OFI: Revenge of the Herds
by Matt Hinton
In 2013, the concept of an "optimum offense" in college football means something very specific, tacitly invoking spread sets, hyperactive tempos, dual-threat quarterbacks, endless personnel groupings and versatile threats who can line up anywhere on the field. It's about balance. This is what the revolution looks like; we have the numbers prove it. And yet: In terms of maximum efficiency, the past weekend gave us two of the most relentlessly productive performances of the season by two of the few remaining offenses that pointedly defy almost all of those trends. On Thursday night, in its biggest game of the year, Stanford spent the first 55 minutes against Oregon playing as close as any team will come this season to a perfect game. On Saturday night, in its biggest game of the year, Alabama spent the last 45 minutes against LSU matching the Cardinal blow for blow.
That's not something you're supposed to be able to say about teams that finish with 377 and 372 yards of total offense, respectively – the median average for total offense this season is around 410 yards – especially with two quarterbacks, A.J. McCarron and Kevin Hogan, who came nowhere near 300 passing yards between them. But the results don't lie. After punting on its first series against the Ducks, Stanford proceeded to score on its next six by reenacting the Battle of Ypres: Linemen marching foot-to-foot, biting and holding ground four yards at a time. The first scoring drive covered 96 yards in a dozen plays, milking six minutes off the clock. The next covered 58 yards in five minutes, extending the lead to 14–0. The next, a 20-play, 96-yard slog that chewed up the final 8:26 of the second quarter, leading to an easy field goal on the final play of the half. The first three possessions of the second half also resulted in chip-shot field goals, at the expense of another 15 minutes off the clock. For the game, the Cardinal converted more third downs (14) and held the ball for longer (42:34) than any FBS offense this season. They amassed 274 yards rushing with a long gain of sixteen. This, en route to a convincing, 26–20 upset over the No. 2 team in the nation that wasn't nearly that close.
After punting on its first two possessions against the Tigers, Alabama proceeded to score on its next six by the same methodical means, only slightly modernized. (McCarron finished with 20 passes, compared to 13 by Hogan.) Trailing 7–3 early in the second quarter, the Tide embarked on five consecutive touchdown drives covering 78, 80, 79, 71 and 78 yards, respectively, and collectively draining more than 25 minutes; one of those, the 79-yarder, spanned more than half of the third quarter. They piled up 193 yards rushing on a long gain of twenty-two. This, en route to a 38–17 romp over the only team on the schedule that can ostensibly match Alabama blue-chip for blue-chip.
After fours hours of thorough physical dominance, Stanford players answered post-game questions Thursday wearing stereotypical "nerd" glasses, a goofy nod to Stanford's reputation for brains over brawn. It was also a bit of swagger from a double-digit underdog: Stanford is not really supposed to be good enough to do what it just did to a top-shelf frontrunner, is it? In 2013 no one is supposed to be that good, that methodical, for that long – not against real competition, anyway. Even Alabama, which had to take to the air itself earlier this year to keep pace with Texas A&M. But opposing defenses are hereby invited to prove them wrong.
- Stanford's demolition of Oregon lent some clarity to the top of the BCS standings, where the Ducks' pas de deux with Florida State at No. 2 has yielded to the inevitability of an FSU-Alabama championship, no further questions asked. Close calls and "style points" are irrelevant. If the Noles and Tide win, they're in. Instead, the drama shifts to the on-deck circle: In case of the unthinkable, who's number three? Right now, it's Ohio State, winner of 21 straight. But only one of the Buckeyes' victims this year, Wisconsin, is currently ranked in any of the mainstream polls or the BCS standings themselves; none of the other eleven opponents on the schedule are even deemed worthy of "Also Receiving Votes" purgatory. Meanwhile, Stanford has already leapt OSU in the computer polls and has another high-profile game to persuade human voters this weekend against USC. Is it possible for the Cardinal to rack up enough quality wins to absolve them of their increasingly inexplicable loss at Utah? Then there's Baylor, still undefeated after a 41–12 thrashing of Oklahoma and well-positioned to move up further with wins over Oklahoma State and Texas.
On the off, off, off chance that one of the golden tickets to the championship game is in play on Dec. 7, the final Saturday of the regular season, the question is close enough that it could conceivably come down to the final opponents on that weekend. For Ohio State, the best case scenario in the Big Ten championship game is a date with Michigan State, which has taken five in a row and will likely be a top-ten opponent at that point if it keeps winning. Stanford is in a similar situation in the Pac-12, where South Division frontrunners Arizona State and UCLA both have the potential to be solid, valuable opponents where the polls are concerned, or to come into the championship game looking like a token speed bump, depending on what happens between now and then. Even Baylor, which plays in a conference without an official championship game, is rooting for Texas to make it to December unscathed in Big 12 play, setting up a de facto Big 12 championship in the season finale in Waco. From this vantage point, the only answer is to remember that there are still three Saturdays in November for everything to change.
- Michigan finished with –21 yards rushing Saturday in a 17–13 loss to Nebraska, one week after finishing with –48 yards rushing in a 29–6 debacle at Michigan State, making the Wolverines the first FBS team since 2008 to finish with negative yards on the ground in back-to-back games. (This is what happens when you shuffle through seven different starters on the interior offensive line in a single month.) In those two games alone, Wolverine backs have been dropped for a loss 26 times, including 14 sacks, with a long gain of nine yards.
- Florida began the season as a top-ten contender building on last year's run to a BCS bowl. With Saturday's demoralizing, 34–17 loss to Vanderbilt – the Commodores' first win in Gainesville since World War II – the Gators have dropped four in a row and find themselves staring down the barrel of their first losing season since 1979. Injuries are an issue: Seven starters are out for the season, including the starting quarterback, Jeff Driskel, the best offensive lineman, Chaz Green, and the best player on the team, defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Even when the team was healthy and winning in 2012, though, the offense was an eyesore whose main virtue was avoiding turnovers. This year, it's no better at moving the ball or scoring, and it's nowhere near as careful with the ball. Against Vanderbilt, the Gators gave it away four times, three of them leading directly to Vandy touchdowns on drives that began inside the UF 15-yard line.
- On the other end of the spectrum, the feel-good turnaround of the season is unfolding in Minnesota, where the Gophers have taken four in a row in the medically related absence of head coach Jerry Kill. Saturday's 24–10 win over Penn State moved the record to 8–2, best in Minneapolis since 2003, and put the Gophers within reasonable striking distance of one of the New Year's Day bowls in Florida. (They're so new to winning, they immediately broke the trophy that came with beating the Nittany Lions.) The last time Minnesota played in January, in the 1962 Rose Bowl, those games didn't even exist.
- The most bizarre episode of the weekend was the abrupt firing of Eastern Michigan head coach Ron English, the apparent result of a leaked audio tape featuring English profanely berating his players for their ongoing ineptitude. (Sample dialogue: "I have no respect for the players that went here, I have no f****** respect for you b****. I have no respect for you little quittin'-ass b****. That's why you got your ass kicked, quitter. … I respect football players. … But you ain't no football players, you little b****.") English got the axe one day before EMU's game with cross-state rival Western Michigan in Ypsilanti. In that game, the Eagles rallied from a 29–21 deficit in the fourth quarter to win in overtime, 35–32, for their FBS victory of the year.
LOGAN THOMAS • QB, Virginia Tech. Thomas has started 37 consecutive games for Tech, none of them more satisfying than Saturday's 42–24 win at Miami to put the Hokies back in the driver's seat in the ACC's Coastal Division. In starts No. 35 and 36, Thomas played the goat in losses to Duke and Boston College, accounting for four turnovers in each. Against the Canes, though, he was nearly flawless, hitting 25-of-31 for 366 yards, two touchdowns and zero giveaways, setting season highs for completion percentage and pass efficiency in a steady rain. Even more encouragingly, he got some long-awaited support from tailbacks Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman, who combined for 142 yards on 36 carries. Still, Thomas has accounted for 75 percent of Tech's total offense this season, the largest share of any FBS player.
MYLES JACK • LB/RB, UCLA. Jack was one of UCLA's most productive defenders in a 31–26 win at Arizona, which comes as no surprise: As a true freshman, he's started eight consecutive games at linebacker and came in tied for the team lead in solo tackles. But then they handed him the ball Saturday night as a tailback, just to see what would happen, and it turns out Jack may be the Bruins' best player on offense, too.
After three days of practice at running back, Jack ran six times for 120 yards and broke UCLA's longest carry of the season, by far, on the 66-yard touchdown sprint seen above. In fact, five other defensive starters were part of the experiment, including senior linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, who caught a pass for 12 yards. But only one of them had reporters wondering after the game whether his cameo might grow into a full-time role.
BOGUS TARGETING PENALTIES. The inconsistent, arbitrary application of a well-meaning rule has been a recurring theme all year. Saturday, the trend claimed its most high-profile victim of the season, Notre Dame All-American Stephon Tuitt, who was flagged and for what looked like a routine open-field tackle on Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage:
Unlike many dubious targeting calls, Tuitt's ejection was upheld upon review, leaving the Irish without their two best defensive linemen – starting tackle Louis Nix sat out with an injury – for the final three quarters. (The call was later defended by the ACC as the correct interpretation of the rule.) From there, Pitt went on to score on the same drive, and added three more touchdowns in the second half for a 28–21 upset that snuffed out whatever embers of hope still existed for Notre Dame to return to a BCS bowl.
TENNESSEE'S RUN DEFENSE. The Volunteers were ripped for 444 yards rushing in a sobering, 55–23 loss to Auburn, nearly half of that number coming from Tiger QB Nick Marshall alone; the Vols were so helpless, Marshall only deigned to throw seven passes in the blowout. And franky, he didn't have to work that hard on the ground, either.
Keep an eye on the safety, sophomore LaDarrell McNeil, who – although All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) has accounted for the tailback up the middle – appears to realize for the first time that Marshall is allowed to keep the ball about two seconds too late to do anything about it.
What can they say? The Vols just really enjoy watching that kid run.
CALIFORNIA'S PUNT TEAM Early in the year, Cal gave off the vibe of an exceedingly green but feisty team that would be giving opponents fits by the end of the season. Instead, the baby Bears have looked progressively worse by the week. Everything went wrong in Saturday's loss to USC, a 62–28 debacle in which the beleaguered Trojans average 9.8 yards per snap. But then, they didn't even have to snap it that often, because the Cal punt team yielded three touchdowns of its own – two on long returns by USC's Nelson Agoholor, one on a blocked punt – all in the first half. At 0–9, the Bears are well on their way to finishing the season without a win over an FBS opponent.
OFI TOP 25
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1. ALABAMA (9–0).
2. FLORIDA STATE (9–0).
3. BAYLOR (8–0).
4. OHIO STATE (9–0).
5. STANFORD (8–1).
6. OREGON (8–1).
7. AUBURN (9–1).
8. MISSOURI (9–1).
9. CLEMSON (8–1).
10. TEXAS A&M (8–2).
11. SOUTH CAROLINA (7–2).
12. OKLAHOMA STATE (8–1).
13. ARIZONA STATE (7–2).
14. MICHIGAN STATE (8–1).
15. CENTRAL FLORIDA (7–1).
16. UCLA (7–2).
17. WISCONSIN (7–2).
18. OLE MISS (6–3).
19. LSU (7–3).
20. TEXAS (7–2).
21. OKLAHOMA (7–2).
22. GEORGIA (6–3).
23. FRESNO STATE (9–0).
24. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (9–0).
25. LOUISVILLE (8–1).
– – –
In: Fresno State, Northern Illinois, Louisville.
Out: Miami, BYU, Notre Dame.
Waiting: Miami, Notre Dame, BYU, Washington, Minnesota.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1a. DAVID YANKEY • OG, Stanford
1b. SHAYNE SKOV • LB, Stanford
The raw numbers aren't overwhelming, but Stanford's entire offensive line visibly dominated against Oregon, and none more so than Yankey, who lived up to his All-American billing as the lead blocker on third-down power after third-down power. Defensively, Skov was the most disruptive member of a unit that consistently overwhelmed Oregon's offensive line and rattled the previously unflappable Marcus Mariota, finishing with a team-high nine tackles, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two QB hurries. Skov's strip of De'Anthony Thomas and subsequent recovery at the goal line in the second quarter was the play of the game.
2. DeVON EDWARDS • CB/KR, Duke
A redshirt freshman making just his second career start, Edwards accounted for three touchdowns in a come-from-behind, 38–20 win over N.C. State, clinching Duke's first winning season since 1994. The first score came with Duke trailing in the third quarter, 13–10, when Edwards broke a 100-yard kickoff return to put the Blue Devils back in front. In the fourth, Edwards followed a late, go-ahead touchdown drive by the offense with back-to-back interceptions off N.C. State QB Brandon Mitchell on consecutive plays, taking both to the house to turn a 23–20 nail-biter into a 38–20 rout in a span of 20 seconds.
Oh, and Edwards was also credited with 10 total tackles (6 solo, 4 assists) …you know, if you're into your defensive backs tackling people and so forth. N.C. State is the third opponent in the last four games that Duke – Duke! – has held to a single offensive touchdown.
3. CHRIS BORLAND • LB, Wisconsin
Back from a two-game absence, the Badgers' senior anchor was his usual, omnipresent self against BYU, finishing with 13 total tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks in a defensively-driven, 27–17 win, Wisconsin's best of the year. Altogether, BYU finished with 370 total yards on 4.6 per play, its worst output in both categories since a water-logged loss at Virginia in the season opener.
4. C.J. MOSLEY • LB, Alabama
Mosley never looks as impressive in the box score as he does on the field, which is saying something for a guy who's been credited with almost twice as many total tackles as anyone else on the nation's No. 1 scoring defense. Although he doesn't have an interception, a forced fumble or a sack this season, Mosley makes every routine play, every time: Against LSU, he matched a season high with 12 tackles (7 solo, 5 assists), two of them coming in the Tiger backfield, and also broke up two passes in coverage. Despite a pair of extended touchdown drives in the first half, LSU managed just 67 yards in the second, and finished with season lows for yards (284) and points (17) in a lopsided loss.
5. RYAN MUELLER • DE, Kansas State
A former walk-on, Mueller accounted for three of the Wildcats' five sacks Saturday in a 49–26 upset over Texas Tech, leaving him (improbably) as the Big 12 leader with eight sacks for the year. Although the Red Raiders finished with 459 yards of total offense, that was nearly 100 yards below their season average coming in, and it took them 96 plays (most of them in garbage time) even to get that far. The only defense to hold Tech to fewer points, yards or yards per play in its first nine games was TCU's.