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Sunday Morning Quarterback

While picking out a "Get well soon" card for Philip Wheeler and Kenny Scott...

First, since it doesn't fit anywhere below, SMQ gives mad props or whatever is culturally appropriate at the moment to Michigan State, perpetual castoffs and quitters, the last team on Earth on any level in any sport he could have ever foreseen forging the most impossible comeback in major college football history against a deficit that had crept up so quickly on the scrolling ticker. Never mind that it takes a lot of hard work to blow a 38-3 lead in the third quarter, or that Northwestern diligently labored to do so. The Spartans showed some fight against adversity! What is that about?

Interesting note on the symmetry of that game's drive chart: each team had 13 possessions of consequence, and Northwestern scored on six of its first seven, stopping only to miss a field goal. After those six scores, unbroken by a Michigan State score, the Spartans run off a mirror image string of five scores in six possessions, with a punt return touchdown to even it up, stopping only to throw an interception. These runs were exactly the same, five touchdowns and one field goal, the only difference being the MSU had kicked a field goal on the opening possession of the game, before Northwestern's offensive rocket launched for the next two and a half quarters.

Not quitters. Huh.

SMQ Watched...

Texas 22, Nebraska 20
Sometimes a team in a spot has to throw out the grand scheme and show what it's about at heart, where it thinks it can really hang its hat, and for Texas in the fourth quarter Saturday, that was with the kid, Colt McCoy: the `Horns had three late possessions after Nebraska's touchdown on the first play of the quarter, all of them crucial, and for better or worse, the ball was in McCoy's hands for 19 out of those 24 snaps. In hostile and inclemate conditions, he delivered one serious, eight-plus-minute, clock-killing march at exactly the right time, an inopportune three-and-out and then the first game-winning drive of his young career.

SMQ was surprised UT came out passing after Nebraska cut its lead to two, because McCoy early on was restricted to throwing a bunch of screens and dinky stuff, and under the circumstances (young quarterback on the road, weather, momentum, clock), he was sure coaches would put the game in the hands of Jamaal Charles, Selvin Young, the offensive line and a power running strategy, spread be damned. But McCoy threw nine times on the ensuing drive, converted one third down on a scramble and used up 8:06 en route to setting up the lead-extending field goal; given the way Texas' defense was playing and the sort of flukey nature of Nebraska's first two touchdowns, SMQ figured that was the prescription and would probably be the game. When it wasn't, after the Huskers hit another fortunate score (getting blown coverage on a halfback pass during a drive extended by a roughing the passer call on a 2nd and 20 play certainly meets SMQ's standards of "fortunate," though the touchdown was something of an inspired call from the Sumerian wedge-based depths of Bill Callahan's copy of The Craft: A Coach's Book of Shadows and Spells for the Solitary Practitioner), McCoy looked like a freshman in over his head and went three-and-out. But when his defense managed to get the ball back on the very unfortunate Terrance Nunn fumble, McCoy came right back and hit his first pass, then got a 15-yard completion on third-and-two that sealed field position for the eventual winning kick. So whether or not it carries over to next week, McCoy seemed to mature and really establish himself as more than a "placeholder" quarterback Saturday.

As for that fumble, SMQ has mentally erased Aaron Ross from his Maxwell Pundit ballot after one third quarter completion/missed tackle in front of him and his melted brain on Nebraska's go-ahead score. But then Ross made the biggest play of the game, knocking the ball loose on the `Huskers' otherwise perfectly-executed third down icer. He also got some bonus surreality points in the second quarter for attempting to check the wind before fielding a punt by picking a few, uh, "blades" of the artificial turf and tossing them in the air (Those things don't grow back! screams the groundskeeper). So he may still be alive.

A couple of schematic issues with both of these teams: one is the absurd complexity of Bill Callahan's playbook, which is like a parody of a playbook, with incomprehensible commands from another dimension, and the crazy motion that never seems to lead to a mismatch or even confusion from the defense, which pretty much just watches like Indiana Jones before he unceremoniously shoots the psyched-up sword-wielding turban guy in the market in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Look, over here! A fullback - in the slot! No - whoosh! - he actually is a fullback! Gotcha! This is complexity for the sake of complexity and not worth much.

Hey, I only saw six guys running around before the snap out there! Did I or did I not call "Funken"?!

The other issue SMQ has is with Texas' running game from the shotgun, and he's certainly not alone. Whereas the Longhorns keep it incredibly simple formation-wise, they try to run a lot of counters and other misdirection, finessy stuff that doesn't seem very suited to their offensive line or backfield personnel - this includes McCoy, who moves OK (though he certainly does not run the option better than Vince Young, as Bob Davie suggested Saturday) but is not and could not possibly be as well-suited as Young to the running demands of the set. Again, Texas had some straight-ahead success, but had trouble sustaining it because it only has a couple base runs from the spread, and they all include a lot of pulling from guys who are capable of just rolling people from one-back, I and pro sets. With defenses obviously giving McCoy little to no respect as a threat to keep the ball on a play-action from the gun (SMQ doesn't remember Texas even trying this Saturday), why not let those backs pick up a little more head of steam and add an extra blocker or two?

Attentive pundit alert! Davie makes himself useful, mentioning in the intro that Texas might try to run a trick play early on to wake its team up a bit and take the crowd out, and sure enough, on third down following Quan Cosby's big opening kick return, UT tried to sneak little Jordan Shipley into the "fumblerooski" position just behind the right guard, a la Arkansas at Auburn a couple weeks ago. The only player who seemed to notice this on the defense was Bo Ruud, who immediately spotted Shipley in the odd position, began gesturing wildly, and was the one guy who Jordan found waiting when he tried to take the misdirection around the left end. Great read and reaction by Ruud to prevent the early touchdown, and some rare evidence of the specific things these guys pick up in the film room.

Did we need to see Brandon Jackson's brother screaming from the crowd in the middle of his touchdown run to open the fourth quarter? Yes, it was all warming, etc. when he jubilantly let us know "That's my brother," but a Texas player still had a chance to make the tackle when the cameras cut away. This was extremely jarring and would have caused wild epithets to spew from SMQ if he were rooting for either team and was suddenly hijacked from the critical action. He also cannot believe - though is not complaining - that the standard "milk-the-family-in-the-stands" approach failed to yield a pointless interview from Lisa Salters.

Notre Dame 20, UCLA 17
SMQ still thinks Notre Dame is at its best when it's driving forever and ever, amen, while its defense stands on the sidelines not giving up any points. Even if, like Saturday, the Irish defense is actually getting some consistent stops. Because again, we have another game Notre Dame almost definitely does not win without converting fourth downs many other teams would not attempt.

The Irish were a perfect 4 of 4 on fourth downs against Penn State, and scored 20 points on or immediately following the conversions; they were 2 of 3 against Michigan State and scored 14 points on or after the conversions in a game where every point mattered; they were 2 of 2 against Purdue, including a fake field goal for touchdown, and took six crucial minutes off the clock with a lead by converting a fourth down in its own territory despite missing a field goal in the third quarter; and Saturday, Notre Dame was 4 of 5 on fourth downs and went touchdown, field goal, field goal following conversions - 13 points in a game ultimately decided by three. On the final possession of the first half, Brady O'Quinn took the offense on a 19-play, 7-plus-minute trail of tears that included two fourth down conversions - how many coaches do you know who would go for it twice on the same possession in the first half? - and in the third quarter, got another field goal at the end of a 14-play, six-minute drive.

Touchdown No. 1 vs. UCLA: The Irish create their own luck

This is not just about being aggressive, because being over-aggressive and failing is by far the quickest route to humiliating defeat, but also about keeping the ball out of the opposing offense's hands - important for all teams, but especially for ones whose defense is a possible liability. Notre Dame's defense was not a liability against UCLA (the Bruins couldn't muster even two yards per carry), but neither, of course, was UCLA's against the ND offense: the Irish again had to convert fourth downs to score all of its points prior to the winning touchdown (more on which below), which for less-adventurous teams would have been a meaningless coda to a frustrating shutout. Being good on fourth down, having the confidence that your offense is going to pick up a tough yard or two when necessary - Notre Dame has made a habit of big plays on fourth down, in fact, when not sneaking Quinn - and understanding when those situations are going to be a natural extension of a drive not only offers more freedom in playcalling on the first three downs, but most importantly, generates "extra" scoring opportunities, without being "explosive" or otherwise much better than average. It also, because of the time of possession involved, reduces opponents' scoring opportunities. All of which, as in the comeback at Michigan State, was critical to the win Saturday.

And if you are occasionally explosive and typically much better than average, then, well, you're 6-1 against a tough schedule and in the top ten.

In broad terms, this is what SMQ means when he says Notre Dame's offense has a "low margin of error": fourth down seems to be a part of its mindset, part of the plan, rather than a random situation that happens to come up, and therefore getting into position to be able to go for it - key here is that Charlie Weis is not crazy or reckless about going for it, that all of the attempts make very good sense - is a prerequisite. If you can't get into that position, you can't make the attempt, and there go a lot of Irish points this season. So it's not just the execution of the conversion, but also of the set-up, the entire sequence, that seemingly has to go right, and therefore offers little room for mistakes.

Or else a very high ceiling for mistakes, because they can be made up with a conversion as long as the ball is close enough; see the "playcalling freedom" quote to this effect above. Whatever your perspective, Notre Dame's more like 4-3 or even 3-4 than 6-1 minus the fourth down conversions. It definitely does not win otherwise Saturday.

Brady made the final touchdown with the pump fake that froze everyone on the field except Jeff Samardjizawpdusa, which he had no time to attempt if UCLA is able to mount a better rush - the kind of rush it had, in fact, been generating the entire game from ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis. The general perception here may be that the Bruins had brought the heat all game and blew it by suddenly playing conservatively, and they did only rush four on the fatal touchdown. Check out, though, the defensive stats, and note the litany of sacks and hurries: all from the LA front four. Exclusively from the front four; UCLA was just whipping Notre Dame's line - especially hyped true freshman right tackle Sam Young - and pummeling Quinn without a lot of blitzing help, and reasonably thought Hickman and Davis could mount the same kind of pressure if the coverage held up (given the time Quinn had to throw, the coverage should get some credit for doing its part until things broke down and it became ad lib backyard ball, an indictment that falls on the sudden failure of the pass rush - and, of course, on Karl Dorrell, who should be immediately fired, retroactive to the Arizona game last season, and banned from the campus and all campus-related activities for life). No Web evidence seems to exist yet to support this, but note that Samardjiziazia was more or less triple covered but for the knee-buckling effects of Quinn's fake. That play was more about Notre Dame's line stepping up and protecting its passer and the Manchurian Candidate's telepathic mindmeld with his very ugly receiver than schematic breakdown on UCLA's part, though they should have made a tackle at some point.

Clemson 31, Georgia Tech 7
Since Tommy Bowden's been there, Clemson's been all about the shotgun through Woody Dantzler, Willie Simmons, Charlie Whitehurst, much of Will Proctor's first season as starter, even at times the Tigers have tried to be a run-first operation. But at some point, certain ordained teams learn to say "the hell with it," scrap any notion of balance, embrace their inevitable destiny and just line up and start running roughshod like they're '95 Nebraska against Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. West Virginia did this late last season - as did UL-Lafayette during its five-game winning streak to end the season, as if anybody noticed - and Clemson reached the tipping point in the second half Saturday, when its senior-stocked line and stunningly good young backs (OMG C.J. Spiller!!) ate Georgia Tech's lunch like the Jackets were Florida Atlantic. It's one thing to run for nine yards a carry against Louisiana Tech, and quite another to make squished pancake dust out of a defense that had held Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland to fewer rushing yards combined than ubermenschen James Davis and Spiller ground out Saturday.

Actually, when you have two backs getting the ball more than 15 times apiece, and they both average around ten yards per touch (SMQ is including here Spiller's jaw-dropping, one-man swing pass show), "ground out" is hardly the operative term. Somebody along Pundit Row last night compared Spiller and Davis to Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown and Reggie Bush and LenDale White, and this did not seem even slightly inappropriate, because Clemson found itself a real identity through its blue-chippers against Tech, and the best kind, too. Until all the linemen graduate, at least, but let's stay positive here.

You might want to get used to this, ACC

Along those lines, SMQ is not sure whether to be positive about Clemson's defense or negative about Georgia Tech's offense, and as usual will probably have to come down somewhere in the middle. Is there an excuse for forgetting Calvin Johnson's existence? There is not. Was there a reason for Clemson to be overly concerned with Johnson, to the possible detriment of the rest of the defense? There was not. It would be one thing to leave him running decoy routes if any other options were displaying the slightest ray of hope for Tech, but sometimes, things have to be forced a little, i.e., it's not so much that Clemson stopped Johnson as the it was never forced to stop Johnson; Tech threw one up for him on the first play and got an obvious pass interference penalty, then settled into a steady dose of ineffective Tashard Choice dives, holding penalties and Reggie Ball throwaways while being chased to the sideline. On a must-convert third-and-four in the third quarter, still in the game at 10-0, Johnson was clearly wide open in the slot, so open even SportsCenter highlighted the cushion the safety was giving him, and Ball rolls inexplicably in the opposite direction and throws the ball away; Tech punts, Clemson gets the ball, C.J. Spiller up the gut like a flash for 70 yards, ballgame. This is example is not to say that Johnson was open all night, but that Tech wasn't interested in whether the best receiver in the nation was open or, apparently, even on the field at all. Anyway, "open" is a relative enough concept when applied to someone like Johnson that defining its terms should be the offense's top priority from the first snap.

Hey, a successful Hail Mary! Always nice to catch one of those, even if, you know, the guy's knee was probably down before he crossed the line. Give it to him! Hail Mary! If only Washington had prayed a little harder to the Patron Saint of Fundamentals in the overtime, when it failed to tackle or avoid throwing the ball to the wrong team...At one point in the BC-FSU game, Mark Jones said Boston College's tackles combined weighed in at more than 800 pounds. What? That would make B.J. Raji (340) and Ron Brace (345) at least 400 pounds apiece - close, but no cigar (although, interestingly, if he had called them "mountains," "elephants," "hotels," any other hyperbole to indicate abnormal size, SMQ would have no problem - he only objects to the specific, number-based overstatement, even if it's much less inaccurate in reality than calling someone "an immovable object." This is much like his acceptance of an anthropomorphic cartoon coyote and its acquisition of explosives, but rejection of survival and quick recovery after they explode in the coyote's face)...Tyrone Prothro sneaks onto the field in D.J. Hall's uniform and hauls in another absurd against-the-helmet grab. Are they gonna sell 10,000 copies of that painting? Dammit.

Virginia Tech 36, Southern Miss 6

So much for the reverse jinx. Ugh. Radio reported the following Southern Miss crimes in the first half alone:

-    Holding to take the team out of field goal range
-    A dropped drive-extending pass on third down inside the Tech five.
-    A fumble to give Tech the ball at midfield
-    Two false starts deep in Southern Miss territory
-    A subsequent intentional grounding call for a safety (very unreliable USM announcers strongly disagreed with this one)
-    Two delays of game and a timeout taken to avoid a delay of game
-    Another fumble, at the end of a completion for a first down to midfield

USM also started nine of twelve possessions inside its own 20 (Tech began one drive in a similar spot) and four inside its own ten; the offense lost at least 14 yards on a single drive four different times, including its only start in Virginia Tech territory, which ended in the first of the above fumbles. Even if your defense is playing well against a more talented team on the road, these are killer, killer self-inflicted mistakes, and USM's defense definitely did not play well. SMQ didn't get to see missed tackles, alignment problems, blown assignments, poor angles, the familiar culprits of the embarrassment at Tulsa a couple weeks ago, but when a defense allows 284 yards rushing to a previously impotent unit, these and worse can be assumed.

Oh, this was bad, bad, dirty, dark stuff, and should be immediately internalized into a little ball of rage deep inside, contributing to the impending tumor of Saints/Eagles frustration growing season by disappointing season.

What We Learned
Never, ever think you've got a good grip on what's going on with Michigan State...Never underestimate the irreversible, mathematical pull of the Reggie Ball/Chan Gailey reversion to the mean...Never bet on N.C. State or UCLA on the road...Never bet on superstitious nonsense like a reverse jinx.

SMQ was right about: In Friday's preview, his facetious Southern Miss-Virginia Tech admonitions were right on, unfortunately, but that's really about it. Texas Tech, Penn State, Missouri and Georgia (barely) did bounce back; he was more or less correct on Nebraska's running game:

Don't be fooled by the `Huskers' 200-yard rushing average: when it ran into a directionally-named team that could play a little defense, at Southern Cal, Nebraska not only went gonzo conservative with the playcalling, but reverted to its dismal 2005 tendency to get its backs killed regularly at about the line of scrimmage. The Longhorns, for everyone short of the talents of Adrian Peterson (which is everyone), have been, as expected, among the toughest run defenses in the nation, which equals a slow death without a little throwin' more from Zac Taylor on first and second down than we saw in L.A.

The Huskers averaged 1.6 yards per carry. But they were not "gonzo conservative," throwing 29 times and hitting a couple big plays. Brandon Jackson actually averaged 5.7 on just seven carries, which does not include his shovel pass touchdown, for all intents and purposes a run. And it was respect for and overpursuit of the run that led to the HB toss touchdown. So 38 yards on 24 carries confirms SMQ's guess that Nebraska would be stuffed, but is not exactly a complete picture.

He did give a shout out to the ability of Clemson's "backfield talent and depth and experienced offensive line to play the kind of grinding game Tommy Bowden's warmed up to with James Davis."

SMQ was wrong about: Damn, pick a number. In the same space Friday, he mentioned considering a Washington State upset, but backed off; he said Clemson had "no answer" for Calvin Johnson (though, to be fair, we don't know whether they did or not), and picked a Yellow Jacket win because of a Clemson offense over-reliant on the run without receiver Chansi Stuckey; he didn't even get Boston College's starting quarterback right, assuming Matt Ryan would be out, and therefore picked BC to go down at Florida State; Michigan, Tennessee and California wins were much closer than expected; Rutgers' "one-dimensional" offense had few problems against the "improved quality of competition" at Pitt. Saturday was just a rough day for predictions.

Players of the Week
James Davis (21 carries, 216 yards, 2 TDs) and C.J. Spiller (16 carries, 116 yards, 1 TD, 1 catch, 50 yards, 1 eye-popping TD) both brought the noise, which means Clemson's offensive line brought the funk to Georgia Tech's previously solid front seven. Lousy references aside, those five earn top honors this week.

Also, in a loss, Justin Hickman (5.5 tackles, 3 solo sacks, 2 QB hurries) terrorized Brady O'Quinn relentlessly, and was foiled only by the ruthless improvisation of Quinn henchman Jeff Samardzjifjasdja (8 catches, 118 yards, 2 TDs). And on a day the rest of the remaining Maxwell Pundit elite stumbled and fell, Troy Smith (15-23, 220 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 4 carries, 38 yards) was maddeningly precise for the seventh week out of eight, but LaMarr Woodley (3 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble) is hanging right in there with him.

Close calls abounded, but the only ranked team that fell to an opponent outside the polls was Oregon, which racked up 472 yards on Washington State, but couldn't stop the Cougars, turned the ball over four times and didn't really come close to winning on the road. A big chunk of the Ducks' yardage, in fact, came after a Brady Leaf sighting late in the game led to a fourth quarter rally of sorts and a couple touchdown drives. But Alex Brink completed 20 of 23 passes and some person named Dwight Tardy averaged seven yards on 20 carries, the Cougars scored on three consecutive lengthy possessions, followed by an interception return for touchdown that iced the game at 27-3 before the fourth quarter even started.

Perhaps we've underestimated you, Tardy.

Time to Re-think: Everything we know about the ACC, particularly concerning Clemson and Florida State. Clemson, because it's a bruising, nasty and unstoppable power running team, the exact opposite of its identity under Tommy Bowden, and his daddy's club because, well, it pretty much sucks. Even when it was average the past few seasons, FSU could still win the ACC in its sleep. And now it's in last place, alone, with three conference losses, longing to be able to keep pace with Wake Forest? What is this? And how is Maryland still alive? Miami, even with a few suspensions, needing to pick off a pass at the goalline on the final play to polish off Duke? It would seem the Bermuda Triangle has moved inland.

SMQ Complaint of the Week
The Home Depot commercial with those two office drone jockeys comparing their prospective weekends has to go. It must be stopped this second. Not only because these cubicle cousins are inherently irritating personalities, smirking, cocking eyebrows, relentlessly aggressive and insecure, but because it actually tries to advance the notion that painting the deck and buying a refrigerator makes up a good weekend. That's a horrible weekend! That's work! And worse than work, because you have to spend money to do it, and don't even get paid. This has nothing to do with the obvious advantage to Home Depot of brainwashing people into believing this is a good weekend an everything to do with very capitalist SMQ's gut level rage directed at these two vapid people and the possibility that such a notion could exist. The guy who's apparently going to loaf has it good, and should throw his freedom right back in the materialistic status hound's face: "Wow, painting the deck, huh? Bummer. Good luck allowing all that sweaty, expensive labor to keep you from the activities you really love. Or are those the activities you really love? Oh, please."