- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Today's football riddle: What do Paul Tagliabue and Rick Chryst have in common?
Answer: They are the commissioners of the leagues that played the best football in the country this weekend. Tagliabue, of course, runs the NFL. Chryst is the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, which had three members defeat ranked teams on Saturday.
The biggest surprise came at No. 6 Kansas State, which lost to Marshall, 27-20. Toledo, which won at Marshall a week ago, beat visiting No. 11 Pittsburgh, 35-31. Northern Illinois, which opened the season by beating then-No. 14 Maryland, 13-10, in overtime, stunned Alabama, No. 21 in the AP poll, 19-16 in Tuscaloosa.
"We had a concentration of those games, and the top end of our league competing in them," Chryst said Sunday night. "It all came together."
The victories are the result that Chryst hoped for several years ago when he urged member schools to play better teams, and to make whatever deals necessary to get those teams to come to MAC campuses. The schools have 10 nonconference home games against I-A schools, seven of them against BCS schools.
The strategy has brought unprecedented success, perhaps too much. The big schools are refusing to schedule any more visits. "The top end of our league, forget it," Chryst said.
"Maryland tried to get out of coming here," Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak said Sunday night. "They tried to buy us out of the contract, but our athletic director (Cary Groth) stayed strong. We played Illinois two years ago, the year they won the Big Ten. We lost by five and were throwing in the end zone at the end of the game. They don't want to play us and I don't blame them. There's nothing to gain, especially in this state."
Northern Illinois agreed to play twice at Alabama, without a return visit. At a point in time when the BCS schools are being charged with squeezing the non-BCS schools out of more lucrative payouts, you would think that the Alabamas and Marylands have a vested interest in keeping the MAC schools healthy. On the other hand, maybe that's naïve.
"It is naïve," Novak said, laughing. "Winning these games is really making it difficult."
Northern Illinois will continue to try to schedule I-A teams to come into DeKalb, whether they are in the BCS or not. Novak said the school is talking to Louisiana Tech right now. In the meantime, the Huskies sold out Huskie Stadium for the Maryland game, all 28,000 seats of it. For the Iowa State game, the school is considering bringing in bleachers that would seat an additional 2,000.
"When I came here seven years ago," Novak said, taking over a team that had signed a long-term lease on the MAC cellar, "you dreamed of playing in a packed stadium against a ranked team. Last night was a little more special. But I was more nervous than our kids, to be honest. Our kids went in there feeling they could win the game."
The Future Is Now
With great fanfare in February 2001, Tennessee signed a cluster of big-name tailback recruits. Not until Saturday in Gainesville, however, did juniors Cedric Houston and
Jabari Davis, the best of that group, fulfill the vision that Volunteer fans had nearly three years ago.
Houston, a 6-foot, 215-pound tailback from Clarendon, Ark., has been the starter, while Davis, a 6-foot, 225-pounder from suburban Atlanta, has spelled him in the second quarter. In Tennessee's 24-10 victory at Florida, however, Houston went to the bench with bruised ribs in the first half, and Davis came in earlier.
"Cedric is the back that can make more happen right now, inside, outside and receiving," running backs coach Woody McCorvey said Sunday. "Jabari gives us a lot in short yardage and goal-line situations. They are a great one-two punch. They work very well together.
Davis finished with 78 yards and two touchdowns. Florida held Tennessee to 39 rushing yards in the first half, but the Vols gained 100 yards in the second half. In the first half, Tennessee gained more than two yards on only three of 14 first downs. The Vols couldn't get out of second-and-long, and didn't help themselves with bad down-and-distance situations, exacerbated by false start penalties on the first two possessions because of the noise generated by Gator fans.
McCorvey said the offensive coaches decided at halftime that if they got rid of the penalties, and used more hand signals, the original game plan would work. "We had to be able to run the ball to keep the defense off the field," he said.
In the fourth quarter, after Florida closed within 17-10, Davis gained 45 yards on the 78-yard drive for the touchdown that put Florida away. Davis closed the drive with runs of 20, six and nine yards. He blew through the middle, and the Gators didn't have enough left to stop him.
Virginia Tech junior tailback Kevin Jones deserved the attention he received for shredding Texas A&M for 188 yards and three touchdowns on the ground Thursday night. However, Aggies coach Dennis Franchione sounded as if, had he given out one game ball to the Hokies offense, Jones would have finished second to junior quarterback Bryan Randall.
"Everybody was asking me about the tailback," said Franchione, sitting on a folding chair in a deserted postgame locker room after the 35-19 loss. "He's good, but the quarterback made the difference. The quarterback is mature enough that when they had to have it, he made a play -- pulling it down, passing, the option play for the touchdown."
Franchione's comments are significant because, when he looks at Randall, he sees the learning curve of his own quarterback, sophomore Reggie McNeal. In the first half, McNeal rushed nine times for 65 yards, and completed 8-of-12 passes for 104 yards. In the second half, after the Hokies began sending more pressure at McNeal, he completed 3-of-9 passes for 29 yards. He also carried only twice for a net loss of a yard, and got sacked for a loss of 17.
"I kind of felt like I saw Reggie growing up before my eyes in the first half," Franchione said. "He had a pretty good game. We're all guilty of thinking he has more experience than he does. Sometimes we need to understand how (green) he still is. He's smart. Taking it from the practice field to the game field is different."
There are more parallels between the offenses than that. On each team, what started out as a shared position evolved into starter and backup in the backwash of Hurricane Isabel. Tech freshman Marcus Vick and Aggie sophomore Dustin Long each played one mop-up drive in the final five minutes of the game.
"When the ball is wet," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said, "you want a guy in there who's used to handling it." Vick will get playing time, Beamer said. However, it's clear that Randall is the man.
A Classy Move
LSU fans have earned a reputation throughout the Southeastern Conference for being the rudest, crudest hosts to visiting fans. The custom of yelling, "Tah-ga bait! Tah-ga bait!", when spotting anyone wearing enemy colors is tame compared to other oaths spewed by the locals.
That's why the warm ovation that Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley received when introduced on the field at Tiger Stadium on Saturday afternoon came as such a surprise. Dooley, who is being forced to retire next year by university president Michael Adams, was introduced as an "SEC living legend." More important to LSU fans, the announcer reminded everyone that Dooley had been in charge of the NCAA Football Rules Committee when it passed a rule allowing LSU to wear white uniforms at home.
The announcer reminded Dooley, too.
"I had forgotten that I was chair of the rules committee when we changed the uniform rule," Dooley said Saturday. "It used to be that the visiting team wore white. LSU appealed, and we changed the rule so that the home team has first choice. It was just the right thing to do."
Dooley beamed when asked about the ovation. "Quite a compliment," he said.
No. 14 Iowa beat visiting Arizona State, 21-2, because the Hawkeyes' defense pitched a shutout, allowing Sun Devil junior quarterback Andrew Walter a paltry 3.6 yards per attempt (23-of-44, 160 yards). Arizona State finished with only 184 total yards.
But the best developments at Iowa occurred on offense. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Chandler couldn't rely on his favorite receiver Maurice Brown, who missed the game because of an ankle injury. Instead, kick returner Ramon Ochoa stepped in and caught two touchdown passes and redshirt freshman Calvin Davis, a 6-2 former Iowa prep 200-meter champion, caught the first three balls of his collegiate career for 51 yards. ... Minnesota, the only I-A team to play four exhibition games, outscored Tulsa, Troy State, Ohio and Louisiana-Lafayette by a combined 187-51. Now the Big Ten season begins. ... TCU must be for real. The Horned Frogs, without starting quarterback Tye Gunn, and losing starting tailback Lonta Hobbs in the first quarter, beat Vanderbilt 30-14. Backup quarterback Brandon Hassell threw for 227 yards and a touchdown. ... Stanford, with 47 freshmen or redshirt freshmen, is 2-0 after beating BYU, 18-14.
Chat reminder: I'll answer your questions in an ESPN.com chat Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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