Just For Argument's Sake ...
From the not-so-weak Pac-10 to Notre Dame's focus to Vandy's bowl hopes (really) to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles all the hot topics.
Originally Published: September 14, 2005By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com
From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles the hottest topics in college football.
3 Nagging Questions | Soapbox Moment | Whatever Happened To ... | Hello, My Name Is ...
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing
Just A Thought | Hidden Stat | Heisman Hype | Top 10 | 3 Games Worth TiVo-ing
The Longhorns, Irish and Cyclones all won emotional victories Saturday. Notre Dame and Iowa State beat traditional rivals, Michigan and Iowa, respectively. In a setting that fell only a few ugly blazers short of being Jan. 1-caliber, Texas overcame Ohio State and its 105,000 fans in a nationally televised matchup of top-five teams.
Therein lies the dilemma. All three teams are susceptible to the same ailment. It's easy to say Saturday is history, and that it's time to look forward. It's hard to do. Ask TCU coach Gary Patterson. One week after a physically dominant 17-10 victory at Oklahoma, the Horned Frogs lost at SMU 21-10.
After the game, Patterson said he sensed in the middle of last week that his players hadn't come down from their Sooner high. If nothing else, TCU's loss has become the poster child for every other coach trying to get the attention of any players who believe they have won the BCS lottery in September.
"TCU turned around and lost focus," Iowa State coach Dan McCarney said Sunday night. "They lost a game they should have won."
The Cyclones won a game they should have won, forcing five turnovers in a 23-3 rout of the arch-rival Hawkeyes. For all of his success in rebuilding Iowa, Kirk Ferentz is only 2-5 against Iowa State.
"There's no fluke to it," McCarney said.
McCarney has the advantage of an open week. The Cyclones will play at Army Sept. 24. Notre Dame has its home opener against Michigan State, a team that has won its last four visits to Notre Dame Stadium. Texas, on the other hand, must play a Rice team that opened its season with a 63-21 loss at UCLA Saturday night.
"I think they'll be excited for a little while," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said early Sunday somewhere in the bowels of Ohio Stadium. "When you're ranked second, that helps. They don't want to stop. It's way too early to start talking about the end of the year. What they should be talking about is being the best team they can be and how to improve each week."
Texas has its own TCU story. Only Vince Young's 21-yard scramble on fourth-and-18 kept the Longhorns alive long enough to score a late touchdown and beat Kansas last season. Brown brought that game up, too. Coaches have much longer memories than players. You can bet he'll bring it up to his team in the coming weeks.
The gold standard for painful lessons learned by rookie head coaches had been Baylor's 27-24 loss to UNLV in the second game of the 1999 season. Rather than order his quarterback to take a knee at the Rebel 8 on the final play of the game, Bears coach Kevin Steele gave in to his players' wishes to score one more time. Tailback Darrell Bush fumbled, and UNLV's Kevin Thomas returned it 100 yards for the winning touchdown.
Now there is another candidate: Marshall coach Mark Snyder. With nine seconds left in the game, trailing Kansas State 21-19, Marshall had the ball first-and-10 at the Wildcats' 21. But the Thundering Herd didn't attempt a game-winning field goal. Quarterback Jimmy Skinner threw a pass right into the hands of Kansas State corner Justin McKinney at the Kansas State 12.
Game over, nightmare begun.
Skinner, a backup quarterback -- starter Bernie Morris suffered a shoulder injury -- didn't see any signals from the bench. The Thundering Herd were jumping around so much that Skinner couldn't find the signals from the bench. So he ran the offense.
Everyone knows the perils of using true freshmen early in the season. The same can be said of first-year head coaches, too. Snyder, who took over the job in the spring after Bobby Pruett suddenly retired, understood how badly things had gone awry.
"Obviously as soon as Wilbur Hargrove went out of bounds and we got into field-goal range, I would kick the ball," Snyder said. "Having the timeout still left, if we had some kind of operation failure from the center to your holder, you fall on the ball, you call timeout and you get a chance to rekick. If I had to do over again, that's what I would do."
So what happened?
"It was a poise and patience thing for us," Snyder said. "We just may have been in a little bit of a panic, and the communication lines weren't good through the whole game, to be honest with you. The headsets went down. We reciprocated at Kansas State's request. Their headsets went down.
"Again, that's still no excuse for not having poise and patience at the end. We've been in those situations quite a bit in practice. It's hard to emulate the pandemonium on the sideline, the crowd, all those things. It's just hard to emulate that in practice."
If Snyder practices it again, it's a good bet he'll have the undivided attention of his team. In the meantime, he can rest assured that someday, some other first-year head coach will learn a similar lesson in similarly painful fashion.
"We didn't get it done Saturday," he said. "We've got to learn from it."
When I brought this up to Colin Cowherd on his radio show Tuesday morning, he nearly did a spit take with his morning coffee. But Vandy is 2-0 and has a genuine shot at its first winning season -- and dare we say, first bowl game -- since 1982.
There are four reasons to take the Commodores seriously:
1. Vandy had to go to the final minutes to beat Wake Forest and Arkansas -- and did it. That's a huge improvement over last season, when the Commodores lost three games in which they held a double-digit lead in the second half.
2. Vandy beat both Wake and Arkansas on the road. They haven't started 2-0 in that fashion since 1943, and if you throw that out as a war year, you have to go back to 1903 to find a similar start.
3. Senior quarterback Jay Cutler, a four-year starter, is playing like a guy with experience and the talent to have NFL scouts interested in him. There's also a high level of leadership that comes with leading teams to victory late in the game. Two games in, Cutler leads the league in total offense (321 yards per game) and has been as big a leader as any quarterback in the conference, and that includes Chris Leak of Florida.
By the way, Cutler leads Leak among active SEC quarterbacks in career passing yardage. Cutler has 6,178. Leak has 6,171.
4. The game against Ole Miss on Saturday will define the season: here's why. The next two games, against I-AA Richmond and Middle Tennessee, are certainly winnable. If Vandy gets to 5-0, they will begin play against the stacked SEC East needing only one victory to qualify for a bowl. If they get there 4-1, that means they will have to beat someone among LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee to qualify for a bowl.
In other words, the game Saturday in Nashville is a fulcrum. We'll find out which way the Commodores go.
Plenty of Ohio State fans e-mailed last week to point out that the Buckeyes' future schedules are loaded with big-name intersectional opponents -- USC, Miami, Virginia Tech, Cal, Washington -- in the next decade.
The first-ever game between Texas and Ohio State thrilled everyone who saw it from start to finish, which brings up a point: There must be some other first-ever matchups among the college football elite. Below are some games that, hard as it is to believe, have never happened. Here's hoping that we get to see them soon.
Michigan vs. LSU
This one surprised me, especially with the numerous Big Ten-SEC bowl tie-ins
Florida vs. Oklahoma
They've competed for the attention of Sooners coach Bob Stoops but they've never played on the field.
Ohio State vs. Georgia Tech
You would have thought that Woody Hayes and Bobby Dodd would have coached against once another. The guess is that neither one wanted such a difficult nonconference game.
Florida State vs. UCLA
Bobby Bowden yearns to coach in the Rose Bowl. Maybe he would settle to coach at the Rose Bowl.
Notre Dame vs. Auburn
Of all the schools that have won a wire-service or BCS national championship, Auburn is the only one the Fighting Irish haven't fought.
... the weak Pac-10?
The favorite whipping boy of anti-USC fans across the nation -- the lack of challenge in the Trojans' conference schedule -- looks as if it won't be available much longer. UCLA has looked dominant against San Diego State and Rice in the opening two weeks. So what, you ask? The Bruins did what good teams are expected to do against that caliber of opponent.
Maurice Drew and UCLA can make a big statement with a win over Oklahoma.
The home game with Oklahoma Saturday will say a lot about both teams, but the message about UCLA will travel farther. Thanks to the Sooners' first two games, we already suspect that Oklahoma has taken a step -- or maybe two -- back from its dominance of the last five seasons. If UCLA can take advantage of Oklahoma's struggles and of playing in the Rose Bowl, the Bruins can make the announcement that the Pac-10 has officially returned from the mediocre.
Don't forget Arizona State, which lost a heartbreaking game to LSU Saturday night. The last thing the Sun Devils have been under coach Dirk Koetter is consistent. But quarterback Sam Keller has been riveting to watch in his three starts dating to the Sun Bowl. Oregon State, with UCLA transfer Matt Moore at quarterback, knocked off Boise State last week. Stanford, under new coach Walt Harris, won at Navy.
If any one of those teams joins California as a dependable vote-getter in the weekly polls, then the perception of the Pac-10 as a one-hit wonder may fade. The best bet to do that is UCLA. The Bruins are playing for a lot more than just a big intersectional victory Saturday. A Bruins victory would really help the Trojans.
Somehow, you have to think that Karl Dorrell won't mention that in his pregame talk to the team.
Crimson Tide fans have sung the praises of their 5-foot-8, 176-pound junior wide receiver for a couple of years now. The SEC coaches named him second-team All-SEC last season, when he led the conference in kickoff returns.
He seems awfully small for an every-down wideout, even at a body-starved school like Alabama, which is still recovering from NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions.
"His size enters the conversation very little," Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader said Tuesday. "When it does, he goes out and jumps over a DB and catches it anyway."
That's what happened Saturday night, when Prothro made one of the most remarkable catches you will ever see. If you watched ESPN Saturday night, you saw the play over and over again. In this case, familiarity did not breed contempt.
Alabama, trailing Southern Mississippi 21-10 late in the first half, had moved to the Golden Eagles' 43. Prothro ran a post pattern. Junior safety Jasper Faulk matched Prothro stride for stride. They both went up for the ball together. Prothro, spotting 2 inches to Faulk, put his arms around the safety, caught the ball behind Faulk's back and held onto it as Faulk forced him into a somersault.
The officials on the field ruled it a touchdown. Instant replay pushed the ball back to the 1. The Tide scored, went into halftime trailing by four points, and dominated the second half, winning 30-21.
"Prothro made an unbelievable play with the catch," Alabama coach Mike Shula said after the game, "and I can't say enough about him. He got us back into it right before the half."
Southern Mississippi coach Jeff Bower praised Prothro for "a heck of an effort," but after watching the game video, he believed there should have been a different outcome.
"If Jasper turns his eyes and finds the football," Bower said Monday, "he intercepts the football."
Prothro also had a 66-yard kickoff return and a 52-yard catch that set up a touchdown. He finished with 279 all-purpose yards, the sixth-highest total in Alabama history.
In the days since the game ended, the catch has become instant legend. Alabama fans refer to The Strip, George Teague's denuding of Miami wide receiver Lamar Thomas in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. They know The Goal-Line Stand means Barry Krauss stopping Penn State on fourth down in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
Even though this was a September game against Southern Mississippi, Prothro's play is being referred to as The Catch.
With the newest AP poll, USC is No. 1 for the 21st consecutive poll dating to the middle of 2003. That ties the record set by Miami in 2001-02 (including preseason polls). The Hurricanes' streak could have been 31 straight, but in each season, they fell out of the top spot for a week before returning, when the Hurricanes remained atop the poll in 29 of 30 votes.
Somehow, the Trojans' current run seems more substantial than the Hurricanes teams for those two seasons. It may be that USC finished No. 1 in each of the last two seasons, while, Miami, thanks to Ohio State, won only one national championship. It may be that the Trojans have played only a handful of close games during their run. It may be that it's early in this season and USC has yet to hit the speed bumps in their 2005 road. A loss here and a loss there, and the streak will fade.
Think about this: prior to ascending to No. 1 two years ago, USC had been atop the polls a total of 47 times in the history of the voting. That includes three national championship teams, going back to 1939, the first time the Trojans ever reached No. 1. The current streak is nearly half as long as the combined time all previous USC teams spent as No. 1s.
This is a team that even LSU fans may begrudgingly acknowledge will stand the test of time.
Defensive coaches preach constantly about not giving up the big play. At Ole Miss, they've put numbers on it. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone says he learned this one from offensive line coach George DeLeone, who used it for years as the top assistant at Syracuse. The team with the most passes over 16 yards and rushes over 9 yards -- X plays -- will win 90 percent of the time.
Of the six close games I applied it to from Saturday, the test worked well. The winning team had more X plays three times, in one game the teams had the same number of X plays, and in the other two games, an explanation for why the formula didn't work was readily apparent.
We applied this measuring stick to the major games from Saturday to determine its accuracy.
Texas had four rushes of 10-plus yards, and five passes of 17-plus yards.
Ohio State had four and four.
The Longhorns won the X plays 9-8 and the game 25-22.
Georgia won the X plays 13-8 and beat South Carolina 17-15.
Stanford won the X plays 10-8 and beat Navy 41-38.
Marshall and Kansas State tied in X plays at 8-8, but the Wildcats held on to win 21-19.
And the exceptions: Arizona State won the X plays 13-12 but lost to LSU 35-31. The Tigers blocked a field goal and a punt and returned both for touchdowns.
Michigan won the X plays 6-4 and lost the game 17-10. Getting into the red zone three times and coming out with two turnovers and no points did in the Wolverines.
1. Matt Leinart, USC: GameDay wanted to do a feature on Leinart's ballroom dancing class. USC said no. They didn't want it to reflect poorly on their academics. It's OK to take the class. Just not for anyone to see him taking it.
2. Vince Young, Texas: Looked good in the option, looked good firing the deep out. Reveled in being on the road with 105,000 watching.
3. Laurence Maroney, Minnesota: He's got the yards, he's got the O-line, and he'll get the carries.
4. Maurice Drew, UCLA: Rushed for 95 yards and got a good chunk of the night off in a rout of Rice.
5. Reggie Bush, USC: Gets a few touches in Hawaii, gets a week off. You call college football a burden on the student-athlete?
Knocking on the Door
Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma: His second-half performance rallies Oklahoma to a win and illustrates how far the team has to go to meet the Sooner standard.
Headed Out the Door
Drew Tate, Iowa: He takes a literal blow to the head, and the Hawkeyes take a figurative one in being routed at Ames. As Tate goes, so goes the Hawks' offense.
1. USC: Arkansas, which just lost at home to Vanderbilt, is next. Vandy may be better than you think, but the Trojans' sked cred took another hit.
2. Texas: The Horns are still circling the Austin airport, too high on the excitement of the Ohio State victory to land.
3. Virginia Tech: The happiest head coach in America about Ohio beating Pittsburgh, after Frank Solich, is Frank Beamer. The Bobcats are next.
4. Florida: Chris Leak against the Vols' defense -- it's that kind of matchup that makes all of us think Saturday night will never get here.
5. Ohio State: The Bucks played well enough to beat most teams Saturday night. But tell me again: Why Justin Zwick, and not Troy Smith, on that late fourth-quarter possession?
6. LSU: The Tigers' comeback at Arizona State is the stuff that seasons are made of.
7. Georgia: I'm not convinced the Dawgs are the seventh-best team in the nation. I just don't know who to rank ahead of them.
8. Notre Dame: The Irish do a great job of not making mistakes. But I'd feel a lot better about them if one of the touchdowns hadn't been a pass that bounced off a Michigan linebacker's hands.
9. Tennesssee: Remember when Phil Fulmer couldn't beat Florida? The Vols have won three of the last four.
10. Florida State: Will second-half offensive success against I-AA The Citadel translate into first-half success on the road at fired-up Boston College?
Tennessee at Florida
Urban Meyer said something about there being "respectful rivalries and hatred rivalries." He may be onto something. Notre Dame broadcaster Allen Pinkett, who played for the Irish 20 years ago, said Saturday that he rooted for Michigan every day of the year but one.
How about USC?
His complete answer: "No."
Some of the hate has seeped out of the Gators and the Vols now that Steve Spurrier moved 350 miles north. But the controversial end of last season's game has stuck in the throat of Florida fans for a year. Florida corner Dallas Baker drew a personal foul penalty for throwing a retaliatory punch, and the referee failed to start the clock after he marked off the penalty. Without that help, Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit wouldn't have had the opportunity to kick the winning 50-yard field goal with six seconds left to play.
A year has passed, Florida has a new coach and a new outlook. The momentum in the rivalry has shifted to Gainesville. Tennessee struggled on offense in its opener. A year ago, the Vols used two freshman quarterbacks who complemented each other. Erik Ainge had the arm. Brent Schaeffer had the feet.
Fast forward to the twosome that coach Phil Fulmer is using at quarterback now: Ainge and Rick Clausen are the same quarterback. Ainge has more athletic ability. Clausen, a senior, makes fewer mistakes. But there won't be a significant shift in how Florida lines up to defend them.
The Gators have had the luxury of remaining vanilla in their opening victories over Wyoming and Louisiana Tech. Quarterback Chris Leak hasn't run much of Urban Meyer's spread option game yet. He hasn't needed to run it. Odds are they'll need it, and we'll all finally begin to get an answer whether Meyer's offense will be effective against the faster, quicker SEC defenses.
You bet it will.
Florida is very good. The Gators are thin in some important spots. But through two games they are healthy and at full strength for the Vols. They'll need to be, but I think Florida has the edge.
Michigan State at Notre Dame
Iowa has Iowa State. The Yankees have the Devil Rays. And the Fighting Irish have the Spartans, who have won six of the last eight in this rivalry and the last four at Notre Dame Stadium. The Spartans have lost fewer than five games in only one of those eight years, but they have found a way to beat the Irish.
Unlike their fans, who are convinced that the glory days have returned, the Irish have been sobered by the arrival of the Spartans. At least that's the coach's story.
"When you're playing a team like Michigan State, who has no fear of coming into Notre Dame Stadium it's a little easier to get [the players'] attention than if you're playing some team that was 0-2," coach Charlie Weis said. "It would actually be harder to get their attention if you were playing a team that hadn't won 91-28 in their first two games."
These are different Irish than in previous seasons, of course, if two games are any measure. Weis has put a team on the field that does not beat itself, which is no small achievement early in the season of a first-year head coach. The defense, under coordinator Rick Minter, has been a rock.
It will have to be against Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton, who has picked up where he left off last season as a running, throwing marvel. Check out his numbers: 43 of 55, 598 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception in two games. His pass efficiency rating is a Peytonesque 195.1, and, with 63 rushing yards, he has proven he can tuck and run and still be dangerous.
Stanton's ability to elude could come in handy Saturday. The Irish already have seven sacks. They must be able to force Stanton to do things faster than he would like.
After a crisp opening drive, the Notre Dame offense struggled for most of the game. Quarterback Brady Quinn will miss senior wide receiver Rhema McKnight, out with a leg injury he suffered at Michigan. McKnight has been a security blanket for the junior quarterback. Quinn should have room to operate against the Michigan State defense. That's Notre Dame's best hope -- that and the desire to reclaim the home stadium.
Miami at Clemson
The answer is 1978. Miami has not started a season 0-2 since that year, the last year before Howard Schnellenberger arrived and laid the foundation for five national championships. The possibility of going 0-2 is real. The first hint that the Atlantic Coast Conference had adjusted quickly to the arrival of the Hurricanes came in the back-to-back losses Miami suffered at North Carolina and then, just as surprising, at home to the Tigers the following week.
This is a better Clemson team than a year ago. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst has emerged from his junior slump. The offensive line is 180 degrees different than the hit-and-run quick blockers that coach Tommy Bowden wanted when he arrived at Clemson seven years ago. The linemen average somewhere around 315 pounds apiece, which may explain why a running game has begun to emerge.
Bowden has enough confidence in tailbacks Reggie Merriweather, a junior, and James Davis, a freshman, that this week he shifted senior Duane Coleman to corner in the hopes that Coleman could bring some fire and spirit across the line of scrimmage.
Bowden also asked his fans to provide the same. The Hurricanes struggled with two things at Florida State on Sept. 5 -- the speed of the Seminole defense and the noise in Doak Campbell Stadium. Clemson may not have the defensive personnel, but the Tigers have the fans.
It will have been a long 12 days for Miami, nearly two weeks of thinking about the nine sacks given up against Florida State (as you can imagine, Miami is last in the nation in that category). But that loss came down to one big mistake -- punter Brian Monroe's dropped hold on a late attempt of a game-tying field goal -- and a lot of little ones. Forgotten in the interim is the 19-play, 81-yard drive that led to the field goal attempt.
Of all the young quarterbacks thrown into the fray this season, Kyle Wright showed as much promise as any of them. If he has the time to throw, and if the beleaguered Hurricane O-line can communicate with one another and protect him, Miami should rebound. Clemson has the advantage of the crowd and two late-game comeback victories.
That probably won't be enough, but the Tigers will definitely make this one interesting.
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