September 15, 2009
Obsessing over the statistical anomalies and minutiae of close and closer-than-they-looked games that could have gone the other way.
Georgia 41, South Carolina 37. I didn't watch this game, because my obligations were with the most-watched college football game in ESPN history, but the explosive number of points in universally-projected defensive slog isn't the only jaw-dropping aspect of the box score here: How on earth did South Carolina lose this game?
The Gamecocks outgained Georgia by more than 100 yards; finished with a plus-two turnover margin; turned all three of those turnovers into points, one directly on an interception return, and had more "cheap" points overall; scored on a safety; and had slightly better starting field position. Losing with that many diverse advantages is absurd.
And yet they managed it, mainly by leaving the maximum number of points on the field. That's not just a reference to the "Wasted Yards" category, half of which is covered by the 74-yard fourth quarter drive that came up a few yards short in pursuit of the winning touchdown. The Gamecocks had to settle for five field goals inside the UGA red zone, including once when they took over on the Bulldog one following a fumbled kickoff. If you count four points on each of those drives and seven on the final drive, Carolina left 27 points on the field on drives inside the Georgia 20. By the same criteria, the Bulldogs left almost none: On five trips inside the USC red zone, UGA scored four touchdowns and only settled for one three-pointer.
Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34. The numbers bear out what an exceptionally close, well-played offensive game this one was, one that turned mainly on the few points Notre Dame didn't get at the outset: The Irish missed a field goal after a good 70 yard drive on the first possession of the game, and had to settle for three a few minutes later after an Armando Allen touchdown was controversially overturned, costing ND four points that eventually proved to be the final margin. ("Controversial" to Irish fans, though this was probably the right call.) Both teams had to drive a long way for their points, and they both did.
One category I don't (can't) track that had a huge impact on Notre Dame's offense: Drops. In fact, if there was one theme to the game before Tate Forcier's late heroics, it was the dominance of the Irish's outside receivers against Michigan's much smaller corners, particularly Boubacar Cissoko, who Michael Floyd repeatedly posterized. But both Floyd and Golden Tate both let certain touchdowns slip through their fingers. Every little bit counted in a game with this little separation.
Pittsburgh 54, Buffalo 27. I'd have to check, but there's a good chance that Pittsburgh's +28 in the "Swing Points" category is the highest such number in the brief history of "Life on the Margins." The Panthers got "gift" touchdowns following a) A Buffalo fumble on a first quarter kickoff return, setting up a 23-yard touchdown pass on the next play; b) Another Bull fumble after Pitt's first punt in the second quarter, setting up a 14-yard touchdown "drive" to put the Panthers up 28-7; c) Yet another Bull fumble in the third quarter, returned directly for a touchdown; and finally, d) A late interception that set Pitt up at the UB two yard-line for one last plunge, providing the final margin. Four turnovers = four easy opponent touchdowns = a four-touchdown defeat.
Buffalo's inclusion here is ironic -- which, in the logic of this feature, means "completely predictable" -- because the Bulls' M.O. en route to the MAC championship last year was an unprecedented rate of fumble recovery; that team had the turnover margin of a national champion. Well, live by the fumble, die by the fumble: The Bulls weren't really stopped Saturday, a far cry from a decade of total offensive ineptitude, but coughed away a legitimate chance to beat a respectable "Big Six" outfit for the first time.
Of course, the fundamental problem was stopping the run: Pitt's Dion Lewis plowed his way for 190 yards on a whisker shy of eight yards per carry. The Panthers clearly have their own issues, though -- the Big East is not exactly a "high-octane" league, but any secondary that allows a 400-yard, four-touchdown passing day to an obscure MAC quarterback (in this case, Zach Maynard) in his second career start is in for a long year regardless of who it's playing.
Louisiana-Lafayette 17, Kansas State 15. It's still unclear exactly why Bill Snyder came back for this, and he had to be wondering the same thing in the first half Saturday: The Wildcats' first half possessions netted four punts, two turnovers, a turnover on downs, a missed field goal and a ball snapped over the punter's head for a safety. KSU's longest drive of the half, by far, covered 42 yards and ended in a fumble. So this is a bad team under pretty much any circumstances.
Still, these are circumstances under which a team with a few opportunities as K-State is going to get this year have to pull through. The offense went on a couple long touchdown drives (of 70 and 87 yards, respectively) in the second half to take a one-point lead before the Cajuns moved into position for the winning field goal with less than a minute to play. More troubling, again, were the missed opportunities -- the Wildcats started three drives in Lafayette territory and didn't score on any of them, and also failed to score on three other trips onto the Cajuns' side of the field, including two missed field goals. This against a supposedly overmatched Sun Belt outfit that fumbled the ball away three times in the first quarter, losing it on their first snap of the game and later hopping on a loose ball for a safety. The only consolation for KSU out of this game is that division rivals Colorado and Iowa State looked just as bad.