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Life on the Margins

Winning the hard way.
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One of the elements of the game that really interests me, as regular readers might remember from this segment during the August preview season, is the way one or two plays can completely turn a game, sometimes subverting the vast majority of the fundamental blocking, tackling and every-down execution on a random lapse, flag or bounce. A team is best judged by those fundamentals, but games are regularly decided on certain big "lightning strike" plays that produce scores that don't necessarily reflect the real push and pull of the thing in the trenches.

This, then, will hopefully become a weekly feature to highlight the "misleading" scores of the past weekend in an effort to highlight which teams may have played better or worse on a down-to-down basis than the final score indicates, with the notion that penalties, turnovers, blocked kicks and the like tend to be fairly random and far more likely to even out over time than fundamental deficiencies on offense and defense. This is not an attempt to invalidate anything - wins, as I've said before, are inviolable, can never be erased or rationalized away, and teams that commit turnovers and special teams errors are dirty little urchins who should be sent to the locker room with no dessert to wash out their playbooks. Victory trumps logic, history and justice 100 percent of the time.

But it doesn't always tell the whole truth. So we'll try to fill in some gaps here.

For newcomers: `Swing points' are any points scored as a direct result of the defense or special teams, or by the offense on a short field (25 yards and in). It may include two-point conversions or blocked kicks, depending on the circumstance. Read here for a more complete explanation.

This week's not-as-they-appeared games:

Oregon State at Cincinnati
Total Off. 1st Downs Turnovers 'Swing' Pts.
Oregon State 310 17 7 0
Cincinnati 229 14 2 20

Final Score: Cincinnati 34, Oregon State 3
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Many, many of OSU's yards and first downs came on late, garbage time drives, but so did their turnovers: Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao were picked on four of the Beavers' last five possessions and led a failed fourth down conversion attempt on the fifth, well after the game was in hand. Only one of those late turnovers even lead to Cincy points, on a 50-yard pass from Ben Mauk to Greg Moore (a wiiiiiide open Greg Moore, thanks to a complete bust on the part of OSU's secondary) that accounted for nearly 25 percent of the Bearcats' entire offensive total for the game and their only scoring "drive" that began on their side of the Oregon State 31-yard line. Cincinnati picked up 10 first half points after a pair of interceptions, 10 in the third quarter on a fumbled punt and decent return on another and seven more in the third by scoring directly off a blocked punt.


Instant advantage Just add blown assignments.
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The lessons: Oregon State might be able to move the ball to an extent, and might be able to play defense - the D is actually only allowing 212.5 yards per game after smothering Utah in the opener -  but it's going to be an ongoing struggle under center, especially if defenses continue to key on Yvenson Bernard. Special teams breakdowns do not he two quarterbacks Thursday were equal only in that they were responsible for a barrage of mistakes. Which they are not nearly good enough to overcome without commiting more, worse gaffes in the process.

Cincinnati is not appreciably better, though, except in the key fact that neither Ben Mauk nor Tony Polk threw an interception against the Beavers. That's encouraging, but if they're not any better at managing the offense with an iffy running game (0.9 per carry for the team), the supply of dropped punts and blocked punts and wholly busted coverages and incredibly generous quarterbacking platoons is too limited to register Cincy as a contender in the Big East.

BYU at UCLA
Total Off. 1st Downs Turnovers 'Swing' Pts.
BYU 435 23 3 0
UCLA 236 15 1 7

Final Score: UCLA 27, BYU 17
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Both teams moved the ball pretty well from the start, but by the time BYU actually got on the board at the end of the second quarter, it was already in a 20-0 thanks to a plague of field position - UCLA started five possessions beyond its own 40-yard line in the first half, including two of three offensive scoring drives - and one disastrous interception return for a touchdown.

So even as UCLA's offense did nothing throughout the third quarter (32 total yards and an interception for the entire period) and BYU's lit up for 17 points on consecutive scoring drives of 57, 80 and 40 yards, the mistakes of the first half were a prelude to more killers: with the score 20-17, a 14-play, 63-yard, potentially tying or go-ahead Cougar drive that spanned the third and quarters ended with a fumble inside the Bruin 30. The cinching L.A. drive came five minutes later, but BYU didn't threaten again, anyway.

The lesson: don't fumble away your chance to win the game, especially after you've already fumbled four other times and still have a chance to win the game. But the Cougars moved the ball well against a presumably more talented, more experienced defense, and presumably, as fumbles, field position and - most of the time - interceptions returned for touchdowns are fickle bugs that don't strike often, BYU's offense is a good bet to keep lighting up the oxygen-deprived scoreboards of the Mountain West.

UCLA, on the other hand, while commendably putting away a game it had its pocket late, continued to struggle with multiple receiver looks. Maybe because he's, like, from the NFL, Dwayne Walker's defense last year tended to play well against the most NFL-influenced offenses (see Bruin wins against USC and Oregon State and the last-second thriller at Notre Dame) but Oregon, Washington State and Cal torched his charges for 30, 37 and 38 points, respectively, in mostly lopsided losses that knocked the season off track. BYU moving the chains with success through the air suggests that's not entirely solved.

N.C. State at Boston College
Total Off. 1st Downs Turnovers 'Swing' Pts.
NC State 407 21 7 0
Boston Coll. 373 19 1 21

Final Score: Boston College 37, N.C. State 17
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Interesting push and pull going on with N.C. State, which had a terrible turnover problem in last year's dismal race to 3-9 but inherited a coach whose teams were always solid managing the ball - it was often what Tom O'Brien's B.C. squads did best, in fact. But here the Wolfpack's careless ways seem ingrained, even in newcomer Harrison Beck, a Nebraska transfer personally responsible for five of the seven giveaways above via interception.


Remember the good times, Matt? We could be together again if you transfered...
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The trend for this game was established immediately: Beck threw a pick on the first possession of the game, setting up a not-so-quick (seven plays) 31-yard touchdown "drive" by the B.C. offense, which is included in "swing points" above. The Pack came back later in the first with an impressive 98-yard touchdown march, and between that touchdown and its next, on the final possession of the game, N.C. State went on four drives that ended in Boston College territory - by turnover in every case. Another interception, with Beck throwing from inside his own ten, was immediately returned for an Eagle touchdown, and a third quarter fumble led to an easy 13-yard trek to the end zone that put the game by the cooler door at 23-10.

The lesson: Boston College is still very opportunisitc and very unlikely to beat itself. The Eagles weren't tearing it up offensively for three quarters, largely preying on N.C. State mistakes, but with the game still potentially in question in the fourth, the offense went on 84 and 75-yard drives (well, the second was less a drive than one 69-yard gallop by Andre Callender) for icing touchdowns.

It got to that point by NCSU's inexperience at quarterback and inability to string a complete drive together without making a killer mistake. But the Wolfpack remains dangerous because it can move the ball with some consistency and get opposing offenses off the field - for scoring 37 points, B.C. also punted seven times in addition to the lone turnover. O'Brien has to figure out what Chuck Amato couldn't, i.e., how to get this team to stop beating itself with clumsy ball-handling.