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SUNDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK

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While awaiting more college football...on a Sunday? A guy could get used to this.

Saturday morning was supposed to be a leisurely, near-joyous time, a sort of Christmas morning effect for SMQ's mostly adult sensibilities. Instead, it brought the most serious loss of the day: an indefinitely incapacitated laptop that had performed capably since being named the starter at Sunday Morning Quarterback in January. A minor problem (uneplainable failure to open the Safari application despite a healthy Internet connection) led to phone calls, tinkering, the insertion of discs and, inevitably, a debilitating result: much blinking, searching for a reason to boot, then self-induced shutdown. SMQ is currently powerless beyond hitting the 'on' button, and frustrated.

The potential blue chip talent on the injured list until further notice, a slower desktop PC belonging to roommate of SMQ is expected to fill in capably. It's a disappointing loss, but the PC has played before - all of last season, in fact; the gameplan is the same. We're not going to change what we do. There are no excuses. The PC is the computer now and we're behind it 100 percent. You have to play with what you have. Et cetera.

SMQ WATCHED...
Fresno State 28, Nevada 19
The collective voices of thousands (or at least hundreds) of football-literate people - certainly the only people watching this game on a Friday night - screaming at TV sets from living rooms across America could not sway Nevada Coach Chris Ault's single-minded effort to give away a chance to beat a league favorite on the road with his team down nine and facing fourth-and-ten around the FSU 40 with a little over five minutes remaining. With a single time out at his disposal, Ault elected against all odds and reason to punt rather than go for it on fourth down, ensuring that, if it could first muster a stop against quick-cutting, raging Fresno bull Dwayne Wright, his team would get the ball back with barely enough time for one over-rushed effort to score, much less two. The fourth-string ESPN crew on duty repeatedly criticized Ault's failed decision to go for two after a third quarter touchdown brought the score to 21-12, but that was just a tradeoff (missed two-pointer now or later? It all adds up to the same thing: don't get your first extra point blocked), but the too-cautious decision to punt was the real stake in the coffin. So too was his later, weirder decision, near the Fresno 20 with under 30 seconds left, to go for it on fourth-and-ten rather than go ahead and get the mandatory field goal and worry about the mandatory touchdown after a mandatory onside kick. This is costly clock management on numerous occasions.

Otherwise, SMQ was impressed with Nevada quarterback Jeff Rowe. the aforementioned commentary crew lauded FSU passer Tom Brandstater in his first start, but his 16-24 performance was almosst exclusively due to extreme conservatism of the Bulldog passing game, consisting mostly of screens that, in the apparent absence of any attempt at a downfield game, went nowhere beginning in the second quarter; Brandstater had 124 yards, or about 7.75 per completion (5.2 per pass). Rowe, on the other hand, was not at all spectacular, but showed tremendous instinct and elusive pocket presence, escaping apparent fish-in-a-barrell sacks on two eventual touchdown passes by merely finding the right lane to step up and get on the move, and picking up a first down on a third-and-long by tucking and running right underneath a speeding, unblocked blitzer in the third quarter. It didn't go as well once the effective running game was eliminated due to the clock, but Rowe is a mid-major name to watch if given the opportunity.

Michigan 27, Vanderbilt 7
The Wolverines weren't particularly thrilled by a mere 13-7 halftime lead, and shouldn't have been, but didn't deserve Mark May's weird studio rant in which he emphatically insisted "Michigan is being outplayed in the Big House by Vanderbilt!" This assertion came despite the obvious dominance of the Vandy offense by the Michigan defense, to the extent that the only play remotely resembling 'success' for Vandy was a tricky screen-throwback thing, and Michigan's similarly overwhelming offense: the Wolverines were two plays (a red zone "fumble" by a down Kevin Grady and a missed Garrett Rivas chip shot field goal attempt) from being up 23-7, well on their way to covering the 27-point spread. The Commodores were also outgained more than doubled up in total yards, even accounting for the trick play that made up most of the total. Senile Lou Holtz, sagely and slobberingly noting "Vanderbilt gives scholarships, too," was a clear-headed voice of reason by contrast.

 - Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nixon is a good athlete who's going to give a less-talented, undisciplined defense some fits at some point this season - but only if he ever learns how to hold on to the ball. He was the model of the perpetually-fumbling quarterback usually found only on the NCAA Football games Saturday, losing the ball three times. Most of these came at the end of decent runs, and none by big blindside hits (though LaMar Woodley gave the latter his best shot on a couple occasions).

Tennessee 35, California 18
SMQ, who developed and nursed his Cal crush over the past month, was more heartbroken by the Bears' uninspired effort Saturday than he was even by the eventual blowout defeat of his own, scrappier alma mater (see below). It's disheartening to look up every two minutes and have to watch a bright orange jersey galloping away from the mythical championship sleeper you vouched for, talked up, went out on a limb to justify. Or 23 of them swarming like neon panthers at every opportunity to swallow up the previously unstoppable running backs, talents who were such sure things against near-total inexperience, or hounding a confused quarterback seemingly unwilling to pull the trigger on anything but his safest underneath option. For the ego, it's a tough blow to take.

SMQ can vouch for Marshawn Lynch, who played hard, shook and broke tackles on every play, only to have to immediately deal with more, and showed power and speed on a few impressive runs; despite the low, low total (64 yards on 23 carries) produced by the prolific sacking of overwhelmed Nate Longshore and the hemming-in of Justin Forsett, Lynch was as advertised, and averaged 6.2 on 12 carries. But SMQ can't vouch for the scheme that, with Lynch succeeding, forced Longshore into the line of fire against a quickly-evident rabid pass rush. Even so, there were many plays the sophomore held onto the ball too long with good protection, only to wind up scrambling under eventual duress or trying to dump the ball off for a worthless gain; whether that was a result of great coverage or excessive caution by Longshore, SMQ is in no position to speculate. But unless he was scheming for a lot of hasty dump-offs, Longshore was not in sync with whatever Jeff Tedford was trying to accomplish on offense. Aggressive and athletic Tennessee deserves a tremendous amount of credit for this; its secondary was always in the right position.

Not remotely so for the Cal defense, for which SMQ certainly cannot vouch. The Bears did not pressure Erik Ainge at all, in fact allowing the once shell-shocked junior to look like Senor Calma in the pocket. The Bears routinely blew assignments, missed tackles and stood around watching on defense; note No. 10, alleged all-America candidate Desmond Bishop literally standing flat-footed, as if already waiting the next call, while less than six feet away backup running back Monterio Hardesty was tearing through the poor angles, lackluster grasps and flailing attempts to collar by Bishop's helpless teammates en route to an embrassing, icing third quarter touchdown run down the Tennessee sideline.

Especially abused was redshirt freshman corner Syd'Quan Thompson, pressed into duty in place of injured senior Tim Mixon, who allowed Robert Meachem a big gain on the Vols' first snap and in two later instances lost a gamble and missed a one-on-one tackle against Meachem that allowed the senior to score two long touchdowns and nearly equal his 2005 production on just five catches. It's no coincidence that the line for Cal free safety Thomas DeCoud (10 solo tackles, three assists) is the team's most impressive. Tennessee easily matched Cal's athleticism, exceeded its preparation and vastly dominated in terms of effort.

Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 10
Oddsmakers, putting the Irish at touchdown favorites, rightly predicted a tense defensive game, as did SMQ, and this one was eerily similar to Tech's close home loss to Georgia last season: early offensive success, a bogged-down, turnover/field position-emphasized battle of attrition that changes in momentum with every hard-earned first down, an eventual disappearance of Calvin Johnson (and with him, Tech's production), and a late surge by the favored visitors for the win. In other words, a pleasure to watch.

Calvin Johnson was spectacular and probably advanced Heisman hype with a typically unstoppable first half, yet (also typically) was nowhere to be found once the Irish were able to contain him (one catch, 12 yards in the second half) and force Tech to go to other, less attractive options, to the tune of four punts on four possessions, zero third down conversions, less than ten minutes in total possession and zero points in the second half. In the play-by-play, Johnson's name only appears once, on a second down catch in the third quarter, in the entire second half.

Brady Quinn, on the other hand, seemingly did not produce much MOCFPITC buzz, but did make four of the game's biggest plays with his legs, without any one of which Notre Dame probably loses: a scramble for first down on third-and-nine that kept alive the crucial 80-yard touchdown drive before the half; the touchdown draw/dive to cap said drive with only a few seconds left and no timeouts ("A risky call!" intoned fraidy-cat announcer Bob Davie, operating as always on a pathological fear of Murphy's Law-style collapse at any moment), the late-hit-producing scramble that led to Darius Walker's impressive go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter (SMQ did not think Walker had that kind of speed) and the quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one to put the game away. Quinn didn't throw a touchdown, but he didn't make any major mistakes and did enough to put together long, time-consuming drives against a tough defense required of any vying mythical title team to pull this kind of slugfest out (yes, the late hit call was iffy, but certainly no more so than the holding penalty on a long, tone-setting Jeff Samardihgajnaa run after catch on the first series that negated an impending ND score to open the game).

Glimpses
Northern Illinois was obviously manhandled, but Garrett Wolfe is just as clearly for real as a big-time, could-play-anywhere running back. Even the defense of the number one team in the country was hardly a match for the little guy's tremendous balance, speed, versatility (he also had 114 and a long score on five catches) and cutting ability. He has a chance at 2,000 yards in the MAC...Combined with a pathetic highlight of several defenders fruitlessly attempting to tackle Oregon QB Dennis Dixon on a short touchdown run and the lines of Duck backs Jonathan Stewart (22 for 162, two scores) and Jeremiah Johnson (10 for 79 and one score), Stanford's defense may turn out to be one of the worst of many futile Western units this decade...The most vicious hit of the day was on BYU punt returner Nathan Meikle, who, attempting to fair catch a rocket punt late in the second half, was crushed early by an Arizona defender, then lay without moving for a few seconds. The obvious flag was picked up because the defender was ruled to have been "blocked into" Meikle, though replays showed that, while he was pushed in the back, the Arizona player left his feet, lowered his head and tensed himself up to deliver a big hit on a basically defenseless opponent. And he definitely did. The Wildcats went on to a very big, momentum-building - and surprisingly defensive-oriented - 16-13 win on a last-second field goal.

SMQ HOMERISM
Florida 34, Southern Miss 7

This one came to SMQ via satellite radio, and disppointingly dull Florida play-by-play guys who did not deem it necessary to name USM players on most routine tackles or, say, key fourth down sacks of Chris Leak. Enough was communicated to discern:

 - Florida is much, much better than USM.
 - From a Southern Miss perspective, there were a few positives: Jeremy Young is going to complete a few passes, and can move a little. Shaun Nelson is going to be prominently involved in the offense again. And there is hope in the running game via true freshman Damion Fletcher, a diminutive jitterbug who replaced last year's starters, Larry Thomas and Cody Hull (Hull's name, incredibly, was not called a single time last night) and came up with 89 yards on 18 carries and had two catches for 38 yards, which represents by far the best performance by an Eagle running back against a decent opponent (even defined in the loosest possible terms) in years. It had no effect on improving the poor point total, but given the recent history of USM running backs, that's a very encouraging debut.
 - Less encouraging is the overall quarterbacking, which was predictably inconsistent and stagnant for long periods, and defense, which got the early turnover to set up the lone score (replays show this was probably the receiver's fault for cutting a route short) and bent for a while without breaking, but eventually had the floodgates opened on it. UF had three or four runs of more than 20 yards, and the pass rush couldn't get to Leak enough to keep him from dissecting the inexperienced secondary on 21 of 30 passes, almost half of them to Dallas Baker.

What We Learned
Tennessee, for now, deserves mythical title talk...Cal, for now, probably doesn't deserve to be ranked...Don't count your touchdowns before they hatch (applicable only to Mikey Henderson)...When one has a minus-five turnover ratio against USC, one is going to lose. By a lot...At least a third of the Big XII North would struggle to make the Championship Subdivision playoffs.

CONCEIT...
SMQ was right about: In picking Fresno State-Nevada, he guessed 30-21 Fresno, only four points total off the 28-19 FSU win. For USM-Florida, he said 38-10 Gators, only one point over the actual margin in UF's 34-7 victory. [erroneous USC-Arkansas score removed; see comments]

...AND CONTRITION
SMQ was wrong about: When he wrote

Southerners think PAC Ten schools are soft and shrink if you "hit 'em in the mouth," or some such euphemism, but will be surprised if they think Cal's success running and stopping the run is the result of facing West Coast powder puffs. The Bears are almost certainly going to gain yards on the ground

SMQ wasn't expecting a reincarnation of last year's hellacious Tennessee front seven, or a complete inability to open it up through the air on the part of wide-eyed Nate Longshore. Or the Cal defense to mentally (through blown coverage) and physically (missed tackles) break down to the extent that sticking with a patient rushing attack was untenable by halftime. But basically everything SMQ predicted over the past month regarding Cal - aside from the hardworking and debonair Marshawn Lynch - was completely, utterly wrong in pretty much every way.

Players of the Week
It's hard to vote against Robert Meachem (five catches, 182 yards, two touchdowns), but SMQ will symbolically select Vol tackle Arron Sears to represent the entire UT line, which wiped out a formidable Cal front seven to put up more than five yards per carry and kept Erik Ainge on his feet the entire afternoon (Cal, which averaged nearly three sacks per game in '05, had zero sacks and only one hurry Saturday).

Elsewhere, Kenny Irons (20 carries, 183 yards, one touchdown) was even beastlier than previous conceptions indicated against admittedly soft Washington State; ditto Adrian Peterson (24 carries, 139 yards, one touchdown; one catch, 69 yards, one touchdown), who was very good on the ground, but valuable for a change as a big play receiver in Oklahoma's otherwise too-tight 24-17 win over UAB.

WHAT? WHAT?!
Upsetting
There is no excuse to losing to Montana State if you are any Bowl Subdivision team on any level, but especially if you are Colorado, and especially if you lose by two scores. Very cuddly, highly motivated Dan Hawkins' previously explosive offensive schemes, so effective against the WAC, netted 216 total yards against the Fighting Bobcats, a team that finished 7-4 in the Big Sky last year. Is Gary Barnett's number still in the bottom of a desk drawer somewhere?

Yet statistically, at least, the Buffs' performance wasn't even the division's worst against a I-AA opponent Saturday: Kansas State gained just 212 yards in its debut under Ron Prince - just 49 rushing - while giving up 346 to Illinois State. KSU only survived by scoring two special teams touchdowns and stopping the Redbirds' two-point conversion attempt to win after an ISU touchdown made it 24-23 with three minutes to go.

JUST WHEN YA THINK YA KNOW A FELLA...
Time to Re-think: California's rise, obviously, and Tennessee's decline...Nebraska had 585 yards against Louisiana Tech, and even averaged more than five yards a carry while running for more than 250 in that number, which is far, far above the very humble stats Bill Callahan's intricate West Coast attack has produced in Years One and Two (consistent readers will note 'intricate' has replaced 'dreaded,' which is what happens when you score 49 against anybody)...Arkansas was not nearly as competitive as imagined against Southern Cal, which is still head and shoulders better than middle-of-the-pack, would-be challengers. Any expectations of a Razorback run for the SEC West title should probably be tempered until further notice.

A FINE WHINE
SMQ Complaint of the Week
This is ticky and biased, but that's what whining is about: with Florida up 14-7 in the third quarter, according to radio coverage and confirmed in the play-by-play, UF freshman Percy Harvin took a "speed sweep" down to the Southern Miss 38, where a five-yard facemask flag was thrown as he was brought down. The officials then huddled, determined Harvin stepped out of bounds at the USM 42, five yards before being tackled, and thus deemed the facemask a "dead ball" foul and therefore a 15-yard-penalty, which moved the ball from the USM 33 to the 23-yard-line. No whistle blew to stop the play until Harvin was tackled, no flag was thrown for a late hit. The ball was not dead when the facemask occurred. And yet it was retroactively penalized as such. This is academic, as USM stopped Florida and sacked Chris Leak on fourth down to end the drive, but was this call correct? If so, how? SMQ has never seen or heard of such a call when there is no whistle to end the play where it's later deemed to have officially ended, and this is a fairly routine occurance. Note the penalty was for a facemask, not a late hit - so how does it become 15 yards rather than five, when a regular hit at the same point apparently would have drawn no penalty at all?