In the church of college football, Sunday is a day of rest.
Saturday was about salvation.
Michigan State coach John L. Smith held on to his job.
Defending national champion Texas kept hopes of repeating alive.
Notre Dame resurrected title talk and preserved its Bowl Championship Series viability.
And Cal survived a game-tying Hail Mary to prevail in overtime. With the win, the Bears still have aspirations of ending USC’s reign atop the Pac-10.
On a day when all of the top 10 teams in the BCS were victorious, these games stood out for their clock-ticking, cardiac crescendos. As No. 1 Ohio State continued to roll and seems to have only one hurdle – archrival Michigan – standing between it and a BCS championship game berth, let’s rewind the week that was, take a look at what lies ahead and try to figure out who might be best positioned for a title shot against the Buckeyes.
It won’t be Michigan State.
Michigan State and Smith now have been on both sides of “miracles” this season. Their nationally televised 19-point, second-half meltdown against Notre Dame on Sept. 23 sent the Spartans spiraling downward and had many in and around East Lansing calling for the coach to be fired.
But in a record-setting renaissance Saturday at Northwestern, Smith and his team enjoyed a victory twice as nice, one that could keep the coach employed and salvage a season.
The Spartans, who trailed 38-3 with less than eight minutes left in the third quarter, ripped off 38 consecutive points to stun the Wildcats, 41-38. It was the biggest comeback in Division I-A history and couldn’t have come at a better time for the beleaguered Smith.
Since their implosion at home against the Fighting Irish, the Spartans had lost four straight, including a home defeat to conference doormat Illinois and blowouts at Michigan and at home against Ohio State. Most disturbing to the MSU administration, which is trying to raise funds for facility upgrades, were scores of empty seats in Spartan Stadium during last week’s matchup with the No. 1 Buckeyes. That just doesn’t happen at Michigan State, whose fan base can deal with disappointment – but not a program that had appeared to give up.
Add to the equation the dismissal of six players, mix in a 35-point deficit on the road and you could hear the moving truck’s engine rev en route to the Smith estate.
Credit unflappable senior quarterback Drew Stanton (27-of-37 passing, 294 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), a blocked punt by Devin Thomas, a return for a touchdown of that block by Ashton Henderson and a suddenly stiff defense in the second half for the remarkable reversal.
Smith, showing some emotion in TV interviews, had little to say afterward.
"They played the game," he told reporters of his team. "They believed in each other. They continued to fight. They pulled together. They deserved everything they got today, all the positives."
There was no Knute Rockne – or Duffy Daugherty for that matter – motivational speech by Smith at halftime either.
“He left it up to the seniors to step up and say something," senior linebacker David Herron told the Lansing State Journal. "Most guys stepped up and spoke and gave us motivation. The only thing I said was 'Believe.' "
Believe this: The Spartans need to win two of their remaining four games against Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State to become bowl eligible and further cool the coaching hot seat.
To paraphrase Terrell Owens’ publicist Kim Etheredge, MSU has $4.3 million reasons to hope Smith succeeds. That’s the figure it would cost the school to buy out his contract.
Next up for the Spartans (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten): Saturday at Indiana. It would be just like MSU to fall flat in Bloomington.
BURNT ORANGE, BUT NOT COOKED
Some gave Texas little chance of contending for the national title after its 24-7 home loss to Ohio State on Sept. 9. Had they lost Saturday at Nebraska, the Longhorns would have been done.
Despite making a bevy of mistakes – poor tackling, dumb penalties, bad ball control, crummy kicking – they didn’t, thanks to a huge defensive play by cornerback Aaron Ross. Ross forced Cornhuskers receiver Terrence Nunn, who had just picked up a first down, to fumble with a little more than two minutes remaining. The ensuing drive set up redshirt freshman kicker Ryan Bailey, replacing the misfiring Greg Johnson, to play the hero. Bailey converted the first kick of his collegiate career for a 22-yard game-winning field goal with 23 seconds left. A few failed Huskers Hail Marys later, it was 22-20 Texas and party time in Austin.
The Horns (7-1, 4-0 Big 12) are done with the toughest part of their schedule. They have games remaining with Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas A&M before a likely trip to the conference championship game.
Suddenly a repeat doesn’t sound like a ridiculous thought at all.
SAMARDZIJA SPELLS TROUBLE
Leave it to Notre Dame (6-1) to take a game it was supposed to win – the Irish were 13-point favorites – and turn it into a white-knuckler. Notre Dame’s porous secondary was again exposed, this time by Bruins second-string quarterback Patrick Cowan, making his second career start. And UCLA’s defense kept the Irish in check for most of the day, kicking the shillelagh out of Heisman candidate Brady Quinn, sacking him five times and hitting him all game like a piñata.
As many accolades as will go to Quinn for the 20-17 win, the difference maker was All-America wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who is as fun to watch as his name is hard to spell.
The 6-foot-5 Samardzija scored both of Notre Dame’s touchdowns, the first a leaping 2- yard reception in the first quarter, the last on a 45-yard catch and scamper with 27 seconds remaining where he deftly eluded Bruins defenders and seemed to riverdance into the end zone.
BCS hopes in South Bend were preserved, if only for a few weeks. We’d be remiss if we didn’t give Bruins coach Karl Dorrell some grief here for poor clock management and Rush Limbaugh-like play calling down the stretch.
Notre Dame’s remaining schedule has a mostly military feel. The Irish play Navy in Baltimore next Saturday, then play host to North Carolina, go to Air Force, host Army, then close out the season at the Coliseum against USC. That leaves Charlie Weis’ troops a likely 10-1 heading into the showdown with the Trojans. If they finish 11-1 it’s more than plausible they could line up with Ohio State with the title on the line. Consider the teams ahead of them: Michigan has to face the Buckeyes in the regular-season finale. The Irish get their shot against USC. That leaves Louisville and West Virginia in their way, and those teams meet Nov. 2. The Mountaineers also have to deal with Pittsburgh and unbeaten Rutgers. Louisville also must meet the Scarlet Knights and Panthers. Stay tuned.
California was in disbelief after a last-second heave by Washington quarterback Carl Bonnell was deflected by Bears linebacker Desmond Bishop into the hands of Huskies receiver Marlon Wood for a touchdown, tying the game with no time left.
But the guy who was truly unbelievable and might have kept Jeff Tedford’s team in the Pac-10 championship and BCS hunt was running back Marshawn Lynch. Playing on two sprained ankles, Lynch rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns, the last a 22-yard run in overtime that delivered Cal (7-1, 5-0 Pac-10) to a 24-17 victory.
After the game Lynch hopped into a stadium maintenance cart and took it for a spin on the field to mark the season-preserving performance. Lynch later said he was using the cart to pick up Bishop, whose interception snuffed Washington’s upset bid.
Cal, the last Pac-10 team to beat USC, has a shot to do so again Nov. 18. Also remaining for the Bears are games against UCLA, Arizona and Stanford.
If the last few weeks of the regular season are as intense and entertaining as Saturday, it might be time to say your prayers.