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Friday Quarterback Smells Green

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If there need be any more evidence that football is a game fundamentally of human drama, witness the last week, and in all likelihood the weeks to come, in which secret meetings, private flight paths and clandestine sources keep message board minions glued to their screens at the expense of the fact that there are actual games to play, significant, enduring championships and ancient blood feuds, which provide ample drama of their own.

One of the less signifcant variety was last night, and I regret to say I turned off Louisville’s pending disaster with Rutgers at the end of the first quarter, with the Cardinals down 21-3, having allowed easy touchdowns on all three defensive possessions, commited two penalties and been sacked in a three-play span and given off an aura of general hopelessness. Dinner plans, you know. So I missed UL’s improbably fourth quarter resuscitation on defense, when it held Rutgers to three straight quick punt possesions in the midst of outscoring the Knights 24-3 en route to the win, which must be the biggest of the season for Steve Kragthorpe. It likely will not get Louisville in a bowl, unless the Cards are an at-large selection, and for opponents, Cincinnati remains the most impressive pelt on this season’s Papa John’s Wall of Victory at The ‘Ville. But Louisville was down 18 at three different points in the game, with a renewed opportunity at each one of them to fold up the flag of the most disappointing season this side of South Bend, and responded down the stretch with its best performance of the year.

Leave 'em wanting more, coach.
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Under the circumstances, in Louisville’s shoes, I’d rather stay home and soak in some positive thoughts for the next eight months than prep for some meaningless bowl game in god knows where, when who knows what might happen. Thursday was the ideal ending for an already-embattled coach, to end with success and resiliency against a respectable foe on the high point of dismal fall. It’s as much of a wave as Kragthorpe can possibly have going into the offseason, and he should go ahead and hop on it.

There are a handful of games this weekend that come with direct conference or mythical championship implications:

Oklahoma vs. Missouri

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What’s at Stake: The Big 12 Championship, directly, and millions and millions of dollars, and, for Missouri, a gateway to probably the biggest event in the history of the school if the Tigers can secure a bid in the almighty championship game. If Mizzou is successful in its quest for vengeance, there is no doubt about this, or about the Sooners’ kaput at-large chances; if OU takes two straight, the Tigers’ BCS hopes may similarly disappear in favor of one-loss Kansas, last week be damned, and Ohio State books its flights for New Orleans in improbable rapture (or, like, whatever). It’s not like a conference title isn’t always a meaningful reward in itself, but for Missouri, especially, it’s must must win.
Oklahoma Wants: Chase Daniel proved last week he is a steady surgeon when given time, carving up Kansas on short, quick-release passes and intermediate passes from 10-15 yards against soft coverage and porous, mostly pressure-free zones. The Jayhawks never got in Daniel’s face after the first couple possessions of the game, and it was simple pitch-and-catch down the field from there on – Daniel never had to throw deep, and didn’t complete a pass longer than 20 yards. Kansas’ defense is comparable to Oklahoma’s, statistically, but athletically, the Sooners are in much better position to man up in the secondary – OU’s secondary personnel matches up with any in the country man-for-man, which Kansas’ certainly did not ouside of Aqib Talib – and send more people to get in Daniel’s face and force a few bad decisions from a guy who’s thrown ten touchdowns and no interceptions over the last three games.

The Temple difference.
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This is by no means "foolproof" – in the first meeting in Norman back in October, Daniel was 37-47 for 361 yards and a touchdown, about as efficient in a move-the-chains way as he was last week, and Missouri scored 31 points, the most OU has allowed outside of Texas Tech (which scored 34). But the Sooners also applied enough pressure to force a pair of turnovers from Daniel and four from Missouri on the night, which Oklahoma turned into 17 points in a ten-point win. It was a fumble returned for touchdown and an interception that led to another short field score that brought the Sooners from behind in that game to win in the fourth quarter. If the Sooner secondary can consistently deny the Tigers the easy stuff and force Daniel and his receivers to make plays down the field, they’re likely to come up with at least as many big plays as they’d allow in the process, and more if the pass rush does its job.

Offensively, Oklahoma found its running game last week against Oklahoma State after abandoning it in catchup mode at Texas Tech, following a similar abandonment amidst general success earlier against Missouri. Sam Bradford is still the most efficient quarterback in the country, but that’s a direct result of the help the offensive line and rotating backfield have given him. Last year’s regular season win in Columbia was a clinic in punishing ball control, with OU running 52 times and eating up 13 minutes more in possession time than the Tigers in a game it didn’t have a play longer than 18 yards, and it will command a similar approach to wresting the clock and the ball from Daniel’s hands again Saturday for as long as possible.
Missouri Wants: If Oklahoma is intent on bringing pressure, Mizzou should employ the standard blitz-slowing tactics (screens, draws, long handoffs, etc.) but also work to do what it did against an early aggressive Kansas D: establish the run with Tony Temple, who missed the first game with Oklahoma and was not replaced – after Daniel, who carried 11 times outside of sacks, Jimmy Jackson had six carries for 22 yards and Mizzou had no ground game to speak of. Last week, after stalling and giving up some pressure out of the gate – Daniel dropped to pass on eight of Missouri’s first ten plays, was sacked once and scrambled short of a first down on another, leading to three straight punts – Missouri countered Kansas’ upfield tendencies by getting Temple free in its pull-and-trap heavy misdirection scheme, which perfectly exploited the Jayhawk pass rush and set KU on its heels for the rest of the game. Temple had back-to-back runs of 12 and 22 and yards early in the Tigers’ first scoring drive, then busted free for 17 from his own two-yard line on the first play of the 98-yard march that set the tone for Mizzou’s offensive dominance; Jackson came behind him with an 18-yard run on the next play. Once Kansas was forced to respect the Tigers’ big play ability on the ground, and to keep its overmatched linebackers in to cover receivers/athletic tight ends in space, Daniel had all the time he needed. Oklahoma should present a much greater challenge, especially re: covering receivers in space, but the Tigers will struggle if they don’t slow OU’s rush in the same way, and sooner rather than later.

The blueprint for beating Oklahoma – or playing them very close, as Missouri did last month – has been to get the Sooners out of their running game and force Bradford to pick up the slack. Colorado and Texas Tech didn’t so much stop Oklahoma’s backs as they made OU somehow forget about them by milking the clock on offense (CU won the possession battle against Oklahoma by a good 18 minutes) and putting the offense into catchup mode in the first half (Texas Tech led 27-7 in the second quarter). Missouri, with its consistent, controlled passing game, is in position to do both.
Constants: Daniel is a machine in the short passing game, hitting 70 percent of his passes for 324 yards every time out, which would be more if he’d been asked to throw more in blowouts of Illinois State, Texas Tech and Iowa State. No quarterback is as in command of his offense right now as Daniel, and with as much talent as Missouri has at receiver and tight end, completely nullifying it is not a realistic possibility. Oklahoma will have to score itself to keep pace.
Variables: Will Temple’s presence make a significant difference? Without him, Missouri’s running game fell to gimmicky reverses and options to Jeremy Maclin and scrambles by Daniel, who was hit often and pressured into crucial mistakes despite his overall success. Missouri’s offensive line has been a terrific unit all season, but showed some random lapses last week in zone blocking, occasionally allowing Kansas to stream into the backfield untouched. The Jayhawks helped out the cause by frequently overruning the ball or missing tackles, but Oklahoma’s blue chip-stocked line (seventh nationally against the run, first in the Big 12 in sacks) will be much tougher to manipulate. ... Will Oklahoma commit to getting pressure on Daniel? It’s high-risk if he proves capable of getting the ball over the Sooners’ head, but also high reward, as in the three turnovers OU collected from Daniel last time. No pressure is certain doom unless the Tigers suddenly catch the dropsies from Miami.

Show Missouri the money!
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The Pick: Missouri’s defense absolutely gives me the jitters, having been reamed for at least 370 this year by every offense except Colorado and Nebraska, and giving up four straight touchdowns on pass-heavy drives even when Kansas had no choice but to throw its way back into the game last week. Last year, Oklahoma lined up and ran it down the Tigers’ throat, and the same running game is back against a defense that, statistically, anyway, is slightly worse against the run. If OU commits to a punishing game offensively, it can bite and hold and turn the lights out.

But Daniel was a robotic force of nature last week and Missouri brings enough weapons to the table to frustrate any defense, even one as fast as Oklahoma’s, as it proved already with a largely successful game in Norman. That game, on the road, without one of the best players on the offense, was only ruined in the end by turnovers. If the line can keep Daniel clean (metaphorically, since, you know it’s a dome). the Tigers bring too many weapons to the table.

Missouri 32 Oklahoma 28

LSU vs. Tennessee
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LSU has the disappointment of losing its grasp on the mythical championship and the distraction of escalating Miles to Michigan speculation, especially if the players already know he’s a goner. This may be Tennessee’s only hope. Not that the Vols are complete outclassed – in general, they’re probably slightly better equipped than Kentucky or Arkansas to pop the Tigers’ balloon again as a kind of revenge for the Matt Mauck-led sabotage in Atlanta in 2001 – but LSU has only been felled in triple overtime, amid a slew of its own mistakes against opposing offenses led by two certain first round picks in next year’s draft. Tennessee has had to squeak by Vanderbilt and Kentucky the last two weeks to get into this game, two weeks after squeaking by South Carolina in overtime, on the heels of being blown out earlier in the year by Cal, Florida and Alabama. UT still lacks the elite power running game that’s defined its best teams over the past decade, averaging a just okay 3.9 per carry against SEC defenses – that’s all SEC defenses, of which LSU has been easily the best against the run. The last time Erik Ainge saw LSU’s defense, it looked something like this:

Show LSU the money! Just go ahead and make it all out to Les Miles.
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Admittedly, that was a long time ago by short-term college career standards, a different, pre-Cutcliffe Vol offense and pre-Cutcliffe Ainge. But LSU’s defense is still a nightmare, whatever Darren McFadden did to it - Tennessee, obviously, does not have a Darren McFadden – and if Arian Foster doesn’t make a dent, the senior will be in for a long afternoon. LSU has had a tendency to let teams hang around until the final minutes, with iffy results, and Tennessee, as mentioned, has had a tendency of winning close games late, but the Tigers should decisively control both lines of scrimmage and put the championship away before the gun, which will signify the start of the Miles bidding war in earnest.
LSU 27 Tennessee 18

Show Beamer Ball that bling, y'all.
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Virginia Tech vs. Boston College
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The only person I know of touting Virginia Tech as one of the hottest teams in the country is Mergz from Saurian Sagacity, who recognizes that, since the Hokies blew that 10-point lead to B.C. a few Thursday nights back, they’ve been on a tear, ripping up Georgia Tech by 24, FSU by 19, Miami by 30 and Virginia by 12 in the de facto ACC Coastal title game, the best game of Sean Glennon’s career. In fact, the Eagles’ comeback interrupted an otherwise brilliant string of wins by the Hokies, who had crushed Clemson and then Duke just prior to the BC game and would be undoubtedly undefeated in the conference, on a ten-game win streak and in the thick of the mythical championship discussion if they’d only managed to recover that onside kick. Tech’s defense is still in the top five nationally in all four major categories, as well as sacks, and the offense has recently shed its overly conservative tableaux, averaging 396 yards and 33 points over its last six, including the dreary, rain-soaked effort against the Eagles. Glennon and Branden Ore are each coming off their best game s of the season, and it was his success in the first BC game that got Ore back into a rhythm after a terrible start to the season. I think we know enough by now not to dismiss Matt Ryan and those ever-scrappy birds out of hand, but they got their breaks last time, and the Hokies are the ones swooping downhill since.
Virginia Tech 26 Boston College 21

Pittsburgh at West Virginia - - -
This has been the most lopsided game in the country the last two years, a pair of Thursday night games in which Pat Slaton has combined for 1,225 yards and 13 touchdowns by themselves in 32 and 18-point wins. Well, not completely by themselves – dominating offensive line against slowish, confused defense and all – but still enough to leave Pat White mewling in Dave Wannstedt’s nightmares. Maybe this year he can personally deliver the pink slip under one of those fancy silver platters after another touchdown. Book the Mountaineers in New Orleans.

West Virginia 41 Pittsburgh 17

UCLA at Southern Cal
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Here is a rabid crosstown rivalry between two storied programs with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line (seriously: USC is in with a win, LA is in with a win and an Arizona State loss), but don’t forget what’s really important about this game: no matter what happens on the field, Karl Dorrell should be fired immediately after the final gun. Hell, people, it’s not only the thing to do for the good of Bruin football, it’s the right thing to do for America. And as much as I like the idea of the crotchedy old horse getting off the table one more time, just for a nother year of frustrated Bruin Nation diatribes against its great white whale, any notions of a UCLA resurgence should be put to bed by the reality of its "upset" over Oregon last week in what must have been one of the worst games in Pac Ten history. Reduced to their third string quarterbacks, the Bruins and Ducks failed to score a touchdown until the final minutes of the game, and failed to score at all before that except on field goals set up by Oregon turnovers inside its own 30. Osaar Rasshan was 0-7 passing, was replaced by gimpy starter Ben Olson, who went 4-10 with an interception, and gives way this week to oft-injured Patrick Cowan, who had this happen to him whilst not giving away LA’s defensive victory over the Trojans last year:

Show USC the money!
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The same defense bloodied up Rudy Carpenter last week in SC’s best game of the year. I would guess the Trojans are more than willing to do their part for the greater good here.
Southern Cal 27 UCLA 13

Show Hawaii the kala!
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Washington at Hawaii
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The Husky defense has been lit up in every direction all year: 481 yards to Ohio State, 537 to UCLA, 460 to USC, 523 to Arizona State, 661 (465 rushing alone) to Oregon, 535 (510 passing) to Arizona, and, after a three-week reprieve of respectability against Stanford, Oregon State and Cal, 509 to Washington State, 399 passing with five touchdowns to Alex Brink. As little as I still think of Hawaii and its wretched, wretched schedule, the Huskies will be like a big bowl of haupia sprinkled with wind-strewn trash to Colt Brennan. He-man freshman Jake Locker was back in the lineup for Washington last week in the Apple Cup loss, but he remains erratic as a passer and no match for Brennan if the Huskies are the Huskies defensively.
Hawaii 39 Washington 31

Tulsa at Central Florida
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A rematch of the 2005 C-USA Championship game; winner gets the bid for the Liberty Bowl. Both teams are 9-3, but they’re very different: Tulsa is the highest-scoring team in the nation, a product of Gus Malzahn’s caution-to-the-wind spread, which produces far more big plays (national-best 9.6 per attempt, 45 touchdowns) than other, more conservative spreads, but also ranks 111th in total defense because the tempo gives both offenses plenty of chances. UCF, on the other hand, pounds out wins the old-fashioned way, behind Kevin Smith and one of only two defenses in Conference USA (Southern Miss is the other) that allows less than 30 points per game. The latter was good for a three-touchdown Knight win in Orlando in October in which Smith ran for 170 and three touchdowns, and should be good to avenge the title game loss in 2005.

UCF 44 Tulsa 38

Miami, Ohio vs. Central Michigan
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The MAC is the most bizarre of all the conference championships because the odd number of teams (seven in the East, six in the West) caused scheduling havoc and teams played different numbers of conference games; Miami is just 6-6 overall and 5-2 in the conference, yet got into the championship by virtue of a head-to-head win over 6-2 Bowling Green, which is 8-4 overall. Something is fishy about that, and defending league champ CMU – in with no controversy and a full game lead over second place Ball State – will do its duty to cut the mediocre RedHawks’ dreams short.

Central Michigan 35 Miami, Ohio 23

Florida Atlantic at Troy
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The unofficial Sun Belt championship game, with the New Orleans Bowl on the line: Troy is 6-0 in the conference, FAU is 5-1 and can knock the Trojans out with a head-to-head win here. Troy has only lost to SEC powers Florida, Arkansas and Georgia, and scored at least 26 against all of those teams, plus beat Oklahoma State by 18 in September, and so could probably survive a loss and still slip into a second straight bowl game, which the Owls could not. But if you want a good indication of the gap between Troy and the rest of its conference, look no further than Florida Atlantic’s performance at Oklahoma State the week before Troy’s: a 45-6 Cowboy win.

Troy 37 Florida Atlantic 21

...and then there is only pride:

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It's Heated and Ultimately Meaningless Territorial Rivalry Time!

Navy vs. Army
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Army has won three games, two of them in overtime over Rhode Island and Tulane, and had not come closer than 20 points to any of its four opponents since losing to the Green Wave since only falling by ten two weeks ago to Tulsa. The Cadets have also lost five straight to the Midshipmen, who enter sporting a horrendous defense – Paul Johnson is a major coaching candidate despite overseeing arguably the worst defensive unit in the nation – but the most effective rushing offense (357.4 yards per game) of the decade, as well. As bad as Navy’s defense may be, Army’s offense can match it.

Navy 44 Army 24

California at Stanford
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Incredibly, Cal has won one game since beating Oregon on the last weekend of September, a lackluster win at that over Washington State. But the Cardinal, against the bottom of the Pac Ten schedule and Notre Dame over the last month, have managed to go 0-4 since a one-point win over Arizona on Oct. 20. For all the talk of the Bears’ demise, the team is still far too talented to fall to Stanford. I know, I know, USC, etc., but who on Stanford is going to do the damage here? Take DeSean Jackson and 1,300-yard rusher Justin Forsett and don’t ask so many questions.

California 27 Stanford 13

Arizona at Arizona State
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It may not be fair to say the Devils are reeling – they’ve lost two of three, but to the top two teams in the conference (USC and Dixon-led Oregon), with a win over UCLA in between – but there’s no denying Arizona has hit another late season stride behind the suddenly flourishing passing game Sonny Dykes imported from Texas Tech. Willie Tuitama has ten touchdowns to two interceptions in three straight Wildcat wins, and UA was last seen overrunning No. 1 Oregon. I learned my lesson in vouching for a Wildcat hot streak against the flagging Devils last year, and won’t do it again, but the score could be close enough to keep ASU from the at-large BCS berth it covets.

Arizona State 31 Arizona 26

Oregon State at Oregon
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Oregon: suddenly hapless loser of two straight without its unstoppable quarterback. Oregon State: winner of five of its last six with the top-ranked run defense in the country. I didn’t watch Oregon’s loss to UCLA last week, thank god, but I did see their meltdown at Arizona, and sometimes the numbers say it all: without Dennis Dixon, Oregon is clearly a shell of its former self and possibly the worst team in the Pac Ten at the moment. OSU is very good against the run and at rushing the passer, which all spells disaster for Duck backups.

Oregon State 23 Oregon 13

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Stop by Saturday morning, Gameday-ish, for the regular season swan song of the gameday open thread. You can promise yourself you won’t cry, but you know how these things always wind up: with you blubbering all over your keyboard. Suck it up and comment like a man.