- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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When the Utah defensive meeting began last Monday, Utes defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham wrote the number "361" on the board and the date of Sept. 27, 1975.
"Does anyone know the significance of this number?" Whittingham asked.
"A handful of kids knew it," he said Sunday, the day after Utah shut out Brigham Young, 3-0, ending the Cougars streak of scoring in 361 consecutive games.
Whittingham told his team, "Make of this what you will. It's your decision." And he didn't mention it again the rest of the week. Even Saturday, in the snow and wind of LaVell Edwards Stadium, when both teams struggled to move the ball, Whittingham said nothing.
"It's kind of like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter," he said.
The last time Brigham Young failed to score, dinosaurs roamed the earth. No? Well, then, dinosaurs roamed the sideline. On the last day that BYU was shut out, Bear Bryant's Alabama beat Vanderbilt, 40-7, Woody Hayes' Ohio State beat North Carolina, 32-7, and John McKay's USC beat Purdue, 19-6. In fact, Frank Kush's Arizona State beat BYU, 20-0 -- in a Western Athletic Conference game. That was three years before the Sun Devils joined the Pac-10.
"When you sit and think about it, it is phenomenal," Whittingham said. "A streak that goes that long is a record like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Did I think we were going to break it? If ever we had a chance, this would be the game. They're struggling on offense. We got a day that was far from ideal. Add to that the fact that we had an outright (Mountain West Conference) title on the line. All those factors gave us a decent shot."
A perfect storm, if you will, although not literally. Flurries blew through for a quarter, and gusts of 15 to 20 miles per hour dropped the wind chill into single digits. And obviously, judging by the score, the conditions were tough on both teams. Still, what the Utah defense did was extraordinary.
The Utes limited the Cougars to 156 total yards. Utah allowed BYU to cross midfield once in the first half, and the Cougars got as far as the Ute 33. BYU kicker Matt Payne missed a 51-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the second quarter. The Cougars didn't cross into Utah territory again until midway through the fourth quarter, and that lasted one play. From the Utah 44, a bad snap resulted in a fumble and a 12-yard loss. BYU never challenged again.
Utah finished the season 9-2, and will go to the Liberty Bowl, most likely to play Southern Mississippi. It is quite a triumph for new coach Urban Meyer. One of the first decisions Meyer made was to retain Whittingham as defensive coordinator. Days before that, Whittingham interviewed at BYU to take the same job there. He didn't get an offer. "I'm not sure I would have accepted it," Whittingham said. "I'm very happy here. It worked out for the best."
So Close, But So Far Away
Ohio State lost, and will pass the chip on its shoulder to LSU, which takes over the unenviable position of being the team left out. The Tigers, 10-1, barring upsets, will be left out of the national championship game being held in their very own state. LSU stumbled in part because of a weak nonconference schedule.
Tiger fans are quick to point out that LSU played teams such as Louisiana-Monroe
and I-AA Western Illinois because of a late cancellation by Marshall and the move of a game against Troy State to another year. That's a good explanation, but it doesn't change the fact that LSU's schedule is weaker than USC's schedule.
If Southern California loses to Oregon State, LSU should be the team to move into second. The Tigers' defense would present a challenge to the Sooners. Giving coach Nick Saban a month to develop a plan to stop any offense is worth seeing. LSU limited Ole Miss, the best offense in the SEC, to one offensive touchdown and 227 total yards in the Tigers' 17-14 victory.
Though LSU entered the season with its most pressing questions on defense, that side of the ball is the reason the Tigers are ranked third. In the fourth quarter, said defensive tackle Chad Lavalais, who should pair up with Tommie Harris of Oklahoma in the middle of any All-American defensive line, "I kind of thought, 'I hope (we) throw another interception so we can go out there and stop them again.' Put the game on our shoulders. It's been that way. It's been on our shoulders all season."
That's not entirely true. The offense has scored more than 30 points seven times. But against LSU's two highest ranked opponents, No. 7 Georgia (17-10) and Ole Miss, Lavalais may have a point. The Rebels harassed quarterback Matt Mauck into the worst Saturday of his season. The junior completed 16-of-29 passes for 189 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Tigers wanted to establish the pass on first down, but Mauck never settled down. Of the 10 first-down passes he threw, three were picked off (the first one returned for a touchdown) and Mauck incurred grounding penalties on two others.
"I think early on we were fearful and anxious and that made us play tentative on offense," Saban said. "There were times we didn't block well or didn't block the right people. We didn't throw well. It wasn't a good day on that side of the ball. ... The thing that Matt did a fantastic job on tonight was that he never got frustrated. He has a tendency to press because he is so competitive."
That's when Mauck's background as a minor-league baseball player pays off. He didn't get rattled, and made some big scrambles of his own to keep drives alive. LSU found a way to hang on to this victory, as it did against Georgia. That's what defense will do for you, even if it's field goal defense. Georgia kicker Billy Bennett, usually automatic, missed three field goals at LSU. Ole Miss kicker Jonathan Nichols, 23-of-24 this season, missed two against the Tigers on Saturday.
There's nothing wrong with being lucky, either. Ohio State used that and a great defense to get to the final weekend of the season.
"Sometimes it helps to have the ball bounce in your direction," Saban said. "But how you can compete can make it that way."
Clearing Up The Bowl Picture
No offense to Miami, but the entire bowl picture will be a whole lot clearer if Pittsburgh beats the Hurricanes Saturday night at Heinz Field. If the Panthers win the game, they'll win a share (at least) of their first Big East championship and the conference's automatic BCS bid. Despite a 52-31 loss to likely co-champ West Virginia, Pittsburgh will be significantly higher in the BCS rating than the Mountaineers.
No offense to Pittsburgh, but if the Panthers get the automatic bid, the Fiesta Bowl doesn't want them. Pittsburgh will play in the Orange Bowl, because the Fiesta Bowl also runs the Insight Bowl, and the Panthers have played in Phoenix two of the last three seasons. If Pittsburgh goes to the Orange Bowl, it almost certainly will play ACC champion Florida State.
However, if Miami beats Pittsburgh, it's safe to assume that the Orange Bowl will pick the Hurricanes, and that's when the BCS games start to get sticky. Miami and Florida State have played once this season, and will play next season on Labor Day night. The BCS has a policy of discouraging rematches.
All of which leaves the Fiesta Bowl with a tough decision. Let's assume that Oklahoma and USC play in the Sugar Bowl. The Fiesta, which gets the first at-large pick, will select either the SEC champion or Texas. The Rose Bowl, with the next pick, likely will take the team that the Fiesta doesn't.
The Orange, with the next pick, must designate which of the ACC or Big East champions it will take. The Orange takes Miami. Now, the Fiesta must choose from among Florida State, Ohio State or Tennessee. If the Fiesta doesn't take Florida State, the Seminoles will automatically play in Miami.
A year ago, the Orange ignored what the Rose wanted and selected Iowa to play USC. The Rose, which wanted to match the co-Big Ten champion Hawkeyes against co-Pac-10 champion Washington State, got Oklahoma instead. The precedent is there for a bowl to look out for itself instead of the common good. However, matchups are one thing. Rematches are another.
"We would probably look at a Miami-Florida rematch because they don't play each other every year," Orange Bowl executive director Keith Tribble said. "In the case of Miami and Florida State, they would (be playing) three games in one year."
The Orange Bowl will only get the chance to choose Florida if Tennessee loses at Kentucky, which is a long shot. Then, of course, Florida would need to win the SEC title game. If Miami wins, the Orange Bowl won't select Tennessee, because that would also create a rematch. That leaves Ohio State as the most likely opponent for the Hurricanes.
Sounds Of Silence
On the day after Auburn's emotional 28-23 victory over Alabama, the coach of the bowl-bound Tigers still had not been fired. If that sentence sounds illogical, do not adjust your computer.
The Auburn message boards and fan web sites swung solidly behind Tommy Tuberville, where they lined up alongside logic and reason, both of which question why there's even a discussion of Tuberville's job status.
Yet by early Sunday afternoon, Tuberville had not received as much as a congratulatory phone call from anyone in the Auburn hierarchy.
"I haven't heard anything from anybody," Tuberville said. "Not anything."
He thought for a second.
"My wife said we played pretty good," Tuberville continued. "That counts for something."
Tuberville said last week that he would meet with Auburn president Dr. William Walker early this week. However, on Sunday he said that no meeting had been scheduled. In his case, the status quo is good news. The Tigers, who finished 7-5, likely will head to the Music City Bowl.
One reason that rumors of Notre Dame joining a conference refuse to die is that the BCS commissioners have decided that Notre Dame will not be a signatory to the next contract. In other words, Notre Dame's status will be like any other independent. The commissioners' rationale is that no school in a conference makes more than about $4 million for getting a BCS bid now (the conference members split the rest of the payout). Notre Dame keeps the entire $13-plus million in the current deal. In the next one, the Irish likely will receive what a conference gets for sending a second team ($4.5 million in the current deal). ... Tommy Bowden's Clemson Tigers embarrassed archrival South Carolina, 63-17, which in turn embarrassed all the Tiger boosters who called for Bowden's ouster. A young Clemson team found its footing over the last three weeks, winning decisive victories over Florida State, Duke and the Gamecocks. ... Northwestern's 37-20 defeat of Illinois qualified the 6-6 Wildcats for the Motor City Bowl, which assures that Miami (Ohio) won't play there. The RedHawks beat the Wildcats, 44-14, this season. Miami appears headed for the GMAC Bowl, most likely against another 11-1 team, TCU. ... Boston College's upset of Virginia Tech gave the Eagles a 7-5 record and assured the Big East of having five teams with winning records. That means that Notre Dame, even if it wins at Stanford and at Syracuse to finish the season at 6-6, won't be able to go to a bowl game.
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Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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