The Weekend Review
Guess what? ACC didn't turn out to be FSU, Miami ... and everyone else
Posted: Sunday October 31, 2004 9:26PM; Updated: Sunday October 31, 2004 10:03PM
The way it was envisioned by many, including perhaps the people who organized it, Miami and Florida State would rule the newly expanded ACC like dueling monarchs.
Their annual rivalry game was moved to the beginning of the season to assure the loser ample opportunity to get back into the national title picture. They were placed in separate divisions, starting next year, to ensure their rightful spots in the conference championship game. And that event was placed not in the conference's traditional hotspots of Charlotte or Atlanta, but closer to its new center of power, Jacksonville, Fla.
A couple of unanticipated events, however, have rocked the fiefdom's natural order: The rulers are no longer exuding royalty. And the serfs aren't sitting back and accepting their place.
As the 'Canes and 'Noles rudely learned Saturday, they can no longer simply roll out their parade of Parade All-Americans and expect the opponent to roll over. Not even when the opponent, as was the case for both teams, has a losing record, a recently inept offense or one of the nation's worst defenses.
For FSU, Saturday's 20-17 humbling at the hands of Maryland was its first loss to the Terps since joining the conference, and embarrassingly, it came at the hands of a team that was not only 3-4 but had scored a combined 17 points in its previous three outings and hadn't cracked 200 yards of offense in a month. And yet the defeat wasn't altogether surprising considering the Seminoles had nearly endured the same fate each of their previous two road games against two other middling opponents, Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Similarly, Miami had shown signs of cracking much of the season, but only a crazy person would have seen the Tar Heels as the opponent that would cause the dam to break. UNC was coming off a 46-16 pasting at the hands of Utah, in which its much-maligned defense allowed 669 yards, and would be playing without its top two running backs. And yet that same defense was able to hold the 'Canes' running game completely in check, while Miami's defense, which entered the contest ranked a paltry 50th in the country against the run, failed to contain Tar Heels tailback Chad Scott (25 carries, 175 yards, two TDs) and saw yet another quarterback, UNC's Darian Durant, burn them both on the ground and through the air (330 total yards). Maybe North Carolina officials knew something we didn't when they selected Miami as their homecoming opponent.
Suddenly the 'Noles (6-2, 4-2 ACC), having won the conference 11 of the past 12 seasons and accustomed to playing in BCS bowls, are dealing with an unfamiliar reality. "It hurts. ... Probably going to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl," said defensive tackle Travis Johnson.
The 'Canes (6-1, 3-1), Big East champs the past four years, still control their own destiny in the ACC, with games remaining against both of the teams they're tied with for first, Virginia and Virginia Tech, but not unless they get their recently woeful defense corrected.
Either way, it's clear the gap between the Big Two and the other nine is rapidly evaporating. And in many ways, it was inevitable. Nothing is happening in the ACC that hasn't already happened in the Big Ten, where Michigan and Ohio State long ago lost their stranglehold; the Big 12, where longtime stalwart Nebraska hasn't won the title in five years; or the SEC, which could get its sixth different champion in seven years if Auburn wins it this season.
If you're a 'Canes or 'Noles follower, though, there are also more tangible explanations for what happened this weekend. For the fourth straight year, FSU's national title hopes have been squashed by an underachieving offense, and while QBs Wyatt Sexton and Chris Rix (a combined 22-of-51 against the Terps) are the obvious scapegoats, it's been clear for some time now that the blame rests with offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden. With top tailback Leon Washington injured, the 'Noles quickly abandoned the run against Maryland, despite the fact backup Lorenzo Booker isn't exactly a slouch. Even if he was getting stuffed at the line, you'd at least think Bowden would try to utilize his speed and get him the ball on the outside through screen passes and dump-offs. Instead, that was counterpart Ralph Friedgen's game plan, and it paid off in the form of a backbreaking 72-yard touchdown on a screen to tailback Josh Allen.
Similarly, Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon is taking his share of heat after his unit allowed nearly 500 yards per game the past three weeks. His reliance on man coverage and assignment football produced some of the nation's most dominant defenses the past three seasons, but it also relied on the assumption that his players were simply better than anyone they faced. This year, without the presence of rocks like Jonathan Vilma and Sean Taylor up the middle, opponents have been able to confuse the 'Canes with crossing routes and misdirection.
"There is so much man to man that they play," said UNC's Durant. "We felt we could exploit that with misdirection plays and we did a good job executing."
The 'Canes have had a strange season, one in which their biggest question mark coming in, QB Brock Berlin, has become their most consistent performer, while their supposed biggest strength, the defense, has become an Achilles' heel. Like FSU, they still have as much pure talent as anyone, but the reality of their new environment is that they won't be able to dominate on talent alone.
"We haven't even talked about a national championship," said head coach Larry Coker. "Now we have to talk about beating Clemson."
Player of the Week
Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan: It was a performance three years in the making. Edwards has been making catches and breaking records since 2002, but, until Saturday, had yet to have that one, truly spectacular game that showed once and for all why he's the Wolverines' new all-time leading receiver.
What he did in Michigan's 45-37, triple-overtime victory over Michigan State, though, was -- how do you say it -- Fitzgerald-esque. He caught 11 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns, the most important coming during the Wolverines' fourth-quarter comeback from a 27-10 deficit.
Multiple times, he went up over a defender to haul in a Chad Henne pass, including a 46-yard catch to set up a field goal, and scored touchdowns of 36 and 21 yards. Then, on third and 9 from the 24 in the third OT, Edwards got open for what would be the game-winning touchdown, breaking the hearts of the Spartans and probably making himself untold millions in next year's draft. Earlier in the game, Edwards caught a pass, then fumbled at the Michigan State 20, bringing to mind the many drops and other miscues throughout his career that have often overshadowed his many big plays, but with his fourth-quarter/overtime performance punctuating what has already been a dominating senior season, it's safe to say Edwards' final legacy at Michigan will be a positive one.
Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson (33 carries, 249 yards, one TD) vs. Oklahoma State; Nebraska LB Barrett Ruud (17 tackles, 4 tackles for loss) vs. Missouri; Michigan RB Michael Hart (33 carries, 224 yards, one TD) vs. Michigan State; UCLA LB Spencer Havner (16 tackles, two TFLs, one INT) vs. Stanford; Tennessee RB Cedric Houston (15 carries, 190 yards, one TD) vs. South Carolina; Utah QB Alex Smith (22-of-33, 343 total yards, five TDs, no INTs) vs. San Diego State; Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe (36 carries, 280 yards, three TDs) vs. Ball State; Michigan State RB DeAndra Cobb (22 carries, 205 yards, two TDs) vs. Michigan; Nebraska RB Cory Ross (19 carries, 194 yards, two TDs) vs. Missouri.
Team of the week I
North Carolina: The smile on John Bunting's face as he walked off the field Saturday night could have lit up a Christmas tree. Here was a man whose team had lost 20 of its past 26 contests, who's been the subject of job rumors for nearly two years, engineering the Tar Heels' first win over a top-five opponent in school history, 38-35 over Miami. UNC has come a long way in a short time, not just from last year's 2-10 debacle but also from September, when it gave up 38 points to William & Mary and lost 56-24 to Virginia. Since then the Heels have endured more blowouts, to FSU, Louisville and Utah, but they've also beaten Georgia Tech and N.C. State, and if they can win two of their last three against Virginia Tech, Duke and Wake Forest, will be going bowling.
Team of the week II
Maryland: It's been a trying season for Terps coach Ralph Friedgen, who, according to the Washington Post, fell asleep at the wheel of his car at one point and has fought off tears at news conferences. But at least Friedgen is well compensated for his pain. Imagine being QB Joel Statham, who's been booed off the field at his own stadium and benched twice during a recent three-game skid in which he threw for a total of 165 yards. Last week, Statham, along with every other player, was asked to sign a pledge that he "believed," for which he received a T-shirt that read, "I believe." Statham was still wearing the shirt Saturday night, hours after exploding for 333 yards in a 20-17 upset of Florida State.
"We had some plays work for us that haven't been working all season," said the sophomore, "and finally we had things go our way."
Team of the week III
Baylor: The Bears' game against Texas A&M on Saturday night wasn't televised, so the only sight of the season's gutsiest call on television screens around the country came in the form of ESPN's "Priority Score Alert" on its ticker. First, the score flipped to 34-33, indicating Baylor had answered the Aggies' touchdown in overtime. And then, suddenly, it flipped to 35. What???
"I had a gut feeling that it was right thing to do at that point," Bears coach Guy Morriss said of the decision to go for two -- and the win -- against a team they lost to 73-10 a year earlier and hadn't beaten since 1985.
Morriss turned to his weary, cramp-infested players on the sideline and yelled, "You want to win this one right now?" They responded in unison. "Yeah." And so, QB Shawn Bell, 32-of-50 for 262 yards and four touchdowns as a fill-in for the injured Dane King, found his favorite target, Dominique Ziegler (12 catches, 121 yards, two TDs), open yet again in the end zone, and Baylor walked away with its first win in six years over a ranked team.
The Nebraska mudslinger
Bill Danenhauer, head coach of NAIA Dana College in Blair, Neb., calls his team's five-wide spread attack the "River City Offense." Why River City? "We're going to sling that Missouri River mud and hope something sticks every time," Danenhauer said. Saturday against Hastings, Dana QB Tom Lensch slung that mud a college-record 101 times -- as in 101 pass attempts. He completed 56 of them for 507 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Unfortunately, all those passes aren't exactly paying off on the scoreboard. Dana lost the game 60-35 to fall to 1-8 on the season.
1. Interesting BCS development: One-loss Cal has leapfrogged undefeated Wisconsin for No. 4 in the AP poll this weekend (the Badgers apparently made the mistake of having a bye) and will likely do the same when the new BCS standings are released Monday. That means if both Oklahoma and Auburn were to lose, we could have a potential Cal-USC rematch in the Orange Bowl. That'd be fine by me -- the first one was the best game I've seen this season -- but probably wouldn't go over so well with Badgers fans.
However, as impressive as Wisconsin has been, they're being hurt by the fact they've only played two teams, Ohio State and Purdue, with winning records, not to mention both of them have subsequently collapsed. Meanwhile, though it's a longshot this will ever become an issue, Georgia remains ahead of Tennessee despite the fact both teams have the same record, the Vols beat the Dawgs in Athens and lost less recently. That's got to be a first. The culprit: the Coaches' poll, which inexplicably has Georgia six spots higher (fifth) than Tennessee (11th).
2. It is officially the Year of the Freshman Running Back. Three of the nation's top nine rushers are only months removed from their senior prom: North Texas' Jamario Thomas (No. 1, 173.6 yards per game), Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson (No. 3, 159.0) and Michigan's Michael Hart (No. 9, 128.9). Thomas has picked up right where injured predecessor Patrick Cobbs, last year's No. 1 rusher, left off, and while it'd be easy to dismiss his accomplishments (three straight 200-yard games) as coming against Sun Belt competition, he did gain 247 yards against Colorado.
Hart, who's also rolled off three straight 200-yard outings, has proven to be spectacularly sharp and durable, chipping away yardage 7 or 8 at a time. The Wolverines would not be 8-1 without him. But Saturday against Oklahoma State, Peterson showed yet again why he's head and shoulders above his peers -- or anyone else in the country, for that matter. While Hart is more of a grind-it-out guy -- his longest run Saturday was 26 yards -- Peterson's ability to take it to the house on any given play, like he did on his spinning, 80-yard dash in the third quarter (he also had a 56-yard run), makes him particularly scary for opponents. The Cowboys did a good job wrapping him up on about 30 of his 33 carries, but all it took was the three where he juked them out of their shoes to make all the difference.
3. Nebraska completed just four passes Saturday against Missouri. The Huskers converted just one of 15 third-down attempts. And yet, they beat the Tigers 24-3 and are now alone in first place in the Big 12 North at 5-3, 3-2 in the league. Their closest competition, if you can believe this, is Iowa State (4-4, 2-3), which they visit next week. First-year coach Bill Callahan has come under considerable criticism in Lincoln for some of his team's performances this season, most notably a 70-10 loss to Texas Tech. And yet, as bad as his team has been, particularly on offense, the rest of their division is so dreadful that they will likely be playing for a spot in the BCS on Dec. 4. How bad is the North? Kansas State, which lost 35-25 to the Red Raiders on Saturday, is 3-5 and in danger of missing a bowl for the first time in 12 years. Colorado was blown off its own field by Texas. Kansas lost to Iowa State. And preseason favorite Missouri is 4-4, with coach Gary Pinkel busy suspending players for criticizing the play-calling and lifting redshirts of highly touted running backs eight games into the season. Perhaps the most fitting metaphor of the season was that the Tigers' flight to Nebraska on Friday was canceled, causing them to get up at the crack of dawn Saturday and arrive in town hours before kickoff. The reason? The plane's wheel went off the runway and got stuck in mud.
4. There will be no red carpets rolled out here next week when Hawaii's Timmy Chang breaks Ty Detmer's NCAA career record for passing yardage (15,031). Nothing against Chang, a great kid who's had a fine career, but he's about to turn the milestone into the sport's most devalued record. First of all, he's had more games to do it in than any other player ever has or will. Chang is able to count not only bowl games (which the NCAA only began doing in 2002) and the game Hawaii is allowed to play each season to compensate for its travels, but also the 1,100 yards he gained in three games in 2001, a season for which he was declared a medical redshirt after injuring his wrist, earning a fifth year.
But the logistics aren't the only reason the record feels cheapened. Detmer was a Heisman Trophy winner who led his team to three conference championships. Chang has a career won-loss record of 23-24, was benched twice last season for poor play and, in the Warriors' 69-3 loss to Boise State on Friday, broke a less desirable NCAA mark -- most career interceptions (74). For a record truly worth celebrating, check out the one Georgia's David Greene will likely break this weekend against Kentucky: Most career wins by a Division I-A quarterback (40).
5. So they didn't have their typical 6-0 start, but Virginia Tech is quietly sneaking around the top of the ACC standings at 6-2, 3-1 in conference. The Hokies scored a nice road win at Georgia Tech last Thursday, rallying from 17-7 and 20-12 deficits. QB Bryan Randall went off in the fourth quarter, throwing touchdown passes of 80 and 51 yards, and Roland Minor thwarted the Jackets' last two drives with interceptions, returning one of them for a backbreaking 64-yard touchdown. Now comes the interesting part. Tech has been notorious the past few years for its late-season collapses, and their schedule over the next month is no picnic -- at North Carolina, vs. Maryland, vs. Virginia and at Miami. With a young team many expected to struggle in its first season in the ACC, a split to finish 8-4 and in the upper tier of the standings would make the season a pleasant success.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.