Notre Dame, Florida State have a shot to prove they're finally 'back'
Entering next weekend, Notre Dame, Florida St. have chance to add to resurgence
Stanford's young secondary impressed by stifling WRs Robert Woods, Marqise Lee
Plus: Arkansas hits new low, my current BCS slate, Willie Taggart's WKU progress
Well, you knew this was coming. After a late night at Stanford Stadium recounting the Cardinal's takedown of preseason national title favorite USC, I woke up this morning to a bevy of e-mails and tweets like this one from @NikkiFree:
I FULLY expected #USC to fall. You guys in the media ram teams like USC down our throats because you WANT them to be relevant.
But if Nikki (if that's her real name) is right about one thing, it's this: We in the media do tend to get overexcited when a fallen power appears poised to return to glory. And by now, we all know the two annual champions of undue hype/subsequent on-field disappointment: Notre Dame and Florida State.
After eyebrow-raising performances by both, and with each facing a high-profile opponent this weekend, you might as well prepare now for a rash of "[Notre Dame or Florida State] is back" headlines should either or both prevail next Saturday.
So is this the year the buzz is actually merited? Or is this merely a prelude to slapping ourselves in the face for the umpteenth straight season?
At least for this week, the Irish deserve plenty of acclaim for their defensive clinic in a 20-3 win at No. 10 Michigan State. Notre Dame has had its share of offensive stars (Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd) in recent years, but it hasn't fielded a truly elite defense since before some of its current players were born. Its first win in seven years over a top-10 team offered a strong case that may finally be changing.
"It's a big leap," said Irish coach Brian Kelly. "It's a signature win."
Starting with a heroic performance by senior linebacker Manti Te'o (12 tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery), who tragically lost both his girlfriend (to leukemia) and his grandmother within a 24-hour span last week, the Irish limited Spartans star Le'Veon Bell to 77 yards on 19 carries and allowed just 237 total yards. The game marked Michigan State's worst scoring output at home in 21 years.
While Kelly was hired largely for his Cincinnati teams' offensive prowess, the third-year coach made defense his top recruiting priority upon his arrival -- and it shows. Even after touted freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch transferred to USF during the offseason, Notre Dame finally boasts the type of disruptive defensive linemen (defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day, nose guard Louis Nix) that were few and far between under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.
"Our defense continues to be the group that we committed to in building when we started this process," said Kelly. "They're starting to get to that level that can play against anybody."
Now, the requisite caveats. Michigan State did not come in as an offensive juggernaut, as first-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell also struggled in the opener against Boise State. The Spartans' hallmark was their defense, and outside of an early 36-yard touchdown pass to John Goodman, Irish quarterback Everett Golson largely struggled (14-of-32 for 178 yards). And Notre Dame's inexperienced secondary suffered a significant blow when senior safety Jamoris Slaughter went down with a season-ending Achilles injury Saturday night.
The Irish -- which jumped from No. 20 to No. 11 in Sunday's AP poll -- play another primetime showcase against Michigan on Saturday night. After three straight last-second heartbreakers at the hands of Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, Kelly's program would take another important step by beating the Wolverines. But in light of Alabama's season-opening rout of Michigan, a win should not merit national adulation. Those chances will come later this season, when the Irish take on No. 9 Stanford (Oct. 13) and No. 6 Oklahoma (Oct. 27).
No. 4 Florida State, on the other hand, requires no such patience. Its toughest test to date -- and possibly the highest-ranked opponent it will face all season -- comes Saturday when No. 10 Clemson visits Tallahassee.
Following a pair of tuneups against Murray State and Savannah State, the 'Noles finally faced a legitimate opponent last weekend in Wake Forest. Florida State proceeded to treat the Demon Deacons just the same as Murray State and Savannah State in a 52-0 whitewashing.
Wake Forest, mind you, had won four of its last six meetings with FSU and was coming off a 28-27 win over North Carolina. Deacons quarterback Tanner Price went 27-of-38 for 327 yards in that game against the Tar Heels. On Saturday, however, FSU's touted defense was even better than advertised. Relentless pressure from 'Noles defensive ends Tank Carradine (2.5 sacks) and Bjoern Werner (1.5 sacks) helped hold Price to 8-of-22 for 82 yards, and Wake managed just 126 total yards on the day.
Meanwhile, running back Chris Thompson -- who suffered a season-ending injury in the same game last year, breaking two vertebrae -- made a dazzling return, breaking second-quarter touchdown runs of 74 and 80 yards.
"It was impressive watching them play today," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said of the 'Noles. "This is a really, really special football team."
On Saturday, Florida State's loaded defense will look to shut down Clemson's explosive offense, which has now regained the services of suspended star Sammy Watkins (he had a 58-yard run against Furman). But the real intrigue may be whether quarterback E.J. Manuel, whose services have barely been required thus far, can play a consistent game against a BCS bowl-caliber opponent.
From a national standpoint, beating Clemson doesn't hold the same water as beating Alabama or LSU, but thanks to those ever-generous preseason rankings, the 'Noles are already within two poll spots of Les Miles' Tigers. If FSU wins Saturday, it may essentially be "back" before we know for certain whether that's accurate.
If nothing else, perhaps the 'Noles will manage to ride that momentum longer than USC did.
The last time we saw Stanford face a top-10 opponent before Saturday, Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon shredded the Cardinal's secondary in last January's Fiesta Bowl. Under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, Stanford has produced NFL-caliber talent at almost every position, but defensive back remained its notable Achilles' heel.
That being the case, the most impressive aspect of the Cardinal's 21-14 upset of USC was the spectacular job their new-look secondary did containing Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
"Our defensive backs played as well tonight as they ever have since I've been here," said Shaw. "Those are the two best wide receivers in the nation and we held them to 254 [passing] yards."
Stanford lost three starters from last year's unit, including veteran safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell. Their replacements are less experienced but more athletic. Save for a 49-yard first-quarter catch and run by USC freshman Nelson Agholor, cornerbacks Terrence Brown, Barry Browning and Wayne Lyons, safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds and nickelbacks Usua Amanam and Ronnie Harris did a nice job keeping Lee and Woods in front of them. While it certainly helped that Matt Barkley was frequently under duress and was relegated to mostly short-yardage throws, Lee and Woods have broken more than a few of those for touchdowns. For the most part, Stanford's defensive backs wrapped up USC's receiving corps.
"We tried to make them one-dimensional and throw the ball," said Shaw. "That sounds crazy to put it in the hands of that quarterback and those receivers, but we knew we could play smart, sound football and keep those receivers in front of us."
With quarterback Josh Nunes still growing into his role, Stanford may need to win more games behind the strength of its defense than during the Andrew Luck era. Saturday's performance should give the Cardinal confidence as they prep for a season-long gauntlet of facing Pac-12 aerial offenses, a slate that continues a week from Thursday at Washington and quarterback Keith Price.