The Weekend Review
These five teams have completely turned their seasons around
Posted: Sunday October 24, 2004 7:00PM; Updated: Sunday October 24, 2004 8:59PM
You've heard your favorite coach say it a million times: "We're just trying to get better every week." Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.
And sometimes, it happens so dramatically as to turn into a completely different team over the course of a season, as has been the case with these five squads:
Michigan (7-1): Early in the season, the Wolverines couldn't run the ball to save their lives; now, they've got a freshman running back, Michael Hart, who's gained 600 yards his past three games. Equally important, though, is that Michigan's defense, which looked lost at times the second week against Notre Dame, has morphed into the dominant unit it was expected to be, holding normally explosive Purdue to 263 yards in Saturday's 16-14 victory. Veteran CB Marlin Jackson held prolific receiver Taylor Stubblefield to one catch, while Thorpe Award candidate Ernest Shazor's crushing hit on Purdue receiver Dorien Bryant caused the game-clinching fumble. Suddenly, an undefeated Big Ten season is a very real possibility for the Wolverines.
Miami (6-0): In their first three games, the 'Canes offense looked pitiful, and QB Brock Berlin was the prime suspect. But in the three games since coach Larry Coker publicly lit a fire under Berlin, the quarterback has finally come alive, throwing for 773 yards, 11 touchdowns -- including five on Saturday in a 45-31 win over N.C. State -- and just two interceptions. Receiver Roscoe Parrish is finally healthy and producing big plays. One troubling note, however: Miami's defense appears to be heading in the opposite direction, allowing 400-plus yards (440) and 30-plus points for a second straight week against the Wolfpack.
Texas A&M (6-1): After pulling out a dramatic 29-26, double-overtime win against Colorado, the Aggies have now won six straight since their season-opening 41-21 loss to Utah. Junior Reggie McNeal has developed into the nation's top multi-threat quarterback. Against the Buffs, he accounted for 382 yards of total offense (following up a 386-yard effort against Oklahoma State), including a season-high 139 on the ground. The Wrecking Crew is back to its old, run-stopping ways, but remains susceptible to the pass -- Colorado's Joel Klatt torched them for 346 yards.
Pittsburgh (5-2): A quick refresher: The Panthers, facing the daunting task of replacing QB Rod Rutherford and WR Larry Fitzgerald, opened the season completing just six passes against Ohio, then lost to Nebraska, squeezed by I-AA Furman and lost to Connecticut. But after upsetting Boston College and routing Rutgers, Walt Harris' team actually controls its own destiny in the Big East (they host first-place West Virginia on Nov. 25). Sophomore QB Tyler Palko had his best game so far against the Scarlet Knights, going 27-of-43 for 318 yards and three TDs.
Oregon (4-3): Is this really the same team that lost to Indiana to start the year? The Ducks' defense was flat-out dominant in Saturday's 16-13 road win over Stanford, notching 10 sacks and holding the Cardinal -- which came in averaging 389 yards -- to 261. DT Haloti Ngata is proving to be one of the Pac-10's best. Meanwhile, QB Kellen Clemens has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,048 yards during their current three-game winning streak. A fourth straight is likely Saturday against hapless Washington.
Player of the Week
Vince Young, QB, Texas: With Texas' sophomore quarterback coming off two dreadful performances against Oklahoma and Missouri, head coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis last week put together a personal highlight tape for the quarterback to view and, hopefully, regain some confidence. Meanwhile, Davis installed the lead option in his game plan. Both worked to perfection. In a crucial Big 12 South game against a Texas Tech team that had given the 'Horns fits their previous two meetings, the athletic Young turned in his best performance to date, carrying 25 times for 158 yards and four touchdowns and completing 10 of 15 passes for 142 yards and another score in Texas' 51-21 victory. With Young running the option when he wasn't running out of the shotgun, Texas Tech's defenders were left guessing whether he would keep it or pitch to the dangerous Cedric Benson. "Vince Young played like the Vince we see play every day in practice," said Brown.
Oklahoma QB Jason White (27-of-44, 389 yards, four TDs, no INTs) vs. Kansas; Tulane QB Lester Ricard (36-of-49, 417 yards, six TDs, no INTs) vs. UAB; Virginia RB Alvin Pearman (38 carries, 223 yards, 1 TD) vs. Duke; UAB WR Roddy White (10 catches, 253 yards, 1 TD) vs. UAB; Northern Illinois WR Dan Sheldon (six catches, 213 yards, three TDs) vs. Western Michigan; Arizona State QB Andrew Walter (25-of-51, 416 yards, six TDs, three INTs) vs. UCLA; North Texas RB Jamario Thomas (33 carries, 258 yards, 1 TD) vs. New Mexico State
Gratuitous props to ...
Cincinnati, which rebounded from an embarrassing loss to Army by clobbering previously 5-1 Memphis 49-10; Tulane, which, in similar fashion, improved to 2-4 by stunning 5-1 UAB 59-55; Boston College QB Paul Peterson for leading a game-winning touchdown drive at Notre Dame; and Boise State, which increased the nation's longest winning streak to 18 games with a 33-16 victory over Fresno State.
Team of the week
Mississippi State: No matter what happens in the years to come under Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, he, his players and the 43,170 in attendance will never forget what took place Saturday at Scott Field. "There have been a lot of good wins in my life," the rookie head coach said following the Bulldogs' stunning 38-31 victory over No. 20 Florida, "but for me, this is No. 1." In this age of parity in college football, it's not too often anymore that the word "upset" truly applies, but there's no arguing its use for this one. Prior to Saturday, this Mississippi State team was garnering mention as one of the worst in modern SEC history, having lost to Division I-AA Maine, getting blown out by Vanderbilt and getting wiped out of most games by the end of the first quarter. Against the Gators, though, RB Jerious Norwood ran his heart out, gaining 174 yards on 29 carries, and blossoming QB Omarr Connor had his best performance to date, producing 208 yards. "We beat a team that, talent-wise, is far better than we are," said Croom. "Our kids won that game strictly on guts and heart. I've been telling them all year if they just believe, something like this will happen."
A heavy-hearted Hawkeye
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was extremely emotional after the Hawkeyes' 6-4 victory over Penn State. Unbeknownst to anyone outside the team until afterward, Ferentz's father, John, a Pittsburgh native, passed away last Sunday at the age of 84. The coach and his son, Hawkeyes offensive lineman Brian, attended the funeral Friday, then drove to State College for the game. "My dad loved the Hawkeyes," a teary Ferentz said after the game. "His trademark was a 'Sooey.' Every time we won, he gave a big 'Sooey.'" John, who hadn't been able to attend a game in four years due to health problems, gave Kirk one last "Sooey" last Saturday night following Iowa's 33-7 victory over Ohio State. He died the next day.
When you've gotta go ...
No one was happier to see Stanford miss a 49-yard field-goal attempt that would have sent Saturday's game against Oregon to overtime than Ducks QB Kellen Clemens. Why? He had to pee -- and he'd been holding it nearly the entire second half. In the rain, no less. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad was it? "Eleven," Clemens told the Oregonian. Even so, Clemens took a few moments after the final gun to shake hands with Stanford's players, salute the crowd and join the band in a serenade before darting to the locker room, but not before apologizing to a pack of people waiting for him as he was coming off the field: "Sorry, I really have to pee." Ducks tackle Adam Snyder said Clemens was being extremely polite, and hygienic, to wait that long when he could have just, well ... "Guys do it all the time," he told the <I>Oregonian</I>. "They just squirt some water on them to rinse off. Their socks are probably nasty, though."
1. We're watching the dawning one of the all-time great return men in Miami's Devin Hester. The sophomore's 100-yard kick return (from six yards deep in the end zone) to start Saturday's game against N.C. State was his fourth touchdown of the season, and he's in the midst of accomplishing a rare feat -- ranking in the top five nationally in both kick (31.7) and punt (26.2) return averages. "He is so, so amazing," said N.C. State halfback Tramain Hall. "A tremendous, tremendous athlete," said Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato. "He's a Category 6." It's no wonder, then, that Hester's idol, Deion Sanders, the modern gold standard for return men, is crossing rivalry lines (Sanders played for Florida State) and has taken a personal interest in mentoring the 'Canes player. He recently asked former Miami standout Ed Reed for Hester's number after watching his performance against Louisville on TV. Sanders, a devout Christian, says he's interested in talking to Hester about life, and, perhaps, the mental aspect of the game, which has thus far kept him from having an impact on anything but special teams. "I'm trying to look behind the curtain to find out what's the problem," said Sanders, "because there is no way a guy can have that much ability, and that kind of instinct, vision and burst, and he shouldn't be playing."
2. Can Penn State's offense get any worse? Despite the exit of longtime coordinator Fran Ganter and the arrival of former Florida coach Galen Hall, the 2-5 Nittany Lions have showed almost no improvement, bottoming out in Saturday's 6-4 loss to Iowa. They gained just 147 yards and six first downs, a low under Joe Paterno, wasting another superb effort by their defense, which is now second in the Big Ten in points allowed. What's particularly bothersome is how, for two years running, the coaches continue to treat their best athlete, Michael Robinson, like a yo-yo. When QB Zack Mills (7-of-19, 82 yards, two interceptions) got knocked out in the third quarter, Penn State went to its backup QB, Robinson -- who also happens to be their top receiver and sometimes running back. He was even worse, going 2-of-9 for 14 yards and another two picks, including an ugly, underthrown ball at the goal line that cost the Lions a scoring opportunity. How can Robinson be expected to be a sharp quarterback when he spends half the week practicing at a different position? With Paterno clearly on his last legs, here's a radical suggestion: A) Ditch Mills for good, B) Pick a position for Robinson and stick with it, and C) Go with your future, highly touted freshman QB Anthony Morelli. What do you have to lose, Joe, but more games?
3. Apparently Mike Price is a pretty darn good coach. In the three seasons prior to Price's arrival, UTEP went 2-9, 2-10 and 2-11, respectively, to go with three straight 1-7 WAC records. But with Saturday's 44-27 road upset of Louisiana Tech, which was previously unbeaten in conference play, the Miners improved to 5-2 overall, 3-1 in the WAC, trailing only undefeated Boise State (whom they lost to 47-31) in the standings. In some ways, Price is reaping the benefits of a plan begun under predecessor Gary Nord, who built the roster by sticking largely to high-school recruiting and redshirted players, but the Miners clearly have a different attitude. Their defense repeatedly stood up to star tailback Ryan Moats and the Bulldogs on Saturday, creating turnovers and field position that allowed UTEP to score 27 points without driving more than 20 yards. The Miners finally broke open a close game late in the fourth quarter when Jahmal Fenner returned a punt 51 yards to the Louisiana Tech 11, then, on third and 12, QB Jordan Palmer (Carson's younger brother) hit Chris Francies for a touchdown. Francies, speaking of the raucous Tech crowd after that play, told the El Paso Times: ""They were stunned. They didn't know what to think. After all, this was UTEP."
4. Remember Brad Smith? You know, the Missouri quarterback who was one of the most exciting players in the country as a freshman and sophomore? What the heck happened to him? Smith, the fleet-footed QB who was touted as a Heisman candidate coming into the season, has run for just 410 yards in seven games after totaling 2,435 his first two seasons. And it's not like he's making it up through the air, either -- his 1,291 yards are only slightly ahead of last year's pace. In Saturday's 20-17 loss to Oklahoma State, in which the Tigers blew a 17-0 lead, Smith gained 58 yards rushing and 96 passing. Many observers blame Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel for stripping Smith of the improvisational instincts he showed off earlier in his career, having spent too much time training him to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions when, quite frankly, his receivers aren't that good. "Brad Smith is a robot now," Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock wrote after Saturday's game. "Programmed and stripped of his creativity ... [Smith] is now nothing more than [Pinkel]'s puppet, a modern-day Frankenstein." Believe it or not, the Tigers are tied for first in the Big 12 North.
5. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has remained stubborn in his insistence that the Big Ten will not follow the ACC's lead and expand just for the sake of staging a conference championship game. His reasoning: No feasible school besides Notre Dame would make it financially worthwhile. Perhaps it's time to consider another motive: Determining a true champion. With Michigan and Wisconsin both sitting at 5-0 in the conference, it's possible the Big Ten will wind up with split champs who don't face each other for the second time in three seasons (Ohio State and Iowa both went 8-0 in 2002) and the fourth time in nine years. If that happens, the conference will use overall record as the tiebreaker (the Badgers would beat out the Wolverines, which lost to Notre Dame), which will likely cause Michigan coach Lloyd Carr to once again push for a softer non-conference schedule -- or, quite possibly, change his opinion on expansion. Since that's not likely to happen anytime soon, perhaps it's time to consider adding a ninth conference game (will anyone really miss those September showdowns with Central Michigan?) or reduce each team's number of permanent conference opponents (teams they face every year) from two to one.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.