By
Dave Hershorin
September 11, 2006

We all knew before the season began that the Ohio State-Texas matchup would be huge, but how many would have guessed that it would be the first regular season game with No.1 playing No.2 since 1996? The buildup all week was evident, and the quality of the game, though it wasn’t close late, didn’t disappoint. One difference was Buckeye QB Troy Smith. His leadership skills were something the Longhorns don’t have quite yet with freshman Colt McCoy. Texas stymied State’s running game, and Smith subsequently took advantage of his 26 throws by completing 17 for 269 yards and two TDs. In a big game with this kind of magnitude, with many other factors being equal, this aerial dimension was the key in steadying the team’s nerves so that the early season gitters that kept it close early could turn into mid-season polish in the second half. Another factor was Buckeye WR Anthony Gonzales stepping into now-vacated Santonio Holmes’ starting spot and shining brightly. The biggest surprise, though, was how OSU’s new-look defensive back seven played like a veteran group. Texas only had two plays over 20 yards, and McCoy was limited to 19-for-32 passing for 154 yards. For what was supposed to be a possible weakness, the LB corps really did its job. First-year starter and true sophomore LB James Laurinaitis, who had nine tackles all of last year in his limited reserve role, had 13 tackles (10 solo), forced two fumbles, and had both a pass breakup and an INT, all of which was good enough for him to be honored as the Walter Camp defensive Player of the Week. It was sweet payback to avenge one of State’s two losses from last season. They get Penn State, their other ’05 detractor, in two weeks at the Horseshoe. OSU is now 3-0 in games with No.1 vs. No.2; they are 28-4-1 all-time against teams from the Big 12, and they have scored at least one TD in 115 consecutive games. For Texas, the loss snapped their national-best winning streak at 21 games, which leaves Ohio State’s current nine game winning streak as the nation’s second best (TCU is working on 12). It was the second longest streak in Texas history next to their 30-game run from 1968-70. Texas had been 72-0 in the Mack Brown era when outrushing their opponent, but that streak ended, too. Who knows how this game may have turned out if McCoy’s first quarter pass completion to Billy Pittman wasn’t fumbled on OSU’s two-yard line and returned by freshman CB Donald Washington to midfield.

Another game where QB experience was the key factor was in Notre Dame’s 41-17 home romp over Penn State. Anthony Morelli went 21-for-33, but that was only good for 189 yards, whereas senior Brady Quinn’s 25-for-36 performance earned the Irish 287 yards and three scores. Like in the Texas-Ohio State game, the winning squad was outrushed, so it was the big play passing of proven QBs that differentiated who came out ahead. In big games, one can never underestimate what a superior field general affords his side. Well, that and getting three turnovers while committing none. It was the third-consecutive game in which the Irish haven’t committed a TO, a span of 214:33 dating back to last November’s game against Stanford. One major weakness that was revealed is how shaky Penn State’s defense is – even the Nittany Lions’ stellar LB corps can’t carry the entire load, and a good offense can spread them out to the point of ineffectiveness (see Akron story below). Expect more exploitation when Joe Pa’s guys meet Ohio State, for if you think Quinn did a good job of this, wait until Troy Smith studies the game film and inflicts his damage(s). We will know just how “for real” Notre Dame is when Michigan comes into South Bend this weekend. The Wolverines have eight defensive starters back, and their balanced offensive attack, led by Chad Henne, Michael Hart and Steve Breaston won’t wilt nearly as easily. Still, Notre Dame is 214-106-15 (.661) all-time against the Big Ten, and they beat Michigan in Ann Arbor 17-10 last year. With Michigan coming off two easy wins and the Irish amply tested already in their two wins, it could be another blowout once the score is tallied.

The Akron upset in Raleigh was seen coming by many after the problems the Zips gave the Nittany Lions last week. Akron held the ball for almost 38 minutes versus PSU, earning 18 first downs to Penn State’s 13. N.C. State found out what ’25-wham’ was as each of Akron’s three TDs was scored on this short running play. Since Philip Rivers left, State has been struggling with offensive consistency, often winning games via its defense. But with the latest NFL draft gutting coach Amato’s front seven, stopping even a mid-major like Akron seems challenging enough. Still, State leads Division I with 120 yards worth of loss in their TFLs. It won’t get any easier for the Wolfpack with Southern Mississippi, Boston College and FSU as their next opponents. Amato is a great defensive mind, but he might be on the hot-seat if things don’t start to get better, and quick.

Florida State had their own scare in the home opener with Troy State. Down 17-10 with under seven minutes remaining, FSU got two big TDs to avoid the season’s biggest upset so far and won 24-17. Most noticeable is the continuing woes of State’s running game – after ranking 109th in 2005, their running efforts currently rank 118th (out of 119 I-A teams) and they are the only team in 2006 to average under one yard per attempt (.87). It’s either the backs, the front line, or the coaching, but it is most likely a combination of all three factors that keeps this once-powerful running team stuck in the proverbial mud. In watching the game against Miami, it seems like the Seminoles only have about four or five running plays from which they choose. The predictability of their ground game makes even the best back(s) neutralized, and any team that scouts this fact can employ a rather simple strategy to limit FSU this way. The mindset in Tallahassee doesn’t regularly utilize spread formations, so again trying to set up the run through the pass isn’t really going to work. The Noles can continue to win with their superior defense, but it won’t equal any national championships anytime soon if they can’t solve this grounding conundrum.

Iowa was another team that barely escaped the upset bug as they held home team Syracuse to basically no gain on six straight plays at the goal line to end their 20-13 2OT win. Iowa, who has been chosen by some as a viable underdog to win the Big Ten, handed the Orangemen four INTs to keep the hosts alive. Syracuse 41-yard FG with only :06 left in the fourth quarter wowed the home crowd, but then they deflated the Carrier Dome by failing to convert with all their close chances in the second OT. Syracuse held the ball close to seven more minutes than Iowa, and converted 9-of-20 third-down tries…just keeping up with a team like the Hawkeyes means SU is on an upturn from the quality of football they have been practicing lately.

The final upset dodge came in Knoxville, where Tennessee was befuddled by Air Force’s triple-option and barely came out with a 31-30 win. The Falcons scored what looked like the game-tying TD with 1:35 left, but instead of going for the sure one point PAT, Air Force went for two and got stuffed. Coach Fisher DeBerry said he went for two because “we didn’t come here to tie.” Air Force actually scored two TDs in a little over a one-minute span at the end of the fourth after playing a nearly flawless game against a resurging Volunteer team. The Falcons out-paced UT 281-79 on the ground. But Tennessee’s Erik Ainge was 24-for-29 for 333 yards and three TDs, making him the Vol’s most valuable asset until junior DE Xavier Mitchell stopped AFA RB Chad Hall on the crucial two-point try. Tennessee was coming off a huge home win over a highly-ranked California squad, which ironically was the last ranked team Air Force beat (in 2002, Cal was No.23 when they lost 23-21.) DeBerry will be stuck in a shoulda-woulda-coulda conversation with himself and alumni as long as he lives knowing he might have won if he hadn’t taken such a brazen approach to this game’s ending (see FSU vs. Miami from 1987). Tennessee looks to be a well-seasoned squad as they enter their annual SEC scorcher with Florida this week. The Gators tuned up against Southern Mississippi and Central Florida, so we will see just what UF is made of as they venture into Knoxville against a tested team that is sure to give them a smack in the mouth.

Lagniappe

California bounced themselves back into respectability by beating Minnesota 42-17 in their home opener. The Golden Bears got their vaunted running game in gear with 231 net yards rushing, but also got 300 through the air via Nate Longshore’s 22-for-31, four TD performance…At least Clemson’s 34-33 double-OT loss at Boston College comes early enough in the year so they can rebound in the polls for BCS consideration…Tulsa, which hoped to use its weak schedule to make a run at the BCS, fell against a tough BYU squad in Provo 49-24. So much for that Cinderella story, but this victory gives BYU a huge defensive boost that has been lacking in recent years, something they will need with trips to Boston, Fort Worth (TCU), Colorado Springs (AFA) and Salt Lake still looming…Boise State is back in BCS conversations after beating recent-Pac Ten bottom feeder Oregon State. After trailing 14-0 midway through the first quarter, they reeled off 42 straight unanswered points. Sophomore Ian Johnson was named Walter Camp offensive Player of the Week for his 240 rushing yards (on 22 carries) and five TDs. His was the third-highest rushing total in school history. Ex-head coach Dan Hawkins sure wishes his Colorado squad could share in the accolades after they fell for the second straight week, this time in Denver 14-10 to rival Colorado State. With all of that recruiting pull and talent in Boulder, it is a wonder he can’t get his Buffaloes to perform even close to the level of the Broncos – yet…Virginia Tech only needed nine first downs and 224 total yards to beat North Carolina. Four interceptions don’t hurt the cause either, nor did reserve WR Josh Morgan’s punt block that freshman DE Jason Adjepong returned to the UNC one yard line. It was the 56th blocked punt during the 20 year tenure of coach Frank Beamer. That makes 111 total blocked kicks in the Beamer era – 34 field goals and 21 PAT tries have also been checked…Tulane was originally scheduled to host Houston in this past week’s matchup, which would have been their first game in the Superdome since hurricane Katrina. But that will have to wait until SMU comes to town at the end of this month. The Green Wave fell 45-7 to the Cougars as Houston QB Kevin Kolb set the school’s all-time career passing mark. His 350 yards gives him 9,738, which surpasses the old mark of 9,430 set by David Klingler. Klingler still has the school’s (and NCAA’s) highest one game total (716 yards in a 62-45 win against Arizona State 12/2/90)…In two games, Navy has committed only three penalties (for 17 yards) in starting 2-0. Marshall, 1-1, has committed 23 so far, losing an average of 109 yards per game…Fresno State, which gave up a total of 40 return yards on punts (on only seven run backs) for all of 2005 has already allowed 58 yards in four returns. Freshman punter Robert Malone just doesn’t have the control senior Mike Lingua does, and with Lingua out indefinitely due to back spasms – possibly for the whole season – it looks like this special teams dimension isn’t one coach Pat Hill can count on as an automatic advantage…West Virginia leads the land as they have converted on 73.9% of their third-down tries. Florida places second at 70.8%...UCLA has allowed only 8.3% of their foe’s third-down tries to be converted, while Air Force has allowed 81.8% to succeed…And finally, though Temple is 0-2 and has been outscored 71-3, they lead the nation in time-of-possession (38:25). Conversely, Nebraska (2-0) has outscored its foes 105-17, but they are last in TOP as they hold it an average of only 17:33 per game. Evidently, this stat reveals little…