By Dave Hershorin
September 25, 2006

The best game of the week had to be the Notre Dame squeaker in East Lansing. It opened with Michigan State going out 17-0, and they were ahead 31-14 at the half. But with only one second half score by the Spartans – a TD with a failed two-point conversion – Notre Dame earned the final 21 points for the 40-37 comeback win. State outrushed the Irish 248-47 and held the ball over 11 minutes more, yet the road team won this rivalry for the sixth time in a row. The difference became the QBs – Drew Stanton couldn’t get it done when the game was on the line late, while Brady Quinn methodically hit his open receivers at critical times and had five TD passes. Stanton threw one of his two INTs with just under three minutes left while deep in Spartan territory, and it was returned to the house for the winning score. “Late in the game, I made some stupid mistakes,” the senior said afterwards. It’s like famed basketball player Reggie Miller said, “If we’re hot in the fourth quarter, we will win”, and ND saved its best for last. Michigan State is now 18-for-18 in the red zone this season, but when they couldn’t get inside the 20 but once in the second half, it told tale of the final outcome. Coach Smith’s guys could only muster 93 second half yards. Notre Dame goes to 44-25-1 all-time versus State and 18-13-1 in East Lansing. Weis is now a perfect 7-0 on the road, the school’s best record to start a tenure since Frank Leahy went 10-0 in 1941-42. The Irish rollercoaster 3-1 season is back on an upswing. Their one loss to a strong Michigan squad last week keeps their hopes of playing for the BCS title alive.

The Value of Special Teams I – Another great game was between Navy and Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane triumphed in OT, taking advantage of a blocked extra point attempt by all-conference DB Nick Graham for the win. Tied three times, the two teams alternated equal scoring strikes and looked like they were headed to another overtime stanza when the blocked PAT occurred. Sophomore PK Matt Harmon, one of two Midshipmen who do the kicking chores, had earlier missed a 37-yard FGA to end the first half. But Tulsa’s junior PK Jarod Tracy also missed (from 29 yards), so it wasn’t Harmon who shoulders the loss. The Naval Academy had been 29-12 over the last four year (16-3 in Annapolis), and their six-game winning streak that was broken was the nation’s fourth longest. Navy also had a 14-game winning streak when scoring first. They were the second-to-last team to not yet have played in an overtime game (North Texas is now the nation’s last). Navy’s offensive line comes in with only two guys over 275 lbs, and Tulsa’s hulking big men just won the pushing contest at the most needed time so that Graham could break through. Most curious, though, was the call as the clock ticked down with 1:57 left in the first half. The CSTV viewing audience was as shocked as both sidelines were when referee Ed Kierce told the clock keeper to wind it back to 2:00 because he/she missed the two-minute warning, something that we all know doesn’t exist in the college ranks. The clock was rewound and, luckily, Navy’s missed FGA came with six seconds left in the half. If it had been converted with three seconds or less left, Tulsa would have been rightfully upset and the guys at SportsCenter would have had a field day. Send Mr. Kierce a rule book, please.

The Value of Special Teams II – The thrills provided for viewers who watched the Alabama-Arkansas game were aplenty in their double overtime SEC West matchup. After scoring to tie the game early in the fourth quarter, ‘Bama had a chance to go ahead but missed a chip-shot 30-yard FGA with 3:11 left in regulation. PK Leigh Tiffin, who began the season at third-string, had already missed earlier from 33 yards, but had hit from 46 as time expired in the first half. Tiffin is currently tied for third in the nation with two FGs per game – the kid is proven and has promise. What then ensued in OT is why we all watch the topsy-turvy world of college football. ‘Bama intercepted true freshman QB Mitch Mustain (also third-string to start the year) for the third time to end the Hog’s first overtime effort, and it seemed all the Tide had to do was earn at least a FG to win. Then the Alabama braintrust went ultra-conservative, running the ball three times to put the pressure back on Tiffin with a 37 yard attempt. The true freshman, who is low enough on the totem pole that he shares jersey No.31 with senior DB Forress Rayford, went wide-right again to send it into a second OT. This time, coach Mike Shula opened up the offense and scored a TD in six plays. The evidently rattled Tiffin then missed the PAT try, his first conversion miss of the season. Reinvigorated, the Razorbacks converted for six in four plays and rode Jeremy Davis’ PAT to the home win. ‘Bama held the ball 19:04 more than Arkansas, but the Hogs were 3-of-3 in the red zone as they took advantage of any and every opportunity the Tide gave them. Arkansas has won three of the last four in this series. In his fourth season now, Shula is only 23-18, including 12-14 in conference games and 1-3 in SEC road openers. The folks in Tuscaloosa may not have much more patience if he can’t get his squad to finish in the top 10 sometime soon.

What transpired in Athens nearly wound up being the surprise of the year as winless Colorado took Georgia late into the fourth quarter before succumbing to the Dawgs 14-13 with 46 seconds left. It looked bleak from the outset for the Buffaloes, for they were without starting senior QB James Cox while he tended to his ailing father. But junior speedster Bernard Jackson proved to be just the shot in the arm Colorado needed. Jackson led the team in rushing (85 yards and one TD) and went 14-of-26 for 140 yards to help his side take a 13-0 lead. Georgia remained listless until coach Mark Richt inserted freshman third-string QB Joe Cox for the ineffective Matt Stafford and fellow-third-stringer RB Kregg Lumpkin for Danny Ware, both late in the third quarter. Cox went 10-of-13 for 154 yards and had scoring strikes of 23 and 20 yards, while Lumpkin ran for 52 crucial yards. Colorado even stopped two fourth-down conversions in the fourth, including a fourth-and-three on their own 13, but the Dawgs still found a way at home to save face. The loss makes eight straight for the Buffs dating back to last year, their worst losing streak in 42 years. But the effort they put forth surely gives Dan Hawkins’ guys a boost of confidence knowing they gave the No.9 team in the country such a scare on the road. Georgia would have been shut out for the first time since 1995’s 31-0 home loss to ‘Bama, and the Dawgs now seem like they have problems as their QB situation is unsettled entering the SEC gauntlet. Still, they remain undefeated and tied with Florida atop the SEC East.

Other games where heavily favored teams waited until late to pull away were numerous -

Visiting West Virginia waited until 11:29 was left in the fourth before pulling away from East Carolina. Only ahead 17-10 and looking rather pedestrian on offense (they averaged only 3.5 YPC and tallied 153 total ground yards), it took a 60-yard pass strike from Pat White to WR Darius Reynaud to cement the win in Greenville. White suffered three INTs, and the Pirate defense, tops in the nation with 14 takeaways (though the offense is tied for 99th with 10 giveaways), proved that this Big East powerhouse, ranked fourth, has weaknesses.

USC finally showed signs of offensive inconsistency and went into halftime of their Pac Ten battle with Arizona up only 3-0. It was 10-3 in the fourth quarter before the Trojans could put a little more distance between themselves and the Wildcats. Southern Cal outgained Arizona 381-154 and even went 12-of-18 on third-down conversions while holding their foes to 2-of-12. But two first half turnovers kept it close in Tucson until late.

Virginia Tech was down 10-5 at the half and 13-12 to start the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. It wasn’t until sophomore CB Victor “Macho” Harris ran one of his two critical late INTs back for a 72-yard TD that the Hokies felt comfortable in the 29-13 final. The Bearcats outgained VT 158-111 in the first half and held the ball ten more minutes than Beamer’s 11th-ranked crew throughout the game. Of course, you all remember how Cincinnati handed Tech their last shutout 11 years ago, a 16-0 home loss the last time the Hokies started a season 0-2.

Florida’s defense looked porous as Kentucky efficiently moved the ball for 175 yards in the first half to go into the break down only 12-7. UF then took their first drive of the third-quarter 75 yards in seven plays and only needed the one drive of 2:08 to take control of the game. The Gators D clamped down to allow UK only 54 second-half yards. Most interesting was Urban Meyer again using the rotating QB game. He inserted freshmen Tim Tebow and WR Jarred Fayson at poignant times behind center to keep Kentucky guessing. Just like last game, Tebow took each of his first three snaps for big rushing gains (62 yards). But it was Fayson who was the biggest surprise – the former prep QB, now listed as a third-string receiver, ran it over the left end for 10 yards on the first play of the Gator’s second fourth quarter drive. Then Tebow was inserted for three plays, followed by starter Chris Leak for the final two snaps of the drive and the six-point score. The Gators have only scored 19 first-half points in their last two (SEC) wins, and with their next four games against the conference’s elite, they will have to do more in the first 30 minutes to secure wins.

Lagniappe

Ty Willingham & Co. gave another convincing performance in beating UCLA 29-19 to take his Washington Huskies to 3-1. The ex-Notre Dame and Stanford coach kept his team motivated after they fell behind 16-0 early, and they won 29-3 the rest of the way as they only allowed 79 total yards after the Bruin’s first quarter scoring burst. Maybe not a powerhouse yet, Willingham has successfully turned the program around after they went 3-19 in the previous two campaigns…Chuck Amato reversed his Wolfpack’s mini-skid by beating then-No.20 Boston College 17-15 on a 34-yard TD pass with eight seconds left. RS soph Daniel Evans, in his first start ever, connected with Jon Dunlap for the winning score. Before this win, N.C. State had only beaten I-AA Appalachian State while losing to Akron and Southern Mississippi, both non-BCS aligned schools…Cal has to again be considered a conference powerhouse after dismantling previously unbeaten (and 22nd ranked) Arizona State 49-21. The Bears, who took advantage of three first half turnovers to go out 42-14 before the break, have now gone 4-0 versus the Sun Devils since going 2-7 previously…Louisville sophomore QB Hunter Cantwell looked sharp (18-of-26 for 173 yards) in his first start replacing Brian Brohm. He took the Redbirds to a 24-6 win over a decent Kansas State squad. Maybe more important, though, is how well No.8 UL is running the ball since all-American RB Michael Bush broke his leg in the first week – sophomore George Stripling and senior Kolby Smith both had 63 yards against KSU and have 264 and 263 rushing yards, respectively, and Louisville currently ranks seventh in I-A for rushing…After a respectable showing at Purdue last week where they lost 38-28, MAC perennial Ball State became the latest I-A victim to fall to a I-AA, losing 29-24 to South Dakota State. The Bison scored three times in the fourth quarter to overcome an eight point deficit, and they get to measure themselves at Minnesota October 21 against a Golden Gopher squad that just fell to the Boilermakers 27-21…This Friday’s game between BYU (2-2) and TCU (3-0) is on the VERSUS network, which is the new name that the OLN is changing to this week. BYU leads the series 3-2 but lost 51-50 to the Horned Frogs in Provo last year. The two will have many meetings since both schools are now MWC members and should see each other annually…Utah State lost at Provo 38-0, the third straight time they have been shutout this season. The Aggies only score so far in 2006 was by the defense, an INT return in the second quarter of their opener with Wyoming. They rank 119th in both scoring and total offense…Northern Illinois senior RB Garrett Wolfe easily leads the nation in rushing, averaging 8.6 YPC and 207 per game. OU junior Adrian Peterson is second with 5.5 YPC and 161 per game. Though many will poo-poo Garrett for having played against ostensibly weaker defenses, the 5’7” 173-pounder did torch Ohio State for 171 rushing yards and also had five catches for 114 yards against the Buckeyes. Receiving skills being his one weak point, Peterson has only four catches in all of 2006 for 72 yards and 18 catches his entire college career…TCU and Air Force, leading the nation as each has just one giveaway, will play the MWC finale December 2nd in Fort Worth...Utah senior DB Eric Weddle won Walter Camp defensive Player of the Week as he intercepted three passes against San Diego State, returning two for scores. Weddle also had three carries for 11 yards, including a 2-yard rushing TD. This is why the Sporting News considers him the best strong safety in the nation, why he won MWC Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, and why we have him listed as a second-team all-American. At 6’ and 200lbs, expect to see him working on Sundays next fall…