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LIFE ON THE MARGINS, WEEK FOUR

Weekly obsessing over statistical anomalies and fringe idiosyncracies. Don’t get carried away by these scores from last weekend...

(As always, click here for a definition of 'Swing points')

West Virginia South Florida
Total Offense 437 274
1st Downs 21 13
Yds./Play 5.1 4.7
Yds./Possession 31.2 23.4
Turnovers 6 4
Swing Points 0 +7

Final Score: USF 21, West Virginia 13
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Lots of love this week for the scrappy Bulls, and rightfully so – as I mentioned Sunday, USF was smart, disciplined and sound-tackling, and the general tenror of its win after WVU fell into a 14-0 hole was one of frustration from the perspective of the fleet Mountaineers. After Pat White went down before the half, everything West Virginia produced seemed cobbled together from whatever Rich Rodriguez could find deep in his multi-colored wristbands. A couple of the turnovers were the direct result of USF pressure.

That wound up being quite a lot, though, far more than South Florida’s own offense produced even including WVU’s secondary collapse in the second quarter, and enough to win save for a persistent streak of self-defeating sloppiness. The worst example was Jarrett Brown’s horrendous throw into a crowded end zone that massacred a long Mountaineer drive in the third quarter, but the Mountaineers struggled with the basics down to the shotgun snap and, with Brown in the game, the QB-fullback exchange on the read option. Still, the Mountaineers moved the ball effectively (245 yards) in the second half, where USF (100 yard even before the final kneel-down drive, 74 on one possession) definitely did not in its efforts to kill the clock.

The real question to apply to the resulting optimism over the Bulls is about the offense, which only mounted one sustained drive in the game, at the start of the third quarter, and required a fourth down conversion to keep that going. The team was dependent on the defense not only to make stops, but make plays (i.e. a barrage of turnovers, particularly the interception return for touchdown that was the difference in the final score) to overcome its own inconsistency and giveaways, which is not a sustainable plan of action.

Michigan State Wisconsin
Total Offense 564 461
1st Downs 22 25
Yds./Play 7.7 5.98
Yds./Possession 43.4 36.2
Turnovers 1 2
Swing Points 0 +3

Final Score: Wisconsin 37, Michigan State 34
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That was too close. Hold me!
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Wisconsin remains in the top five this week, but the Spartans launched one horriffic assault on the acclaimed Badger defense. Almost eight yards per play? Excluding sacks, MSU running backs averaged 8.7 per carry; Javon Ringer ran up 145 on a mere ten attempts, a bizarrely low number for a starter exhibiting no obvious injuries. Brian Hoyer passed for 323 and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The Spartans were in great position to tie when Bret Swensen missed a late field goal. It’s to Wisconsin’s credit it was able to pound P.J. Hill often enough (34 carries) with enough success (214 yards on the ground as a team) to control the clock for an eight-minute possession advantage, even if the Badgers ultimately ran only four more plays. It’s hard to see that working for 450 and five touchdowns on a consistent basis, though, or Michigan State falling into one of its notorious holes with even production from its own offense, which trails only Purdue’s as the most prolific in the conference through the first month. This was the opposite of the Bielema Effect for the Badger defense, and for the nation’s longest win streak if it’s not corrected asap at very dangerous Illinois.
USC Washington
Total Offense 460 190
1st Downs 20 15
Yds./Play 6.1 3.1
Yds./Possession 33.0 15.9
Turnovers 3 2
Swing Points 0 +17

Final Score: Southern Cal 27, Washington 24
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USC dropped behind LSU in the AP poll and lost a little ground in the coaches’, apparently on the notion the Trojans "struggled" with Washington. Au contraire, according to the bits of the game I saw on breaks and at halftime of Auburn-Florida, and the final numbers, which show SC spent the overwhelming majority of Saturday night rolling over the discredited Huskies. Washington was effectively doubled up on yards per snap; after an impressive opening drive that ended in an interception, UW’s longest drive of the game covered 35 yards and ended in a punt. All three of its offensive scoring drives were set up by short fields after turnovers, and one touchdown came directly on an interception return, of an accurate pass that should have been caught but was instead tipped to the Washington linebacker - i.e., not caused by Washington pressure or suffocating coverage. By a wide margin, the average snap was exactly what you’d expect: SC dominated. It is troubling that the Trojans haven’t completely put behind them the petty mistakes that cost them the win at Oregon State last year, another game USC statistically dominated but gave away on turnovers. It’s misleading to say Washington "played ‘em close," but no matter how completely it dominates down-to-down, SC will not survive sporadic breakdowns all season, as it couldn’t last year.