, S, Texas A&M. His quarterback got the headlines, for obvious reasons. But Terrell was integral to the Aggies' first SEC win with six tackles and a forced fumble to go with two interceptions, both of which the A&M offense converted into points. The A&M defense got on the board directly when Tramain Jacobs housed a fumble created by former Lowsman honoree Damontre Moore.
3. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas. Oklahoma State got its yards, as always, but not without consistent harassment from Jeffcoat, who racked up four tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble in the Longhorns' biggest road win in years.
4. Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford. The Thursday night trip to Washington was a flop, mostly thanks to the offense, but Murphy still managed to improve his stock with seven tackles and an athletic, swat-and-grab interception that he returned for Stanford's only touchdown. If only the Cardinal's wide receivers could do that.
5. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State. Mauti had six tackles, a sack, and two interceptions against Illinois, one of which led to a touchdown in a 35-7 rout for the Nittany Lions. With 105 yards on the interception returns, he becomes one of the few linebackers in history to lead a victorious team in all-purpose yards, although it would have been nice if he'd actually scored on the 99-yarder.
Honorable Mentions: UCLA linebacker Damien Holmes had five tackles for loss in the Bruin's 42-14 win over Colorado, including three sacks. ... Nebraska's offensive line made the comeback against Wisconsin possible, opening lanes for 259 yards rushing with only three negative plays all night. ... Arizona State defensive end Will Sutton had three of the Sun Devils' seven sacks against Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, bringing Maynard's "sacks endured" total to 22 over the last three games.