September 28, 2009
Adjusting to the weekend's new realities.
McElroy goes deep. The question about Alabama's national championship credentials coming into the season was the passing game: 'Bama clearly had the defense, the running game and maybe the best all-around receiver in the SEC, but could it get over the hump against Florida or survive another undefeated regular season with another lo-fi, within-the-offense type under center?
Every assumption painted Greg McElroy as the cliché, "just ask him not to lose the game" kind of passer in a paleolithic, run-based attack, but he's hardly been that: McElroy is not only third nationally (and best in the SEC) in efficiency, but also ranks third in yards per attempt, and is averaging just shy of 15 yards per completion. He's already completed nine passes of 25 yards or longer, a couple more than Tim Tebow, including 35 and 48-yard bombs against Virginia Tech and strikes covering 32, 50 and 80 yards Saturday at Arkansas -- considerably out-slinging much-feted Arkansas gunslinger Ryan Mallett, who crashed back to earth after a monster effort last week against Georgia: The Razorbacks' longest completion against the Tide covered just 25 yards. Four different 'Bama receivers are averaging more than 17 yards per catch on at least seven receptions, only one of whom is named Julio Jones.
In fact, if there's one thing missing from the legitimately run-heavy Gator offense, it's a bona fide deep threat in the wake of Percy Harvin's early exit. In that sense, 'Bama has the more balanced attack right now, and the top-10 numbers in total and scoring offense to prove it.
... but Terrelle Pryor does not. Jim Tressel was mercilessly slammed for his usual close-to-the-sweatervest game plan against USC, and seemed to respond with a little flex for the critics last week, when Terrelle Pryor had career highs in pass attempts and yards, threw three touchdowns (along with two interceptions) and put up another 100-plus rushing in an easy, 38-0 rout over Toledo. Saturday's 30-0 win over Illinois was just as easy, but not nearly as progressive with Pryor: Not only did the sophomore phenom not complete a pass in the first half, but he barely attempted any -- Pryor's first two throws fell incomplete on the Buckeyes' opening possession, and he didn't put the ball in the air again until the third quarter, by which time OSU led 13-0 and was in no danger of being surprised by the flailing Illini offense.
It was the opposite of the usual script -- throwing to keep the score down, though it failed there, too, when Pryor hit a late, meaningless touchdown in the final two minutes -- and a reversal of what had looked like a tantalizing willingness to set Pryor free after coming up short against the Trojans.
Reverting to status quo in Miami. So it turns out pretty much anybody can burn Florida State's secondary for big plays on a fairly consistent basis right now, which -- along with the downpour in Blacksburg -- helps explain why this supposedly revamped edition of Miami looked so much like its terminally mediocre predecessors against Virginia Tech. The Hokies slugged the 'Canes to reassert their grip on the Coastal Division, certainly, but it looked like someone had replaced Mark Whipple's heretofore excellent playbook with the milquetoast stylings of Patrick Nix: Icy Jacory Harris looked flustered and inaccurate, and the chronic case of butterfingers flared up again after sure-handed efforts by the receivers against FSU and Georgia Tech.
The win over the Yellow Jackets remains impressive, especially given Tech's thorough handling of North Carolina's offense in a 24-7 rebound win, but combine a close win over still-mediocre Florida State with a putrid egg in Blacksburg, and Miami is indeed "back," to the same "wait-and-see" fringes it's occupied for most of the last three years.
Oregon's offense is Alive! Still, even Miami didn't do as much to set back its early success Saturday as California, which ran head first into a chainsaw-wielding offense that found its motor just in time for Pac-10 play. The Bears came in expecting the pedestrian unit they'd seen on film against Boise State, Purdue and Utah, and were ambushed by the one that ended last year on a tear:
In one week, Jeremiah Masoli careened from 4-of-16 with an interception and no touchdowns against Utah to 21-of-25 with three touchdowns to no picks against a secondary that returned every starter from 2008, and the Ducks added another 236 on the ground against a veteran front that ranked in the top 10 nationally against the run coming in. That level of domination -- especially the defense's utter dismantling of the Bears' top-10 offense -- would have strained credulity even given the momentum at the end of last season and the high expectations coming into this one; after the first three games, it completely defies the time-progress continuum. Has to be the uniforms.