SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/23/2006 07:32:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part IV
Troy Smith made up for a subpar day with one spectacular touchdown pass.
I'm guessing we're going to see many, many replays of Troy Smith's 37-yard touchdown pass against Penn State between now and the Heisman ceremony in December. Talk about a signature moment.
If you missed it, Smith scrambled to his right, eluded a potential sack, turned himself around and ran back toward the middle of the field before launching a perfect throw to Brian Robiskie in the end zone. Overall, it wasn't a great day for Smith (12-of-22, 115 yards, two INTs). What's scary, though, is how well Ohio State's one-time questionable defense is playing. They held the Nittany Lions to 106 passing yards, and cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins and Antonio Smith both returned interceptions for touchdowns late in the Buckeyes' 28-6 win.
• Penn State QB Anthony Morelli doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence, does he? The two late interceptions Ohio State returned for touchdowns were both cases of just plain misreading the coverage. Morelli's reputation coming into the season was that he's a superb physical specimen with a questionable mental makeup, and I'd say he's living up to it so far.
• The SEC has some good teams … but Alabama and Arkansas are not among them. Dear lord. While it certainly made for high drama, the teams' double-overtime game Saturday was a case of who would screw up less. Turned out it was Razorbacks freshman QB Mitch Mustain, whose 7-of-22, three-interception performance got trumped by Crimson Tide kicker Leigh Tiffin's meltdown (three straight missed field goals and a missed extra point in the second OT, all wide right). Given a chance to redeem himself, Mustain threw a nice 11-yard touchdown to high-school teammate Ben Cleveland. And Arkansas' kicker, Jeremy Davis -- who himself had missed a PAT earlier -- made his for the win. Please give me those three hours of my life back.
• Prior to Mustain's game-winner, it had been a nightmare day for the nation's freshman QB saviors. Georgia's Matthew Stafford got benched for and outplayed by Joe Cox. In his first start, Illinois' Juice Williams went a miserable 9-of-32 for 161 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in a 24-7 loss to Iowa. And obviously Mustain struggled badly.
• Once again Saturday, Arizona State showed it's still light years behind the upper echelon of the Pac-10, getting drilled 49-21 at Cal. Not only are the Sun Devils 0-9 against USC and Cal under head coach Dirk Koetter, they've lost those games by an average score of 43-18. That's unbelievable.
• Finally, we have a verified Florida State offense sighting. The Seminoles put up 498 yards in a 55-7 rout of Rice. And check this out: The 'Noles had not just one but two 100-yard rushers, Antone Smith (12 carries, 137 yards, two TDs) and Lorenzo Booker (13 for 115 and a TD).
A bout with the flu forced Joe Paterno to the locker room in the second quarter.
College football's a crazy sport, ain't it? Two weeks ago, Penn State looked absolutely helpless against then-No. 2 Notre Dame, losing 41-17. Today: A complete 180. They've held Troy Smith and No. 1 Ohio State scoreless through the first half. And in an added subplot, Joe Paterno is apparently stuck in the bathroom and missing the whole thing. Yes, you read that right. If you haven't been watching, Paterno ran to the locker room midway through the second quarter and, according to Bonnie Bernstein, is battling the flu and had to use "the little boy's room."
I'd expect the Buckeyes to take control in the second half (though the rain may prevent Smith from airing it out like he normally would), but all this begs an obvious question -- how good does this mean Michigan is?
• Mack Brown must have read last week's Blog item about not giving Colt McCoy enough passing opportunities, because the freshman QB came out firing against Iowa State, staking Texas to a quick 16-0 lead. Unfortunately, he also threw a costly pick. And, it looks like the 'Horns' secondary issues we saw against Ohio State weren't a fluke. Cyclones QB Bret Meyer was 11-of-16 for 113 yards and two touchdowns midway through the second quarter.
• Cal QB Nathan Longshore is having a huge game against Arizona State, completing 8 of his first 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Just as impressive, he's getting all the Bears' various weapons involved -- Justin Forsett, Lavelle Hawkins and Marshawn Lynch have caught the TDs. DeSean Jackson also returned a punt for a touchdown.
• Alabama QB John Parker Wilson -- older brother of Two-a-Days star Ross -- has been impressive against Arkansas. Counterpart Mitch Mustain, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be handling the Tide's pressure very well.
• There's a reason Tulsa's fourth-year head coach Steve Kragthorpe is among the hottest names in the profession. The 3-1 Hurricane got a huge road win Saturday, going to Navy and knocking off the previously unbeaten Midshipmen in overtime.
Joe Cox threw the game-winning touchdown to Martrez Milner with 46 seconds left.
Wow. A game that seemed like such a colossal mismatch that its biggest pregame storyline involved the teams' mascots turned out to be one of the most eventful of the season to date. No. 9 Georgia (4-0) narrowly escaped what would have been a stunning upset to 0-3 Colorado. But the Dawgs may also have found themselves a quarterback -- and it's not the one most people expected.
We knew going in that Georgia's offense was very much a question (and that Colorado's defense had actually performed well going in) but for three quarters, the Dawgs could not move the ball at all. Freshman QB Matthew Stafford struggled. His receivers dropped a boatload of open passes. And Georgia's stable of running backs -- which incidentally, have never wowed me -- couldn't get anything going.
Down 13-0 late in the third quarter and in desperate need of a spark, head coach Mark Richt replaced the highly touted Stafford with redshirt freshman Joe Cox -- and the game immediately changed. Cox proceeded to go 10-of-13 for 153 yards and two touchdowns, including the 20-yard game winner to tight end Martrez Milner with 46 seconds remaining, to pull out a 14-13 win. Richt, who's been answering quarterback questions for nine months now, will be answering plenty more this week unless he immediately hands over the job to Cox. His poise and command were certainly impressive.
The good news for Georgia is it didn't lose. The bad news is, the game exposed just how flawed the Dawgs' offensive skill players are -- for all his accolades, receiver Mohamed Massaquoi drops nearly as many passes as he catches -- and that their defense isn't as superhuman as some thought. Needing a last-minute touchdown to beat an 0-3 Big 12 team that came in ranked 115th in the country in offense won't help Georgia's national rep any. And it certainly puts a damper on that whole "SEC is indisputably the best" argument that I presumptuously laid out this week.
For Colorado, while the nature of the loss was heartbreaking, in the long term it should provide a major morale boost for Dan Hawkins' program. The Buffs, losers of eight in a row, came into this one absolutely reeling and played the No. 9 team in the country to the wire on its home field. That should give Buffs fans ample reason to hope that the misery will end soon.
Many folks predicted this could be a trap game for No. 6 Michigan.
This week, I'm coming to you from the couch in New York. The dearth of marquee matchups on the docket provides a chance to get some much-needed rest and, more importantly, see as any different teams as possible. Some early observations:
• You know conference season is here when you turn on the tube at noon and it's wall-to-wall Big Ten games. I'm currently getting three of them on regular cable alone (Wisconsin-Michigan, Minnesota-Purdue and Illinois-Iowa). Credit commissioner Jim Delany for annually securing a monopoly on this time slot, but as a former Big Ten undergrad, let me just say -- those 11 a.m. CST kickoffs are a drag. If you want to do any serious tailgating, you're looking at a 6 a.m. wake-up. And it's safe to say you didn't go to bed at 10 the night before.
• This is the first chance I've had to watch the Badgers, and I'm really impressed with their defense. They've largely held Mike Hart in check and gotten good pressure on Chad Henne. Of course, this is also typical Michigan -- a week after attacking Notre Dame relentlessly they've gone back into dink-and-dunk mode (with the exception of Henne's 24-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham).
• The biggest surprise so far: 0-3 Colorado, owner of the nation's 115th-ranked offense, practically moved the ball at will against Georgia, owner of the fifth-ranked defense, in the first quarter of their game in Athens. The Buffs gained 160 yards -- only 33.7 less than they were averaging per game -- to the Bulldogs' 23. But a blocked field goal and false-start on what would have been a fourth-and-inches touchdown left CU with just a 3-0 lead.
• It's been fun, John Bunting. We have some wonderful parting gifts for you on your way out, though we're still a bit perplexed as to how you lasted six seasons at North Carolina in the first place. The Tar Heels (1-2), trailing Clemson 28-0 in the second quarter, is in for a long season.
• Although that raises an interesting question: Who will actually finish last in the ACC's Coastal Division: UNC, Virginia (1-3) or Duke (0-3)?
• Lunch just arrived, so I'll check in again later.
Quarterback Chase Daniel is quickly helping Missouri fans get over the loss of four-year starter Brad Smith.
John Rieger/US PRESSWIRE
I got a call this week from a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who wanted to gauge whether 3-0 Missouri was starting to garner some national recognition. I have to admit, my initial reaction was: "You're serious?" The Tigers' three wins have come against I-AA Murray State, Ole Miss (last seen getting pummeled by Kentucky) and New Mexico (previously seen scoring six points against Portland State).
In all seriousness, however, there is ample reason to take notice of Mizzou -- not as a national-title contender, obviously, but as a team that appears to be much improved from past seasons. Now, you might be saying to yourself: "Wait a minute. The only reason worth paying attention to Missouri football the past four years was Brad Smith, and now he's gone. How can they possibly be 'much improved?'"
Well, for one thing, new QB Chase Daniel has the makings of a future star himself. The sophomore came to Columbia following a decorated high-school career at Texas prep power Southlake Carroll, where he was named the 2004 EA Sports National High School Player of the Year and led his team to a 16-0 record and USA Today national championship. Because of his height, however (believed to be between 6-foot and 6-1), he went largely ignored by Texas and other traditional recruiting powers.
Daniel ran virtually the same shotgun-spread offense in high school as the one Missouri installed last season, and it shows. After offering Tigers fans a glimpse of the future when he came off the bench in place of an injured Smith to rally Mizzou past Iowa State last season, Daniel ascended to starter this season and already looks like a seasoned vet. He's completed 67 percent of his passes for 762 yards, seven touchdowns and just one pick. Against Ole Miss, he also ran for 89 yards.
I watched much of that Ole Miss game, and while Daniel looked good, the more impressive thing to me was the Tigers' defense. While Missouri's offense struggled the past couple years even with Smith, mystifying observers and causing much criticism (including by me) of head coach Gary Pinkel, the defense was quietly improving and now appears to be a real strength. Through three games, Mizzou ranks second nationally in total defense. The strength is clearly its line, whose star, senior DE Brian Smith, leads the nation with six sacks. The Tigers are second overall in sacks with 14. "We've surprised a lot of people with what we have done," said Brian Smith. "It's definitely a lot better than what people thought we'd be without Brad Smith."
So, does all of this mean I will be adding Missouri to my Top 25 ballot next week? No. Like I said at the beginning, the Tigers haven't played anyone worth getting excited over yet, and they won't the next two weeks, either (Ohio and Colorado). What I'll be interested to see is how the Tigers fare when they play their three games against Big 12 South opponents -- at Texas Tech (Oct. 7) and Texas A&M (Oct. 14) and home against Oklahoma (Oct. 28).
Believe it or not, it's been almost three years since a Big 12 North team has beaten Texas, Oklahoma or Texas Tech. Last year's North champion, Colorado, lost to the South champion, Texas, 70-3. So until Nebraska, Missouri or anyone else proves they can beat one of those teams, or a decent non-conference foe for that matter, the Big 12 North is essentially dead to me. But I do think there's a good chance that Daniels and the Tigers could end the drought this season.
The Sooners did force this Dennis Dixon fumble but allowed 501 total yards to Oregon.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he was “incredibly disappointed” by the costly blown calls in the final minutes of his team’s 34-33 loss at Oregon on Saturday, and who could blame him? Fans from across the country -– not just Sooners or Ducks fans –- have deluged my inbox the past two days expressing shock and anger at just how badly the Pac-10 officiating crew blew both the onsides kick and pass-interference calls on Oregon’s game-winning drive. If you’ve watched the replay, you know the handling of the onsides kick, both on the field and in the replay booth, was one of the worst examples of negligence you’ll ever see.
I’d also argue, however, that the officiating debacle was beneficial to Stoops in one way. During Monday morning’s Big 12 teleconference, nearly every question directed at Stoops was about the officiating. Clearly, the debacle has deflected attention away from the issue that Stoops should be talking about right now: How has his vaunted Oklahoma defense managed to become so bad?
While statistics can be misleading this early in the season, you still have to raise your eyebrows at this one: Through three games, Oklahoma ranks 97th in the country in total defense, having allowed nearly 400 yards per game. The Sooners gave up a surprising number of big plays against UAB (the same UAB team that got shut out by Georgia last weekend). They allowed Washington’s long-underachieving tailbacks to run all over them. And while Oregon’s offense is admittedly hard for anyone to stop, you’d still think OU could do better than allowing 501 yards. Bad officiating or not, the Sooners’ secondary was helpless to stop Ducks QB Dennis Dixon on the two last-minute touchdown drives.
This wasn’t supposed to be the case. If anything, Oklahoma’s defense was expected to carry the team until QB Paul Thompson gained confidence. Instead it’s been the opposite. Thompson has acquitted himself surprisingly well the past two weeks; the Sooners’ defense, on the other hand, seems to be regressing by the week.
All of this is indicative of a deeper, more troubling trend regarding the Sooners. When Stoops came to Norman in 1999, he built his program around having a dominant defense, and that was certainly the case from 2000 to '03, when OU went 48-6 behind a host of All-America defenders (Rocky Calmus, Tommie Harris, Derrick Strait, Teddy Lehman, et al.). Something changed, however, with that Big 12 championship meltdown against Kansas State at the end of the 2003 regular season. OU returned to the national-title game in '04, but its defense struggled all season and imploded in the Orange Bowl against USC. Last year’s unit was better but still not up to the old standard. And in '06, it seems, the Sooners’ defensive swagger has completely vanished.
So what’s the problem? Oklahoma has been able to recruit far better athletes the past few years than it did at the very beginning of its run. And defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been a constant from the get-go. It may not be a physical thing -- it may be emotional. Former co-coordinator Mike Stoops, who took the Arizona job the week of that ‘03 Kansas State game, was a famously maniacal motivator who got his guys to play at a fever pitch every week. Clearly the Sooners miss him. But I also wonder whether OU simply lacks the kind of on-field leaders they had on those early teams. Rufus Alexander, Reggie Smith, C.J. Ah You -- these guys are all more physically gifted than Calmus, Lehman or Torrance Marshall, but those players also brought the kind of intangibles you can’t measure.
Who’s leading the current Sooners defense? The way they’ve played so far, the best guess is, nobody.
DeShawn Wynn (21) worked through the Vols' defense for 104 yards on 22 carries.
Jason Parkhurst/US PRESSWIRE
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Man, these Notre Dame guys (and girls) are hardcore football fans. They're now watching Texas A&M-Army (and briefly checked in on Navy-Stanford) and are seriously debating Dennis Franchione's job status. What else have we been talking about? ...
∙ We watched the replay of the Oregon-Oklahoma onside kick several times, and we were all in agreement that, while it was close, the Ducks player definitely touched the ball early. It's hard to believe the replay officials watched the same angles and didn't overturn it. Seems pretty indisputable to me.
∙ These guys TiVoed the beginning of the Nebraska-USC game specifically to watch the replay of USC fullback Ryan Powdrell's gruesome leg injury over and over and ... we must have watched it 10 times, and each time, the "Oooooohs" grew louder. The women started covering their eyes. It was horrific. And yet you couldn't not watch.
∙ The Trojans are now without their top two fullbacks (Brandon Hancock went down before the season) and their running game is still very much a work in progress –- and yet it doesn't seem to matter. Clearly, the defense is phenomenal (it held Nebraska to 213 yards), and there's no overstating just how good John David Booty has looked in both starts so far. As I figured, Dwayne Jarrett had a huge day as well.
∙ Very impressive late-game composure by Chris Leak and Florida in coming back to win at Tennessee 21-20. If you're Urban Meyer, though, the thing you've got to be most thrilled about is the performance of DeShawn Wynn (22 carries, 104 yards). If he does that every week, the Gators will be awfully tough to beat.
∙ I'm sorry, but Bobby and Jeff Bowden are out of excuses for their horrendous offense. Florida State netted just 207 yards against a Clemson defense down three key starters. And to add insult to injury, the 'Noles' vaunted defense seemed to disappear on the Tigers' game-winning drive.
∙ Big win for Tyrone Willingham –- Washington beat Fresno State 21-20. QB Isaiah Stanback has improved by leaps and bounds.
∙ Bad losses for embattled coaches (besides Larry Coker): N.C. State's Chuck Amato, a week after losing to Akron (which itself lost to Central Michigan on Saturday), fell 37-17 at Southern Miss. And Sylvester Croom's Mississippi State team broke out of its scoring slump, but still lost at home to Tulane.
∙ You know what? It's midnight, and I've still got a two-hour drive back to Chicago in front of me. I should probably head out. It's been fun. Hopefully today's action helped you make sense of something. I'm still trying to sort it all out but I'll get back to you tomorrow.