September 08, 2009
Obsessing over the statistical anomalies and minutiae of close and closer-than-they-looked games that could have gone the other way.
LSU 31, Washington 23. Because the first week was filled with so many lopsided, heavyweight-on-cupcake affairs, the Tigers and Huskies are the only game up for the inaugural "Life on the Margins" of 2009. Of course, LSU-Washington was supposed to fit the same description, until Washington unveiled a startlingly high-octane offense: The Huskies went 85 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of the game and kept up the assault all night, only punting three times and failing to go three-and-out even once in 11 full possessions, a minor miracle compared to last year's historic ineptitude with the ball.
As I pointed out Sunday, Washington's 478-yard effort was a full 100 yards better than its best output in 2008 and more yards than LSU had given up in a single game under Les Miles since his first outing with the Tigers in 2005, including Florida and Georgia the 50-plus-point beatdowns each administered last year. LSU's defense may still be crawling out of the ditch, relatively speaking, but by any standard, it was a great leap forward for the Huskies in Steve Sarkisian's debut.
Still, there were remnants of Willingham-era futility, mainly in the Huskies' failure to capitalize on strong drives. In the first half, they fumbled the ball away inside the LSU 20 to kill a 68-yard drive and punted inside Tiger territory; in the second, they missed one field goal and later had to settle for three with the ball inside the Tiger 15. But the most devastating play of the game was Jake Locker's only major mistake on the best overall passing night of his career, an interception right into the arms of Tiger linebacker Jacob Cutrera, who obligingly took it in for his team's first touchdown of the season. Without that play, Washington is very much in this game until the end, instead of scoring to make it close. When it learns to hang on to the ball and capitalize on its opportunities, this can be a dangerous offense, because obviously they've already learned how to keep the sticks moving.
Elsewhere: Iowa was slightly outgained by Northern Iowa and needed miraculous, back-to-back kick blocks -- unprecedented in NCAA history -- to fend off the humiliating upset. But ugly as it may have been for the Hawkeyes, the one-point margin perfectly reflected the numbers, which were almost dead-even in every respect.