August 31, 2008
I don't do the "conference wars" thing, but the overwhelming stench of the weekend is the ACC flopping around like a bunch of gasping fish: Alabama routed Atlantic Division favorite Clemson, Coastal Division favorite Virginia Tech was undercut by East Carolina, N.C. State was dead on arrival at South Carolina on Thursday, North Carolina struggled most of the night with McNeese State and Virginia offered even less resistance than expected in rolling over for Southern Cal. It's only wins were over I-AA teams (McNeese, Jacksonville State, Charleston Southern, James Madison, Delaware) or their functional equivalents (Baylor, Kent State).
The question now is, does the conference even have an opportunity for the rest of the season to atone for its terrible start? Assuming Georgia Tech, Florida State and Clemson's closing in-state tangles with the SEC are too late to make a difference in public/media perception, the only opportunities the conference has to make any kind of notable statement outside of its own borders are Virginia Tech's trip to Nebraska, Maryland's game with California, Florida State's game with Colorado in Jacksonville and Boston College's game with Notre Dame, maybe, depending on how good the Huskers, Bears, Buffs and Irish turn out to be. For the record, only Cal, at 7-6, finished with a winning mark among that group last year. With the only possible national contenders already eliminated from the race -- are you going to push Wake Forest? Really? -- the ACC can pack it in and cross its fingers for a miraculous turnaround in its territorial adventures come November.
• Utah 25, Michigan 23
There's no way around the fact that Michigan's offense was atrociously bad for the vast majority of the afternoon, and even when it was good, it was only for the briefest, isolated moments. This was fully expected in the transition to the spread 'n shred, and much uglier to watch as it actually unfolded than it was to consider as an inevitable glitch on the road to a more promising whole in the abstract: the Wolverines' longest drive of the game was 45 yards and ended in a fumble; they had only one run longer than eight yards, and before the aborted run at the end of the fourth quarter, had only two completions -- a screen pass to Sam McGuffie and an impossible highlight reel grab by Carson Butler -- longer than eight yards; and all four of their scoring drives were set up by Utah turnovers and/or major penalties. Other than Brandon Minor's 21-yard burst in the third quarter, which led to nothing, the same system that shredded so many defenses at West Virginia ran 24 times for 15 yards.
But no numbers can really describe how much like a former walk-on Nick Sheridan really looked. He was intercepted once on the stat sheet, but also lobbed another lame duck on the Wolverines' first drive that was wiped out by a sketchy pass interference penalty. He was erratic downfield, to say the least, and the passes he did hit were of the middling, horizontal variety, which Utah quickly swarmed for little to no harm. Steven Threet was more effective downfield -- two 30-plus-yard completions, one for a touchdown and one setting up a short score -- and will no doubt be the starter going forward because he was in the game for the improbable late surge. But he completed just 8 of 19, and with an open man on the decisive fourth down play with two minutes left, sailed the pass into the Utah bench. As predicted, neither Sheridan nor Threet is close to the athlete necessary to make Rodriguez's running game hum, and with virtually no threat beyond the line of scrimmage in the passing game, either, you wind up with 1.4 yards per carry and very little hope until the more option-friendly recruits show up next spring.
If there's anything good to take away for the Wolverines, it's that the defense, overall, lived up to its hype. Brian Johnson shredded it for 260 yards and a couple touchdowns in the first half -- he only topped 260 yards in an entire game once in '07 -- but if you were too distracted by the offensive horrifics on the other side to notice, the Utes' second half production amounted to two first downs and six total yards. If not for the towering leg of Kicking-and-Punting Messiah Louis Sakoda, who hammered home the eventual winning margin on a 54-yarder after the Utes went three-and-out from the Michigan 40, it would have been a shut out. It was dominating, anyway, and there's some promise in that. Just some, though, not enough to raise expectations beyond the Champs Sports Bowl.
• Utah, despite controlling the entire game on defense and dominating the first half on offense, has to be concerned enough with the second half collapse and the series of penalties, fumbles and special teams miscues that kept Michigan kicking when the game should have been nestled snugly in its bed to let the impending "BCS Buster" hype get out of hand at this stage. Johnson was sacked six times, and even excluding that yardage, averaged 0.8 per carry. Defensively, they have to be pleased. Offensively, though, there's the same question that lingered coming into the season: Brian Johnson looks great, sometimes, but which Brian Johnson is going to show up?
• Missouri 52, Illinois 42
Please, please let Jeremy Maclin be OK, because it would be a borderline tragedy by football standards to see Missouri's offense going forward at anything less than full strength. Not that it would be suddenly impotent without Maclin -- of the Tigers' 549 yards from scrimmage Saturday, he accounted for just 33 before limping off with a bad ankle, on a long gain of ten, 99-yard kickoff return notwithstanding -- but removing any piece from a machine that operated so beautifully would be very, very wrong, especially when the piece commands as much attention as Maclin. By concerning itself with the greatest matchup problem, the defense becomes vulnerable to a whole array of them, which the Tigers expertly exploited against the Illini despite the meager from-scrimmage contribution of its star.
The accolades will continue to cascade in for Chase Daniel, and he deserves them despite a somewhat hit-or-miss night (by his standards, that is: he completed "only" 58 percent of his passes and had one picked and run back for a touchdown), but the offense clicked on every level, particularly on the ground: Donald Washington had 130 yards and two touchdowns and James Jackson averaged over nine yards on five carries, most of them right down the Illini's gaping, spread-thin gullet. Elvis Fisher, the redshirt freshman who didn't plan to start entering fall count and supposedly counted as the weak point of the offense, helped keep Daniel clean (only one sack) and was outstanding on the Tigers' unorthodox tackle trap plays, especially the one that sprung Washington for his 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter, on which Fisher led up the middle, took linebacker Brit Miller out of the picture, then flattened cornerback Vontae Davis downfield as Washington scampered free.
For Illinois, it was damned if you, damned if you don't, damned if you even considered it. When they played two many defenders back to focus on the pass, they were gashed up the middle; when they played man-to-man, Daniel attacked them down the seams, as he did on a long gain to Jared Perry in the second quarter and on a touchdown pass to Chase Coffman in the third, both against one-on-one safety coverage; when they played a zone that still respected the run, Daniel picked them apart, most notably on the third quarter touchdown pass to Tommy Saunders, off a fake screen into the flat that froze the underneath coverage and left Saunders all alone, just out of the range of the Cover 2 safety coming over the top. It was a clinic, and for Maclin's sake as much as anyone else's, it's only right that he be a part of that for the rest of the year.
• Juice Williams had a huge passing game, 451 yards and five touchdowns, but it was a kind of haphazard performance. He connected on a series of long passes, some of them to guys running wide open and some against tighter coverage -- his back-to-back touchdown lobs to Chris Duvalt were well-covered -- but Juice still seems to lack touch; he rockets every throw, and it cost the Illini a few big plays as missiles sailed by flailing, wide open receivers' heads. Missouri's explosion demanded Williams continue to put it up to stay in the game, and he responded pretty admirably with four touchdown drives in the second half, but I'd be surprised if the offense didn't move back to the run-oriented, spread option attack that served it so well last year when not facing double-digit deficits for the vast majority of the game.
• Speaking of Chase Daniel's lone interception: Derek Walker made one of the plays of the day by fighting off the cut block of Missouri's right tackle, popping up into Daniel's throwing lane and hauling in the ball at point-blank range. He's only 270 pounds, and played it more like a running back on a screen pass than a lumbering defensive end.
• Alabama 34, Clemson 10
There's not much to this: Alabama kicked highly-rated, heavily motivated, this-is-our-time Tiger tail. Including sacks, the Tide outran the vaunted Tiger backfield 239 yards to zero; sacked Cullen Harper three times and hit him much more often than that; and held the ball for over 41 minutes. The lengthier of Bama drives lasted 4:51, 7:59, 6:43 and 9:01, which by themselves amount to almost a full half off the clock. Clemson, on the other had, had maybe six possessions that could have possibly mattered -- the game was all but over on its last three -- and James Davis and C.J. Spiller had eight carries between them. It's very simple: the Tide wore the Tigers out on the line of scrimmage, on both sides, made them one-dimensional, and choked away the opportunity for that dimension to do any real damage. If not for C.J. Spiller's kick return touchdown to start the second half, Clemson would have basically nothing to its name.
All things considered -- whatever you thought of them, the Tigers were a top ten team coming in and deserved that designation based on what we knew about them -- this was the most impressive win of the opening weekend, easily the most physically dominating over a real opponent, and puts the Tide immediately into the mix in the SEC. The additions of Mark Ingram in the backfield and especially Terrance Cody in the middle of the defensive line, possibly even more than Julio Jones, certainly seem to put both units on another level, but the stars of the game from my perspective were a couple veteran big guys: Andre Smith on the offensive line and Lorenzo Washington on the defense, who if nothing else were the visible leaders of an old-fashioned throttling. Their trip to Georgia in four weeks becomes much more interesting.
• East Carolina 27, Virginia Tech 22
Closing drama aside, the story of this game is partly about East Carolina outplaying the Hokies for the second year in a row -- ECU outgained Tech by more than 100 yards Saturday after narrowly outgaining them last year in Blacksburg -- but much more about what's going to happen to Virginia Tech. The running game was serviceable (Kenny Lewis and Darrell Evans had a solid 99 yards on 23 carries), but not nearly overwhelming enough to put the Hokies over the top when Sean Glennon was the platonic incarnation of Sean Glennon: 14 of 23 for 139 yards, two interceptions, no touchdowns, and when the Hokies needed to run precious time off the clock, the thrower of ineffectual, clock-stopping screen passes. Faced with the two-minute drill, he fell woefully short.
Remember that Tech had to have a fluky lateral returned for touchdown, a botched Pirate kickoff return and a blocked extra point to even be in the game late, and the calls for suspiciously redshirted Tyrod Taylor will ring far and wide. Glennon was exactly what he's proven he would be over his first two years as the starter, and unless Frank Beamer is determined to sacrifice this very young team's chance at another ACC championship for the sake of future teams, it seems inevitable we'll see Taylor make an appearance soon -- not next week against Furman, probably, but sometime in the stretch of games against Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Nebraska, for sure. Relying solely on Glennon was barely justifiable before Saturday, and after, it seems almost spiteful.
• Give the Pirates credit: they probably played themselves into the frontrunner's seat in Conference USA, if they weren't there already. There were no stars, which makes Skip Holtz's work all the more impressive, but Patrick Pinkney was an outstanding 19 of 23 for 211 yards a touchdown with no interceptions. They'll fall off the national radar after next week's game against West Virginia, but with N.C. State and Virginia looming past the Mountaineers, they're going to be very tough to beat from then on.
Say What? Inexcusable upsets.
• Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 17. This is not an outrageous upset -- the eight-win Falcons were almost certainly better than Pitt last year -- but given the expectations of Panther insurgency in the Big East, Dave Wannstedt can probably begin shopping around for a defensive coordinator job in the AFC East. Bill Stull was underwhelming, star-in-waitin LeSean McCoy was held to 71 yards on 3.1 per carry and there was no late growl in the Panthers after falling irreparably behind in the second half.
There's only one thing to note: Pitt outgained Bowling Green by more than 100 yards and can largely chalk up its ill-fortune to three lost fumbles, two of which set up Bowling Green touchdowns, the latter from just 11 yards out (both teams threw interceptions, but BG didn't lose a fumble). I would say the future might be brighter if the Panthers can hold onto the ball, but a second half o-fer against any team from the defensively-challenged MAC is anathema to optimism regardless of the circumstances.
• Louisiana Tech 22, Mississippi State 14. The Bulldogs gave the Bulldogs a taste of their own medicine: MSU, often the beneficiary of turnovers and other favors en route to eight wins last year, outgained Tech 348-269, but Wesley Carroll was reliably Wesley Carroll-esque, tossing three interceptions on top of the two fumbles MSU gave away. Georgia Tech transfer Taylor Bennett was even worse for La Tech, reliving his Yellow Jacket days by completing an abysmal 14 of 40, but he was only intercepted once, and put Tech up for good with a short touchdown pass in the second quarter. And thus ends Croom's Liberty Bowl honeymoon.
• Arkansas State 18, Texas A&M 14. No flukes here: the Red Wolves, nee Indians, outgained A&M 415-303, largely on the strength of 145 yards rushing from Reggie Arnold and a turnover-free performance by quarterback Corey Leonard. The Aggies, on the other hand, lost a pair of fumbles, and senior Stephen McGee was intercepted twice, no doubt bringing on the calls for sophomore Vince Young doppelganger Jerrod Johnson. There's, uh, no pressure or anything from here on, Mike Sherman. Aggie partisans are very patient and accepting of fifth-place finishes and losses to Sun Belt teams in service of the big picture. It will only get easier. You'll see.
Box Scorin': The day in wild statistics.
Youngstown State had 74 total yards and five first downs, and the Penguins' longest possession covered 24 yards. Ohio State scored on nine of its first ten possessions (it moved 51 yards inside the five before Chris Wells' fumble on the other) and had five plays longer than 24 yards. . . . Wisconsin ran 63 times for 404 yards, and passed just ten times in its win over Akron. . . . Syracuse was outgained by 259 yards and 14 first downs by Northwestern. . . . Georgia Southern nearly matched Georgia for first downs (18 to UGA's 20), but was outgained by 240 yards. . . . West Virginia threw 34 times against Villanova, to 22 rushes. . . . Navy's Shun White ran 19 times for 348 yards -- about 21 per carry -- and Navy had 558 yards rushing against Towson. . . . Tulsa's new quarterback, David Johnson, 20 of 24 for 332 yards, three touchdowns and the highest efficiency rating of the day. . . . Texas Tech's Graham Harrell and Matt Nichols threw 119 passes for 871 yards in a game that lasted three hours and 40 minutes. . . . Southern Miss had 633 total yards, 427 rushing, in a 30-point win over UL-Lafayette. Running back Damion Fletcher averaged over 10 yards on 21 carries. . . . Chattanooga had 36 yards, 13 punts and one first down against Oklahoma. The Sooners scored touchdowns on their first seven possessions. . . . And South Florida had 197 yards and four touchdowns on 18 plays in its first four possessions against UT-Martin, or 11 yards per play.
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Photos of Sean Glennon, Chase Coffman and Nick Saban via Getty Images. Photo of Tyler Sheehan via the Associated Press.