Top BCS contenders again defined by elite defenses; more Overtime
Though offense dominated early this season, top BCS threats have elite defenses
Ohio State pulled out another win in dramatic fashion; Duke is finally bowl eligible
Plus: My BCS forecast, a Heisman ballot in the making, spreading the field, more
Remember a few weeks ago when 600-yard passing days and 70-63 games were all the rage? Well ... false alarm.
There are still plenty of shootouts to go around if that's your thing (just watch Texas every week), but when it comes to the majority of teams still in contention for the national title, it's all about defense. In fact, a couple of them are making the case that you hardly need to throw the ball at all.
AP No. 3 Florida (7-0) continued its surprising resurgence Saturday with a 44-11 rout of then-No. 9 South Carolina. And the game followed much the same script as the Gators' previous SEC wins (only with a wider margin of victory). Florida's offense produced just 29 first-half yards and punted four times, but it raced to a 21-3 lead by forcing three fumbles deep in opposing territory. For the third consecutive week, quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for fewer than 100 yards, though he did finish with four touchdown passes.
The Gators recorded just 183 total yards and still won by 33 points.
"I'd rather have one yard in front of me than 75," said Driskel.
Meanwhile, SEC counterpart LSU (6-1) is taking its offense-optional approach to another level. In Saturday's 24-19 win at Texas A&M, the Tigers converted just 2-of-16 third downs. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger went 11-of-27 for 97 yards. But much more importantly, Les Miles' defense picked off last week's quarterback du jour, Johnny Manziel, three times and held him to 27 rushing yards on 17 carries.
"The defense always sets us up," said Tigers running back Jeremy Hill, who broke off a long fourth-quarter touchdown (47 yards) for the second straight week. "Every game they find a way to keep us in the game."
No. 2 Oregon's (7-0) flashy offense gets no shortage of attention and was obviously instrumental in last Thursday's 43-point explosion in just over a quarter against Arizona State (5-2). But the Ducks, too, threw for only 48 yards on the night. Besides an explosive running game (406 yards against Arizona State), Oregon's defense has become its calling card in 2012. The Ducks held Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly, the nation's third-rated passer coming in, to 93 yards and picked off he and backup Michael Eubank four times.
"Our defense is playing outstanding," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly. "That's the key to being a great football team."
No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0) has mastered the art of low-scoring victories, including Saturday's 17-14 win over BYU, and it doesn't seem to make a difference who lines up under center. Tommy Rees got the start at quarterback Saturday following Everett Golson's concussion the week before and was far less effective (7-of-16 for 117 yards) than he's been in his recent late-game relief appearances. No matter. The Irish produced a pair of 100-yard rushers (Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood) and rode a defense that -- gasp -- allowed its first two offensive touchdowns since Sept. 8, but pitched a shutout after halftime and has yet to allow more than 17 points in a game.
Notre Dame will put that streak on the line Saturday at No. 8 Oklahoma against a Sooners' offense currently averaging 44.7 points per game. "We're a hard-nosed team," said defensive end Stephon Tuitt. "We're going to fight until the bitter end. I hope a lot of people out there realize that."
Now, this is the point in the column where I remind you that it certainly doesn't hurt to have an effective quarterback. In fact, it's likely the difference between a good team and a great team. Case in point: No. 1 Alabama (7-0).
Obviously, the first thing people think of when discussing Nick Saban's team is its stifling defense. And indeed, after holding Tennessee to 282 total yards in Saturday's 44-13 victory, the Crimson Tide remain No. 1 nationally in total defense (195.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (8.3 points per game). Alabama is also closely associated with its powerful rushing attack, which ground out 233 yards against the Vols.
But guess what? The Tide now boast the nation's most efficient passer as well. AJ McCarron, who went a scorching 17-of-22 for 306 yards and four touchdowns against Tennessee, is completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 1,476 yards, 16 touchdowns and, through seven games now, still no interceptions.
"We're starting to see that AJ's more than a game manager," said Tide center Barrett Jones. "He was really explosive. They brought a lot of guys in the box, we needed to throw the ball and we did that. It was awesome."
The only other team that comes close to rivaling Alabama's completeness in all three phases of the game is one with significantly fewer former four- and five-star recruits. Saturday night, No. 4 Kansas State (7-0) went to West Virginia and put an end to this season's early Air Raid narrative. Wildcats star Collin Klein, not Geno Smith, produced the night's huge passing performance (19-of-21 for 323 yards and three touchdowns) while also rushing for four scores. Klein may not pass 50 times, but when he does throw, he's incredibly effective. He ranks second in the FBS (behind McCarron) in pass efficiency with a 70.5 completion percentage to date.
But K-State, like the other teams mentioned above, wins with its defense. The Wildcats notched the first two interceptions of Smith's season, sacked him four times and held him to his lowest passing yardage output (143) since 2010.
"If we play to our capabilities, we can do some good things out there," said cornerback Nigel Malone. "Eventually, if [people] take notice, they do, if not it doesn't matter. We're going to play the defense we know how."
People have noticed, Nigel. Contrary to earlier reports, there are great defenses to be found this season. It's no coincidence they reside at the top of the BCS standings.
In his 11 years as a head coach, Urban Meyer has never had a season quite like this one. While he won two national championships at Florida, neither title team started 8-0. His 2004 Utah team and 2009 Florida team both hit the 12-0 mark, but generally dominated their opponents. His 2012 Ohio State team prefers a flair for the dramatic.
Saturday in Columbus, Purdue (3-4) broke an 83-yard touchdown pass to Akeem Shavers and an 100-yard kick return by Akeem Hunt in the first quarter. Even worse for the Buckeyes, do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller was taken to the hospital after hitting the turf hard on a third-quarter tackle (he was deemed symptom-free and released Saturday night). But despite the adversity, Ohio State's perfect record remains intact after backup Kenny Guiton, trailing 22-14, drove the Buckeyes 61 yards in 47 seconds, converted the ensuing two-point try and completed a 17-yard pass to set up a go-ahead touchdown in overtime for a 29-22 win.
"It's a commitment these kids have made. They refuse to lose," Meyer said by phone Sunday. "They make plays when they have to. We're 8-0 with a chance at 9-0, but we play a very good team [this week]."
That team, Penn State (5-2), is, like the Buckeyes, exceeding expectations -- and doing so under similar circumstances. Saturday's game in State College is being referred to as the "Banned Bowl." Both teams are undefeated in conference play and ineligible for the postseason; however, the winner could claim the title of 2012 Big Ten Leaders Division champion. (The conference has decided to recognize the division winner even if it can't play in Indianapolis.)
With just one truly convincing win, a 63-38 victory over Nebraska, sandwiched by close calls from inferior foes like Cal (28-21), Michigan State (17-16), Indiana (52-49) and Purdue, Ohio State will likely face its toughest test of the season next weekend. They'll face the conference's hottest quarterback, Penn State's Matt McGloin, the much-improved senior who went 26-of-38 for 289 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in the Nittany Lions' 38-14 road rout of Iowa (4-3) Saturday. This is the same McGloin who threw five interceptions the last time Meyer faced him, in the 2011 Outback Bowl, Meyer's last game at Florida.
"He's just playing with so much confidence," said Meyer. "Last night I got home and watched him, it seems like he has control of that offense. I know they had attrition, but they've got really good players on that team."
So do the Buckeyes, but as Meyer will attest, "we've got so much work to do there's not enough hours in the day." Even so, they're 8-0, and even the backup quarterback is getting in on the heroics. Asked what it's like to coach a team so alternately frustrating and triumphant, Meyer didn't hesitate: "There's nothing better."