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SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
11/18/2006 05:34:00 PM

Ohio State-Michigan Halftime Observations

Oakland Arena
Troy Smith absolutely tore apart Michigan's secondary in the first half.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Wow. If you were worried Ohio State-Michigan wouldn’t live up to the hype, you can put that to rest. The first half contained so many twists and turns, big plays and momentum changes, I’ve had to re-write this Blog entry about five times. And while I could have imagined a back-and-forth game, never would have I anticipated such an offensive explosion by both sides.

As it stands now, however, Ohio State is right on the brink of putting this thing away. And that’s a direct result of Troy Smith delivering one of the greatest big-game performances I’ve ever seen.

Smith, who’s completed 21 of 26 throws for 241 yards and three touchdowns, is picking apart one of the nation’s stingiest defenses as easily he did Texas’, Iowa’s or anybody else’s. The defining sequence came on the series that put the Buckeyes up 21-7, with Smith first spinning away from pressure and delivering a downfield strike that Brian Robiskie turned into a 40-yard gain, then executing a brilliant, ball-hide play-fake on his 39-yard touchdown strike to Ted Ginn Jr.

I’ve really liked Ohio State’s play-calling. Showing obvious respect for Michigan’s ability to stuff the run, the Buckeyes have barely tried (though Chris Wells certainly made the most of his one carry), instead lining up Smith in the shotgun, spreading out as many as five receivers and throwing a lot of quick passes and screens. The result: Smith has already thrown for nearly as many yards (241) as any opposing quarterback has against Michigan all season (Drew Stanton’s 252 yards leads the pack).

On the flip side, Chad Henne couldn’t have looked more brilliant on Michigan’s opening series (4-for-4 for 67 yards, including two long passes to Mario Manningham in which he checked off at the line) and on its final offensive play (a 37-yard touchdown to Adrian Arrington), but really struggled in between. He made a huge mistake on Michigan’s second series, overthrowing a wide-open Manningham deep down the sideline on what would have been an easy touchdown.

If he converts that, Michigan goes up 14-7, and maybe this is a different game. As it is, Henne struggled to handle Ohio State’s pressure and, if not for a pass interference call on OSU’s Malcolm Jenkins shortly before the Arrington touchdown, this game might already be over.

As it is, OSU’s 80-yard touchdown just before the half was a dagger, especially considering it gets the ball back to start the second half. Michigan is either going to need to make some major adjustments to slow down Smith or gain some turnovers if it hopes to have a chance of coming back.

One other note: Ohio State installed a new sod field just three weeks before this game (the second time this season it’s had to tear up its entire playing surface), and it shows. Several Michigan players have slipped on key plays (defensive Rondell Biggs while rushing Smith on his 27-yard third-down pass to Roy Hall and Manningham while attempting to catch a first-down throw), and you can already see huge divots in certain portions of the field.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/18/2006 01:48:00 PM

Live from Columbus

Oakland Arena
There is a different feel in the air today for the Ohio State-Michigan clash.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It’s game day, baby.

Greetings from the cavernous press box at The Horseshoe. I hope you understand, but I will not be doing my usual all-day Saturday observations on the college football scene today (at least not until the end of the night). My attention is focused almost entirely on one game.

As a journalist, I’m supposed to be jaded toward just about anything, but I definitely woke up with an extra pep in my step today. Perhaps it’s because of growing up in this part of the country that today’s game truly feels bigger to me than if any other two teams were playing a 1 vs. 2, season-ending showdown. It’s not that I grew up an Ohio State or Michigan fan. Quite the contrary: I was a Xavier fan (undefeated in football since 1971). But just as you can’t escape the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in New York or Boston, you can’t grow up in the Midwest, not to mention attend a Big Ten school, not feel a special affinity toward Ohio State-Michigan.

I’m not old enough to remember too far back, but I will quickly offer my three favorite OSU-Michigan memories.

1) 1995: I was a sophomore at Northwestern and the Wildcats needed a Michigan upset of 11-0 Ohio State to get their improbable Rose Bowl berth. Most of my friends had already accepted that they’d be going to the Citrus Bowl, but I kept telling them: You watch – John Cooper always loses to Michigan. Sure enough, Tim Biakabatuka ran for 300-plus yards, the Wolverines pulled the upset and I spent the rest of that frantic day making arrangements to get to Pasadena.

2) 1997: In terms of the game itself, this was the most intense I remember. Michigan was 10-0 and needed a win to remain in national championship contention. Ohio State was 9-1. It was a classic, gray day in Ann Arbor. David Boston and Charles Woodson jawed at each other all day long. Just a fantastic game.

3) 2002: This was the first OSU-Michigan game I covered for SI.com, here in Columbus. The Maurice Clarett-led Buckeyes were 12-0 and one win away from the Fiesta Bowl. At the end of the game, with the Buckeyes up 12-7, I was standing behind the end zone Michigan was driving toward and remember seeing everyone around me holding their breath as John Navarre’s last-gasp pass to the end zone fell just short. And then I remember the cops pepper spraying everybody.

Anyway, the weather has turned out to be perfect. It’s a tad cold but clear. From what I could tell on the way over, fans from both sides seemed to be behaving themselves. This is going to be pretty freaking awesome. Let’s just hope it lives up to the hype. You know Bo will be watching.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/13/2006 08:38:00 PM

UNC: Are You Ready for Some Football?

North Carolina won a national championship in men’s basketball two years ago, reached the women’s Final Four last season and is currently in contention for national titles in both men’s and women’s soccer. Within a few years, it will have a nationally prominent football program as well.

It’s been a long nine years since Mack Brown left Chapel Hill for Austin, taking with him the Tar Heels’ last strands of respectability, but with the hiring of Butch Davis on Monday, North Carolina football is finally worth taking seriously again. Considering it boasts one of the richest and most successful athletic departments in the entire country, there’s really no reason UNC should ever have a 1-9 football team, but a beautiful campus and sparkling facilities can only get you so far when you put your program in the hands of a Carl Torbush and a John Bunting.

Davis may have been a bust in the NFL, but there’s no arguing what he accomplished at Miami, taking over the program right as it was about to be hit by severe NCAA sanctions, steering it through some rough years and coming out the other side with one of the greatest collections of talent the sport has ever seen. In one recruiting class alone (1999), Davis signed Ken Dorsey, Andre Johnson, Bryant McKinnie, Clinton Portis and Phillip Buchanon, all of whom would play huge roles in the ‘Canes’ 2001 national championship team. And he signed them at a time when Miami was still losing regularly to Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

An ace recruiter is exactly what North Carolina needs right now, because the current talent level in Chapel Hill is atrocious. Obviously the Tar Heels lack the same drawing power Davis had to sell with at Miami, but in some ways, this might actually be an easier rebuilding job. For one, there are no scholarship limitations or negative publicity to battle. But more importantly, from a competitive standpoint, Davis couldn’t be coming into the ACC – particularly the Coastal Division -- at a better time. Florida State and Miami are a mess. Clemson can’t seem to get over the hump. N.C. State’s coach is in limbo. Virginia’s could be by next year. Georgia Tech and Wake Forest don’t figure to sustain the level of success they’re having this season. And institutionally speaking, there’s no reason why North Carolina can’t reach the same level as Boston College and Maryland.

The program Davis will most be gunning for is Virginia Tech. Considering Miami and Florida State’s current plights, the Hokies are unquestionably the jewel of the conference right now, and they get a lot of their best players out of the state of North Carolina. Davis’ goals will be to lock down some of that in-state talent that’s been getting away to Tech, N.C. State, Wake and elsewhere, tap into his South Florida ties (and take advantage of Miami’s uncertainty) to mine that highly fertile area and use his own clout and recognizability to extend UNC’s reach nationally.

I can’t say I’m familiar enough with the Heels’ current personnel to know just how steep a climb Davis is in for, but I think a realistic timetable is to get them to a bowl game in two years and compete for the division title in three.

Beyond that is anyone’s best guess. As Mack Brown found out, there’s historically been a ceiling as to just how high UNC can get. Even the coach of the reigning national champions couldn’t deliver an ACC championship in 10 seasons in Chapel Hill, though he came close in his final two, going a combined 21-3. Of course, Florida State was at the height of its dynasty at the time and no one else in the ACC could touch the ‘Noles, either. So even though the expanded ACC is much tougher as a whole today than it was a decade ago, the absence of a juggernaut like that actually makes it more suitable for someone like Davis to try and build a power.

I have no doubt whatsoever he’ll significantly upgrade the Heels’ talent level. The only question is whether he’ll stick around long enough this time to reap the benefits.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
11/12/2006 11:17:00 AM

Five Things We Learned This Weekend

Oakland Arena
Despite barely being healthy enough to play, Darren McFadden ripped off 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIRE

1) That there are only two national-title caliber teams this season … and they're playing this Saturday. After watching Michigan in person Saturday for the first time since the Notre Dame game, I fully believe that The Game is a toss-up. This is not a slight against Ohio State, which is still quite clearly the team to beat. But the Wolverines are that good -- particularly their defense. Neither teams' Big Ten schedule has been particularly daunting this season, but they've both gone out and won convincingly every week. So when I see Florida barely surviving South Carolina (Big Ten equivalent: Penn State) or Texas losing to Kansas State (Big Ten equivalent: Purdue), it only reinforces that OSU and Michigan are in their own stratosphere this year.

2) That the most deceiving score of the season was USC 50, Arkansas 14: If both the Trojans and Razorbacks win out and end up right behind the Ohio State-Michigan winner in the standings, USC should and will get the national-title berth. But if you watched Arkansas' rout of Tennessee last night, you saw that the Hogs could not be a more different team than the one that got trounced way back on Sept. 2. Their heart and soul, Darren McFadden, was barely healthy enough to play in that game. Their quarterback Saturday night, Casey Dick, didn't even play in the game. Their defense has gone from questionable to formidable. But most of all, they've taken on an entirely different identity under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Arkansas sure as heck wasn't lining up McFadden as a shotgun quarterback at the time of the USC game.

3) That USC also is not the same team that lost to Oregon State: Back when the Trojans were struggling against Washington State/Washington/Arizona State, the last thing you would have attached to their name was "national championship." But when they finally lost, they seemed to find themselves during that second-half comeback. The team that drubbed Oregon late Saturday carried the kind of swagger that was missing a month ago. I'm still skeptical they can win all three remaining games -- I wouldn't go writing off Cal just because of the Arizona game, and UCLA will be tough at the end (I've already made it quite clear what the Trojans' receivers are going to do to Notre Dame's defense) -- but just the fact they're back in the discussion so quickly is fairly remarkable.

4) That the Rutgers and Wake Forest bandwagons are about to overflow: It was easy to dismiss the Scarlet Knights as a novelty act back when they were beating up on Howard, but I can't imagine anyone who tuned in last Thursday night won't be acknowledging them as legit. Any team that can hold Louisville to 266 yards has a big-time defense. Their schedule is going to keep them out of the national title discussion for now (and I don't think they're going to finish undefeated, either), but with so many one-loss teams falling, I'm starting to believe Rutgers may be an attractive BCS at-large choice if they do go 11-1. Meanwhile, I'll admit I've been underselling Wake for weeks. I know Florida State's not very good, but when's the last time anyone went to Tallahassee and won 30-0? I now fully expect to see the Deacons in the BCS as well after they win the ACC.

5) That the best point guard in Lexington, Ky., doesn't play hoops: Historically, Kentucky quarterbacks needed to be either a high-school legend (Tim Couch) or inordinately hefty (Jared Lorenzen) to get recognition. Andre Woodson deserves recognition because he's just that good. Saturday night, the junior went 29-of-42 for 450 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in the Wildcats' bowl-clinching win over Vanderbilt. And the Commodores' defense is hardly terrible. On the season, Woodson has thrown for 2,575 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Rajon Rondo had nothing on this guy.
posted by Stewart Mandel | View comments | Add a comment
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