Wild Weekends: Thinning Out The Herd

Time continues to tick away.

 

This is the time of year when every week could be Judgment Week for a team. The matchup’s begin to get tougher, the rivalries begin to be played out for another year, and the teams that will be heading to postseason play are beginning to distance themselves from the rest of the pack. While for some teams, the sand in the hourglass may be running out as we speak. For an example, the Philadelphia Eagles blew another lead this past weekend to fall to 3-6 and almost completely out of playoff contention.

 

The big showdown between Andrew Luck & Stanford and LaMichael James & Oregon turned into a repeat of last year’s meeting. Luck may have had homefield advantage this time around, but it didn’t matter as a 31-14 second half for Oregon saw them distance themselves once again from their main Pac-12 competition. James scored two of his three touchdowns in the second half and would finish with almost 150 yards on the ground. For Duck quarterback Derron Thomas, this turned out to be the game where he really flexed his passing muscles. Always seen as a running quarterback and the man who runs Oregon’s splendid offense, Thomas started the second half barrage by collaborating with receiver Josh Huff on a 59-yard scoring play just under two minutes into the half. That gave the Ducks some distance from the 22-16 halftime margin, and James’ touchdown later in the quarter almost ensured (even with so much time left to play) that the Cardinal wouldn’t be catching up. Sure they still had Luck, who gamely kept Stanford scoring during most of the second half, but they didn’t have the defense to stop James & Thomas from continuing to run wild in the final thirty minutes. Ironically, it was the Duck defense that put the final stamp on this win as Boseko Lokombo’s 40-yard interception return touchdown with four and a half minutes to play sealed the Ducks return to the top five and likely ended Andrew Luck and Stanford’s national championship dreams.

 

The national title dreams of the Boise St. Broncos once again died thanks to a missed field-goal. Last year it was Kyle Brotzman’s misses in regulation and overtime that helped doom Boise against Nevada. This year it was Dan Goodale missing a 39-yard straight up field-goal wide right that once again put to bed the possibility of Boise playing for the national title or getting left out of the mix with an undefeated team. This was a game that many believed would be the Mountain West’s game of the year. It did turn out that way, but there was no reason that it should have turned out that way considering the play of Boise’s defense and the fact that TCU’s defense this year has been a far, far cry from last year’s D that was one of the top defenses in the country.

 

The game was a shootout as TCU quarterback Casey Pachall played the game and got the win that has now allowed him to step out of the shadow that Andy Dalton had created with his years at TCU. Pachall threw for five touchdowns and nearly 500 yards on a defense that hadn’t allowed a quarterback near those numbers yet this year all the while getting fabulous play out of his receivers who seemed hellbent on making sure they caught every ball they could, including the ones they had to fight for with a Boise defender (such was the case on the game’s final touchdown). The game was a back-and-forth affair with plenty of lead changes and the intrigue that can be added to a game by a poor kicker, and I’m not talking about Dan Goodale. In this case it was TCU kicker Ross Evans that may have set this whole thing in motion with possibly the worst missed extra-point I’ve ever seen. After TCU took a lead that they would take into halftime, Evans missed an extra point so badly that not only did TCU have to go for two after a touchdown at some point to tie the game, but it made the question of going for the tie or the win if the situation came up very easy. TCU stayed in the game and had an opportunity to tie or take the lead late. One breathtaking touchdown grab by Brandon Carter later and the stage was set for the ultimate gamble in college football: two-point conversion for the win. Josh Boyce, who caught three touchdowns on the day, had to work for it, but he turned a short outside pass into a successful conversion that gave TCU a one-point lead. Goodale’s miss was then partially set up by a kickoff out-of-bounds starting Boise at their 40 and a close pass interference against TCU on 4th & 10 for the Broncos. In short, they ran out of miracles and put it in the hands of a kicker instead of winning it with their offense. For this they paid the same price they paid last year.

 

Not too many would’ve bought Giants/49ers as a game of the week before the beginning of this season. But in the NFL, that in fact was the game of the week heading into this week with both teams not only ahead in their divisions, but also in the running for a first-round bye in the playoffs. For three quarters the game was a very close one, but one without any of the scoring that people expected going in as defense hasn’t been either team’s strongest suit this season. But it was on this day with the only scoring being field-goals for the first forty-two and a half minutes before the offenses finally came awake. Eli Manning and the Giants scored the first and last touchdown’s of the game, but in between the 49ers won the game. Alex Smith found Vernon Davis early in the fourth quarter for a big touchdown play that put the 49ers up. An interception set up a rushing touchdown a minute later giving them a lead they would not relinquish and Jim Harbuagh’s coach of the year résumé was given another boost.

There were no shakeup’s in the SEC this week as the top dogs of the nation’s top conference conducted business as usual with plenty of beatings to go around. Mississippi State gave Alabama a little trouble early on, but Bama eventually rolled over the Bulldogs. Top-ranked LSU actually got resistance from Western Kentucky before LSU realized they were LSU and played accordingly, routing the Hilltoppers 42-9. And Georgia and Arkansas almost mirrored each other with 45-7 and 49-7 wins against Auburn and Tennessee respectively. These wins paint the picture for the rest of the month in the SEC: Georgia wins next week and they clinch the SEC East and a spot in the conference title game, Alabama is still waiting for LSU to go down, and LSU & Arkansas both still control their own destiny in the SEC West and national title pictures. Those two meet in Baton Rouge November 25.

 

Never count out Virginia Tech. I think we all make that mistake each season as the moment the Hokies are eliminated from any national title contention, people simply forget about them. Last season is a fantastic example: the Hokies started the year losing to Boise St. and then James Madison in a six-day span before going undefeated in the ACC and winning the conference. This year the Hokies were decimated by Clemson 23-3 early in the season and now may earn their rematch in the ACC title game. Last Thursday’s meeting between the Hokies and Georgia Tech, riding high from their win against Clemson, many believed would decide the ACC’s Coastal division. The game was close for three quarters before quarterback Logan Thomas helped the Hokies pull away in the final sixteen minutes for a win that was harder than the 37-26 score may indicate. The Hokies still haven’t won the ACC Coastal division, but at this moment are the hottest team in the ACC and if I had to pick right now in the VT/Virginia game (a game that still could be for the division), I would take Beamer’s boys in a heartbeat.

 

Several of the NFL’s divisions got a dose of instant reality Sunday, and their eventual playoff representatives may have shown themselves in some key games.

 

Falcons coach Mike Smith may have given his team a fatal blow this past Sunday when he decided to go for it on a 4th & 1 inside his own 35 in overtime against division rival New Orleans. The Falcons only trailed by a ½ game for the division lead coming in, thus this was a crucial game in that division race. Michael Turner was given the ball, the Saints got great penetration, and the play had no chance. The Saints kicked the game winner soon after and now have a bit of breathing room in the NFC South, though the two have a December 26 meeting that could be a division title game. But if the Saints were to gain more room or even clinch the division before the two meet again, I’m sure many people in and out of the Falcons organization will be looking at this game and that play in particular and wonder what Smith believed there was to gain by going for it that deep in your own territory.

 

The Cincinnati Bengals have gotten a lot of positive talk about their team this year, and none of it has to do with Chad Ochocinco not being there anymore. Instead it has been about the rookie quarterback & receiver tandem of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green making the Bengals a legit contender for a playoff spot and the AFC North title. The Bengals still have to play Houston, Baltimore twice, and Pittsburgh a second time, so a division title is going to be far from easy, but a wild card spot may not be as tough or as hard to get. If anything else, the Bengals proved on Sunday, in their first meeting with Pittsburgh, that they can hang with the top dogs in the AFC North. Despite trailing 14-0 early, the Bengals hung with Pittsburgh for the rest of the game falling only 24-17 as their rookies showed the heart that rookies need to show, but were still rookies and had the same problems against NFL veterans that rookies have. It’s about baby steps and for a team that nobody expected anything from, the Cincinnati Bengals could still be the NFL’s biggest surprise this year when all is said and done.

 

The AFC East’s two powers met for the second time this season and, fitting for a Patriots/Jets meeting, it was in primetime. So does the game’s result mean that Jets still aren’t ready for primetime? Maybe. But this was more of a case of Tom Brady getting his groove back in the second half of this game. Through the first thirty minutes, this game resembled the 49ers/Giants game with the field-goals and the defensive dominance of the action. However, Brady transformed (maybe in a phone booth) back into the Tom Brady that we’re all used to seeing: a man completing passes to different men so smoothly it’s like he’s playing a pick-up game somewhere. And that’s how Brady’s (and the Patriots’) second half went as once they got going, they didn’t stop until the Jets were beaten and beaten into the ground. Rex Ryan was virtually speechless after the game praising Brady and blaming himself for “the worst play in football history” when the Jets called a pointless timeout in the second quarter. That play had nothing to do with the final score, but was indicative of a less than disciplined Jets offense that played Sunday Night. The win gives New England a season-sweep of their hated foes and a one-game lead over them in the AFC East. Even though it’s a one-game lead, that one game could really mean something six weeks from now as the Patriots final seven games are far more favorable than the Jets final seven, which include three games (two on the road) against the NFC East.

 

And of course there is Penn St. As for the scandal and everything that’s happened: I’m going to address the scandal another day (I’m thinking next week) because it’s a separate issue from football and deserves to be told separately from football. I will note that for a week where things were anything but normal, the game on Saturday between Penn St. and Nebraska offered some normalcy to State College, PA. It didn’t offer this just because there was football and some kind of momentary distraction from the horror that has ripped through the university, but because the game wasn’t that much different from any other Penn St. game this season. Yes the most obvious thing missing about this game was Joe Paterno from the Penn St. sidelines, but aside from that the game resembled many of Penn St.’s games this season: close, defensive, low-scoring, decided by less than seven points. The only difference between this past Saturday’s game and all but one of Penn St.’s games this season is that Penn St. lost this close game after losing so much more during the week that preceded it.

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