HIGHS AND LOWS from September 10th weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

September 12, 2005

Another week of strife and anguish as the problems that continue from my submerged city were slightly alleviated by the great college football we all saw this past week. There are many ways in which I have been surprised during the week, but to think that the football outweighs any of the human loss and suffering doesn’t accurately reflect what I have learned and/or witnessed.

Yet, within it all, something like football has really been a boon for many, including myself. I have seen how kids aren’t trash-talking as much, though, much of that has to do with new rules meant to nip post-whistle (extra-curricular) activities in their budding stages. But moreover, I can feel a sense of what is important being understood by the players within the context of the recent calamity. Most teams have several players from the football fertile areas of Louisiana and southern Mississippi, so the humbling of all can be felt as families recover from total loss, many still not sure of where loved ones are, whether alive or otherwise. When football is being played now-a-days, will and heart have seemed to readily shine through – qualities that also have gotten these kids through such trying/tragic times. It’s good, character-building stuff when we have to respond to circumstances that require us to ‘step up’ and help somehow, and such character carries over onto the gridiron. For now, the sharing/caring of so many shows us that college football can and should continue to bring us all together even more than it has.

Ok, now to field the action and give you your weekly dose of on-field observation like only a loser with three TVs going simultaneously can…

Friday night proved what we hinted at last week – that Dave Wannstedt has his hands full, with a running game that seems to stagger along and an offensive coordinator that seems to be on a different page than everyone else. With the play-calling of OC Matt Cavanaugh, I fail to see any significant changes between last year and this year. In predictable fashion – as it was under Walt Harris (ex-Pitt head coach and OC, now at Stanford) – specific junctures in the game play out similarly. This time around, Pittsburgh was in Athens to take on Ohio and their returning 22nd-ranked defense. From one mismanaged series to another, the Panthers were out-coached and out-played, plain and simple. They barely limped into overtime and ultimately fell 16-10. The Panther’s vaunted ‘running resurgence’ was checked by Frank Solich’s Bobcats for 175 yards on 41 tries, yielding a pedestrian 3.6 per carry for what was supposed to be Pitt’s bread-and-butter. As Pitt began from its own 20 with 2:19 left in regulation down 10-7, they finally made some headway (after running a total of 26 second-half plays for a whopping 69 aggregate yards, leading to three punts and a turnover on downs). But with first-and-ten from the Ohio 12, the Panthers curiously called a running play with under 30 seconds left which was good for a paltry two yards, forcing them to use their last time out. The second down play was then an incomplete pass, stopping the clock and seemingly giving the Panthers room for one more endzone try. It should have been clear to the Pitt braintrust at this point that – as had been true all night already - they were not going to get this close to winning the game again. But Wannstedt & Co. pulled up stakes and kicked on third with over 10 seconds to go – a pass into the endzone (instead) is either a TD or and incomplete pass (stopping the clock), so why not go for what even the most novice arm-chair QBs could conclude? In tying the game, Pitt was given the ball first in OT and appropriately capitulated via a game-ending INT that was returned for a score.

Then there are the other ends of the ‘new coach’ issue, one of which being how Charlie Weis has put the Irish back into our collective minds as legitimate contenders. By dismantling Michigan in Ann Arbor (for the first time since 1993) 17-10, we witnessed a thoroughly better Notre Dame team handle everything the then-No.4 Wolverines and their 111,000+ could throw at them. Maybe you’ve noticed how Weis uses both the game’s tempo and subtle baiting techniques to make his offense look and feel like that of his ex-Patriots. It’s not like the old days when the Irish were some supped-up, grinding offensive machine. But, more specifically, they manage to be extremely dependable/efficient in both making and stopping passes, depending upon which is needed. In saving their aerial best for when most required, Weis’ boys went two-for-two in the redzone while Carr’s boys went 0-for-three. A mature Brady Quinn seems to have his sporadic moments, yet also seems to be the tempered cucumber Weis wants for control and solid game management (ala Tom Brady). In holding Henne under a 50% completion rate, the ND back-seven shows that it can be looked upon to suppress most any major passing attack ‘thrown’ at them. With a decent DL and BCS rules bent in their favor, Notre Dame appears to be permanently back in the ever-confusing top 25 mix.

Ron Zook kept his mid-western stock on the rise by winning 40-19 over San Jose State... In the same breath – still – we mention Steve Spurrier keeping his Gamecocks alive in a 17-15 loss at Georgia that normally might have had ‘blowout’ written all over it…While in this effort, we also must list Urban Meyer’s Gators and their 41-3 romp over Louisiana Tech, completing the updates of these forever, sequentially-associated squads…And, speaking of such, if we mentioned Pitt, we had best give Harris’ Stanford staff a nod in their 41-38 win over Navy…But it was LSU’s big 35-31 come-from-behind victory that wins any ‘New Coach of Week 2’ prize. Les Miles has embraced the huge passing potential now down in Baton Rouge and made their stellar receiving corps balanced and therefore formidable. The big question is how seven returning Tiger starters on defense could allow 560 total yards. Holes in the levee still exist as the Bayou Bengals look for a real home game against Tennessee come September 24th – stay tuned for word on that front.

In other SEC developments, Auburn proved little bouncing back 28-0 against Sylvester Croom’s Bulldog squad. With its first shutout since 2000, Auburn finds itself in the position of going only as far as QB Brandon Cox will take them. Against Georgia Tech, it wound up not being as far as needed, but this past weekend did wonders for the Trussville-native whose huge potential is still unrealized. The Tigers are in the midst of their opening five games – all at home – which then lead into four out of five SEC toughies on the road before ending at home versus ‘Bama.

Iowa State did its job against early-season in-state rival Iowa, but it was Iowa’s personnel loss that has everyone revamping their top 25s. Drew Tate suffered a concussion as he tried to compensate for an INT by chasing down the returning DB (Steve Paris) – bad move for the team. Drew, let the other ten guys get the ball-carrier so that you can put up six on the next drive – a much better compensation for any INT than losing yourself as the team’s main weapon. Iowa is good, but not good enough under an unseasoned replacement Jason Manson to overcome such a classic circumstance. Manson has an accurate arm, but to risk the Hawkeye’s season while he gets his kinks out is to sacrifice their top 10 status in doing so. Iowa was many prognosticators’ sleeper, and they become even more of one as they now lazily hide behind (at least) half of the conference in the rankings. Head coach Kirk Ferentz is known for making more out of less, making this season’s squad his biggest test yet. Expect Tate back soon and the upcoming game (9/24/05) at Ohio State to define the Hawkeye’s campaign.

I spoke too soon about Mizzu being back in any mix(es). In falling to a decent New Mexico team 45-35, Mizzu takes a step back in Brad Smith’s final fling. Also significant is the mention we made of TCU before they suffered 21-10 versus a “nowhere” SMU squad. Oklahoma seemed to rebound from their home embarrassment to the Horned Frogs the prior week as they shut down Tulsa 31-15. Adrian Peterson carried the team with his 220 rushing yards, but it was the still-vacant status of OU QB Rhett Bomar that has the Sooner faithful realizing their lower-ranking destiny. Against a patsy like Tulsa, Peterson can go wild - even when OU doesn't throw a single second half pass, as was true in this past week's tilt. But once a formidable defense realizes it can stack the box and/or run blitz most every play (like TCU’s did the week before), the super sophomore is again made human. No OU passing dimension(s) will keep them from any post-season BCS alignment and from the top 10. If you listen closely, you can hear the Longhorn defense already chomping at the proverbial bit.

Also in the “nice to see” upset category…Central Michigan’s 38-37 away win over Miami (OH) gives the Chippewas a real head of steam for this week’s tilt in Happy Valley. We will know it’s time for Joe Pa to go if the Nittany Lions succumb…Clemson continued to make ‘Bowden’ stock rise with its second-straight upset win, this time over home-favored Maryland 28-24. For their litmus test, the Tigers get a supped-down Miami team that, so far, has only been recognized as a ‘category 3’ this Hurricane season…Vanderbilt is making some sounds as the Commodores reeled off their own second straight upset win, this time more of one as they spanked a revamped Arkansas team 28-24 there in Fayetteville. It was 1988 the last time Vandy won two to start. While that campaign wound up 3-8, we feel the noise in Nashville will cause a more potent result by December for their first winning season since ’82. Then again, they are in (as they themselves prove) the nation’s toughest conference from top to bottom…As we land on our final upset, many may question whether Oregon State’s 30-27 home win against Boise State even qualifies as one. Well, with the Beavers 7-5 record from the prior year and BSU coming off of their 11-1 almost-BCS-busting efforts, Oregon State was barely more than a field goal favorite in Corvallis. With Louisville, ASU and Cal as three of their next four foes, any ‘for real’ labels will have to wait until they fulfill these destinies.

And finally, we close with the best action seen so far in 2005, with the Ohio State-Texas non-con tilt from hell. It wound up being that way for the 105,000+ there in the Horseshoe. With the game seemingly in hand 22-16, a score that had remained for over a quarter (since OSU had made its fifth FG with 5:12 left in the third), Texas broke through with a seven play, 67 yard drive to take the lead. Even more curious than Pitt’s goal-line management was coach Tressel’s decision to keep the only person who took the Buckeye’s in for six, QB Troy Smith, on the sideline in favor of the marginal Justin Zwick through much of the fourth. Zwick manages a game well, but for sure-fire yardage, how could Tressel not see Smith’s dual-threat impact working still as it had all game? Smith was subsequently put in as Ohio State took over with little time left on its own one yard line (after Zwick had initially fumbled on his first play once OSU was again down), a delayed move that looked eerily similar to Bobby Bowden mismanaging his QBs late in their 10-7 squeaker versus Miami the prior week. This time, it was too little, too late, as Smith, once in (but with only :25 seconds left), was sacked for a safety that basically ended the game. With Smith in earlier, OSU had proven itself somewhat unstoppable. Zwick was responsible for only one scoring drive, a seven play, 72-yard effort in which he went one-for-three in passing and achieved (but) a field goal. How Tressel could decide on Zwick over Smith (4-1 as a Buckeye starter) was puzzling, at best, and disappointing, moreover. Such a decision in last season’s 33-7 Alamo Bowl win over Oklahoma State worked well, so we could see what he may have been thinking. But with what was witnessed Saturday night (when he had the option of either, a choice not available in the bowl game), such a decision was possibly the reason OSU lost this epic battle of first-time combatants. We guess that with fewer off-field problems this year, Tressel needs to stir up the happenings there in the capitol. Got any other reasons that make sense?