HIGHS AND LOWS from October 1st weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

October 4, 2005

This week’s best action took place last Saturday night as the nation watched USC fall behind 21-3 in the first half. Similar to the prior week against Oregon, when they spotted the Ducks 13 point before reeling off 45 straight themselves, Southern Cal then raged back to show us all why they still hold the No.1 mantle. What was an effective then-84th ranked Sun Devil (total) defense (to start) suddenly eroded in the second half, landing ASU now at 105th in the same category. Of SC’s remaining foes, only California (ranked 19th for total offense, 20th for total defense) and Washington State (5th, 31st) seem to have any statistical shot at keeping up with and/or defeating the Trojans. But this is the second week in a row that this powerhouse’s underbelly has been exposed, making this writer believe that they will be defeated before their campaign closes. Don’t get me wrong - Southern Cal has the talent, as a whole and not just individually, to go all the way unscathed. But within their own proven ability to either go full throttle or put it in neutral and coast, it is Southern Cal’s to win or lose. Any of their last three games could prove to be a loss, so mark my words here - if two others can go undefeated, USC will probably be left out of the national title picture…yes, a Trojan loss is likely.

Texas proved, too, that it can take a shot to the chops and respond as needed. Leading 14-13 after a raucous first quarter, the Longhorns settled in to then dominate the rest of the way in their 51-20 route of Missouri. Texas has now allowed only 23 second half points (32 first half points also bode well), and to say that the entire team is running on all cylinders would be an understatement. With both the 10th-best total and 14th-best scoring defense to go along with their 8th-rated offense (which is tops in rushing for all of I-A), Texas’ seventh-rated net punting results are a nice balance for their 5-of-5 field goal efforts. USC has the edge in championship experience, and they truly are the champs until they lose. But this Longhorn squad is strong enough to take it out on USC and not relinquish any ground. Texas has its own gauntlet to run, as every remaining opponent is at .500 or above, though only Texas Tech is currently ranked (AP). This week’s Red River Shootout has their neighbors to the north winning every year since the millennium changed (out of their 11 losses in this decade, five are to Oklahoma), and payback (for last year’s lone L) seems imminent. Bet that the Horns hook’em and take their conference half. But any student of the Big XII knows that their championship game has often been won by the underdog (1998, 2001, ’03), so nothing is in the proverbial bag until the BCS processes December 3rd’s results.

Talking about teams with a good shot at the title, Virginia Tech also responded when needed in their 34-17 win over hated-rival West Virginia. The Mountaineers climbed back to 17-14 with 5:42 left in the second quarter, and that’s when Marcus Vick showed us why his arm’s accuracy is actually better than that of his famed alumni brother. Settling into a 15-of-17, 177-yard, two-TD aerial performance (and a 12 try, 74 yard and one TD ground effort), Vick looked at ease as he and the other Hokie’s held the ball two-thirds of the time on the way to their away win. Still, the biggest hubbub coming out of Morgantown surrounds the comments of ESPN’s Mark May, a Pitt alumnus, who claimed that he knows (from experience) how the WVU fans throw, amongst other objects, pennies at opposing players “because they can’t afford nickels”. Regardless of his affiliations or experiences, May should know better than to lump an entire fan-base together and to then go public with his ignorance(s). Mr. May may just be reflecting his own founded opinions, but ESPN now has to go along for the ride - Mountaineers of all shapes and sizes are sure to retort as to how they span a larger range of income than May’s comments reflect. Considering how much of a “working man’s” town Pittsburgh also is, to call his words ironic would be an understatement. Been to East Liberty, McKeesrock, or Homestead lately, Mark?

Many times, when a head coach plays one of his old teams, the media surrounding the event hints of ill feelings and vengeance. But when Howard Schnellenberger went back to Louisville this past weekend, nothing like that could have been further from the truth. The man who put Louisville football on the modern map was inducted with five others into the schools’ Athletic Hall of Fame last Friday night, reflecting the great respect the Cardinals have for the man who came here just two years after winning a national championship at Miami in 1983. Upon his arrival, Schnellenberger proclaimed, “We’re on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.” That statement has never been truer than it is today, or was Saturday, as Louisville beat Schnellenberger’s upstart Florida Atlantic squad 61-10. The Louisville native was a major reason that Papa John’s Football Stadium was originally built, and the school returned the favor by naming its football complex after him in an unveiling ceremony before the big game. We here tip our hat to the old ball coach, someone whose “old school” approach to student-athletics still proves how timeless good shapers/leaders of men truly are.

An undefeated UCLA almost suffered its biggest upset in years before finally turning itself around to win 21-17 over Pac Ten-rival Washington. The Huskies have seemingly fallen off the map after last year’s 1-10 mark signaled their first losing season since 1976. Enter Ty Willingham’s “circus of controversy”, which now follows the qualified ball coach after his demise and subsequent dismissal at Notre Dame became all the rage last winter. Though Willingham now has Washington only at 1-4, the Huskies show marked improvements in many areas under Ty, including in the recently-vacant rushing attack, where they have genuinely gained much ground. Still, the biggest reason besides Ty for the turnaround has been junior QB Isaiah Stanback’s dual-threat abilities. The local (Garfield) product is the nation’s 50th-rated hurler (efficiency) and ranks 25th for total yards from scrimmage as he keeps foes guessing via offensive balance and speed. Stanback, a WR and KR-specialist in 2003 who also runs track for UW during his “off” months, seems like the shizz needed to permanently keep the Seattle-faithful’s hopes on the rise. Every team left on the Huskie’s slate (except Arizona) has a winning record, so even though wins may come at a premium, Washington’s upside is currently growing.

We recently mentioned how the rankings were a bit flimsy in light of an undefeated Michigan State squad winning over Notre Dame (the prior week), yet the Spartans still ranking lower in the polls the following week. Factor in that Notre Dame’s win over Michigan then found the Irish, too, still ranked lower than the Wolverine squad they had just beat, and you can see the dilemma. Well, total parity amongst these three Midwest schools is revealed as Michigan completed the three’s annual round-robin by beating their in-state rivals in OT 34-31. Insiders took the visitors and the points, knowing that this annual mid-season matchup is an upset as often as Michigan and Ohio State’s game is. In the end, Notre Dame, what with its juggernaut of a schedule (the nation’s toughest, according to our SOS), seems to be the best of the three, and with only one road game (at Stanford) left, only Southern Cal looks like a probable loss for the Irish. The Spartans and Wolverines are too streaky to finish in any final top 10s, so use undefeateds Ohio State (No.6) and Penn State (No.16), both of whom are still to play UM and MSU, to gauge just which is really best.

Ask any preseason prognosticator, or scoreboard historian for that matter, which teams are the perennial “bottom feeders” in the BCS-aligned conferences and most will include Vanderbilt (SEC), Baylor (Big XII), Indiana (Big Ten), and Rutgers (Big East) on their short lists. In the past decade, only Baylor (by going 7-4 in 1995) has finished with a winning record. You would have to go back to 1959 to find all four floating at .500 or better after the season’s fifth week, a feat evidently only seen about twice a century. Vandy would be 5-0 if Middle Tennessee State (yes, they are a I-A, in the Sun Belt) hadn’t upset the Vols 17-15, and Baylor, too, would still sit undefeated (at 4-0) if they could have pulled off the upset instead of bended 16-13 in OT to Texas A&M. With Rutgers and Indy also both 3-1, we start to see the fruition of how modern tools have lead to recruiting parity. At season’s start, the combined odds on Baylor having a better record than Oklahoma, Indiana outpacing both Iowa and Michigan, Louisville trailing Rutgers in the Big East standings, and Vandy sitting in front of both Florida and Tennessee in the SEC would have been staggering. To cross sports and quote late, great sports observer Mel Allen – “How about that?”

Florida’s 31-3 loss against a hardened Crimson Tide squad hands Urban Meyer his first loss in 20 games (carrying over from his time at Utah), ending the nation’s second longest current winning streak for an individual coach (Pete Carroll still owns the longest at 26). The option spread may succeed when employed against marginal defenses, but the nation’s toughest conference proves that Meyer will have to do more homework before ruling this conference, tooDon’t make too much of FSU’s 38-14 home win over Syracuse. Of all the undefeated top 10 squads, up and down, the Noles look the shakiest with their two freshmen QBsThink Joe Pa could have avoided his four recent losing seasons if he had just employed more true freshmen during Penn State’s struggles?...Fresno State proved Toledo’s lack of depth without senior QB Bruce Gradkowski. Without the nation’s ninth-rated passer (efficiency), held out at the last minute due to a then-undisclosed injury (later found out to be a concussion), the Rockets barely showed up in their 44-14 drubbing last TuesdayWith Dave Wannstedt taking over for (Stanford head man) Walt Harris at Pitt, there is but one basic difference between the 2004 and 2005 Panthers – offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. Of course, Wanny is where the “Buc” stops (sorry, had to engage some three-river humor), but since Harris called the plays that took Pitt to the BCS (Fiesta Bowl) and Cavanaugh has talented junior QB Tyler Palko looking like Kyle Bowler (from Cavanaugh’s last job with the Ravens), the Panther’s braintrust took a well-warranted and well-anticipated (see prior HIGHS and LOWS) tongue-lashing from alumni overlord Tony Dorsett on ESPN’s FOUR QUARTERSSpeaking of Penn State, they finally took revenge on an undefeated Minnesota squad for starting the skid that has recently defined the Nittany Lions. After starting 9-0 in 1999 and then losing 24-23 at home to the Gophers, PSU fell into a 27-36 spiral that has only been overcome as of late. Undefeated this late in the campaign for the first time since then, Ohio State comes into Happy Valley this weekend to define the Lion’s 2005 effortsAnd speaking of annual 97-pound weaklings, Buffalo and their current 0-4 record seem to again qualify. But with true freshman QB Drew Willy ranking 36th in pass efficiency and the only I-A starter still yet to throw an INT, is it only a matter of time til the Bills rule the MAC and break into the top 25?DeAngelo Williams’ 74-yard TD scamper in Memphis’ 27-20 narrow win over upstart UTEP shows why he is truly the nation’s best RB. Williams, bottled up on an end-around to the left, used his superior speed and broke back to the right, but seemingly too quickly for his blockers to catch up and help. Noticing this, the experienced senior took a looping tact (instead of going directly from point A to point B), slowing his progression just enough so that two huge blocks could clear the remaining Miners. That is a quality that cannot be taught. With only a freshman, third-string QB to balance the offense, Williams still forged ahead for 236 yards. Given a raw QB that allows linemen to focus on run-stopping, Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson has inversely experienced a classic sophomore slump, proving that without offensive balance, last season’s “flavor of the year” is just another back struggling to justify the surrounding hypeWhat happened to Marshall? After seven amazing seasons to start their I-A experience, they finished .500 (6-6) in ’04 and barely look formidable (2-2) as they head into this week’s tilt at Blacksburg. This game had “upset” written all over it just two years ago, but nowNebraska, FSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State are the only I-A squads that allow less than two yards per rush, with the Buckeyes allowing a super-stingy 1.56 per try to lead the nation overall in run-stoppingOSU is one of but 10 teams to allow just one ground score so far...Oklahoma joins Rice, Ohio and North Texas as teams with only one TD pass, while Northern Illinois remains the only I-A to not have any earned any INTs so farAnd, finally, one doesn’t have to go far to find the statistical reason Boise State has fallen off the map. By dropping in total defensive rankings from 47th at last year’s close to 101st as of this week, the Broncos quickly prove what takes any team to the top – defense. We’ve heard it can win championships, too.