I can't say I've ever enjoyed watching one team as much as I have LSU over the last five weeks: the Tigers have slugged their way through four straight instant classics, all of them important games against a top 15 opponent, three of them comeback wins for LSU in the final two minutes, once on the final play. And I still don't know how much I really know about the Tigers. They look in sleek and in sync for stretches, then sloppy, mistake-prone. Occasionally they want to establish a power running game with the monster offensive line, but Gary Crowton's mind always drifts back to the pass; Matt Flynn is alternately a cool-headed, in-command veteran and an impatient first-year starter trying to force it. Trindon Holliday, Keiland Williams, Jacob Hester, Charles Scott and Brandon LaFell are stars, then disappear entirely.
The only feel I can get for LSU is a) it is still a wall against the run, and b) however unfocused the team seems for a half, or three quarters, or three and a half quarters, it finds itself in time to pull the rug from under the upset. Again, though, not perfectly - the one time it wasn't in the trailing position, at Kentucky, the defense had its worst quarter of the season and lost to a team that hasn't won since. It would be too tidy to be perfect, I guess, or too boring, or something. I don't know. Either way, I'm just grateful for the weekly drama.
Desperation is the mother of discovery: On another note, in a desperate attempt to catch the end of the tight Boston College-Florida State game when the local ABC affiliate refused to switch from an unmitigated blowout in Norman, I made a potentially blog-changing discovery: ESPN 360. ESPN 360! Why didn't I know about this? I was able to download the necessary gizmos in time to watch Matt Ryan's fatal interception to Geno Hayes in real time, and pull up a few games from earlier in the day - I watched a lot of Oregon-Arizona State, but much of the account of that game below is also gleaned from the ESPN 360 "rebroadcast," for free. I feel vaguely like a sucker who's about to be bludgeoned by a catch of some unknown origin (it is Disney, you know), but if it gets me long lost ABC regional games, this is a service I wholeheartedly endorse.
...with various degrees of vigilance...
LSU 41 • Alabama 34
- - -
I had a rare Easterbrook moment when LSU blitzed on 3rd-and-13 with two minutes to go - Alabama had burned the Tigers deep with D.J. Hall man-to-man in the second quarter, then scored a touchdown on a lob to Keith Brown in the third quarter when the Tigers sent the house, and two plays before the third down in question had Brown wide open against Craig Steltz down the middle of the field on a simple missed read by John Parker Wilson. I could actually see myself writing "seven gentlemen crossed the line..." followed by a disaster for LSU on a long-yardage, low-percentage play. Instead, Terry Grant missed his pick-up, first rate true freshman Chad Jones came completely free (not for the first time in the game), kicked the ball loose, and we're left with yet another piece of evidence that, in college football, to the aggressor go the spoils.
LSU has given us this bit over and over again, with the late game balls - "dialing up the testicles" as Gary Danielson might say, over and over again - and the Tigers wouldn't be anywhere near their current position in the standings (one win from clinching the SEC West) or the ballots (likely second in tonight's BCS poll) if they didn't keep coming through in those situations. But they wouldn't be in those do-or-die situations if they were still sporting the Poulan Independence Dick we saw in all its ghastly power against Virginia Tech and South Carolina, when the notion of scoring 34 points on this defense was borderline heretical, or at least an indication of severe head trauma. Four straight opponents now have scored at least 24 in regulation.
Not all of that is on the Tigers' defense - Alabama took the lead on consecutive scoring drives in the second quarter of six and two yards, respectively, and for the big plays the Tide did make, finished with a scant 254 in total offense to 475 for LSU; the defense is still fourth nationally against the run, second in pass efficiency, second in total defense, and the last four opponents have also been outgained by an average of 130 yards. So why is LSU still eking out these wins in the final minute, from behind, week after week?
Well, because three straight interceptions and 130 yards in penalties to `Bama's 15 yards, that's why. Les Miles talked about poise at the start of the second half, but his reputation as an unpoised, undisciplined, let `er rip gunslinger was reinforced Saturday in his teams' consistent, nearly disastrous mental mistakes. Alabama had zero running game, and therefore no chance to mount sustained drives, but made one big play on offense in the first half (the deep bomb to Hall in the second quarter) and one in the second half on special teams (Javier Arenas' lead-grabbing, 61-yard punt return midway through the fourth), and both were facilitated by LSU penalties - Hall's catch followed a roughing the passer penalty against Tyson Jackson on a 3rd-and-long stop, and Arenas' punt return followed a bizarre attempt by the Tiger offense to gimmick its way to a first down on 4th-and-1 near midfield on a clearly illegal line shift ("simulating the snap" was the most apt possible description) followed by a dumb 15-yard penalty for Carnell Stewart removing his helmet on the field (as well as - and I'm just guessing here from my amateur lip-reading skills, because they didn't announce this - screaming "that's fucking bullshit!" as the first flag was announced against the offense). I wondered, was that a reaction to the failure of the fourth down bravado that served LSU so well against Florida at the end of the loss at Kentucky? It wasn't the kind of direct, confident, aggressive response we've come to expect from the Tigers; then again, they hadn't mounted anything like their usual running game to point. Then again, despite its frequent success, LSU has had trouble establishing any reliable identity on offense most of the year. Alabama is also not in the game without the ten easy points it gained by intercepting Matt Flynn three times in the second quarter, all on bad decisions by Flynn, probably flipping the switch on a ten-point swing on the third pick by stopping an apparent LSU scoring drive and turning the field position swap into a go-ahead touchdown for the Tide instead.
But adversity has been the norm during this incredible stretch of games: LSU trailed by ten in the second half to Florida, Auburn and now Alabama, and rallied to outscore them 71-28 in the second halves of those games. The Tide scored touchdowns to go ahead twice in the second half Saturday, and the Tigers immediately answered both of them, just as they did Auburn's late go-ahead touchdown two weeks ago. This is still a beast of team that's ultimately done everything it's needed to do to establish itself as the conference favorite against a hellish schedule, but it doesn't get serious and take the prize until it sees it being dragged away.
• I couldn't say I disagreed with Danielson's admonishment against Glenn Dorsey returning to the game after his already bum knee was rolled again in the first half, given the millions Dorsey has at stake with his health, but he came back and hobbled his way to an outstanding game: six tackles, two for loss, a sack and another QB hurry in the middle of a line that allowed 20 net yards rushing. You never want to overuse the "warrior" cliché, but when Dorsey was hobbling off after chasing down a third down screen pass short of the marker in the fourth quarter, looking like a bear with a gunshot wound in his leg, the description seemed apt. He probably shouldn't play against Louisiana Tech or Ole Miss the next two weeks, but Dorsey put a lot on the line to help his team, and delivered.
Oregon 35 • Arizona State 23
- - -
Imagine being promoted from captain of the state highway patrol to commander of NORAD, and I think that might approximate how Chip Kelly feels calling plays at Oregon after his years at New Hampshire. Weapons, baby. The skill talent on this team is almost unfair when unleashed in this fashion, and when you get that impossible combination of arm and muscle twitch operating as comfortably from the shotgun as Dennis Dixon - truly this is the offense of nightmares.
Almost there, Duck. Almost there.
- - -
Dixon came into the season this inconsistent, injury-plagued, baseball-playing flake, and now is the player any defensive coordinator least wants to see lining up on the other side. The first time we saw him this season, he was slicing immediately post-Appalachian State Michigan into eensy bits in whatever fashion he liked, and it could be somewhat dismissed as the lethargy and incompetence of the Wolverines. And doesn't Oregon always play well in September, anyway? Now we get him again, with big stakes on the line against a top ten defense in November, and he seems just as in command of the myriad fakes, misdirection and precise timing routes of Kelly's offense down the stretch - combined with the execution of the Ducks' offensive line, Dixon occasionally looks like he's on another plane, and the long-term loss of one third of the starting backfield and two of the top three receivers seems irrelevant.
Part of that is because the remaining skill talent is so good (besides Dixon, Jonathan Stewart and Jaison Williams were both top-rated blue chips out of high school) and there is so much for a defense to pay attention to, but it's also because, again, the entire unit is operating so well. The Ducks came out immediately gunning, hitting Williams in man-to-man for about 40 yards, but Oregon's first two touchdowns Saturday were beautifully blocked screens into the right flat that did not require PS#1 talent to spring Williams and Stewart to the end zone, and its third was a fake screen to the left flat that froze the defense and opened the seam for Williams. After the first two scores, the Devils didn't have a chance.
Oregon finished with 200 rushing and 200 passing, appropriately, and didn't score more only because Dixon left the game with a tweaked knee in the fourth and Brady Leaf finished with the reigns on - they similarly took the gas off at Michigan, you'll remember. Williams, dangerous as he was, also struggled with drops. But even during a second quarter lull, I never got the feeling Arizona State could stop UO's offense if the latter was really trying. Dixon has all the numbers he needs (he's thrown 20 touchdowns with just three interceptions and is the fourth highest-rated passer in the country, before you account for his rushing contributions), but mainly, he's just doing whatever he wants, when he wants.
• Down 21-13 with a chance to tie or pull within one going into the locker room, ASU badly mismanaged the last 45 seconds of the first half and came up completely empty. The Devils ran for a first down inside the Duck 20, inbounds with no timeouts, and rather than just spiking the ball, as the ASU coaches were apparently signalling, Rudy Carpenter spent 20 seconds calling a play and getting his team lined up, then inexplicably handed to Dmitri Nance off right tackle for a loss of two yards as the clock ticked and ticked and ticked. It went all the way down to six seconds before Carpenter was able to get back under center for a spike, moments before the heretofore reliable Thomas Weber missed a short field goal that would have cut the lead to five. Arizona State had controlled the second quarter and rallied from 21-3 down, but ceded all that momentum by getting off one worthless snap, in scoring position, in 45 seconds. The Devils were hopelessly down by 23 in the fourth quarter before they found themselves in the same scoring position again.
• "I hope that's to promote the issue of breast cancer awareness. If they're just pink whistles, we have issues." Why is that, Mike? What "issues" do we have with refs blowing pink whistles, Mike?
Penn State 26 • Purdue 19
- - -
Not to be too harsh or a broken record or anything, but Purdue continues to reinforce all the negative stereotypes: overmatched against good (or even just above average) teams, unable to score on decent defenses, ultimately soft on defense its own self. But here we are - after Dorien Bryant's kickoff return to open the game, the Boilers managed four field goals and zero touchdowns, were outgained by an often pedestrian offense by 138 yards and allowed 251 rushing on 6.1 per carry.
It's not like everything Purdue knows from guillotining the rabble leaks out onto its pillow before it plays a big game. Curtis "Potbellied" Painter has the arm and the receivers, and the offense was in command in the first quarter until an impressive 75-yard march that could have extended the lead to 17-7 was submarined by a Jaycen Taylor fumble at the goalline. That ill-timed giveaway and the subsequent Penn State drive across midfield turned the momentum, but Purdue still went on 74, 52 and 60-yard drives in the second half. All field goals, largely because of terrible starting field position - after the break, the Boilers did not start a single drive outside of their own 20.
With Northwestern's loss to Iowa - the Wildcats were 5-4 going in - Purdue's losing streak against winning teams was re-extended to 15 games, back to the start of the 2005 season against Akron, which finished 7-6 that year. The average margin of defeat in those games: 16 points. Including garbage time and 35 points in last year's loss at Hawaii, the offense the last two years has averaged 13.3 points against winners and, if you exclude the final, meaningless minute at Ohio State last month, has been held without an offensive touchdown in half of those games.
Its best chance of breaking the streak is against Indiana in two weeks, which currently sits at 6-4 and can win its seventh next week against Northwestern.
• Anthony Morelli can be pretty sharp when he's not under pressure and has the running game to fall back on to open things up downfield. In other words, under perfect conditions, Morelli is a better than average quarterback. This was the case Saturday, when Rodney Kinlaw and
Thomas Evan Royster consistently ate the Purdue defense alive for 210 yards, the Boilermakers only picked up one sack and the secondary looked like it was set on "Varsity," from the size of the holes in its zone coverage. But Morelli was on target to open men and didn't make a killer mistake against a quasi-respectable conference opponent, which makes it de facto one of the best games of his career.
• I got search hits after this game for "bad calls purdue penn state" and "purdue ref" (as well as, even more bizarrely, "houston nutt malzahn tecmo" and, once again, "colt brennan shirtless"), but I'm not sure what might be at the root of these searchers' presumed angst. There are only two really controversial plays: the aforementioned fumble by Taylor over the goalline, which Andre Ware insisted was over the plane of the goalline (I strongly disagree) and, much later, a failure by the officials to stop the clock after a Selwyn Lymon catch-and-run out of bounds on Purdue's penulitmate drive, which ended in a field goal that cut the margin to seven. There is something to the latter - Purdue had to use a timeout after the catch, a stop it dearly missed on Penn State's next offensive possession. The decision to keep the clock winding there probably cost the Boilers 30 seconds and three or four plays in its last ditch effort to tie.
This is a frankly run-of-the-mill, borderline snub in the big picture, not a clinching stab in the back - again, Purdue was significantly outgained, did not score a touchdown of offense, did not stop Penn State from running, and still had a chance to tie as time expired. I don't think there's much room for complaint about the refs.
Purdue tripped up by a decent opponent. What else is new?
- - -
- - -
• Kansas 76, Nebraska 39: I was initially going to note how good Kansas is at answering scores - KU came from behind on the road against K-State and Colorado by scoring immediately after momentum-shifting, go-ahead touchdowns by the opponent in both games, and did the same when Nebraska led early here - but it hardly seems relevant given that the Jayhawks wound up scoring at will no matter what Nebraska was doing. I mean, WTF, man: Kansas was 12-15 on third downs and scored on drives of 68, 50, 62, 74, 61, 62 and 19 yards...in the first half. Altogether, the 'Hawks scored touchdowns on 13 of 15 non-half-ending drives, and one of the no-scores was due to a missed field goal; prior to that, ten straight Kansas possessions ended in touchdowns. But it's not even like they had a chance to pull off the dogs if they wanted: the way the `Huskers were turning it over, the longest of the four scoring drives in the second half was only 44 yards.
Welcome to the fray, Todd Reesing and Brandon McAnderson. The stars of the new hottness were both backups to start the season, as was second-leading receiver Dexton Fields and freshman big play maestro Dezmon Briscoe, PS#339 by Phil Steele, who scored his fifth, sixth and seventh touchdowns Saturday.
• Michigan 28, Michigan State 24: I saw most of the first half of this game, when Mike Hart was doing his inexplicable Mike Hart things on a pair of spectacular, alternately juking and leg-churning, tackle-breaking runs, and then the last couple minutes, after the Wolverines fell behind and decided it wasn't going down like that, so I don't have much context for the hole the Michigan offense obviously crumpled into once Hart was largely sidelined in the meantime.
I do wonder about the notion that Michigan has a "scoring offense" and a "non-scoring offense," and that all it takes is a philosophical adjustment to the former to begin raining down points. This is exactly what happened Saturday: after eight three-and-outs in nine scoreless possessions, the Wolverines burned right down the field on two straight long touchdown drives after Michigan State went in front 24-14, seemingly using a strategy built entirely around long lobs to Mario Manningham. This is not entirely true - Manningham caught four passes on the touchdown drives, including the winning score from 31 yards out, the same number as Adrian Arrington (though Manningham had a couple incomplete passes lobbed in his direction, too) - but it is true that Henne thrived when forced to play a little bombs away. Especially if Hart's ankle is still at issue, I would expect more openness from the outset against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Making sense of what I didn't see.
- - -
• Ohio State 38, Wisconsin 17: The Buckeyes still are what we thought they were: a physical, efficient, fundamentally sound bunch of killers who'd as soon cut yer throat as they'd look at ya. Twelve yards rushing to an offense that had been averaging 175 in its first five Big Ten games is reminiscent of the nasty 2005 D at OSU, and the trench dominance extended to Ohio State's O-line: Chris Wells had 168 on eight per carry. Once the Badgers came back to move ahead 17-10 early in the third, the Buckeyes scored touchdowns on their next three possessions and finished with 28 straight points. Still no sketchy, disappointing or even close wins from OSU.
• Virginia 17, Wake Forest 16: Virginia, you magnificent bastards, this one was supposed to go the other way - Sam Swank does not miss that kick at the last second and Wake Forest does not lose games that come down to a field goal. Going back to last year, the Deacs were 9-1 in one-score games, but might have finally run into the one team that can out-Wake Wake: the Cavs have won six games by five points or less this year, and their last three wins have all been by one point. I have consistently maintained, whatever it's doing to win every week in the mediocre mash-up that is the ACC, Wake Forest is not a good team. Neither is Virginia. Everything in the box score of this game screams "play not to lose," and ultimately the Cavs were simply better at not losing. Again.
• Texas 38, Oklahoma State 35: I felt a little guilty about ignoring this game once I got a text message that said "you missed a great ending," but once it's 35-14 and Texas is turning the ball over left and right and Alabama-LSU and Oregon-Arizona State are commanding attention, the priorities are obvious. Anyway, it looks like what happened here is the same thing that happened last week: Texas committed to running Jamaal Charles, and he lit up a terrible defense. In the first three quarters, Charles had eight carries for 43 yards - that's 5.5 per carry right there - and in the fourth he had eight carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns, a lot of that coming on a 75-yarder on a drive that started at the Texas one.
Make no mistake, though: the 'Horns are no better on defense than OK State - the Cowboys passed for 430 and had a ridiculous 589 for the game, with Texas Tech coming into Austin next week. It looks like all we learned about UT is that it's resilient and really needs to hand off more often to Jamaal Charles.
Folsom Field at the end of a 55-10 rout. It's DIVISION I FOOTBALL, brother! I mean, sort of.
- - -
• Arizona 34, UCLA 27: Not even as close as it looks: LA scored the last 13 points after trailing 34-14, and one of its touchdowns was a kick return. An almost identical performance to last week's embarrasing collapse at Washington State - the Bruins were outgained by 278 in Pullman and 181 in Tucson, and the Arizona spread actually worked against a defense that supposedly has teeth - and is (or should be) the Dorrellian death knell.
• Missouri 55, Colorado 10: I wouldn't have thought there was that much space between these two teams, but even if I did, no matter how much space we're talking about, nothing - not even 55-10 - can adequately explain 598-196. Missouri outgained Colorado by 402 yards and 18 first downs. Average margin of victory by the Tigers in four Big 12 wins: 31.3 points, dragged down by a mere 14-point win over Iowa State. Nebraska, Texas Tech and now CU have been obliterated.
• Florida State 27, Boston College 17: Incredibly, on paper, Matt Ryan was significantly outplayed by Drew Weatherford, who had maybe the game of his career: Weatherford, on the road, had more completions in fewer attemtps and, most significantly, had zero interceptions against the most pick-happy defense in the country while Ryan had three, the last of which drove the nail in the Eagles' mythical championship coffin. Ryan threw 53 times and also had nine of BC's 20 carries, and 415 yards or not, that sort of one man show is hardly tenable two weeks in a row, against defenses of the caliber of Virginia Tech and Florida State.
• Oklahoma 42, Texas A&M 14: Pretty straightforward butt-kicking: Sam Bradford was accurate as a mofo, A&M played little to no defense, and the Sooners very quickly took the Aggies' best weapons out of the game - Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane combined for 12 carries, while Stephen McGee threw 28 times with the predictable results. A&M's defense was softer than I would have guessed, but no surprises on this page.
• Southern Cal 24, Oregon State 3: The final score is the Trojans' best of the year, all things considered - it's SC's first win over a team currently sporting a winning record - but without question this is also the worst offensive performance since Pete Carroll's first season at USC. The Trojans' scoring drives covered 9, 54, 47 and 14 yards, which is like the play-by-play for one drive for the SC offenses we're accustomed to. The defense, however, was great, or Oregon State's offense just that much worse, as the Beavers finished with a platry 176 yards and only scored a field goal after John David Booty fumbled the ball away at his own 17 in the second quarter. It's a good sign that two of the Trojans' next three possessions were touchdown drives to go up 17-3 in response, but the second half was a disaster. Still nothing special now about USC.
• Arkansas 48, South Carolina 36: Take that last sentence and circle it, underline it and then ritually burn it where the other USC is concerned, because "nothing special" and "third straight loss" are wholly inadequate for an effort like this. No team, I mean no collegiate team anywhere in any division, could do worse than allowing 541 yards rushing in one game. To anyone. That number is more shocking than Kansas' score over Nebraska, and it's a disgrace to a Gamecock defense that's usually fesity or resilient or something if nothing else. It will probably cost Tyrone Nix consideration for a head coaching job this offseason, and maybe the next, if he holds on to his coordinator position for that long. This is the SEC, man. Nine yards per carry? Casey Dick completed eight of ten passes. Arkansas might be on the first leg of a late season scorched earth campaign or something, but there is no excuse. I didn't have to watch it to know South Carolina just put in the most disgraceful defensive effort of the season (well, except maybe Minnesota's against North Dakota State, or against Illinois Saturday - see below).
I recruited him! I recruited him! I can do it again!
- - -
Interesting/Not Necessarily Relevant Stats
- - -
New Mexico State and Nevada combined for 1,032 yards and 52 first downs in a last second Wolfpack win. . . . Clemson scored 16 points in the final 1:10 of the first half and 30 in a 13-minute span to blow out Duke. . . . After leading 14-0 in the first quarter, Northwestern was outscored 28-3 in the last three quarters in a loss to Iowa. . . . Kirby Freeman, heir apparent of Quarterback U, completed 1 of 14 passes with three interceptions and an 84-yard touchdown in Miami's overtime loss to N.C. State. Freeman and Daniel Evans combined to complete 20 of 54 passes in the game. . . . Florida gained 348 yards in the first half en route to trouncing Vanderbilt. . . . East Carolina gained 641 yards on 9.2 per snap in a 56-40 win at Memphis. . . . Tennessee Tech outrushed Auburn on fewer carries in a 35-3 loss. . . . Notre Dame's offense nearly matched its season rushing total through the first eight games in the loss to Navy. . . . San Jose State did not draw a single flag in a five-touchdown loss at Boise State. . . . South Florida and Cincinnati combined for four defensive and special teams touchdowns in the first quarter. . . . Air Force outrushed Army 437-17 in a 24-point win. Chad Hall ran for 275 yards, his second 250-plus-yard game in four weeks. . . . TCU had more scoring drives (7) that New Mexico had first downs (6) in the Frogs' 37-0 win. . . . UL-Monroe racked up 624 yards, 30 first downs and two 100-yard rushers and lost on a last second kickoff return, 43-40. . . . Rutgers outgained UConn by 115 yards and 11 first downs and lost by 19 points. . . . Tulsa and Toledo each gained 600 yards total offense in wins over Tulane and Eastern Michigan, respectively. . . . And, to the tease, Minnesota allowed 448 yards rushing on nine yards per carry to Illinois, the third straight game the Gophers have allowed at least 300 on the ground. More on Minnesota's historic defensive futility later this week.
"BCS Busting" when the numbers are released later tonight.