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SUNDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK IS NOT MAGIC DUST

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It's worth noting that Syracuse followed its long awaited display of vital signs at Louisville by allowing 436 yards in a loss at Miami, Ohio, a fact I find comforting in a way I don't entirely understand and doubt any partisan of Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia, Texas, Rutgers or especially Oregon could really understand today. A lot of blood was spilled Saturday, but none of it fatal. Life, after all, will go on. And remember, titans of the gridiron, and of corporately-driven polls thereof: you're not the first to feel the dull sting of dashed expectations, and you won't be the last...

I'm particularly interested in Oregon's defeat to Cal, which I couldn't see because I do not live on the West Coast, but which carries a cruel, morbid irony, the sort of creative yet unspeakable torture Edgar Allen Poe might imagine as a beat writer for the Oregonian, which is not publishing dark poetry these days but might reasonably be inspired by fumbling away the tying touchdown at the goal line with seconds to play:  


Oregon's newest fan. Loves the uniforms, actually.
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The happiest day- the happiest hour
My sear'd and blighted heart hath known,
The highest hope of pride and power,
I feel hath flown.

- - -

So, too, those same hopes among so many of the Ducks' colleagues at the top of the polls this last weekend of September, the changing weather and shifting shadows sending them southward in a great flock, unsure yet how they might find their way home against an unfamiliar landscape as those that remain dig in to fight for increasingly valuable territory. And so Syracuse follows its biggest win of the decade with a loss to the MAC, and the seasons turn.

Onwards...

SMQ WATCHED...
...with various degrees of vigilance...

AUBURN 20 FLORIDA 17
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If these two teams played again next week in Auburn, I'd pick Florida in a second. Yet after wondering whether the Tigers would even score, I was impressed by Auburn's gameplanning and offensive execution throughout the game. How does a team with a physically and (recently, anyway) psychologically fragile quarterback keep up with the incredible quarterbacking hullk and his super friends from the multi-faceted offense of death?

Get the ball first for starters, and get the ball last, and score on both occasions - Auburn wound up with two more significant possessions than Florida (eleven to nine) - and keep that ball forever. I'm not convinced that Auburn really stopped Tebow, who personally accounted for 276 total yards and led five drives (again, out of a mere nine) of 66, 51, 48, 38 and 89 yards for points or highly probably points, but by picking up 23 first downs, holding the ball for 33 minutes and limiting the Gators to a very 3-2-5e-like 55 offensive snaps, Auburn substantially raised the stakes of every stop it managed. To wit: Florida averaged 5.7 per snap Saturday, a full yard better per snap than it averaged against Ohio State in last year's mythical championship game. For 24 less points. Even with a two-score lead deep into the second half, Auburn didn't put much pressure on Tebow, didn't force a barrage of turnovers, didn't block a punt or bust a big return, didn't even have a dramatic play on offense (AU's longest gain of the night was 25 yards), but by protecting the ball, executing Al Borges' system without trying to take what wasn't there, moving steadily for long stretches - i.e. the entire first half - and actually getting points out of those drives, the Tigers kept the pressure on Florida's offense and mitigated the arsenal that sunk Tennessee on the same field two weeks ago.

The difference was the relative success of the Tigers' running game where Tennessee's so obviously failed: AU picked up ten first downs on the ground to the Vols' zero. Still, though, all hail Brandon Cox, whose touchdown-free performance might yet have salvaged his legacy as a three-year starter for the mere fact that he didn't give another game away. Early on, in fact, he was taking it by the throat with extreme efficiency on both of the Tigers' first half scoring drives before reverting to opportunistic conservatism in the face of a strong UF pass rush that sacked him four times. His record as a starter against ranked teams is now 6-2 in roughly two and a half years, one of the losses at LSU in 2005, when AU missed a tying field goal in overtime. Including that game, he's been on the winning end five times out of six against the top ten without throwing a touchdown in four of them.

• Auburn's smaller, quicker philosophy on defense pays off particularly against this sort of offense. Percy Harvin was quiet as a runner and Florida's horizontal ground game was generally kaput because the Tigers were fast enough to deny them the edge.

The Gundy Moment: I think Tommy Tuberville had every right to be livid after the Tigers were flagged for kick catch interference on a punt with about 4:30 to play, the score tied at 17 and Florida apparently about the start inside its own 20. The old "halo rule" no longer exists, and Brandon James did not signal for a fair catch. Auburn's gunners timed their hit perfectly, allowing James to make the catch - as lip readers will note that Tuberville repeated over and over in his tirade - before smacking him time down a split second later. It wasn't a heady decision to flip out at that point, though: the call was bogus, but the extra 15 yards that moved the Gators up around midfield could have made Tuberville the goat if not for his defense's susequent resiliency.

• Why was Auburn's defense in man-to-man on 3rd-and-goal from the six on the first play of fourth quarter? Florida easily ran off the cornerback and sent Cornelius Ingram on a short out into the vacated front corner of the end zone that AU had no chance to defend. That situation usually calls for the "picket fence," a line of defenders forming a wall against a short pass along the goal line and prepared to attack forward on a run. This is virtually the same play UF ran for a touchdown against Ohio State in January, and far too east on a predictable passing down.

• I don't have any way to judge his coverage skills (he wasn't been deep, as Auburn didn't hit anything deep), but Florida seems to have its next Reggie Nelson-like safety prospect in true freshman Major Wright, who delivered one exemplary form stick on a charging Mario Fannin in the second quarter and caused a critical fumble on a similar hit on Ben Tate in 3rd quarter. As a rule, I disdain the theatrics of collisions after big gains into the secondary, but both of Wright's tackles elicited a "Whoa," not only for their force - Fannin had a 20-yard running start and went reeling anyway - but their form as well. Big future, I presume.

KANSAS STATE 41 TEXAS 21
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The thesis on Texas' mythical championship ambitions coming into the season was the McCoy Conjecture, simply stated: "Texas will sink or swim with Colt McCoy's health and effectiveness." On the latter point, there was near-universal optimism, but it was never as obvious as the conventional wisdom suggested that McCoy would assume the role of all-Big 12 world beater if no one else emerged to share the burden, as I imagined in June:

...McCoy, out of necessity and opportunity (his receivers are a pretty first-rate group), has evolved into the role of primary playmaker, who is now expected to make hay of adverse situations. This can be a very good development, and almost certainly will be if Charles' slightly diminished star is in fact back on the rise. Or it could be too much to put on a competitor who reached his physical ceiling very quickly and needs a degree of balance. Nobody seems to have given a lot of thought to the latter case, if McCoy's unavoidable presence in every "darkhorse" Heisman projection is an indication, but UT would probably rather the supporting cast preemptively snuff out the pretext for such skepticism. This is fundamentally up to the offensive line.
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For the sake of honesty, if I had the misfortune to pursue such individual trivia, my pick for all-Big 12 quarterback would have ridden with the progression arc of Bobby "Finger-Lickin'" Reid, master of the maternal drumstick and the bench. So I'm not touting my scouting skills. I also picked Texas to play for the mythical championship, even with the exact blueprint for its slow start and now its demise splayed in vivid horror like the the Dragon and the Whore in front of John the Reveler.

And yea, one month in, all that was forecast by apocalyptic UT skeptics has come to pass: the inconsistency of the running game has made the `Horns a pass-first attack even against defenses they should reasonably pound into submission - UT has passed slightly more than it's thrown in three games out of five and over the season as a whole, when the average Longhorn offense this decade has run at least 60 percent of the time - shifting the impetus to McCoy and the pass blocking of his young offensive line, neither of which has held up. Colt now has nine interceptions on the year to eight touchdowns (he threw seven picks all of last season), forced almost exclusively by defensive linemen his face.

Courtesy the fine work of Brian at MGoBlog, this is Texas' third down conversion chart from 2006 (thick black middle line is the national average; green is production above that average, red is production below):

Most notably, UT was poor at converting anything beyond six yards. On Saturday:

Texas 3rd Downs vs. KSU
Attempts 15
Avg. Yds to Go 6.9
Conversions 5
1-3 Yds. 1-2
4-6 yds. 1-5
7-10 yds. 2-7 (2 INT)
>10 yds. 1-1

* - Does not include 3-and-10 attempt by John Chiles on final drive
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Texas drove 68 yards on its first possession to answer KSU's masterful opening touchdown drive, converting third down attempts of three and four yards, respectively, and getting stopped on third-and-goal from the KSU one (Vondrell McGee scored on fourth down). Texas' average yards-to-go on third down over the rest of the game was eight yards, the exact recipe for forcing a young, limited passer into mistakes while trying to do too much.


This is not working out the way it was supposed to.
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It's tempting to draw a juxtaposition between McCoy and the Wildcats' sophomore slinger, Josh Freeman, especially as Freeman is an immobile, defensive end-sized, five-star manchild maturing from an interception-prone novice into a cool leader on the road - as mentioned, he hit all five of his passes on the Wildcats' tone-setting touchdown drive out of the gate, hit 11 of his first 13 and did not throw an interception - but despite his overpowering arm, Freeman is still just evolving into a within-the-game manager charged with making the right decisions on relatively easy throws; he averaged 4.7 per pass Saturday with a long completion of 15 yards. The Wildcats only generated 272 yards of total offense, 58 less than the team they beat by three touchdowns.

The greatest difference in this game, even considering McCoy's four interceptions, was really in the special teams, in ways obvious (backbreaking touchdown returns by James Johnson and Jordy Nelson) and quietly frustrating (a 13-yard punt by Trevor Garland that set the Wildcats up at the UT 48 in the third quarter, Tim Reyer's 46.4-yard punting average). Two touchdowns and an entire quarter of teeing off on a predictable, must-throw offense, directly as a result of the kicking game.

• Jordy Nelson: not very fast, it seems, but tough, fundamentally sound, football smart, even "wise" in the way he set up his blocks, according to Ron Franklin, who unleashed the perfect storm of "possession receiver" cliché on Nelson's punt return for touchdown in the third quarter. Maybe this is what Air Force really needed, rather than "Afro-Americans": wisdom. Fisher DeBerry might still have a job if his our young fighting men were just a little more, you know, wise.

• Give it up for the KSU O-line, led by Penisini Liu, Gerard Spexarth and the incomparable Alesana Alesana, who concentrated their unfortunately-named angst into a turnover-free march to victory. Who dares question Spexarth?!

SOUTH FLORIDA 21 WEST VIRGINIA 13
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It was impossible to come away from this game unimpressed with South Florida's defense, which was disciplined, always in the right place and always, always, always made the tackle when presented with the opportunity. West Virginia thrives on creating indecision, isolating defenders, getting them overpursuing, off-balance and missing tackles in space, and USF had none of it. The Bulls kept contain, took proper pursuit angles and got the runner to the ground on the first opportunity on virtually every play. Tyrone McKenzie is a terriffic hitter; Ben Moffitt was everywhere a middle linebacker is supposed to be, which is everywhere: he snuffed out dives, shed blocks to stop good-looking scrambles and draws from breaking free into the secondary, hopped on fumbles and cradled two interceptions. West Virginia never threatened the secondary deep, and paid for it by staring into an umbrella it could probe to some extent but never penetrate.

That said, WVU seemed lackadaisical and determined to submarine sustained drives. The Mountaineers had to work for what they got, but they got quite a lot more than 13 points would suggest: WVU outgained the Bulls by 163 yards, had a nearly nine-minute possession advantage and mounted consecutive drives beginning in the second quarter of 57, 62, 62, 47, 21, 85 and 30 yards, all well into USF territory. Only one resulted in a touchdown; both 62-yard marches resulted in field goals and the others ended in a fumble, a pair of interceptions and a desperate turnover on downs. The six turnovers were obvious killers - though I think he played at least as well  overall as Pat White had before leaving the game, Jarrett Brown's cross-the-body interception in the end zone as the Mountaineers were driving to tie in the third quarter was an absolutely inexcusable throw, one I was mocking well before it found its unintentional mark - but WVU committed unforced errors at every turn, snapping the ball over the quarterback's head, snapping it to a surprised fullback, mishandling simple handoffs. The Bulls' first offensive touchdown was something of a gift from multiple Mountaineer breakdowns, as Charles Pugh blew a chance to sack Matt Grothe by, in Chris Spielman's words, "dropping his head and going to his knees" as a teammate in the secondary inexplicably dropped off Carlton Mitchell, allowing Grothe escape with a completely unmolested receiver down the sideline.

South Florida's offense didn't do much else, aside from a nice, grinding drive to extend the lead to 21-3 in the second half, and turned it over four times, anyway.  After that drive, the Bulls' last four full possessions netted 21 yards. With a chance to break the game open after yet another Bull interception in the second quarter, Grothe threw a hideous, off-balance pick in the red zone that West Virginia eventually took the other way for its first points.

Again, though, the Mountaineers seemed undisciplined and virtually incapable of finishing a drive with the big play taken away. White's absence in the second half may have had something to do with this, but the offense actually moved much more effectively with Brown. Speaking of which: where was Steve Slaton in the second half? He had two carries with the backup quarterback in the game. One star was missing out of necessity - why take the other out by choice?

COLORADO 27 OKLAHOMA 24
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Sunday Morning Quarterback welcomes guest columnist Dave Lapham for his rundown of the Buffs' historic upset. Take it away, Dave:

It's hard for me to express as a former football player on many successful football teams how proud I am of the football players who went out on that football field for the University of Colorado football team and played the football game of their lives to beat a truly outstanding football team of football players from Oklahoma. I'm paid to broadcast football games, so I can't always comment on the football teams I'm covering, but I have to say, I never thought a football team like Colorado, a football team that only won two football games last football season, could hang on in a football game against a football team obviously made up of more talented football players. And not only to play football toe-to-toe on the football field with such a great football team, but to come from behind in a football game those football players could have easily given up on? That's one of the great football accomplishments I've ever witnessed on any football field in my entire life in football. Dan Hawkins is a special football coach who took his football team on the football field and said, `We're going to win this football game' and his football players flew to the football, stopped Oklahoma from moving the football in the second half of the football game and somehow found a way to win a football game I don't think anyone in football thought this football team could win. What a football game.
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Thanks, Dave.

• It couldn't have done it without a couple key OU turnovers, namely Reggie Smith's devastating muffed punt to set up the tying touchdown, but Colorado deserved to win this game, and did it in much the same clock-killing fashion that Auburn used to beat Florida. The Buffs held the ball for an icredible 38:54, limiting the Sooners to 230 yards on just 46 plays and rendering wunderkind Sam Bradford utterly ineffective - Oklahoma's second half possessions covered 17, 18, 6, 9, 0 and 3 yards. Like Auburn in the Swamp, Colorado's longest play of the game was just 25 yards, on a Hugh Charles run, but the diminutive Charles ground his way to 110 yards on 24 carries, instrumental in preventing three-and-outs (in 15 possessions, only three ended without at least one Buffalo first down). But then, it's not like you can almost double up a heavy favorite on time of possession with magic dust:

"Boise State voodoo," perhaps, but not magic dust, brother!

• I'm not watching a lot of highlights this year that I don't see during actual games (and not missing them), so I don't know if it's getting any play on the recaps or not, but a huge call went against Oklahoma shortly after the Reggie Smith fumble/Hawkins touchdown pass tied the game.

On second-and-seven from the Oklahoma 36 on the Sooners' next possession, about three minutes to play, Juaquin Ilesias went down to make a first down catch off the ground that was ruled a completion on the field. The CU crowd booed, but on replay, there was nothing suggest the call should be overturned; by all appearances, Iglesias got his hands under the ball and kept it off the ground, and if he didn't, none of the television angles offered anything like conclusive proof of it. I agreed with the FSN announcers: the catch has to stand, first down Oklahoma. The call? Indisputable evidence shows the catch is reversed, OU misses a pass on third-and-seven, and Colorado gets the ball back to win. The play is replayed from a couple angles around the eight-minute mark of this highlight clip, objectively edited by an OU fan to some oddly appropriate music for ennui:


Notre Dame? Why, never heard of 'em...
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Glimpses
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• Notre Dame was down in a hurry and never had a chance to win at Purdue, so maybe it doesn't mean so much that the Irish showed more life with Evan Sharpley in the lineup in the second half than it's showed in four and a half previous games combined. ND actually ran up 377 yards passing, most of it after Sharpley replaced the reasonably efficient but not at all fearsome Jimmy Clausen and began lobbing up balls to Golden Tate and Robby Parris and these unknown people who had not had so many yards in any three of the first four games put together. Briefly, there was some excitement when ND cut the score to 19-26: this "throwing and catching" was actually working, unbelievably, and Charlie Weis was reportedly screaming at his offense that it was going to go for two if it had the chance - simultaneously a stab at aggressive day-seizing (the Irish also attempted six fourth down conversions, getting four) and at avoiding another PAT disaster after two misses and a third that earned a second life via an offsides call. Purdue shut that door by flying down the field for an icing touchdown, but the progress was clear: the Irish moved past Florida International as the least-productive offense in the country. Next week: eat our dust, Utah State.

• Speaking of which, the line of the day came via Tyrone Willingham, in a taped interview during Washington's closer-than-necessary loss to USC. Asked about his old job, Willingham was pretty clear: "It's Coach Weis' team." Not everyone completely agrees.

• I saw the second play below live and didn't actually catch the slip, so it's not a big deal and maybe I'm not one to cast stones. But Awful Announcing caught a couple vintage Pam Ward screw-ups from the LSU-Tulane game, and since I'm not paid thousands of dollars to inform thousands of viewers about the action on the field in front of my face, and since Ward has so, so many broadcasting sins to confess, enjoy a pair of Wardian snafus, special teams edition:

He fields a what, now?

Upwards...

Conceit...
SMQ was right about: Including the Thursday and Friday night diversions, I picked eleven games this week, and missed on nine of them. The few, the proud: Illinois, which dutifully knocked off favored Penn State at home, and Wisconsin, which took Michigan's State best shot (offensively, anyway) and survived to stand alongside Ohio State - and Illinois? Michigan? - as Big Ten frontrunner. Cal scored 31 points, as predicted.

...and Contrition...
SMQ was wrong about: Cal won with 31 points, as not predicted. Outside of the Big Ten, it was an epic bloodbath for my forecasting skills, and could have only been worse if I'd picked more games. Florida State beat Alabama, Auburn upset Florida, Kansas State found a way to defy logic after I claimed "there is no reason to expect a return" of the team that upset Texas last year. Clemson and West Virginia bit the dust on the road as well, despite their incredible backfield wealth. Without question, the worst day of predictin' in SMQ's three-year run.

The Crunch
Interesting/Not Necessarily Relevant Stats
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Visiting North Carolinaoutgained Virginia Tech by 65 yards and seven first downs in a seven-point loss ... Temple passed for 359 yards, one of the Owls' highest totals in years, but turned the ball over five times in a loss to Army ... Northern Illinois scored on a 92-yard pass and outgained Central Michigan by 140 yards in a 25-point loss (thank you, six turnovers). The game featured six touchdowns in the first half and zero in the second ... A week after walloping Texas A&M, Miami only led visiting Duke by three until the final two minutes of the game ... Michigan State's starting tailback averaged 14.5 yards per carry, while the MSU offense outgained Wisconsin by more than 100 yards and won the turnover battle, yet the Spartans lost in Madison by three ... Maryland held Rutgers to 82 yards rushing and had a 14-minute advantage in time of possession in an upset win ... Clemson scored on its first possession and was shut out over the remaining 59 minutes ... UTEP and SMU combined for 1,074 yards and 61 first downs ... Colt Brennan and Idaho's Nick Enderle combined to throw ten interceptions in Hawaii's 28-point win ... Oregon State converted 1 of 14 third downs and turned the ball over five times, bringing the Beavers' total to 21 giveaways in five games ... Arkansas ran for 446 yards on 8.1 per carry against North Texas, and Felix Jones averaged 18.9 on seven runs ... Tulsa rang up 695 yards and 32 first downs in an eight-point win over UAB ... Vanderbilt and Eastern Michigan combined for nine interceptions ... Blake Joseph completed 24 of 29 passes as Houston outgained East Carolina by 155 yards in a loss to the Pirates ... and Texas Tech scored more touchdowns (ten) than Northwestern State had first downs.