HIGHS AND LOWS from October 15th weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

October 17, 2005

This past weekend’s action is exactly why we all love college football. The array of quality games to choose from was daunting, and the outcomes for the best matchups were spectacular, to say the least. This was a weekend when many realized the handicap of having only one TV, for unless you had multiple sets going at 7:15 e.s.t., you missed possibly this season’s best ball.

The game most were either watching or keeping an eye on was the USC-Notre Dame tilt. As the scene unfolded, Joe Montana (who was in the crowd) and the American public were surprised to see the Irish don their “lucky” green jerseys as they emerged from the tunnel. The Irish had won all of its matchups with the Trojans when supporting their homeland with its color(s), but had, too, lost each time they faced a top-ranked USC squad. All afternoon, the winds of favor weren’t sure which tradition to follow. The game was close the entire way, with Notre Dame holding a lead over 27 of the 60 minutes. But they lost that lead for the last time and then subsequently the game on the last play of this rock’em, sock’em tug-of-war. As Irish QB Brady Quinn scored their last TD to give ND a 31-28 lead, anyone not residing on the moon knew that 2:04 left was way too much time to give Leinart & Co. Accordingly, the reigning Heisman winner guided an Elway-like drive that ended well for the visitors. In the Trojan’s end game, QB Leinart ran around the left side with no time outs from the ND two yard line and under :20 remaining. Time seemingly expired as he was stopped at the one, but a fortuitous fumble knocked the ball right out of Matt’s hand and stopped the clock at :03. The Irish bench didn’t see the fumble and began celebrating, but their eleven on the field saw the fumble and lined up for what many thought would be a spike of the ball. But on the way to the line of scrimmage, RB Reggie Bush and Leinart, under the shadows of “touchdown Jesus”, exchanged a wink and a prayer, agreeing that the play should be an unexpected QB-sneak instead of a spike (ala Marino). Now realize - this was a play coach Carroll had instilled as a possibility for just such frantic times, so it wasn’t the rogue call many think. With the extra push provided by a charging Bush to a pinball-like Leinart on the play which followed, the senior’s outstretched arms and body broke the goal line plain to win it for the visitors. Interesting was coach Carroll’s insistence that this game of non-conference rivals not have the advantages of instant replay. On the second to last Trojan play, Leinart’s fumble out-of-bounds easily could have been found to be a fumble out of the endzone, in which case ND gets the ball, first-and-ten from the 20 (seen as a touchback). Still, give it to a resilient USC squad that overcame many unlucky breaks to persevere. It was the first multi-INT game for the rock-solid Leinart, who also failed to throw a TD for just the third time in his starting career at Southern Cal. But Reggie Bush showed us why he (and not backfield-mate LenDale White) is a lock to get an (Heisman) invite to NYC come December. At times throughout the game when the Trojans seemed to stall offensively, Bush took the mantle upon himself to carry his team to 160 yards on 15 carries, producing three memorable scores on this national stage and proving he is unstoppable in even the most precarious places. As great as Leinart may be, Bush is the one who proves he is heads above the rest. Notre Dame’s consolation is small, but valuable – a three-point defeat is the closest the Irish have ever come when USC comes in top-ranked, and keeping up with the nation’s best proves that they have earned their recent foray back into the top 25. This is not Ty Willingham’s bunch that overachieved right out of the gate, only to then deflate back to earth and disappoint fans within the outrageous expectations subsequently placed upon him. This is a durable, tested group with upperclassmen leadership and a realistic chance to return this perennial powerhouse to the BCS. Without Leinart and Bush next year in Los Angeles…hey, simply put, one team’s stock goes up and the others goes down.

Another classic took place in Ann Arbor, where a high-flying Penn State team came in to take on a reeling Michigan team that hadn’t been 3-3 since 1990. To avoid a fourth loss (something they hadn’t seen this early since 1967), the Wolverines scrapped and clawed their way to a 27-25 win that wasn’t decided until the game’s last play. Michigan, 23-5 under Lloyd Carr after a loss, seemed to have the defensive edge as a 10-3 lead carried into the fourth. But in a :16 second span of the final stanza, the Nittany Lions scored twice, the second on a 35-yard fumble return that silenced the 111,000+ there in the Big House. But sophomore QB Chad Henne then found UM freshman Mario Manningham twice for six to eventually seal the deal. Penn State QB Michael Robinson ran it in from three yards out to give his team a 25-21 lead with :53 to play, but that only set the stage for another Wolverine comeback. PSU held the ball seven-plus more minutes in the first half but failed to score during that span, allowing UM to reverse the TOP difference in the second half and take a lead. Michigan was also 8-of-18 in the all-important third-down conversion stat, with Henne going five-for-seven through the air on the last game-winning drive. With tough wins over Michigan State and now Penn State, UM cannot be seen as falling to the levels Oklahoma has. PSU gets bottom-dwellers Illinois and Purdue next, so expect to see their rankings rebound soon. Ah, the wishy-washy Big Ten…won’t anyone show superiority before their conference-championshipless BCS invite in given by-default?

Speaking of close Big Ten contests, Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota was only earned when the Golden Gophers failed to execute a punt with less than a minute left and the Badgers blocked the marginal effort for the decisive score. This is one that has to be put on the coaches, for trying a punt late in a game with a three-point lead from deep in one’s own territory usually spawns a wise, conceded safety. Giving the opponent two points and allowing yourself an uncontested free-kick would pretty much seal the deal with under a minute left and your foe stuck deep in its own territory. But Wisconsin, down 10-points with 3:27 left, truly earned their victory with a well-composed comeback and heads-up special teams play. Special teams played a part throughout – Minnesota’s 17-yard net punt average paled in comparison to the Badger’s 38.6-yard results, creating UW field-position wins all day. But it came down to that new choice of punt formations, one that puts three players back in a double-wing-like formation and invites potential punt-blocking defenders deep into the punter’s space before initially being blocked. Many teams have joined Minnesota in adopting this inferior style, Unfortunately I do not have statistics on how the old, traditional punting formation(s) and this new one compare, because if I did, it feels like they would support my position that this rugby-like technique is not well-placed in the hands of most 18-22 year-olds. Minnesota had a long snap snafu on that vital fourth-down play, but there was no time for any recovery before freshman Jonathan Casillas came up the middle for his block and subsequent Ben Strickland endzone-TD recovery. Paul Bunyan’s Axe therefore stays with the 38-34 winners, who trail 48-59-8 in the longest-running rivalry in I-A history. This 115th version was only the fifth time that both teams were ranked in the AP top 25 entering the tilt, one that the Golden Gophers will coulda-woulda-shoulda for years.

Ohio State also benefited from poor special teams play and opposing coaches’ marginal management at critical times. What happened at the end of the first half as the Spartans attempted a field goal on third-down reflected a confused set of offensive players trying to follow QB Drew Stanton as he looked to line up his crew for a spike of the rock. But with no time outs left, coaches errantly sent in the FG unit as seconds ticked away and less than 10 were left. This led to a confused exchange of personnel and only 10 MSU players were on the filed as the 35-yard attempt went off. Ohio State’s Ashton Youboty came around his end unblocked and easily got his entire body in front of the kicked attempt, also returning it 72 yards as he was escorted in by four other Buckeyes for a score. It could have been 20-7, but it was suddenly 17-14 and this 10-point pivot is arguably the game’s turning point. With a lead now only one score away, OSU took advantage by midway through the third quarter, and then again late in the fourth as Santonio Holmes’ 46-yard TD catch helped him bounce-back from his two nearly-muffed PR fumbles. Both were luckily recovered by Ohio State as this back-and-forth battle became one of the day’s best. OSU’s then-No.4 defense allowed 218 more yards than their average, but stiffened as needed on a Saturday when they were on the field for more than twice the time the offense was. More importantly, the Buckeyes held MSU’s high-powered offense to 24 points, 21 less than their average. Troy Smith’s decision-making skills looked shaky at times, but his 10-for-15 249 yard, three TD performance (to go with his seven carry, 42-yard ground effort) makes skeptics look unfounded. He was efficient enough so that OSU had to deal with only six third-downs. The AP wisely had this game a No.16 vs. No.15 contest, and the Buckeyes proved in the end why they were the higher-ranked ones coming in. Stanton looked good going 25-for-35 for 340 and a score, but being sacked 12 times just won’t get your team the win most times. All-world LB A.J. Hawk had 19 tackles (10 solo), but it was Bobby Carpenter who had four sacks out of his 11 total tackles to cut down many Spartan drives. Ohio State will remain the top two-loss team, and at 2-1 in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes remain in the hunt for that automatic, no-conference championship BCS bid the Big Ten winner gets...oops, we already shared that sentiment, sorry.

Hats off to West Virginia’s frosh RB Steve Slaton, who had five rushing and one receiving TD in the Mountaineer’s 46-44 triple-OT win over then-19th ranked Louisville. Note to the Redbirds – you can’t even win the Big East without defense (UL’s 35th-ranking evidently isn’t getting it done there in the Bluegrass state)…Texas Tech QB Cody Hodges had a 44-for-65, 643-yard, five TD effort to help the Red Raiders to a 59-20 win over Kansas State and a 6-0 record so far. Hodges, who had I-A’s fourth most-productive game ever for a QB, said after the Big XII win "I threw two interceptions today, so that wasn't real good." If his curve still has an upside, things in Lubbock can only get better…Indiana, Baylor and Vanderbilt all came crashing down after each had sprinted out to four-win status. Iowa, Nebraska and Georgia, respectively, ushered in the usual reality these squads are used to, though each still has a winning record and a chance at winning their conference titles. I am giving 100-1 on any of the three finishing on top in the end…Rutgers bucked the trend(s) of the three previously-mentioned upstarts, winning 31-9 over a revamped Syracuse squad that still has yet to earn a Big East win for new coach Greg Robinson. Syracuse, which held the Scarlet Knights to under 50% passing and 103 ground yards on 39 carries, lost five of its nine fumbles to guarantee the loss…Tulane continued its post-Katrina tour as it played its fifth game in as many locations, this time landing in Ruston, Louisiana for its 45-21 loss to Mike Price’s strong UTEP squad. Louisiana Tech has been hosting the displaced Green Wave team now for over a month, and only the disarray of the once-refugee center Superdome could have distracted the Miners from their destiny…Nebraska and Kansas remain the only I-A squads to allow less than two yards per ground try. The two face-off November fifth, and I expect the winner will be whoever can gain the most rushing yards…Connecticut is the only school to not have allowed a field goal, with Ball State only yielding one so far…Fresno State still has allowed only three punt return yards on three total returns so far. Their 16 punts have lead to no touchbacks, either, so even though punter Mike Lingua only averages a little under 32 per try, returns of consequence are out of the question. 2004’s Bulldog squad allowed but 27 yards (on 10 total returns) all year…Buffalo, North Texas, Temple and Florida International are the only ones to have earned less than 10 TDs…What is wrong in Columbus? As Ted Ginn, Jr. only has two scores, 270 receiving and one net rushing yard (on eight measly tries), either coaches don’t know how to utilize this amazing talent or the term “sophomore slump” is redefined via this preseason-Heisman candidate’s disappointing effort(s). After seeing his breakaway TD this past Saturday, bet on the former…The interview of the week was with John L. Smith as his team came off the field after botching their first-half ending FGA. Now, if all of our politicians could only make the buck stop with them like Smith did at that juncture, our country would be in much better shape…Alabama-Georgia for the SEC championship, with both still undefeated, looks like a longshot…And finally, Virginia has to do something different so that it doesn’t have to wait 10 years between wins against former ACC-king Florida State. The Noles don’t seem to matchup well against a mobile QB, so their season-ender with the Gators and a possible conference-championship tilt with powerhouse Virginia Tech don’t bode well for the faithful from Tallahassee.