A new book about current and longtime Mississippi high school football coaches through the decades came out not long ago, and made the rounds at Christmas among people interested in that culture and circle of people - that is, current and longtime Mississippi high school football coaches and their families, mainly - and in the back there's a section in which all the coaches the authors could get their hands on have drawn up their best plays. A huge majority of them are I-formation, two-and-three-back, option-based plays, scrawled by men barely able to scratch out the lines anymore. One of these venerable legends claims, in a sidenote to his three-back, power I sweep, that he is "a lot more hardheaded" than Woody Hayes, and he won many, many games with the philosophy, "more teams beat themselves with the pass than win with it."
He had the time of his life during the Sugar Bowl, I'm sure, but where non-fatal talent differentials did not apply, the sentiment was most relevant to the best game of this New Year's Day, the early afternoon in Orlando.
Better late than never.
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Michigan 41 • Florida 35
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Watching the Wolverines' uncharacteristically wide open touchdown drive to start the game, one filled with long-eschewed spread age wonders as the shotgun, speed sweeps and completely empty backfields (!), I wondered if the Blue consensus felt a greater sense of excitement, relief or frustration - finally, in a game it had to score early and often to keep pace, Michigan aggressively dictated the tempo and exploited its many first-rate offensive weapons to their immense potential in balanced, unpredictable fashion, beautifully executed by Chad Henne in very possibly the best performance of his career. I've read Brian Cook's brilliant Wolverine-obsessed minutiae on a near-daily basis for three full seasons now, and as a result feel like I know Michigan and its psyche better and more intimately than any outside of my own alma mater, and Tuesday's about-face blitzkrieg was everything he'd chronicled by other offenses in his weekly, play-by-play reviews and wished for his own team after lackluster wins and stagnant losses to Ohio State and risk-taking USC in last year's Rose Bowl...and what took so long? Where could the Wolverines be the last two years if the offensive staff hadn't been so bound to Shembechler Era conservatism, or, as Brian dubbed it since the unfathomable loss to Appalachian State, "eff you, try to stop this, oops you did let's punt."
But Brian is understandably giddy that balls-to-the-wall played fantastically against the Gators, not least because it was such a sublime farewell to Lloyd Carr and a beloved, prolific senior class that had despite all its success
never won a game as an underdog and entered with an 0-7 record against Ohio State and in bowl games. Mainly, though, Michigan's outburst was a kind of validation of the new philosophy it chose to replace Carr, and of the enthusiasm for Rich Rodriguez, and in the larger sense, an ultimate kiss-off by the wholesale movement away from two-back, straight-ahead physicality in college football at large. Michigan has long been the staunchest, hardest-headed bastion of the old school, leaving sissified gimmickry to the weaklings at Northwestern and Purdue and...Appalachian State and, uh, Oregon. Northwestern dealt a substantial blow for the possibilities of running from the spread in the famous 54-51 win over the Wolverines in 2000, as did West Virginia in its upset of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, and Florida poured the cement for the tombstone by winning a mythical championship without a real running back last year. If you can't beat `em, join `em. Michigan finally found its solution to competing with the spread - run the spread - and its conversion is one of the last notes to a deafening, decade-long dirge.
Now, trend-watchers: if we are officially in the Age of the Spread, how long do motion-heavy, misdirection-based four and five-wide shotgun sets reign before the pendulum swings back the other way?
• On the other side, Florida seemed willing to play most of the game without bothering to block Michigan's weakside defensive end, be it Tim Jamison or Brandon Graham, and the Tebow Child paid the price for it. Even when he got passes off, which was almost every time, Michigan significantly disrupted his rhythm and forced him to make rushed throws and hopeless prayers into the turf off his back foot - he threw three relatively short, quick release touchdown passes, but Tebow barely completed half of his 33 passes, averaged less than five yards per throw and just a hair over nine per completion, dramatically less by every count that his high-flying regular season coming in, and no completions went longer than 20 yards. A lot of the time, it didn't appear to be confusion on Florida's part or physical dominance by the Wolverines, but a strange, willing design to let the edge rusher come free into Tebow's face. The Gators only kept pace by unleashing Percy Harvin out of the backfield on counters and speed sweeps, which accounted for the only big play by the UF offense and a great chunk of its total yards but is not a sustainable solution when Tebow is bottled up by ground and by air.
If not for Michigan's turnovers - Mike "Good Hands" Hart, two fumbles inside the five, what? - the game is not in any doubt in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines got the young, fast Gator defense thinking instead of pinning its ears back and reacting, the result of which was the most prolific day of the season for the Michigan offense (no, the gains against the black hole of Minnesota's defense do not count) and the worst yardage yielded by Florida all season. I expected the noobs on the Gator defense to show the wizened progress of veterans with a full season under their belt, but aside from being pushed around up front, they were caught completely off guard.
Georgia 41 • Hawaii 10
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As a guy who rallied against the Warriors' sorry credentials all season, I couldn't help but feel for Hawaii, which came in with such pride and sense of purpose for its one big shot. They were physically outmatched out of the locker room - obviously, to a surprising degree - but it didn't have to be as ugly as all that. Undefeated teams, especially ones that have survived as many close wins as Hawaii, typically demonstrate more resiliency and flexibility and penchant for adjustment. The Warriors found themselves a solved puzzle with a bloody nose, and resigned themselves to their grisly fate very early. That's when things get sloppy, and people get hurt, and so Colt Brennan's left tackle barely waved at Marcus Howard in the third quarter and Brennan's broken body this morning is the new poster for the widening gaps between different levels of competition across the country - in a season of upsets, the anti-Appalachian State.
It reminded me a lot of what Florida's tight coverage and hellacious pass rush did to Troy Smith's reputation and pro prospects a year ago. Brennan's Tuesday night re: his last two seasons:
Maybe we should have seen the pressure coming, because Hawaii has given up sacks before to decent defenses (Oregon State planted him six times in its win in the islands last December), but Brennan still threw the ball well in all of those games and won almost all of them, right? He had wrecked Pac Ten and Big Ten defenses and played well in a close loss against the mighty SEC speedsters of Alabama. He's been a machine in the pocket with a minimum inflction of damage any defense could count on enduring, and that was so spectacularly absent, on the most important - and, fairly or not, defining - stage for Brennan as a player and Hawaii as a program, that yes, I think it's genuinely sad.
Vicious, enthralling in some brutal, animalistic way that we often reference with hyperbole but which was all too real on this occasion, and very sad.
Southern Cal 49 • Illinois 17
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At some point before the end of the week, or early next week, I'll have to counter the inevitable campaign to crown the USC the real best team of 2007, if only that pesky result against Stanford hadn't gotten in the way, but after a demolition job like this, what's the point? The Trojans were powerful, fast, opportunistic, overwhelming, everything we thought they were in the summer, etc. Juice Williams was a complete nonfactor as a passer, and his one-dimensionality allowed the Trojans to effortlessly swallow his attempts as a runner.
Illinois, unlike Hawaii, had a chance to make this a game in the third quarter, after Rashard Mendenhall's 79-yard touchdown run broke a monotonous theme of uncreative offensive failure by the Illini and his 55-yard catch-and-run down the sideline put them within a couple first downs of cutting the score to 21-17. Justin Willis could have taken better care of the ball on his subsequent catch inside the USC five, the ball being his and his team's most important possession at that moment, but this is the moment that the Trojans resesmbled the "typical" Southern Cal team under Pete Carroll more than any other point this season. Not only in Kevin Ellis expertly punching the ball free into the end zone, saving a momentum-building touchdown, but in the offense's response - a purely lucky bounce for Joe McKnight on the busted lateral-turned-65-yard gain, yes, but a disaster nevertheless that McKnight fluidly converted into a back-breaking play, from which Illinois never recovered. Williams immediately lobbed a desperate interception, McKnight scored his only touchdown a minute later, and the certain rout was on.
This is the cool killer instinct on top of raw talent that has made USC what it is in the national consensus - the Trojans forced four turnovers Tuesday and made good on touchdowns after all of them, a return after a season that ended in a negative turnover margin to the turnover-hungry defenses of Carroll's earlier teams, which finished with absurd giveaway/takeaway numbers on a regular basis: +16 in 2001, +18 in 2002, +20 in 2003, +19 in 2004, +21 in 2005 before dropping off to a meager +4 last year and -1 during the past regular season. The defense was back in the Rose Bowl to taking names, and the oft-maligned offense back to closing deals; Illinois clawed its way from near-oblivion into a real fight, until SC actively wrested that brief hope away and put its foot back on the throat for the rest of the magically-lit evening.
The performance was probably good enough salvage a mostly disappointing 2007 (only USC can really judge that for itself) and certainly foretells the Trojans' revival at or very near the top of the polls next year, which they probably deserve. This is, of course, deja vu of last January's Rose Bowl whomping of Michigan and the offseason of eye-popping expectations that followed - better luck with the carryover this time.
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My two-day-long parade of wrong began with wins by projected losers Oregon, Fresno State and Oklahoma State Monday afternoon and continued unabated through the night and morning until Texas Tech's final field goal saved one horrific losing streak:
• Auburn 23, Clemson 20: I watched this game with my dad, who suggested I was not very wise to pick Clemson to win based on its having run, passed, scored and stopped the run more successfully than Auburn and virtually matched its Alabaman counterpart in any other matter of any significance through the regular season. Doesn't matter, of course: Auburn "knows how to win." Even though Auburn had won fewer games and lost more than Clemson? Even though Auburn had blown three fourth quarter leads in its four losses and failed to overcome horrific mistakes against Mississippi State? Yes - at some critical point in the game, apparently, Auburn chooses to block, tackle and execute more successfully than at other points, when Brandon Cox is throwing ghastly interceptions.
It turns out he was completely right about this, albeit under the ostensibly random circumstances that govern the outcome of any game once it hits overtime. In fact, if Clemson had managed to stop Auburn and its 4th-and-1 attempt to extend the eventual gamewinning drive, my final score prediction of 21-16 Clemson would have been tantilizingly prescient to a 20-17 actual final. If only I could have foreseen the Tigers' fortitude and the other Tigers' stunning inability to wrap up a true freshman quarterback at the line of scrimmage!
I'm okay! Just every part of my body is in debilitating pain, is all.
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I now predict Auburn will spend all offseason concocting the amazing feats of Kodi Burns, and next fall praying he can complete somewhere near half his passes, and still they'll win at least eight.
• Tennessee 21, Wisconsin 17 The Vols prevailed here less because of "SEC speed" - one UT wide receiver was run down in the first quarter by a linebacker! Take that, SEC speed! - than the underrated factor of "SEC Non-concussed quarterbacks," also a factor, obviously in Georgia's win. Tyler Donovan is a tough hombre, per Musbergian intangibles, but his final morning in a Badger uniform was painful even to occasionally watch in short snippets between other games.
• Missouri 38, Arkansas 7: The Razorback defense might as well not have bothered showing up, if it's just going to disgrace the venerable Cotton Bowl field like that with its stunning lack of preparation and discipline. Arkansas came out concerned with Chase Daniel's arm, regularly rushed three and dropped eight, and spent the rest of the afternoon getting trapped with its collective head spinning trying to figure out how and from which angle Tony Temple was going to embarrass it next. Darren McFadden didn't have a bad game by any means, but Arkansas lost four fumbles and fell behind, and that's a recipe for getting the worst from Casey Dick.
Great exchangem however, with shamed and decrepit former Hogs Pat Sumrall and Frank Broyles in the booth in the second quarter:
"Well, the touchdown, obviously."
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