SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
11/03/2007 08:29:00 PM
Halftime: Oregon 21, Arizona State 13
Oregon wide receiver Jaison Williams scored two touchdowns against Arizona State in the first half.
EUGENE, Ore. -- I don’t know if it’s because I just attended a basketball game last night, or the breakneck speed with which Oregon runs its offense, but the first half of Saturday’s Arizona State-Oregon showdown ebbed and flowed very much like a hoops contest.
The Ducks came out like a team that can’t miss, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions to go up 21-3 -- with QB Dennis Dixon playing the role of a superstar point guard. The way he fakes a handoff (including at one point a fake, behind-his-back Statue of Liberty handoff), half the time you’re not sure where the ball is when watching him.
Oregon’s first two touchdowns came on screen passes that receiver Jason Williams and running back Jonathan Stewart took to the house. On the third, he faked the screen, pivoted and threw downfield to a wide-open Williams.
From there, however, Oregon was the team that suddenly goes cold and can’t buy a bucket, going three and out twice, then turning it over to ASU on an ugly, Dixon fumble off a botched handoff.
Meanwhile, Dixon’s ASU counterpart, Rudy Carpenter, was having a heck of a game himself -- rallying his team back to a 21-13 deficit -- before a disastrous sequence in the final minute. After recovering Dixon’s fumble at Oregon’s 49, Carpenter drove the Sun Devils to the Ducks’ 13 and had a first down with 46 seconds left. However, either unaware of the clock or the fact ASU was out of time outs, Carpenter inexplicably audibled to a handoff, running nearly the entire clock off in the process. ASU had to settle for a 32-yard Thomas Weber field goal ... and missed.
So, depending on how you look at, either ASU caught a huge break when Dixon fumbled or Oregon is even more fortunate that the Devils didn’t get any points out of it.
Clearly, defense has not played much of a factor for either team so far. The game will ultimately be decided by which side’s powerful offense asserts itself. Dixon and the Ducks looked virtually unstoppable early, but Dennis Erickson’s 8-0 team has been masterful with halftime adjustments this season, winning five games it trailed at halftime. We shall see.
By the way, I can now officially confirm that Autzen is indeed one of the five loudest stadiums in the country -- but sorry, Ducks fans, not quite The Swamp or Death Valley. Those other places can be right-in-front-of-the-speakers-at-a-Metallica-concert loud at times; the volume here is more that of a plane taking off nearby.
Check back later tonight for an Inside College Football column from this game.
Navy's Ram Vela made the play of the game, sacking Notre Dame QB Evan Sharpley on a critical fourth down.
EUGENE, Ore. -- I’m guessing there were a whole lot of newfound Navy fans around the country Saturday. And I’m guessing there were a whole lot of people smiling and celebrating right along with the Midshipmen when, at about 6:40 p.m. EST, they stopped Notre Dame’s two-point conversion attempt in triple overtime to finally end the 43-game losing streak.
(The Autzen crowd let out a giant roar when the p.a. announced the score.)
Who cares if it was a 1-7 Notre Dame team the Midshipmen beat? I can’t imagine a happier set of players or fans than Navy’s must be right about now. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to achieve such a significant victory in such dramatic fashion.
As for the now 1-8 Irish … I’ll just say this: At his introductory press conference three years ago, Charlie Weis memorably proclaimed, “If it comes down to everything being even and it’s X’s and O’s, I have to believe we’re going to win most of the time.” If there’s anyone besides Weis himself who still believes that … there are excellent facilities where you can get the help you need.
OK, I need to focus on the game I’m covering (just in the time it took to write the three paragraphs above, both teams scored).
EUGENE, Ore. -- One of the things I’ve always loved about college football is the way it bridges generations. Wander around any stadium parking lot on a Saturday and you’ll see fans from toddlers through twilight years, all brought together by the common bond of a favorite team.
My new Oregon buddies A.J. and Goss tailgate at the RV of their fraternity’s “alumni advisor,” Kelly, who, along with one of the other fraternity members’ father, Pete, regaled me with stories from Oregon yesteryear. Pete was in attendance at McArthur Court when the Ducks stunned Lew Alcindor’s UCLA teams two years in a row in the early ‘70s. Kelly was at the Steve Prefontaine race where the famous “Stop Pre” T-shirts were born.
It was a cool tailgate, but I could tell I was in a Pac-10 town. Of all the games for the Pike guys to be watching on their big-screen TV at the time, they had on … UCLA-Arizona.
• Speaking of which, is it any surprise that Karl Dorrell’s Bruins are getting smoked by 3-6 Arizona? Of course not … just as it will be equally unsurprising when UCLA turns around and knocks off Oregon or Arizona State in the next couple of weeks.
• Back in the press box, I watched with the same befuddlement as the rest of you at Charlie Weis passing up a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal in the final minute to go for it on fourth and 8. Navy LB Ram Vela promptly pulled a LaVar Arrington, jumping over ND’s offensive line to sack Evan Sharpley.
As of this writing, Navy had just kicked a field goal to send the game to triple-overtime. I know it’s a 4-4 team playing a 1-7 team … but with a 43-game winning streak on the line, this is unbelievably suspenseful.
• Forty-five minutes before kickoff, the Oregon student section was already pulling out the “Over-rated” chant as Arizona State warmed up. C’mon guys --- that’s a little presumptuous.
• Best sign spotted in the parking lot: “Ted Bundy was a Husky.”
• Finally, this may be the only stadium in the country where, for $7, you can order a freshly grilled Pacific Salmon sandwich. It was … delicious.
Although it only holds 54,000 people, Autzen Stadium is one of the nation's loudest venues.
Tom Hauck/Icon SMI
EUGENE, Ore. -- Hello again, dear readers.
After we parted ways last night, I had a chance to sample some of Eugene’s nightlife with my new Oregon buddies Goss and A.J. It was fun, but kind of surreal. The bars were by no means overflowing. And if not for Goss periodically shouting out, “Go Ducks!” -- particularly whenever he saw an Arizona State fan -- a visitor would never have known there was a football game taking place the next day.
This is a phenomenon that bugs lifelong Ducks superfan A.J. to no end. As I described to him my Friday-night experience in State College a week earlier, where you couldn’t walk for 20 seconds without hearing a “We Are … Penn State!” chant, I could see the blood starting to boil. “You’ll see,” he said. “We might not be a football school on Friday night, but from Saturday morning until the end of the game, it’s another story.”
Well, I’m happy to report that on a gloriously sunny, early Saturday afternoon (contrary to the fog you may have seen during GameDay, which, admittedly, I was not up at 7 a.m. to watch, but heard about), I left my hotel, drove about 10 minutes through town, took a left on Leo Harris Parkway -- and like an oasis in the desert, was suddenly besieged by all the sights of a “football school.”
A sea of green tents. RVs lined up in a row. Smoke rising from the grills. All against the backdrop of the humongous “O” on the side of Autzen Stadium. With the skies clear and the foliage surrounding the parking lots a perfect, autumn hue, I can’t imagine a more idyllic football setting. While the whole scene may not be quite as grandiose as that of an Ohio State or Michigan (keep in mind, the stadium itself seats about 40,000 less than those places), I’m sure these people are having themselves a plenty good time.
In fact, I’m about to go out and join them. But first, a few early-Saturday observations from my perch in the press box high above the stadium (where the Oregon band is currently practicing below me):
• There was a brief moment there where it appeared like No. 1 Ohio State might be in for a scare against Wisconsin (the Badgers went up 17-10 early in the second half), but just as we saw last week against Penn State, the Buckeyes have no shortage of offensive firepower. I saw Chris Wells pop a couple of big runs (because, believe it or not, the Big Ten Network is available on the Autzen jumbotron) as OSU won going away to improve to 10-0.
• Some might say it’s karma for all those years that Nebraska piled it on hapless Big 8/Big 12 foes like Kansas, I can’t help but feel sorry for Huskers fans (of which there is no classier bunch out there) watching the now-superior Jayhawks pile up touchdown after touchdown. As I write this, it’s 76-31 early in the fourth quarter.
A word of advice to Bill Callahan and defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove: Don’t try returning to Lincoln tonight without heavy security.
• Is there a more charmed team in the country this year than Virginia? The now 8-2 Cavaliers pulled out their third one-point win in four games (and fifth win by either one or two points), 17-16 over Wake Forest, thanks in part to Demon Deacons’ All-America kicker, Sam Swank, missing a 47-yard field goal on the final play.
• Finally, remember that discussion in the Mailbag a couple of weeks ago about my prematurely dubbing Kentucky’s Rich Brooks as one of the nation’s worst coaches? To get a sense of how highly the ex-Ducks savior is regarded here: There’s a sign above one of the Autzen end zones dubbing this “Rich Brooks Field.”
The Oregon student section has been known to turn McArthur Court into one tough place for visiting teams.
EUGENE, Ore. – Last March, just by coincidence, I happened to cover Oregon's Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in St. Louis (the region from which Florida advanced to the Final Four). Never would I have guessed then that about seven months later I'd be standing in the front row of the student section for the Ducks' season-opening exhibition game.
They love their Ducks here, so much so that, even the night before a colossal football game on their campus, about 1,000 yellow-clad students filled the "Pit Crew" here at McArthur Court for an Oregon exhibition game. (And let me tell you, the Ducks are going to be pretty good again. For those familiar with these names: Tajuan Porter, Malik Hariston, Bryce Taylor – they're all back.)
When I found out about the game earlier this week, I knew I had to check it out. As much as I've heard about the atmosphere at Autzen Stadium, 81-year-old "Mac Court" is considered a basketball Mecca, and it's not hard to see why. From the wooden seats in the upper deck to the white rafters that look like they've never been re-painted, the place is one of the few, true "barns" remaining in college basketball. I'd liken it to a slightly bigger, Western version of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
While the place wasn't particularly loud for St. Martin's, Pit Crew president Daniel Cogan told me they've been known to make the baskets shake during big Pac-10 games. Students who arrive the earliest get a wristband allowing them early access to the best seats, and lines form overnight for particularly big Pac-10 contests.
With Goss on my right and his buddy A.J. -- fresh off work and donned in a spiffy Oregon tie -- on my left, I spent the first half amongst the students as they razzed the refs and St. Martins' horrific shooters. At halftime, I walked across the court and climbed upstairs to press row to type this entry.
And that's when my jaw dropped to the floor.
Now directly across from me, the students had rolled out a wide, handpainted sign that said "Stewart is the MANdel."
I am not making this up. They held it up for about a minute. I don't know whether photographic documentation of it exists. I'm still a little stunned (as were a whole lot of confused spectators around the arena). But hey, they probably felt they had to do something what with the rock-star treatment Jenn Sterger received here last season.
All in all, it's been nice "going back to college" here. It's been a hectic day, and I really wish I still had my 21-year-old energy, because I have a feeling the night is still young. The blog, however, is going to bed for the evening.
When you hear from me next, it will be game day at Autzen. I've been warned both to dress warmly … and bring earplugs.
Yes, the iconic 1978 fraternity flick Animal House was filmed on the Oregon campus.
EUGENE, Ore. -- So how cool is this? I am writing this blog entry from a table in the same cafeteria where Bluto shouted those two infamous words: "Food fight!"
OK, I lie. I'm writing from a Starbucks down the street. (Not just a Starbucks -- a Starbucks and a Quizno's under the same roof! Pete Thamel, if you're reading this: Eat your heart out!) But I did pass through the aforementioned cafeteria as part of my unofficial Animal House tour.
Long before Joey Harrington or Dennis Dixon, Oregon was best known for … running legend Steve Prefontaine, of course. While I did took a peek into Prefontaine's former stomping grounds, famed track venue Hayward Field, just a little while ago, I have to admit I was much more excited to learn that my host, Eric Goss (who hereby will be referred to solely as "Goss," as everyone on this campus calls him), used to live in the former Omega house from the movie. As he said, "Kevin Bacon got spanked in my living room."
That's right, comedy lovers. Animal House was shot at Oregon.
Sadly, the fictional Omega house, formerly home to Goss' fraternity, Pike, is now deserted. Even worse, the site of the fictional Delta house -- the building where John Belushi once uttered the words, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" -- is gone. Leveled. Replaced by a faceless doctor's office. Even the front-lawn where Belushi watched the movers "take the bar!" has been paved over by a parking lot. Only a nondescript plaque out front marks the property's claim to fame.
However, in addition to the Omega house next door, Goss also pointed out to me the sorority house where Bluto and D-Day tried to sneak in and the "women's house" where Otter landed himself dates for him and his three friends.
I was once in a fraternity myself, at Northwestern, but ours was kind of a PG-13 fraternity. I'm starting to get the sense that Goss, a "fifth-year senior," is a true frat guy. First of all, he's been taking calls all day from fraternity brothers having to do with some secret ritual taking place tonight.
And then there's the subject of his post-collegiate ambitions. Goss is currently torn between applying to law school or pursuing a potentially lucrative invention he and two fraternity brothers have gone so far as to get notarized.
I'll let him describe it.
"Gossinger Distilleries will become the premier licorice alcohol in the world, providing a fresh alternative to the one-flavor tyrant of the German company we do not speak of."
That's right, folks. Goss is going to start a rival to Jagermeister – one that not only tastes better but will come in a red-licorice form.
I test-marketed Goss' idea at a table of young women sitting next to us, and I have to say, the response was -- slightly above lukewarm. "I'd try it," a student named Amanda (whose last name I'm redacting over possible issues regarding her drinking legality) replied semi-enthusiastically.
Anyway … I should probably get back to why we're here: the football game. Earlier today, Goss was nice enough to chauffer me to a Home Depot about 10 minutes from campus for an appearance on local radio station 1320 the Score. Home Depot, as you're probably well aware, is the sponsor for ESPN GameDay, and fans (primarily parents with small children) had shown up for a sign-painting contest. Look for some of them on the air Saturday morning.
Like I've said, game-weeend atmospheres vary widely from campus to campus. At 5 p.m. on a Friday in, say, Baton Rouge, I'd probably be hearing "Tiger Bait" chants every 15 seconds. At 5 p.m. today, Goss and I strolled through the center of campus to the sounds of … a female a capella group.
But hey, half the people in the crowd were wearing Oregon sweatshirts. And while the tailgating hasn't started up yet (due, I'm told, to strict Eugene city codes regarding alcohol), I can already tell it's going to be in full effect Saturday morning. For one thing, the football team's indoor practice facility, the Moshofsky Center, has already been converted into an indoor tailgate party (literally, the field is covered with tables and chairs), and these girls next to me said they actually curtail their partying early on Friday nights in order to get an early start Saturday.
That's dedication, folks. Kind of like my dedication to this blog, whose next entry will come tonight -- after I've attended my first-ever (exhibition) basketball game in the student section at famed McCarthur Court.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you this much: If you’re unfortunate enough to suffer a football injury, you want to suffer it as an Oregon Duck.
Early Friday afternoon, I got a personal tour of Oregon’s state-of-the-art football facilities from none other than Ducks receiver Cameron Colvin. I thought this was an incredibly kind gesture by the senior, considering he’s currently on crutches from a broken ankle suffered a few weeks back, but Cameron – a close friend and former roommate of my previously mentioned host, Eric Goss – happily obliged.
Upon entering the secret code at the door, the three of us walked into what can only be described as a football fanatic’s dream come true. A wall lined with widescreen Plasma TVs. Xboxes next to every couch. Lockers with each player’s name, number and hometown inscribed on the door.
And lots and lots of Oregon football gear.
At one point, Cameron took us into the equipment room where the players’ uniforms are stored. You know how Oregon seems to have a different-colored uniform every week? Laid out on a table in the middle of the room were three different metallic helmets (green, yellow and white), four different jersey tops (white, green, black and yellow), four different pants, four different sets of socks and about eight different styles of cleats. At some point Friday, the captains met with coach Mike Bellotti to choose which combination they’ll wear on game day.
Unfortunately, I cannot disclose that information.
So that’s the locker room. Turn a corner and you walk into what at first glance appears to be a day spa. It’s the treatment room. During our time there, three different players were sitting on luxury-style treatment tables (let’s just say they could double as Lazy-Boys), one of them getting a massage. Behind glass doors were a set of doctor “evaluation rooms,” which, with the flick of a switch, magically “fog up” for the sake of privacy. Down the hall, we looked in on a room with a built-in hot tub and cold tub adjacent to a cascading waterfall.
Personally, I don’t know how any recruit ever says no to this place.
I also had a chance to chat briefly with Bellotti as he worked out on a treadmill during his lunch hour. He told me I would be “in for a treat” tomorrow during my first Autzen Stadium experience.
And with that, Eric and I parted ways with Cameron and headed downtown for a quick lunch at Rennie’s, a classic, college-town bar-and-grill, where the bartender, upon seeing Eric’s Ducks cap and pullover, was eager to share his critical opinion about Oregon’s play-calling last week against USC and express his concern about Saturday’s game.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my first few hours here is that everyone is a fan -- even the hippies, of which there are many in Eugene. Down the street from Rennie’s, we made a brief stop into Jambo, one of several local establishments where one can procure a 7-foot-bong, power crystals and an endless wardrobe of tie-dyed clothing.
So to sum up: Within about a 20-minute span, I went from a college football locker room to a store selling bongs. I must be in Eugene.
Oregon fans set a decibel record for crowd noise last week against USC.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
SPRINGFIELD, Ore. -- Last weekend, I heard from a lot of readers who said they enjoyed my chronicles of the pregame scene in State College. As discussed in this week’s Mailbag, that trip got me thinking about the varied and wondrous game-weekend atmospheres in different parts of the country.
So, seeing as I would be covering my first-ever game at Oregon this weekend, I decided to turn the trip into a full-out Blog “adventure.” This weekend’s Blog entries are going to focus less on the national scene and more on the actual, live scene here in Eugene leading up to Saturday’s showdown between No. 6 Arizona State and No. 4 Oregon. For any of you out there who, like me, have never been to this part of the country, or to this particular venue, you’ll get to experience it right along with me.
Having covered this sport for quite a little while now, I’ve been to nearly all of the nation’s most fabled college-football towns -- Columbus, Ann Arbor, Knoxville, Gainesville, Norman, Lincoln, Auburn, Baton Rouge, Austin, College Station, you name it. Eugene has been on top of my “not-yet-checked-off list” for some time now, possibly ever since my colleague Austin Murphy’s 2003 Sports Illustrated feature detailing Oregon’s super-duper space-age locker room.
To much of the country (myself included), the Ducks are synonymous with two things: Phil Knight and those neon uniforms. But as I’m about to learn, not everything about Oregon is “new-age” or “hi-tech.” There’s a lot of history here, even if the football team’s ascension to national prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon. And 40-year-old Autzen Stadium is supposedly every bit as loud and intimidating as all the classic venues in all those aforementioned towns.
You may have seen in the Mailbag that I sought out an Oregon student willing to be my personal tour guide for a day or two. I wound up receiving far more responses than I could possibly respond to. (If by chance you were one of those who wrote in and didn’t hear from me, please don’t take it personally. I’m sure we’ll run into each other at some point. Feel free to say hi.)
There was no specific screening process that went into choosing my host, but a couple things stood out about him. He was one of the first to write in, and from what I ascertained by his e-mail as well as a “reference” e-mail sent by one of his friends and a perusal of his Facebook page, it appears I may have found the Van Wilder of Oregon’s campus. His name is Eric Goss, and from what I’ve gathered, he’s the kind of guy that knows practically everybody at the school. In fact, if all goes as planned, his connections are going to help me land at least a couple of special guests in the Blog.
He’s also a huge Ducks fan, one who traveled to Ann Arbor this year for Oregon’s game at Michigan, and has pledged to show me why Ducks fans are among the craziest in the country. I can’t wait.
After making the long flight from New York to Portland on Thursday (a first-class upgrade from Delta certainly made it more bearable), followed by a two-hour drive down I-5 to Eugene late last night (where I learned that Oregonians can drive 55), I’m anticipating an extremely packed itinerary Friday (along with, I’m guessing, no shortage of impromptu craziness).
As I write this, I’m about to head off to meet up with Eric and his “guest” for lunch and some sightseeing. Check back throughout the day Friday and Saturday for my latest “reports.”
Oregon's highly anticipated game against Arizona State almost was lost in the television shuffle.
So, are you as excited as I am for this week’s showdown between No. 4 Oregon and No. 6 Arizona State? With both national and Pac-10 title hopes on the line for both teams, and potential Heisman implications for Ducks stars Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart, this is unquestionably the biggest Pac-10 game not involving USC since the days of Joey Harrington, Ken Simonton and Marques Tuiasosopo back at the beginning of the decade.
And to think, the teams’ own conference almost kept the rest of the country from seeing it.
For years, Pac-10 fans have lamented the perceived “East Coast bias” when it comes to the media’s coverage of college football. I don’t deny that it exists. But informed Pac-10 fans also realize that the conference itself bears much of the responsibility for the problem due to its archaic television arrangements.
The Pac-10’s highest-ranked team, Oregon, has appeared on national television just twice this season (Sept. 8 against Michigan on ABC and last week against USC on Fox Sports Net). By comparison, Big East upstart South Florida has made six such appearances, Boise State five.
National date No. 3 for the Ducks comes this weekend on ESPN, but it took some serious, 11th-hour negotiating to make it happen. Unlike the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, etc., which for the most part allow the networks to wait until six or 12 days in advance to choose their preferred games, the Pac-10 seeks to lock in as many as possible prior to the season, citing financial reasons.
Back in the summer, Oregon and ASU -- both coming off 7-6 seasons -- were picked to finish in the lower half of the conference. So when the league’s television partners chose their games for this weekend, ABC, with the first two choices, selected Oregon State-USC for its primetime window and UCLA-Arizona for the afternoon. Fox Sports Net, picking third, chose Washington State-Cal for its 10:15 EST slot.
That opened the door for local carriers Fox Sports Arizona and the Oregon Sports Network to pick up the rights to ASU-Oregon and air the game in the two teams’ home states. As recently as Monday afternoon, those were virtually the only places in the country this clash of top-six teams was going to be shown.
As described by The Oregonian, ESPN told the league last week it would be interested in acquiring the national rights to the game if both ASU beat Cal and Oregon beat USC. On Monday, ESPN, the Pac-10 and FSN worked out an agreement allowing FSN to retain its anticipated audience, with ESPN airing it to the other 48 states.
"I was pretty frustrated, to be honest with you," Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny told The Oregonian. "We're fighting for our rightful position in the BCS standings, and we have at least one bona fide Heisman candidate [Dixon]. These things require exposure."
For years, Pac-10 coaches and fans have been pleading for commissioner Tom Hansen to get the conference on ESPN’s airwaves more frequently. Much to their dismay (see FireTomHansen.com), Hansen has remained loyal to Fox Sports Net, citing its more favorable time slots. Fairly or unfairly, ESPN’s overwhelming dominance in the arena of televised sports can cause significant problems for leagues or properties that choose to circumvent it.
• How many times have you seen a Mountain West team play during the regular season the past two seasons? Back when Utah went undefeated in 2004, it seemed like the Utes were on TV every week, but ever since the league opted to switch to CSTV (and start its own network, the Mtn.) in 2006, it’s as if the league has vanished off the face of the earth.
• Which do you figure was higher: The number of West Coast viewers who watched Matt Ryan’s game-winning touchdown to beat Virginia Tech on ESPN last Thursday, or the number of East Coast viewers who watched Dixon knock off USC on Fox Sports Net last Saturday? And do you think Ryan’s heroics would have generated as many highlights and as much discussion on ESPN as it did that night and over the weekend had that same game been shown on, say, Versus?
In the end, the Pac-10’s potential crisis this weekend turned into a blessing, as the ASU-Oregon game will now be seen by a far larger audience than it would have had the game originally been picked up by ABC (which is showing multiple, regional games at the same time Saturday) or Fox Sports Net. Besides LSU-Alabama on CBS, no game in the country will attract more viewers (especially since Wisconsin-Ohio State got stuck on the Big Ten Network), and if Dixon happens to pull his own Ryan-type moment against ASU, it should help his Heisman candidacy enormously.
I’d like to hear from all of you about this. Do you find that you see less Pac-10 football on a weekly basis than that of the other major conferences? If so, is it a conscious decision, or simply a matter of convenience? And do you feel your perception of the various BCS and Heisman contenders is influenced, whether directly or indirectly, by which networks they play on?
I know I’m curious. Perhaps Tom Hansen should be, too.
Note: Because I covered the Ohio State-Penn State game in detail last night, this column will primarily focus on other topics.
1) That Matt Ryan is a man playing among boys. In the immediate aftermath of Boston College’s stirring rally to beat Virginia Tech 14-10 Thursday night, I received a deluge of e-mails questioning the BC quarterback’s Heisman candidacy. A sample: "How does Matt Ryan's 58 minutes of sucking and two minutes of beating prevent defense constitute him making his 'Heisman statement?'" My response: … Did you seethose touchdown throws? Seriously.
Note that I’ve been one of Ryan and the Eagles’ biggest non-believers to date, and believe me, Thursday night’s game did nothing to convince me that BC is one of the two best teams in the country. The Eagles’ offensive line got completely abused by the Hokies’ defensive front. Ryan’s receivers are nothing special. And while the Eagles’ defense mostly shut down Virginia Tech’s offense, so has just about everyone on the Hokies’ schedule. But the BCS and the Heisman are two completely different things. The Heisman is an individual award bestowed for individual greatness, and you’d have to be pretty darn jaded, or perhaps just oblivious, to have missed the greatness in Ryan’s last-minute heroics. First of all, Ryan did not "suck" for 58 minutes. He made some bad throws, sure, but he spent most of the game just trying to avoid being sacked (again) as BC’s linemen whiffed again and again trying to stop Tech DE Chris Ellis (among others). Yes, the Hokies went into soft coverage on BC’s first touchdown drive, but the last one was all Ryan.
Do you have any idea how few quarterbacks in the sport -- college or professional -- could make a play like the one he did on the game-winning throw? To roll out, buy time, buy more time, somehow find a running back streak behind the defense clear on the other side of the field and throw a 24-yard dart across his body? It was one of the most clutch throws I’ve seen (and remember, he did it twice! The first one got nullified by holding), and it certainly made me re-think my work-in-progress Heisman ballot. If anything, I now have more respect for what Ryan has accomplished seeing just how little he has to work with. No, one play does not constitute a Heisman season, but Ryan couldn’t have timed his "signature moment" much better, coming as it did during the same week that two players (Tim Tebow and Andre Woodson) whom I anointed as likely Heisman finalists just last week both suffered ugly defeats. Tebow, whose shoulder injury clearly impacted his performance against Georgia, is still very much in the running, but Woodson’s ugly loss to Mississippi State will probably be too much to overcome. Throw in Mike Hart’s continued injury absence, Darren McFadden’s further fade into oblivion, etc., and it seems like Ryan -- to no one’s bigger surprise than my own -- has risen to the front of the field.
2) That they play some defense in the Pac-10. In a conference that had previously been synonymous with 45-42 late-night shootouts, Pete Carroll built his USC mini-dynasty around a dominant defense, so it’s only fitting that on the weekend when the Trojans’ five-year run atop the conference most likely came to an end, the two front-runners to replace them turned in lights-out defensive performances (including one against USC itself).
If you had told me Saturday morning that the Trojans would hold Oregon’s prolific offense to 339 yards, I would have guessed they pulled the "upset." But Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart did not need to put up huge numbers with their defense making big stop after big stop against Mark Sanchez and the Trojans. While USC had its problems offensively this season, Sanchez looked poised and authoritative most of the day. His 14-yard touchdown pass to David Ausberry to cut the lead to 24-17 was a perfect throw. But when it mattered most, with Sanchez attempting to drive his team for a last-second, game-tying score, Matthew Harper jumped a route to pick off Sanchez and seal the win. It was his second pick, to go with a Will Tukuafu forced fumble. Meanwhile, Oregon shut down USC’s running game all day, most notably on a 4th and 1 deep in Ducks territory early in the game.
And then there was Arizona State. If you weren’t up and watching television a little after 2 a.m. ET Sunday, you missed the sight of a fired-up Dennis Erickson pumping his fists and embracing anyone in his vicinity on the sideline. It seemed even he could hardly believe ASU is 8-0. But unlike predecessor Dirk Koetter’s teams, Erickson’s first squad plays with a mean streak on defense. They shut out Cal after halftime, limiting Bears RB Justin Forsett to 62 yards on 17 carries and intercepting QB Nate Longshore twice for a 31-20 win. Next week, Erickson’s team travels to Eugene to face the 7-1 Ducks in a game that could very well determine the Pac-10’s BCS representative (and the keep the winner’s national-title hopes alive). Will the score be 45-42 or 24-21?
3) That the SEC may be playing its way out of a second BCS berth. It seems inconceivable, right? If any conference should receive one of the four BCS at-large berth, surely the much-heralded SEC would be first in line? Not if the teams wind up knocking each other out of contention.
Take a look at the current, ultra-crazy SEC standings. You’ll see a conference where 11 of the 12 teams could conceivably become bowl eligible (only 2-7 Ole Miss has less than five wins), yet all but three (7-1 LSU, 6-2 Alabama and 6-2 Georgia) already have at least three losses. No team with three regular-season losses has received a BCS at-large berth in the first nine years of the system. Granted, the BCS expanded from eight to 10 teams just last season, and the 12-game regular season only recently became a fixture. The BCS rules say only that a team needs nine wins and a top-14 ranking to qualify for an at-large berth, so making it at 9-3 is certainly a possibility. … but at the current rate of attrition, how many of the teams are actually going to survive to see 9-3?
If we assume that LSU winds up winning the conference (and no, I do not assume that, but we need to do so for this hypothetical), the most viable at-large candidate would be someone that a) wins the rest of its regular season games and b) does not reach the SEC title game. The BCS generally frowns on conference-title game losers (only one, 2003 Oklahoma, has received an at-large berth, and that’s because the Sooners still finished No. 1), as bowl games want teams with momentum so their fans will make the trip. Right now, Tennessee and Georgia are tied for first in the East (with the Vols holding the tiebreaker). A 10-2 Dawgs team that doesn’t reach the title game would certainly be coveted, as would any current three-loss team (Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Auburn) that finishes strong. But I wouldn’t count on the attrition to slow down anytime soon. The final month of the season includes such de facto elimination games as Georgia-Auburn, Tennessee-Kentucky, Florida-South Carolina, Alabama-LSU, Alabama-Auburn … you know what? Let’s just make this simple and say every single game.
4) That UCLA is officially the worst-coached team in America. OK, Karl Dorrell -- I give up. You win. I’ve given you every opportunity to avoid this designation. I threw Al Groh to the wolves instead of you last summer even though Groh’s perennially middle-of-the-pack Cavs had accomplished no less than your perennially middle-of-the-pack Bruins these past few years. I included your team in my preseason rankings because I figured even you couldn’t screw up a team with 20 returning starters and an ultra-loaded defense. But I’ve gotta hand it to you, Karl -- you’ve outdone yourself this time.
Washington State 27, UCLA 7. Just stare at that score for a moment and try to make sense of it. Granted, it’d seem a lot more bizarre if not for two other scores -- Utah 44, UCLA 6 and Notre Dame 20, UCLA 6 -- that preceded it. Mind you, we’re talking about a team that’s talented enough to have beaten Cal, won 40-14 at Oregon State and be currently tied for second in the Pac-10. But talent alone does not a team make.
I can offer no logical explanation for why UCLA continually fails to show up for certain games (a trend that’s been true throughout Dorrell’s tenure). I find it hard to believe the Bruins simply aren’t "motivated." A possible Pac-10 title and BCS berth provide no shortage of motivation. The reality is, the Bruins are the definition of a poorly coached team, whether they’re going into games with ill-devised game plans or repeatedly making the kind of mistakes good coaches weed out. Of all the coaches on the hot seat right now -- Bill Callahan, Dennis Franchione, Houston Nutt, et. al. -- none has consistently done less with more than Dorrell. (And that’s saying something considering the competition.) Here’s guessing that notion will only be reinforced when UCLA, loser to 3-5 Washington State, turns around and beats 8-0 ASU or 7-1 Oregon in a couple of weeks, just to give its fans another temporary glimpse of what could have been en route to the Sun Bowl.
5) That amazing college football isn’t limited to Division I-A. If you haven’t yet seen Trinity University’s game-winning, 15-lateral touchdown play Saturday … clearly your television is on the fritz. Here it is in all it’s glory. (I just hope it doesn’t disappear on YouTube after I post this). When this clip came on television in the Beaver Stadium press box late Saturday night, all of us jaded sportswriters working on deadline immediately stopped what we were doing and watched in collective amazement. SportsCenter led its late-night broadcast with the clip -- before the World Series, before any I-A football highlights -- with anchor Linda Cohn calling it "the talk of our newsroom."
I’ve watched the play four or five times now, and for whatever reason, I find my eyes drawn as much to the background as to the actual, frantic play on the field. Saturday night, I was on hand for a game attended by more than 110,000 people, yet here was a football moment as special as any I’ve seen at the major level being witnessed by what appeared to be maybe a couple hundred stunned and extremely fortunate fans. Surely, the emotions felt by those on that Millsaps field Saturday -- both by the participants and the spectators for both the winners and losers -- were every bit as intense as the ones being experienced at Beaver Stadium, Neyland Stadium or any other mammoth venue that same day.
For me, it was just another little reminder why we love college football like we do. You could watch this sport for 100 years and still, on any given week, see something you’ve never seen before -- whether you find yourself in State College or at Millsaps College.