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LIFE ON THE MARGINS, WEEK SIX

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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')

Presumed Notre Dame fan "Dickey" watched the Irish’s first win Saturday night and saw his team’s glorious performance coming for scrutiny a mile away. So he launched what I think amounts to, through a fog of irony, a preemptive salvo in defense of his team:

SMQ, you rule, and your "Life on the Margins" segment is the best you've ever done.  As an ND fan, I've wistfully read it each week, wondering why we couldn't get the breaks of those "margin winner" guys.  I'll tell you what, I can't wait to read Tuesday's "Life on the Margins:  How a +6 turnover margin and a defensive TD and a 3 yrd TD drive finally allowed ND to win."   So yeah, some Catholics may call you a heretic a few days from now when you reduce ND's first victory in 9 games to some random gift of the heathen Gods.  But my personal religious beliefs ask "Why did it take so many games for us to face an overmatched walk-on at QB?  Also, why doesn't USC lay these kinds of turds against us?"  Well, I guess that's a question for the Heathen Gods (your Gods.)   I'll see you in Hell.  I keep a seat "warm" for you.
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Re: the religious imagery, I’m reminded of the opening of the fourth Psalm:
Answer me when I call, God of my righteousness. Give me relief from my distress. Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer. You sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor?
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Notre Dame UCLA
Total Offense 140 282
1st Downs 12 20
Yds./Play 2.1 3.8
Yds./Possession 10.0 20.8
Turnovers 0 7
Swing Points +17 0

Final Score: Notre Dame 20, UCLA 6
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To be very clear (again) all victory is glory and all defeat dishonor. Neither is not bestowed by gods, heathen or otherwise; they are won and lost on a certain set of action, merit and mistakes. Luck is merit (albeit shortlived, which is really the point).

At the same time, it would be a dishonor to the truth to suggest this win portends any sort of turnaround for the Irish. The offensive life it showed in the second half with Evan Sharpley in the lineup at Purdue was completely absent with Clausen, who led an attack that averaged one first down and a punt on 13 non-half-killing possessions, went three-and-out five times and mounted scoring drives of -1, 29 and 2 yards, all after UCLA turnovers. The longest drive of the night was 44 yards, beginning at the Irish 2, and ended in a punt. Certain patterns are more telling than freakish events, and this obvious patterns of futility over more than 130 plays not only dominated this night, but perfectly aligns with what we’ve come to know andexpect of the nation’s 118th-ranked scoring offense and the least productive total offense of the decade.


Game of inches, etc.
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Turnovers themselves are usually freakish events in the large scheme, but what was exceptionally freakish about the Bruins’ seven giveaways was the personnel circumstances under which they were committed: UCLA lost its starting quarterback and pressed a third-string walk-on into duty, who proceeded to lose 28 yards and a fumble on his first two possessions and throw five interceptions – to accompany another pair of team fumbles – over his last eight. McLeod Bethel-Thompson was an utter disaster, and, given his walk-on status and the fact that apparently is not an option to play against Washington in two weeks despite ongoing injury issues at the position, might be the worst major college quarterback to see the field this season. Maybe in a number of seasons. In terms of decision-making – UCLA coaches couldn’t pull Bethel-Thompson because they had no third option with Patrick Cowan injured going into the game, then called ill-fated passes for their overmatched underdog in short yardage and goal-to-go situations – and personnel (L.A. managed just 89 yards against a defense allowing more than 200 per game on the ground through its first five games, a number depressed by five sacks), there is a lot more to wail about in regards to the big picture from the Bruin perspectvie than to feel good about if you’re ND.

The Irish did a few things better, namely protecting the quarterback (the Irish had been giving up six sacks per game through the first five, worst in the nation, so the three L.A. logged Saturday was a drastic improvement), which helped eliminate turnovers. Congratulations is in order for not matching the devastating mistakes of a Division II level quarterback on the other side. Now if ND can actually move the ball and score points and stuff, it’ll be on its way.

Stanford Southern Cal
Total Offense 235 459
1st Downs 16 19
Yds./Play 3.4 5.8
Yds./Possession 19.5 32.8
Turnovers 1 5
Swing Points +7 0

Final Score: Stanford 24, USC 23
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Stanford did a few really laudable things to win this game: first, down 9-0 with USC looking at 4th-and-goal from the Cardinal one, Stanford’s defense held; in the second half, when the Trojans hit a long touchdown to Ronald Johnson to re-establish a two-score lead that could have broken the game open, Stanford responded with a 75-yard touchdown march. When SC came back with an 86-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter, Stanford went 61 yards for a field goal that cut the game to six. The Cardinal then managed to convert two fourth downs for the late go-ahead score. Backs against the wall, Harbaugh’s team repeatedly fought out of the situation and hung around until it finally gained an opening for the kill. This is what underdogs have to do.

It’s obvious, though, that prior to John David Booty’s finger injury, SC had the game in hand pretty much to the extent everyone expected. Stanford had 50 total yards in the first half and six straight punts; USC had three different drives longer than 50 yards in its first six. I don’t want to make too much of the infamous finger, especially since coaches are responsible for getting the guy out if they think his injury is hurting his play (Pete Carroll didn’t think so, or said he didn’t think so). Conquest Chronicles may be right the deciding "margin" play here, the turning point, was USC 4th-and-1 attempt at the end of the first half rather than Stanford’s momentum-grabbing interception return or either of the fourth down plays on the final drive (though those all qualify). If USC scores at the end of that drive (11 plays, 51 yards to that point) and goes up 16-0 at the half, Stanford is effectively out of the game – the Cardinal simply couldn’t move the ball until its final three possessions, after the interception return a few plays earlier had created the much-needed spark.

I like Stanford’s fight in this game, as bad as the Cardinal have been the last two years and as easy as it would have been for it to lay down when SC went up 16-7 and then 23-14 late in the game. But if SC can just hang on to the ball – not an unreasonable request for the rest of the season – the great bulk of this game was exactly what you’d expect from USC-Stanford.

What we have to ask about USC: is stacking against the run the template for downing the Trojans? Stanford limited SC to 95 on the ground and reaped the benefits – despite also giving up a pair of bombs that hurt the effort  –of putting the game on Booty’s shoulders.

Oklahoma State Texas A&M
Total Offense 459 368
1st Downs 23 19
Yds./Play 6.8 5.8
Yds./Possession 45.9 30.6
Turnovers 1 0
Swing Points 0 +7

Final Score: Texas A&M 24, Oklahoma State 23
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A&M’s defense was rocked all over the place: OSU’s five scoring drives covered 89, 71, 57, 75 and 81yards, and the Cowboys balanced the damage running (200 yards) and passing (259). TAMU couldn’t stop them.

But, as the cliche goes, the Aggies did contain them, mainly by forcing and itself engaging in long, time-consuming drives that limited the number of opportunities that explosive offense had to explode – OSU scored on 50 percent of its possessions, but had just ten of them, where TAMU scored 36 percent of the time on 11 drives; with even one more possession, that ratio favors OSU, even if it is kicking field goals – and jumping on the game’s one big mistake, an OK State fumble in the third quarter that set up a quick, 17-yard touchdown drive for A&M. The Aggie offense didn’t really come alive until that point, after which it took its first two drives of the fourth quarter 80 and 61 yards for touchdowns, not field goals, and then ran the final three minutes off the clock in a mere five snaps.

Time of advantage ultimately favored Oklahoma State, but the pace – a few long, sustained drives – dramatically favored Texas A&M, which staggered through the entire first half and still had a chance to rebound from 17 points down in the second.

Notes
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Fresno State’s 49-41 win at Nevada has one of the most bizarre stat lines of the year, with the Wolpack earning twice as many first downs (30 to FSU’s 15), outgaining the Bulldogs by 227 yards (702-475) and coming out even in turnover margin. Fresno scored two special teams touchdowns, on a punt return and a blocked punt return. On the face, those are classic "should have won" numbers, but on closer look, Nevada got what was coming to it, mainly for allowing more than nine yards per snap to the FSU offense (Nevada averaged a little over seven per play). Fresno’s Ryan Matthews averaged 12.2 on 14 carries and scored three times, once on a 67-yard run, while Lonyae Miller broke a 72-yarder that accounted for most of his 95 yards on the ground. The yardage difference is explainable mainly in the disparity in offensive plays, 89 for Nevada to just 51 for Fresno, a result of the special teams touchdowns and the Bulldogs’ quick scores, but Fresno was better than the Pack in the little time it did have the ball. In no way did Nevada "outplay" FSU.