Are we supposed to believe this? Seriously? SMQ cries foul.
Ohio State 42, Michigan 39
Sometimes, a champion is a foreordained juggernaut of a thing, weathering even difficult challenges as formalities to be endured and conquered en route to the coronation, which is everything. See Texas last season, or USC, or the Trojans of 2003, or Miami before them, heralded titans defined wholly by success or failure of the mythical championship variety. As often, though, the defining moment for a champion isn't the championship itself, but rather the great hurdle taking the crown signifies having jumped - the Red Sox World Series title meant, above all, Boston had finally emerged over the Yankees, in the most dramatic possible come-from-behind fashion; the 49ers' first Super Bowl signified the triumph of a will forcible enough to convert an improbable, finger-tip catch in the back of the end zone; the gold medals of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, won against Finland, are a barely-legible footnote to the fresh-faced Americans' defeat of Soviet assassins plucked from the dank rinks of the Siberian gulag. That does not exactly describe the state of Michigan, but nevertheless, when Ohio State claims its crown in the distant, distant future, the 2006 team will be "The Team That Beat Michigan," beat the rivals in The Game, at its heart - the championship, against some flawed, once-defeated elected amidst controversy and indignant naysaying, will be in service of the enduring legacy of the victory earned Saturday, not the other way around.
On another, more familiar note, SMQ's cynical skepticism is its usual burden to these glad gridiron tidings and yuletide cheer, nearly bursting with the deep urge to remind those with the inclination to call Saturday's contest "an instant classic" to recall their various reactions to the Louisville-West Virginia showdown two weeks ago: were the slipping and sliding defenses Saturday, those that, combined, allowed more than 900 yards total offense and 80 points - none of which, unlike the UL-WVU game, were generated from scores by the special teams or one of the horrid defenses themselves - worthy of a "classic" performance? See, SMQ thought that, in the Big Ten, they, you know, tackle people.
But that would be schadenfreude for the sake, solely for the sake, of shaming the failure of Jason Whitlocks or Mike Freemans to produce consistent, coherent arguments even when they may be right, which is not worth it. Especially when SMQ agrees, with them and pretty much everyone, apparently, that Saturday was a classic. Unlike Louisville and West Virginia, the performances of these respective defenses all season, whether or not against overrated schedules, made the offensive outburst actually, legitimately special. Ohio State, especially, against a front seven defense that had not been remotely dented, produced two runs twice as long as any single run the Wolverines had allowed over their first eleven games. Good as the Buckeye offense had been during that time, that was not in the forecast; it raised its game appropriate to the occasion and the opponent.
So, of course, did Michigan's offense, especially its running game, which was not stopped, and would not allow Ohio State the opportunity to tee off on Chad Henne, the way it had on so many other quarterbacks trying to rally their team from behind by passing, until the final moments of the fourth quarter - and even then, forced to put the ball up with no threat of deception or harm from the brilliant Mike Hart, it protected him well enough to get the ball into the end zone and extend the chances at least to an onside kick.
Where Michigan's success on offense against Ohio State somewhat surprised SMQ, especially where Hart was concerned, but OSU's against Michigan left him dumbfounded. Troy Smith did have a horrific stretch to open the second half, missing everyone, turning the ball over twice deep in Ohio State territory to allow the Wolverines back in the game - there's the cynical skeptic again, looking for the ways not to rob the presumed winner of the Heisman of his inevitable award, but to mitigate just that inevitability, to cut the hype, to argue Smith's victory there shouldn't be such the foregone conclusion every pundit in the last 16 hours has demonstrated it certainly is - but, damn, come on: Troy Smith is money. They put the dude in that shotgun, and, close as they continually came, Michigan couldn't touch him, had no answer to his timing or precision. And they did come close - count the hits by LaMarr Woodley, and you'll get to at least eight. At least half of which, SMQ would guess, were completed downfield, and none of which contributed to Woodley's big sack total. Michigan's unrivaled rush had Smith on his back more than any other defense he's faced, probably in his career, it was present with bells on, and it didn't matter. We're talking about a step here and there - there's your margin.
? Oh, well, and the "helmet to helmet" hit by Shawn Crable on the incomplete third-and-long toss by a frantically scrambling Smith, which SMQ regards as pretty legitimate. It's borderline, would have been fine if not called - this would be like laying off the ticky fouls in the last minute of a basketball game, letting `em play, which SMQ supports. And, in his opinion, a hit is a hit is a hit. This is not the world of execessive professional protection of pricey assets. But Crable's hit was the definition of "helmet to helmet," which has plenty of precedent as a felony (that is, 15-yard, auto first down) offense, and was also a half-step late. Here was the chance to ruin Smith's ascension beyond mere mortal all-Americans, to deliver that clutch stop and give the offense a chance to win in the dying moments, and it could have been that if the official had so judged. It was not so egregious. But not a faulty judgment.
Anyway, it may hardly be remembered, but Michigan got this one back in short order: the fourth down pass interference call against OSU on the subsequent drive, on an incomplete pass that would have ended the game right there, was about as questionable - Michigan's last touchdown was the result. And "roughing the center"? This call was right, but very rare.
The other questionable, but also correct, call: on Ohio State's first touchdown, a third-and-two rub route, the split end came inside and caused Wolverine defenders to collide, leaving Roy Hall open at the pylon from the slot with his man tied up inside. The defenders hit each other, though, and were never touched by a Buckeye, so this would not in SMQ's opinion fall into the "illegal pick" category.
? SMQ thought coming the pace of the game would matter, and that a "shorter" game - that is, one with fewer overall possessions for each team - would favor Michigan by reducing the number of opportunities Smith had to score, and the chances a couple long, grinding, Hart-based drives of the variety that opened UM's second half possessions would be enough to be in the game; a shootout, in other words, favored Ohio State, and limiting the number of legitimate possessions to the single digits - preferably in the neighborhood of about seven altogether - would greatly decrease the odds of the game becoming a shootout.
Total number of meaningful possessions (scoring drives in bold):
Ohio State 12 (69, 22, 58, 91, 80, 0, 1, 65, -2, -11, 42, 83)
Michigan 12 (80, 15, 9, 21, 80, 60, 3, 52, 8, 9, 7, 81)
Michigan raised its game to keep up - aided significantly by turnovers, from which it gained 10 points from the "3" and "9" in bold above, an advantage it never allowed OSU - but SMQ guesses it would have had a better opportunity in the kind of game that only allows about eight or nine possessions per team, and another 8-10 snaps for Hart rather than Henne. That's what happens, though, when you fall behind early and have to throw more than you'd like to catch up, another reason jumping to a first half lead, especially a two-score first half lead, was thought (rightly) to favor the Buckeyes. OSU, in front, dictated the pace, in spite of a -3 turnover disadvantage. (And about those turnovers: SMQ shared a stunned moment with Bob Davie, a first, about the amazing revelation those were the first points following a turnover by the OSU offense the Buckeye defense had allowed all season. That is incredible, and telling about this team's tough mindedness, re: susceptibility to momentum swings and emotion)
? Chris Wells touchdown: wow. Michigan was in good position to stop this for a loss; Crable was right there three yards in the backfield, with Wells virtually in the grasp. On sheer instinct, the spin move there and burst up the middle, through tackles, was a spectacular, virtuoso display by the freshman against a defense that hadn't had anything remotely like that happen to it at any point this season. And one aided, it should be noted, by Smith, who had netted a nice gain on an earlier keep off the same speed sweep action (a question for Brian's defensive review session: what was Chris Graham's goal, exactly, on the Smith keep for about 10 yards around right end in the second quarter?) se lethality was well respected by a couple defenders staying home after he gave the ball and carried out his fake, opening up the seam in the middle just enough for Wells to go tearing through.
? Speaking of Graham, rough, rough first half for him. Not only being made to look indecisive and ridiculous by Smith, but also by Tony Gonzalez on OSU's fourth scoring drive, just before the half. This is a flatly horrible matchup for Michigan: is Graham, a backup, a regular package guy against the spread? Because it didn't suit him here: Smith and Gonzalez abused him for two first down throws and then the touchdown, which Graham saw coming but was not quick enough to cut off Gonzalez's route to the inside.
Ron English does deserve credit for his adjustment to the spread in the second half - blitzing a linebacker over the weakside tackle, thereby occupying that side of the line and allowing Woodley to come free from the outside on a fairly consistent basis - which wreaked havoc and caused all sorts of problems for Smith in the third quarter until OSU figured it out a bit and began moving the ball again in the fourth, in part by getting Smith on the roll away from the blitz. Nice chess match, and diversion from the softer zone stuff Smith was eating alive in the first half.
? The turf was horrible. Why did this game have to be played on that junk? Defensive players on both sides - especially Michigan's, who seemed for some reason (possibly OSU's speed?) to be more affected by the lack of footing - were slipping on coverage, trying to change direction for a better pursuit angle, rushing the passer. Mario Manningham slipped on an open route in the first quarter; Allan Branch had a shot at sacking Smith on OSU's third scoring drive, but bit the dust. It was a slip `n slide in perfectly decent (so it seemed) weather.
He caught this divot from the eighth row of the student section during a play
Southern Cal 23, California 9
SMQ got the distinct impression during the second half he was watching a team that can not only win its way into the mythical championship, but can also win once it gets there; half of those freshman running backs for the Trojans will be as old as juniors by the time that game rolls around, anyway. Hey-O!
? SMQ leaves this game a bigger Pete Carroll fan than when it began, for a couple reasons: a) His giddy enthusiam over the win and the conference championship, after so much success of the kind that leaves most coaches of programs of SC's caliber stoic and business-like and firmly in "we still have work to do" mode at all times, was fun to watch (also fun: the postgame question from Erin Andrews: "How do you keep winning without the Bushes and Leinarts and Whites?" as if USC hasn't had top three recruiting classes six years running. As if C.J. Gable wasn't looking like Reggie Jr. Carroll just said, "Well, these guys are pretty good, too." Really?) As well as b) he put in a safety or something, some special teams guy with gloves and a neck pad with zero career attempts, to kick a 49-yard field goal to tie in the third quarter. And the kid buried it.
And c) he continued to show aggression in a big game on fourth down. He took a lot of heat for going for it on fourth-and-one late in the Rose Bowl in January, when LenDale White was stuffed after making the same play in the same situation twice earlier in the game, setting up Vince Young's game-winning gallop. After that, he could have taken a conservative track when USC, up 16-9, faced fourth-and-two at the Cal 37 with 8:26 to go. The Trojans could have taken a delay and punted, tried to draw the Bears offsides and then used a timeout when they refused to budge, attempted a looooong field goal. But Lane Kiffin had free reign to put the pedal down, so he went play-action, sent Steve Smith into the wash of frozen linebackers - one of whom then had to scurry after his man, screening Daymeion Hughes off Smith in the process - and up the hash with Hughes at his heels for the clinching score. You do that when you know these guys are good, and the guys on the other side are good enough, too, to keep the pressure on Nate Longshore, who guided one nice 73-yard drive in the second quarter but otherwise was leading a lot of possessions ending in `Punt.' If the Trojans needed a `statement' sort of game to move up to the No. 2 position, it got it from the defense, at least.
Down goes Rutgers! Down goes Rutgers! But the Knights did at least make probably the play of the day against Cincinnati: on third-and-one at the Knights' goalline in the fourth quarter, one of the Knight defenders did his best LaVar Arrington, timed the snap, and literally leapt over the center and smacked down Nick Davila to force the field goal; when Arrington did it, at least Kurt Kittner completed his handoff...The universe rights the egregious lapse of order that had allowed statistically atrocious, skin-of-their-teeth streaking Maryland to be soundly hammered by a quality opponent, causing fumbles returned for touchdown on the Terps' first two possessions. Well, the universe or Larry Anam, who played the first pitch in textbook fashion for a corner seeking to contain the option pitch, leading to JoLonn Dunbar's score. Maryland becomes an 8-3 team allowing a few tenths more points per game than it scores.
SMQ was right about: North Carolina, Minnesota and Kansas were far from obvious picks over NC State, Iowa and Kansas State Friday, but SMQ brought home the clean upset sweep in rivalry games (er, almost - Indiana came up shy). This included a close pick on Northwestern over Illinois (predicted: 28-20, actual: 27-16), and was bolstered by nailing the margin and almost the score of Penn State over Michigan State (predicted: 21-17, actual: 17-13). Texas Tech's margin over Oklahoma State, as predicted, was six (predicted: 44-38, actual: 30-24).
A Cal commenter thought SMQ's guess of a 17-point USC win was too high, but - though he was off on the score, which and everyone imagined would be higher - it was only off by a field goal. Virginia Tech, Boston College, Louisville and Auburn - whom both Corsro and Herbstreit dissed on Gameday - were winners.
SMQ was wrong about: Michigan was able to run the ball, but otherwise the whole Michigan over OSU thing went kaput, based on a UM defense that was stunningly off balance (SMQ will not say it was "exposed" or "overrated," as if there were static "ratings" of such things, because it has been so good all season and was "rated" appropriately coming in, however that's defined, and will be rated appropriately in the aftermath). And, of course, Rutgers, despite the "nod to the inherent upset potential of the homestanding Bearcats."
Worse, though, was that SMQ went out of his way to call the 23.5 to 25.5 line for Hawaii-San Jose State too high, and said the combined points would exceed the projected 72. Er, yeah: the Rainbows or whatever covered the spread easily, 54-17, and, for you math majors, that adds up to just 71 points, AKA Victory for the Under. Good thing SMQ gives such advice only for entertainment purposes.
Also: Arizona State, Washington State and Indiana were losers.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
It's a little too easy to forget West Virginia's frightening Pat Slaton (45 carries, 415 yards, 4 TDs, 11-16, 204 yards, 2 TDs, 6 catches, 130 yards, 2 TDs) after Saturday's heroics elsewhere, but anyone who watched the two-headed beast accelerate, or singlehandedly create, the defensive coordinator search at Pittsburgh for the second consecutive season will scarcely forget it.
As for the heroics, though: Troy Smith (29-41, 316 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, 12 yards rushing) was not flawless, but three unstoppable quarters out of four in the biggest game of the regular season will earn any quarterback accolades from all corners. On the other side, it's only a shame Mike Hart (23 carries, 142 yards, 3 TDs) was made only an accessory by his teammates' inability to slow his scarlet-clad counterparts.
Oh, Crable, Shawn Crable, why hast though helmeted-to-helmet, on third-and-long, against an explosive opponent out of field goal range, with a four-point lead, with mere minutes remaining in the fourth quarter? The play that will live in Michigan infamy, until next September.
Upsetting: So much for Rutgers, which is a load off BCS maestros, who SMQ presumes . The Big East did not need the Knights to lose, if they were going to lose, by such a wde margin to Cincinnati. Again, we have a case here where virtually no one is going to think to say, "Wow, Cincinnati must be pretty good, this is a tough league." In the SEC, everybody beats up on everybody else, but in the Big East, lose to Cincinnati - especially big - and "you suck."
Really shocking was Iowa State's 21-16 win over previously respectable Missouri, the Cyclones' first in the Big XII this season, in which Ryan Kock ran for 180 yards and two scores on 32 carries. Ryan Kock, SMQ happens to know, is a big, white fullback. So did ISU go flexbone here in Dan McCarney's last game, or what?
The only real "1" in Ames was Saturday's win in Iowa State's Big XII column, but it's nice, anyway
JUST WHEN YA THINK YA KNOW A FELLA...
Time to Re-think: The entire BCS picture, to be addressed after the rankings are released tonight, but Rutgers, specifically. Beat Louisville, make your move, chop some wood, show some swarming defense, get people talking about you, respecting you, thinking you're en route to something special, then get out and not only lose, but lose huge to Cincinnati? Not cool, not cool. People believed in Rutgers, and now it's, what, Gator Bowl at best?
What that does, sadly, is simplify the mythical title odds in acceptable ways - increasing the chances for USC or a one-loss SEC champion - and less acceptable ways - also increasing them for a Michigan-OSU rematch, or, worse, a Notre Dame-OSU rematch. When will someone introduce the Boise State card, mount a campaign to put BSU in the title game, and
Also, on a happier homer note, the C-USA cluster is breaking in Southern Miss' favor: Rice's comeback win over East Carolina - enthusiatically detailed in one of SMQ's favorite online homer reports, the Rice Football Webletter - along with USM's win over UAB (in spite of a 20-point Blazer rally in the fourth quarter) puts SMQ's Eagles in sole possession of first place in the C-USA East. A home win over Marshall next week - not a given, the way the Herd are thundering along at the moment, walloping UTEP Saturday - puts SMQ's Eagles in the league championship, where apparently they will visit Houston, which wrapped up the West last week and home field for the championship game by beating Memphis in overtime Saturday. Better the Cougars than Tulsa, SMQ thinks, as USM is the only C-USA team that's beaten UH this season, and any team that had to go to overtime to beat the current collection of NAIA vagabonds claiming to be Memphis is ripe for defeat in any venue.
No help awaits in case of a USM loss: a defeat to Marshall creates a horrible three-way tie with the Herd and ECU, done with league play, which the Pirates unambiguously win because of head-to-head victories over both Marshall and Southern Miss. So the Eagles need the outright victory, or death (or the Birmingham Bowl, which SMQ imagines is not all that preferable).
A FINE WHINE
SMQ Complaint of the Week: The timing was perfect on SMQ's part, but the incompetence at a local chain pizza establishment where he had called well ahead for pick-up dawdled with zero other business and caused him to miss most of Michigan's opening scoring drive. SMQ did his part, he did what he had to do despite being held for a minute by the tail end of the Michigan State-Penn State game, he put himself in position for good things to happen. And the pizza people couldn't get the food off in time.