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Sunday Morning Quarterback

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While contemplating facts: Oklahoma in the Big XII Championship, running for more without Adrian Peterson? Well, who couldn't see that coming, is SMQ right? We all knew it...

Speaking of the Sooners: a bogus onside kick call away from mythical championship consideration? They seem to think so. Topic for another day, soon.


LSU 31, Arkansas 26
SMQ got a little radio coverage in on this one while traveling, but didn't turn it on until the fourth quarter, just as the gun signalled to begin a track meet: a Casey Dick interception led to a JaMarcus Russell touchdown pass to Early Doucet, followed immediately by a jaw-dropping 80-yard gallop (the term is not applied lightly) by Darren McFadden, followed immediately by a 92-yard kick return by tiny speed devil Trindon Holliday, followed immediately by a 64-yard kick return by Felix Jones, followed s few plays later by a five-yard Jones touchdown run on one of those should-be-illegal speed sweeps from McFadden in the shotgun.

As obviously, frighteningly explosive Arkansas is when the defense has to respect all the sweeps, options, draws and more conventional aspects of the running game - McFadden and Jones each averaged 8.7 per carry Friday, against the top-ranked defense in the nation, and the defense's overcompensation to contain the former led to a 28-yard pass that set up Arkansas' first touchdown - the offense was as ugly as it could be when forced into a predictable, must-pass situation at the end of the game. This was a situation the Hogs hadn't faced all season, because they hadn't trailed late in a game and had to run a two-minute drill, and here the consequences of its complete and utter lack of a viable major college quarterback were devastatingly apparent - as was the death of its mythical championship hopes, inevitable in retrospect for a scheme that now seems to have been designed, like, well, a high school's, to ensure the quarterback isn't asked to do anything important except execute the fakes and lob one up to Marcus Monk every other drive. Imagine this scheme with a quarterback even approaching JaMarcus Russell?

The Razorback defense will shoulder its share of blame, too, but it wasn't responsible for Holliday's tide-turning return, or the preceding interception that practically handed LSU a two-score advantage at the Arkansas nine. SMQ wonders whether Mitch Mustain couldn't have completed 3 of 17 passes for 29 yards and a killer interception? Dick was indistinguishable in the fourth quarter from an overwhelmed high schooler his own self, and the fact the rest of the team had been so effective in protecting him from that situation is a testament to coaching wiles and execution. But the quarterback - like every other facet of the team - will eventually be tested and has to display some competence.

Mid-Afternoon Tour of Frenzied Drama
Overlapping viewing options occasionally masquerade before the action begins as an unresolvable conflict in the ongoing battle for SMQ's attention, but rare is the conflagration in a time slot that blossoms into a multi-game gem worth cultivating beyond the third quarter. Big, lopsided scores are generally counted upon to make this decision for the viewer.

Then, though, there are the scenes like those culminating in eerie synchronization around 2 p.m. Central Saturday, pulling SMQ in every direction:

    ? Florida State improbably rallying to tie Florida at 14 early in the final quarter, when...
    ? West Virginia, trailing South Florida by five, forced a USF punt and received the ball with a little under three minutes remaining for a game-winning drive, just as...
    ? Clemson, down 31-28 after a wild series of intercepted screen passes and Lett-esque fumbling, advanced the ball into South Carolina territory for a potential tying, overtime-forcing kick with the clock moving under a minute to play, while...
    ? Kentucky, losing 17-12 at Tennessee, earned a first-and-goal with under four minutes left in regulation with which to punch in a touchdown to beat the Vols for the first time since the early days of the Reagan Administration.

? It's hard to say South Carolina deserved to win on a missed field goal in that situation, because Clemson has had its own share of close calls and injustice (see: Boston College, Maryland). But finally South Carolina, after fighting to a narrowly administered death against Auburn, Tennessee and especially Florida (and even Arkansas, to an extent), Carolina finally beat somebody. And anyway, Clemson: C.J. Spiller! The future is bright.

He got one!

? West Virginia found itself in the same position against USF as Arkansas against LSU, needing to mount a two-minute drill by passing, when the explosive running game is rendered more or less impotent. The situations were a little different - Pat White is a more competent passer right now than Dick (he kept the Mountaineers in it with a deep strike to Darius Reynaud earlier in the quarter), and Arkansas may have been able to continue running because its ground attack had been successful, whereas WVU's had not - but the results were the same: a run-based offense needing to make first downs in the passing game because of the clock, when the defense knew it had to throw. Good as those offenses are in every other situation, they couldn't overcome their ill-equipment for that situation.

Georgia 15, Georgia Tech 12
Just when Georgia pulls out the stops to revive its rival, to breathe life into its seizing, gasping body by drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty in the midst of forcing a fourth-and-forever to seal the game, Reggie Ball shoves the pillow right back in Tech's tortured face with icy resolve. Much as the Jackets are regularly skewered here and elsewhere for occasionally forgetting about the existence of Calvin Johnson, a random throw into triple coverage, on first down, with a minute remaining, only needing a field goal, and well off the track of any conceivable target, is hardly the point to force the issue. Ball is not wholly incompetent by any stretch, but the last of many ill-advised regular season wobblers into coverage - especially against a rival he never defeated - will not serve to accentuate the positive of his legacy at Tech.

It should be noted that the Jackets made every effort to get the ball into Johnson's hands throughout the second half, and couldn't, either because of Ball missing the mark or, more often, Georgia effectively blanketing the star. Paul Oliver deserves plenty of credit for plastering himself all over Johnson on consecutive throws into the end zone late in the third quarter, when Tech threatened following a big kick return to regain the lead UGA had just taken, literally, on Tony Taylor's fumble return, forcing a field goal instead. And when Tech did take the lead on its next drive, it had to resort to a third down reverse to get the ball into the hands of its best player after missing to him deep on second down. In this case, when Johnson only has two catches, it's not for lack of Tech trying. Only its lack of succeeding. Georgia's secondary and pass rush had a lot to do with this.

Look what Paul Oliver found

But so, clearly, did Ball's so-so accuracy, as it has now for an entire career. With two games to go, and a possible ACC title and BCS bowl, the final ledger on the Reggie Ball Era (every season represents totals over 12 games, except 2003, when Tech played 13):

    Year    CMP%    YDS    TD    INT    RAT    RUSH
    2003    51.7    1,996    10    11    102.76    384
    2004    49.7    2,147    16    18    109.44    332
    2005    48.0    2,165    11    12     99.25    381
    2006    45.8    1,691    20    12    112.74    308

Touchdowns were way up this season, aided by the seven he garnered against Samford, Troy and Duke, as completion percentage continued to bite the dust and overall yardage hit bottom. If Ball were still a freshman, he'd be a sensation. But why did he fail to show any noticeable improvement? This is not only looking at the stat sheet, but also at the mistakes epitomized by the final throw Saturday and a general lack of the field awareness one would expect from a four-year starter. When, say, Brady Quinn pulls the ball down to get away from a rush in the pocket, he gets his eyes back downfield to make a potential throw on the run, and looks to take off second, if it's there. Ball, on the other hand, pulls the ball down and scrambles behind the line with no thought of trying to make a play downfield, even when he manages to work his way into a little space outside the pocket. This happened Saturday on the eventual fumble returned for touchdown and on an earlier play in the first half, when Ball danced in the pocket and escaped, with virtually the entire defense chasing him and a receiver free and clear in the end zone. But instead of showing some saavy and field awareness to know where his man may be on the field, if not at least throw the ball away (he is good at that, we know), Ball wound up being overrun by half a dozen red shirts for a sack.

Contrast Ball's stasis with the trajectory of baby-faced Matthew Stafford, which is on a decisive upswing after his performances against aggressive, top 15 defenses the past two weeks. Stafford struggled earlier this season in a way Ball never really did as a freshman (eight picks in one three-game stretch; four overall multi-interception games), and took a career's worth of heat for UGA's midseason fade. But he was calm and confident in the clutch Saturday, and hit a third down, go-ahead score into a dangerously crowded end zone off a pump fake that required the recognition, patience, timing and precision - on top of his natural zip - of a far more seasoned passer. Stafford's star, it's safe to say, is rising, at the same time Ball's is disappearing behind the trees.

? Good job by the officials on Taylor's fumble return to put Georgia ahead 7-3 in the third quarter, an alert play by Taylor many crews would have blown dead once the ball disappeared into the pile, if not ruled Ball down on the scramble to begin with. A quicker whistle could have easily robbed UGA of a score it deserved.

Southern Cal 44, Notre Dame 24
A couple USC games - not the Oregon State loss, but the close wins over Washington and Washington State that generated so much skepticism, at least - have to be re-evaluated to account for the absence of Dwayne Jarrett, who reminded everyone of his irreplaceability Saturday. Steve Smith's steady presence on the other side is terrifying from a defensive perspective.

Mythical championship level optimism about John David Booty and the running game, on the other hand, proceeds with more caution because of their inconsistency. Booty was a sensation out of the gate, ripping and shredding ND's secondary and looking like an all-American with decisive thouchdown passes on each of the Trojans' first two possessions. In the second quarter, he suddenly tosses two terrible picks that ebb SC's momentum and force the defense to keep Notre Dame from climbing back into the game - which it did, by forcing a Darius Walker fumble near the goalline and a couple fourth down stops. Aided by a couple busted coverages and highlight grabs by Jarrett, Booty comes out like a star again in the second half.

C.J. Gable and Chauncey Washington, in the same vein, are perfectly adequate for a championship run, but neither seems capable of taking over a game. A possession, perhaps, but if a defense can manage to corral Jarrett and/or Smith, or put Booty on his back, SMQ isn't sure this running game at this point can be the focal point of consistent scoring drives. But, you know, good luck corraling Jarrett and/or Smith.

? Stolen from the "conceit" item, SMQ's assessment from Friday:

Not to be overlooked in that advantage is the abundance of drive-extending fourth down conversions
Against USC, where the running game again figures to be mainly a keep-em-honest compliment to the safe passing game - if the game can remain close enough long enough for it to be even that - a couple conversions to keep chains moving and the iffy Irish defense on the sideline will probably be necessary.

All season, SMQ has harped on Notre Dame's fourth down success and the significant role these consistent conversions have played in the Irish's overall fortune in close games, and in fact two of Notre Dame's three touchdowns followed fourth down conversions Saturday; one score, after an earlier conversion on the same drive in the third quarter, was itself a fourth down attempt, a nice one after a couple failed throws into the overpopulated end zone that sent Darius Walker in motion into the left flat at the snap and looked him off to get the hook-curl linebacker moving to the outside, therebyvacating the passing lane for Brady Quinn to fire a slant into Rhema McKnight and cut the score to 28-17 (the Saints have used Reggie Bush as a decoy in similar ways).

Yet fourth down on the whole betrayed its master: four separate Irish drives of varying lengths and significance into Southern Cal territory ended in "Turnover on Downs," one more than ended in "Punt." At least two of these - Quinn's overthrow on a scramble on the game's opening possession and an indefensible drop by McKnight in the second quarter, team down 21-10 and driving to cut the margin to one score after a blocked punt, subsequent touchdown and immediate interception had all the momentum rolling in ND's favor - would have made enough difference to keep the Irish in the game and/or dramatically change its trajectory. But c'est la vie, on the road, when the opposition is bringing the kind of heat - both by numbers and skull-rattling velocity - SC could afford with its secondary to send on a regular basis.

As for Notre Dame's running, the box score says the Irish mounted some solid success on the ground: 130 yards on 4.2 per carry. This is heavily skewed, though, by Quinn's hair-raising 60-yard scramble in the second quarter, on a play where all else had broken down. When it came to actually trying to gain yardage and move the chains via handoff, toss, etc., Walker found a little room on a couple well-timed and executed draws that exploited SC's mad, overeager upfield rush, but generally he and comrades were harassed and swallowed up by a very fast, aggressive Trojan front. Slowing down that front, of course, and establishing a viable threat to run is much easier when you're not in a 21-3 hole midway through the second quarter.

? On that note, as much is made of the unparalleled exodus of offensive talent, less attention has been paid to the fact that this is an improved SC defense, which has largely made up the difference for those departures, particularly down the stretch, where high-scoring Oregon and Cal put up 10 and 9 points, respectively; the loss to OSU, remember, featured Beaver touchdowns via punt return and fumble return. Notre Dame had more success Saturday by every ounce of Brady Quinn's will, though not consistently, and - see above - SC stepped up on a couple key occasions that prevented the Irish from ever really getting back into the game following the early deficit. Feisty corners, battering ram safeties, hellacious pass rush; how many blue chip linebackers is one team allowed to trot out there at once? What a ridiculous trove. If one element of this version of SC is improved from the most recent versions, it's that unit, which is not statistically amazing but must be considered as tough to face as any in the country in any given situation.

USC Defense: Now inflicting 15 percent more opponent headaches!

? No Heisman, obviously, but SMQ will say this: the Manchurian Candidate is a gamer. Most of what Quinn accomplished Saturday - 274 yards, 3 TDs, 74 rushing with no picks - was his doing and his alone under constant fire, with nary a successful blitz pick-up by the Irish line. He handled the pressure much more competently here than against Michigan. He is a tough son of a bitch.

Southern Miss 42, Marshall 7

Radio relayed what sounded like the best Southern Miss effort of the season, on par with the wipeout of N.C. State back in September, a 226-yard rushing performance bookended by scoring drives of 82 and 96 yards, respectively, and one of 80 yards in between. The defense showed a little trouble slowing Ahmad Bradshaw (21 carries for 110, 1 TD), not surprisingly, but Marshall trailed throughout and commited four turnovers in the comeback effort, creating none, so circumstances kept him largely out of the mix. Jeremy Young, meanwhile, was efficient as ever (14-19, 135 yards, 2 TDs) and USM dominated the clock by 13 minutes and 20 plays. Damion Fletcher (25 for 151, 1 TD) passed every name on every freshman and single season rushing list in USM history but one - Sam Dejarnette, who ran for 1,545 in 1982; Fletcher, at 1,240 in 10.5 games (he missed Virginia Tech and half of East Carolina), needs to average just short of 150 in Friday's C-USA Championship in Houston and the bowl game to set the new single season mark.

Most important, obviously, is clinching the outright East Division title and getting into the championship game against a team Southern's already beaten once this season - though that game was in Hattiesburg, which seems to mean more to the Eagles than SMQ can reason a 25,000-strong crowd should. The chance at cracking double-digit wins, achieved by only the 1952 and 1988 teams (each in two fewer games than this squad will have), is high incentive along with taking the conference championship. And SMQ says now, if the Eagles win their fifth straight Friday, Coulter/Krugman is his, because USM is entering his ballot at No. 25. Only if it wins the championship.

SMQ Was Right About: Back to Notre Dame-SC from Friday's preview:

Notre Dame's offensive line is not great, and defenses that pressure Brady Quinn - Georgia Tech, Michigan, UCLA - seem to have quite a bit more success than those that don't (i.e., Penn State). Pete Carroll, accordingly, will be sending folks from all over the field, if the Trojans' stud ends can't get to Quinn their own selves, a la LaMarr Woodley and Justin Hickman. This assault is aided the more the iffy Irish running game is an obvious non-factor, which itself is aided by a lead of the Michigan variety (seeing as Michigan State is Michigan State, SMQ will let that game stand alone). So, again, B-E aggressive with Jarrett and Smith - still, questions about the athleticism of Notre Dame's defense, and its corners in particular against this caliber of receiver (see: Michigan, as well as State University thereof), must be satisfactorily dispelled. Make ND dispel them early.

A nice 21-3 cushion, courtesy of the aggressive deployment of Jarrett and Smith against the ND secondary, made a sporadically successful Irish ground game essentially a non-factor (Darius Walker had 14 carries). SMQ didn't see anything to refute his assertion that "Notre Dame's offensive line is not great."

Otherwise, Wake Forest, Louisville, Georgia, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, Tennessee and North Carolina were winners, and SMQ got close to nailing scores on Florida-Florida State (predicted 27-14, actual 21-14), Oregon-Oregon State (predicted 28-24, actual 30-28) and Hawaii-Purdue (predicted 41-31, actual 42-35).

SMQ Was Wrong About: Most obviously, like everyone, West Virginia, where he forecast:

Matt Groethe can throw a little, but that, uh, that won't cut it at West Virginia. Over-under on Pat Slaton rushing total: 388, five touchdowns.

Grothe (even spelled his name wrong): 22-30, 279 yards, touchdown. Pat Slaton: 33 carries, 60 yards, 0 scores, long of 13. That's about as wrong as SMQ's ever been about anything, including the freshman geometry test on which his grade was (out of a possible 100) a 12.

Also, he was egregiously, horribly off-base about Nevada and Boise State ("The Broncos aren't exactly the same off the blue turf. The Wolfpack seem to be significantly better in Reno," etc.) and Texas A&M's ability to run on Texas. Missouri, South Carolina and Arizona State took umbrage with being snubbed, and responded with victory.

Players of the Week
If Dwayne Jarrett (7 catches, 132 yards, 3 TDs) wasn't already a multimillionaire in six months, his indebtedness to the Leinart family is assuredly short-lived now.

Jarrett: Rich Saturday in touchdowns, and soon just rich

SMQ is less certain even after his team's loss that Darren McFadden (21 carries, 182 yards, 2 TDs, 2-2 passing, 33 yards) isn't the best player out there at the moment. In a one-dimensional offense, against the top-ranked defense in the country, he was plainly unstoppable as a runner - again - and apparently the most effective facilitator of the very limited passing game, as well. The burst and separation he achieved against LSU's own blue chips on his 80-yard run following the Dick interception and the subsequent touchdown that put the Tigers up 24-12 had to be seen to be believed. Not sure any other running back would score there.

C.J. Spiller (10 carries, 155 yards, 2 TDs) and DeJuan Tribble (3 INT, 1 TD, 1 breakup) in losses: acknowledged. In the BC-Miami game, Calais Campbell (6.5 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack) was another defensive terror.

And for making the wild, ten-year-old's fantasy backyard play of the year to beat Utah, John Beck (28-43, 375 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INT) outduelled the Utes' Brett Ratliff (24-39, 358 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT) to keep BYU perfect in the Mountain West.

Hartline contemplates hauling in Beck's prayer

South Florida's win at West Virginia was repeatedly touted as the "biggest in the history of the program," and probably was, but not that much moreso than the Bulls' big win over Louisville last season. Saturday's leap should be taken as more evidence of USF's consistent rise to respectability - which it's already reached - and soon beyond: in a decade, the program's had one losing season (4-7 in 2004) and at least seven wins in nine of the other ten. It was a ridiculously young team, with a redshirt freshman quarterback playing well over his head on the road, that earned its eighth win and will play in its second consecutive bowl game. So wins like Saturday's, while still shocking upsets, will not be regarded as such for much longer. And SMQ will never pick against USF again, until maybe the bowl game.

At least as surprising to SMQ was Texas A&M's knockout of Texas, in a game the Aggies only managed to throw for 58 yards. The 244 yards rushing against the UT defense was out of nowhere, but it also seems slightly inflated (SMQ didn't watch the game aside from Mike Goodson's impressive opening touchdown run, he's only guessing here from the numbers) by a couple big runs rather than consistent pounding, as TAMU only mounted two drives of any consequence. The reason for all the Texas interceptions, though - Colt McCoy's health? - SMQ can't vouch. This must have been A&M's best defensive performance of at least the Franchione Era, if not the last decade.

SMQ Complaint of the Week
The annual award for institutional anagram anarchy goes to an employee of the in-game ticker on CBS, which momentarily terrified SMQ during the first quarter of the Georgia-Georgia Tech game by reporting the score "Rice 14, Southern Miss 0." But...wait. What? Ahhhh: Rice was playing Southern Methodist - aka SMU. Said employee, however, brilliantly interpretated "SMU" to represent "Southern Miss" (properly abbreviated "USM") instead; chaos ensues. This is a new innovation on an old mistake - typically, at least once a year, the ticker misidentifies Southern Miss as "SMU." Idiotic, but new. The mistake wasn't corrected until the second half of UGA-Tech. Rice blew its early 17-0 advantage but came back to win, 31-27.

The ticker, by the way, was a perpetual edition this week, often supported by a Verizon Wireless logo in the corner of the screen. Whether this perpetual advertisement - in addition to the Home Depot logos regularly superimposed by CBS onto the field between plays, sometimes remaining well into the action, and in spite of a full slate of regularly scheduled commercial commercials -  is better than the insufferable vibraphone CBS theme the network used to employ to announce the scrolling of scores, SMQ isn't sure.