Commentary

Big D -- Dallas, Domers and defense

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (VandalMania! [1] T-shirts sold separately):

D Stands For Dash And A Bunch Of Other Stuff

Welcome to the Big D Edition of The Dash, where we address the three biggest buzzwords in college football this week: Dallas, Domers and Defense. One department at a time:

Dallas

In August, the Cotton Bowl thought it would host the Game of the Year between Texas (2) and Oklahoma (3). Then the Sooners started losing limbs (surgery on Jermaine Gresham's torn knee, weeks of recovery for Sam Bradford's sprained shoulder) and losing games -- and this showdown lost some luster.

[+] EnlargeMack Brown and Bob Stoops
James D. Smith/Icon SMIMack Brown and Bob Stoops will meet at the Cotton Bowl in Big D on Saturday.

But even if the previously shared Heisman Trophy and national championship hopes are now one-sided (all burnt orange), it's still shaping up to be a vital and fascinating game. Oklahoma will be trying to spoil Texas' season. Texas will be trying to maximize Oklahoma's misery. And neither side has forgotten all the ill will over the great Big 12 tiebreaker fiasco of 2008.

So there's still plenty of hate to go around on the grounds of the State Fair of Texas.

And, hopefully, plenty of airplane banners to fly around the place.

You might recall that fans spent good money last year renting airplanes to fly snide signs in each other's air space. When Oklahoma played at Oklahoma State last season with the Big 12 South title on the line, a plane circled with a banner reminding everyone of the Longhorns' 45-35 victory in Dallas. A few days later, a plane circled Texas' campus encouraging coach Mack Brown (4) to "quit whining."

Some 2009 airplane signs The Dash would like to see:

Texas sign: "Forget big games, Bob Stoops (5) doesn't even win the medium-sized ones anymore -- see BYU, Miami."

Oklahoma sign: "The computers still hate the Horns -- see Sagarin."

Texas sign: "When your best win is over Baylor, you aren't very good."

Oklahoma sign: "When your best nonconference win is over Louisiana-Monroe, you're chicken."

Texas sign: "What BCS stands for in Oklahoma: Bowl Catastrophe Series."

Oklahoma sign: "Michael Crabtree is still open."

Texas sign: "Mobilehoma."

Oklahoma sign: "Landry Jones' mustache > Colt McCoy's."

Domers

Speaking of signs, there was that South Bend billboard a few weeks back wishing Charlie Weis (6) good luck on the fifth year of his "internship" as Notre Dame's coach. This week, The Intern aims for an upgrade or flirts with a failing grade.

If Notre Dame truly wants to wake up the echoes as opposed to continually hitting the snooze button, it wins this game. The Fighting Irish haven't won since 2001 -- three coaches ago. Four if you count George O'Leary (7).

Not only that, they've come close only once since then. One of the great rivalries in college football has become every bit as stressful for USC as playing Arizona -- actually, that's an insult to Arizona. Average margin of victory in USC's seven-game winning streak over the Wildcats: 21 points. Average margin of victory in USC's seven-game winning streak over the Irish: 27 points.

The past two years the combined score is 76-3. Last year in Los Angeles, Notre Dame didn't even try to win. The game plan was so timid that it made Lane Kiffin's approach at Florida last month look wild and daring.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNotre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen leads the nation in passing efficiency.

Result: The Irish had zero first downs until the final play of the third quarter. Somehow, they stumbled into a fourth-quarter field goal to avoid a second consecutive shutout against the Trojans.

Notre Dame has come a long way offensively since that night -- the Irish currently rank 10th nationally in total offense, and quarterback Jimmy Clausen (8) leads the nation in pass efficiency.

But now it's time for Clausen, his teammates and the entire Notre Dame program to step up and win a Big One. USC and its freshman starting quarterback are more vulnerable today than at any other point during its 21st century dominance of the Irish. And at 4-1, the Irish are feeling better about themselves than they have since Brady Quinn left campus.

This game is important for USC in its quest to stay in the national championship hunt. But it's more important for Notre Dame in its quest to return to national prominence. And it's vitally important for the Notre Dame coach to prove he can lead the program there.

Defense

All the preseason chatter was about quarterback play and spread offenses and points. Well, the pretty-boy offense stuff has been hit, wrapped up and brought to the ground -- behind the line of scrimmage. This season has unexpectedly been hijacked by defense.

The Dash enjoys a good shootout as much as the next fan, but the reality is that an awful lot of high-profile quarterbacks have either gotten hurt or struggled, while the stars have shined on the other side of the ball. With an assist from a whole lot of wet weather, college football has tilted in 2009 to the defensive side of the ball.

You want proof?

• The 1-2 teams in the AP poll are the 1-2 teams nationally in total defense: Florida and Alabama, in that order.

• All of the top eight teams in scoring defense are ranked in the current AP Top 25.

• Of the AP top 15 teams, only one (Miami) does not rank in the top 26 nationally in scoring defense. Meanwhile, eight of those teams are outside the top 26 in scoring offense.

• No fewer than five stereotypically high-octane teams rank higher in total defense than total offense: Boise State (14th in defense, 20th in offense), Florida (first in defense, sixth in offense), Texas (fourth in defense, seventh in offense), Miami (39th in defense, 51st in offense), Oregon (16th in defense, 71st in offense) and Oklahoma (ninth in defense, 14th in offense).

[+] EnlargeAlabama Defense
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireThe Crimson Tide defense is holding opponents to 220.5 yards per game.

Defense is so in vogue this season that no fewer than three players from the tackling side of the ball have gotten pub at various points as Heisman contenders: first safeties Eric Berry (9) of Tennessee and Taylor Mays (10) of USC, and more recently Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (11).

We'll get to the best defensive players in a moment, but first, the best defensive units. Not just which teams have the best stats, but what kind of offenses did they face while shutting them down? The Dash broke it down by taking the top 15 defensive units in yards allowed per game and ranked them by the average ranking of the offenses they faced.

In other words: Florida has the No. 1 unit, but the offenses it has stopped have an average NCAA rank of 90th*. The Gators have been shutting down sketchy opponents. Still, that's not as sketchy as, say, Penn State, eighth nationally in defense but taking on offenses that rank 105th*.

(* Those are combined rankings of both the 120 FBS and 118 FCS teams, since the big boys have a habit of playing at least one small-time opponent. The Dash tacked FCS team rankings onto the bottom of FBS, so the No. 1 FCS offense would be No. 121, and so forth.)

So which are the REAL top five defensive units, and in what order? The Dash reveals:

Alabama (12). The Crimson Tide are No. 2, but have played opposing offenses that rank a respectable 64th. Biggest achievement to date: shutting down Arkansas (No. 15 offense in the nation).

Texas. The No. 4 overall defense has bottled up offenses that rank 61st. Biggest achievement to date: holding the No. 2 offense in America, Texas Tech, to three points in the first half and 24 overall.

Florida (13). Nobody is giving up fewer than the Gators' 203 yards per game, but they've faced only one offense ranked better than 50th -- that's No. 48 Tennessee. Biggest achievement to date: zero points allowed in the second halves of two SEC road games.

Ohio State (14). The 11th-ranked Buckeyes D is allowing 272 yards per game despite having faced the best offenses of the defensive top 15, including one in the top 10 (Toledo) and another in the top 30 (Wisconsin). Biggest achievement to date: nine straight quarters of shutout football against Toledo, Illinois and Indiana.

USC (15). The No. 6-ranked Trojans defense has not been tested by anything like what it'll see from Notre Dame on Saturday, having faced just one offense in the top 70 (No. 49 California). Biggest achievement to date: just 26 points allowed after the first quarter this season.

The second five: Oklahoma, Arizona State, Tennessee, Nebraska, TCU.

Head coaches who make defense their primary business -- and business is good:

Pete Carroll, USC; Gary Patterson, TCU; Nick Saban, Alabama; Randy Shannon, Miami; Bob Stoops, Oklahoma.

Coordinators who give quarterbacks anxiety attacks, and are not scared of your spread offense:

Tom Bradley, Penn State; Bud Foster, Virginia Tech; Monte Kiffin, Tennessee; Will Muschamp, Texas; Charlie Strong, Florida.

And on the individual front, The Dash gives you 10 defensive players worth the price of admission (in alphabetical order, limit one per team):

[+] EnlargeEric Berry
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesEric Berry is delivering more hits and thrills for the Vols in '09.

Eric Berry, Tennessee, safety. On Saturday against Georgia, Berry broke the NCAA record for career interception return yards -- or so he thought. Then it was ruled that Berry grabbed a fumble, not an interception, and the 46-yard return was just another highlight-reel play in a career full of them. Berry has 588 yards of interception/fumble returns in 2½ seasons, and three touchdowns. Oh, and more than 200 career total tackles.

Kurt Coleman (16), Ohio State, safety. The senior leads the Buckeyes in tackles per game (8.6) and interceptions (two in five games, one returned 89 yards for a touchdown). He's also forced three fumbles and broken up two other passes.

Jerry Hughes (17), TCU, end. There are certain staples in college football. Among them are these: The Horned Frogs will be really good defensively; they will specialize in disruptive plays behind the line of scrimmage; and they will have one Mr. Upfield -- a player who ranks among the national leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. For the second straight season, that player is Hughes, who is tied for fifth nationally in sacks and tied for 18th in tackles for loss.

Rolando McClain (18), Alabama, linebacker. The junior leads an ensemble cast of studs by doing a little bit of everything -- actually, a lot of everything. He leads the Crimson Tide in tackles per game and tackles for loss, and he's chipped in two interceptions and five quarterback hurries. The Dash would be stunned to see him back for his senior season in Tuscaloosa.

Eric Norwood (19), South Carolina, end. If there were such a thing as a Thursday night Heisman, Norwood would win it. He's good on Saturdays, too, but the big-play specialist has turned in some epic Thursday performances: two fumbles returned for touchdowns against Kentucky in 2007; a 10-tackle, one-sack game against Vanderbilt in 2008; and a total of 18 tackles, four sacks and a blocked kick in two games this year.

Brian Price (20), UCLA, tackle. He's making a lot of plays for an inside guy in a 4-3 defense, racking up nine tackles for loss so far this season. Four of them alone were at Tennessee, including two sacks.

Tyler Sash (21), Iowa, safety. Playmaking sophomore has five interceptions this season and 117 return yards. Throw in 47 total tackles, four other passes broken up and a forced fumble, and you have a complete player.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
John Rieger/US PresswireNdamukong Suh has been flattening opponents in 2009.

Brandon Spikes (22), Florida, linebacker. Linchpin of a tremendous unit played poorly against Tennessee, but more than made up for it in Baton Rouge on Saturday. Spikes was what we expect him to be: relentless and omnipresent, racking up 11 total tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.

Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, tackle. He might not possess all the greatness of the late Reggie White, but he sure does physically resemble him. Suh is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds. White was 6-5, 300. Just as White had, Suh has huge slabs for arms, a powerful lower body and startling athleticism. Suh is the only lineman among the top 98 players in America in passes defended, having batted down seven passes and intercepted one. The pick came in Suh's mauling of Missouri's offensive line Thursday, when he also compiled five tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Most impactful defensive player in the country right now.

Earl Thomas (23), Texas, safety. He's had four interceptions in the past three games, taking one 92 yards to the house versus Colorado on Saturday. Also broke up four passes in the first three games and had eight solo tackles against Texas Tech. Other defensive players who deserve some Dash love: Joe Haden, Florida CB; Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma DT; Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma DE; Taylor Mays, USC S; Patrick Peterson, LSU CB; Sergio Kindle, Texas LB; Greg Jones, Michigan State LB; George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida DEs; Kyle Wilson, Boise State CB; Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri LB; Tyson Alualu, California DE; Pernell McPhee, Mississippi State DT; Rennie Curran, Georgia LB; Trevard Lindley, Kentucky CB; O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin DL.

[+] EnlargeJessica Hart
Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for NikeJessica Hart loves Big D, Domers talk, defense and The Dash.

… And The Fourth D

Say hello to Dashette Jessica Hart (24). You're welcome.

Last Interception Pool

The Dash's annual Last Interception Pool is a little late, because several previously pristine quarterbacks got busy throwing it to the wrong team last week. As it stands now, we're down to three quarterbacks among the top 100 in NCAA pass efficiency who have yet to go oskie in 2009 -- and one of them has much more impressive stats than the other two. The finalists for the coveted LIP title:

Jerrod Johnson (25), Texas A&M. Johnson is pick-less in 211 throws for the Aggies, with 14 touchdowns -- a ratio any QB would trade his sideline baseball cap for. Next opponent: Kansas State, which ranks a pliant 84th in pass efficiency defense but has snagged a respectable six interceptions this season.

Tom Savage (26), Rutgers. Savage has thrown only 85 passes this season, having come off the bench in the opener and then missing a game with a concussion. But it's a pretty impressive way for the highly touted true freshman to start the season, avoiding a pick this long. Next opponent: Pittsburgh, which has managed only three interceptions this season.

Cody Endres (27), Connecticut. The sophomore didn't take over the job until the third game of the season and has thrown only 83 passes in Randy Edsall's buttoned-down offense. Last year he threw three picks in one game against West Virginia, but otherwise has been clean in 164 career attempts. Next opponent: Louisville, which has five interceptions in five games but has been susceptible to breakdowns.

The Dash will update the LIP next week, with the winning quarterback scheduled to receive a bag of pork rinds and a miniature plastic helmet.

Midweek Madness

For the football-addicted, The Dash bears glad tidings. There is more reason to watch midweek football this week than at any other time in 2009. So commandeer the remote, explain it politely but firmly to your spouse, say no to the sitcoms and give sweep-ridden baseball the boot. You need to see these three games:

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesChris Petersen and the Broncos face a road test at Tulsa Wednesday.

Wednesday night: Boise State-Tulsa (28). If you have any interest in seeing the unblemished Broncos beaten -- or even tested -- this is one of your last chances. The Golden Hurricane have won 19 of their past 22 at home and have a surplus of skill-position talent. If Boise isn't threatened here, then at Louisiana Tech on Nov. 6 might be the only other scary game.

Thursday night: Cincinnati-South Florida (29). The two undefeated teams in the Big East meet up in yet another scheduling triumph for the league that isn't afraid to play on a week night. (You might recall a couple of huge Thursday nighters from years gone by, namely West Virginia-Louisville and Louisville-Rutgers in 2006.) Winner takes another step toward a BCS bowl -- and retains a puncher's chance at the BCS bowl.

Friday night: Pittsburgh-Rutgers (30). The Panthers are 2-0 in the Big East and 5-1 overall. The Scarlet Knights are 4-1 and have righted the ship -- admittedly against horrible competition -- since an opening loss to Cincy. If that isn't enough, tune in to see whether Tom Savage eliminates himself from the LIP.

Miracle In Moscow

With each passing victory, The Dash becomes an even bigger bandwagon fan of resurgent Idaho (31), the punch-line-turned-powerhouse of the WAC. (Or, if not powerhouse, at least respectable member of the WAC. That's pretty much a first in its own right.)

If you missed it -- and shame on you if you did -- the Vandals improved to 5-1 with a comeback victory at San Jose State on Saturday, 29-25. It was damn near enough to make The Dash endow a blocking sled at a school that hasn't been this good through six games since 1994, when it was an FCS program.

The Vandals also improved to a league-best 2-0 in WAC play, with both victories coming on the road. Given the embedded history of woe at Idaho -- eight straight seasons with at least eight losses, including 21 defeats the previous two years -- these are giddy times in Moscow.

Robb Akey
Jesse Beals/Icon SMIRobb Akey and the Vandals are 5-1 and 2-0 in the WAC.

"We've woken up the place a little bit," said The Dash's current Coach of the Year, Robb Akey (32).

Akey traversed the eight miles across the Palouse from Washington State two years ago to become the latest head coach at Revolving Door U. He's the fourth coach this decade, following alleged staff-puncher Tom Cable (Oakland Raider), I'd-rather-be-an-assistant Nick Holt (who returned to USC after two years) and loyalty-is-overrated Dennis Erickson (who fled after one for Arizona State). And here in Year 3, Akey's methods are paying dividends.

"It'd been rough for the kids, because they'd had so many head coaches," Akey said of his first two years, which included one WAC win. "We had to make football be fun for them and give them a reason to believe in us."

When Akey got the job, it was Christmas break. He sat down with a media guide and a list of phone numbers and began calling every player to introduce himself.

"A couple of guys had the courage to say, 'Why are you any different from the last guy?'" Akey said. "And they were right. We had to prove we cared about them and that we could help them."

Part of that included weeding out a healthy number of players who weren't into Akey's way of doing things. Another part was playing a lot of young guys early in their careers and taking lumps. The third part was upgrading the talent.

Part of the upgrade was Washington State transfer running back DeMaundray Woolridge (33), whose measurements read like fiction: 5-9, 241 pounds. The human bowling ball carried five times on the game-winning drive for 28 yards, including the last 5 yards for a touchdown.

(Not all news is good news for the Vandals, however. The WAC reprimanded linebacker Tre'Shawn Robinson (34) for throwing a punch during the game against San Jose State, an act that earned him an ejection from the game and carries with it the threat of suspension if he acts up again.)

Idaho has four of its final six games at home as it strives for its first bowl bid since 1998. The Vandals also get a road shot at Boise on Nov. 14 -- and if things get really haywire, the two teams could be a combined 18-1 at that point. Could there be anything stranger than the national media descending upon Boise for Broncos-Vandals?

Rhetorical question.

Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week

Duke coach David Cutcliffe (35), who led the Blue Devils to their most points in 15 years Saturday when they scored 49 at NC State. Give credit to senior quarterback Thad Lewis, who completed 40 passes in the game, but don't forget to congratulate his coach, one of the best quarterback tutors of the modern era.

Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work

That would be Florida State's Bobby Bowden (36), who watched 49 points get hung on his team by Georgia Tech -- at home. If you want to know how far south it's gotten on Bowden -- like, approaching Antarctica -- consider this stat from Dash buddy Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times: Bowden was 71-2 during 1992-2000 against ACC opponents, and this year he's 0-3.

Putting Out An APB For …

… Former Notre Dame wide receiver Tom Gatewood (37), an Ara Parseghian-era stud who was the team's last 1,000-yard receiver for a season until Charlie Weis arrived. Anyone with information on Joe Theismann's favorite target, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former LSU wide receiver Wendell Davis, is alive and well and living in suburban Chicago after a productive NFL career with the Bears was ended by major knee injuries suffered on the infamous turf at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Davis today operates the Big League Barbers franchise of barbershops. The Dash thanks all spies who contributed info.

Point After

When hungry, thirsty and blessed enough to be in the great American city of New Orleans, The Dash recommends the following:

Dinner at Upperline (38), a low-key uptown spot with a tremendous menu. Try the spicy crispy Oysters St. Claude appetizer and the Cane River country shrimp entrée. And bring some gum to combat the garlic.

After dinner get a drink at Cure (39), a swell mixology place where they will make you anything from a bangin' Old Fashioned to a Chamomile Kilt -- which was good but too esoteric to recall the particular ingredients.

Then finish the night with a beer at Kingpin (40), a great neighborhood joint well-removed from the tumult of Bourbon Street. They've got every beer known to man, and they have interesting taste in wall art. Behind the bar there are paintings of both Jesus and Hulk Hogan. Hulk's is signed, from an appearance as marshal of one of the Mardi Gras parades. Jesus' is not signed -- yet.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.