College Football Overtime (cont.)
Saturday night's Stanford-USC game was the tensest high-caliber matchup I've seen this season. With the Cardinal's national championship hopes on the line and Luck's performance under the microscope of all those curious NFL fans who'd tuned in, the teams engaged in a back-and-forth thriller that served as a showcase not just for Luck but also for Lane Kiffin's resurgent Trojans. The Coliseum was sold out and rocking like in Pete Carroll's heyday.
"As a player, it was the most energetic and electric crowd I've ever seen at the Coliseum," said USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
It's unfortunate then that Kiffin chose to overshadow the moment by fixating on individuals not on either team. "I'm really disappointed in the officials," Kiffin said afterward. "Extremely disappointed."
Kiffin's beef centered on the end of regulation, when the Trojans ran out of time to kick a potential game-winning field goal after Robert Woods caught a screen pass and scampered sideways for nearly 10 seconds. Officials originally ruled Woods out of bounds and the clock hit 0:00; however, following a replay, the officials decreed that Woods had gone down in bounds, but that time had run out anyway. Kiffin claimed he'd called a timeout with one second left, and that the officials knew it.
"It was communicated to them, they communicated to me, exactly the situation," Kiffin said. "... I called timeout with one second left on the clock."
Has anyone ever seen a football coach successfully squeeze in a timeout in the one second between his player's knee touching the ground and the clock hitting zero? I didn't think so.
Obviously, no coach is big on moral victories, but this certainly was one for USC. Kiffin's young team has progressed considerably since the beginning of the season, when they bumbled their way through wins over Minnesota and Utah and got crushed at Arizona State. If you're a Trojans fan wondering whether the controversial 36-year-old Kiffin is the right guy to steer the program going forward, it's got to be encouraging to see so many of Kiffin's recruits shining. Saturday night that group included receivers Woods and freshman Marquise Lee, but also sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey, who had the go-ahead pick-six of Luck; redshirt freshman linebacker Dion Bailey, who recorded a game-high 13 tackles; and redshirt freshman tight end Randall Telfer, who outperformed his touted Stanford counterparts.
"It hurts right now because we were so close," said Barkley. The Trojans may also be close to turning the corner, so long as their coach focuses on his players instead of the officials.
Two weeks ago, most of us believed Wisconsin would run away with the Big Ten title. Suddenly the Badgers are two games back in their own division, and the conference race is a jumble of six teams that could feasibly reach the Dec. 3 conference championship game -- including two traditional powers left for dead just a few weeks ago.
Saturday night against the Badgers, Ohio State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) looked very much like the OSU that won Big Ten championships in each of the past six years, holding Wisconsin's powerful rushing attack to 89 yards on 29 carries while rushing for 268 yards of its own. Dan Herron, in his second game back from suspension, went for 160 on 33 carries. The Buckeyes led 26-14 late in the fourth quarter.
But then, just like he did last week against Michigan State, Russell Wilson led the Badgers back, throwing 17- and 49-yard touchdowns to Jared Abbrederis in the final 3:48 to put Wisconsin up 29-26. But also just like last week, the opposing quarterback broke the Badgers' hearts. OSU freshman Braxton Miller scrambled, then unleashed a 40-yard strike to wide-open receiver Devin Smith in the end zone to give Ohio State a 33-29 victory. The win was so cathartic that Buckeyes students stormed the field, nearly stampeding Miller and sideline reporter Holly Rowe in the process.
"We don't ever look at ourselves as underdogs," said oft-criticized coach Luke Fickell. "This is a huge win, a signature win. This is for this team, this is for this program. This is what we expect."
Earlier in the day, resurgent Nebraska (7-1, 3-1) put a damper on Michigan State's previously magnificent October (wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin) with a 24-3 home victory. Ever since Nebraska's second-half rally against Ohio State on Oct. 8, the Huskers' once-struggling defense has also looked like its old self. Saturday, Nebraska held MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins to 11-of-27 passing for 86 yards and an interception.
"I thought our guys were locked in this week," said Huskers coach Bo Pelini. "I'm proud of that group. They saw today what we're capable of doing when they play the right way. That's a pretty good football team we played out there."
Meanwhile, after yet another victorious sludgefest -- one that produced Joe Paterno's Division I record 409th career win -- Penn State (8-1, 5-0) holds a two-game lead in the Leaders Division (I knew I'd rue the day I had to write that phrase), but its toughest games remain. Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are tied atop the Legends. Good luck trying to project which two teams end up in Indianapolis.
It might be wise to look at the remaining road schedules. Big Ten teams are 8-18 on the road in conference play. One-time national title contender Wisconsin is 0-2.
My reaction to the latest AP and Coaches' polls:
Overrated: Arkansas (AP and Coaches': No. 8)
The Hogs needed fourth-quarter comebacks the past two weeks to win at 2-6 Ole Miss and 4-4 Vandy. They're ranked this high solely because they play in the SEC West.
Underrated: Penn State (AP: No. 16; Coaches': No. 15)
What's the difference between 8-1 Penn State and 7-1 Arkansas, which both suffered their sole loss to No. 2 Alabama? The Nittany Lions win with defense, not offense. Period.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest games:
Title game: Alabama vs. Oklahoma State
Rose: Stanford vs. Wisconsin
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska
Sugar: LSU vs. Boise State
Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia
In determining the Big Ten's Rose Bowl rep, I ignored my own advice and predicted Nebraska would win one of its two remaining road games, at Penn State or Michigan. That gave me a Wisconsin-Nebraska title game. Assuming the Badgers' morale isn't shot, they can certainly still make a run to Pasadena, and the Fiesta Bowl would love to get its hands on a 10-win Nebraska team (over a 10-win Oregon team).
Meanwhile, we bid a fond farewell to Syracuse, which appeared in this space last week following a 49-23 rout of West Virginia. Saturday, 3-4 Louisville squashed the Orange, 27-10. The Mountaineers return, giving this lineup four past, current or future Big 12 members.