September 14, 2008
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the runaway Trojan train that demolished whatever was left of Ohio State's self-respect, because the beating was evident enough to the entire country. The Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot with badly-timed penalties, just as they did against LSU in January, but this was less of a case of OSU taking itself out of the game than USC just overwhelming them on defense. Without Beanie Wells, Ohio State was destined to be one-dimensional, anyway.
I'm not sure which was more disappointing: Ohio State's defense trying to defend Joe McKnight, or the Buckeyes' insistence on Todd Boeckman, who has never been anything but a red siren liability when asked to make plays with the game on the line. To me, it's clearly Boeckman: while McKnight gashed OSU's defense for almost nine yards per carry, the Buckeyes would have been in the game well into the second half if not for a) Boeckman's throw directly into the arms of Rey Maulauga for a USC touchdown in the second quarter, and b) his cement-footed stand in the pocket on the very next possession, when he was sacked on consecutive snaps and stripped (above) on the second just to make a nice picture of his helpless inadequacy. Both turnovers, for the record, followed first down runs by Terrelle Pryor.
But Pryor -- though there's a very good chance he will be (and should be) the top quarterback going forward -- could not save the Buckeyes in the Coliseum. In addition to a couple Young-like gallops in the first half, the freshman was 7 of 9 passing, better than Boeckman, and didn't turn the ball over, even while getting overrun in the pocket at the end of the game. But Pryor's passes were extremely safe; he couldn't throw well enough to back the Trojans up enough to sustain that running room, especially with no additional help from the shorthanded backfield. Repeatedly, OSU was stuffed on first down, or forced to throw because it knew it would be stuffed, and found itself over and over again in 3rd-and-7, 3rd-and-20, 3rd-and-18 (sack/fumble), 3rd-and-6 (sack), 3rd-and-25 (sack), 3-and-9, etc., and this was almost universally ugly. USC -- like Florida, like LSU -- put the game on the quarterback, the one position the Buckeyes had no chance of matching up, and -- like Florida, like LSU -- come out of it looking like monolithic world-beaters. They beat them like they'd beat Arizona or something, or worse, which is both really scary and really sad at the same time.
(Other) Games I Watched ...
• Notre Dame 35, Michigan 17
This is not exactly a "Wake Up the Echoes" kind of win: Jimmy Clausen was not very good, the run defense was not very good, and if not for Michigan's butterfingers (four lost fumbles, on top of a pair of interceptions) that led directly or immediately to 21 Irish points, the game would have been very much in doubt in the fourth quarter, if not firmly in the Wolverines' bizarro-strong grasp.
As I wrote immediately after the game, though, Notre Dame got exactly what it needed from this win. It didn't move the ball particularly well, but Clausen did have a pair of touchdown passes, one of them a 48-yard bomb off a fourth down stop by the defense, which created some sense of offensive fireworks and got the crowd involved early in the game; it didn't open many holes for the running game, but the beleaguered offensive line, too porous for contemplation last year (especially against Michigan, which had eight sacks in the '07 shutout), allowed zero sacks for the second week in a row; and the defense was frequently gashed by Sam McGuffie, but was also opportunistic enough to score a touchdown off a fumble in the second half and come up with turnovers to leave Michigan empty-handed at the end of 73 and 58-yard drives. All vast improvements.
Mainly, it was an actual win, against a respectable, equally-talented opponent, which ND hadn't earned in almost two full calendar years (since the comeback UCLA in October 2006). At least we can say with some certainty that the kids are going to be OK, after all, and see where they take it from there.
For Michigan's part, the Wolverines looked much better on offense than in their first two outings, aside from the whole "holding on to the ball" things; there were multiple big plays from a group that had been completely moribund so far. But if Michigan turns out to be not-so-respectable through the rest of the year, all bets are off for the Irish, as well. I don't think we learned very much here.
• South Florida 37, Kansas 34 (Friday)
I'm not sure how good either of these defenses is -- USF has a pass rush, but not much of a secondary, it seems; more on that shortly -- but assuming from last year that they're still competent enough to deserve their top 20 rankings, both quarterbacks in this game were lightning rod-hot, and carried its back-and-forth, to-the-wire drama on their undersized shoulders. Savant-ish Matt Grothe was true to his nature as a scrambling libertine, unrestrained by any bourgeois notions of size, mechanics or strategy, and Kansas coaches channeled Todd Reesing's immense brain power into a quick-hitting, three-step passing game that defied his physical limitations. This was the best game of the weekend entirely because of them, and I doubt either team is anywhere near the polls without a guy it's not afraid to turn loose in the shotgun.
Reesing, especially, was impressive because of the way he adjusted in the fourth quarter to USF's outstanding halftime adjustments. Kansas dominated the first half by exploiting the Bulls' low-pressure zone coverage with quick-release reads for 259 yards and 20 points on four of its first five possessions. USF responded by scrapping the zone for an athlete-on-athlete game, switching to an aggressive, man-to-man approach on defense and a vertical passing game on offense, and its athletes were better out of the locker room: the bump-and-run took away Reesing's quick reads, gave George Selvie time to disrupt the pocket off the edge and ultimately held the Jayhawks to four straight three-and-outs to start the second half, while the KU defense looked slow and overmatched on the other side. USF scored 17 unanswered points and outgained the Jayhawks 216 yards to -5 in the third quarter.
That could have been game, once the Bulls went up two touchdowns in the first minute of the fourth (their fifth straight scoring drive on offense), but Kansas counterpunched: the offense increased its pass protection to let Reesing hang on to the ball a little longer, and his natural elusiveness bought enough time for his receivers to work their way open downfield, most notably on the scramble drill touchdown to Jonathan Wilson that cut USF's lead back to a touchdown.
So as sharp, aware and accurate as he was throughout the entire game, it was just bizarre that Reesing suddenly lobbed up a hopeless duck down the middle of the field with the game tied in the final minute, when the only bad result for Kansas was a turnover that set USF up in good field position. Even without the benefit of the downfield picture, even without heavy pressure, this throw was completely doomed the second it left his hands:
They were both great, but one quarterback made a huge mistake that the other didn't. So break out the golden shovel and carry the freshman kicker off the field. And next time, switch to man coverage a lot earlier.
• Maryland 35, California 27.
This is one of those games where you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, it's so ludicrous. Supposedly lame duck Maryland lost four fumbles and had plenty of opportunities to shrink away, but garbage time defensive lapses aside, it did exactly what it had to do to beat the Bears by controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball from start to finish, just like Ralph Friedgen's early, successful Terp squads: who dats Da'Rel Scott and Davin Meggett ran 33 times for 5.1 per carry and three touchdowns, thoroughly outplaying more heralded Jahvid Best, who the UMD defense bottled up for 25 yards on a long run of ten and left, shall we say, sick with his and his team's effort in one of the most appropriate visuals of the day:
Cal fans sympathize, Jahvid.
And what to make of Chris Turner? The afro'd junior only had one completion over 13 yards, the 28-yard touchdown to Darrius Heyward-Bey in the third quarter set up by runs on seven of the previous eight plays, but was extremely efficient: 15 of 19, two touchdowns, no interceptions. This is the same kid who was bewildered, sacked and picked last week by Middle Tennessee State. The data points from this game are so far from what we saw in the first two weeks of the season -- for Turner and for Maryland as a team, and Cal, too, for that matter -- the immediate future is hidden behind a wall of inconsistent murk.
Making sense of what I didn't see.
• Wisconsin 13, Fresno State 10. I missed the light night game of the week in the afterglow of USC's dominance, but it looks like exactly the grinding cloud-of-dust fest it was expected to be, with blown opportunities -- three missed field goals by Fresno State, an early failed fourth down attempt inside the ten for Wisconsin -- standing out. I don't see anything here that tells me anything unexpected about either team: Wisconsin was just a little bit stronger and little bit more opportunistic, but Fresno's going to be hanging around the polls for the rest of the year. And, hey, at least the Bulldogs will be favored in two weeks at UCLA.
• Oregon 32, Purdue 26 (2OT). There was a good amount of praise for the Boilermaker defense after this game, and Justin Roper's line before his knee injury in overtime backs that up: he was 20 of 48 with two interceptions and no touchdowns, which is a terrible game for a quarterback even you factor in the ton of drops that also plagued Oregon's offense. But the Ducks still piled up more than 300 yards rushing and controlled most of the last three quarters after a terrible start, which isn't encouraging in the least.
It was another mediocre effort for Curtis Painter, too, who barely completed half of his attempts (26 of 50) with two picks and no touchdowns, which is par for the course for Painter against respectable defenses but probably won't cost him anything in draft hype.
• Auburn 3, Mississippi State 2. My parents attended this game, live, god bless them, and my dad called this morning to ask if I'd watched it. It was "very frustrating to watch" for him, but very entertaining for anyone passing along without a rooting interest. I saw very, very little, only some of the last few minutes at the half of USC-Ohio State, but what I did see was astonishing and sent the Trojan-Buckeye open thread here into overdrive. From about the middle of the fourth quarter on, Auburn was flagged for holding the Bulldogs in the end zone to push MSU's '0' to the truly sublime '2,' and proceeded to give the ball over to the Bulldogs twice on unforced fumbles at midfield, one of them leading to failed 4th-and-1 attempt and the other to an icing interception downfield. They may be completely overmatched, but nobody makes being terrible more interesting than Mississippi State. (The thread was right, of course: MSU would have been better off punting and trying to pin the Tigers deep for the go-ahead safety at the end rather than actually trying to run offensive plays, which only ended in disaster.)
• Baylor 45, Washington State 17. More on this game Monday -- particularly on the Bears' freshman quarterback, Robert Griffin, who set a school record for rushing yards on just eleven carries -- but no matter how much improved Baylor may be with Griffin and Art Briles pulling the strings on offense, Washington State is confirmed as this year's version of last year's Minnesota. The Cougars have no identity and no playmakers under a first-year coach, don't know who their quarterback is, and can't play a stitch of defense: not only giving up 45 points to Baylor, but how bad does the 66-point debacle to Cal, at home, look after the Bears' flop in College Park? Baylor may be stumbling toward moderate competence, but it's still Baylor, and Wazzu's not even a lock to handle Portland State this week.
• UConn 45, Virginia 10. Wait, can Virginia be last year's Minnesota this year?
• BYU 59, UCLA 0. So much for the end of the L.A. football monopoly. Now, I don't really think UCLA is as atrociously bad as all that -- the win over Tennessee did happen, I saw it -- but almost no team could survive giving away multiple fumbles and setting up an offense as potent as BYU's as regularly as the Bruins did: in addition to shredding the L.A. secondary, generally, more than half of the Cougars' epic point total came on drives that started inside the UCLA 40-yard line. This may be an extreme case, but the same kind of thing is going to happen to the Bruins a lot if they can't cobble together some sort of running game: for the second game in a row, the offense's longest gain on the ground was six yards.
• UNLV 23, Arizona State 20 (OT). Shocking score of the night, but nothing screams 'weird' about the stats: yardage was almost dead even, and there weren't a lot of turnovers or missed opportunities on either side. Incredibly, the Rebels hung with ASU straight up -- if they did anything particularly well, it was milking the life out of the ball in the second half, particularly on an 18-play, 88-yard, nine-plus-minute drive in the third and fourth quarters that ended in only a field goal but kept Rudy Carpenter cooling on the sideline. Does this make UNLV good? Not likely. But does it make Arizona State bad? That is a distinct possibility -- although still expect a fight next week when Georgia comes to town, when we'll be able to judge with some more authoriteh.
• Missouri 69, Nevada 17. Just ... please, Missouri. Chase Daniel hit four different receivers exactly six times apiece for at least 98 yards apiece. They'll hit 50 again next week against Buffalo, and then maybe the off week will throw some water on this offense. Give me a break.
By the Numbers.
The week in outrageous, eye-popping and head-scratching statistics.
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Quarterbacks Rusty Smith and Brian Hoyer combined to complete 13 of 49 passes (26.5%) in Michigan State's 17-0 win over Florida Atlantic. . . . Iowa had nearly as many penalties (7) as completed passes (9) in its win over Iowa State. . . . Stanford had twice as many punts, sacks, penalties and turnovers as first downs in its loss to TCU. . . . Oklahoma State had three different running backs over 130 yards against Missouri State, all of them on at least 10 yards per carry. . . .
Aaaaaaand your stat of the week: Air Force won a game despite completing zero passes against Houston. The Falcons were still able to run for 380 yards and score 31 points despite going 0 for 7 through the air, which is, like, too old school to even qualify as old school.
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Photo of Todd Boeckman via Getty Images; Photo of Duval Kamara and Morgan Trent via US Presswire; Photo of despairing Arizona State player via the Associated Press.