September 22, 2009
Obsessing over the statistical anomalies and minutiae of close and closer-than-they-looked games that could have gone the other way.
Virginia Tech 16, Nebraska 15. The 'Huskers may agonize over the defensive lapse at the end of this game, the only big pass it allowed at the worst possible time, but the first quarter was just as emblematic of the final margin as the last. Both offenses found themselves with early opportunities inside the opposing 25-yard line after big kick returns; Virginia Tech turned the field position into a touchdown, Nebraska settled for the field goal.
Settling for the field goal was the theme of the Huskers' afternoon, especially in the first half, where they kicked on four consecutive possessions with the ball inside the Tech 25. With the Hokies looking thoroughly hopeless on offense, a touchdown on any of those drives might have put them away -- as would either of the touchdowns Nebraska had nullified on consecutive snaps in the third quarter (one for a holding penalty, one for failing to gain full possession with a foot down inside the baseline) before a series of penalties and sacks forced a punt on 4th-and-goal from the Hokie 37. Even a field goal there might have ultimately won it in spite of Tyrod's Taylor ad libbed, 81-yard heave to Danny Coate to set up the winning touchdown.
I've highlighted Nebraska's turnovers on the right (one of them coming on a last-second hail mary on the final play), but just like South Carolina last week, the difference in a tight game was one team's inability to get the ball into the end zone when it had the chances while forcing the other to resort to kicks and a prayer.
Washington State 30, SMU 27. They're not in any position to look a gift horse in the mouth off the worst season in school history and another 0-2 start, but Washington State fans have to feel as bad about the Cougars' prospects coming out of this game as they did coming in. SMU is the only team on Wazzu's schedule (especially now that Washington has apparently emerged from the gutter) that the Cougars have any right to expect to beat, and the Mustangs -- 1-11 last year their own selves -- generally dominated the game.
SMU was vastly more effective on offense -- +228 total yards on +2.7 per play is about as wide as those margins can realistically get in this feature -- and ran out to a 24-7 lead early in the third, but, from whence it proceeded to kill itself with turnovers and blown opportunities: Three of the Mustangs' four second half giveaways went down well inside of Cougar territory, and two of them were returned directly for touchdowns, which is pretty much the only way the Mustangs could have possibly lost under the circumstances. And still, the Cougars had to launch a 10-play, 80- yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes to force overtime, after picking up all of one first down on their previous five possessions of the second half combined.
Washington State, clearly, is terrible; the Cougars will be substantial underdogs in every game the rest of the season. But SMU, even while clicking more effectively in June Jones' run-and-shoot, can't survive the barrage of turnovers that's come with it: Bo Levi Mitchell threw an absurd 23 interceptions last year as a true freshman, and with eight picks already in three games -- including one of the first play of OT, allowing Wazzu to calmly boot through the winner -- is on pace to obliterate that number so far this year. It took a genuinely generous spirit to blow this one.
Texas 34, Texas Tech 24. I was already thinking about this as a "margins game" Saturday night, when I pointed out that the Longhorns' win turned on two plays, one each by the defense and special teams: a) Jordan Shipley's punt return for touchdown in the second quarter, and b) Sergio Kindle's ferocious blindside hit on Taylor Potts' chin early in the fourth, causing a fumble that set up another short touchdown. The first play gave the Longhorns the lead in a surprisingly low-scoring first half, and the second broke the tit-for-tat that broke out in the third quarter, aborting a potentially tying touchdown drive for the Raiders to extend a seven-point UT lead to 14 instead, essentially icing the game.
Texas took advantage of that opportunity, but may be most commented for not giving anything of the sort back to Tech: The Red Raiders' best starting field position was their own 41, and they started four straight drives in the crucial stretch of the third and fourth quarters inside their own 20. Still, if the first half had unfolded exactly the same way (with Texas leading 10-3 on Shipley's return), Tech could have won if it had received the opening kick of the second half and scored to tie the game, instead of beginning the back-and-forth from that point down 17-3 after UT opened the half with a touchdown drives of its own.
Washington 16, USC 13. As inexcusable as they all may be given the Trojans' talent advantage, as I pointed out on Sunday, this was a "typical" upset for the Trojans in that they won almost every aspect of the game except turnover margin -- and with few exceptions, SC only loses when it finishes –2 or worse in giveaways/takeaways. Here, the butterfingers strike again.
Yes, Aaron Corp struggled in his first career start, but the four fumbles (two of them lost) by USC running backs were the only reason to move away from the running game at all; otherwise, the Trojans physically dominated up front as you'd expect, with 250 yards on 7.6 per carry. At that kind of clip, the Huskies shouldn't have been in the game in the end, anyway. (Although they were owed a win like this.)
But the Trojans failed to score on four of their seven trips inside the Washington 25, three of which were sunk by turnovers (the other was cut short by the end of the half). Whatever issues it has in the passing game -- and there seem to be many at the moment -- the defense and running game are going to keep this team very much in the mix nationally as long as it holds on to the ball.