HIGHS AND LOWS from November 5th weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor

November 8, 2005

We’re in the home stretch of regular season games, so keep your eyes on the prize(s)…

If you didn’t see Penn State coming back so strong this year, please, raise your hands…I see a room full of hung heads with only a few hands up, and if I was out there with you-all, mine would be ashamedly hung, too. Not many truly saw the Nittany Lions roaring back in such classic fashion, but here we are with State sitting atop their BCS conference, looking down on the favorites and wondering why so few picked them to win the Big Ten this year. Well, for the 25th time under Joe Pa, PSU has won at least nine, so don’t act too surprised. Penn State held what was the nation’s seventh-best scoring offense (39.7) to 14 points, and held Brian Calhoun, who was the nation’s fifth-best rusher (135.3), to 38 yards on 20 carries (ironically, due to enough bad rushing efforts of those who were ahead of him, Calhoun now ranks fourth at 125.6. Also, he leads all backs with 274 carries). Moreover, State stacked the box against Wisconsin and left its stellar DBs on islands, daring Badger QB John Stocco to beat them. Well, 34 runs for -11 yards and a total of 13 plays that resulted in a loss later, we see the 35-14 result producing the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week. Senior DE Tamba Hali tied the school record with four sacks for a total of five TFLs (out of his nine takedowns), with only LB Paul Posluszny having more tackles for the game (his 12 give him 246 for his career and place him 12th all-time at State, five behind Jack Ham). In the first half, the Nittany Lions outpaced the Badgers 309 to 105 for total yards, which brought State their 21-0 lead and eventually the win. What is most impressive is PSU’s returned ability to win at will. Before their recent five-year skid, one of Paterno’s trademarks was his ability to win big games at critical times. If Joe Pa hadn’t let his guys look past (then 3-3) Michigan, many of us may have replaced No.3 Virginia Tech with the boys from Happy Valley after this week’s results. On a similar note, Michigan State, the only team left for the Lions, could have been playing PSU to end for the conference title. But after starting out 4-0 (including a win over Notre Dame in OT) to then drop four of these last five, the Spartans only have themselves to blame. The Wolverines are the only other team that can still win the Big Ten, so State’s ender with MSU and a trip to a BCS bowl are not yet guarantees. But if PSU does to Michigan State’s top 5 total offense what it has done to offensive powerhouses Northwestern, Ohio State, Minnesota and Purdue, you can probably pencil them in.

Alabama may be undefeated and sitting in most top 5s, but their offensive woes continue to make the Crimson Tide struggle from game to game. This week, it was lowly Mississippi State that inexplicably hung on, only down 3-0 after 30 minutes. Though the score reached 17-0 by games end, the Bulldog’s 40th-ranked (total) defense stymied ‘Bama enough to cause two INTs, two fumbles (one was recovered by MSU) and to keep the Tide’s offense out of the endzone. Both ‘Bama TDs were scored on returns, one on a fumbled kickoff and the other via one of their own (three) INTs. “I don’t know…It’s like we’re moving the ball, moving the ball, and then a penalty. It’s frustrating to not get into the endzone,” ‘Bama senior QB Brodie Croyle irked. Most would give anything to be perfect and sitting atop the SEC and winning games by an average score of about 24-8. Still, something has to give with LSU next and a trip to Auburn on the immediate horizon, and Croyle’s recent numbers suggest his efforts are a part of what had been lacking. On Saturday, going 14-of-22 for 116 yards and two INTs barely “fed the bulldog”, and it has now been 12 quarters (and counting) since Croyle threw for a TD versus an SEC foe. But Croyle manages the game well, steadily pacing his guys so that, though they may not be winning the games with offense, they surely don’t lose the game that way, either, as happened last year with Croyle out for the season. Croyle is the definitive difference between last year and this one, between ‘Bama ranking 94th in ’04 and 59th this time around in total offense, between ranking 75th and 26th for passing efficiency, and between being 6-3 and 9-0. What is the same are nine of their 11 defensive starters, and that has kept them in the top 5 for total D (2nd last year compared to 3rd so far in ’05) while improving their points allowed ranking from 7th to 1st. Both of the Tide’s closing opponents have only one conference loss and sit just below ‘Bama in the SEC West standings, so the league title game is no shoe-in, let alone any BCS birth. With three teams in the current top 10 and five out of the top 25, most arguments about the SEC being the toughest conference still hold water and should keep us glued to these concluding results.

To give even more proof of the SEC’s verve from top to bottom, just look at how well usually-struggling Vanderbilt has done. The Commodores took Florida to the hilt before a national audience on ESPN 2 last Saturday night, finally bowing 49-42 in double-OT. It is too bad that a dubious call (for excessive celebration) on freshman WR Earl Bennett after his six-yard TD catch with :54 seconds left forced head coach Bobby Johnson to only go for one on what became a 35-yard extra-point - winning at the end on the road by going for two then seemingly would have been the wisest choice. QB Jay Cutler is the difference between last season’s 83rd and 89th rankings for passing and total offense, respectively, and this year’s 26th and 53rd placements, so far. Against the Gators, Cutler set his own personal high for single-game yardage (361) and simultaneously broke the school’s career passing record. He now owns basically every VU career mark except those for attempts and INTs. But after going out 4-0, Vandy has now dropped five straight, though three of those losses have been by a TD or less. It would have been the Commodores’ first road win against a ranked opponent since 1950’s 27-22 win against ‘Bama, so you can see the magnitude of that last-minute penalty and what it evaporated. The Gators have only lost once ever at home to Vandy (7-0 on 10-13-45) and only twice to them in-state, but Vandy has been within a TD at the end for three of the past ten years, with victory coming closer than ever last weekend. In case you forgot, VU has an undergraduate population of just over 6,200, a number that is dwarfed when comparing their enrollment to those of much larger state-sponsored SEC schools. The fact that this quality learning institution remains competitive shows just how high pure student-athletics can reach and how impacting each can truly be when strived for together. Records aside, Vanderbilt has already achieved for its participants the “gold standard” of college experience.

Why every one of FSU’s opponents doesn’t study Chuck Amato’s strategy against the ‘Noles is beyond any thinking college football fan. Amato, N.C. State’s head guy since 2000, was at Florida State for 14 years before returning to his alma mater. A center-piece (along with Georgia head man Mark Richt) during the Noles’ eight-consecutive ACC titles (1992-99), then-assistant head (and DL) coach Amato has brought a stout defensive approach into Raleigh that has not been seen in Tallahassee since he left. With all due respect to Seminole DC Mickey Andrews, Amato and his approach are ostensibly the difference between the superior Noles of the 1990s and the watered-down versions we have recently seen. FSU used to control/win games via air-tight defense; now, they marginally produce top stopping numbers, but cannot quite get that elusive death grip back, the one N.C. State fashioned last weekend and now uses. The Wolfpack have the 19th-ranked total and 17th pass efficiency defense(s) after returning only one starter from the secondary on a defense that led the country in both categories. Ergo, along with Saturday’s 20-15 win in the Sunshine state capital, Amato is the only ACC coach to have beaten FSU at home twice (also did it in 2001) and has a 3-3 record versus his old team. Holding FSU to 43 rushing yards (on 23 tries), under .500 passing (20-of-45 with three INTs) and to just 2-of-16 on third-down conversions made it look like Amato still had his nose in the Nole’s playbook. Moreover, Amato evidently realizes how modest and unsophisticated ball-movement at FSU has become under OC Jeff Bowden. The younger Bowden has taken State’s 46 four-star and 11 five-star prospects (over these last four recruiting years) nowhere offensively – only able to rank 99th in rushing, the Noles have been forced into ranking 11th in passing, but their 51st placement in efficiency really tells their aerial (and overall) story. After week six, when there were still more than a handful of undefeateds left, we pointed out how FSU was possibly the weakest of them all. Since then, only FSU has lost twice. Evidently, the Noles are now not a tough nut to crack, but given their streaky success against teams that often have the talent level(s) to beat FSU, we again ask why teams don’t just follow the Amato approach to give their teams an even shot when the Noles are on the slate?

What about the game of the week? Well, it turned out to be a lot more hype than anything, as Miami dismantled previously-unbeaten Virginia Tech up in Blacksburg 27-7 with the same suffocating defensive techniques Tech has used to rule its foes. This was a game that featured the nation’s top two stopping units, an even-matchup that seemed tilted the Hokies’ way due to perennial dual-threat senior QB and Heisman candidate Marcus Vick (16th in passing efficiency) having the edge over sophomore first-year starter Kyle Wright. (44th). But it was Miami head coach Larry Coker’s record as an underdog (4-0 when coming in as one) that trumped Frank Beamer. The one lesson any student of college football has learned in the past 20 years is not to look past the Hurricanes…ever! Arguably, from top to bottom, Miami has been the fastest team in the country for some time. The only thing worse than a Miami roster dotted with big-named stars is one lacking them, for that means there are dozens of fleet-footed, rough-and-tumble prospects hungry and clawing to become the next household name(s) in Coral Gables. Tech evidently saw no names that popped out, which raised the Hokies’ expectations of winning high enough so that their guard was proverbially let down. Hence, Tech was saved by a late, fourth-quarter score that kept them from being shut out for the first time since 1995’s 16-0 loss at home to Cincinnati. Their fall ends Tech’s plight as this year’s Auburn, named after the Tiger’s status of going undefeated but still not making the BCS title game in 2004. Speaking of not looking past hurricanes, Miami’s storm-delayed game versus Georgia Tech (11-19-05) becomes one that they wish was already tallied, for this upstart is only one game out of first place in the same Coastal division as the Hokies and Canes. As predicted here weeks ago, Miami fans really don’t want to see a team like Georgia Tech this late (see UCLA from 1998), a team that likely would produce another W if played earlier, but now sees the finish line and its upset chance for the title. Miami controls its own destiny, but a loss to the Yellow Jackets would mean that VT also has to lose to either Virginia or North Carolina for the Canes to have a shot at either/both the inaugural ACC title game and/or an automatic BCS bid. Heck, even North Carolina (3-2 in the ACC) can win out and have a shot at the conference crown. Now, does No.3 Miami deserve to be placed ahead of Alabama in the latest AP poll? That’s a whole ‘nother article/argument we don’t really have time for now.

How can a team that wins at Notre Dame then lose down the line to (3-6) Purdue? Just ask John L. Smith, “I have to compliment Purdue. They were better prepared and executed better than we did. I could care less about a bowl (game) right now.” Having to beat Minnesota and Penn State to get there, Michigan States’ coach has the right focus…Northern Illinois junior QB Phil Horvath continues to stand as the lone hurler completing at least 70% of his throws…Anyone planning to skip the top Western Athletic matchup between conference leaders Fresno and Boise isn’t the college football fan he/she may think. Remember, for Fresno, it is a tune-up for their even bigger tilt with Southern Cal nine days later…If they both win out, West Virginia at South Florida (12-3-05) would become a by-default league championship for the Big East – the winner goes to a BCS bowl. Did you have to look, or do you know the name of South Florida’s team offhand? (see answer below)…Since Southern Miss beat Central Florida (52-31 on 10-15-05), the Golden Eagles just have to win out to take the C-USA East and face either Tulsa or UTEP in their conference’s inaugural championship game. The game will be played at the school that has the league’s highest winning percentage...Kansas wiped their slate with Nebraska, FINALLY, after not winning against the Cornhuskers since 1968’s 23-13 win in Lincoln. That year they went 9-2, and it was arguably their second best campaign out of those last 37 (save 1995’s 10-2 effort, when they lost at home 41-3 to an undefeated Husker squad). The 40-15 final reflects the most points ever scored by the Jayhawks throughout their 100 meetings, and it was the first time since November 15th, 1980 that KU had two 100-yard rushers and a 100-yard receiver in the same game. Even with six (out of 12) Big XII teams ranked in the top 26 for rushing defense, Kansas still is the best, nationally and in-conference, as they stand alone in allowing under two yards per carry (1.92). Only ‘Bama matches them in allowing just two ground scores…Iowa State (2.97 per carry, 72nd ranked in rushing offense), Syracuse (2.97, 103rd), North Carolina (2.70, 105th), Nebraska (2.62, 110th) and South Carolina (2.70, 113th) remain the only BCS-aligned squads to not average over three yards per carry…To follow up on a truly unbelievable stat – Fresno has now allowed a mere 16 punt return yards on the five boots junior punter Mike Lingua has allowed to be returned. Ok, so he has only had to make 24 total punts; but, eight have been fair caught and 11 came down inside the 20, compared to their opponent’s 41 boots with only eight inside the 20 and one fair catch. Even though his 35.2 per try average doesn’t make the rankings, the Bulldogs are 51st in net punting and worry not when his number is called. How Lingua was passed over as a semi-finalist for the Ray Guy Award seems a mystery…For pure competition, the latest version of the Sun Belt passes as the best conference race still alive. Seven of the eight teams, though none has an overall winning percentage (Arkansas State is the lone squad at .500…and quickly, do you know their team’s namesake? See answer below), can still take the title. North Texas, which had lost only its inaugural Sun Belt game in 2001 as it won the league’s first four crowns, has two in-conference losses for the first time, yet remains alive. The Sun Belt race went from non-existent to indefinable…And speaking of North Texas, we again ask what has happened to the first backfield to ever feature two returning NCAA rushing leaders? It’s not like high-profile RB-combinations don’t work, just ask Cal sophomore’s Marshawn Lynch (ranked 9th in rushing) and Justin Forsett (T-27th), Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney (3rd) and Gary Russell (34th), Texas’ Vince Young (45th, but a QB) and Jamaal Charles (60th), Arkansas State’s Antonio Warren (5th) and Shermar Bracey (53rd), and of course USC’s Reggie Bush (T-15th) and LenDale White (25th). Mean Green senior Patrick Cobbs ranks 36th, but his four TDs, combined with unranked Jamario Thomas’ tally of zip, signal the second lowest ground scoring total (of five team TDs) for all 117 I-A teams. With QB Dan Meager living up to his name (has North Texas ranked 116th for passing offense), it is no wonder six underclassmen on the OL two-deep cannot hold back the stacked boxes they find weekly…Just to be clear, these are the top WRs who are averaging over 20 per catch – Utah junior Brian Hernandez (ranks 68th in total receiving yards, averages 20.48 per snarl), Louisville frosh Mario Urrutia (62nd, 23.08), Texas soph Brian Pittman (49th, 25.88), and Kent State junior Najah Pruden (44th, 21.38). By the way, with this list goes a bulletin to all remaining foes of these teams – if you happen to see these guys on the field, they will be going long…Harkening back to the initial rankings and predictions many had, the biggest disappointments are – Iowa (currently 5-4, ranked 11th initially by NC.net), Michigan (6-3, 6th), Oklahoma (5-3, 5th), Tennessee (3-5, 4th), Texas A&M (5-4, 18th), or Purdue (3-6, 19th)? The Vol and A&M top my list. Which is the biggest surprise - TCU (currently 9-1, unranked initially), Alabama (9-0, 34th), West Virginia (7-1, 49th), Oregon (8-1, 48th), Notre Dame (6-2, 41st), UCLA (8-1, 39th) or Penn State (9-1, 31st)? TCU, ‘Bama and ND are the finalists here…Did you know that Louisville DE Elvis Dumervil, the runaway winner this year for sacks (with 20, next is Mississippi State senior Willie Evans with 11.5), is also the NCAA leader in forced fumbles with nine in his eight games?...and finally, the answer to this week’s trivia – South Florida is known as the Bulls, and Arkansas State goes by the Indians. I didn’t know they played with the pigskin in New Delhi, but if Indians can be our credit card customer service reps, they can surely be the theme of a football team here…yes, I need to digress, but the seasons is almost over, right?