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Sunday Quarterback Rallies for the Win

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The Worldwide Leader and its network counterpart played up a couple scoops on eminent coaching changes Saturday, first via Mark May's "sources," who confirmed for the studio-bound non-reporter that Houston Nutt would not be back in charge of Arkansas in 2008. The rest of the day, the omnipresent scrolling ticker told us "ESPN has learned" Lloyd Carr "is expected" to announce his retirement at a press conference Monday.


Thank you, Mark, for that anomously-sourced, three-day-old, thirdhand report.
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It's not just that both of stories were on relatively high profile blogs during the week, though any of the thousands of regular EDSBS and MGoBlog readers could have hardly missed either of them. It's this ridiculous veneer that "ESPN has learned" something. ESPN has learned Lloyd Carr plans to announce his reitrement because Brian said as much last Monday, a full week ahead of the event, citing three athletic department sources, and both the Ann Arbor News and very mainstream CBS columnist Dennis Dodd addressed the issue, the latter specifically citing MGo (albeit with an annoying "it's a blog" qualifier). ESPN? No attribution; at some point, just six days after the first hard report, the network just "learned" from unknown means (not even anonymous "sources") Carr was expected to step down. Not that he will step down, which would be technically new information, but that he is expected to step down. Which is perhaps six-months-old information, really.

(The retirement was confirmed, by the way, by the Ann Arbor News this morning).

Similarly, the odds that Mark May independently "learned" of Houston Nutt's (also widely expected) impending resignation are about as good as the odds May will ever come off as a likeable, neighborly sort of guy. Nutt's resignation isn't even secondhand: Mssr. Swindle's "breaking" post, which is almost certainly what prompted May's producer to put the old lineman on the case (or make the calls himself and feed the "news" to May; I don't know how this works in TV, which I assume is as deceitful as possible all the time) was a very bloggy, reader-tipped link to a TV station in Arkansas, which presumably had done the actual reporting despite vague attribution to anonymous "multiple sources" its own self (again: personality-based TV news=sketchy). Neither is mentioned in May's breakout journalistic coup, as if we're expected to believe talking head Mark May spends time randomly calling sources around the country and finally unearthed a big one on his own.

This is nothing new. It's just another Internet broadside against a monolith that acts like no other outlet counts, even when everything it "learns" is because it's being taken to school on the ground.

Onwards...

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

Ohio State 14 Michigan 3
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Bad conditions probably played a significant factor here, as you can see in this second quarter footage:

But seriously, folks, Woody and Bo were never party to such malfunctioning passing games. I looked for them, and I can’t see that they exist, not on this level:

Comp./Att. Yards TD-INT Long 1st Downs Rating
T. Boeckman 7-13 50 0-1 15 3 70.8
C. Henne 11-34 68 0-0 10 3 49.2

Not included are two dropped shotgun snaps and a comic slip in the pocket by Boeckman and another fumble by Henne, who was sacked more often (four times) than he completed a pass for a first down and leaves Michigan Stadium with easily the worst performance of his career as a swan song. Ditto Mike Hart, saddled with a career low (when he plays a full game) 44 yards and a long of twelve in the third quarter - the Wolverines' longest gain of the game. That, in conjunction with Chris Wells' isolated success, is the story of a one-sided, physical pounding.

That screen capture comes from somewhere deep in the labrynthine comments of MGoBlog's tortured open thread, and may or may not indicate the reality of that specific play; the right side of Michigan's line looks like it could be charging downfield to set up a receiver screen, or it may just be doctored somehow to emphasize the larger reality it perfectly conveys: Michigan did not come close to blocking Ohio State, and though the Wolverine defense was significantly better the vast majority of the time, it was ultimately porous and beaten, too.

And that's it, really. This really was as old school as it looked: with both teams committed to plunging straight ahead as long as it was possible, Ohio State executed its blocks and opened holes for its great back and fouled up the Wolverines' zone rushing attack with aggressive penetration and effective enough zone coverage when Michigan had no choice but to throw - the Wolverines faced ten third or fourth down conversions of ten yards or longer, and made none of them - that Manningham, Mathews and Arrington had nowhere to go on the few occasions they managed to hold on the ball. Michigan came out early committed to achieving balance, dropping to throw eight times in 14 first quarter snaps, but over the game its receivers averaged 6.3 per catch - not per pass attempt, but per reception - and failed to hold on to two consecutive passes at any point over the last 46 minutes; Henne and Ryan Mallett ended the game with eleven consecutive incompletions, almost half of them drops. Michigan had thirteen full, non-half-ending possessions Saturday, and went three or four-and-out on eleven of them.


Then again, the way the so-called championship is shaping up, maybe they'd rather go to the Rose Bowl, anyway.
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We'll see over the next two weeks how much blame falls at the feet of the Wolverines' depressing failure to block, throw, catch or execute in any phase, a malaise that will probably send them packing for their second Alamo Bowl in three years, and how much credit is extended to the Buckeyes in the amorphous, petulant and vague popular mind, which will have  to consider one-loss OSU against, presumably, a one-loss West Virginia or one-loss Kansas/Missouri champion out of the Big 12, dangerously assuming the latter can hold off Oklahoma (or Texas) in the conference championship. We'll know more about that tonight. For now, there's this: Ohio State's defense will finish the regular season first nationally in passing yards allowed, first in total yards allowed, and first in points allowed, after nearly shutting out an offense that had been held to single digits only once (earlier this year, against Oregon) and never without a touchdown since well before Henne , Hart, Long and Manningham came aboard - since 2002, actually, when the Buckeyes held Michigan to 247 yards in a very similar 14-9 win that sent them to the mythical championship in the Fiesta Bowl. But even that didn't compare to the one-sided hogtie OSU put on the NFL-bound Wolverine talent Saturday. So while Boeckman must be considered a liability at this point (moreso even than Craig Krenzel wasin the day) and the Buckeyes have to spend the next two weeks on the shelf, they should have preserved their role in the final mythical championship discussion, at least. The defense has earned that much.

Boston College 20 Clemson 17
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Ultimately, B.C. dominated the second half, but did it so quietly, first down by first down, that it was  easy to miss before you see it in black and white:

B.C. 2nd Half Possessions
Qtr. Poss. Plays Yards Result
3 7:05 15 48 TO on Downs
3 3:40 11 80 Rush TD
4 4:25 11 31 FG Good
4 3:36 8 71 Pass TD

Before Matt Ryan scrambled out and found Rich Gunnell behind the defense for the winning touchdown, the Eagles had made one play all night longer than fifteen yards, and none longer than twenty; Clemson had four plays longer than 20 yards and the two most explosive players on the field in C.J. Spiller and James Davis, but it did not have the ball - B.C. held possession for 13 minutes longer than the Tigers, mainly by extending those four second half drives on eight third or fourth down conversions. Even the drive that ended with no points took half of the third quarter off the clock and kept Clemson's weapons on the sidelines after they had moved quickly for a field goal on a long drive out of the locker room.

Not that Spiller and Davis were doing any damage against the Eagles' top-ranked run defense, which limited the pair to three-yard average on 24 touches, including the only quasi-big play, a 19-yard run by Spiller that led to a missed field goal. This is the third game this season a defense has put the game on Harper by holding his backs in check, and Clemson is 0-3 in those games: in the Tigers' back-to-back losses earlier in the year, Georgia Tech held the Tigers to 34 yards rushing and Harper threw 39 times; against Virginia Tech the next week, Clemson was down immediately, finished with eight yards on the ground and Harper dropped back 67 times. Saturday, the Tigers netted 47 yards rushing and put the ball up 40 times for the first time since that night against the Hokies. Harper's touchdown-to-interception ratio in those three games: 2:4, as opposed to 27:1 in the Tigers' eight wins, when he's been backed up by the running game.


No...no, not again....Yeah, again.
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So the endless gushing about Matt Ryan, H*i*m*n candidate is hyperbole (and probably always has been, for lack of many better options), but his virtue as a winning college quarterback - and a readymade dink-and-dunk passer for a pro league that loves that kind of within-the-offense efficiency - was made clear again in the second half in his ability to manufacture drives without reliable big play options, with a running game averaging 1.8 yards per carry and an offensive line that frequently looked overmatched against Clemson's sleek pass rush. Never underestimate the power of a quarterback - Ryan capped a tough night by improvising his way to the play of the game on third-and-long; Harper, with a chance to answer, couldn't escape or get rid of the ball under pressure and had to take a sack that knocked his team out of position for the tying field goal. To be fair, Harper had no help: his receivers dropped three straight passes on the final drive, his right tackle inexcusab;y missed what should have been an easy block on a blitzing cornerback on the penultimate sack and, after all, Harper had converted a pass on fourth-and-long just to get the Tigers into a position to attempt a kick on the final snap. It was Ryan, though, who found a way outside of the anemic running game and the pedestrian receivers and the freshman left tackle to help himself, fit the pieces of his offense together in a way that exceeded the sum of their parts, and claw into the ACC Championship, which the Eagles deserve.

Texas Tech 34 Oklahoma 27
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I indicated after this game that this was the biggest win of Mike Leach's head coaching career - the Raiders' 2002 win over Texas in an almost identical situation, record-wise, is the only one that comes close - in large part because it pushes against the notion that his team can't score against top defenses and anecdotally validates every lovable quirk of Leach's particular philosophy. Graham Harrell threw 72 passes, the Raiders went for it on fourth down twice in the first half (and made it both times), four of six scoring drives took less than two and a half minutes off the clock, two of them taking less than 20 seconds. Keepaway was anathema, more talented opponent be damned; Tech played its aggressive, up-tempo, catch-and-run game from start to  finish, never stopping to think about milking a lead, eventually finishing with 16 full possessions - twice as many as we saw in Clemson-Boston College, for example -  and more yards and points than the Sooners have allowed in regulation since the controversial loss at Oregon way back in September 2006. It was vintage Tech on a night when only two of Harrell's six dozen passes went for longer than 20 yards, death by a thousand cigarette burns in a game that took a little over four hours to complete.

And it worked, for a half. The Raiders had six drives in the first quarter alone and stormed to 334 yards and 27 points before halftime. After a short field touchdown on the first possession following halftime, the same offense had 109 yards and zero points, failing to pick up a first down most of the fourth quarter. Here, the typical caveats about the Raiders' inability to run the ball or take chunks off the clock with the lead proved true when Oklahoma scored the last 17 points and had more than one chance to complete the comeback (the most notable being Manuel Johnson's apparent touchdown catch on fourth down in the fourth quarter, which would have cut the Tech lead to a single touchdown but was ruled, and upheld, out of bounds).

The real difference here from a typical Raider game wasn't the offense, which was basically what it always is, but the defense, which was uncharacteristically terriffic. A lot of that has to do with Sam Bradford looking on from the sideline, in street clothes, mouth agape, stricken by teenage acne, but even with Joey Halzle running the show, lesser quarterbacks have done better against Tech's D than four three/four-and-outs, seven punts, two turnovers and six points, which was Oklahoma's line on offense through the first three quarters, after which it trailed by three touchdowns. The Sooners did run the ball effectively, averaging 4.7 on 30 carries by DeMarco Murray, Allen Patrick and Chris Brown, but fell behind so quickly that they couldn't afford to be so patient - Tech got pushed around a little, as expected, but not enough to allow a run longer than 12 yards, and that won't get you back in the game when the deficit is growing by the drive.


As long as you live, as much as you've seen, a fourth quarter comeback attempt by Anthony Morelli is one thing you can never prepare for.
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Michigan State 35 Penn State 31
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It would be premature to call this a real leap for Michigan State, but after another season of close calls and late collapses, to go ahead of a good team late, and hang on to that lead at the end, has to mean something, because the Spartans have not pulled that off in years. The calamitous, siren-inducing meltdowns of the J.L. Smith era seemed to be in the past, true, but MSU had still been done in over and over again by residual choking with chances to win: against Wisconsin, the Spartans rallied to tie the game late at 34, only to lose after missing a field goal to answer a late go-ahead kick by the Badgers, then turning the ball over on downs with a minute to play; against Northwestern, the Spartans allowed NW to run up a season-high 611 yards total offense, losing after failing to answer a Wildcat touchdown in overtime; against Iowa, the Spartans blew a 17-3 lead despite an all-time horror show performance by the Hawkeyes' Jake Christensen, who completed two passes in regulation but somehow led Iowa to a second half comeback and win in double overtime; against Michigan, the Spartans rallied to take a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter against its  gimpy, reeling rival, then allowed two touchdowns in the final six minutes to lose 28-24 despite having held the Wolverines to a then-low for the season of 311 yards.

Combined with the seven-point setback at Ohio State, all of Michigan State's losses had come down to the final minute, the difference between a possible conference championship and possibly no bowl at all in the crowded Big Ten race just a few plays at the end of a few games, always going against the Spartans, as they seemingly always have. Mark Dantonio may have mitigated the grisly flamboyance of collapse, but the overall principle was the same: Michigan State lost four games it led or was tied in the fourth quarter, ergo the overriding identity of Michigan State football was still one of an otherwise good team made mediocre by its consistent, virtually unbroken failure in the clutch.

This could have easily been the case again Saturday when Penn State, up 24-7 after a quick touchdown to open the second half, weathered back-to-back Spartan touchdowns in the third quarter to extend its lead to 31-21 after a very stereotypical MSU fumble set up a short field for the Lions to punch it in early in the fourth, setting the stage for another Spartan could-have-been that got away en route to 6-6. Instead of flailing, though, for once, State responded: down ten, MSU turned good field position after a kick return into a quick touchdown, forced a three-and-out on defense, and marched 80 yards in 12 plays and nearly seven minute to punch in the go-ahead score with 4:08 to play, essentially the Spartans' fourth touchdown in four tried in the second half. The spark on the winning drive was Jehuu Caulcrick's 17-yard run on a fake punt from the MSU 25, a do-or-die gamble that should have come up `die' when Caulcrick barrelled into a wall of unsurprised Lions, which should have dragged him down three yards short of the first down. But Jehuu Caulcrick has known greater struggle than 4th-and-5; Jehuu Caulcrick will not be cowed by your weak punt return team. He improbably reversed field and lumbered out of the pack for the first down, after which Brian Hoyer connected on passes of 23 and 22 yards on two of the next three snaps and Caulcrick handled the final dozen himself on five straight carries to the end zone.

Penn State still had every chance to stick another dagger in the Spartans' back, one that in all likelihood would have been another death blow to State's spirits for the next nine months, and was quickly on its way, moving to the MSU 24 in seven plays, the last four of them runs covering 30 yards. The Lions called timeout with 1:50, a fresh set of downs, and the win in front of them.

If there's one thing in the Big Ten, though, that can rival Michigan State's consistent ineptitude at the end of a tough game, it's Anthony Morelli's ineptitude in the same situation. In two years as a starter, Morelli had never once brought Penn State from behind in the fourth quarter, and with a golden chance to ride out a hero in his final regular season struggle, the senior wastrue to form: from the 24, Morelli threw four conseuctive incomplete passes, the last a wild, Hail Mary-looking heave out of the end zone to no one in particular. He came back on the field only to complete a desperate, hopeless dump off for about five yards as time expired.  It was classic, really.

So, given the circumstances, it was not necessarily a change of character in the Spartans - something had to give, and it was Michigan State's tendency to spit the bit rather than Penn State's under Morelli. But everybody has to start somewhere.

Upwards...

The Shame, The Shame
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Two weeks ago, even after Alabama dropped to 6-3 by losing at LSU, Nick Saban's multi-million dollar star still seemed very much on the rise. The Tide was competitive and had a realistic chance of beating one of the top two or three teams in the country, and had appeared well-coached and opportunistic against far greater talent. At the least, the one thing that wouldn't happen with Saban is a Shula-esque loss of focus on the level of last year's loss to Mississippi State, or the pair of lapses against Louisiana Tech in a three-year span under Mike DuBose.

And hey, it's not like Saban's team was run over by UL-Monroe – 'Bama outgained the War Hawks by 209 yards. The difference in the game, clearly, was four turnovers, especially the one that set up Monroe's second touchdown from a yard out, and turnovers are correctable, right? Right?


No?
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It may be that Alabama's problems are deeper, more intrinsic than originally imagined, especially its tendency to give the ball away to inferior teams a) at the end of long potential scoring drives and b) in immediate scoring position, two problems that have reared their heads in each of the pair of disastrous losses the last two weeks. In one sense – making the Tide competitive again in the SEC – Saban is on schedule, having beaten Arkansas and routed Tennessee and taken Georgia to overtime and played LSU into the final minute. Unless you were expecting championships or something off 6-7, that's a perfectly acceptable record in a "baby steps" kind of way.

But the last two weeks, against alleged fodder, have been straight up Shula/DuBose levels of flat. This is how honeymoons end and harsh, four million-dollar demands start cropping up, and games like next Saturday's against Auburn are life and death: a third straight loss drops Bama to 6-6, extends the Tigers' in-state winning streak to six and, with at least nine other SEC teams qualified for a bowl, probably keeps the Tide at home in December. Like, again. Welcome to hell, coach.

On the bright side: Minnesota's first-year coach, on the other hand, may have ended his debut season on its highest note. Yes, the Gophers blew a second half lead at home by allowing three fourth quarter touchdowns to Wisconsin, their tenth straight defeat and a sobering cap on a winless season in the Big Ten. But Minnesota did hold the Badgers to 443 yards in the process – 325 rushing, a mere 118 through the air – and thus end the season allowing 518.67 yards per game, 0.95 yards per game better than the worst defense of the decade, 2002 Eastern Michigan. So when they ask you how that first year went, coach, you can tell them, after a season on the edge, "We weren't the worst of the decade." And that's something they can never take away.