Wild Weekends: College Football Turning Up The Heat

In college football the race to the finish has begun.

 

At the beginning of the season, TCU/Baylor seemed to me to be a college football game that would be around in November as a legit game of the year candidate. It almost made it to November. However, Stanford’s multiple overtime win over USC at the Coliseum this past Saturday has now overtaken that position as the two teams put on what is right now college football’s game of the year. I had to note that as of now it’s the game of the year in college football because, well, it’s November and with all the craziness that usually takes place in this month there are also plenty of great games that come out of it. Back to Saturday in L.A.: Andrew Luck finally faced a tougher brand of competition and finally looked mortal as the pick-six he gave to USC late in the game nearly gave them the game as well. But Luck, showing why it’s basically unanimous that he’ll be next year’s #1 draft pick in the NFL, lead the Cardinal to a game-saving touchdown drive following the INT, with the tying touchdown coming with less than forty seconds to play. The Cardinal’s triple overtime win has kept their national title hopes alive for the moment, but with a showdown with Oregon looming, Stanford’s defense couldn’t have afforded a game where they were exposed as being a team who can give up large amounts of yardage and points. Still, it was mostly about Luck, as his leadership late in the game helped Stanford from suffering the kind of upset that Oklahoma had to go through last week. If there is a silver lining to this wild and crazy shootout for the Cardinal going forward (besides the win), it’s that they are able to keep their offense moving fairly comfortably through an entire game, even as the score continues to go up and up and up. Remember, not being able to produce points for a full sixty minutes was what did Stanford in against Oregon last year. Also remember that if it weren’t for Curtis McNeal’s fumble into the end-zone that ended the game, who knows how long this game would’ve gone and how high the score would’ve gotten.

 

The NFL’s marquee matchup this past Sunday turned into a showcase game for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A deceiving 25-17 victory (it wasn’t even that close) helped the Steelers erase the demons of past meetings with Brady and Patriots from their minds as they held Brady to under 200 passing yards, never let Brady get comfortable, and forced Brady into an uphill climb the entire game as the Steelers never trailed. I mention all of those things as ways Pittsburgh stopped Brady from being Brady in this one because it was a collaborative effort. Keeping Brady uncomfortable and unproductive is key to beating New England, but keeping Brady off the field is the best way to get him uncomfortable and unproductive. And with that, it was probably Pittsburgh’s offense more than their defense that beat Brady on this day. Not to take a single thing away from the Steeler defense, but Big Ben and the Steeler offense keeping the ball for just under forty minutes in this game may have done more damage to Brady’s ability to lead his team than anything that was forced upon him by the Pittsburgh D. With a rematch (and one they’ve wanted since opening day) with Baltimore now taking center stage next week, this game should offer more than a few lessons for Pittsburgh on how to meticulously wear down a team they hate/have trouble with. For Pittsburgh, Baltimore provides both as Pittsburgh’s wins over Baltimore in recent years haven’t exactly been runaway’s or even easy.

 

Two more fell from the ranks of the unbeaten in college football this past weekend. One was a bit of a shock and one really wasn’t.

 

The Clemson Tigers surprise start to this season has been stopped in its tracks by an inconsistent triple option attack. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets’ claim to fame in recent years has been their triple option running attack that has been beautiful to watch at times and incredibly disappointing at others. Consistency has been lacking in this running attack, but a big enough game has generally been able to bring out its best, and Saturday was that game with an undefeated conference opponent coming into their house. As for Tajh Boyd and the Tigers, they fell behind early and never came back. The Yellow Jackets worked at the Tigers relentlessly with their running attack and just overwhelmed them; remember the Tigers’ D has been one to let up a lot of points and rushing yards, but also make the key turnovers. Well, they did force G-Tech to fumble the ball away once and intercepted Yellow Jacket quarterback Tevin Washington once, but Washington balanced out those turnovers by directing that already mentioned rushing attack to nearly 400 yards while contributing nearly half of that himself.

 

Last week I did mention how Bill Snyder had once again put Kansas State football on the national radar, and this past weekend they slipped off of it in game one of their four game nightmare. With Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas A&M still to come, the Wildcats were run out of their own stadium (ironic in this case since it’s named after Bill Snyder) by over 40 points eliminating any chance they had at a BCS bowl game. Landry Jones had his way with the already vulnerable Wildcat defense throwing for over 500 yards (setting a school record in the process) and five touchdowns (setting a school record for career TD passes). And all the Wildcats (and maybe even Bill Snyder) could do was sit there and marvel at the force of nature known as the Oklahoma offense that had come into their house and made itself at home.

 

As for upsets, the biggest one came in the pro ranks this weekend with the St. Louis Rams gaining their first win of the season with a major upset over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Call it hangover, call it look-ahead for the Saints with Tampa Bay next week, call it whatever you want, but the fact is the Saints were outplayed by the St. Louis Rams in every phase of the game for the better part of three and a half quarters and lost. To me this upset was particularly noteworthy due to not just who it came against, but when it happened. You may recall me singing the Saints’ praises after they abused the winless Colts at home last Sunday. So the instant reaction from such a huge and easy win, apparently, was to play exactly opposite the way they played against Indy. And what happened? They were slammed by St. Louis in a manner that might have made some think they had fallen into a time machine somehow and it was 2001 again.

 

The NFL’s most stunning results came this weekend, not so much in upset form, but in comeback form. The Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants both played against teams they were heavily favored to beat, but both had to make double-digit comebacks to avoid the sting that would come from losing to a winless team (Giants against Dolphins) or a one win team (Ravens against Cardinals). The Ravens were down by 18 at halftime only for Ray Rice to make a one-man, thirty minute charge that resulted in him scoring three times and the Ravens edging Arizona via a short Billy Cunduff field-goal as time expired. As for the Giants, it was all about Eli. Maybe if New York had to settle for a field-goal at the end of the first half things would’ve been different, but Manning found Mario Manningham in the end-zone for a 25-yard score that put the Giants within four to end the half and in better position to make up for next to thirty minutes of poor play. Down by only four, the Giants were able to will their way past Miami thanks to Eli, doing the scoring in the fourth, but also keeping themselves and Miami from letting the game get away in the third as Miami could only muster a field-goal in that quarter. Eli and the Giants had their opening (a one score game with one quarter to play) and used it to eventually gain a win and keep Miami among those in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes.

 

The Big-10 got more exciting and more confusing over the weekend as Wisconsin once again fell thanks to a late touchdown pass, and Michigan State followed up their last-second win over Wisconsin by not scoring a touchdown in a dominating loss to Nebraska. Russell Wilson did what he could to bring Wisconsin back in a game they had control of, then lost (sound familiar?). The Badgers took a 7-3 lead into halftime, but the defenses took the second half off with the Buckeye offense in particular doing what it pleased while building a 12-point lead in the fourth. Wilson guided the Badgers back into the lead with two touchdown passes to Jared Abbrederis in the final three and a half minutes. But after letting up a near fifty yard kickoff return, the Buckeyes had plenty of time and fabulous field position to work with. While the field position helped set up what happened next, they didn’t need a lot of time to do it. On the fourth play following the kickoff, Buckeye freshman quarterback Braxton Miller rolled right under pressure, nearly ran out-of-bounds to stop the clock, stopped, and heaved a pass to the end-zone. That pass found a wide open Devin Smith for the score and the win. And when I mean wide open, I mean WIDE OPEN. The Wisconsin secondary appeared to have forgotten rule #1 of playing in the secondary: you follow the receivers. It appeared that Wisconsin’s defensive line and linebackers weren’t the only ones watching Miller roll right as Smith snuck right past the Wisconsin defenders making the touchdown that much more painful for everyone watching in Madison.

 

With Michigan St.’s poor showing in Lincoln, the Big-10 is now guaranteed not to send a team to play for the national title. What is still guaranteed is that they’ll send their champion to play in the Rose Bowl, but who that champion will be couldn’t be more of a mystery. Both divisions as of now have at least three teams that could be playing in the conference’s first championship game. In the Legends division it’s really about Michigan, Michigan St., or Nebraska, with Iowa looming as a possible spoiler or possible team that sneaks in amid the madness of November. These four still play at least one of the others during the final month of the season, so the possibilities are endless. Just as endless are the possibilities in the Leaders division with Purdue being the potential (but less likely) spoiler/team that sneaks in. I doubt that Purdue will somehow sneak away with the division, but I don’t discount the possibility that they could provide a crushing blow to a team by beating them this late in the season. The division has Purdue, Ohio St., and Wisconsin tied for second, with Penn St.—the only Big-10 team still unbeaten in conference play—leading the way despite making no waves this season. In fact, the biggest waves Penn St. has made this season have been about whether Joe Paterno will be coaching on the sidelines or not. They are unbeaten in conference, but the victories haven’t been impressive and with Nebraska, Ohio St., and Wisconsin to finish the season, it’s highly unlikely that the Nittany Lions are going to finish unbeaten in conference. So you have six (maybe eight) teams that could win the conference’s two divisions and play for the title. And with some teams playing inter-division conference games in November, there are a few possibilities (no matter how slim) that the first Big-10 championship game could not only be a rematch of a regular season Big-10 conference game, but the rematch could come quickly after the initial meeting.

 

Once again the Arkansas Razorbacks stay in the top ten by avoiding an upset. For the second week in a row, the Razorbacks fell behind early to an unranked conference foe only to come back for a close win. Down 21-7 in the second quarter against Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks once again kept calm and played their game. The result was a thrilling fourth quarter of football with Arkansas within a score at the beginning of it. They tied the game as Vanderbilt seemed to be putting distance between themselves and the Razorbacks. On second and goal from the Arkansas six yard-line, Zac Stacy of Vanderbilt fumble the ball and it was recovered by Razorback Jerry Franklin who returned it 94 yards for a touchdown. The ensuing two-point conversion tied the game and Arkansas took the lead with around six minutes to play via field-goal. But Vandy had a chance late. It was up to kicker Carey Spear from 27 yards, but it was not to be. Spear’s nervous energy may have gotten the best of him as his kick had the distance, but being on a right hash, it had to have a little hook to the left to go through. Instead, Spear kicked it straight and thus wide right to give Arkansas another close victory against a team they weren’t supposed to have a close victory against.

 

The comeback and all the excitement of the game would all be overshadowed by a single play. Marquel Wade of Arkansas brutalized Jonathan Krause of Vanderbilt on a third quarter punt with a hit that will surely go on many, many people’s big hit highlight reels. It will also be an example of why the two-yard “Halo Rule” is in place. Wade’s hit may not have even been what got him ejected as he did celebrate while still on the field, and that more than the hit was likely what got him kicked out of the game. Wade claims he believed Krause had the ball when he hit him and “screwed up.” Since Krause not only got up, but returned another punt later, that apology should be good enough.

 

But no matter what, shouldn’t the halo rule be basically jammed into the skulls of every special teams player on every college football team? Wade usually plays receiver, but was on special teams here. So what if he doesn’t play special teams every play? If he’s on the punt team, that should be something he’s aware of because it could cost your team fifteen yards in a pointless manner. I know people love to hit (this is football after all), but any time a team gets called for this it shows lack of discipline from the player and maybe even the coaching staff by proxy because it’s a simple rule to follow: keep two yards distance from a returner on a punt until he touches the ball. Simple enough. But time and time again we see players looking to make that big hit—maybe because they want somebody back home to see it, maybe because they want to get on SportsCenter, maybe just because they want to hit the guy—lose focus and clock a returner who’s called for a fair catch or is just in their path, like Krause was on Saturday. Last year, Roger Goodell painted a picture of helmet-to-helmet shots as basically a plague in pro football. He may be right, but what’s a plague in college football is players not obeying that two-yard rule. This has been something that has been occurring more and more over the years and unlike helmet-to-helmet shots, which can vary in speed and force, the shots committed on punt returners like Krause are always going to be full speed hits with as much force attached to them as the man trying to hit him can put into it. That is something that needs to be looked at within college football, and maybe football in general.

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