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SUNDAY QUARTERBACK GOES FOR IT

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In a season defined since the first hours of its first Saturday by not merely the improbable but the blatantly impossible, in which arguably the three single most unbelievable upsets in the history of the sport shocked and awed and shook the earth before midseason while marquee games - LSU-Virginia Tech, Florida-Tennessee, USC-Nebraska, Miami-Oklahoma - and as many supposedly marquee teams have fallen depressingly flat, at least one game grasped the promise of its outsized hype and made a genuine, worthy spectacle of its time on the stage. LSU-Florida was a draining fight to the death between worthy titans, the only heavyweight slugfest of the season capable of producing enough genuine competitive drama to cast a shadow on the most stunning defeat of this or maybe of any decade across the country. If we're meant to embrace the random, democratic insurgency of the put-upon proletariat, LSU-Florida embodied everything we should expect of monolithic powers emptying their arsenals on a grand scale.


Sing, you son of a bitch, sing your ballsy heart out.
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And for now, anyway, only one team embodies in any way at all what we should expect of a champion. LSU has had its blowouts, and now has pulled victory from its guts against as irresistible a force of nature as Tim Tebow when it could have succumbed to counterpunch after counterpunch. So there is no question, as the pundits churn over the sordid, bloody cast below, that LSU is alone on its throne. Bruised, exhausted, and alone. And, with Kentucky, Auburn and Alabama over the next month, guaranteed nothing beyond the satisfaction of Saturday night.

Onwards...

SMQ WATCHED...
...with various degrees of vigilance...

LSU 28 FLORIDA 24
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"Satisfaction" is probably inadequate to describe Les Miles' emotions this morning. For months, Miles has been regarded as the greatest liability on the Tigers' championship march, in this space and elsewhere: impulsive, off-the-cuff, sloppy, unfocused. Loses his head.

You know, all those qualities that effectively won the biggest game of the year. I don't think I agreed with a single one of the following decisions:

FLA 17, LSU 7, 3rd Quarter, 4th-and-5 from UF 25: Lining up for a 42-yard field goal to cut the margin to a touchdown, LSU sends very white Matt Flynn off tackle 8 yards on a fake field goal. Keiland Williams cuts the score to 17-14 five plays later.

FLA 24, LSU 14, 10:25 4th Quarter, 4th-and-3 from UF 4: Capitalizing on a short field following an interception, LSU again eschews the field goal to cut the score to seven, earning a touchdown from Matt Flynn to Demetrius Byrd. 24-21.

Ensuing kickoff: Brandon James skirts the sideline and returns the kick past the Florida 30. Miles, against all rational advice - LSU was down to its last timeout due to poor substitution/clock management on two earlier plays while shuttling Ryan Perrilloux into the game, and if the replay booth was going to call James out of bounds, wouldn't it have, you know, stopped the game for a review already? - challenged the spot and won, saving the timeout and setting Florida up at its own 14. The Gators went three-and-out and LSU got the ball back at its own 40 for a drive that immediately ran into...

FLA 24, LSU 21, 8:35 4th Quarter, 4th-and-1 from LSU 49: Rather than play a field position game by punting, LSU sends Jacob Hester over right guard - or rather into the right guard, who was beaten at the snap and pushed backward by Florida's Javier Estopinan - where he inexplicably fights and slithers for two drive-extending yards into UF territory. Later on the same possession...

FLA 24, LSU 21, 2:05 4th Quarter, 4th-and-1 from UF 7: After Hester was stuffed on 3rd-and-1, most coaches would have taken the tying field goal and relied on their top-ranked defense to get the game into overtime. LSU blasts Hester straight ahead again for the first down. It then tries some kind of bizarre attempt at avenging last year's Tebow jump pass (Ryan Perrilloux's first and only attempt of the game) before pounding Hester forward twice for the go-ahead score with 1:09 to play.


Indeed, coach.
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Miles could have been wrong every time, and maybe only came out ahead, barely, by his players' talent and will rather than the overworked synapses or testicles of anyone on the sideline. He gave them the shot, though, he put the game in his players' extremely capable hands when timidity or failure in any one of those cases could have cost them the game. He let `er rip. When you're right, and then right again and again and again, the questions stop. Well, until you're wrong.

Urban Meyer, meanwhile: going to sell those timeouts on eBay? The Gators let a good 25-30 seconds tick tick tick away after LSU converted its last 4th-and-1, bizarrely wasting the first TO after letting the play clock run almost all the way down just prior to Hester's winning go-ahead, and wound up sitting on two timeouts even as 12-15 precious seconds lapsed after a completion short of the first down on their final offensive possession. Florida wound up using the timeouts to talk things over in situations where the clock was already stopped. It's usually a mistake to let the clock run on defense when you have every reason to leave yourself maximum time for a response, and unfathomable to let the clock run with less than a minute to go 80 yards for the winning touchdown. Both teams treated timeouts like luxuries, and both could have paid severely for it. Only one actually did.

• The "gut check" series in the closing minutes is a fairly easy situational criticism - Miles has balls, Meyer froze up - but it misses the larger philosophical shift that LSU decidedly won down the stretch. Early on, Florida was flawless offensively and LSU looked surprised and on its heels throughout the first half. This might have been due to Florida actually handing the ball to its running back: Kestahn Moore was a key cog in the Gators' run to a 10-0 lead and Tebow was, as mentioned, a force of nature, a highly instinctive, man-sized brick with an arm and legs. When Florida answered LSU's first touchdown to go ahead 17-7 in the second quarter, on a 72-yard drive that was ten-elevenths Tebow, including the nine-yard, third down touchdown scramble, I resolved that young Tim had passed Darren McFadden as the one player in the country I'd pick for my team above any other. The Vince Young comparisons from the booth weren't that outrageous in terms of Tebow's versatility and impact on the offense, of which he is the sole, indispensable engine. And yet:

1st Half Florida LSU
Run:Pass 19 : 14 19 : 15
RB Carries/Yds. 6-32 16-58
2nd Half Florida LSU
Run:Pass 9 : 14 35 : 12
RB Carries/Yds. 6-47 28-140

Florida had a lot of success with Kestahn Moore, and up to the point he carried for the twelfth time in the third quarter, he was averaging better than six and a half yards per carry. Florida led by ten, had scored on four of its first five non-half-ending drives and had moved 30 yards to midfield on its sixth. After Moore fumbled that carry, though, leading to a missed LSU field goal, he didn't touch the ball again, and Florida's next two possessions - in a situation it needed desperately to make first downs and run the clock - lasted two plays (interception) and three plays (punt), took 1:42 off the clock and did nothing to prevent the no-win final drive in the last minute.

I suggested last week that LSU's greatest advantage was in its offensive line against Florida's front seven, and the Tigers put the game on its physical dominance to maximum effect in the second half. When Florida lost faith in its effective running game, LSU pounded away and repeatedly won short-yardage battles. Down double digits in the fourth quarter, it almost literally wrestled the game away.

• The kid's from my hometown, so I paid special attention when Gary Danielson began calling sophomore tight end Richard Dickson (whom he referred to a few times as "Dirkson" before correcting himself) LSU's best receiving threat and exhorting the Tigers to exploit the matchup against very athletic UF linebacker Dustin Doe in clutch moments of the second half. Last year, Daniels called Dickson "a below average receiving tight end" and later blamed him for not coming back to a badly underthrown JaMarcus Russell pass that was intercepted at Tennessee. He probably doesn't remember that, but at least maybe he'll get his name right next time - after all, Saturday was only the seventh LSU game Danielson has called with Dickson as a starter over two seasons. So we'll cut him some slack.

• As always, you can trust YouTube to be the first to capture the truly essential moments of any game:

OKLAHOMA 28 TEXAS 21
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Texas was done in (again) by exactly the elements anyone might have predicted done `em in: an inexperienced, undersized secondary that allowed too many big plays, an offensive line unable to consistently open anything in the running game (excluding sacks, UT totalled 88 yards on the ground with a long of 14 yards) or protect Colt McCoy (he was sacked four times) and ongoing problems running in short yardage situations. Offensive line and secondary were unavoidable issues for Texas coming into the season, and in two straight losses - additional special teams gaffes notwithstanding against Kansas State - the offensive line and secondary have proven unavoidable scapegoats.

Colt McCoy, though, off by far the worst performance of his career, was fine, every bit the cool playmaker Texas fans envisioned. That is, when it wasn't obvious he was going to be asked:

Colt McCoy Passing vs. Oklahoma
Comp./Att. Yards 1st Downs TD:INT Sacked
1st Down 9-12 139 5 1:1 1
2nd Down 3-4 81 2 2
3rd Down 6-7 78 4 1:0 1
1-3 to go 2-2 34 2 - -
4-6 to go 2-2 29 2 1:0 -
7-10 to go - - - - -
>10 to go 2-3 15 - - 1

McCoy was sharp, especially compared to last week's struggles, but he's getting such little help. The biggest play-by-play note of the afternoon might have been this, with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter, one possession after an apparent go-ahead drive to start the half ended after 67 yards in a fumble at the goalline:

3rd and 1 at TEX 21 Chris Ogbonnaya rush for no gain to the Texas 21.

The next line is entered in all green:

1st and 10 at OKLA 35 DeMarco Murray rush for 65 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

When Texas answered that touchdown with an impressive 70-yard march to tie, Oklahoma responded immediately with a 94-yard drive on which the Sooners converted three first downs, Sam Bradford hit his first six passes and his eighth found a wide open Malcolm Kelly for the winning score.


The flattened McCoy.
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That sequence in a nutshell demonstrates every reason Oklahoma should be proceeding with high optimism: its defense delivered a crucial stop, its young, big play running back broke the game open in the blink of an eye, and its young, steady quarterback, rebounding from the first negative game of his short career, brought the team out of an adverse position (its own six, with the momentum on the opposite sideline) with near-perfect poise, culminating in a long clutch pass on third down to a receiver who was ignored in the Sooners' only loss. If the trip to Colorado brought OU's, and Bradford's, true colors into question, their response should be an adequate answer. For all the carnage in front of them, Oklahoma must still be in the mythical championship discussion.

Texas, on the other hand, is in the Holiday Bowl discussion and not much better. The Longhorns have yet to put together a complete game and right now, with their inability to run or prevent competent offenses from picking their spots in the passing game, are staring down the barrell of a four-loss season. If things don't get any worse.

ILLINOIS 31 WISCONSIN 26
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This game was summed up for me in the third quarter, when Wisconsin came out of the locker room having scored the last six points of the first half and went 81 yards for a quick touchdown that cut the Illini's once-bulging lead to four. It was the perfect moment for a bad team to wilt and concede the momentum at home to a good one, for the winner to overwhelm the loser, to confirm the preconceived conference hierarchy. Illinois' response: nine plays, 79 yards, touchdown, re-establishing the eleven-point advantage. I had no doubt then the Illini would hold on, and when it charged 71 yards in the fourth quarter on nine straight runs, led by a true freshman backup quarterback who wasn't thinking about throwing a pass, I started to wonder whether it might be up for challenging the best of this screwy conference. After all, wasn't Wisconsin supposed to be the best? At this point, why the hell not? Illinois won two conference games in four seasons, and now it's going to the Rose Bowl.

Immediately, though, I'm thinking the dominance on the ground is due at least as much to Wisconsin futility against the run as Illini merit. In two weeks, the vaunted Badger D has given up 530 yards on 6.6 per carry, with much worse results against feature backs:

Javon Ringer: 10 carries, 145 yards (14.5 per carry)
Rashard Mendenhall: 19 carries, 162 yards (8.4 per carry), 2 TD

Add Juice Williams and Jehuu caulcrick to that, and the Badgers are giving up 120 yards on eight yards per carry to each of them. They were slow, out of position and generally dreadful all afternoon against the spread option - the way Illinois runs it, it's usually just a standard, old school triple option out of the shotgun - even with little threat of Illinois doing anything downfield in the passing game. There's a reason Arrelious Benn's receptions are all on screens, stops and slants, and an even better reason he wasn't involved much in the second half: why throw when you can run it down their throat? Wisconsin has to fix its defense before Mike Hart and Beanie Wells pulverize it into the Alamo Bowl.

• Rashard Mendenhall might be beginning to get some credit for his outsized production. He's averaging 158 total yards over six games and over two years - most of that as a backup in spot duty in 2006 - is generating 7.3 yards every time he touches the ball, along with 20 touchdowns in 18 games. At the moment, and this will change as his team continues to win and he starts to gain more attention, Mendenhall is probably the most underrated player for his talent in the country.

Glimpses
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• Kansas was a better running team against Kansas State than the numbers will bear out. Jake Sharp stole the thunder from Jordy Nelson's "wise runner" designation, and lumpy Brandon McAnderson came in and averaged nearly seven per carry against the defense that shut down Texas' run game last week. Kansas is a balanced, dangerous offense that, as of this moment, is destined to collide with fellow unbeaten Missouri for the Big 12 North title on Nov. 24. Looking forward to that about as much as the USF-Cincinnati showdown for the Big East title, I presume.

• Speaking of Missouri, I don't know if there's a grudge or what, but I'm pretty sure that I saw the Tigers run a fake punt for a touchdown against Nebraska in the fourth quarter of a game they led 34-6. I'm sure there are plenty old beatdowns at the hands of the Huskers to avenge, but isn't unleashing Chase Daniel for 473 yards and four touchdowns retribution enough?


If you missed Nebraska's defense against Mizzou, this was it. Weep for your childhood.
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• Has any team has gotten as much mileage from a single gimmick as Kansas State has from the halfback pass? Since last November, KSU has used the ol' double throw to score touchdowns against Texas, Auburn and now Kansas, on a go-ahead throw following a could-be killer Jayhawk turnover in the fourth quarter. Don't let the guy free!

• Because OU-Texas was close and Tennessee was so far in front so quickly, I watched practically none of the Vols' whomping of Georgia, but it's worth noting: UT, a team that has devolved into one of the lowest-octane running games in the SEC, ground out 190 yards 4.7 per carry. Against Georgia. Erik Ainge completed 17 of 22 passes, and I'm not sure any of them were necessary. Hopefully I'll get around to more on the Vols' potential resurgence later in the week.

• At one point, FSN cut away for certain regional viewers from the final three minutes of a tie game between Washington State and Arizona State to the "kickoff" of Texas A&M-Oklahoma State, if by "kickoff" you mean "eight minutes of commercials, prefab, nü metal-backed intro packages, exhortations to text chat with D'Marco Farr and more commercials." The actual ending to ASU-WSU was shown in update form before TAMU and OK State ever lined up to kick. Looked pretty exciting! How lucky was the audience of that last-second thriller! A waste of time and an insult, frankly. We're taking you away from the most dramatic moment of our scheduled program for advertising you cannot remember two minutes later..." I should have remembered the ads just to boycott those bastards.

Upwards...

Conceit...
SMQ was right about: Illinois, you beautiful bastards, I read your book way back in June:

...the mystery is how Thomas held on to the feature role with the nicely-named Rashard Mendenhall breaking off bigger chunks (8.2 avg.) and eating up one of the best defenses in the country (161 on just 14 tries against Penn State, his only "extended" action) in a major upset bid, after which he still only touched the ball about a half dozen times per game over the closing month. Mendenhall only had half of Williams' carries on the season, which would look best if it was the other way around.
[...]
...this fall is about being competent enough with experience to clean up those two or three plays that make the difference in last place and .500 with a spot in the Insight Bowl. If this team can't at least threaten that kind of improvement with every conceivable wind of momentum at its back, Zook should be banished from the profession.

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I can't say that I expected such a dramatic turnaround then, but when the time came the last two weeks, I nailed the Illini in the upset over Penn State and came within a field goal of nailing the exact score of its win Saturday over Wisconsin (precited: ILL 31, WISC 29; actual: ILL 31, WISC 26). I don't know who else might have been riding the Illini in both of those games, but I'm posting that one on the virtual bulletin board of egotism. With gold stars.

The projection on LSU-Florida (LSU 27, UF 22) was impressively close to the reality (LSU 28, UF 24), and in the imagined fashion:

LSU's defense, though, is plainly the best in the country over the first month and has a better chance of corralling Tebow before he can do much damage downfield than Florida's young defense does of consistently slowing LSU's backs, whoever they are in any given situation. Physically, I have the idea that the Tigers' lines will take control, try to drag the game down into the swamp and then sneak in a couple big plays to win at home.
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I refer you again to the final rushing stats.


Who couldn't have seen Juice Williams' Punch Out on the horizon?
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Close call as well on Oklahoma-Texas (predicted: OU 30, Texas 19; actual: OU 28, Texas 21), and skepticism over Purdue in a big game setting was more than justified; the Boilers scored late to turn a 23-point margin (I predicted a 20-point loss) into 16 points in the end. Nebraska's application for also-ran status is, as predicted, now flawless.

...and Contrition...
SMQ was wrong about: I was completely off in guessing Tennessee couldn't run the ball against Georgia:

I admit, it was a little stunning to see Tennessee listed as a small favorite in this game, even at home, which goes to show how much further being smoked by two of the country's five or six best teams can drop a team in some minds than in others. I'm still struggling with the Vols' pass defense, which has been burned in three of four games, and their one-dimensionality on offense - that is, if Erik Ainge can be considered a dimension by himself. The running numbers are not good...
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I cut it off there because I wasn't wrong about the numbers: they weren't good. On Friday, anyway - they're considerably better today.

Elsewhere, Virginia Tech beat the holy hell out of Clemson after I picked the Tigers to win by a touchdown; Kansas indeed made me look foolish for doubting it against K-State (especially the Jayhawk defense); Cincinnati had little trouble generating more takeaways (four, leaving UC +1) against Rutgers or trumping Ray Rice (2.8 per carry, long of 10); and Tashard Choice did not magically rehabilitate Georgia Tech, or his lingering injuries, which unexpectedly cost the Jackets against Maryland.

Shocked. Shocked!
Upsets and other nonsense
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For time purposes, I'll say this about USC and UCLA's repsective losses to Stanford and Notre Dame: turnovers. The Trojans and Bruins together had twelve turnovers and forced one. You can outgain a team by 224 yards or hold your opponent to 140 yards - for all intents and purposes, UCLA's defense pitched a shutout - but you cannot win tossing picks that get run back touchdowns. Or allowing a backup quarterback from Stanford my god Stanford to complete a first down pass on a crucial 4th-and-20. That is all.

The Crunch
Interesting/Not Necessarily Relevant Stats
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Killing `em softly, 3.1 yards at a time.
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Brian Brohm threw for 467 and four touchdowns with no interceptions Friday against Utah and lost. In three losses on the season, Brohm is averaging 463 yards and 3.33 touchdowns ... Chase Daniel accounted for 473 of Missouri's 606 yards total offense against Nebraska. Read that again and weep for your lost childhood ... Boston College scored 31 points in the second quarter against Bowling Green, 14 on interception returns. BC and BG were even on first downs and only six yards apart in total offense in a 31-point Eagle win ... Michigan State allowed 520 yards and five touchdowns passing with no interceptions to C.J. Bacher in a 48-41 loss to Northwestern. In two weeks, Javon Ringer is averaging 14.7 yards per carry, but only has 22 carries ... Mike Hart was just shy of ten yards per carry against Eastern Michigan ... Central Michigan ran up 658 yards total offense in a win over Ball State ... TCU, which entered the season on a streak of 20 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, allowed its third and fourth 100-yard rushers of the year in a loss at Wyoming ... NC State solidified its status as the most turnover prone team in the nation with its 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd giveaways in a loss at Florida State ... Penn State outgained Iowa by 295 yards. The Hawkeyes finished with eight first downs ... Washington State outgained Arizona State by 155 yards, won the turnover battle and lost, 23-20 ... Nevada ran up 702 yards total offense in a loss to Fresno State ... At halftime, Virginia Tech had more points (31) than offensive plays (27) against Clemson. The Hokies finished with nine first downs ... Felix Jones averaged double digits per carry for the fourth time in five games this season and the ninth time in his career ... UTEP and Tulsa combined for 1,248 yards total offense and for 37 points in the fourth quarter on the Miners' 48-47 win ... North Texas controlled the ball for 40:36 and got off 97 snaps in a nine-point loss at UL-Lafayette ... And Tim Hiller and Chris Jacquemain combined for 764 yards and seven touchdowns in Akron's one-point win over Western Michigan. More on the incredible finish of that game on "Mid-major Monday."