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Sunday Morning Quarterback

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While falling back, more happily than ever...

Our amazing world is often wonderful and cruel in unpredictable ways. Saturday was such a day, minus the "wonderful" part.

East Carolina 20, Southern Miss 17 (Overtime)

Here is a tense moment: in overtime, Team A up three after its first possession, excessively conservative Team B suddenly and uncharacteristically lobs a jump ball into double coverage in the end zone on its first play. Pandemonium. Officials immediately rule interception; benches begin to empty. Officials immediately declare play under review.

Under any circumstances, is this call overturned? SMQ isn't sure yet whether Jeremy Young's Hail Mary-like heave on first down, after the Southern defense had held ECU on three plays inside the three-yard-line to force the kick and a good chance of winning, was a bad playcall or a bad decision (or, as he suspects, both). But he is much less sure, as was the entire stadium, who actually came down with the ball, when or where - scoreboard replay is too grainy to be useful for these purposes, and there was pretty much zero chance of anything remotely controversial ever going up there, according to an old classmate SMQ ran into later who helped operate the board. The only indication of anything was the official's (pretty decisive, all things considered) interception call. And now this is under scrutiny. Either way, the game is over; replay is literally deciding the winner.

Originally, SMQ had decided to stop by The Rock for what he figured would be a leisurely, victorious three hours in between early responsibilities and late partying, and wound up instead witnessing would could be a seminal, soul-crushing event in the short-term timeline of Southern Miss football. Because when the officials came back out and confirmed the pick - as, let's face it, they had to do - they confirmed with it Southern Miss' de facto status as a middle-of-the-pack team within Conference USA. This has been iminent for five years and increasingly apparent but at least deniable or debatable as late as two weeks ago. But when you lose at home to East Carolina, and are outgained by more than 100 yards in the process, it's pretty tough to sugarcoat that. Pretty impossible, actually.

The clinching pick: all the proof East Carolina needs

Not that ECU isn't improving. No amount of indifference, malaise or deficient gameplanning could have propelled any USM team anywhere in the vicinity of defeat against the Pirates it smashed 51-7 two years ago. Skip Holtz has done a pretty outstanding job with one of the worst Bowl Subdivision programs in existence, and it might end up playing a late December game this year. That's a leap.

But to only gain 180 yards total offense against such a team, without even turning the ball over to do so, is beyond bad. It's way past bad, all the way to absurd. It is beyond belief. Not conceivable. SMQ is kind of zen about it. How can one express anger or frustration in the face of such surreality? Southern Miss, even by the low, low offensive standards of Southern Miss, was a horrible offensive team by every possible measure Saturday. There were maybe four really quality plays all night, and one of those was called back for holding. The longest gain of the night was 33, and it accounted for more than half of Damion Fletcher's total post-surgery yardage. Again, this is East Carolina, not Florida or Virginia Tech. A little over a month ago, this same unit eviscerated N.C. State. So what is the excuse?

It has to be tough to be a coordinator at Southern - the Jays (Johnson on offense, Hopson on defense) are each the fourth in their respective positions in the last decade, but not much changes in scheme or result. The offense is relentlessly conservative, in a near-constant bog, while the defense is stretched to the breaking point to hang on to some kind of control. At a sparsely attended game like Saturday's, USM fans have pretty much free reign on the field afterwards, and SMQ took the North end zone as a shortcut to his car. When he ran across Hopson en route to the locker room, he told the coach, "Nice job hanging tough by the defense," which was not much consolation but was true: it gave up a couple drives, including the 60-yard, game-tying march over the final four minutes of regulation, but it also scored as many touchdowns as either offense, on a length-of-field interception return by no-name Eddie Hicks that momentarily turned the tide at the end of a frustrating ECU drive, and held the Pirates to the field goal attempt in the overtime after allowing them to get first-and-goal at the three. Before that, on ECU's tying drive, it had done exactly the same thing, and barely allowed the touchdown on a fourth-and-inches QB draw from a five-wide shotgun set; that's six stops at the goalline within a couple of minutes - that's at least fighting. In regulation, USM's defense allowed 10 points (the first ECU touchdown was a kick return) and about 275 yards. It gave up no true big plays. You have to be able to win with that.

The other guy SMQ looked for and gave nice words to was defensive tackle Martavious Prince, who was equally indifferent despite really wreaking a lot of havoc in the Pirate backfield all night as a pass rusher. USM was back in a 3-3-5 look for almost every snap Saturday (for NCAA Football aficionados, this is actually more of a 3-4 than what you would recognize as a 3-3-5 from the game, but roving safety Brandon Sumrall moves out on slot guys occasionally and isn't a true linebacker), which SMQ had thought was employed just to deal with Houston's spread, but apparently worked so well there that it's the standard set now, because ECU ran plenty of traditional fullback/tight end sets. And to run a three-man front, the middle of the line has to be under control. SMQ is not even going to look up Prince's stat line, because it's not necessary and is probably inadequate to prove his presence as a wrecking ball; that should have been obvious to anyone paying attention. He played hard and well and deserves a lot of credit.

But he, Hicks, safety LaDarius Webb and punt returner Jasper Faulk are probably the only ones. This is not fun.

Georgia seemed very intent on losing Saturday. SMQ didn't get to see a whole lot, but he did see a careless fumble cum Florida touchdown by Kregg Lumpkin, at least four first down passes dropped by Martrez Milner and another by Mohammed Massaquoi and a facemask penalty on a late third down stop that, according to the box score, extended the drive and ensured UGA did not get the ball back for a chance to tie...Based on a highlight of his spectacular touchdown catch, his second such improbable grab in two weeks, Georgia Tech finally has a very capable compliment to Calvin Johnson in James Johnson. But at least the Jackets got C.J. (5 catches, 68 yards, 1 TD) involved this week...Again from highlights: that running back from Oklahoma State, of whom SMQ has never heard, is pretty fast.

And awaaaay she goes...

SMQ was right about: In his Friday preview, SMQ warned of danger ahead for Nebraska against the "explosive, very balanced" Oklahoma State offense, even if he did stop short of projecting an actual upset. The Cowboys had 229 passing and 267 rushing. He also tabbed the line as too high on Tulsa-UTEP, which he predicted almost correctly (a 32-24 Tulsa win; actual score: 30-20), and said Mississippi State should not be favored over Kentucky; the Bulldogs, not surprisingly, went down at home. The Florida-Georgia prediction (22-10) was not far off (actual: 21-14), nor was the Notre Dame-Navy guess (predicted: 41-17; actual: 38-14).

SMQ was wrong about: In the same space, SMQ predicted wins by Missouri, Nebraska, Southern Miss (gak) and Florida State and an upset by Baylor. Other than USM, none of these forecasts came very close to occuring. Washington and Nebraska did not rebound from losses last week.

Players of the Week
SMQ declares himself "Player of the Week," and hoped to have a picture to prove this in his inbox; alas, no morning e-mailing has occured. But he doesn't have time to research the box scores for all the possible candidates, so he'll take it anyway.

Oregon State, clearly, was not supposed to beat USC, and the world is turned upside down by the Trojans' exposure as vincible mortals in the regular season for the first time in more than three full calendar years. Oklahoma State worked over Nebraska in devastating fashion in the second half. But at least as shocking to SMQ, the only score that actually made him gasp when he saw it on the ticker: Temple 28, Bowling Green 14. Via turnover and kick return, the Owls live!

Time to Re-think: The mythical championship picture, hallelujah. USC's loss puts the system one step closer to excruciating, playoff-inducing meltdown; SMQ throws all of his extremist, anarchist weight behind Rutgers, chug-chugging along. If the Knights lose tonight in a way that doesn't hinder the possibility of a future upset against the West Virginia/Louisville winner, this is probably better.

Also, Purdue's offense: supposedly high-powered, but the Boilers have scored all of a field goal in two entire games. Wisconsin and Penn State are good on defense, but not that good.

SMQ Complaint of the Week
Replay seems to have completely hamstrung official decision-making. It can be sorted out through video later, but make a call! On Thursday night, refs took forever to rule Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal had fumbled before his knee hit; after looking at replays that WWL announcers, SMQ and father of SMQ all thought showed a fumble (or at least a call too close to reverse), the official announced indisputable evidence proved down by contact. Tech went on to score to go up 17 and never looked back. Saturday, after a first down catch on a third down pass during East Carolina's eventual tying drive late in the fourth, officials took two minutes to rule that the ECU receiver had caught the pass and was down before it came out, three minutes looking at a replay and another minute to trot back out and explain that the call, by rule, could not be reviewed. ECU goes on to score. The original call should be made immediately, not after a long huddle - sort out the replay options afterwards.

Update [2006-10-29 18:1:18 by SMQ]: SMQ wins Player of the Week... can't see the tight, gray '70s coaching shorts or knee-high socks, but they could:

However hard you're laughing, if you're laughing, it's not as hard as either of these girls, SMQ promises.