HIGHS AND LOWS from October 8th weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

October 11, 2005

What a nice game Thursday to kick off our viewing last week. The gut-grinding gem turned in by North Carolina State and Georgia Tech went down to the wire, appropriately ending with an amazing defensive play to seal the 17-14 Wolfpack win. Only :33 seconds remained as Tech got their last play off, a first-and-goal pass from the two that went between QB Reggie Ball and Calvin Johnson. Johnson was hit by DB Marcus Hudson as he fell catching the ball, forcing him to bobble it up and right into the eager hands of other-DB Garland Heath, who had to step nimbly in order to keep his INT inbounds before momentum took him out of the endzone. Ball earned 40 of his team-high 88 rushing yards during that last 74-yard drive, ending his sub-50% completion effort with a perfect pass that just couldn’t be handled. Tech blew two other red zone chances, proving how well, when needed, State can bend (443 yards allowed) but not break. Too bad State struggles so offensively – they may again wind up being the best defensive team, yet finish under .500.

It was Arizona’s turn this week to keep up with a drastically better Southern Cal team deep into a game that the Trojans should have easily won. USC allowed the Wildcats to come within seven with 1:47 left in the third before winning the fourth 14-0 and the game 42-21. Impressive were the Trojan’s (I-A leading) offensive numbers (337 rushing and 387 passing yards), stats that boast of a balance few ever attain. We still point to SC’s lack of command on defense – the Wildcat’s 96th-rated total offense kept them closer than a No.1 team should ever allow. Next-foe Notre Dame has a decent run-stopping unit, but Purdue proved it to be marginally porous. After their next two road games, USC ends with four of their last five at home, though any of those last three could easily bring defeat if overlooked. And with the Trojans and the Longhorns sitting atop both the polls and offensive rushing ranks, it looks more and more like these two are headed for battle in Pasadena. The real question is – do(es) Virginia Tech, Georgia, and/or FSU become last year’s Auburn?

Texas played its campaign’s second huge game, though this one unfortunately didn’t live up to the expectations and glitz it normally commands. It was payback time for these Longhorns, winning this one for all the Cedric Bensons and Major Applewhites who could not defeat the Sooners these past five years. It was a close 14-6 battle late into the first half before Texas reeled off 24 unanswered points. But this 45-12 Longhorn win followed the anticipated script, providing even more proof of the collapse of an OU team many thought could remain a perennial powerhouse ala today’s Southern Cal. After finishing every year since 1966 over .500, OU had three losing campaign’s in the late ‘90s before this most recent turnaround, which had produced only seven losses in their last five seasons before 2005. The Sooners have dropped from being the nation’s eighth-best offense (in 2004) to its 104th-rated squad, while similarly sinking from 13th to 39th in total defense. Bob Stoops’ lack of continuity seems perplexing given his amazing recruiting efforts (according to Rivals.com, since 2002, he has signed 50 four-star and eight five-star prospects). But returning only four starters on each side of the ball has evidently taken OU out of the top 25, earning them their first 2-3 record since 1998. Hats off to Mack Brown’s continually improving approach that allowed Texas to chip away at OU’s annual dominance and eventually rise from being its conference’s second-best to one of the nation’s top two.

Minnesota had a proverbial monkey of its own with which to contend, bringing sixteen-straight losses into last week’s tilt at the Big House. The ground grinding Golden Gophers played to their competition, surging with defense and special teams to win the last 27 minutes 10-0, and therefore the game 23-20. Wolverine PK Garrett Rivas squandered both of Michigan’s second half FGAs (from 42 and 34 yards out) after nailing both of his first half tries (one from 47). But it was Minnesota’s 64th-ranked total defense that kept accomplished sophomores Chad Henne (QB) and Michael Hart (RB) slumping, holding Hart to under four per carry (with his longest but 20 yards) and Henne under 50% (with no TDs). Inversely, Gopher PK Jason Giannini hit both of his second half tries, the last a 30-yard game-winner with one second left to take Minnesota to 5-1 and a 22nd ranking in the latest polls. Minnesota has rushed for at least one TD in 34 of their past 35 games, and has earned 300-plus yards of offense in 32 of their last 33. Michigan falls to 3-3 for the first time since 1990, not having lost two at home since 1994 (when they lost three to Colorado, Penn State and Wisconsin). This rivalry is 114 years old, with the Little Brown Jug going to the winner of this tilt since 1903. By the way the Gophers went right for the Jug (that was being kept on the Wolverine sideline), we can safely say the nation’s oldest annual football trophy will remain popular for years to come.

Speaking of Penn State, are they finally for real or what? By dismantling then-No.6 Ohio State 17-10 at home, Joe Paterno proves this millennium’s doubters wrong about his current destiny. Many prognosticators, including myself, questioned whether the old ball coach was still viable - four losing seasons in the last five had marred State’s run of one sub-.500 effort in its prior 62! Well, seeing the Nittany Lions at 6-0 and atop the Big Ten standings now turns many heads with a tough one finally under their collective belts. Senior QB Michael Robinson now looks like the solid dual-threat QB he promised to be, finally the exclusive signal-caller after years of slashing around. But it was junior LB Paul Posluszny’s 14-tackle, one-sack performance that allowed this defensive phenom to earn what no one in the Big Ten ever has – Player of the Week honors three weeks in a row. Penn State takes its 16th-rated defense and new-found No.8 (AP) ranking into the Big House, a worthy test for this conference-leading squad to further prove itself. See, many of us won’t fully back off until Joe Pa proves that going 27-36 (before this year) during those struggling campaigns has been overcome for more than a season. This year’s huge talent influx may afford Paterno new life on campus, but he has a bit more to go after tarnishing one of the nation’s greatest all-time programs, one he ostensibly built, too. Still, building something great doesn’t automatically give the builder the right to also tear it down, or does it?

While we are on the topic of Big Ten Defensive Players of the Week, this week’s co-winner, Northwestern LB Tim McGarigle, fell one tackle short of tying the NCAA record for most in one game. The St. Patrick senior had 3.5 TFLs out of his school-record 25 tackles, with 15 solo efforts and two sacks. Also important were QB Brett Basanez’ 26-of-36, 361-yard, two TD and freshman RB Tyrell Sutton’s 29 try, 244-yard, four TD (one via pass) efforts in beating the then-lossless Badgers 51-48. Basanez was the conference’s Offensive Player of the Week, setting up one heck of a show in two weeks when Michigan State hosts the Wildcats (who are sixth in total offense, while the Spartans rank second for all of I-A). NWestern, which had 23-straight losing efforts before their 1995 surge, has finished over .500 three of the last ten seasons, the last in 2000 (8-4). They has a 6-6 mark just last year. As more conference bottom-feeders suddenly bounce, we see an inversion of 2004’s Big Ten standings with Penn State and Indiana joining Northwestern as surprise squads while sending perennial powerhouses Michigan and Purdue to the cellar.

Baylor kept up its winning ways by beating previously-ranked Iowa State23-13, the school’s first road win as a member of the now-10-year old Big XII. The Bears had gone 0-37 in that span, with their last conference road win in 1995 against SMU (48-7) as a member of the defunct Southwest Conference. Did you know it was this dry in Waco?…Steve Spurrier broke through his own personal barrier as his Gamecocks earned him his first SEC win at his new school, a 44-16 victory over Kentucky. Stevie had lost his last SEC game, a 34-32 squeaker against Tennessee as coach for the Gators, while his last conference win ironically came against his current employer 54-17…Sure-bet Wyoming finally fell off the gravy train, losing 28-14 at home to conference new-comer TCU. Cowboy QB Corey Bramlet had seven TOs – he threw four INTs against the nation’s 30th-ranked pass efficiency defense as well as losing three fumbles and completing under 50%. WR Jovon Bouknight did extend his NCAA-leading streak of catching one pass per game to 42…Virginia Tech was mired in a 14-7 gut-wrencher with Marshall at the half before scoring 17 points during 3:29 of the third quarter to secure the 41-14 win. Marcus Vick’s completion rate of 68% outpaces his brother’s 59% (1999), though Michael’s 20+-yards per reception that year far outshines Marcus’ current 14.2 rate. The elder Vick was that year’s leading efficiency QB, while now-senior Marcus currently sits third in this year’s rankings…Air Force took another backseat in the Commander-and-Chief’s race, losing its third straight to Navy and its fourth straight overall. Wins against Washington and San Diego State have been washed as the Falcons have fallen by a total of seven points in three of 2005’s four losses. Extra points if you noted the game’s sloppiness but kept watching - a shanked punt (of nine yards) by Air Force led to a blockbuster seven-yard drive that set up the eventual 46-yard game-winner with four-tenths of a second left. Make your own metaphorical joke about our country’s current military situation(s) and the lack of quality that our armed service football teams display…Texas RB Jamaal Charles’ 80-yard first quarter scamper (that sent the Longhorns up 14-6) tallied more positive yards than the entire OU rushing effort for the afternoon (77 yards). With a sore ankle and no quality QB to distract linemen, early-season Heisman favorite Adrian Peterson suffers a classic sophomore slump…If you missed the Georgia-Tennessee game, it would be impossible to convey what an “instant classic” it was…And speaking of instant classics, Texas Tech’s lucky 34-31 win over Nebraska pivoted on an NU interception with 1:11 left that was then fumbled during DT Le Kevin Smith’s return to give the Red Raiders one final shot. Cornhusker coach Bill Callahan said of the muffed INT return “They’re kids and they’re excitable.” DE Jay Moore, an Elkhorn local, yelled at Smith to go down, but was drowned out by the noise – “I wish I would have tackled him.” Smith later admitted to his teammates in the locker room that he should have gone down right after making the grab. Lesson for all those under a rock so far - you don’t want to give Tech QB Cody Hodges one more shot…UCLA pulled off its own upset of sorts, winning against then-fellow-unbeaten Cal 47-40 at home. TB/PR Maurice Drew accounted for 299 aggregate yards and five scores, including an 81-yard return and one on a 28-yard snarl. The Bruins sit 5-0 for the first time since 2001, when they went out 6-0 only to then lose four straight and finish 7-4…Which is more disappointing – Michigan or Arizona State at 3-3, or OU at 2-3?...Southern Cal is coming close to averaging 300 rushing yards per game (currently 291), which, when hypothetically added to their 349 average via the air, would make them the first team to ever accomplish the 300-300 feat…The Trojan’s 36 TD-total leads all of I-A…For those who thought Toledo QB Bruce Gradkowski’s head injury would linger, check out his four carry, 32-yard rushing performance against East Michigan. Now, if they could just get him back for that tilt at Fresno…Virginia Tech and Clemson are the only squads to not have lost a fumble, while Middle Tennessee and Rice are the only ones to not have yet earned a recovery…TCU’s total of 23 takeaways easily outpaces the rest of I-A, with Georgia coming in a distant second with 17…Miami’s 32.4% third-down conversion rate is the lowest amongst the nation’s top 25 offenses, while Louisville giving up a first-down 41.8% of the time on third-downs is the top 25’s worst defensively…Iowa is the only team to average under 20 penalty yards per game (19.5), with only Clemson, Virginia Tech and Vandy averaging less than 30…And finally, how valid is the Harris Interactive Poll, the one the BCS now uses instead of the AP, if they are giving teams like Northwestern (11 votes), Iowa State (eight), South Florida (five), and KSU (one) credence? Heck, if a 4-1 Baylor squad went to and beat Iowa State (3-2) just this past week, how do they come in ranked below ISU? Calling out such lowly indiscrepancies may be squabbling over nothing at this mid-season juncture. But if these are supposed to be the nation’s elite football minds reflecting an advanced pigskin prowess (so that the more-relevant higher-ranked teams are sorted out properly), we are likely in more trouble now than ever at finding the two best. That means we wind up keeping the number one word describing the NCAA and its BCS solution(s) – UNWILLING. Ah, here’s to the smoke-filled back rooms that keep genuine college football fans hemming and hawing for what exists on all other gridiron levels. Sssh, don’t say it…