by Matt Hinton
Had Michigan known then what it knows now about Devin Gardner, its trip to Notre Dame in September 2012 might have played out differently. In fact, all of 2012 might have played out differently. Not that Gardner was some kind of secret: He arrived in Ann Arbor as the gem of the 2010 recruiting class and one of the most hyped "dual threat" quarterbacks in the country. But the Wolverines had a proven quarterback, Denard Robinson, and even if he had been recruited to run a very different style of offense than the more conventional system favored by the new coaching staff under Brady Hoke, what kind of lunatic takes the ball out of the hands of Denard Robinson? To get on the field, Gardner converted to wide receiver, and stayed there through the first two-thirds of the season, even as Robinson seemed to regress as a passer and struggled through hopeless outings against Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. Michigan failed to score a touchdown against the Irish or Spartans, and Robinson hit rock-bottom in South Bend by serving up four interceptions on four consecutive passes in a 13–6 loss.
It was only after Robinson injured his arm in another dismal defeat at Nebraska, leaving him physically unable to throw, that Gardner got his shot at quarterback. It clicked immediately. Michigan topped 35 points in each of his first three starts, wins over Minnesota, Northwestern, and Iowa, led well into the second half at undefeated Ohio State, and put up 28 points in the bowl game on a South Carolina defense that came in allowing seventeen. Robinson adjusted immediately to his new role as a tailback, accounting for more than 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the last three games, but by then his conversion was little more than a fitting coda: Gardner offered a glimpse of the future. Saturday night, against largely the same Irish defense that overwhelmed his predecessor last year, he exceeded the visions.
With Gardner at the controls in just his seventh career start, Michigan had significantly more yards (460) and twice as many points (41) as anyone managed against Notre Dame last year in regulation, and particularly abused a secondary that led the nation in limiting big plays. Against Alabama in January, the Irish were too preoccupied with Eddie Lacy between the tackles to devote enough bodies against the pass, leaving large swathes of open space for Bama receivers; but with no consistent between-the-tackles threat to occupy the safeties' attention against Michigan, they just flatly couldn't cover Gardner's favorite target, Jeremy Gallon, who hauled in eight receptions for 184 yards and three of Gardner's four touchdown passes. The pass rush that threatened to devour Robinson whole in 2012, led again by All-American Stephon Tuitt, barely laid a hand on Gardner, who –- with one glaring exception in the second half –- coolly outmaneuvered most of the pressure while managing to keep his bearings downfield. After the Irish pulled within four points midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan responded with a 10-play, 75-yard back-breaker of a drive, capped by a short touchdown pass from Gardner to Drew Dileo that extended the lead to 41–30 with just over four minutes to play.
Of course, from a Notre Dame perspective such a dramatic reversal of fortune begins a little closer to home. Even if you believe the Wolverines are better off with Gardner at quarterback under this particular coaching staff than they were last year with Robinson (at this point I'm not sure it's possible to argue otherwise), the difference is not stark enough to close a five-touchdown gap without some regression on the other side, and the Fighting Irish obliged. Personnel-wise, the only glaring difference from 2012 to 2013 is the absence of Manti Te'o patrolling the middle of the field, and as much grief as he's taken this year for his poor showing in the BCS title game (not to mention that other thing) it shouldn't come as a surprise that the defense misses the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Te'o was the engine of that defense, a sideline-to-sideline patrolman who excelled at flashing into throwing lanes, and no one on Saturday looked like they were on the verge of fitting that bill.
Under any circumstances, though, the night belonged to Gardner, who is already the quarterback the optimists assured us he would be, and was arguably one ill-advised pass away from being even better. It was as emboldening a coming-out party as one side had any right to expect, and as deflating a reality check as the other had feared.
- If there were any lingering doubts about how crucial this season is to Mack Brown's survival at Texas, they were put to rest on Sunday, when Brown unceremoniously fired his defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, in the wake of a 40–21 debacle at BYU. Diaz had no answers at any point for the suddenly explosive Cougars –- last seen slogging their way to 16 points in a loss to Virginia –- or their unheralded quarterback, Taysom Hill, who personally accounted for 259 of his team's astounding 550 yards rushing. That set school records both for BYU and against Texas, and demolished the notion that the 2013 Longhorns are on the cusp of a great leap forward after the growing pains of the last two years. In Diaz's place, Brown will turn to former coordinator Greg "Gerg" Robinson, who rejoined the team in the offseason as an "analyst" after disastrous stints as a head coach at Syracuse and defensive coordinator at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez. Given that Robinson's unusual role with the team already involved breaking down film and some game-planning, you don't have to be an insider to conclude that he was hired as a backup plan, with an eye toward this exact scenario. As bad as they looked on Saturday, the Longhorns are still the most veteran outfit in the country and have the entire Big 12 schedule in front of them. Brown can't afford to lose another season to "rebuilding," especially with a lineup built to win now, and he knows it.
- Not to be outdone, USC managed to trump Texas' defense by turning in the worst offensive performance of the century by a Trojan offense in a depressing, 10–7 loss to Washington State. That only sounds like hyperbole if you had the good sense not to watch it. In the first half, SC quarterback Cody Kessler supplied Washington State with its only touchdown of the game, courtesy of a pick-six interception return on an egregiously under-thrown slant; in the second half, USC missed two field goals (one blocked, one wide) and never came close to the end zone thanks to the ultra-conservative stylings of Max Wittek. (Once Wittek was forced to throw the Trojans back into the game on their final series, he was intercepted on the same routine slant route to put the loss on ice, hanging the ball too far in front of his target where Kessler had left it too far behind.) Between them, the sophomores completed 11 passes for 54 yards, or 2.6 yards per attempt. Marqise Lee, the most dynamic play-maker in the nation in 2012, touched the ball ten times as a rusher and receiver for a grand total of 24 yards. Long completion of the night to any receiver: Eight yards. Against Washington State.
- Florida constructed a top-ten season in 2012 around one of the most lo-fi offenses in the SEC –- which is saying something in a conference that also includes Auburn and Kentucky –- but when things went wrong, they went very wrong: Although the Gators only committed 15 turnovers in 13 games, tied for fewest in the SEC, nine of them came in the losses to Georgia and Louisville alone. On Saturday, the floodgates opened again in Miami, where they gave it away five times in a discouraging, 21–16 loss that calls into question just how far Florida has come from the mediocrity of 2010–11. The really frustrating part? When not losing it in comically inept fashion, the offense actually moved the ball for a change, outgaining the Hurricanes by a full 200 yards, 413 to 212, in terms of total offense. But three of the five giveaways came inside the UM red zone, not including a turnover on downs in the second quarter. The fifth and final giveaway, a sack-and-strip of quarterback Jeff Driskel in the dying minutes, set up the Hurricanes offense at the UF four-yard line for the icing touchdown.
- We didn't learn anything about Georgia we didn't already know in a 41–30 win over South Carolina -– the talents of quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley are well established -– but after their opening-night loss at Clemson it was a vital, potentially season-making win for the Bulldogs. Not only did UGA clear the tallest hurdle in the SEC East: It also reentered the national conversation as a serious contender if/when the frontrunners in the BCS standings begin their annual domino routine later in the season. An early, competitive road loss at Clemson is about as forgivable as losses get – certainly more so than last year's midseason flop at South Carolina, which ultimately didn't keep the Bulldogs from bouncing back to play for a BCS Championship bid in the SEC title game. Unlike last year, the remaining schedule includes one of the heavy hitters from the West Division (LSU), as well as Florida, and Auburn in mid-November will not bear any resemblance to the lame-duck Tigers of 2012; then there's the matter of getting past Alabama or Texas A&M in December, should the opportunity arise. But that opportunity is impossible without the first step on Saturday, and this team has every piece it needs to take advantage of it.
- It's hard to imagine the same two teams playing more diametrically opposed games in consecutive seasons than Oklahoma and West Virginia. After combining for 99 points last year in a wild, down-to-the-wire shootout between two fully loaded, up-tempo offenses, the Sooners and Mountaineers embraced the "rebuilding" theme by generating four times as many turnovers (8) as touchdowns (2). (At one point in the second quarter, both offenses combined for four lost fumbles in a span of 24 plays.) Although Oklahoma escaped the upset, winning 16–7, it didn't come any closer to settling the ongoing quarterback dual between the coaches' choice, redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, and fan favorite Blake "Belldozer" Bell, who replaced Knight in the fourth quarter. Knight ascended to the job in the last week of preseason camp, thereby generating a brief gust of late-blooming hype over his potential as a runner, but by the second half Saturday OU coaches seemed terrified by the prospect of him putting the ball in the air against one of the most vulnerable secondaries in the Big 12. Bell didn't have time to do much, leading two drives that stalled out in WVU territory, but the best guess with a trip to Notre Dame looming is that the Bellzoer's time has finally come.
OFI TOP 25
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1. ALABAMA (1–0). Crimson Tide didn't play a down this weekend and didn't budge a centimeter from this spot.
2. CLEMSON (2–0). Georgia's win over South Carolina confirms Tigers' win over Georgia as the best of the early season.
3. OREGON (2–0). Ducks managed 68 plays in a little under 22 minutes at Virginia, a relatively pedestrian pace of one snap every 18.9 seconds.
4. LSU (2–0). Consider this your annual reminder to begin reinforcing your home against the prospect of LSU with a legit offense. After a strong debut against TCU, quarterback Zach Mettenberger set career highs for touchdowns (5) and efficiency (295.7) against UAB, and wide receiver/return man Odell Beckham Jr. is currently leading the nation in all-purpose yards.
5. FLORIDA STATE (1–0). FSU had the week off following a Monday opener, all the better to feed the growing hype over freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.
6. STANFORD (1–0). Cardinal were brutally efficient against San Jose State, scoring on six of their first eight possessions and successfully killing the clock on the ninth. The only drives that didn't produce points ended with a missed field goal and a fumble in SJSU territory, respectively.
7. GEORGIA (1–1). Defense is not there yet, but the rebound against Carolina means Bulldogs have every opportunity in front of them.
8. OHIO STATE (2–0). Braxton Miller may or may not play at Cal after spraining his MCL against San Diego State, but Buckeyes are still weeks away from needing their star quarterback at full strength against Wisconsin.
9. TEXAS A&M (2–0). Saturday's visit from Alabama is the most hyped game ever at Kyle Field, and it's not close.
10. MICHIGAN (2–0). Wolverines didn't fare very well in projections based on advanced stats, but an early win over Notre Dame comes with an automatic escalation in BCS ambitions.
11. OKLAHOMA STATE (2–0). Texas' collapse means OSU is the de facto Big 12 frontrunner, I guess? Cowboys revived their (briefly) dormant passing game against UT-San Antonio, which is better than alternative, but signifies nothing re: their fate in conference play.
12. SOUTH CAROLINA (1–1). Gamecocks have more threats offensively than they get credit for, but not as many on defense, as it turns out.
13. LOUISVILLE (2–0). At this rate, Teddy Bridgewater is going to be casually lobbing touchdowns in his pajamas by Halloween.
14. MIAMI (2–0). Wasn't pretty, but a win over a top-10 SEC heavyweight is a defining one for Al Golden -– if the Canes follow through in the tightly packed ACC Coastal.
15. WASHINGTON (1–0). Saturday's trip to Illinois is interesting, because overachieving starts by both teams have blurred the context. Regardless of the result there, it's going to be weeks before we know enough to interpret it.
16. OKLAHOMA (2–0). Nothing screams "quarterback controversy" like eking out 16 points against a rebuilding defense that wasn't very good to begin with.
17. NORTHWESTERN (2–0). No idea how impressive double-digit wins over California and Syracuse will look in the long run, but at this point in the schedule, steering clear of brazen cupcake games counts for a lot.
18. UCLA (1–0). Young Bruins get their first test Saturday at Nebraska. In the meantime, they get extra credit for their role in my favorite off-field moment of the season, in which Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott falls off the set of the Pac-12 Network.
19. NOTRE DAME (1–1). Defense shoulders the blame for yielding 41 points, but the offense had as many turnovers at Michigan (2) as touchdowns.
20. BAYLOR (2–0). Bears scored eight touchdowns on their first eight possessions against Buffalo, racking up 781 total yards despite throttling down early in the third quarter.
21. OLE MISS (2–0). Trip to Texas is still a measuring-stick game for the Rebels, only in an entirely different context than they'd assumed.
22. BYU (1–1). Cougars would probably be in the top ten if not for an opening-day loss at Virginia, a game they really should have won.
23. FLORIDA (1–1). In nine losses under Will Muschamp, Gators have committed 29 turnovers.
24. VIRGINIA TECH (1–1).
25. TCU (1–1). Ongoing quarterback derby between Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin was unfortunately settled by an arm injury that will sideline Pachall for the start of Big 12 play, if not longer.
– – –
In: Miami, UCLA, Northwestern, Baylor, BYU.
Out: Penn State, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Fresno State.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
The weekend's most outstanding college linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
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1. Shilique Calhoun • DT, Michigan State.
Words can't really express how bad Michigan State's offense is right now –- at least, words I'm allowed to use in this column –- but thanks to Calhoun, we have a very convenient example for a little compare-and-contrast. Through two games, Calhoun has already found the end zone three times on fumble and interception returns, which not only makes him the Spartans' leading scorer: It gives him more touchdowns than the entire MSU offense, which has only managed to score two. Against South Florida, Calhoun hit paydirt twice, on a four-yard fumble return in the third, effectively supplying the final margin in a 21–6 win. (Further down the box score, he also recorded two tackles for loss.) Meanwhile, the offense finally punched in its first score of the day in the fourth quarter, following a badly shanked USF punt. The drive took nine plays and 4:34 off the clock to cover 33 yards.
2. BYU's Offensive Line.
Obliterating the school rushing record against a ranked opponent leaves plenty of credit to go around, and a very large share of it has to go to the starting five up front, Michael Yeck, Broc Stringham, Ryker Mathews, Solomone Kafu and Terran Alletto, as well as Kyle Johnson and De'Ondre Wesley, both of whom came off the bench to make key blocks on touchdown runs. Out of that group, only Mathews and Kafu boasted starting experience coming into the season, but Texas' relatively long-in-the-tooth defensive line was overmatched from start to finish.
3. Kyle Van Noy • LB, BYU.
There is no resisting the narrative pull of an offense so prolific it threatens to destroy an opposing coach's career in a matter of hours. But the Cougars' resident headliner still resides on the other side of the ball, and during the game itself he was every bit as visible as his offensive counterparts in the course of racking up eight tackles, one sack, and four quarterback hurries. Texas went three-and-out four times in the first half, and was never in position to threaten BYU's lead in the second.
4. Dominique Easley • DT, Florida.
Easley didn't make much impact in the box score (he was credited with one tackle against Miami, for a short loss), but his presence was abundantly clear on the field, and in Miami's production: The Hurricanes finished with just 212 yards of total offense, their worst output since September 2009, including just 50 yards rushing on 1.8 per carry (including sacks). The Canes made every effort to feed their star sophomore, Duke Johnson, but on 21 carries –- a new career high -– he managed just 59 yards with a long of twelve.
5. Damante Horton • CB, Washington State.
Horton picked off two passes against USC, both of them critical to the Cougars' upset: The first he took to the house for Washington State's only touchdown of the game; the second slammed the door on the Trojans' comeback bid late in the fourth quarter. Not long ago, those two plays alone might have made him a household name in a monumental upset fueled by the overachieving Cougar defense. Under the circumstances, nobody could hear his name beneath chants of "Fire Kiffin."