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LIFE ON THE MARGINS, WEEK ELEVEN

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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')

Alabama Miss. State
Total Offense 274 215
1st Downs 23 14
Yds./Play 3.8 3.4
Yds./Possession 23.4 21.5
Turnovers 2 1
Swing Points 0 +14

Final Score: Miss. State 17, Alabama 12
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Mississippi State has scored three big SEC upsets over ranked teams to get itself bowl eligible this year, but here we see the reason the Bulldogs are still mostly regarded as a fluke – it’s not because their jerseys say "Mississippi State," but because their play (especially on offense) is entirely reminiscent of the familiar, hapless MSU teams of Sylvester Croom’s first three years, and the team that was thoroughly wiped out in the opener by LSU. Auburn, Kentucky and now Bama have fallen only by inept, ill-timed turnovers and a string of missed opportunities, and the Tide was the worst victim of both Saturday.

Alabama intercepted Wesley Carroll’s first pass attempt (two plays after MSU fumbled on the first snap of the game) at the MSU 26 and only came away with a field goal. Its second drive stalled in Bulldog territory and led to another field goal. Its fourth drive stalled in the MSU red zone and led to another field goal. Its fifth possession was a 12-play, 78-yard marathon to the goalline to go ahead 16-3 at the half and led to, well:

Alabama outgained MSU 185-117 in the first half, took four of its five full possessions well into State territory, forced an interception, three punts and a field goal on defense and trailed, 10-9. The Bulldogs extended their lead immediately in third quarter, picking off Parker Wilson again on the third play of the second half to set up a short, 25-yard touchdown "drive," which was all it needed – for the next 19 minutes, Bama outgained MSU 118-37 while the Bulldogs continued to punt punt punt, but after the Tide kicked its fourth field goal with 6:47 to play, State went on the most time-consuming 38-yards-and-punt drive in history: over six minutes on eleven plays (33.5 seconds per play, to be exact), all but one of them handoffs, including one 11-yard run on a 3rd-and-10. Bama got the ball back with 29 seconds and no chance to finally punch it in.

Colorado Iowa State
Total Offense 419 351
1st Downs 17 18
Yds./Play 5.8 5.1
Yds./Possession 27.9 27.0
Turnovers 1 1
Swing Points 0 0

Final Score: Iowa State 31, Colorado 28
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This is more about the ending than anything else, because the stats and circumstances show a game as even as the score indicates. Colorado dominated the first half, going into the locker room with a 21-0 lead, but after CU failed on a 4th-and-1 attempt from its own 44 to start the third quarter, the Cyclones ripped off 24 straight points while the Buffaloes went three-and-out on their next four drives. ISU extended the lead to 31-21 after a Colorado fumble with about four minutes to play, setting up a dramatic, baffling finish.

The Buffs cut the score to 31-28, forced a three-and-out and got the ball back at their own 27 with 1:26 on the clock and no timeouts. Cody Hawkins completed four passes for 40 yards down to the ISU 34 with a few seconds left, at which point (on 4th-and-1, so they couldn’t spike the ball) the field goal team rushed on for a 51-yard attempt to tie. Kevin Eberhart made the kick with one second left – but officials waved it off, explaining the ball had not been whistled ready for play before it was snapped. CU took a delay of game penalty for the early snap, moved back for a 55-yard try, and Eberhart nailed it again, apparently sending the game to overtime. But officials huddled and waved it off again, because the clock started (or should have started) after the penalty on the "ready for play" signal rather than the snap, and therefore the last second ticked off before Colorado could get the play underway. Two 50-plus-yard kicks nullified, game over.

Big 12 officiating coordinator Walt Anderson confirmed the calls were correct, though he did offer this weird caveat:

Anderson said rules call for the clock to go back to its original status before the penalty was called. The clock was running at the time because the Buffs had no time outs. He said there is an exception to the rule calling for the clock to be re-started but it is not intended for the situation that unfolded Saturday.

"The exception that is in there is to prevent a team that is wanting to run the clock out," Anderson said. "So if it becomes fourth down and the defense is going to get the ball, but rather than punting the ball they just line up in a scrimmage kick formation and intentionally let the clock run out. Because it was running, the rule says that you assess the penalty and then you wind the clock. That exception is in there so that a team is not allowed just to bleed the clock down."

"It's also at the referee's discretion because the opposite also holds true. If you have a team that doesn't want the clock to run but doesn't have any time outs, you don't allow them, in essence, to commit a foul thereby causing the clock to stop."
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(Emphasis mine)

I would not find much solace if I was Colorado in that explanation: at the referee’s discretion? It was at the referee’s discretion, after all, to take too long to call the ball ready for play on the first try: CU was over the ball, set and had a running clock about the hit zero, and they were supposed to wait? And then, at the referee’s discretion, the clock started on the whistle rather than the snap. So, whether or not it should have come down to a field goal against Iowa State, CU was directly denied overtime at the referee’s discretion.

Sorry, but we saw the ball go through the uprights twice. I have a real problem with the negation of accomplishment (see my reaction to the Tennessee-South Carolina game two weeks ago for the same impulse re: the negation of failure); a legitimate penalty is one thing, but I need a better reason than "at the referee’s discretion" to wipe the reality of "field goal good" from the books.

Michigan State Purdue
Total Offense 416 517
1st Downs 22 21
Yds./Play 4.9 7.4
Yds./Possession 32.0 39.8
Turnovers 0 3
Swing Points +17 0

Final Score: Michigan State 48, Purdue 31
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Pretty straightforward here: Purdue moved the ball effectively (very, very effectively; look at yards per play), but gave away two touchdowns and a field goal in a game it ultimately lost by two touchdowns and a field goal. It doesn’t matter how effective you are on offense when you barely have the ball – MSU played almost no defense whatsoever, giving up drives of 80, 66, 76, 53, 68 and 54 yards, for starters, but won time of possession by a huge margin, 38:18 to 21:42 by making a few big plays. The first was an interception in the second quarter that set a quick, easy three-yard touchdown march (it did take the Spartans three plays to punch it in); another pick set up a field goal on the last play of the half. Michigan State took a fumble back 20 yards at the start of the fourth quarter to essentially ice it.

For the record, Purdue didn’t play any defense, either: beginning midway through the first quarter, the Spartans scored on seven of nine possessions, and missed a field goal after a solid drive on another. It just took them a little longer to get there. And a great portion of MSU’s Purdue's yardage advantage came on its final two garbage drives, which each ended after a few first downs with the Spartans Boilermakers failing on fourth down. The turnovers are the thing here.

Notes: Minnesota outgained Iowa in yards and first downs in a 21-16 loss, but by such small margins it’s barely worth noting – on paper, it was about as even a game as a game between two second class teams (that’s putting it kindly in the Gophers’ case) could reasonably be. Actually, the Hawkeyes led throughout and Minnesota only pulled within five on a long drive in the last two minutes, but Tim Brewster will take any little hint of positivity at this point.