By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor
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September 20, 2004

HIGHS AND LOWS FROM SATURDAY

After so much record-setting rain in the east, all of the affected fields appeared to be well-drained and even better maintained for playing sixty minutes of football. Most held together well without becoming massive slip-and-slides after Ivan. It was impossible to tell, going late into the fourth, that many fields had been submerged under multiple inches of water just a day or two earlier. The wear-and tear of cleats showing at such a minimum is a great testimony to the grounds keeping of each. Remember the old days when the middle of a grass field, by halftime, looked like a battle scene from a WWII flick? The key word is drainage, eh?

If you didn't have this year's Maryland-West Virginia circled after knowing what the Terps did to the upstart Mountaineers last season, then you must not know your college football. Maryland's 34-7 regular season win (at College Park) and then their 41-7 Gator Bowl victory were huge blemishes on what was otherwise a stellar WVU campaign. This past Saturday in Morgantown, we were treated to a real classic. Maryland knotted the score at ten with 1:21 left in the third, highlighting a tug of war that remained even until the first overtime decided WVU was to win. There were too many crucial junctures to count, with every moment containing great plays and superior efforts. DB Adam "Pac Man" Jones' two inspired INTs seemed to be the difference. Head coach Ralph Friedgen said it best… "They make one more play than we make. That's how we lose the game. If they are the No. 7 team (in the nation), we can't be far back." Keep an eye on these squads - one, or even both, could be back for BCS bowls, maybe (again) against each other?!

Highway Robbery I - As they trailed Nebraska 24-17, the interference call on Pittsburgh's defense with just under four minutes left negated what would have been a fourth and long for the Cornhuskers deep in their own end. Instead, it was an automatic first down for the boys in red. The call was pretty poor, and even poorer was the lead official's inability to accurately identify a guilty Panther anywhere near the play. Pittsburgh had just scored their first offensive TD to make it a one-score difference. They then built even more late-game home-field momentum by holding defensively with a three-and-out, or so it seemed (with replays as an aid) to most viewers and in hindsight on most wrap up shows. Pitt's newfound offensive efficiency would likely have sent the game into overtime. To say what most are thinking or have already uttered - regardless of the penalty's accuracy, it is a pity to have any official's call decide such an evenly fought contest, especially as one team finally earns the momentum. Nebraska held off one last Hail Mary attempt by Pitt as time expired, but the Panthers should have had at least 20 extra yards and two more minutes with which to work.

Highway Robbery II - What about the call that changed the Florida-Tennessee game? The objectionable flag was on junior WR Dallas Baker for an extra-curricular blow, even though the Vol's DB had just given Baker a shot to the head after the whistle. The entire play was seen clearly by the official, who, on replay, poignantly threw his flag on what should have been either a no-call or offsetting personal fouls. Instead, it became 15 extra yards for Tennessee on their way to a 30-28 win. From 15 yards further back, the Vol's game-winning 50-yard FG attempt may not have even been possible. We cannot say what would have happed if…Who knows, right? But again, to have a ref's marginal call be a pivot so late in such an evenly fought battle seems criminal. Football games should be decided by players making plays.

Highway Robbery III - We revisit another evenly-fought contest between LSU and Auburn for our last "official"ly stolen game. PK John Vaughn seemingly missed his first collegiate PAT, which would have finally put Auburn ahead 10-9 after their only TD was scored with 1:14 to go. But a flag was called for a personal foul on #9 for LSU, who seemed to do nothing wrong but jump high from way back in the scrum and miss the block. Yet a new rule which keeps players who jump to block kicks from landing on opposing players was the pivotal call that gave Auburn the victory. This one is just as easily filed under 'only themselves to blame' for the Bayou Bengals, who themselves had missed a PAT in the first quarter. Look at another heading in LSU's databanks, somewhere under "turnabout is fair play" (after Oregon State's triple-PAT debacle), to understand the true karma which made this past game's outcome eventual justice.

At the Big House, San Diego State exploited a rebuilding Michigan squad to nearly pull off one of the season's biggest upsets. No one (but the Aztecs themselves) thought State could even compete with this perennial power. But, like in 2002 when Utah came into Ann Arbor and almost did the same thing (eventually losing 10-7), San Diego's "Dark Side" defense, ranked eighth nationally in '03, made their case by holding Wolverine QBs to a combined 14-for-28 performance for 179 yards and three INTs. WR Braylon Edwards' two TDs capped an eight-catch, 130-yard performance that proved to be what UM needed to overcome these Mountain Westerners. We give kudos to the Aztecs, but what does this tilt's outcome mean beyond its immediate scope? See next blurb for a continuation of this thought.

Ok, so San Diego State beat up Michigan pretty good and almost won, as did an Arizona squad at home against #20 Wisconsin, barely being beaten 9-7 by the Badgers. If you add Ohio State's modest eight-point win Saturday against a Philip River-less NC State team and Iowa's no-show performance (only 100 yards of total offense) in their 44-7 loss at Arizona State, you see a trend - Big Ten squads have, as a group over the last five years, slipped in their overall level(s) of play. Other conference's top squads blow overmatched opponents out weekly, while the Big Ten's best are challenged by teams on all levels. None of this is meant to take away from those gutsy foes, who are primarily responsible for any results they earn. But it does resonate why Indiana and Northwestern are this year's biggest news in that storied conference. While the SEC, ACC, and Big XII seemingly get annually stronger, the Big Ten slowly slips into a mediocrity, in which it could eventually threaten to remove itself from this list of the top-tiered conferences. We can banter on this opinion for hours. But suffice to say that, as we survey the college football landscape at present, no Big Ten squad is feared, or is even close to being a Top Five team. With OSU the leagues only Top Tenner, whoever comes out on top should be the conferences only BCS rep.

TCU joins Northern Illinois as last year's slipper wearers who just cannot fit into the glass anymore. Boise State still looks svelte, while Utah, Memphis, and Fresno State seem like they could dance until midnight, too. But October 23rd has the two WAC squads squaring off up in Idaho, so one of them is automatically out (bet on State to pull out a close one…hehehe). Look for Marshall and Colorado State to rebound by season's end, meaning they will both by feared again come next September, but done two-stepping by this December. Louisville and Southern Miss are the only teams in Memphis' way, but neither has the schedule to make a run themselves. The Golden Eagles now have an early December date with those feisty Cal Bears, while the Red Birds go into Miami during "Hurricane Season" on October 14th. But which underdog has the speed of lightning to be seen as more than just a Saturday cartoon?

Ready, or not - In handling Big East newbie UConn, Boston College displayed the consistency needed to challenge in what will soon be their new league, the surging ACC. Inversely, Syracuse continues to struggle through mediocre foes, a sure sign that their similar conference jump next season may even mean steps back for this inconsistent (but venerable) program. Who knows what tomorrow brings, but you can bet on one new variable that is guarantied - Boston will be a hell of a place for any southern school to play in November and December, much worse than a dome that could, really for the sake of weather, be anywhere.

Is the glass half empty or half full? - Marshall was a thorn in Georgia's side all day Saturday. The nation's number three was stuck proverbially in Ivan-induced muck at home against a Thundering Herd that just wouldn't stop. But which conclusion to come to - is Georgia not what many think, or is Marshall the best 0-3 team out there? The latter is definitely true…we feel sorry for Ohio come September 29th, as well as for Marshall's other MAC foes. They lost to three quality non-con schools. But the jury on the Bulldawgs is still out, and is first due to come back in October 2nd when the LSU Tigers visit Athens.

Harvest season has come to South Bend. Football qualities - consistency and versatility - have struggled, but grown well ever since Ty Willingham planted them upon his arrival. And now, it seems to be time for Fighting Irish fans to sit down and feast on these late-ripening qualities, for their team is serving them up in ample proportions. Though they balanced 173 rushing yards with 215 via Quinn's aerial assault(s), it was the six TOs forced by ND's surging defense that did the job at Michigan State.

And we end things by tipping our hat to the University of Maine in their 9-7 upset of a I-AA over a BCS-aligned school. The Black Bears first foray into I-A since 1991 kept the Davis Wade Stadium crowd quiet by forcing three State TOs deep in Maine's end, the last of which they turned into an eight-play, 80-yard TD-scoring drive that was the decider. Don't get the wrong message - Maine deserves its first ever win over a I-A. Bulldog frosh head coach Sylvester Croom started sophomore Omarr Conner, who is immensely talented, but just as unseasoned. Croom's main lesson, though, should be via special teams. When you miss a 32-yard chip shot early in the second quarter and then cannot get into position for a game-winning FGA, you begin to realize just how precious three points can be. When a team is just beginning to gel, coming away with some points is almost always better than the "snow-balling" psychological effect of throwing dice and failing.