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Sunday Morning Quarterback

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Rushed this morning by the Saints' season opener in Cleveland...

Tennessee, Florida State and Iowa - even sans Drew Tate - ought to be ashamed of their respective efforts Saturday, all of them falling at least three touchdowns short of the margins by which they should be beating the likes of Air Force, Troy and Syracuse.

Yet the story of the day is more one of affirmation, in the form of Ohio State and Notre Dame, which each answered very large questions about its various weaknesses with impressive, consistent performances over two of the nation's top three teams in 2005. These two clearly are the mythical title frontrunners, an exclusive group USC and any number of other contenders can join after Football Nirvana next Saturday - more on the coming week of insane goodness over the next few days.

SMQ WATCHED...

Virginia Tech 35, North Carolina 10
One team here with a quarterback it's afraid to let throw beyond six yards, and another that should be. If you're Virginia Tech, though, there was no reason to put the ball at risk - or, indeed, in the air at all - via Sean Glennon when Joe Dailey was occupying himself by gift-wrapping an otherwise winnable game in a neat little bow against your punishing defense.

Make no mistake: North Carolina's defense was up to the challenge Saturday. UNC outgained V-Tech by 44 yards due to an effort that allowed just 224, and just 107 passing, almost half of which came on a garbage-time, 41-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Ike Whitaker to former backup quarterback-cum-tight end Greg Boone, Whitaker's only pass; Glennon threw for 66 yards on 3.9 per attempt (and just 6.6 per completion). Most of that came on two screens to Branden Ore against a demoralized, suddenly shoddy-tackling UNC defense in the second half. He didn't make a big mistake (other than an early turnover on a fumbled snap), but given his performance was the textbook definition of "underwhelming," and the more athletic, Randall-Vick-like Whitaker electrified on his sole attempt, quarterback could be on deck. Because the Hokie offense under Glennon was a predictable, slow, all-holds-barred, weak sister Saturday.

But Dailey may, in fact, be a perpetual double agent, discarded when compromised at Nebraska and now betraying the earnest efforts of those around him in an entirely new, unsuspecting venue. And the kid must be spectacular in practice. What other explanation could suffice for a quarterback who's thrown 23 interceptions in 13 career starts in two different offenses? And these are, as noted by Saturday's broadcasters, "killer mistakes." Carolina was in a position to beat Rutgers in Week One - if not for two Dailey interceptions in the red zone. Saturday, UNC's defense, as mentioned, was in all the right places the entire first half, just priming itself for a momentum-building turnover by the frustrated Hokies, but no effort's going to overcome two passes laser-guided into opponents' hands by alleged "poor vision," one of which was returned to the UNC one to set up an easy touchdown and the other occurring in the V-Tech end zone, ending the Heels' only serious drive until late in the fourth quarter. This does not include at least two drops of easy picks on throws too terrible for any legitimate starting quarterback to contemplate.

When its special teams is also giving up punt blocks - continuing a trend under John Bunting - this is a defense destined to be preceded soon by "long-suffering."

Notre Dame 41, Penn State 17
In his underrated paean to baseball as metaphor for the American Dream, The Great American Novel, Philip Roth thusly describes the Tri-City Tycoons, perpetual champion of the mythical Patriot League:

Of course the fans who hated them - and they were legion, particularly out West - labeled them "robots," "zombies," and even "snobs" because of their emotionless, machinelike manner. Out-of-town fans would jeer at them, insult and abuse them, do everything they could think of to try to rattle them - and watched with awe and envy the quietly flawless, tactful, economical, virtually invisible way in which the Tycoons displayed their superiority...

Afterwards it was not always clear how exactly they had done it. "Where was we when it happened?" was a line made famous by a Rustler who did not even know his team had been soundly beaten until he looked up at the end of the ninth and read the sad news off the scoreboard. "They ain't human," the other players complained, "they ain't all there," but out of their uniforms and in street clothes, the Tycoons turned out to be fellows more or less resembling themselves..."But they ain't that good!" the fans would cry, after the Tycoons had come through to sweep a four-game series - and yet there never did appear to be anybody that was better. "They steal them games! They take `em while nobody's lookin'!" "It's that park of theirs, that's what kills us - that sunfield and them shadows!" "The way they does it, they can win all they want, and I still got no use fore `em! I wouldn't be a Tycoon fan if you paid me!" But the even-temeped Tycoons couldn't have cared less.

SMQ doesn't recall ever having reason to root for or against the Irish in any game, but he imagines the version of ND on display Saturday - the one he expected when he picked it to win the mythical championship last month - is more or less along these lines, and no less frustrating for opposing fans and legion Irish-haters.

In the box score, Penn State outrushed Notre Dame by almost 50 yards and a full yard and a half per carry, had more first downs, even posted a slightly better third down conversion rate. And had to mount two epic fourth quarter touchdown drives to lose by 24.

The difference, of course, was turnovers - three by PSU to none for Notre Dame, one leading directly to a basically icing touchdown - dropped interceptions, a missed field goal. The "they didn't beat us, we killed ourselves" line will be in full force, and with plenty of supporting evidence.

Witness, though, the maddening surgical precision of Notre Dame's offense and Manchurian Candidate Brady Quinn on the Irish's eight offensive possessions in the first three quarters:

START    QTR    POSS.    YRDL    PLAYS    YARDS    RESULT
15:00    1    05:20    ND 20    12    63    Field Goal Good
05:56    1    03:35    ND 17    6    27    Punt
00:47    1    04:35    ND 45    13    37    Field Goal Good
08:19    2    04:11    ND 25    9    75    Passing Touchdown
01:30    2    01:17    ND 31    7    69    Passing Touchdown
13:58    3    00:00    ND 25    1    25    Fumble Return Touchdown
11:29    3    03:53    ND 25    6    0    Punt
07:28    3    02:36    ND 45    8    55    Rushing Touchdown
02:55    3    05:05    ND 47    10    47    Passing Touchdown

Ignore the one-play, "Fumble Return Touchdown," and you have eight possessions of at least six plays, and an average of just a little over five yards per play. More than half of the six Notre Dame scoring drives featured a fourth down conversion, including a tricky draw off a fake screen action and a 44-yard run up the gut on a fake punt. This is not even remotely dominance; this is an infuriating death by approximately 71 paper cuts of various degrees.

AKA "consistency." There is no guarantee yet this will continue against such opponents as, say, Michigan. Penn State, by the same turn, probably won't be beaten this way again.

Boston College 34, Clemson 33 (Double Overtime)
This was, as SMQ predicted, probably the best show of the day, but it didn't have to be that way. Clemson controlled the game on the road (490 yards to BC's 322, with just one turnover apiece) and had every opportunity to win, probably in fairly comfortable fashion. Will Proctor, contrary to SMQ's assertion Friday, was easily the more productive quarterback, and under-used freshman C.J. Spiller was the most exciting big play threat on either side.

Partly this give-away was out of the Tigers' hands. Michael Hamlin was robbed of a likely clinching interception on B.C.'s eventually tying drive in the fourth quarter, when he came up with the better end of dual possession of the ball along with Kevin Challenger as the pair hit the ground, then easily ripped the ball away for the pick. This obvious call was made on the field. On replay, however, Challenger was awarded the catch, on grounds the offensive player wins dual possession if his hands are on the ball when he hits the ground - even if, as was clearly the case here, the defensive player has an equal right to the ball, and had a better grasp on it even as the two were on their way down. This was Hamlin's ball all the way, with incidental contact from Challenger, and should have been awarded, as it was originally, to Clemson; the Tigers almost certainly win with this call.

Yet they also have themselves to blame for a pair of killer special teams errors that were mental mistakes more than anything else: poor contain (followed by poor angles and a poor tackling effort) on a tying 96-yard kickoff return by Jeff Smith to open the second half, and then being overwhelmed by a strong leftside rush on the extra point in the second overtime, leading to the decisive block that accounted for the final margin.

Give the Eagles credit, too, for taking advantage of every bit of fortune, and for making small adjustments. In the fourth quarter, for example, Clemson went ahead on an old-school sweep from the T formation, which found no one from B.C. home on the outside to lay a hand on James Davis. Down by three in the first overtime, after completing a pass inside the Eagle five on the first play and apparently on its way to the winning touchdown, Clemson came out in the same formation and proceeded to run the same play to the same corner of the same end zone; the only difference was that Spiller carried rather than Davis, and that about four B.C. defenders were waiting on the corner to run him out of bounds for a four-yard loss, from whence Proctor was sacked and the Tigers had to settle merely for the tying field goal.

Perpetually underrated B.C., SMQ presumes, will now vault into everyone's Top 25. With Florida State's turn-your-eyes rushing game now apparent in its inexcusably lackluster win over Troy, are the Eagles in line for `division favorite' status? The two have one ranked opponent apiece (Clemson for FSU, Virginia Tech for Boston College) before they meet Oct. 21.

Ohio State 24, Texas 7
Troy Smith - and, by extension, Ted Ginn Jr. and especially Anthony Gonzalez - was obviously the hero here, and probably the Most Outstanding frontrunner at this early stage despite another scramble-free performance. But Texas hurt itself by going to the air so often when Ohio State's young defense never stopped the Longhorn running game.

Selvin Young averaged over eight yards per carry; Jamaal Charles about four and a half, which is about what Colt McCoy averaged on his ludicrous 32 pass attempts. Peter is right: there's no excuse to have a young quarterback in his first real start trying to stay toe-to-toe with a very, very "on" veteran talent Smith when the strength of the team - power running - was every bit as effective. As it was, the Longhorns probably don't get in the end zone at all without the infuriating "roughing the passer" call on David Patterson on third down before UT's lone touchdown.

Quickly:

-    Does Texas win if Billy Pittman doesn't fumble on the goalline in the first quarter? This is a possibility, and certainly the biggest swing in the game. The offense never gained any kind of momentum or consistency from that point.
-    What in hell is Texas doing playing Ted Ginn man-to-man with under a minute to go in the half?
-    Brent Musberger referred to JerMichael Finley after a third quarter pass in his direction as a "future tight end." He's not a tight end now? Gene Chizik is also "a future head coach waiting to happen." Gene Chizik is waiting to become a future head coach!

Glimpses
Mississippi State's quixotic quest for a point of any variety continued unquenched against Auburn, where the Bulldogs took a couple steps into Tiger territory twice, but did not approach the end zone; quarterback Tray Rutland has a nice future as a wide receiver, alongside former QB Omarr Conner...South Carolina's performance was terrible, but its way over-the-top stadium entrance - the uber-dramatic them of 2001: A space Odyssey, with the unveiling of a head-banging chicken and a raucous band lining the field on either side of the players - is definitely SMQ's new favorite...Oregon's uniforms were not as bad as advertised against Fresno State. The black-lined numbers could use some work, but SMQ actually likes the silver names on the back.

SMQ HOMERISM
Southern Miss 45, Southeast Louisiana 0

SMQ didn't watch or listen to any of this assumed win, but he was heartened by the elusive shutout (the Eagles' first since 2001) and a box score that reveals fairly a spectacular game from emerging true freshman Damion Flethcer (138 total yards, two touchdowns on 19 touches) and a solid, efficient effort from iffy new quarterback Jeremy Young (5 of 7, 106 yards, one touchdown). This means little against SE La., though; wounded NC State at home next week is many times more valuable as a barometer.

CONCEIT...
SMQ was right about:
Potential upset of the week: NC State, coming off a mere 13-point win over defending 1-AA champ Appalachian State, should be wary of Akron, making its second tough road trip in two weeks to open the season; the Zips are in a better position to score the inexperienced Wolfpack defense than they were against superior talent at Penn State.

Whether or not it's a good sign for Southern Miss that NC State was taken down at home by one mid-major already will be evident Saturday. But kudos for Akron for going for the throat and converting with very little to lose from the one-yard-line.

...AND CONTRITION
SMQ was wrong about:
...can UGA's 75 percent new secondary deny Sidney Rice for the second straight game? Can Tereshinksi - or true freshman Matt Stafford - or the young line deal with Carolina's myriad blitzes? Georgia's best weapon in the opener, Leon Lett-handed punt returner Mikey Henderson, is out with a tight hamstring, along with a pair of demoted starting receivers.
[...]
Going out of one's way to forecast surprises is always the quickest route to the `Contrition' column on Sunday, but this series has produced annual nailbiters, and given Georgia's inability crack 300 yards total offense against Western Kentucky - and the mere presence of the mad mind of Steve Spurrier - USC at home in another grueling punt fest is not the reach it may seem.

Other than winding up in the `Contrition' column, SMQ was pretty much wrong in every way about USC's ability to exploit Georgia's defense or youth. Stafford threw three picks, but Carolina didn't really begin to stop any of UGA's running backs. Sidney Rice had three catches for 31 yards, and was overshadowed again by Syvelle Newton and sticky-handed Kenny McKinley.

WHAT? WHAT?!
Upsetting
Tennessee, Florida State and Iowa, of course, had embarrassing near-hits in this category, but in the end, the real shockers were of the more mundane variety in the MAC, where division favorites Toledo and Northern Illinois, a week after playing respectably against various levels of BCS conference competition, fell convincingly to Western Michigan and Ohio, respectively.

And Montana State, Davids to Colorado's Goliath? 35-24 home losers to Chadron State.

A FINE WHINE
SMQ Complaint of the Week
College football does all of the things right the NFL does wrong - clock running after first downs, spot-of-the-foul pass interference penalties, excessively long play clocks, don't-even-breathe-on-him roughing the passer penalties - yet is creeping dangerously close to the irritants of the pro game with not only the maddening, play-stealing clock rule, but now, for the second consecutive week, an absurd "roughing the passer" call on the most dubious possible grounds of a "helmet to helmet" hit. Colt McCoy nor Brady Quinn is a million-dollar investment worthy of such protective measures yet - please, please, please don't turn college football into the NFL.