SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/29/2007 07:50:00 PM
Saturday Observations Part III
Kansas State had reason to celebrate in handing Texas its worst loss in Mack Brown's 10 years as coach.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
All college football weekends involve some degree of craziness and chaos. It's pretty rare that one packs as much of both as this one.
Four top 10 teams (Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas and Rutgers) blindsided by underdogs, including both participants (OU and Texas) in an anticipated top-five showdown next week. The biggest game of the day, No. 6 Cal at No. 11 Oregon, literally gets decided by inches. The Big East's title race has been turned completely upside down by an unlikely contender (South Florida), while that ubiquitous commercial with the league's four Heisman candidates (Pat White, Steve Slaton, Ray Rice and Brian Brohm) has been rendered irrelevant. Oh and by the way ... Saturday’s not even over yet.
Did someone just punch Big Tex in the stomach? I swear I just heard a horrific bellow emanating from the Texas State Fair Grounds, site of what was supposed to be a titanic showdown next week between undefeated Oklahoma and Texas is now a battle for ... umm, a division title?
After years of watching the Big 12 South dominate its northern brethren, resurgent Colorado and Kansas State went out and stunned Oklahoma and Texas. The conference’s lone undefeated teams are now Missouri and Kansas. Oklahoma won its first four games by scores of 79-10, 51-13, 54-3 and 62-21. Colorado had lost 12 of its first 16 games under second-year coach Dan Hawkins. Yes, the Sooners were playing outside of their state for the first time, and yes, the Buffaloes boast an unheralded, top-20 defense. But did anyone outside of Boulder, Colo., give the Buffs even a fighting chance entering this game?
I know I didn't. Not during the week leading up to it, and certainly not when the Sooners jumped to an expected 24-7 lead Saturday. But the Buffs would not be stampeded like Miami or Tulsa before them. For one thing, by sticking with the running game and picking up first downs through the air, CU controlled possession for a staggering 38:54, keeping OU’s previously unstoppable offense off the field. But even when the Sooners' were on offense, they weren’t overly productive -- QB Sam Bradford, who came in completing 78 percent of his passes, went just 8-for-19 for 112 yards and two interceptions.
As the game got tighter, Bradford and the Sooners became unglued. From the time Colorado cut the lead to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma’s last four possessions ended on a sack, an interception, a muffed punt return and a three and out. Meanwhile, Buffs redshirt freshman Cody Hawkins seemed to convert one third down after another to deliver the first signature moment for his dad’s rebuilding program.
No. 7 Texas’ loss to Kansas State wasn’t nearly as shocking, considering they lost to the Wildcats in Manhattan just a year ago and considering the ‘Horns have looked shaky in nearly every game they’ve played. It’s just that their house of cards wasn’t supposed to get blown away until next week.
Give K-State credit. When Colt McCoy had to be helped off the field just before halftime, with Texas trailing by 10 and a torrential downpour soaking the field, it looked like the ‘Horns were all but done. Instead, they mounted a brief rally and seemed to be regaining momentum, but the Wildcats, on the road, squelched that in a hurry with a Jordy Nelson punt return for touchdown and an interception of McCoy on the first play of Texas’ ensuing drive. Next thing you knew, Kansa State was up by 20 ... and suddenly the Red River Shootout seems no more relevant nationally than next week’s Nebraska-Missouri game. As for who will win between the Sooners and the Longhorns, I would imagine OU remains the favorite -- but after the events of today, I wouldn’t pretend to remotely know what might happen.
For a game featuring two such explosive offenses, Cal-Oregon featured a surprising amount of big defensive plays. Oregon stuffed Cal’s running game early and held them to three points in the first half. The Bears picked off previously unblemished Dennis Dixon on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions. In the end, the game was decided (barely) by another turnover -- Cameron Colvin's fumble into the end zone one yard shy of the game-tying touchdown -- but the difference-maker on the day was unquestionably DeSean Jackson. After a quiet couple weeks, the Bears receiver exploded for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches to lift his team to its first win in Eugene in 20 years -- and, following Oklahoma and Texas’ defeats, a likely No. 4 national ranking this time tomorrow.
The Big East’s anticipated dream season has officially turned into a nightmare. With Rutgers’ 34-24 loss Saturday to 3-2 Maryland -- the same Terrapins team that blew a 24-3 third-quarter lead at Wake Forest just last week -- new league leader South Florida now has no real showcase games left on its schedule. By losing to the first legit opponents it’s faced this season, Rutgers took all the wind out of what could have been a gigantic Thursday night game against USF on Oct. 18. The Scarlet Knights also showed their touted defense has lost a couple steps from last year. Maryland’s Keon Lattimore (34 carries, 123 yards) and Lance Ball (12 carries, 91 yards) ran all over Rutgers, while the Terps’ increasingly impressive defense limited Rutgers star Rice to 97 yards on 21 carries.
More bad implications for the Big East: A week ago, Colorado routed Miami (Ohio) 42-0, while Syracuse stunned previously daunting Louisville. On Saturday, while the Buffs capitalized on that momentum by knocking off No. 3 Oklahoma, the Orange (1-4) lost 17-14 ... to Miami (Ohio).
It’s not often a team with two star tailbacks, one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks and an offense averaging more than 38 points gets held to a lone field goal by a 2-2 team ... and it surprises absolutely no one. No. 13 Clemson’s 13-3 loss at Georgia Tech was classic Clemson: a completely uninspiring effort (including four missed field goals, a punt blocked, a kickoff return fumbled and a touchdown called back for a personal foul) against an inferior opponent. Sure, the Jackets always present a tough challenge defensively, but they did just lose to Virginia the week before. There’s no excuse for the Tigers to finish with a measly 228 total yards against anyone, but for whatever reason, that’s what TommyBowden’s teams inevitably do.
Finally, I know I’ve been ragging on 5-0 Wisconsin lately -- and I still think the Badgers are not a top-10 team -- but give them credit for one thing: they keep finding a way to pull out one close victory after another (which is more than we can say about Oklahoma). Michigan State racked up 564 yards against Wisconsin’s Swiss-cheese defense, but P.J. Hill was once again a monster (34 carries, 151 yards, two TDs) as the Badgers survived another upset bid 37-34.
There will be two tough road tests next week for the Big Ten’s two highest rated teams: Ohio State visits 5-0 Purdue while the Badgers go to Champaign to face 4-1 Illinois. Now that OU-Texas doesn’t matter ... you might as well watch those.
Regus Benn burned Penn State for a pair of scores in the Illinois victory.
Somebody’s got to win the Big Ten this year. Why not Illinois?
Watching the Illini these days, I almost forget they went 2-10 last year. Part of that is because I don’t remember them being all that bad (remember the Ohio State game?), part of it is because it seems like Juice Williams has been a household name for years already and of course a big part of it is we all know how well Ron Zook has recruited there.
With their 27-20 upset of suddenly reeling Penn State on Saturday, the Illini improved to 4-1, the sole loss a 40-34 opening-week thriller against 4-0 Missouri, currently ranked 20th in the country. Not bad considering Illinois is still very much a work in progress. Williams was his usual erratic self Saturday, throwing a 29-yard touchdown to freshman stud Arrelious Benn (who also had a 90-yard kick return) but also throwing two picks. The defense gave up 427 yards but came up with stops when the Illini needed them (including three interceptions of Anthony Morelli).
If you look at the rest of Illinois’ Big Ten schedule, the only game that doesn’t seem winnable is its Nov. 10 trip to Ohio State. Next week brings vulnerable Wisconsin to Champaign, the week after a trip to 2-3 Iowa (which lost 38-20 on Saturday to the same Indiana team the Illini handled easily last week), the week after that a home date with Michigan, which trailed Northwestern for three quarters Saturday.
Don’t go booking those tickets to Pasadena just yet, Illini fans -- but the Big Ten has two other New Year’s Day bowl slots, and landing one of them is certainly an attainable goal.
∙ It figures the week I move LSU to No. 1 the Tigers come out and play like garbage for a half against Tulane, going to the locker room up just 10-9. LSU pulled away from there to win 34-9 but never really got its running game going, while Matt Flynn was sacked five times. Think someone was looking ahead to Florida?
∙ Steve Spurrier’s latest quarterback shuffle paid dividends, at least this week. Chris Smelley was an efficient 19-of-37 for 280 yards with two TDs to Kenny McKinley in a 38-21 win over Mississippi State.
∙ Notre Dame covered the spread! Interestingly, the 0-5 Irish’s offense finally seemed to come to life in the second half after Charlie Weis pulled hobbled QB Jimmy Clausen in favor of Evan Sharpley. Sharpley threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns to turn a 23-0 halftime deficit into a 33-19 loss. I can’t believe I just wrote that as if it were noteworthy.
∙ Virginia Tech will likely be dropping out of my Top 25 this week. I’m giving the Hokies the benefit of the doubt all season but their offense is simply pitiful, netting just 241 yards in a 17-10 win over 1-4 North Carolina.
Speedy West Virginia barely had any room to run all night.
Marc Serota/Getty Images
Saturday's action hasn't even begun and already the college football world has been turned ... over.
West Virginia and Louisville, the Big East’s two most recognizable torch bearers of the past three years, have been all but eliminated from the national title picture. The many Big East skeptics out there will now likely tune out the league the rest of the season. Anyone who took in South Florida’s 21-13 upset of the fifth-ranked Mountaineers on Friday night, however, saw an overwhelming USF defense that makes the Bulls impossible to ignore.
Pat White and Steve Slaton have torched nearly every defense they’ve faced the past three seasons, yet for the second straight year, Jim Leavitt’s Bulls rendered them ordinary (and in White’s case, injured, as he missed the entire second half). Since the beginning of last season, the Mountaineers have averaged 39.3 points per game. Their past two meetings against South Florida have rendered 31 points total. This is no coincidence.
The spread offense can be a great neutralizer in college football, but it’s contingent on one central factor: Speed. Not just pure foot speed, mind you -- speed between plays (no huddles), speedy decisions by the quarterback on nearly every snap (the zone-read) and speed in the execution (swift handoffs and option pitches). The one proven way to counter it: Being even speedier on defense.
Anyone who tuned in to Friday night’s contest saw South Florida’s defense exhibit the same kind of terrorizing defensive speed their more established Sunshine State counterparts (Florida, Florida State and Miami) have been doing for two decades. Play after play, defensive ends George Selvie (who raised his staggering season totals to 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss) and Jarriett Buie collapsed the quarterback’s pocket within nanoseconds of the snap. Linebackers Ben Moffit and Tyrone McKenzie raced to Slaton before he could gain a head of steam. Safeties Nate Allen and Carlton Williams appeared out of nowhere to close open-field spaces. And lockdown corners Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins helped hold top Mountaineers receiver Darius Reynaud to 47 yards on five catches despite the fact QB Jarrett Brown spent the entire second half looking to pass. (Brown did complete several long third-down passes during the Mountaineers’ brief fourth-quarter comeback effort, but also spent a lot of plays tucking and running because no one was open.)
Speed helped the Bulls cause six turnovers -- two of them interceptions by star LB Ben Moffit that required lightning-quick reflexes (one at the line of scrimmage, the other off a deflection), others the kind of reckless fumbles (including two by Steve Slaton) that come when a team is playing rattled. Even when they weren’t being chased, it was as if the Mountaineers could hear the footsteps. Perhaps the Bulls were still in their head from last year’s loss in Morgantown. Or perhaps USF’s defenders are just that good. This is, after all, the same team that teed off on Louisville star Brian Brohm throughout a 45-14 beatdown in Tampa two years ago and the same team that walked into hostile Jordan-Hare Stadium three weeks ago and pulled out an overtime win over then-No. 17 Auburn. Selvie, Moffitt, Allen and Jenkins will all merit All-America consideration as the season progresses.
The Bulls are a team that can no longer be taken lightly, no matter what conference they play in, no matter how unfamiliar their acronym. Their offense may not be the prettiest thing to watch (the Bulls managed just 274 total yards and had four turnovers of their own) -- and those who didn’t watch at all will likely discount USF’s upset on account of West Virginia being “overrated” (as it turned out Auburn was) -- but anyone who’s paid any attention to college football over the past 20 years would agree that a fast, athletic defense can take a team a long way.
It was just such a thing, in fact, that allowed Florida to win a national championship last season in spite of its own dysfunctional offense. Can South Florida pull off the same feat? Only if enough people start taking the Bulls seriously enough to be considered.
While the NCAA is largely powerless to police the often shady academic practices -- jock majors, athlete-friendly teachers, etc. -- that are believed to take place at most football or basketball powerhouses, deliberate fraud is one area it takes quite seriously.
With that in mind, the report Florida State issued Wednesday regarding an internal investigation into acts of academic impropriety on the part of two university employees sounds quite serious and highly likely to result in NCAA ramifications.
According to the report, as described by the Florida Times-Union, a tutor and a “learning specialist” -- both of whom resigned last summer -- “perpetrated academic dishonesty” in their work with 23 athletes in nine different sports during the 2006-07 school year. The names of the players or the specific sports were not disclosed, though the school said the players involved have been suspended pending a petition to restore their eligibility.
The investigation centered around a specific online class in which 118 athletes were enrolled, of which 23 admitted to receiving or being directed to the answers by a tutor. The learning specialist also typed papers for five athletes. The probe apparently began when an athlete informed his academic advisor that the learning specialist had directed him to complete an online quiz on behalf of another athlete and was given the answers to the quiz. According to the Orlando Sentinel, when the athlete who was supposed to take the quiz asked for an extension, the learning specialist told him the quiz "was taken care of."
While Florida State will earn some leniency from the NCAA for uncovering the transgressions itself, there’s almost no question sanctions will be involved, considering school employees played a direct role and considering the large amount of athletes involved.
While I can think of no prior case that matches this one exactly, the two that immediately come to mind are a 2003 Fresno State basketball scandal in which an academic advisor and team statistician completed papers for several players, and a more widespread scandal at Georgia Tech around the same time in which 17 athletes (including 11 football players) over a six-year period were mistakenly ruled to be academically eligible.
Georgia Tech’s punishment was two years’ probation and the loss of six football scholarships for the 2005 and ’06 seasons. An initial ruling that records be vacated during the seasons in which the ineligible players competed (a la what happened to Oklahoma in the Rhett Bomar case) was dropped on appeal. Fresno State endured four years probation, a one-year postseason ban and a reduction in scholarships.
The NCAA enforcement process is far too nebulous to predict what exactly the response will be in this case. Based on what’s been reported, the specific acts of fraud more closely mirror the Fresno State case, but were apparently not limited to one sport, while the scope of culpability as well as the university’s quick reaction seems similar to Georgia Tech’s.
In the meantime, more details are sure to emerge in the coming weeks and months, including whether specific football or basketball players were involved. A key word will be “eligibility” – when did the improper acts take place relative to the athletes’ season and, in turn, did that render them ineligible at the time they competed? As we’ve seen, the NCAA does not take kindly to the use of ineligible athletes, even if inadvertent.
Based on what’s been reported so far, what would you do if you were the NCAA?
Tim Tebow set a school record for quarterbacks with 166 yards rushing and accounted for four touchdowns Saturday.
1) That Bob Davie has a point (sort of). During the first half of Friday night’s Oklahoma-Tulsa game, ESPN’s visiting analyst -- who mentioned that he’d recently spoken with Arkansas coach Houston Nutt about his falling out with now-Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn –- expressed his unmistakable distaste for Malzahn’s pass-happy spread offense, prompted by a fourth and 1 play in which Tulsa chose to punt rather than try to run for the first down. "At some point, don’t you have to run the football a little bit?" said Davie. "I think there ought to be an NCAA rule -- 25 times a game you have to put two backs in the backfield."
I think we have a better idea now know why Davie is out of coaching while his former assistant, Urban Meyer, is head coach of the reigning national champions. Did Davie somehow miss the part where Meyer’s Gators won a national title last year running a one-back (sometimes no-back) spread offense? He has a point, though: Even in the spread, you’ve got to be able to run the ball, as the Gators did Saturday against Ole Miss. With the Rebels creeping back in the game in the fourth quarter and Florida’s young defense visibly fatigued in what was for many of them their first road trip, Meyer simply had QB Tim Tebow run the ball over and over -- 12 times for 74 yards in the fourth quarter alone -- to eat up clock and keep Ole Miss off the field. On the flip side, Louisville’s inability to run the ball against Syracuse ultimately did in the Cardinals nearly as much as their defensive lapses. Even a star QB like Brian Brohm is going to make a bad throw at some point if you make him attempt 65 passes, and indeed, Brohm’s second interception midway through the fourth quarter doomed any realistic hope of a comeback.
About 24 hours after that Tulsa game, Davie got to watch one of his preferred old-school offenses in person as he called the Kentucky-Arkansas game in Fayetteville. Indeed, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones ran all over the Wildcats -- and lost the game for exactly the opposite reason as Louisville. As has been the case for three years now, Arkansas lacks any semblance of a passing game, and it showed. Ultimately, the best teams will strike a balance between the run and the pass, and it must be music to Davie’s ears that the nation’s consensus top-five teams (USC, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida and West Virginia) all rank among the top 11 in the country in rushing offense. Of those five, however, only the Trojans run his preferred two-back offense the majority of the game.
2) That Ohio State is the class of the Big Ten. It would be dangerous to read too much into a 58-7 rout of hapless Northwestern -- if that rout didn’t come on the heels of a more meaningful win at Washington in which OSU’s rebuilt offense apparently found its identity. The assumption coming into the season was that the Troy Smith-less Buckeyes would ride RB Beanie Wells and their defense in a more conservative approach, only Wells was less than dominant in the first two games against Youngstown State and Akron. So against the Huskies, Jim Tressel opened the offense back up and put faith in QB Todd Boeckman -- and it paid off to the tune of 471 yards in offense. Against the Wildcats, Boeckman attacked from the get go, hooking up with WR Brian Robiskie for two long touchdowns in the game’s first five minutes. Combined with three turnovers that set up short field position, the Bucks were up 35-0 by the first minute of the second quarter, and Boeckman wound up throwing for four touchdowns.
Throw in a defense that held the Wildcats to 120 total yards, and Saturday’s game looked no different than so many during the Buckeyes’ undefeated 2006 regular season, with the caveat that Wells (12 carries, 100 yards) is no Antonio Pittman just yet, and none of the receivers are nearly the type of game-breaker as Ted Ginn Jr. Still, I’ll take these guys in a heartbeat over offensively challenged Penn State, defensively challenged (though not the past two weeks) Michigan or hanging-on-for-dear life Wisconsin. The one potential wild card: Purdue, which is 4-0 and putting up an average 527 yards of offense but has also played Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan and Minnesota. Ohio State visits the Boilers in two weeks.
3) That UCLA does have some heart. The big question all week was how the Bruins would respond to last week’s embarrassing blowout loss at Utah. The answer: Quite nicely. For three quarters, UCLA’s defense returned to its old dominant self, stifling Washington’s passing game and staking the Bruins to a 24-10 lead through three quarters. Then all hell broke loose. Huskies QB Jake Locker caught fire, striking for touchdown passes of 20 and 63 yards early in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Bruins QB Patrick Cowan -- himself filling in for the injured Ben Olson -- left the game with a sprained knee around the same time, leaving walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson to lead the offense the rest of the way. This is where things could have very easily imploded for UCLA.
Instead, the Bruins responded to both of Locker’s bombs with big plays of their own (a 72-yard touchdown run by Chris Markey and a 85-yard kick return by Matthew Slater) and picked off Locker in the final minutes to win 44-31. To say embattled coach Karl Dorrell needed this victory was an understatement. The race to emerge as USC’s main challenger begins in earnest next weekend when Cal visits Oregon, and the Bruins theoretically remain in the picture. Meanwhile, that Utah result became all the more puzzling after those same Utes got blanked 27-0 by UNLV on Saturday to fall to 1-3. By the end of the year, UCLA-Utah could wind up being the most baffling score of the season (though that will depend in large part on how Syracuse and Louisville finish up, not to mention Michigan). Speaking of which ...
4) That I-AA doesn’t begin and end with Appalachian State. The Mountaineers may have conquered Michigan and won the last two "NCAA Football Championship Subdivision" titles -- but they may not be the best team in their own conference this season. SoCon rival Wofford ended Appalachian State’s 17-game winning streak Saturday, 42-31. (Though it should be noted that Wolverines killer Armanti Edwards missed most of the second half with a shoulder injury). I’m sure the Terriers are no slouches themselves, but just a week earlier they got crushed 38-17 by N.C. State, hardly on the same level as Michigan. That ought to help put the Appalachian State upset in better perspective -- I realize Syracuse was a 37-point underdog to Louisville on Saturday, which makes it a historic upset "on paper," but in terms of pure shock value, I’m not sure anything will compare to App State-Michigan again anytime soon.
5) That Mike Gundy has a future in Hollywood. Following his team’s victory over Texas Tech on Saturday, Oklahoma State’s head coach walked into the postgame press conference, announced he wouldn’t be talking about the game, held up a copy of that day’s Daily Oklahoman and proceeded to go on an incredibly livid tirade that, if it hasn’t already, will surely be making the Internet rounds this week. Think Dennis Green, Jim Mora and all the other classic postgame rants you’ve ever heard -- only Gundy’s speech was obviously deliberately planned, more articulate than "crazy," and so riveting that it drew a round of applause afterward (not sure from whom) as he left the room. (His final words: "That’s all I’ve got to say. It makes me want to puke.") It was the kind of monologue you usually only see in a movie (think Nick Nolte’s character at the end of Blue Chips, or perhaps an angrier version of Tom Cruise’s "wig out" speech in Jerry Maguire).
As entertaining as Gundy’s performance was, however, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it was appropriate. The target of Gundy’s ire was Daily Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson, whom he appeared to speak to directly on numerous occasions. The column in question brought up possible reasons behind QB Bobby Reid’s recent demotion. She used a scene she’d witnessed of Reid’s mother feeding him chicken by the team bus after a recent loss (i.e., coddling him) to segue into behind-the-scene accounts she’s heard about Reid’s attitude problems. Was it the world’s most convincing essay? Probably not. But I’m not sure the content of Gundy’s argument was, either. After stating that most of what Carlson wrote was "fiction," he basically contended that Reid, as a "kid" and model student, should be immune from media criticism, and that Carlson clearly couldn’t understand because she has no children of her own.
Believe me, I’m extremely sensitive myself to the issue of criticizing college athletes, and I don’t blame Gundy for defending his player. They are not professionals, which is why you’ll never see me "attack" a player unless it’s an absolute extreme case (Maurice Clarett comes to mind). That said, there comes a time when you simply can no longer beat around the bush, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks (see my comments yesterday about Penn State’s Anthony Morelli). If a player’s inabilities are clearly contributing to his team’s performance, you can’t just ignore them. Meanwhile, Reid is 21, not 11, and by no means did Carlson "attack" him. She could have worded things better, but if indeed her sources are accurate, she raised a valid question about a legitimately newsworthy event (a former star Big 12 QB losing his starting job).
But I’ll also admit I’m not the most impartial judge on this one. When it comes to coach vs. journalist tiffs, my instinct is always going to be to defend the journalist unless he or she egregiously screwed up. I also know Carlson personally and have always regarded her as a commendable journalist (for instance, she was the first reporter in the country to score an interview with Adrian Peterson’s then-incarcerated father during the freshman’s 2004 season). But that’s the beauty of this blog -- you guys can be the judge. Read Carlson’s column, watch Gundy’s video and decide for yourself whether you think the coach’s reaction was warranted or ridiculous.