Four Independents entered the season with vastly different mindsets. But three months later they stand together at the top of the Independent standings, some happy to be there, others, not so much.
For Brigham Young, 8-4 feels like any other season under Bronco Mendenhall, who has taken the Cougars to nine modest bowl games in nine seasons. This year promised something more as BYU combined a disruptive defense with a monster talent at QB in Taysom Hill and 1,000-yard rusher Jamaal Williams.
But while the Cougars rolled up some impressive offensive numbers, they did little to improve their station. A thrilling performance by Hill in a 40-21 upset of Texas only served to offset a dreadful showing the previous week -- a 19-16 loss at a Virginia team that finished 2-10.
For Navy, 7-4 feels like any other season under coach Ken Niumatalolo, which is a good thing. The Midshipmen stumbled in the middle of the year as QB Keenan Reynolds was knocked out in a loss at Western Kentucky and struggled in subsequent losses at Duke and Toledo. But Reynolds and the Mids have recovered to qualify for their fifth bowl game in six years and have already ensured that the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy will remain in Annapolis, though a loss Dec. 14 to Army would put a decidedly different spin on the year.
For Notre Dame, coming off a perfect regular season and a trip to the BCS title game, 8-4 is the definition of mediocrity. The Fighting Irish had quality victories in Notre Dame Stadium over Michigan State, USC, Brigham Young, and Navy, and beat Arizona State on a "neutral field" where 75 percent of the fans were cheering for them. But the Irish never developed a consistent rushing attack and played woefully on the road, falling at Pittsburgh, Stanford, Michigan, and needing a fourth-quarter rally to beat a Purdue team which finished 1-11.
For Old Dominion, 8-4 has the feel of a lost season, especially with it ending with an 80-20 embarrassment at North Carolina. The Monarchs, transitioning to the BCS, beat all seven of their FCS foes -- only one who finished with a winning record -- but needed fourth quarter comebacks against three of them. At Idaho, ODU won for the first time over a BCS team. But the only game ODU truly had reason to feel proud of was a 35-24 loss at Pittsburgh.
Heading into 2014, there are reasons for all four teams to feel optimistic, much the way they also entered 2013.
Game: Hawaii 49, Army 42. In a game that pitted coaches on the "hot seat," Hawaii's Norm Chow got the best of Army's Rich Ellerson, winning his first game this season. The Rainbow Warriors did it with a balanced offense which rolled up 608 yards behind QB Sean Schroeder, who passed for 322 yards and three touchdowns and added a rushing score. Hawaii was playing for RB Willis Wilson who was found dead on Sandy Beach on Oahu on early Saturday morning, a drowning victim.
Takeaway: Army never led, but made an inspired comeback behind sophomore QB A.J. Schurr, who replaced starter Angel Santiago in the second half. The sophomore completed five of 10 passes for 122 yards and rushed for four touchdowns. Three of the scores came in a 5:21 span of the third quarter as Army recovered a fumble and an onside kick. The splurge got the Black Knights even after trailing 28-7 at the half. But Hawaii scored with drives of 80, 76, and 75 yards on its next three possessions and the Black Knights couldn't keep up. On the final two drives, the Warriors rushed 16 times for 122 yards as Army had no answer for Hawaii's bruising pair of backs -- junior Joey Iosefa (6-0, 245), who carried 28 times for 158 yards, and freshman Steven Lakalaka (5-10, 240), who rushed 19 times for 104 yards. Despite Hawaii's 1-11 record, this was no embarrassing defeat. After getting Iosefa back from a foot injury in early November and taking San Diego State and Wyoming to overtime in losses, Hawaii was favored by almost a touchdown.
Next: vs. Navy at Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia), Dec. 14.
BRIGHAM YOUNG (8-4)
Game: Brigham Young 28, Nevada 23. After getting shut out in the first half, Brigham Young scored on its first four possessions in the second behind the running of sophomore RB Jamaal Williams (15 carries, 219 yards, one touchdown) and sophomore QB Taysom Hill (26 carries, 154 yards, one touchdown). Hill also threw well, though conservatively, completing 14 of 18 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Takeaway: For 30 minutes, this looked like a game the unfocused Cougars were destined to lose. They finished with 14 penalties for 142 yards. Four first-half drives ended as a direct result of penalties. But in the second half, the BYU offense didn't commit a penalty and hummed as it decided to feed Williams, who had carried only three times before intermission. His 66-yard touchdown run on the second snap of the second half seemed to set the Cougars' offense free. The BYU defense had some trouble defending Nevada dual-threat QB Cody Fajardo, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. But they contained his running ability, holding him to 19 yards on 13 carries as run-heavy Nevada averaged only 2.2 yards on 47 rushes. Sophomore DL Bronson Kaufusi played a big role for the Cougars with two sacks and another TFL. The BYU defense also stymied two Nevada red zone trips in the first half with an interception and a blocked field goal.
Next: vs. TBA in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Dec. 27.
Game: New Mexico State 24, Idaho 16. In a battle of Independents who will rejoin the Sun Belt Conference next fall, the Aggies outscored the Vandals in the second half 14-3 to win for the first time in three years over an FBS team. Idaho outgained New Mexico State, 459-371, and forced three turnovers, but the Aggies' performance in the red zone were the difference. New Mexico State scored 17 points on three trips inside the 20 while Idaho got nine points in five trips.
Takeaway: The Idaho offense was productive between the 20s as QB Taylor Davis threw for 250 yards and the Vandals' backs rushed for 209 yards and an average of 5.6 per carry, led by senior James Baker (eight carries, 48 yards). But Idaho was woefully ineffective when it got close to pay dirt. The 15 plays run by the Vandals from the red zone produced a total of 15 yards and no first downs. Davis completed one of seven passes inside the 20 for zero yards. Idaho failed to take advantage in the first half when New Mexico State committed all of its turnovers and yielded a 40-yard run on a fake punt by Vandals freshman Austin Rehkow. It was a disappointing way for Idaho to finish under first-year coach Paul Petrino, another winnable game that got away along with losses to Old Dominion, Texas State, and Northern Illinois.
Next: Season completed.
Next: vs. Army at Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia), Dec. 14.
NEW MEXICO STATE (2-10)
Game: New Mexico State 24, Idaho 16. The Aggies snapped their 24-game losing streak against teams from the FBS, using defense. The 16 points allowed were 10 fewer than New Mexico State had given up in any game this year. The Aggies got just enough on offense thanks to a pair of seniors. QB Andrew McDonald completed 17 of 27 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns, both to junior WR Austin Franklin. In his final college game, RB Germi Morrison carried 17 times for 111 yards.
Takeaway: The Aggies entered the game ranked last in the nation in total defense (556 yards per game) and yielded 459 yards on Saturday. But they were tough when it mattered as Idaho scored just nine points on five red zone trips. Another fruitless Idaho drive reached the New Mexico State 26. Senior CB Darien Johnson stopped a drive early in the fourth quarter with an interception that he stole from Idaho WR Dezmon Epps in the end zone. The New Mexico State defense was led by senior LB Trashaun Nixon (12 tackles, sack, forced fumble) and senior S Davis Cazares (11 tackles, one TFL). On the drive which earned New Mexico State the game-winning touchdown, McDonald converted one third down with his arm and another with his legs. Freshman Xavier Hall carried six times for 27 yards on the march and junior Adam Shapiro finished it off with an eight-yard touchdown run.
Next: Season completed.
NOTRE DAME (8-4)
Game: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20. Tyler Gaffney carried 33 times for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown and Wayne Lyons intercepted two Tommy Rees passes in the final six minutes as Stanford defeated Notre Dame for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Kevin Hogan's touchdown pass with 5:52 left in the first period gave Stanford a 7-3 lead that it did not relinquish.
Takeaway: On a day when both quarterbacks threw a pair of interceptions, the difference between Stanford and Notre Dame was their rushing attacks. While the Cardinal piled up 261 yards on the ground -- a non-service academy-high this year against the defense of Notre Dame -- the Fighting Irish picked up a season-low 64 yards rushing. The difference paved the way for Stanford's edge in time of possession, 34:42 to 25:18, as it appeared that an injury-riddled offensive line finally caught up to the Fighting Irish. The loss of senior OG Chris Watt (knee) didn't help as the Irish had to plug in freshman State Elmer. Dominance of the line of scrimmage was a key to Stanford's last four wins in the series as well. Here's the Cardinal rushing edge: 280-107 (2009), 166-44 (2010), 196-57 (2011). Last yearm, when Notre Dame eked out its lone win, it won the rushing battle 150-147.
Next: Bowl game TBA.
OLD DOMINION (8-4)
Next: Season completed.
--Sophomores Taysom Hill (1,211 yards) and Jamaal Williams (1,202 yards) are the first pair of BYU backs to reach 1,000 yards in the same season. Williams reached the milestone for the second straight year on Saturday with his 219-yard performance.
--Army senior LB Thomas Holloway (elbow) missed his fourth game of the season on Saturday at Hawaii, but still leads the Black Knights' injury-plagued defense with 59 tackles.
--In its 24-16 loss on Saturday, Idaho wasted strong defensive work at New Mexico State where it surrendered 371 yards. Sophomore DE Quinton Bradley had a fumble-forcing sack and recovery. Junior DE Maxx Forde had nine tackles, including two for losses. Senior CB Roman Runner, in his second start on defense after switching from WR to aid the injury-plagued secondary, had an interception. Senior S Trey Williams contributed 11 tackles. "The defense came out and played their best game of the year," Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. "The offense didn't."
--BYU had two end zone interceptions in Saturday's 28-23 win at Nevada. CB Rob Daniel had one in the first half to extinguish a Wolf Pack drive that had reached the BYU 3. The other was by LB Kyle Van Noy, playing in his hometown of Reno, when he picked off a two-point conversion try in the closing minutes.
--Notre Dame LB Dan Fox began this season as a starter before losing his job to junior Jarrett Grace. Fox got it back when Grace suffered a broken leg and finished his senior regular season in style with 15 tackles against Stanford. He had nine the previous week against BYU with a pair of TFLs.
--Senior DL Eathyn Manumaleuna played in his 55th game for BYU, a program record, and made his 50th start but exited early with a shoulder injury. Not that he was missed. Junior replacement Marques Johnson had seven tackles, including two for losses.
--Army junior RB Terry Baggett rushed 18 times for 81 yards Saturday night at Hawaii and became the fifth Black Knights' back in the last four years to reach the 1,000-yard mark. Baggett has 1,072 yards, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. There was one negative for Baggett on Saturday however as he committed the first lost fumble by an Army running back this year. It came with 8:52 left and the Black Knights on their own 43.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our kids played with such courage and heart. And we've been in a lot of games in the fourth quarter. To finally win one, that's a footprint that our seniors put down that our young guys can carry into the Sun Belt next year." -- New Mexico State coach Doug Martin on the Aggies' season-ending 24-16 victory over Idaho.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 14:
1. New Mexico State finds a new way. The way the Aggies played this season, ranking last in the nation total defense, it was hard to imagine defense being the catalyst when it finally broke its 24-game FBS losing streak. But that's what happened as the Aggies limited Idaho to nine points on five trips to the red zone in a 24-16 win, a positive way for coach Doug Martin to close his debut season in Las Cruces.
2. Army defenseless. Considering how many injuries the unit has suffered, the Black Knights defense had played relatively well this season. Saturday at Hawaii, after a rare double bye, Army figured to be primed for a solid effort. But the Rainbow Warriors did virtually whatever they wanted, passing for 323 yards and rushing for 285 in a 49-42 victory, their first of the year.
3. Injuries finally catch up to ND. The patchwork offensive line and front seven of Notre Dame had done well in recent weeks as reserves had proven up to snuff. Against Stanford, however, ND couldn't get by with a collection of hobbled starters and inexperienced reserves and it showed in the lopsided rushing stats (261-64). Notre Dame's worn-down state was epitomized when Stanford RB Tyler Gaffney dragged defenders for a late first down which sewed up the game. Stanford coach David Shaw summed up Notre Dame's plight: "The best defensive lineman in the nation didn't play tonight," he said of the Irish's Louis Nix.
4. BYU's better half. After stopping itself with mistakes and never penetrating the Nevada 30 in the first half, the offense of Brigham Young had a near-perfect second half, scoring touchdowns on its first four possessions, and driving for a fifth when time expired. In the 28-23 win, BYU's drives covered 75, 80, 59, and 75 yards and were so efficient that the Cougars faced third down only six times in the second half.
5. Idaho (1-11) didn't accomplish much in the debut season of coach Paul Petrino. But one small victory was preserving the redshirt of freshman QB Matt Linehan, the son of former Idaho standout QB Scott Linehan. With Idaho leading the nation in sacks allowed and battered quarterbacks -- No. 1 Chad Chalich and No. 2 Josh McCain missed several games each with shoulder injuries -- it seemed inevitable that Linehan would have to be activated. But serving as cannon-fodder, senior Taylor Davis remained upright as he started the Vandals' final five games.