Forde-Yard Dash: Penn State's boon offers floundering Big Ten an upside

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (trespassing, ref-baiting athletic directors sold separately):

AND NOW, SOME GOOD NEWS FOR THE BIG TEN

It is more than a little ironic that the only positive headlines for the Big Ten Conference (1) this football season have involved Penn State (2). The closest thing the reeling league has to a quality win was the Nittany Lions' thrilling victory over Central Florida in Ireland, and now the NCAA has restored the school's bowl privileges effective immediately and full scholarship limit for the 2015-16 season.

Two years ago, the league was censuring, probationing and fining the school, an institutional pile-on that combined with the heavy original sanctions from Cowboy Mark Emmert (3) to make Penn State arguably the most-penalized school in college football history. The Big Ten said it was withholding four years of league shares of bowl revenue, estimated at $13 million, and prohibiting the Nittany Lions from competing for a league title for the period of its NCAA postseason ineligibility.

Now the prohibition against playing for the Big Ten title is gone. Which shows that the conference was merely along for the Louis Freeh/NCAA/George Mitchell ride on this one, rubber-stamping both the condemnation and the exoneration.

(Though the Big Ten is keeping Penn State's bowl revenue shares through 2015. Guess that's money the school won't be spending on snazzy alternate uniforms. Ahem.)

What happened at Penn State was horrifying, and the school will never completely cleanse itself of the stain of Jerry Sandusky. But this was not a wrong to be righted by sanctions against the football program.

It was too important for that. It was a matter for the courts, both criminal and civil, and after locking up the monster that preyed on children those courts still are busy dealing with school administrators and the succession of lawsuits filed by Sandusky's victims. Let justice find any and all who were complicit, negligent or afraid of confronting a popular pedophile.

But penalizing Penn State football was a grandstand move by Emmert, and the Big Ten eagerly jumped in to make sure everyone knew that it, too, was against child rape. The sanctions led to immediate transfers by key players, and the recruiting toll was significant.

The good news is that when the righteous indignation cooled and mob mentality subsided, former Sen. Mitchell appeared with a report last year that suggested commuting Penn State's sentence. Everyone went along last September, and did so again this year as the school continued to make progress in all the areas demanded of it. And now the football team can see light at the end of a terribly dark tunnel.

Penn State has two budding stars in coach James Franklin (L) and QB Christian Hackenberg. (AP)
Penn State has two budding stars in coach James Franklin (L) and QB Christian Hackenberg. (AP)

Surprisingly enough, given what has transpired the past two years, these Nittany Lions (2-0) easily should have enough wins to go bowling. There was never a crash landing. Credit previous coach Bill O'Brien (4) for keeping the thing together, and credit current coach James Franklin (5) for recruiting improbably well and getting off to a promising start in his first season in charge of the program.

They are favored Saturday in the Big Ten debut of Rutgers, and should be solidly favored the next two games against Massachusetts and Northwestern. If they start 5-0, there surely would be at least one more victory in the November run of Maryland, at Indiana, Temple and at Illinois. Probably multiple victories.

Which gets us back to the futility of the league. This is not a great Penn State team by any stretch, but it doesn't have to be to compete in the downtrodden Big Ten.

After the Saturday night massacre – Oregon over Michigan State by 19, Virginia Tech over Ohio State by 14, Notre Dame over Michigan by 31 – America's richest league also looks like America's weakest power-five league. There is no top-10 team. Only three of the 14 are ranked at all (compared to half of the 14-team SEC). Landing one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff is a long shot. The most exciting play to date was a 56-yard reception by Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (6) – a spectacular individual effort, but the Cornhuskers needed it to avoid overtime against McNeese State.

The struggle is real.

From 2012 to right now, the Big Ten (minus newcomers Maryland and Rutgers) is 14-29 against teams from the other power five leagues plus Notre Dame. Three of those 14 wins were over ranked teams. Aside from Michigan State winning the Rose Bowl last season, there simply has been nothing to get excited about for this conference in several years.

But now, at least, Penn State is cleared to go bowling. It's a small step for the Big Ten, but at least it's not a continuation of the current collective backpedal.

DECONSTRUCTING USC'S GOLDEN BOY

The Dash spoke with three major-college athletic directors Monday about the Pat Haden (7) sideline ref-badgering caper Saturday at Stanford. To a man, they all disagreed with the act. "An amateur move," one AD called it. The $25,000 Pac-12 fine and league reprimand seemed perfectly appropriate.

Yet to a man, all three ADs supported Haden as both USC's athletic director and a member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. "I'd rather have him [on the committee] than almost anyone else," one said.

Haden's reputation glitters like few others in college football. He was a star quarterback, a national champion, a Rhodes Scholar, a network TV analyst, a successful businessman and ultimately came back to his alma mater during a time of crisis and lousy leadership in the athletic department. Simply put, he came back to class the joint up.

Except it hasn't exactly worked out like that. Haden's unassailable image has, in fact, been rather assailable of late. There have been as many clumsy moves and questionable decisions as good ones, with the Stanford clown show only the latest.

That wasn't the first time Haden has tried a shameless leverage act. Coincidental to the Penn State ruling referenced above, Haden last year traveled to Indianapolis to meet with Mark Emmert immediately after the first reduction in Nittany Lions' sanctions. He said the meeting was previously arranged to cover a variety of topics, but the Penn State ruling provided Haden a chance to ask Emmert what could be done for the poor Trojans, who labored under scholarship reductions from the Reggie Bush scandal. Request for leniency denied.

So we've had two instances in less than a year of Haden basically stomping his foot and saying, "No fair!"

Beyond that is the handling of his marquee coaches. With both Lane Kiffin and basketball coach Kevin O'Neill, Haden kept them employed too long – only to abruptly fire them during the next season. In theory, that allowed Haden to beat the postseason hiring rush and select home-run successors, except that's not what happened. The basketball hire was Andy Enfield, who was far from the first choice and was a candidate solely due to two NCAA tournament victories as coach at Florida Gulf Coast. The football hire was Steve Sarkisian (8), who was said to be the top candidate but was one of five interviewed for the job.

USC coach Steve Sarkisian scored a big win Saturday but has endured a rocky tenure off the field thus far. (AP)
USC coach Steve Sarkisian scored a big win Saturday but has endured a rocky tenure off the field thus far. (AP)

Sarkisian was another look-backward hire by USC – back to the Pete Carroll days. The former Carroll assistant may work out, but his 34-29 record in five seasons at Washington hardly stamped him as a hot commodity anywhere outside of Los Angeles.

It was Sarkisian who said he got the fiasco on The Farm rolling Saturday, having Haden called to the sideline from the press box. The fact that the coach would ask for boss intervention with the officials during a game – and get it – puts a new twist on an old USC acronym: University of Spoiled Coaches.

But abnormal has been the new normal at USC this fall. The previous week it was defensive back Josh Shaw (9) fictionalizing how he sprained two ankles, and running back Anthony Brown (10) quitting the team and labeling Sarkisian a racist. Now the sideline trespassing has done its part to overshadow the Trojans' 2-0 start.

Pat Haden won't lose his place on the playoff committee over that. But he's lost a little more of the luster on the halo he's worn for more than 40 years.

MOST IMPROVED LIST

It's early. Nothing is definite. But The Dash has identified some teams, units and players who are showing signs of a marked upgrade over previous seasons:

California (11) as a whole. After last year's 1-11 debacle, the Golden Bears are 2-0 for the first time in three years – which is also the last time they went bowling. They've yet to trail for a second in dispatching Northwestern on the road and Sacramento State at home. Most surprisingly, they have pitched a 42-0 shutout in the first quarter, after giving up a ghastly 181 first-quarter points a year ago. Credit first-year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman for the improvement on that side of the ball, and the entire team after a rough transition year in 2013 to Sonny Dykes' radically different coaching style and offensive system. It's getting better, but it still will be murder winning games in the Pac-12.

Virginia Tech's offense (12). The Hokies' rushing yards per game have decreased every year since 2009, bottoming out at 3.2 yards per carry and 120 per game last year. Through two games (including the upset win in the Horseshoe), those numbers are 171.5 yards rushing per game and 4.2 yards per carry. Frank Beamer finally shook up his offensive staff in 2012, demoting coordinator Bryan Stinespring and hiring Scot Loeffler, but the immediately eligibility of Texas Tech transfer quarterback Michael Brewer probably has helped more. The Hokies are never going to be a dazzling offensive program, but they at least appear to be returning to competency this year.

D.J. Foster (13), Arizona State running back. After two years of caddying for Marion Grice and playing slot receiver, Foster is making the most of his feature back opportunity. He's averaging a crazy 10.7 yards per rush, with two runs of 49 yards or longer, and has produced 363 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He should have an opportunity for more big plays against the pliable defense of Colorado on Saturday.

James Conner (14), Pittsburgh running back. The 250-pound load gave hints of his ability last year as a freshman before breaking out with a 229-yard performance in the Panthers' bowl victory over Bowling Green. That's carried over to 367 yards and three touchdowns this year, making for a three-game stretch Pitt says is its best by a running back since Tony Dorsett in 1976. The Panthers should be 3-0 when Iowa visits Sept. 20, and a victory there could send them on their way to their best season in several years.

Everett Golson (15), Notre Dame QB. For a guy who sat out all of 2013, Golson has been ridiculously sharp. His time spent last year with quarterback guru George Whitfield has obviously helped, as the sophomore's entire game seems to become better with every passing start. He's accounted for eight touchdowns in two games with no turnovers, and is 15th nationally in efficiency.

Jake Waters (16), Kansas State QB. His passing numbers to date are almost identical to last year's – but Waters has been more dangerous running the ball this season. He burned Iowa State for 138 rushing yards in a comeback victory in Ames on Saturday, playing more like the dual-threat Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein was two years ago. Waters has this weekend off to get ready for a big Thursday night home game against Auburn.

James Sample (17), Louisville safety. Former Washington player went to junior college and was a late arrival at Louisville, coming aboard in April. The Cardinals are thrilled to have him at a position of need after losing two stud safeties. Sample is tied for the team lead in total tackles and had a key interception against Miami in the opener. Even with Bobby Petrino as the coach, Louisville's defense has been its best unit so far, and Sample is a big part of that.

Arik Armstead (18), Oregon defensive end. Take one look at the 6-foot-8, 290-pound giant and you know why so much has been expected out of him since he arrived in Eugene. This year, he's starting to deliver. After producing a total of five tackles for loss, 1 ½ sacks and three quarterback hurries his first two seasons, Armstead has three tackles for loss, a sack and three hurries this year alone. He was a significant factor in the win over Michigan State on Saturday.

Darius White (19), Missouri wide receiver. Another touted recruit who is at last starting to fulfill expectations. White started his career at Texas and barely got on the field, then transferred to Missouri and was similarly buried behind talented wideouts last year. Total catches his first three seasons: 13, with two touchdowns. This year: seven catches for 152 yards and three TDs, all of them 39 yards or longer. Mizzou came into the year with a glaring need for a playmaker at receiver, and he is filling it.

Cameron Artis-Payne (20), Auburn running back. With Tre Mason out of the way, the senior from Harrisburg, Pa., is the first option in Gus Malzahn's running attack. Artis-Payne hit Arkansas for 177 yards in the opener, then had 112 Saturday in limited duty against San Jose State. He will be a challenge for K-State's defense a week from Thursday.

Samantha Hoopes. (AP)
Samantha Hoopes. (AP)

Dashette Samantha Hoopes (21). Actually, no improvement necessary by Ms. Hoopes.

TRIAGE AT TEXAS

The Charlie Strong (22) purge at Texas has met up with the harsh reality of the schedule. And the results were not pretty Saturday.

Capping a week in which the Longhorns lost their starting quarterback and suspended their two starting offensive tackles, they were crushed by BYU, 41-7. Now comes 12th-ranked UCLA, and after that the nine-game Big 12 schedule begins. Most of Strong's disciplinary moves have been eliminating non-essential personnel, but when injuries are added to the mix, the 'Horns are coming close to cutting bone at this point.

Quarterback David Ash had never been a world-beater at Texas, but his backups are inexperienced and underwhelming. Tyrone Swoopes (23) was fed to the Cougars in his first start with a low-risk, low-ambition game plan, as offensive coordinator Shawn Watson tried to protect a guy with 60 percent of the first-team offensive line missing.

But here's what else Swoopes is missing: playmakers to throw to on the perimeter. The 'Horns have no breakaway receiving threat. Through two games, they have no passing play or scoring play of longer than 28 yards. And if you look around the Lone Star State, the Texas offense suffers by comparison.

Texas doesn't have KD Cannon (24), the freshman wideout from Baylor. He's only averaging 35.3 yards per catch in his college career, with four touchdowns in eight receptions. And it doesn't have Speedy Noil (25) of Texas A&M, another freshman who started to get untracked with a 44-yard reception Saturday.

Strong's first job is to correct an entitlement culture in Austin, which is why the suspensions and dismissals have come in bulk so far. Winning will have to come later – at this point, even a minor bowl bid is no cinch this year. Texas fans aren't accustomed to delayed gratification, but giving Strong time to remake the program in his image is the only alternative at this point.

THE FRAUDULENT FOUR

The Dash updated its Fab Four playoff teams Sunday. But what about the other end of the spectrum? What if we had a bottom four bracket of the worst quartet of teams from power-five leagues?

This is what it would look like after week two:

Tundra Bowl: No. 1 seed Vanderbilt vs. No. 4 seed Colorado in Pullman, Wash.

Vanderbilt (26). The Commodores have regressed with astonishing speed after winning nine games each of the previous two years. They were routed at home in their opener by Temple, then routed at home in their second game by Mississippi, and have yet to score an offensive touchdown. The Ole Miss result was traumatic enough that one Vandy fan – who clearly has a short memory of the program's eternal standing – threw his shirt and hat on the field before walking out of the stadium:

James Franklin was eager to leave because he knew this was going to be a challenging season. But nobody anticipated this total collapse at the start of Derek Mason's tenure.

Colorado (27). The Buffaloes were pushed around by Colorado State in their opener – and then the Rams were pushed around by Boise State. Which shows you how push-around-able Colorado is this season. They reinforced that by giving up 38 points to horrendous Massachusetts, coming from behind and then holding on to beat the Minutemen, 41-38. After making some progress in the first year under Mike MacIntyre, this season has the early makings of a regression.

Tumbleweed Bowl: No. 2 seed Wake Forest vs. No. 3 seed Purdue in Lubbock, Texas.

Wake Forest (28). In two games, the Demon Deacons (1-1) have three plays of 20 yards or longer – none of them on the ground. Longest rush so far: 17 yards. And this is not in two games against ranked opponents; this is against Louisiana-Monroe and Gardner-Webb. When you can't break big plays against hyphenated teams, you've got issues. Dave Clawson inherited a mess and it will take a while to sort it out.

Purdue (29). The Boilermakers have split two home games against Directional Michigan (beat Western, routed by Central). In the process they've given up nearly 800 yards and 72 points. That makes 13 of the last 16 games in which Purdue has surrendered 30 or more points.

The takeaway: if your team's color scheme is black and gold, change it. Immediately.

UM, NO

LSU's Leonard Fournette strikes the Heisman pose after his first career TD against Sam Houston State. (AP)
LSU's Leonard Fournette strikes the Heisman pose after his first career TD against Sam Houston State. (AP)

Everyone was eager to see super-touted LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette (30) lift off. The start was slow in the opener: eight carries for 18 yards against Wisconsin. On Saturday against Sam Houston State, Fournette flashed a little more of his game, producing 92 yards on 13 carries. That included a four-yard touchdown run that Fournette rather unwisely punctuated by striking the Heisman pose.

Some education for the youngster: nobody in the history of the game has won the Heisman for a 4-yard touchdown run against Sam Houston State. Slow your self-celebratory roll.

"Maybe he's a little full of himself," coach Les Miles said, "but that's not all bad yet."

YARDSTICK SATURDAY

They've played nothing but home games so far, and looked pretty good doing so. Now what happens when these teams hit the road against decent competition?

Tennessee (31) at Oklahoma. Young offensive and defensive lines have been adequate so far in victories over Utah State and Arkansas State, and quarterback Justin Worley has shown improvement. But this is an entirely different scenario. The Volunteers were destroyed 59-14 in their first road game last year, at Oregon. Expect this one to be closer, but don't expect a victory. Oklahoma 35, Tennessee 16.

Louisville (32) at Virginia. Cardinals have been more proficient than explosive in the passing game, clearly missing star receiver DeVante Parker, who is out with a broken toe. But the rest of the team has been very good – running game and virtually every aspect of the defense. If running back Michael Dyer returns after missing the first two games with an injury, that's one more weapon against a Cavaliers defense that largely shut down UCLA's offense in the opener. Louisville 28, Virginia 17.

Georgia (33) at South Carolina. Bulldogs were fantastic against Clemson, then had a bye week. Now they travel to a place where they've lost their last two visits, failing to score more than seven points either time. Surpassing that wouldn't appear to be a problem this year, given the Gamecocks' struggles defensively. The bigger question may be whether Georgia's secondary can be exploited by a desperate South Carolina team. The Dash is thinking shootout. Georgia 38, South Carolina 35.

Minnesota (34) at TCU. Gophers are one Big Ten team not to be flagrantly disappointing to date, outscoring two middling opponents 42-0 in the first half. They've also been a plus-four in turnover margin, which has helped. If the Horned Frogs don't give the ball away, this could be a tough afternoon in the Fort Worth heat. TCU 28, Minnesota 21.

LITERARY CORNER

There is more to this playoff thing than you may think. To understand it all, The Dash recommends "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the College Football Playoff," By Friend of Dash, Stewart Mandel (35) of Fox Sports. At 98 pages, the book is an easy and breezy read that covers all the basics of college football's new (and improved) postseason reality. From the selection criteria to the selection committee to the full slate of bowl matchups that the committee will arrange, Mandel offers a great tutorial for fans who will find this information increasingly valuable as we get closer to Selection Sunday (Dec. 7, mark your calendars).

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Frank Beamer (36), Virginia Tech. From 1995-2011, the Hokies won 10 or more games 13 times. But the last two seasons they were 15-11, just 9-7 in ACC play. With fans wondering how close Beamer is to the end of a great career, he sent out some strong vital signs from Columbus, Ohio, Saturday night. Virginia Tech beat Ohio State 35-21, their biggest win in at least five years. In the process, the Hokies established themselves as the team to beat in the Coastal Division.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

As per usual, David Shaw's Cardinal played it very conservatively against USC on Saturday. (USA Today)
As per usual, David Shaw's Cardinal played it very conservatively against USC on Saturday. (USA Today)

David Shaw (37), Stanford. Overshadowed by the Haden sideline intrusion was a truly awful performance by the Cardinal. Rarely do teams give away games the way Stanford did: crucial penalties, two turnovers, two missed field goals, two punts inside the USC 35 and some utterly futile red-zone execution and calls combined to turn a victory into a loss. Conservative coaching has worked for Shaw to the tune of a 35-8 career record, but each of Stanford's last four losses – three last year and this game – could conceivably have been avoided with greater creativity or daring. (Not to mention changing kickers.)

COACH WHO WILL NO LONGER GO TO WORK

June Jones (38), SMU. He announced his resignation Monday, after a gruesome 0-2 start that continued last year's slide. In seven years in Dallas, Jones reinvigorated SMU football – but his program was losing steam before grinding to a dead halt this year. Jones' teams always put up points, but this year the Mustangs literally took 120 minutes to score, finally reaching the end zone on the last play of their second game. Quitting now gives SMU a bye week to regroup, but the first game on the other side is Texas A&M – it won't be pretty. Given SMU's location and winnable league, the school should be able to attract quality candidates. Expect the school to do what they do when replacing a coach – looking opposite the last guy. That means a respected older coach with a track record like Mack Brown is unlikely, but a hotshot coordinator like Jake Spavital (Texas A&M), Chad Morris (Clemson) or Tom Herman (Ohio State) may be an attractive option.

POINT AFTER

Despite being the nation's per capita leader in slow drivers malingering in the left lane, Oregon is a lovely place. And Portland is a great town, filled with excellent places to eat and rapturous microbrews. Among the best of each: Pok Pok (39) for Thai food, including fantastic wings and grilled corn on the cob with salty coconut cream; and McMenamins for beer. Specifically, order a ridiculously good Firmament Double IPA (40) – mega-hoppy but not bitter – and thank The Dash later.

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