By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor
..
October 18, 2004

HIGHS AND LOWS FROM SATURDAY

What did Wednesday night's visit by West Virginia to Connecticut show the nation (besides the fact that now, only Tuesdays lack televised football)? Any skeptics of Big East pigskin prowess saw top-notch play as the Mountaineers prevailed 31-19, especially from a Connecticut program struggling for identity in this, their first year initiation into this (allegedly) watered-down league. The Huskies are clearly not of the same caliber as recent Big East-departees Virginia Tech or Miami (Fla.). But even with Boston College, another top dog, leaving the Big East for the ACC next season, the influx of Connecticut and (soon-to-be) Louisville will quickly help to buoy the quality levels of football about which many are already - in this transition year - clamoring. No one will argue that the ACC is better off, but most should hold their tongues before determining just where the not-even-yet-revamped Big East will land, competitively speaking.

And to reiterate the point just made, we sure hope you all saw Thursday's see-saw match up between the Hurricanes and (visiting) No. 18 Louisville. It was the tale of two halves - Louisville rebounded from the first grueling ten minutes of getting socked in the mouth (UL's six plays earned a mere 10 yards and two punts) to eventually take a 24-7 halftime lead. Miami then rebounded themselves, winning the second half 31-14, and therefore the game 41-38. The difference was the sheer determination of sophomore PR/WR Devin Hester - when an earlier amazing third-quarter return for a TD was called back due to a penalty, Hester then outdid himself with a vaunted 78-yarder for a TD and a 34-31 Cane lead with 8:11 left. Hester's performance was awing, and it took this over-and-above effort or Louisville would have prevailed. The Cardinal's (then) #4 total offense and #9 total defense held up well, even against the depth, speed and power of the third-ranked Canes in the Orange Bowl. This was no fluke. But, more importantly, it should show most that the Big East in 2005 will produce the BCS-quality level of play many doubters don't expect.

An early nap - Living on the east coast, many noon viewers got Rutgers vs. Temple (16-6 snoozer) on ABC (via ESPN+). Given the few alumnus and/or locals who cared, many were miffed because the ABC coverage maps showed the region should have been watching either Oklahoma/Kansas State or Michigan/Illinois. For non-cable subscribers, Navy/Notre Dame was the only other option. Well, that or some Zzzz's.

Local press is turning up the heat to have Pittsburgh head coach Walt Harris removed. Former Heisman-winner and Pitt alum Tony Dorsett's recent pessimism of the Panther's current direction only further legitimizes what many already expect. Maybe identity starts with Pitt getting a stadium of their own, instead of (literally and proverbially) playing in the shadows of the Steelers. How good could Pittsburgh be if head coach Walt Harris wasn't also calling his team's offensive plays? We ask this question when we see so much Panther talent only produce the nation's 83rd-ranked (total) offense. And this after going 8-5 with all-time great WR Larry Fitzgerald.

By the numbers - Texas' 6.29 yards per carry leads the nation, with only Cal (6.09) also above six per try…Louisville gets extra credit for scoring the first (and second, and then third) passing TD(s) against the Canes. Going into this week, Miami was the only I-A school to still not have allowed a scoring air-strike. Moreover, the Canes had allowed only two total TDs before the Red Birds flew that number to seven…Michigan State is 9-3 against ranked teams at home since 1998. Wisconsin's 11/13/04 travel date to East Lansing should now be circled…Ohio State is averaging 187 yards of total offense in their last four games. Backup-QB Troy Smith has the quickness oft-pressured Justin Zwick seems to lack, and his 8-for-12 performance against Iowa should signal a change in Columbus…

Head of the Class - Only Texas A&M has yet to have any of their QBs throw an INT…Arizona State is the lone school to not have lost a fumble so far…Iowa State and Florida Atlantic (see story below) stand alone - unlike any other squads, neither has a fumble recovery…Auburn flies solo as the only squad to not have allowed a rushing score. FSU, Wisconsin, and West Virginia have only allowed one…Alabama, the best pass-efficiency defense, is holding opponents' passers to a 39.6% completion rate, the only I-A to land below that magical 40% mark…N.C. State is the only team to hold foes to under 100 yards passing per game… Troy, California, Wisconsin, and Boston College balance their run- and pass-stopping so well that they are the only schools to average holding foes to under both 100 per game on the ground and 200 per game through the air…Offensive balance (the 200/200 club - averaging 200 for both running and passing per game) has been attained by California, Louisville, Utah, Oklahoma, Auburn, Virginia, UCLA, Northern Illinois, Boise State and Michigan State…Navy leads the nation in yards gained per pass attempt (11.45), with California (10.16) and Auburn (10.18) as the lone institutions coming in above 10…

The new kid's pretty good - Think that only the big three rule football in the sunshine state? Think again…Florida Atlantic is 5-0. In Division I-AA to start, the Owls' first game was in 2001. Ominously (for foes), they beat then-No.22 Bethune-Cookman in only their second game. This year they are making the transition to I-A. FAU unofficially ranks 25th and 58th for total offense and defense, respectively, and 8th in offensive passing. Howard Schnellenberger's genesis of this program in 1998 only furthers his already-strong legacy there in south Florida.

Hey, speaking of South Florida…if the Bulls can ever get an offense close to as good as their defense, they too could make waves as they enter the Big East.

The Announcer's Curse of the Week - This week we give it to the guys at CBS for announcing how Auburn hadn't missed an extra point kick in 209 attempts, an SEC record. You guessed it - the Tigers missed their next PAT try.

For real, for real…These initial conference-heavy weekends always clear up the mish-mosh of the non-con slates. This week, we found out just who brought the lunch pail and who didn't.

Wisconsin/Purdue - The Badgers handle a shot and a beer very well, thank you. Huh? Let us explain…Coming into this week's tilt, Wisconsin's top (total and scoring) defense had faced watered-down teams compared to Purdue's No.3 total offense. Then Kyle Orton & Co. were held to 235 yards thru the air and lost 20-17 to prove Wisconsin worth. The Badgers were ready when served Boilermakers, and seem to be included in any current discussions about undefeated squads worthy of national title hopes.

Florida State/Virginia - The Cavs had beaten only North Carolina (56-24) in their greased slide up to No.6. The only real difference between their slate and FSU's was that the Noles had been tested by Miami. That loss and a tilt versus a good UAB team meant FSU knew what they could do when pushed, whereas Virginia was unaware of the level of play it would take to compete. This stat tells all - as a team, the Cavs had 21 TDs (most in I-A) and were averaging 275 yards on the ground. FSU's #1 rushing defense only allowed 20 yards on 29 tries and no TDs.

North Carolina/Utah - This non-con match up was poignantly timed for the middle of October. The Ute's skeptics cannot say now that they only beat BCS-aligned squads early, when they are not fully developed. Well, 86 plays, 669 yards and 35 first-downs later, we wonder who now thinks this MWC team isn't for real. This team deserves its high ranking. Holding the Tar Heels to 221 yards on 61 plays means it wasn't just some offensive shootout that can discount Utah's overall prowess. Of course, having the school's all-time leading passer (Darian Durant) go down in the first half combined with not having the team's leading rusher (Jacque Lewis) available, handicapped the usual Tar Heel high powered offense in a huge way.


UCLA/California - The Golden Bears proved that their we-can-only-blame-ourselves-loss to Southern Cal was no fluke. The upstart Bruins had played only Oklahoma State (lost 31-20 on 9/4/04), so their work was cut out for them against the nation's top offense. Cal is making one heck of a case for one of those BCS wildcard spots. Ooo…can you imagine Miami's stellar secondary up against Aaron Rogers?

Southern Cal/Arizona State - Head coach Pete Carroll settled any doubts about whether his team is (so far) the nation's best. Arizona State went from averaging 34 points per game to actually getting seven against the Trojans. Eight sacks by as many players exemplify how good USC's defense is without any weak links.

Texas A&M/Oklahoma State - Ssshhh…if we stay quiet, A&M can sneak up on even more unsuspecting foes. Last year's two meager conference wins (against Baylor and Kansas) while going 4-8 meant few took the Aggies seriously. Well, Oklahoma State should have, especially after realizing A&M's pension for corralling Cowboys (beat Wyoming 31-0 - 9/11/04). At home, OSU was held to 100 less rushing yards than they were averaging, and on a team that had only 58 pass attempts coming in, that says much about the Aggies' efforts. They join the Sooners atop the Big XII south at 3-0, making their 11/6/04 match up at College Station with the country's No.2 one to circle the wagons for.

Missouri/Texas - Though blanked last week for the first time in 24 years, the Longhorns dealt No.26 Mizzu to the bottom of the Big XII deck (actually, the Tigers are still in first place in the north division). Though Texas needs A&M to beat Oklahoma to have a chance at making the Big XII title game, they can see the writing on the wall come November 26th, the day they get A&M there in Austin. Gee, that south division sure seems better than their northern brethren.

And to finish that thought…Baylor may have been the last team to hold Texas scoreless (16-0 on 11/22/80), but their 34-game conference road losing streak means they have never won at a foe's stadium since joining the Big XII in 1996. So, going in against a Nebraska squad that had just crumbled the prior week, hopes for a Bear win were up until the Cornhuskers resurged for a 59-27 win. Hey, in a conference division where you are the only team not to be ranked (all other Big XII south schools garnered AP votes), Baylor's five total Big XII wins in eight years means the Bears have no place to go but up.

We're taking on even more water, Captain…What's happening there in College Park? In just these two weeks, things went from bad to worse for the Terrapins of Maryland. They went from 10 first downs versus Georgia Tech to five against N.C. State, as well as sliding from 74 to 24 in passing yards respectively - all at home. Netting in the penalties, Maryland has at least increased its yard totals from 12 to 25. Yes, that's for the whole game. You know how they say, "You can never go home"? Well, until they find their game, Maryland might want to stay on the road.