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SUNDAY QUARTERBACK GETS DEFENSIVE

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This is not the space for a thorough examination of a year-long trend (maybe later in the week), but my god, friends, whatever happened to defense? Of 51 games between I-A teams this weekend, in only eleven of them were both teams held below 30 points, and 25 teams scored at least forty. The average game featured 60 points, and three went over 100, including the highest-scoring regulation game in NCAA history, Navy's ridiculous 74-62 win over North Texas - the Midshipmen and Mean Green combined for nine touchdowns in the second quarter alone, and 19 for the afternoon.


Tackle drill, dammit! Strap 'em on, son! Bring your feet!
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This is not a mid-major thing - the top-ranked defense in the country allowed 260 yards rushing and four touchdown passes; the second-ranked defense in the SEC allowed 417 yards and six touchdowns; Boston College, slated to play for the mythical championship a little over a week ago, allowed 42 points to the 98th-ranked offense in the country; and then there's the Big 12:
Winner Score Loser Score
Missouri 40 Texas A&M 26
Iowa State 31 Colorado 28
Nebraska 73 Kansas State 31
Texas 59 Texas Tech 43
Oklahoma 52 Baylor 21
Kansas 43 Okla. State 28
Average 49.7 Average 29.5

Nebraska: WTF? I am Chris Spielman: Tackle somebody! Wrap up drive your legs keep your feet get your head across and follow through young man!! At some point, the spread offense pendulum has to start swinging back the other way.

Onwards...

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

Illinois 28 Ohio State 21
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Sometimes we have to step back and look at the big picture. What did we expect of Ohio State, and what did we expect of Illinois? If I back up, would this result wouldn't have knocked me flat in August? I can't say it would have, at all:

I'm not very enthusiastic about this team, in relative terms...an OSU fan might argue it looks like the 2002 championship team, but the quarterback situation is just hoping for competence and has a chance to become a liability, and the offense one-dimensional, while the defense might have problems against upper echelon running games.
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Then again, in the same preview, the preceding sentence contained this parenthetical:

...it's hard to conceive OSU being worse than 7-1 going into the last four games, or worse than 8-4 coming out of them (much as I think Illinois will be vastly improved, and as close as it played the Buckeyes last year, the Illini aren't winning in Columbus)...
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So, yes, let's say it: this was a dramatic upset. As I pointed out back then, everyone knew Illinois would be better, that a significant leap was inevitable for a team that was so young and so close to competence over and over in 2006, but hadn't we had enough of that already? Was seven wins - eight, in all likelihood, with Northwestern to finish the season - not at the edge of reason for a team that had won eight in the last four years combined? Isn't that enough? The Illini exceeded its quota for advancement in mid-October. Wins over Penn State and Wisconsin? Very nice, here are your back-to-earth defeats and token bowl bid, we'll see you kids again next year.


That was fast...maybe a little...too...fast...
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But there you have it: a team coached by Ron Zook and quarterbacked by Juice Williams bounced Ohio State, focused, consistent winner of 28 straight regular season games, from the mythical championship. On the road. And it was no fluke - Illinois out-Tresseled Tressel, physically establishing the run, making good with limited but efficient passing (Williams, exemplar of an erratic, one-dimensional liability in the pocket, had four touchdowns and no interceptions against the country's second-ranked pass defense) and milking a lead for every millisecond.

It wasn't only the masterful, 15-play, eight-minute slog that ran out the fourth quarter, but also the 11-play, six minute slog before that and the nine-play, three-and-a-half minute slog before that, which ended in a touchdown - coming out of the locker room with a lead, Illinois ultimately held the ball for just shy of 19 minutes in the second half. Ohio State only touched the ball three times, and moved it: looking to tie, the Buckeyes drove into a goal-to-go situation on its first possession of the half, then answered an Illini touchdown by roaring 76 yards in eight plays on its second possession, and opened up what would be its last drive with a 16-yard scramble by Todd Boeckman. But it was Boeckman, not Williams, who killed two of those promising drives with awful-looking interceptions, and Williams, not Boeckman, who cooly, efficiently ground out a physical win on the road, and possibly came of age along with his team. In the abstract, we could have predicted both of those results, and did. We just couldn't have predicted either would happen here.

Georgia 45 Auburn 20
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Two dynamics intersect here: from the first snap, when Brandon Cox was intercepted, Auburn looked like it regressed into the offensive hole that plagued it through the end of last season and the first three games this year, at the same time Georgia was solidifying and expanding its newfound offensive identity behind Knowshon Moreno and a rapidly maturing line. Basically, the Tigers got run over.

It didn't look this way for most of the game, which Auburn surprisingly led in the third quarter after trailing 17-3 early on. After the fast start, Georgia went through a ten-minute, four possession stretch in the second and third quarters in which it collectively went backwards, -4 yards on 14 plays, and failed to gain a first down. An interception during that span, on Matt Stafford's first attempt of the second half, set up a short field touchdown to tie, and a field goal a few minutes later completed a 17-point Tiger run to the lead.

It was a little fishy, though, despite a couple clutch third down conversions by Cox, because Auburn couldn't find any consistency on the ground and only punched the ball into the end zone after sketchy, NFL-style roughing the passer penalties on each of its touchdown drives (aside from the aforementioned short field). From the point it fell behind, Georgia completely dominated, and there was nothing to it but plain, old-fashioned, straight ahead physical pounding. After ten minutes of futility, the Bulldogs broke out a stick over the next ten: UGA scored on four straight possessions, on which Moreno and Thomas Brown ran for 112 yards and Stafford, glad for the help, completed all four of his passes for 122 yards. In a small window, it was the complete promise of the offense's talent, which we've seen in some form now three weeks in a row. At the same time, Auburn ran eight plays for three yards over three possessions and was intercepted once, the first of three crippling picks down the stretch.

I think the first down numbers demonstrate the differences in these two offenses: Auburn advanced the sticks 18 times to Georgia's 16, but the Tigers were also outgained by 200 yards; they averaged 12 yards per first down. Georgia averaged a little more than 26 yards per first down. I appreciate Auburn's efficienct philosophy, and the success it's had playing keep away in other big games, but when the other offense starts gashing you, sometimes you have to do more than just move the chains.


This is going to be really good, for somebody. Probably not Michigan.
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Wisconsin 37 Michigan 21
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The Badgers did not miss P.J. Hill in the least, but without Chad Henne and Mike Hart, especially, Michigan looks listless, out of sync and always on the cusp of diasaster.

This is to be expected with a true freshman quarterback and a pair of inexperienced reserves behind him, I guess, if not for the random, maddening brilliance Ryan Mallett pulls out of his ass about once every other drive or so. At the height of head-hanging time in the fourth quarter, down 17 on third-and-ten from his own end zone, with his own receivers growing exasperated, the kid threw a laser over the best corner in the Big Ten that turned into the longest pass in Michigan's long, long history. A couple minutes later, he lobbed a perfect rainbow into the end zone that only Adrian Arrington could reach to put the Wolverines within a field goal. But those were just flickers of light in a sea of darkness, the couple of spitballs that hit the back of the teacher's head amid a loogied-up barrage at the blackboard*. The rest of the time, Mallett seemed completely unaware of the defense, alternately confused and indecisive on one hand and perfectly willing to confidently hang one up, Juice-like, into triple coverage on the other. He averaged 22.3 yards per completion, which is sensational, but completed less than a third of his attempts, which is atrocious even before the interceptions and various howler decisions under pressure fill out the picture.

To be fair, he had no help, from his offensive line, running game or defense. The final score is somewhat misleading in that Wisconsin had two short field, essentially garbage touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the numbers don't lie: a week after running for 12 yards against Ohio State, the Badgers ran for 235 on 4.7 per carry, without a single run longer than 18 yards. Lance Smith and unknown Zack Brown do not have Hill's physical presence, but ate up 160 yards between them behind an offensive line that lined up and mauled like the halcyon Badger ideal that had only showed up intermittently through the first ten games. And Michigan, frankly, Michigan's front seven was rolled on a consistent basis, not just out of position or taking bad angles but blocked; the specific running back at any given time was not relevant. Wisconsin controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes, a triumph entirely of the same offensive line that was most recently dominated by the Buckeyes.

It's almost stunning how completely Michigan's running game falls apart without Hart, and how little his replacements are able to create behind the same line - and how little it looks like the same line. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor had no chance against a defensive front that had been reamed by almost every Big Ten running game it had faced, and subsequently Mallett had no chance to work within the play-action based passing game the Wolverines prefer. Of twelve drives under Mallett after Henne left the game, Michigan gained consecutive first downs on exactly two of them - and never by handing off.

Not that this beatdown will mean anything in the big picture if Henne and Hart are healed enough to get on the field next week - the Dejection Bowl in Ann Arbor is still the do-or-die game for the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl, even if the combined 20-game winning streak we expected has been replaced by a two-game skid.

* You are aware, of course, this analogy - a "blackboard?" - will be irrelevant in ten years, if it's not already.

Florida 51 South Carolina 31
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The larger arc is the ongoing collapse of South Carolina's defense, which is very real, but I continue to be fascinated by the variety of ways Florida can attack with Tim Tebow, and how Urban Meyer makes old hat look innovative.


Trade ya quarterbacks, Urbie?
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Case in point: up 27-14 on the first drive of the third quarter, facing 1st-and-15 after connecting with the third string tight end for a 55-yard gain on the first snap of the half, the Gators ran a bizarre-looking shovel pass/option, which Tebow flipped underneath the unblocked, upfield defensive end to Brandon James, who scooted for 26 yards all the way to the four-yard line. For all the motion, the shotgun, the shovel, this was really just an old school triple option: Tebow read the end, who came upfield to take him rather than crashing down on the "give," which instead of a fullback crashing into the line was the tiny James, who can do far more in the open field than any lumbering fullback. Defenses are so geared to stopping Tebow, and have to be, it opens up literally the entire field; his running ability is like having an extra blocker and makes linebacker-freezing misdirection absolutely lethal, with the ability to get the ball down the field on top of it. The only comparable offense at the moment for the sheer variety of ways it can beat you from anywhere is Oregon's.

Yeah, though, South Carolina is falling apart. This is the second straight week the Cocks have looked like they don't even belong on the field against a competent SEC offense; USC has scored 67 points the last two weeks and not come close to winning either game, which would not have been conceivable in this conference two years ago, when almost every week was a bite-and-hold death slog. It really got comical Saturday, never moreso than on Ryan Succop's first, uh, punt, or attempt to punt, which was easily blocked after Succop ran directly into the rusher, almost as if he was trying to get the kick blocked on purpose; Florida scored easily two plays later. Even after Carolina came back to take a 14-13 lead, it never felt like it had a chance to win this game. The only thing standing between the Gamecocks and 6-6 - and probably a bowl-less holiday off a five-game losing streak, with the number of eligible teams in the conference easily outpacing available slots - is Clemson in two weeks, which brings a salivating Spiller-Davis combo into Columbia. If it wasn't already, this stage of Carolina's long push for respectability is officially dead.

Kansas 43 Oklahoma State 28
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At least as impressive as its offensive outburst - as much could be expected against Oklahoma State: the Cowboys will be in the neighborhood of 118th in pass defense when the NCAA updates its stats this morning, and KU was the fifth team (as well as third straight) to go over 525 in total offense against the Cowboys - is the simple fact that the Jayhawks came out firing on all cylinders again, that they didn't take their foot off the gas in a perfect situation for a letdown. Good teams make comfortable wins routine - the longer the season goes, the more KU keeps winning, the more teams around it continue to fall as double-digit favorites, the more impressive the Jayhawks look just for taking care of their business.

As noted, it's hard to tell much about any offense against Oklahoma State, or in the Big 12 in general, because most of the league has looked like a balanced, explosive attack in an environment almost completely bereft of coverage or tackling - OSU at times was so worried about giving up the big play that it went into umbrella mode in the secondary almost from the first series, allowed easy throws (Todd Reesing had 308 yards passing on a relatively modest 7.7 per attempt), generated no pressure against the run or pass (OSU forced all of one negative play, a sack of Reesing in the first quarter with zero hits for loss thereafter) and spent the game on its heels, hoping Kansas would misfire. It did not.

Oklahoma State, however, did misfire in spite of its own prowess with the ball, and it's no coincidence the Cowboys turned it over four times - Kansas made eight plays in OSU's backfield, among them a pair of caused fumbles and stops on third-and-short situations, and knocked Adarius Bowman out of the game by flying upfield to hit him short of the line on an incomplete screen pass. On the whole, KU is nothing special itself against the pass, but it's aggressive enough to match the plays it allows; the Jayhawls were second in the nation in turnover margin even before their plus-four night against the Cowboys, and those plays were the most significant in the size of the final margin.

Re: taking care of business, my bet is there won't be much speculation this week of the Jayhawks potentially losing at home to last place Iowa State, which was rightly left for dead after starting 1-6 with two losses against the MAC and another to a I-AA team. Every contender has its bizarre scares, though, and if Kansas' isn't Oklahoma State, it could be ISU. Since getting trounced at home by Texas, 56-3, the Cyclones over their last four have led Oklahoma at the half, played Missouri closer than any of the Tigers' last seven victims and run off two straight upsets against once-rising Kansas State and Colorado. By all evidence over the first two months, Kansas should leave Iowa State caked in five touchdowns worth of its dust, and it might still, but the Cyclones are an improving team with a little momentum and a dangerous trap if KU is looking forward to the winner-take-all finale with Missouri. Where no one will make a tackle.

Upwards...

Box Scorin'
Making sense of what I didn't see.
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Nebraska 73, Kansas State 31: I don't know that there is any "sense" to be made of this, but remember how Nebraska allowed touchdowns on ten straight possessions last week to Kansas? The Huskers scored nine times on ten possessions against K-State, which has apparently quit on this season. The Wildcats lost to Iowa State last week and Saturday allowed touchdown drives of 76, 36, 73, 54, 80, 91, 74, 62 and 74 yards, in addition to an 80-yard drive that ended in a Nebraska field goal and a 94-yard kickoff return for touchdown. That is, unlike Nebraska last week, which had five turnovers to expound its complete lack of defense in Lawrence, Kansas State just had no defense - the Wildcats didn't turn the ball over once. Joe Ganz (30-40, 510 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INT) probably had the best passing day in Nebraska history, and for that, K-State should be put on some kind of shame-based probation.


Alright, we got 'em right where we want `em...enough rope-a-dope! Kill! Kill!
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Clemson 44, Wake Forest 10: The Deacons were past getting beat like this, I thought, which suggests that Clemson is...gelling? In November? While still very much in the conference race? C.J. Spiller returned a kickoff for a touchdown here, but the Tigers' backfield dup was fairly modest: 116 yards on 29 carries. Cullen Harper (27-35, 3 TD, 0 INT) has given that offense the balance it sorely lacked last year.

Missouri 40, Texas A&M 26: The Aggies hung around longer than expected here, but they eventually flamed out like the lame duck also-rans they've been for most of the last month. Still, Mizzou is absolutely rolling on offense: the Tigers went over 550 for the sixth time, have still scored at least 38 points in all nine wins and got the best game of the season from one of their typically complimentary-only running backs (148 yards by injury-plagued Tony Temple). That's all against the Big 12, of course, but I don't think anyone will hold it against them if Kansas and/or Oklahoma suffers a similar fate.

Mississippi State 17, Alabama 12: No more fluke talk about Mississippi State: the Bulldogs aren't necessarily a good team (they were beaten down by LSU and West Virginia), but they have now found a way to force turnover-fuelled upsets of Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama. That collection of wins is too strong to discount out of hand, even if Will Carroll is the quarterback and the offense ranks, uh, 113th. There is a better than even chance now with Arkansas and Ole Miss remaining that the Bulldogs will win seven games and break even in the conference for the first time since 2000. Biggest loser in that scenario: Ed Orgeron.

Iowa State 31, Colorado 28: On of these "Tale of Two Halves" scenarios - the Buffs led 21-0 at the half, then fell into a deep funk after failing on fourth down at midfield to open the third quarter, going three-and-out four straight possessions as ISU ran off 31 unanswered points. Another big game for ISU freshman Alexander Robinson, who went over 100 for the second time in three weeks since taking over the position - on paper, he seems to be a real spark in the Cyclone offense. Still, no excuse for this, Colorado: this is Division I Football!

Cincinnati 27, Connecticut 3: The reality of life without turnovers rears its ugly head at UConn, which had thrived on takeaways in an 8-1 start but didn't force any from the Bearcats, and in fact suffered from its only giveaway, an interception in the second quarter that led to an easy, six-yard scoring "drive" by Cincinnati. That was hardly the difference in the game, though: Cincy outgained the Huskies 420-204 and could have sat on its opening drive touchdown all afternoon.

Virginia 48, Miami 0: The Hurricanes have regressed offensively so much further the last two weeks than they ever did under Larry Coker, which is shocking given the alleged talent on hand. Kyle Wright, going the whole way, was dreadful (9-21, 3 INT) in his last home start, and leaves with only the solace that Kirby Freeman might have been even worse is he'd been given the chance to be. Receivers dropped everything; the defense did not show (Jameel Sewell...Jameel Sewell...completed 20 of 25 for 288 and a touchdown), and I think 189 yards on nine first downs ranks right up there with the worst offensive performances of the season. North Texas and Navy combined for as many touchdowns in one quarter as Miami had first downs in the entire game. Pitiful.

Maryland 42, Boston College 35: Some actual offense out of the ACC, and another game where the first downs can give you a sense of the big play prowess on one side of the ball: B.C. had 27 first downs to Maryland's 20, but the Terps averaged almost 24 yards every time it moved the chains (to the Eagles' still-impressive 17 yards). B.C. had to be totally shellshocked by its fall from grace last week - Maryland actually scored on seven of its first eight possessions after only scoring seven times over its last ten quarters combined coming in.

Southern Cal 24, California 17: If USC got anything out of this game, other than a leg up on the Holiday Bowl bid, it may have finally found the workhorse it's been missing at running back in Chauncey Washington, who rolled off 220 yards on 29 carries, easily the best single-game performance by any Trojan back over the last two years. The defense had its worst game of the season, giving up 164 on the ground to Justin Forsett and one yard short of 400 yards overall, but it forced a fumble and an interception on Cal's last two possessions to get out of Berkeley with some pride intact.

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Much much much to cover tonight when the latest BCS standings are released this evening. As usual, whatever the numbers say tonight, know this: the Pac Ten is getting screwed. Or, not screwed, necessarily, since somebody has to get screwed - it is the nature of the beast - but my guess is Oregon should be getting ready for the Rose Bowl barring an unexpected turn of events. Though that does seem to be the only way events have turned this year...