January 14, 2009
Moments and trends that were way more fun than they had any right to be.
Auburn 3, Mississippi State 2. At halftime of the USC-Ohio State "blockbuster," a weary nation turned its eyes from anticlimax in the Coliseum to an enthralling tale of offensive woe in Starkville, where Auburn's three turnovers and Mississippi State's 116 total yards combined for a spectacle of grim hilarity, pushed to the limits of absurdity when the Tigers were called for holding in their own end zone in the fourth quarter to bring about the classic final score. This is the game that moved me to verse, and proved more prescient than anyone could have guessed that night: Both teams remained in offensive oblivion and were shut out by their hated in-state rival to end the season, and nary a coach calling the shots on Sept. 13 was left standing by December.
LSU 26, Auburn 21. Back when both teams were undefeated and ranked in the top 10, this passed as a tense, hard-hitting classic, from whence unknown Jarrett Lee emerged as the de facto hero for bringing LSU from behind in the second half. During one sequence in the third quarter, LSU scored on a 40-yard pass, recovered an onside kick, went ahead on a halfback pass and allowed a 60-yard catch-and-run that set up a touchdown by Auburn to retake the lead. LSU went in minutes later for the decisive touchdown, apparently keeping its mythical championship hopes alive. Go back and see my instant reaction: Even as both teams proved to be unspeakably awful for the next two months, it was as much fun as I had watching a game on TV all year.
Jarrett Lee's Pick Sixes. Not in a "Ha ha, I hate LSU" way, but something much more perversely satisfying, like watching the unfolding of a Greek tragedy or the wrenching barn duel scene at the end of "Barry Lyndon." The inevitability is the point; the story demands sacrifice. Unlike the dire quarterbacking situations at, say, Tennessee, Auburn or Michigan, there was something epic about Lee's struggles -- he was not merely incompetent (outside of the picks, Lee's numbers were halfway decent), but truly destined to throw the ball into defenders' waiting arms, a burden beyond the freshman's control, but, pressed into service, that he must endure. Through the uncontested end zone romps of Gabe McKenzie, Brandon Spikes, Darryl Gamble, Darryl Gamble again, Travis Burks, Rashad Johnson and Terence Moore, we learned something about the limits of a young man's arm under pressure, and just maybe about the human spirit's capacity for suffering.
• Northwestern 24, Minnesota 17. Wherein one team, besieged by injuries, scrapped its entire offense to run a gangly, obscure, oddly-named fourth-year junior quarterback making his first start in two years into the line no less than 27 times, and the other team proved completely helpless to stop it. Northwestern backup Mike Kafka barreled improbably through Minnesota's defense for 217 yards, a Big Ten record for quarterbacks, and managed to throw two touchdowns in the process to set the stage for the Wildcats' game-clinching interception/touchdown return as time expired on the second-best game of Nov. 1 (better than that one, but not quite that other one). Guilt level increased dramatically as the Gophers, 7-1 coming into the game, dropped their last four following the loss, none of them remotely as close as this one. The KafkaBone makes a brief, unsuccessful appearance against Ohio State a week later, before being scrapped down the stretch for returning starter C.J. Bacher.
The Crapple Cup. Admit it: When Washington State somehow completed a 48-yard pass to set up the tying field goal as time expired in regulation, it was pretty exciting. And when the hopeless Cougars knocked through the winning field goal in double overtime to win their first Pac-10 game of the season, you wanted to rush the field with them. It's okay. Yes, they suck, but you're only human.
Curtis Painter's Implosion. I do feel for Joe Tiller, a perfectly decent coach who brought the spread to the Big Ten when it was still considered a novelty, went to a Rose Bowl and whose tenure in West Lafayette should be remembered as an unambiguous success. But one of the banes of my existence in preseason was the unfathomable hype for Painter, led by Mel Kiper, who anointed Painter the top senior quarterback prospect in the country despite his wretched mark (0-14 from 2005-07) as a starter against BCS conference teams that finished with a winning record. Painter subsequently tossed one touchdown to six interceptions during the Boilermakers' 0-4 Big Ten start -- during which Purdue scored 6, 3 and 6 points, respectively, against Penn State, Ohio State and Minnesota -- and was benched just in time to watch a redshirt freshman who began the season at running back light up Michigan for a season-high 48 points in November. In short, I was right and Mel Kiper was wrong ... so wrong, in fact, he'd dropped Painter to No. 2 on his list of the top senior quarterbacks by December. Way to eat crow.
Todd Blackledge's "Taste of the Town." I looked forward to the face-stuffing feature whenever it was teased, if for no other reason than it offered a few seconds of respite from Mike Patrick. Maybe you, like me, speculated on the locations Todd might stop in your current or former college town, and were disappointed by your list. At one point, you may have gained at least two pounds just watching the ex-Penn State slinger on one of his mouth-watering barbecue escapades across the South -- although this might also describe your vicarious relationship with Holly Rowe, in which case there's absolutely no reason to feel guilty.