December 16, 2010
Revisiting the best (and worst) of the season. Today: The year's most abrupt one-eighties.
5. Iowa's long November. Some late season streaks (in both directions) come with the schedule: Arizona took a 7-1 record into the meat of the Pac-10 slate, and emerged at 7-5 after consecutive losses to Stanford, USC and Oregon; Tennessee started the final month as 2-6 wreck beaten down by the toughest September-October schedule in the country, and ended it with four straight wins over the dregs to secure a bowl game. With Iowa, though, it was a bona fide collapse.
At Halloween, the Hawkeyes were 6-2 with late, skin-of-the-teeth losses to a pair of top-15 outfits, Arizona and Wisconsin, and coming off a 37-6 shellacking of undefeated Michigan State that left them in the thick of a four-way knot for the right to the Rose Bowl. On paper, the only obstacle to the conference championship was Ohio State, which came to Iowa City on Nov. 20. Instead, Iowa came within a dropped pass of blowing a layup in an 18-13 win at Indiana, was upset by Northwestern in Evanston, blew a fourth quarter lead against the Buckeyes and closed the year with a humiliating loss at the hands of lame duck Minnesota. The Hawkeyes averaged 34 points per game over their first eight, to just 19 points over the last four, only one of which came against a top-50 defense.
4. UConn gets greedy. Halfway through the season, the Huskies were 3-4 with bad losses to Temple, Rutgers and Louisville, a 26-0 debacle that seemed to confirm UConn as the Big East's resident bottom dweller after an 0-2 start. The Husky defense had forced exactly one turnover in the four losses, and the giveaway/takeaway margin stood at zero for the year.
On Oct. 29, they recovered four West Virginia fumbles in an overtime upset over the Mountaineers, and it was on: Altogether, UConn forced 17 turnovers over the course of their five-game winning streak to close year, while giving up only five – good enough to send the Huskies on to the Fiesta Bowl as Big East champs despite being outgained by 86 yards per game and nearly a full yard per play in conference games.
3. Taylor Martinez sprains his ankle. It was a footnote in the second half of Nebraska's 31-17 rout over 7-0 Missouri to seize control of the Big 12 North: Cornhusker quarterback Taylor Martinez, one of the breakout stars of the first half of the season, was forced out of the game with a sprained ankle in the third quarter. The offense did nothing in his absence, but the 'Huskers were comfortably in front, and Martinez was expected to be back the following Saturday at Iowa State.
But he didn't play in Ames, a 31-30 overtime escape, and clearly wasn't all the way back in a lackluster win over Kansas or the subsequent 9-6 loss at Texas A&M, in which the 'Huskers didn't score an offensive touchdown. Martinez didn't play in the season-ending blowout over Colorado, and could only hobble through an uninspiring effort in Nebraska's Big 12 Championship loss to Oklahoma, a 23-20 defeat that dropped the 'Huskers from the Fiesta Bowl to a return trip to the Holiday Bowl to play a 6-6 team they beat by five touchdowns in September.
Before the injury against Mizzou, Martinez had 886 yards rushing on 7.9 yards per carry, 14 carries covering at least 20 yards and 12 touchdowns, with another nine TDs passing. After the injury, he had 56 yards on the ground in three games, with a long gain of 18 and zero touchdowns as a runner or passer.
2. Texas A&M goes with Plan B. One of the beneficiaries of Martinez's slide was the A&M defense, which nearly held Nebraska off the board en route to a signature win on Nov. 20. But the Aggies' turnaround from fazing, 3-3 also-ran to Cotton Bowl-bound, division co-champs began with the offense – specifically, the decision to replace senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson with converted receiver Ryan Tannehill and the simultaneous emergence of tailback Cyrus Gray in place of the injured Christine Michael.
A&M exploded out of a three-game losing streak with 45 points in each of its back-to-back wins over Kansas and Texas Tech, hung 33 on Oklahoma in a sit-up-and-notice upset in College Station, and ripped Baylor for 42 in Waco, with Tannehill combining for over 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns (to three interceptions) in those four wins. The passing game cooled off against Nebraska and Texas, but Gray didn't, churning out six straight 100-yard efforts with 10 touchdowns as the Aggies tore through the second half of the schedule. He capped the run with a 223-yard, two-touchdown outburst in Austin that pushed him over 1,000 yards for the season – only six weeks after Gray came out of the skid with 11 carries for 7 yards to his name in those three games.
And thus does Mike Sherman remain securely employed.
1. Notre Dame goes out swinging. Brian Kelly's first season in South Bend isn't going to be remembered as a smashing success – both of his predecessors, Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham, took similarly mediocre outfits to top-five rankings and Jan. 1 bowl game in their debuts – but it's a borderline miracle that it wasn't worse. Much, much worse. At the end of October, in fact, it might have been as bleak as it's ever been: The Irish had just dropped back-to-back games to Navy and Tulsa to fall to 4-5, lost their starting quarterback for the season and were burdened by the dual distractions of a student death on the practice field and lingering allegations of sexual assault in connection to a suicide earlier in the season.
Heading into the Nov. 6 bye week, with 8-0 Utah and annual overlord USC rounding out the stretch run, a bowl game was out of the question. Only the indignity of a tooth-and-nail struggle against Army remained.
But the Irish didn't struggle against Army, or against Utah, dropping both by a combined score of 55-6. The 20-16 win over USC in the finale snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Trojans, sealed Notre Dame's first winning season since 2006 and, more importantly, moved ND to 3-0 in November – the month that ultimately brought down Charlie Weis. At Halloween 2008, Notre Dame was 5-2; it went on to lose four of its last five, punctuated by a humiliating loss to Syracuse in the home finale and the token pounding at USC in back-to-back weeks. In 2009, the Irish went into the final month sitting at 6-2, and proceeded to drop four straight, including home losses to UConn and Navy.
Kelly's first team, by contrast, started November in the throes of utter chaos – on and off the field – and responded by notching the program's first win over a ranked team in almost four years, then by breaking the bonds of the most one-sided major rivalry in the country. For beleaguered Irish fans, 7-5 with a trip to the Sun Bowl looks about as good as it ever has.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.