September 20, 2010
Notes from the undercard.
Going into Friday night's visit from Cal, the best adjective to describe Nevada as a program might have been ... adorable. Or cute. The venerable coach! The wacky home-brewed offense! The awkwardly prolific quarterback! Fun! But if you were a power-conference favorite, you wouldn't want to have called Nevada threatening or dangerous: Before hosting the Golden Bears, Nevada had lost eight straight to BCS conference teams and/or Notre Dame, including a 35-0 flop in South Bend to open the 2009 season.
After the Wolf Pack's dominant, 52-31 ambush of their Pac-10 guests, we might want to scrap all of the above and go with legit. The Wolf Pack's patented pistol attack left the Bears looking every bit the befuddled wreck as its annual WAC victims, racking up 316 yards on 6.4 per carry, four rushing touchdowns and countless shots of Kaepernick (who finished with 148 yards on the ground, on top of 181 passing on just 15 attempts) sprinting away untouched as Bear defenders converged on frequent decoy Vai Taua in the middle of the line – understandable, since Taua racked up 151 yards himself between the tackles when he did get the ball.
Given that the defense yielded its usual bounty on the other side (Cal rang up 502 total yards itself, despite three turnovers), that's not to say Nevada is ready yet to be more than fill Boise State's slot as the WAC champion in the Humanitarian Bowl if the Broncos make another run on the big-money bowls. Even if the Wolf Pack can get past suddenly-reeling BYU in Provo this week, tricky road trips to Idaho and Fresno State still loom before the big one: Boise, in Reno, on Nov. 26. But with Kaepernick in a form this fine and the defense showing at least some kind of opportunistic pulse, that game will likely be for all the WAC marbles for the second year in a row, and defy anyone prematurely Saturday's visit from Oregon State as Boise State's last major hurdle to 12-0.
• With both human pinball machine Case Keenum and his backup knocked out for the season in a 31-13 debacle at UCLA, Houston's death grip on the title of Conference USA frontrunner may be no more. The most impressive application for the vacancy was turned in by Southern Miss, which never trailed in the process of dispatching Kansas on Thursday night, 31-16. Then again, Houston could be in decent hands with Keenum's unlikely replacement, true freshman Terrance Broadway, the fifth-best "dual-threat" quarterback in the 2010 class and one of only eight four-star signees in all of C-USA according to Rivals. Freshman or no, it's not like anyone has ever struggled to put up ridiculous numbers in Houston's lightspeed offense.
• BYU's unpopular two-quarterback experiment may be finished – junior Riley Nelson threw only four passes Saturday, one of them an interception, before giving way permanently to true freshman Jake Heaps for the last three quarters of a 34-10 drubbing at Florida State – but either way, the proud Cougar passing game is in tatters. A week after averaging a ghastly 2.5 yards per pass in a three-touchdown loss at Air Force, Heaps managed just 3.7 per throw against the defensively-challenged 'Noles, with no completions longer than 16 yards; he was also sacked six times. Through three games, the school of Young, McMahon, Detmer, Sarkisian, Beck and Hall ranks 115th nationally in pass efficiency.
• Even without the Cougars' help, the Mountain West came within a whisker of pulling off two other major upsets. Air Force outgained Oklahoma by nearly 100 yards and a full yard per play (5.9 to 4.8) in Norman, but left with just three points off of six extended drives covering 9, 10, 6, 5, 7, and 5 plays and more than 200 collective yards in a 27-24 loss. San Diego State's defeat at Missouri was even more painful: Up 24-20 with less than a minute remaining on a ridiculous 93-yard touchdown run by true freshman Ronnie Hillman, the Aztecs' frankly comical attempts to tackle Tiger receiver T.J. Moe allowed a simple out route to become a 68-yard, game-winning touchdown with a little over a minute to play. The loss extended SDSU's losing streak against "Big Six" competition to 23 games, but in Brady Hoke's second season, a close loss to a respectable Big 12 outfit is still a step up from the endless indignities of the Chuck Long era.
Mid-Major Game of the Week: UAB 34, Troy 33.
With his team down 33-27 and the ball sitting at his own one-yard line following a Troy punt, all backup quarterback Bryan Ellis had to do was take UAB 99 yards in 69 seconds without the benefit of a timeout. And so he did, completing three first-down passes – two of them on 3rd-and-10 – to move the Blazers to the Trojan 44-yard line with 10 seconds on the clock, from whence he connected with Jackie Williams on a miraculous Hail Mary to tie as time expired. (For local news video of the pass, click here and search for "uab.")
The extra point capped a comeback from a 23-0 Troy lead in the first half, before Ellis came on for starter David Isabelle to lead the Blazers on a 34-10 run over the last 35 minutes. Ellis finished with 360 yards passing and three touchdowns, two of them to Williams, who also ran for a score in the third quarter. Altogether, the two offenses combined for 1,101 yards, 56 first downs and 18 plays that gained at least 20 yards.
Player of the Week: After a curiously slow start to the year, Temple running back Bernard Pierce finally got on track against UConn, carrying 26 times for 169 yards and two scores with a 27-yard touchdown reception in the Owls' 30-16 upset. Al Golden and the handful of Temple fans who still recall the great end-line controversy of 2007 and the overtime collapse of 2008 were no doubt very, very appreciative to finally put the Huskies away.
Upset of the Week: Preseason Sun Belt favorite Middle Tennessee State had looked all right without suspended quarterback Dwight Dasher, losing narrowly to Minnesota and beating up on a token I-AA/FCS offering, Austin Peay. Memphis, meanwhile, had looked horrific in the process of getting crushed by both Mississippi State and East Carolina. But as usual, past performance is no guarantee of future results: The Tigers picked off MTSU backup Logan Kilgore three times Saturday, got 121 yards rushing from Greogry Ray, and held on for a shock 24-17 victory in the Liberty Bowl. Between the Blue Raiders' loss and Troy's collapse at UAB, it was not a good day for Sun Belt pride against the bottom dwellers of Conference USA.
Non-upset of the Week: Tulsa's formerly lethal offense has taken a hit with the departures of co-coordinators Gus Malzahn and Herb Hand, but unfortunately for the Golden Hurricane, their unbalanced effect on the Tulsa defense is alive and well: The Golden Hurricane surrendered 41 first-half points and 722 total yards in a 65-28 demolition at the hands of Oklahoma State.
A Somewhat Arbitrary Mid-Major Top 10
1. TCU (3-0). If Andy Dalton's going to keep completing completing 90 percent of his passes for 11 yards an attempt, the Horned Frogs aren't yielding this perch anytime soon.
2. Boise State (3-0). Only thing uglier than the 51-6 box score from Wyoming was Wyoming's uniforms.
3. Nevada (3-0). OK, so the run defense needs work: Cal's Shane Vereen went for 198 yards on just 19 carries.
4. Utah (3-0). What's with Mountain West quarterbacks and ridiculous completion percentages? Backup Terence Cain hit 20-of-23 in place of injured starter Jordan Wynn in an easy win over New Mexico.
5. Air Force (2-1). Probably the only team that can stand in the way of TCU-Utah one-off for MWC title. Probably.
6. Fresno State (2-0). Road trip to feisty Utah State was the kind of game Bulldogs have made a habit of losing in recent years. Not this time.
7. Temple (3-0). Between the UConn win and Bowling Green's victory over Marshall, it was a relatively big week for the MAC, which will take all the inter-conference pride it can get.
8. Navy (2-1). The Midshipmen's 21-0 second-half shutout of Louisiana Tech in Ruston was impressive; the 23-16 halftime deficit much less so.
9. Southern Miss (2-1). Or SMU or East Carolina or Central Florida or Houston. Your C-USA guess is as good as mine at this point.
10. Idaho (2-1). The Vandals rocked UNLV in the Kibbie Dome this week, and before pushed Nebraska harder in Lincoln last week than Washington did Saturday in Seattle.
And at the Other End of the Barrel...
• No team in any division has has harder luck so far than Florida International, which fell to Rutgers despite outgaining the Scarlet Knights by a mile in the opener, and Saturday blew a 20-6 lead at Texas A&M after giving up three fourth quarter touchdowns in a 27-20 loss.
• Honestly, Colorado State, it's one thing to get blown out by Colorado or Nevada, but it's another altogether to get plowed by three touchdowns at Miami of Ohio – which doubled its 2009 win total in the process, from one in '09 to two already in 2010. Elsewhere in the Mountain West, New Mexico has been outscored 180-31 on the year, and still might not be the worst team in the conference.
• Akron's response to losing to I-AA/FCS Gardner-Webb last week? Losing by 37 at Kentucky. If perpetually hapless Eastern Michigan had been competitive against Central Michigan, the Eagles might have had some competition for title of the MAC's worst team. (Of course, they weren't competitive at all, as if you had to ask.)
• With starting quarterback Nathan Tune lost for the year, North Texas barely managed 200 yards total in a 24-0 shutout loss to Army, dropping UNT to 0-3. Good luck in Sun Belt play, Todd Dodge. You're going to need it.
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Jerry Hinnen writes and operates the Auburn site War Eagle Reader.