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LIFE ON THE MARGINS: WEEK THREE

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A little late this week, but obsessions die hard. Anyway, don’t get carried away by these scores from last weekend...

(As always, click here for a definition of ‘Swing points’)

Air Force 20, TCU 17 (Overtime)
TCU Air Force
Total Offense 409 339
1st Downs 20 15
Yds./Play 5.3 4.8
Yds./Possession 29.2 24.2
Turnovers 3 1
Swing Points 0 +3

One number not listed above is 2-2, which is Air Force’s success rate on fourth down conversions, including Jim Ollis’ 71-yard run on 4th-and-1 from the AFA 29 in the fourth quarter that sent the game to overtime – the longest run by any Air Force player in at least four years. The Falcons had stopped a fourth down try by the TCU a few plays before that, and in overtime took advantage of the Frogs’ missed field goal on the first possession to kick one of its own.

Otherwise, TCU was in control, leading 17-3 midway through the final quarter and almost certainly a yard from icing the game on the aforementioned fourth down failure. Redshirt freshman Andy Dalton threw a killer pick in the end zone just before the end of regulation with TCU in winning field goal range, but is slightly ahead of the school record for single season completion percentage (62.5) and the offense might get starting tailback Aaron Brown back against SMU after missing him during its two-game losing streak.

Miss. State 19, Auburn 14
Miss. State Auburn
Total Offense 213 323
1st Downs 14 16
Yds./Play 2.5 4.8
Yds./Possession 22.2 26.1
Turnovers 1 5
Swing Points +7 0

There is nothing misleading about Brandon Cox throwing interceptions on his first two possessions. Auburn’s inability to protect its senior quarterback, and his subsequent skittishness and regressive decision-making, was evident against Kansas State, fatal against South Florida and humiliating against presumably lousy Mississippi State. The assumptions one might be led to make from the Tigers’ quarterback situation – that they’re turnover prone and generally suck – is entirely appropriate.

As far as damning trends go, though, turnovers are on the correctable end, and Auburn pretty easily wins this game (and probably last week’s game against USF, too, though the Bulls were clearly more competitive than MSU on a down-to-down basis) without those two horrendous errors at the front end. Mississippi State’s three quarterbacks combined to complete five of 18 passes for 41 yards and did not attempt to throw at all on the Bulldogs’ 10-play, 44-yard touchdown drive that won the game in the fourth quarter following – yes – another Auburn turnover, before which the Tiger defense had allowed 169 yards total offense. What to really take away from this game: AU remains smallish on the front seven and will yield yardage on the ground if not in a position to tee off with Quentin Groves et al in the pass rush, and even then, it’s still pretty tough to beat if the quarterback is merely not horrible. Expect the Tigers to remain competitive.

Duke 20, Northwestern 13
Duke N'western
Total Offense 309 506
1st Downs 15 25
Yds./Play 5.6 5.99
Yds./Possession 34.3 46.0
Turnovers 1 6*
Swing Points 0 0

Not to rain on the Devils’ parade at the end of their two-and-a-half-year, 25-game losing streak against I-A teams, one that began with a 16-13 win over Clemson a few days after President Bush defeated John Kerry in November 2004, but this is not the sort of rout that portends a turnaround. The passing game showed some early life behind sophomore Thaddeus Lewis – he finished 19 of 23 and led three long touchdown drives in the first half before the Wildcats slammed the door shut – but where the defense was opportunistic, it struggled to stop Northwestern’s Tyrell Sutton-less ground game and found itsef bent to the brink time and again by C.J. Bacher in the passing game.

While the Devils frequently bent, though, they didn’t break, which is where the asterisk comes into play: Bacher threw two interceptions in the first half, but the other four turnovers by the ‘Cats were on failed fourth down attempts, at the end of drives that covered 67, 61, 79 and 58 yards. The last two numbers represent Northwestern’s final two possessions of the game, both of which ended deep in the Duke red zone with a shot at the tying touchdown. That they kept Northwestern out all those times is to the Devils’ credit, but – especially while the offense is going three-and-out on consecutive possessions at the same time – it’s not the sort of fortune that tends to carry over.

Although I would like to add that, at this point, any victory by any means makes Duke a favorite at Notre Dame in November.

Utah 44, UCLA 6
UCLA Utah
Total Offense 373 386
1st Downs 17 19
Yds./Play 5.3 5.5
Yds./Possession 24.9 25.7
Turnovers 5 1
Swing Points +3 +19

This is a little different than the first three examples, because it’s impossible to make the argument in any sense that UCLA "outplayed" Utah on a down-to-down basis – they didn’t. But the numbers also make clear that there is not really anything approaching a 38-point difference between these two teams without a small handful of Bruin mistakes, specifically the five turnovers – four of these led to Ute scoring ‘drives’ in the second half of -1, 3, 5 and 7 yards – and most of all Marcus Everett’s fumble out of the back of the Uah end zone in the third quarter. The game was still close, 17-3, and the Bruins were about to pull back within a touchdown when Everett lost the ball, and with it his team’s comeback spirit, apparently, as Utah immediately drove 80 yards for a door-slamming touchdown and received gifts from the demoralized visitors on three of the next four possessions.

I do believe this win re-established the Utes as a potential player in the Mountain West despite their loss to Air Force, but unless we start seeing this kind of generosity with the ball on a weekly basis from the Bruins – a very real possibility – the lopsided score shouldn’t fool you into thinking they were completely run off the field and/or don’t still have a chance to be a force in the Pac Ten. At the very least, there’s no reason to junk everything and start from scratch. Just take care of the ball.