Wild Weekends: It Has Arrived Yet Again

It usually starts around this time of the year.

 

Unless it is a season completely full of upsets, it is around late-October that the football world is plagued with upset wins and shocking losses. Neither level of competition is ever spared from this fate as it just comes, like the passing of the seasons, and is now simply something that all teams in a position to play for a championship or contend for one have to accept and deal with.

 

And this weekend certainly gave fans the usual introduction to the rash of upsets that will likely fill November and then December. The NFL season is around the halfway point and the schedules only get tougher for top teams in college football. So looking back it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that at least one top five college football team went down this past weekend and the week of football was finished with the Jaguars upsetting the Ravens at home on Monday Night in a game that wasn’t offensive in any way, but wasn’t really defensive; it was more about mistakes and inactivity and maybe some ineptitude too. Top teams weren’t the only ones to fall this weekend as West Virginia was nearly ousted from the top 25 after a 26-point road loss to Syracuse that few (if any) saw coming. And one top team survived what was looking like an upset: Arkansas. The Razorbacks dug themselves into a seventeen-point hole early against Ole Miss, but turned it around ending up with a close 29-24 win to stay in the hunt for the national title.

 

The biggest victim of this first batch of upsets was easily formerly third-ranked Oklahoma. Playing at home against a Texas Tech team with a great offense, but absolutely no defense shouldn’t have been a huge test. All the Sooners really needed to do was stay one step ahead on offense. A rain delay and two missed field-goals later, and Boomer Sooner now needs to win out to even have a shot at playing for the national title. The misses were from 39 and 28 yards respectively and while I can grudgingly see a college kicker, even a freshman as Sooner kicker Michael Hunnicutt is, missing from 39, the second miss (with less than three minutes to play) was completely unacceptable. The Sooners were positioned on the left hash mark, so all Hunnicutt had to do was kick the ball diagonally with a little bit of a curve to it and the ball goes through no problem. Hunnicutt kicked the ball diagonally, but forgot the second part as the ball bounced off the right upright, no good. And while the Sooners rallied to within three with a quick touchdown drive, it was already too late.

 

In Madison, all memories of that two-point conversion try in Pasadena against TCU have been erased and then replaced by Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary Saturday night.

 

While the deciding play in Wisconsin’s 37-31 loss was that last, climactic play, the Badgers had sealed their fate over the course of the game and were forced into making a comeback to even set up Cousins’ play. The Badgers watched a fourteen-point lead slip away due to a number of offensive line mistakes and the Spartan defense as a whole waking up and playing to their usual level. It was a 23-point second quarter for the Spartans that flipped the game a complete 180 degrees and forced Wisconsin to go into the second half in comeback mode, something they hadn’t been in since their game last year in East Lansing against the Spartans. Quick note: that game ended up with the same winner as this year’s meeting. The second quarter saw the Spartans force Russell Wilson into a safety, score a touchdown on the ensuing possession, block a punt & return it for a touchdown, block a field goal, and then score a touchdown on the ensuing possession. It was a back-and-forth fourth quarter that saw the Badgers claw their way back to a tie before what will likely become known on the Michigan State campus (depending on how well they end their season) as The Play.

 

As for The Play: I do believe that Keith Nicol got into the end-zone and that the play should have been a touchdown. And while I don’t agree with the initial call (Nichol down at the one-yard line), I don’t believe that there was indisputable evidence on any of the replays that would’ve reversed any call, whether they initially said Nichol got in or not. So Michigan State does deserve the win because Nichol did score the game-winning touchdown, but they didn’t deserve to win the game that way on Saturday night because the referees flubbed the initial call and didn’t have enough to overturn it. Controversy does help create chaos and in the college football world the timing couldn’t have been too much better for this one controversial play that settled a pivotal Big-10 game to partially be the catalyst for another crazy November.

 

And speaking of crazy: the first starts of the year for Tim Tebow and Christian Ponder turned out not to be the complete disasters that most people were preparing for. Though Carson Palmer’s first appearance of the season, replacing Kyle Boler in the second half for Oakland, was.

 

Ponder’s was easily the most complete performance of the three as he tossed a 72-yard touchdown on the game’s first play and despite the inconsistent play you’d expect from someone making his first career NFL start, Ponder was able to keep the Vikings from getting slaughtered and even put pressure on the Green Bay offense late by getting Minnesota to within six. But that’s as close as they’d get as Green Bay moved to 7-0 and Ponder’s first day at the helm was a mixed one: good for him personally, but the team still lost. Lesson learned.

 

Carson Palmer, signed earlier in the week by Oakland after Jason Campbell broke his collar bone, came in to relieve Kyle Boler in the third quarter of what would turn out to be a 28-0 loss at home to the hated Kansas City Chiefs. All Palmer was able to do was add to the interception total that Boler started in the first half—the total would get to six thrown by the Raiders in the game. The worst probably was Brandon Flowers’ 58-yard pick six off of Palmer on the opening play of the final quarter. It was probably Palmer’s worst throw of the day not just because of the play’s result, but because of how much of a lob to Flowers (and not his receiver) Palmer’s pass was.

 

But Tebow was the one who shined brightest, if for only one reason: his team won. Tebow’s performance through the first fifty-five minutes vindicated everything his critics have said so far (he can’t make the transition, he can’t throw right, all he can do is run, he can’t read blitzes right, etc.) whereas the final five minutes vindicated everything his supporters have said so far (he’s a winner, he can lead a team, he has the competitiveness needed on this level, etc.). As for me: I’ve been somewhere in-between from the beginning. Tebow’s college career seems like a whole lifetime ago when you look at his struggles to learn how to become an NFL quarterback. The only reason I haven’t been able to write him off as just an amazing college football quarterback who couldn’t make the transition is that every time he’s been on the field in the NFL he’s shown little bits of greatness and of improvement. Those bits have been few and far between so far, but those signs that he is learning are there and have been there. On Sunday, Tebow apparently packed everything he’s learned as far as being a pro into a ball and threw it out there during those final few drives. He helped Denver break through and get on the scoreboard with back-to-back touchdown drives in a game they were sure to lose as their eventual win was the only time since the merger (1970) where a team has been down by at least 15 with three minutes to go and come back to win the game. And how did Denver make that two-point conversion that sent the game to overtime: Tebow sneaking it in of course.

 

A few weeks ago I wrote about how much of a surprise the Clemson Tigers are this year. One of college football’s big surprises, they appeared to be on the way to defeat last week in what would’ve been the first major upset of the year, against unranked Maryland. The Tigers offense ended up scoring 39 in the second half and the Tigers willed their way to a comeback win. This week it was their defense that put out a potential fire. Holding on to a 24-17 lead at half against North Carolina this past Saturday, the Tigers looked to be in another close shootout. By the end of the third quarter all of those thoughts were put to rest after a thirty-five point quarter put this one out of reach. The Tigers scored on every drive of the quarter, and while Tajh Boyd’s three touchdown passes (out of five) and one touchdown run during the quarter were what people talked about, it was the Clemson defense that was the real talk of the town in Death Valley. In this quarter it was nothing but punts for NC, unless Clemson was forcing them to turn the ball over. Two third quarter turnovers (both fumbles) by NC resulted in two of Clemson’s five touchdowns during those fifteen minutes. First there was a fumble on a kickoff following Clemson’s first score of the quarter that ended up setting the tone for what was to come, and then Clem Kourtnei scored his second defensive touchdown of the day (with an interception return) when a near-sack turned into a fumble and once Kourtnei scooped the ball up, he did the rest. The Tigers ended up forcing six turnovers on North Carolina as the game was a runaway fifteen minutes after it had been hanging in the balance.

 

A college football team that has not only been a surprise but is now on the radar, is the eighth-ranked Kansas Sate Wildcats. It is simply amazing how easy it appears for Bill Snyder to turn Kansas State into a winner after years of being anything but. During the last couple of years of Snyder’s first run as K-State head coach and the seasons in-between his two runs with the team, the Wildcats have been a sub .500 football team with a few slightly above .500 seasons and two bowl appearances in the last seven seasons. Snyder’s first run with the Wildcats has been called by many as the greatest rebuilding job by a coach in the history of college football, and it’s tough to argue when he took this team from being one of the worst in college football to #1 in the country in a decade. With the Wildcats in the top ten for the first time in nearly a decade, it comes as no surprise to me that it’s been done with Snyder coaching the team. Quite simply: this is his team and has been his team for a long time. While Snyder’s final two seasons of his first run were two of his worst, the program did absolutely nothing to rebuild in his absence. They went to one bowl game during the three seasons Snyder was gone (and that was a 7-6 team that lost the bowl game) and when his replacement Ron Prince wasn’t working out, the Wildcats went back to the well and brought Snyder back. And while I usually would say that bringing Snyder back wreaks of desperation and not being able to move on (and it is), but this is one of those instances where I will agree with going back to the well after giving it a try without. As Snyder’s twentieth season as Wildcats’ head coach continues to play itself out, Snyder already has his team bowl eligible (second in three seasons of his return) and has already clinched a winning record for the season (only five sub-.500 seasons as K-State head coach) and it’s a good thing all of that is out-of-the-way because a fall could be coming. With all of the rivalry games, upset alert games, and just plain tough games remaining for basically every team in the top-15, I don’t believe there is any finishing stretch tougher for any team in college football than the final five games this regular season for Kansas State. Check it out: they finish this season playing Oklahoma (6-1, #9 in BCS), at Oklahoma State (7-0, #3 in BCS), Texas A&M (5-2, #16 in BCS), at Texas (4-2, #24 in BCS), and Iowa State (3-4, NR in BCS). Just about every other top program in college football has at least two could-lose games down the stretch, but just about all of those teams also has a game or two against a much lesser foe whereas that game for Kansas State doesn’t come until their regular season finale, and by then the damage could be done to a season that so far could be called magical.

 

I’m going to finish this week with two stories: one of success and one of failure.

 

The success story is of DeMarco Murray who will go down as having the biggest rushing game in Dallas Cowboy history, rushing for 253 yards against the powerless St. Louis Rams this past weekend in Dallas. Not Emmitt Smith, not Tony Dorsett, but DeMarco Murray. The tone was set literally from the beginning as Murray’s first run of the day was a 91-yard touchdown scamper. After that, Murray would not quit (being the Cowboys’ main source of offense in this game) until the game was far, far out of reach.

 

As for the failure, let’s just say it’s more of a rock bottom and (surprise, surprise) it involves the Indianapolis Colts. Truly this has been a freakshow of the ugliest kind as all of us knew the team as a whole would take a dip without the services of Peyton Manning. But I doubt too many people believed that the Colts would stand right now at 0-7 and look like a team that will have no problem getting to 0-16. For their sake I’m hoping they at least get one (I was even hoping the Lions would get just one a few years back—just not against Green Bay) because this past Sunday was rock bottom for the Colts. A 62-7 road defeat on national television is the perfect illustration for this team’s season as the Saints barely had to try to win this football game. The first three Saints drives went the same way: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. Two of those touchdowns would be off of Colt fumbles and the turnover brigade wasn’t done giving the Saints gifts as Leigh Torrence added the cherry on top to this game for the Saints with a 42-yard interception return touchdown late. And while 21 points off of three turnovers may seem impressive enough, Drew Brees didn’t even need the turnovers to turn this game into a slaughter. The Colts defense might as well have been the practice squad for Brees as he only threw four incomplete passes (to go with five touchdowns) and had a passer rating of nearly 145. So let’s put all the facts out there: 62-7 win for the Saints, Brees has one of the best regular season games by a quarterback in NFL history, the Colts commit sloppy turnovers and all of them are converted by New Orleans, the points scored by the Saints was tied for the most in a regular season game since 1970, and the differential was tied for second since the same year. Truly a historic night for both teams as the Saints got to flex their still working muscles in historic fashion, and the Colts’ historic collapse got to take center stage, and that’s exactly where they wish it wasn’t.

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