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Life on the Margins, Week Thirteen

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')

Ole Miss Miss. State
Total Offense 319 273
1st Downs 21 10
Yds./Play 4.0 4.5
Yds./Possession 21.3 19.5
Turnovers 2 2
Swing Points 0 +7

Final Score: Miss. State 17, Ole Miss 14
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I chronicled the oddities of this game in the "Sunday Quarterback" recap, and the really surprising statistic above is Mississippi State’s yards per play, which is half a yard better than the Rebels’ despite the Bulldogs’ overall struggles. I never would have guessed that sitting in the stadium, probably because Ole Miss had a couple of stretches of moving the ball consistently – as on a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown to open the game and a 12-play, 62-yard touchdown drive to open the second half – while MSU’s few positive plays were isolated amid long droughts of futility. Of State’s 153 yards in the first 50 minutes of the game, 80 came on two plays: a 27-yard run in the first quarter (after which MSU lost ground and was forced to punt) and a 53-yard pass in the third quarter (after which MSU lost ground and turned the ball over on downs). Eight of the Bulldogs’ first ten drives prior to the final ten minutes covered 12 yards or less, and one of the two that went longer covered 17 yards in the third quarter before a fumble. It’s hard to overstate the wretchedness of the Bulldog offense through first 50 minutes.

It’s equally hard to overstate the inevitability of its rejuvenation after Ole Miss was stopped on 4th-and-1 at midfield with a 14-0 lead, though, a decision I cite again as Ed Orgeron’s signature on his own death warrant. MSU outgained the Rebels 121-3 from that point forward and added the requisite punt return for touchdown to tie – three of the Bulldogs’ four SEC wins this year hinged on a crucial defensive/special teams touchdown. Orgeron is gone because, based on the first three and a half quarters, Ole Miss didn’t think it should have even been in a position for the last one to matter.

So. Florida Pittsburgh
Total Offense 352 393
1st Downs 18 20
Yds./Play 5.3 4.8
Yds./Possession 29.3 26.2
Turnovers 2 3
Swing Points +21 +7

Final Score: South Florida 48, Pittsburgh 37
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It would be very misleading to suggest Pitt "outplayed" USF, as the per play and per possession yardage totals should demonstrate, but the Panthers were in control of the first half, limiting the Bulls to just five offensive possessions and heading into halftime up 14-10. It fell apart when the Panthers let Matt Grothe take off for an 80-yard touchdown on the first snap of the second half, a prelude to one of the worst quarters by any team all season. Not only did Pitt’s next six drives result in four quick punts and two interceptions, but the picks went straight onto the scoreboard, one directly and another by putting the ball at the one for an easy plunge that put the Bulls ahead 34-24 late in the third. After the Panthers finally broke out of their funk, drove for a touchdown to pull within a field and delivered a three-and-out on defense, USF picked off another pass, its third in five possessions, and took it back for a touchdown, too. Pitt had its breaks – USF fumbled at the end of a long drive in the third, and had a 55-yard kickoff return to the Bull 19 to set up its final touchdown – but it was those three throws by Pat Bostick that proved to be an overwhelming burden in an otherwise very evenly-played game.
Duke North Carolina
Total Offense 360 224
1st Downs 18 20
Yds./Play 4.6 4.1
Yds./Possession 30.0 20.4
Turnovers 1 2
Swing Points 0 +6

Final Score: North Carolina 20, Duke 14 (OT)
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Overtime games are all inherently "margin games," and it’s impossible to sort through the numbers and critical plays of a three or four-OT epic like LSU-Arkansas or Tennessee-Kentucky. But Duke-UNC only went one extra period, and it was clear why the Devils came up short of the upset: they can’t kick.

Duke improbably controlled this game after giving up a touchdown on Carolina’s first series, but its missed opportunities are legion: four times the Devils moved into UNC territory and came up empty, punting once, fumbling once and missing a pair of field goals – killers, these, coming at the end of solid 51 and 58-yard drives, the latter culminating in a missed 40-yarder to win as time expired. A different kicker, Joe Surgan, missed again from 42 yards in the first overtime, and the Heels walked out winners in arguably their worst overall performance of the season with a 25-yard run on the first play of the next series.

Notes: Clemson had to beat South Carolina on a field goal on the last play of the game, and recover from a 3rd-and-18 on the game-winning drive to get there, even though the numbers show the Tigers in total control, especially in terms of possession (better than 17 minutes more time on offense than USC) and turnover margins (the Tigers were plus-two on the night). The Gamecocks hung with good old firepower, averaging a pretty stunning seven yards per play against a good defense. But even when the offense is rolling, it can’t score when it doesn’t have the ball, and when it can’t hang on to it.