SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/01/2007 11:50:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part III
Justin Forsett ran for 160 yards and a touchdowns Golden Bears avenged last season's humiliating loss to the Volunteers.
I’d say Cal got its redemption all right. As expected, we saw plenty of Nate Longshore’s arm and DeSean Jackson’s explosiveness (that punt return was plain silly), but what impressed me most about the Bears’ 45-31 win over Tennessee -- something they’d been largely missing the past couple of years -- was their toughness. Whenever they needed some short yards between the tackles, RB Justin Forsett delivered, while Zack Follet and the defense did an impressive job up front.
Meanwhile, hats off to Vols QB Erik Ainge for a phenomenal performance considering the circumstances. Playing with a broken pinkie and a brand new set of receivers, Ainge was a solid 32-of-47 for 271 yards and three touchdowns. You could tell, however, that offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe doesn’t have too much confidence yet in the new receivers because he rarely called a downfield passing play. He’s going to need to add that component sometime in the next two weeks if the Vols hope to have a chance of winning in Gainesville on Sept. 15.
If you didn’t see it, a disturbing development took place in the final minutes, when LB Xavier Mitchell appeared to suffer a potentially serious injury following an awkward hit. He lay motionless on the turf for more than 10 minutes before being carted off the field (at least his arms were moving at that point). Here’s hoping the prognosis is positive.
· How can anyone not love Brent Musburger talking about "hippies in the oak trees?" Honestly, that drinking game that’s been floating around the Internet doesn’t even begin to do the man justice.
· Georgia could not have asked for a better start to the season than Saturday’s 35-14 win over Oklahoma State. Sophomore QB Matthew Stafford picked up where left off at the end of last season, looking like a much more confident, crisp passer (18-of-24, 234 yards, two TDs, no INTs) and the Bulldogs’ defense -- which sports a bunch of new faces – looked much like it always does, notching five sacks and holding the Cowboys’ normally explosive offense to 266 total yards.
· I had a feeling going in that Auburn was going to have its hands full with Kansas State, and that’s exactly what happened. Without a reliable offensive line or receivers, QB Brandon Cox looked like a man stranded on a lonely island most of the night as the Tigers managed just nine points in the game’s first 57 minutes. Quentin Groves and the defense eventually bailed them out, but if Auburn (which, in its defense, was playing without top RB Brad Lester) can’t move the ball on Kansas State (it finished with 295 yards), just wait ‘til those SEC defenses come calling.
· The unsung star of the day: UCLA running back Kahlil Bell. After missing nearly half the 2006 season to injuries and a suspension, the junior racked up 195 yards on 19 carries – part of a 624-yard day for the Bruins -- in a 45-17 win over Stanford. Maybe new Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh just changed his opinion about which L.A. team is the greatest of all time.
· This week, ESPN the Magazine ran an interesting feature entitled Dream of the Doomed about North Texas’ seemingly futile quest to knock off Oklahoma in its opener. It included a description of defensive end and Norman native Blake Burruss pumping his fists in the air and screaming "Stoops got outcoached! Stoops got outcoached!" after the Sooners’ Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State.
Do you think it’s at all possible that clip made it to Bob Stoops’ hands prior to kickoff Saturday night? Final score: Oklahoma 79, North Texas 10. Nice debuts for a couple of key Sooners redshirt freshmen (albeit against one of the worst teams in I-A): QB Sam Bradford went 21-of-23 for 363 yards and three TDs, and RB DeMarco Murray scored five touchdowns on 17 carries.
· We’ve been hearing for two years how UCF’s Kevin Smith may well be the best running back in the state of Florida. Saturday night, he ran for a career-high 217 yards on 35 carries in a 25-23 upset of N.C. State. Big win for George O’Leary; rough debut for Tom O’Brien.
· So much for that talk about Arizona suddenly morphing into Texas Tech under new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. BYU held the Wildcats scoreless for 59 minutes in a 20-7 victory that included an impressive debut by new Cougars QB Max Hall (26-of-39, 288 yards, two TDs no INTs).
Notre Dame quarterbacks faced heat all day from an aggressive Georgia Tech defense.
Finally, I understand why Charlie Weis wanted to keep the identity of his quarterback a secret. Someone might have charged the coach with reckless endangerment.
We knew Notre Dame’s young offense would endure some growing pains this season, but I did not anticipate anything as gruesome as Saturday’s 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech. It didn’t particularly matter who Weis put behind center -- all three candidates, starter Demetrius Jones, Evan Sharpley and Jimmy Clausen, saw action -- because Notre Dame's offensive line was utterly helpless in trying to stop the Jackets’ defensive front. The Irish managed an abysmal 121 total yards, and 25 percent of their plays in the first half netted negative yardage.
The phenom Clausen did provide a few brief glimpses with some throws he made upon finally entering in garbage time, but it’s always deceiving to read too much into a team’s performance once the outcome is in hand (Arkansas fans spent an entire season last year waiting for Mitch Mustain to replicate his “magical” drive late in a 50-14 loss to USC.) Although the NBC broadcasting crew seemed to back Clausen, I don't think we’ll see him starting next week at Penn State. If he was healthy enough to play, than it stands to reason Weis would have put him in sooner if he felt it could have made a difference.
I’m guessing Weis realized going in his line could be a potential disaster, and he doesn’t want to risk crushing his young QB’s confidence by throwing him to the wolves. Jones and Sharpley may have to serve as sacrificial lambs in the early part of this season.
∙ In this week’s Mailbag, I posed 10 questions I wanted to see answered this weekend, one of which was, “How good is [Boston College quarterback] Matt Ryan?” Answer: Really, really, really good.
With a new offensive coordinator, Steve Logan, who has no reservations whatsoever putting the ball in the air early and often, both the now-healthy Ryan and the Eagles themselves looked like a whole new team in Saturday’s 38-28 win over Wake Forest. Ryan’s numbers: 32-of-52 for 406 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. The Eagles also have a big-time playmaker in cornerback DeJuan Tribble, who picked off three Riley Skinner passes.
∙ Illinois nearly pulled off a huge comeback and would given third-year coach Ron Zook a much-needed momentum-builder against Missouri, but Tigers QB Chase Daniel was simply too much for the Illini, going 37-of-54 for 358 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-34 win. That said, the Illini’s 429-yard performance -- much of it coming with backup QB Eddie McGee at the helm after Juice Williams got knocked out -- was not a good sign for Missouri’s rebuilt defense.
∙ I’ve been saying all summer that, with all due respect to Steve Slaton, QB Pat White would emerge as West Virginia’s more viable Heisman candidate this season by finally becoming a true dual-threat. Saturday against Western Michigan -- a team that’s been almost universally picked to win the MAC this year -- White posted some pretty impressive numbers: 10-of-18 for 192 yards and two touchdowns; nine rushes for 98 yards and another two scores.
He and Slaton both sat out the fourth quarter of a 62-24 snoozer. That’s when much-anticipated freshman RB Noel Devine entered the game, rushing eight times for 46 yards and a touchdown and catching a 19-yard pass. Here’s guessing he’ll be seeing earlier action soon.
∙ So much for those doomsday scenarios regarding Wisconsin post-John Stocco. Replacement Tyler Donovan was a cool 19-of-29 for 284 yards, three TDs and no INTs in a 42-21 win over Washington State.
∙ I caught a lot of flak from Virginia columnists (though not so much Cavaliers fans) when I placed Al Groh on top of my annual worst-coaches list this summer. I wonder if any of them are starting to reevaluate America’s least productive $2 million coach in light of this score Saturday: Wyoming 23, Virginia 3.
Running back Kevin Richardson ran for 88 yards in Appalachian State's momentous win over No. 5 Michigan
My job is to help put major college football developments into perspective for you, the reader ... but in the case of Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 ... sorry Appalachian State 34, No. 5 Michigan 32, I feel utterly unqualified.
As Mountaineer player Cory Lynch raced down the field of the Big House with the ball he’d just blocked to put the final, excruciating nail in the Wolverines’ coffin, broadcaster Thom Brennaman began spouting off some of the biggest upsets in college football history -- Centre College over Harvard (1921), Carnegie Tech over Notre Dame (1926). I can’t speak with any authority on those contests, which took place in a whole other era long before top 25 polls, “I-A” and “I-AA” or “BCS’ and “non-BCS” even entered the sport’s lexicon.
All I know is this. In the 29 years since the NCAA formally split Division I into two separate entities, no I-AA team had ever defeated a team ranked in the AP poll. When it finally happened, it wasn’t the No. 24 team that went down. Or the No. 19 team. It wasn’t a Hawaii or a Rutgers or some other marginally respected program that just happened to be ranked.
The victim was the winningest program in the history of the sport. The No. 5 team in the country according the pollsters. Winner of 11 games just a season ago. A squad with at least four future NFL draft picks on its offense alone. Participant in three of the past four Rose Bowls. Consensus favorite to win the 2007 Big Ten title.
All of those things may still come true for the Wolverines, but one game into its season, this Michigan team has already etched itself into history for the most embarrassing possible reason -- by becoming the first ranked team ever to lose to a I-AA squad.
For everything that Boise State’s historic Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma said about the new era of college football, Appalachian State just trumped it ten-fold. What every coach tries to tell his players and the media every week only to be met by perennial skepticism has now been confirmed as true. No one is unbeatable in college football anymore. Anything can happen.
Granted, Appalachian State is no run-of-the-mill I-AA team, as anyone who watched Saturday’s game can attest. (Which, thanks to the Big Ten’s new network, wasn’t that many folks.) With its jitterbug quarterback, Armanti Edwards, throwing to a plethora of speedy receivers in the now ubiquitous spread offense, the two-time defending I-AA champions looked no different to the human eye than any number of similarly pesky I-A teams in recent years (Bowling Green with former QB Omar Jacobs immediately comes to mind), so it’s not like the Mountaineers weren’t a legitimate threat.
But come on. This wasn’t a high-level I-AA team knocking off a low-level BCS-conference team (like Montana State over Colorado or New Hampshire over Northwestern). This was a team with at least 22 less scholarships and one-tenth as much funding as its opponent (according to public data, Michigan’s football program raked in more than $50 million in revenue in 2005-06; Appalachian State pulled in less than $5 million) walking into a 110,000-seat stadium and knocking off a team chock full of Rivals.com five-star recruits and future NFL draft picks.
There’s no logical reason whatsoever this should have happened. But it did. And it wasn’t the slightest bit fluky.
The Mountaineers came out in the first half and simply tore the Wolverines’ defense to pieces. It was like the Rose Bowl all over again, only instead of USC, this was Appalachian State. Halftime score: Mountaineers 28, Wolverines 17. And just to avoid any confusion, the West Virginia Mountaineers were playing Western Michigan today.
For more than 28 minutes of the second half, however, the Wolverines’ defense dominated. Shawn Crable and Tim Jamison mauled Appalachian’s blockers the way they probably should have from the beginning. The secondary’s coverage tightened up. Michigan forced turnovers.
The problem, however, was Michigan’s much-touted, star-studded offense. False start penalties. Delay of games. A four-year starting quarterback (Chad Henne) throwing an extremely stupid interception in the red zone. A purported All-American receiver (Mario Manningham) catching just two passes for 20 yards through more than 59 minutes of action. If not for a warrior-like effort from banged-up RB Mike Hart (23 carries, 188 yards and three touchdowns), the Wolverines may very well have lost by two touchdowns.
Instead, they had more than enough opportunities to stave off the upset. From Appalachian State dropping a wide-open ball in the end zone and turning it over three times, to Henne’s pick on a drive that could have wound up with Michigan in the lead, to another drive that ended on fourth and 5, the Wolverines had plenty of chances to take the lead throughout the fourth quarter. And then, when they finally did (on Hart’s 54-yard dash with 4:37 left to go up 32-31), backup Brandon Minor promptly fell down on the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt. A subsequent interception by the Michigan defense deep in App. State territory only led to the first of two blocked field goals.
And then, the truly unthinkable happened. In the span of a minute-plus, Edwards calmly led the Mountaineers on a 69-yard drive, including a dazzling 24-yard catch-and-run play to set up what would end up being the game-winning 24-yard field goal with 30 second left. Even then, Michigan gave itself one last chance to win on Henne’s miraculous 46-yard bomb to Manningham with six seconds left, but poor freshman kicker Jason Gingell looked doomed the second he walked out there, kicking yet another one into the hands of the Mountaineers.
Appalachian State 34, No. 5 Michigan 32.
“It shows you we’ve got good football in I-AA,” visibly stunned Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore said afterward. “And we beat a good Michigan football team.”
Moore’s kind words will serve as no consolation for all those Wolverines faithful whose season of hope just got flushed down the toilet three hours into it. The dream season Henne, Hart and Long came back for? Done. Over.
As humiliating as the BCS bowl blowouts were for the Big Ten last January, this loss is on another level entirely. Even if the Wolverines manage to win their next 11 games and somehow rise all the way to the top two, should they even be allowed a spot in the BCS title game? Only if it’s to rematch by-then three-time I-AA champ Appalachian State. In fact, it would actually behoove the Big Ten for Michigan to be exposed as an all-out fraud very soon (Oregon comes to town next week), because if this team is truly the class of the conference, that’s not exactly a strong testimonial. One could very easily argue we are witnessing the fabled league’s all-time low point.
As for the Mountaineers, I was disappointed to learn upon calling the AP’s sports desk this afternoon that they are not eligible to receive a vote in my top 25 ballot this week. The AP poll, an employee confirmed, is officially considered a I-A poll. That’s too bad. It may well turn out that Michigan was grossly overrated, but all I know is this: There will not be 25 other teams that accomplish more this opening weekend than Appalachian State did Saturday. There won’t even be five.
Appalachian State torched Michigan's new defense for 28 points in the first half.
The all-day Saturday blog is back for another year. And as I do nearly every year, I’m spending the first such Saturday at home so as to get a first glimpse at as many different teams as possible.
The day is only an hour old, but there’s been a recurring theme: the questions we had about most of the major teams -- so far, at least, they appear to be valid.
∙ Appearing on the GameDay set just a couple hours before kickoff Saturday amidst an emotional and touching scene in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said he’d just told his team before they left the hotel: “There’s so much at stake, these people want to rally around us and there’s a lot of people tuning in, but the thing that’s going to make a difference is how hard we play and how well we execute.” Asked by Chris Fowler, “Think that will happen?” Beamer replied: “I hope so.”
For most of the first half ... that hasn’t happened. Perhaps the Hokies came out drained from the emotion and expectations surrounding this game, but it appears one of Beamer’s biggest concerns about his team, which he expressed to me during a visit there in early August, is coming to fruition. Much like last season, Tech’s suspect offensive line simply has not been able to protect QB Sean Glennon, who threw an interception on his first pass attempt, has been sacked at least twice and is mostly having to throw short passes on the run. Tech finally jumped ahead in typical fashion -- a deep punt, followed by a Macho Harris interception for touhdown. Its defense is dominant enough that it should eventually pull away. But if the O-line is having this much trouble with East Carolina (which, admittedly, has a pretty darn good defense), one can only wince thinking about next week’s trip to LSU.
∙ Meanwhile, much bigger things are afoot at the Big House. We knew defending I-AA champ Appalachian State had a high-powered spread offense, and we knew Michigan had to replace a whole bunch of stars on defense. Still ... it’s a little bit stunning to see the Mountaineers come in and jump to a 28-14 lead thanks to QB Armanti Edwards starting 7-of-7 for 129 yards and three TDs (while running for another 41 yards and a score). The Wolverines’ secondary has been absolutely helpless against track-star receiver Dexter Jackson, whose caught 68- and 20-yard touchdowns.
The typical protocol in these type games is the I-AA team -- playing with at least 22 less scholarship players -- eventually wears out, but Michigan’s D is going to have to make some serious adjustments at halftime to avoid the upset of all upsets.
∙ Long-suffering Colorado fans had to be pleased to see new QB Cody Hawkins come out and throw two touchdowns right off the bat against rival Colorado State. The Rams have answered right back, however, to tie the game at 14-14.
∙ Tim Tebow is doing his best to show that he does in fact have an arm, starting 5-of-5 for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Western Kentucky. That includes touchdowns of 59 yards to Riley Cooper and 48 to Andre Caldwell.
∙ Finally, a reader pointed out this unfortunate coincidence during ESPN’s coverage of the memorial events in Blacksburg this morning: “I am all for sports helping to heal, but what is the first thing I see when I turn to GameDay broadcasting from the Virginia Tech campus this morning? A trailer for Jodie Foster's new movie, in which she plays a vigilante with guns blazing. How does that help?” It doesn’t. Might want to screen those commercials better, guys.
Charlie Weis has done his best to protect the identity of his starting quarterback.
By now, you’ve probably heard a few hundred times how Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is "arrogant." Not just from judgmental sports columnists like me, mind you, but from actual Irish players ("He seemed a little arrogant," former defensive end Justin Tuck said following Weis’ first team meeting) and opposing coaches (“Weis is arrogant as hell," one such coach told The Sporting News last year).
In my first two-plus years of observing Weis, I failed to reach the same conclusion. Was the NFL-bred Weis a little different from most college coaches? Yes. A control freak? Absolutely. But it’s not like I’d ever heard him say, "I’m a freaking awesome coach," or "These guys I face every week are amateurs." Following both of Notre Dame’s blowout losses to Michigan and USC last year, the coach was appropriately humble and accepting of responsibility for the result.
But arrogance can take on many different forms, and over the course of this offseason, in managing to turn a seemingly mundane quarterback decision into a matter of national security, Weis has shown his true colors.
From the first day of training camp, Weis made it abundantly clear that none of us peons would be privy to the identity of his new starting quarterback – either junior Evan Sharpley, redshirt freshman Demetrius Jones or true freshman Jimmy Clausen -- prior to the first snap of Saturday’s opener against Georgia Tech. Weis’ reasoning? "I'm not really in the business of passing out free information [to the Irish’s opponent]." That’s interesting, considering numerous other coaches who seem to know what they’re doing -- Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, Nebraska’s Bill Callahan -- apparently did not see the same harm in publicly announcing similar decisions over the past week.
Georgia Tech has had nearly eight months to prepare for this game. Does Weis really think Jackets defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta hasn’t watched every available high-school tape (or, in Sharpley’s case, those two collegiate pass attempts) of the three QBs by now? Furthermore, Tech just played the Irish last season, so it’s not like Tenuta isn’t familiar with Weis’ offense (which is far more important to know than the identity of the QB himself). And while the athletic Jones does present a potential wrinkle with his running ability, I’m guessing the Jackets aren’t unfamiliar with the concept -- considering their last game was in the Gator Bowl against West Virginia speedster Pat White.
It’d be one thing if Weis was still genuinely stumped as to who he might tap come Saturday, but last week the third-year coach said he’s actually known "for a week or two," adding agitatedly, “Do you think I'm going to be so fickle that I won't know who the quarterback is going to be?” In the same breath, however, he said he hadn’t yet bothered to tell the chosen quarterback himself.
Does he really think we’re stupid enough to believe that? Arguably the biggest key to the success of a first-time starting quarterback is confidence, and there’s no better way to build a guy’s confidence than to let him know he’s your man. Weis may be having fun playing cat-and-mouse with the media, but I seriously doubt he’s keeping the actual players in suspense.
Besides, Weis has now given us plenty of reason to no longer believe much of anything that comes out of his mouth. As you may recall, the coach became very annoyed last spring when various news outlets reported that Clausen, ND’s much-touted freshman phenom, was suffering from bone spurs in his throwing elbow and would eventually undergo a surgical procedure. Despite the fact the reporters in question had spoken with a fairly reliable source –- Clausen’s own father -- Weis was aghast. "He's full-go, contrary to recent reports," Weis said of the freshman. "Just so we clear that one up, the only one who will answer for the health of our players will be me."
Last Friday, however, Clausen himself spoke for the first time, and, contrary to Weis’ contradiction, said, "Following spring practice, I had a procedure on my elbow to arthroscopically remove a bone spur. It was a minor setback, and I've been rehabbing ever since." Weis did not necessarily lie about the injury -- he merely insulted the intelligence of anyone with a brain.
Give the coach credit for one thing, however: he’s managed to create far more intrigue and attention surrounding his decision than should really be merited for an unranked, rebuilding team. That said, it’s fairly obvious at this point that Sharpley, the most experienced of the bunch, will start on Saturday. Perhaps Jones and Clausen will see action as well, but no one really believes Weis, a pro-style guy to the core, is suddenly going to start running the shotgun-spread so Jones can burn people on the QB draw, and clearly Clausen (whose throwing velocity, practice observers have noted, has not been the same as the other two) is not yet healthy enough to go full-time.
Clausen will take over soon enough -- ND did not recruit the phenom to sit on the bench for two years. Whether that will come in week two, week four or week eight, we don’t know. The only thing we know for certain is that we won’t know of Clausen’s promotion ahead of time. Because obviously we, the untrained masses, cannot be trusted with such information.