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Sunday Morning Quarterback

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While clearing a bench and wielding a helmet as weapon, with impunity...

SMQ never understood Homecoming hoopla and maids and queens, etc., but returning to the Southern Miss campus and actually walking around on it extensively for the first time since last May, it makes sense: things change very, very quickly, and every excuse to show off should be embraced. In Hattiesburg, omnipresent construction for years has led to some very nice additions that have just recently opened - a gorgeous, modern add-on to the student union, which includes a vastly expanded campus bookstore and much-improved meeting, eating and recreating space, the kind of place that a student could feasibly hang out; a good looking, full service restaurant in what was once an empty, useless boiler room in the middle of campus; lots of new walkways and blessed, scarce green space in the heart of campus due to the demolition of old buildings, most of which SMQ couldn't even place now that they're gone. With a couple other additions that were completed in the past few seasons - a nice new upperclass dorm that fits the dorm-as-hotel trend, a new athletic center and football fieldhouse, a modern, good-looking foreign language center next to the impressive Liberal Arts Building that was completed just before SMQ enrolled as a freshman - the campus is barely recognizable from what it was a decade ago. SMQ is a very recent graduate, and he imagines an incoming freshman today would be appalled by comparison at the aging amenities he started with just a few years ago.

On that note,


SOUTHERN MISS 31, HOUSTON 21+(Acknowledged but Meaningless 6)
You know what is sweet? Beating a solid league rival in fairly decisive fashion on the same day every single other member of your division loses. True, two of the five C-USA East losses Friday and Saturday were non-conference and therefore ultimately meaningless where Southern Miss is concerned, but UCF's 45-point loss against Pittsburgh and Memphis' three-point fall to lowly Arkansas State are fortuitous indicators of the lack of future challenges likely to come from either. Bigger, even, was first place UAB's fall at Rice, which puts Southern firmly in the East driver's seat with a seventh straight win over the Blazers later in the year.

Ignore the statistics, which show Houston romping up and down the field: the Cougars' final drive covered 60 yards in a couple plays against a huge USM cushion with a few seconds left, inflating passing and total yardage numbers, as well as the score on the game's final play (a weird score, too: Houston snapped the ball with about six seconds to go and lofted a fade to lanky Jeron Harvey, a future star who had a huge night, in the end zone. The ball was batted way up into the air, at which point the clock struck zero and the USM ROTC's victory cannon, about ten feet away from the action, went off during the play. Harvey, incredibly, had enough wherewithal to snag the meaningless touchdown out of the air even as this shocking boom echoed right next to his head).

But USM had five non-clock-killing possessions in the final three quarters, and four of them went:

- 8 plays, 74 yards, touchdown
- 11 plays, 63 yards, field goal good
- 11 plays, 65 yards, touchdown
- 9 plays, 73 yards, touchdown

The other was a one-play possession that quickly ended in a fumble, setting up a short field for a Houston touchdown that kept UH frustratingly in a game it really shouldn't have been in. This is a monumental step for an offense that was dreary and impotent at Tulsa and played the first half without its two best skill players - both of whom, it should be noted, made major contributions upon their return from curfew violation suspension in the second half (Damion Fletcher had 21 carries for 80 good yards, and Shawn Nelson redeemed his latest drop-filled effort with two 16-yard catches, one a cinching touchdown on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter).

The full Nelson, finally on blessed display in the second half against Houston

Kevin Kolb, 22-38 for 339 yards and two touchdowns, no interceptions, has a great stat line and finished his career with three straight 300-yard games against USM, but this performance was different because the Cougars had no running game and no consistent offensive drives - three of their touchdowns came on a short field, on one long pass to Harvey and against the mother of all prevent defenses with a few seconds to go in a sure Eagle win. USM's drives - other than the one-yard plunge after Houston snapped the ball 30 yards over its punter's head after a three-and-out on the first series - were sustained, time-consuming marches of the kind that will lead to highly irrational exuberance leading up to Virginia Tech next week. Which is far better than the alternative, so well displayed last week.

Other Glimpses
SMQ assured readers Friday that Georgia would bounce back from its second half meltdown against Tennessee, even if a little hungover, and Vanderbilt would lose in typical fashion, "with gusto." After Tony Taylor's interception that completed UGA's comeback late in the fourth quarter, the point at which the Commodores usually say "close but no cigar," this looked like a prescient guess. But since when does Vandy complete game-winning drives like that? Converting fourth downs? Georgia's early season struggles weren't just malaise - the Bulldogs just aren't very good...On that note, Indiana with Kellen Davis at quarterback has the potential to be pretty good if it can find a way to play just a tiny shred of defense. SMQ is not one for the sappy and sentimental, but it was a nice win for Terry Hoeppner after brain surgery...Is Minnesota the worst team in the Big Ten? Given that Illinois has a league win, the Gophers are down there with Northwestern and possibly Michigan State. After Ohio State and Michigan, the Big Ten is a mightily struggling conference.

SMQ was right about: In his Friday preview, SMQ asked why mostly impressive Wisconsin was only an eight-point favorite against Minnesota, then suspected but now confirmed as the worst defense in the Big Ten, and the Badgers responded with a beatdown far in excess of expected proportions.

SMQ also predicted mild upsets by Rutgers and Texas A&M, where he said

One thing undefeated Missouri has not faced is a committed, moderately talented running game, which is exactly what the Aggies bring into this one...A&M actually sports one of the most balanced offenses in the country (204 rushing, 208 passing), with a relative homefield advantage that SMQ boldly projects will make the difference.

Take away the 17-yard loss on the high snap that cost the Aggies a safety in the third quarter, and TAMU ran for about 200 (127 by bowling ball Lane), passed for 223, and held the ball for an incredible 41:30 as the cameras caught the "12th Man" typically rocking and rolling, or swaying in disconcerting unison or whatever. Chase Daniel played well for Missouri, but had too few opportunities because Mizzou couldn't convert third downs (1 of 8, and 1 of 3 fourth downs). SMQ also hit the score nail dangerously close to the head here, predicting A&M to win 26-23 (actual final: 25-19).

SMQ was wrong about: In the same space, SMQ said he thought Florida's front seven would contain Auburn's running game en route to victory, but Kenny Irons and Brad Lester ("not comparable" on Friday based on his so-so relief against Arkansas) each averaged over five yards per carry and were apparently key in AU's huge (twelve-minute) possession advantage in the Tigers' defensively-driven win. Reggie Nelson's decapitation total was held to zero, unless highlights are uncharacteristically holding back.

The only other officially missed pick concerned NC State-Wake Forest, where the Daniel Evans bandwagon that tentatively held SMQ's pinky toe after the Pack's second consecutive upset win against Florida State, set sail in a 25-23 loss despite big yardage and first down advantages for NCSU. The Wolfpack may have had more success if it had followed SMQ's earlier recommendation to make a full-time back out of Andre Brown, who lit up FSU yet again and entered Saturday averaging over six yards per carry on the season, yet remains only option 1a. along with Toney Baker. Brown averaged 8.4 a pop and scored a touchdown against Wake, but only got eight carries to Baker's 13 (on which Baker gained 56, about half the per carry average of his teammate). What is going on there?

Out of respect for his season's apparently untimely end, top honors this week go to star-crossed Adrian Peterson (26 carries, 183 yards, 2 TDs), whose superfluous end zone plunge against Iowa State cuts to one the number of seasons he has left to avoid becoming the best running back from a high-profile program to leave without a Heisman.

Otherwise, the combo of Kellen Lewis 19 of 25, 255 yards, 3 TDs, 1 rushing TD, 0 INTs) and James Hardy (8 catches, 104 yards, 3 TDs) gives Indiana a pair of threats worthy of carrying a team to an actual bowl game.

And Fresno State is struggling, yes, but Colt Brennan (32 of 39, 409 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs), good lord, son. Hawaii had 42 points on the neutered Bulldogs' own field at the half and 62 after three. Even the Rainbows' backup, Tyler Graunke, came in to go 5-5 with a touchdown in the eventual 68-37 romp of continued FSU shame.

In Iowa's loss, the Hawkeyes were well on their way to at least a tying field goal, if not the go-ahead score, when Drew Tate gunned a near-perfect ball into the hands of very open Andy Brodell, who had five previous catches but booted this one up in the air for the oft-replayed interception that ended Iowa's hopes with a little under three minutes, from whence Indiana - with some mild 3-2-5-e assistance - made sure Tate didn't touch the rock again.

Obviously, no one saw Indiana or Vanderbilt coming, but everyone got to watch them arrive, however briefly, over fast-falling Iowa and Georgia. Only a few thousand, though, got to see Ohio U. drop Illinois, which was showing some faint signs of life since installing Juice Williams at quarterback. Williams came up just short of 300 total yards, significantly more than the entire Ohio U. offense, but a lost fumble at your own 16 in a tie game with a minute to go in the fourth is a recipe for neutralizing other advantages. Solich wins the Castoff Coaches Classic.