HEALTHY AS A WOLVERINE
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There are a dozen explanations for why Michigan 2006 bears no resemblance to Michigan 2005, a dozen theories on what changed, a dozen individuals who are playing or coaching better than ever before.
But if you want to distill it down to one difference that matters most, it might be this:
Michael Hart is healthy.
AP Photo/Al Goldis
It's a simple formula: When Mike Hart rushes well, the Wolverines win.
The compact running back limped through all of 2005, the Wolverines' record limped accordingly to 7-5. This year Hart has been 100 percent all season, and Michigan is a perfect 8-0.
The Wolverines are 16-1 when he runs for 100 yards, and his 126 Saturday were vital to holding off a stubborn Iowa effort 20-6. Hart only weighs 198 pounds, but nobody in college football moves the pile like he does.
"His feet never stop," Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "Once he hits the hole, he's got a lot of heart. You better make sure the whole team is in there tackling him, or he might come out the other side and score a touchdown."
The junior now has scored 20 rushing TDs in his career and ranks seventh in school history in career rushing with 3,149 yards. It's probably now time for him to move up the Heisman Trophy list as well.
Michigan's early offensive flavor came from big-play receiver Mario Manningham. But Michigan has won two tough games in a row without Manningham, over Penn State and Iowa, with Hart as its offensive hub.
Hart has 238 yards rushing in those two games and scored three of Michigan's four touchdowns. He also carried the ball 57 times in those games and has 214 attempts on the season -- most in the country.
That's fine with him.
"I love it," Hart said. "It's fun. I'd say the more carries I get, the better I am.
"I don't wear down. I think I'm in great shape. It's something I look forward to."
With four more 100-yard performances to close the season, a trip to Manhattan for the Heisman ceremony might be something else Hart can look forward to.
STILL LOOKING FOR HELP
CLEMSON, S.C. -- After blowing out Georgia Tech 31-7 at Death Valley on Saturday, Clemson made it pretty clear that it is the dominant team in the ACC, the conference that has slipped more than any other this season.
But with three ACC games remaining, including a nationally televised game at Virginia Tech on Thursday night (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET), the No. 10 Tigers still face a tough road in getting to the Dec. 2 ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla.
AP Photo/Emily Horos
The Clemson defense smothered Georgia Tech all night on Saturday.
Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) is one of three teams in the ACC's Atlantic Division with one loss in league play.
Boston College also is one of those teams and has the tiebreaker over the Tigers because of its 34-33 win over Clemson on Sept. 9.
So even if Clemson wins its last three ACC games against Virginia Tech, Maryland and North Carolina State, the Eagles would have to lose one of their remaining four ACC games.
Boston College plays at Wake Forest on Nov. 4, followed by home games against Duke and Maryland, then the Nov. 23 finale at struggling Miami.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said his team has to take care of itself, starting Thursday night against the Hokies at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
"Usually, everything is flipped," Bowden said. "They're usually nationally ranked when we're going in there."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When it comes to dramatic comebacks in 2006, Notre Dame owns the patent.
Four weeks after dancing in the rain at Michigan State, senior quarterback Brady Quinn engineered another marvel Saturday against UCLA. With only 62 seconds to manipulate, Quinn led a previously docile offense 80 yards in three plays to beat UCLA, which foolishly sedated a pass rush that had produced five sacks.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Quinn apparently likes to play his version of Survivor.
The Irish are Division I-A's drama kings, and Quinn, who led similar scoring drives against Stanford and USC last year, wears the quarterback's most-treasured merit badge as miracle maker.
But given Notre Dame's obvious weaknesses, is its fourth-quarter flair always enough, especially against truly elite competition? Can Quinn's magic offset an inconsistent run game and a secondary that continues to allow big plays?
"I never think you can look at the game of football like survival," senior guard Bob Morton said. "You look at survival, then all of a sudden, you're going to come across somebody that you can't survive."
USC could be that somebody for Notre Dame, which visits Los Angeles on Nov. 25. Until then, the Irish will continue to outwit, outlast and outplay -- at least in crunch time.
"Winning convincingly every game? Yeah, we'd love to," left tackle Ryan Harris said. "But is it realistic? I don't think so. You look at every championship team in the last five years, they've had close games."
ALL DOWNHILL SINCE ...
Fresno State was LSU's latest home victim, losing 38-6 on Saturday evening. In case you weren't aware, that's 10 losses in the last 11 games for this prominent mid-major program.
It all goes back to Nov. 19 of last year, when the Bulldogs were minutes away from pulling off a college football upset for the ages. Midway through the fourth quarter, they led No. 1 USC at the L.A. Coliseum and threatened to end the Trojans' 32-game winning streak. In the end, there was just too much Reggie Bush for Fresno to handle, and the 'Dogs lost 50-42.
The next week, Fresno State stumbled at Nevada and lost its outright hold on the WAC championship. The following week, a home loss to Louisiana Tech cost the Bulldogs a share of the conference title. Then they completed the season-ending collapse with a loss to Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl.
After opening this year with a win over Nevada, the Bulldogs dropped consecutive close games to Oregon and Washington and have since spiraled downward to a 1-6 record. With a visit to the blue turf of Boise State next on the schedule, the bleeding doesn't seem likely to stop soon.
As unbelievable as the sudden demise of Fresno State may seem, it's certainly not the first time one devastating loss has sent a solid program into an immediate free fall.
Look at the University of Houston, which entered the Orange Bowl on Sept. 12, 1991, having won 29 of its last 35 games. After a nationally-televised beatdown from the Miami Hurricanes (Houston scored on the game's final play to make it 40-10), the Cougars went 3-6 the rest of the year and didn't have another season with more than four wins until 1996.
On Dec. 19, 2001, East Carolina entered its bowl game looking to clinch a winning record for the seventh time in eight seasons. The Pirates led 38-8 at halftime, only to see Byron Leftwich of Marshall orchestrate the greatest comeback win in bowl history. ECU hasn't had a winning season since.
You could argue that UCLA hasn't been the same since having its spot in the inaugural BCS Championship Game yanked out from under its feet by Miami on Dec. 5, 1998. And Notre Dame hasn't seriously challenged for a national title since a last-second field goal by Boston College ended its perfect season on Nov. 20, 1993.
Emotion and momentum can have an amazing effect on college-age kids. Fresno State is just the latest team to find itself on the wrong side of those factors.
KNIGHTS CONTINUE TO SHINE
Rutgers (7-0, 2-0) turned Pitt (6-2, 2-1) into rice pudding with a 20-10 victory at Heinz Field. The Scarlet Knights haven't been unbeaten this deep in a season in 30 years. They will go into their game next Sunday at Connecticut confident they can challenge West Virginia and/or Louisville for the Big East title.
Jason Bridge/US Presswire
Rice is piling up Heisman-like numbers for Rutgers.
Sophomore tailback Ray Rice showed the country why he is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, carrying 39 times for a career-best 225 yards. Rice changed momentum with a 63-yard run in the fourth quarter -- setting up a touchdown -- after Pitt had sliced Rutgers' lead to 13-10.
"He's the real deal," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, whose team has yet to prove in Wannstedt's two years that it can stop competent rushing attacks.
The Rutgers defense, ranked second nationally coming in, stymied Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko, who was leading the country in passing efficiency. Palko was sacked five times, matching the number Pitt had allowed in its first seven games.
Rutgers will need better play from its quarterback, Mike Teel, if it's going to seriously challenge for the Big East title, but the Scarlet Knights are right where they want to be with six league games left, including a visit from Louisville on Nov. 9 and a trip to West Virginia to finish the regular season on Dec. 2.
No one should be shocked if that game is played with the conference title at stake.
NOT THE SAME OLD FSU
There was a time when ACC opponents went to Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium and just hoped to keep the score respectable. Well, times sure have changed.
After joining the ACC in 1992, the Seminoles won their first 39 conference home games and averaged 47 points per game while doing so. Through October of last year, FSU was 55-1 at home in the ACC.
The Noles, however, haven't won a conference game in Tallahassee since. The slide started with a 20-15 loss to NC State last November. It continued with Clemson's 27-20 win in September. And then Boston College piled on another defeat Saturday by a 24-19 margin. That's three straight losses, while averaging only 18 points per game.
Home-field advantage has seemingly disappeared along with every other sign of Florida State's former ACC dominance. Thanks to this year's home losses and one road loss at NC State, the Seminoles are now sitting where many of us never imagined we'd see them: 2-3 in conference play and in sole possession of last place in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
|FIVE SATURDAY OBSERVATIONS
1. Michigan State got a record-breaking win Saturday, coming from 35 points down in the third quarter to beat Northwestern, 41-38. But how can Spartan fans really celebrate? That game just provided a different way to illustrate the same problem for head coach John L. Smith's team. Michigan State is capable of so much more than it delivers.
2. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in the Heisman race is beginning to remind me of Tiger Woods sitting on a lead. What Woods does best is he doesn't beat himself. He remains steady and lets the other guys self-destruct. Look at what's happened to the top candidates in the last two weeks: Adrian Peterson (injured), Garrett Wolfe (ineffective), Calvin Johnson (ditto), Bobby Reid (injured). There's Smith, West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton, Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, Rutgers tailback Ray Rice. Who else?
3. Defensive backs don't win Heismans, but Texas senior safety Michael Griffin had at least an All-American-worthy game Saturday at Nebraska. Griffin made six tackles, added an interception that the Longhorns converted into a touchdown and made a hit that resulted in a touchdown. Unfortunately, Griffin laid out his teammate, corner Deon Beasley, allowing Husker wide receiver Maurice Purify to go 63 yards for a score. Great hit, though.
4. Nebraska is better. Missouri is much better, even if defensive end Brian Smith's All-American candidacy came to a halt when he suffered a broken hip Saturday. But the Big 12 North is 3-11 against the Big 12 South, with two of the wins coming against Texas Tech. It's hard to imagine how any North teams other than the Huskers and the Tigers are going to get the six wins necessary for a bowl game
5. Washington State's 34-23 upset of Oregon means that the Pac-10 race will start and end with Cal's visit to USC on Nov. 18. The Pac-10 can't catch a break. It will match two highly ranked teams, most likely unbeaten in league play, for the league title, and no one will notice. That's the day that No. 1 Ohio State will play No. 2 Michigan.
|COLLEGE GAMEDAY RECAP|
Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit run through Saturday's action.
|DEATH VALLEY DOMINANCE
|BRAD EDWARDS, ESPN Research
LSU's Tiger Stadium has long been considered one of the greater home-field advantages in college football, but it's doubtful the Bayou Bengals have ever enjoyed such a degree of dominance in their home stadium. LSU is not merely 6-0 in Baton Rouge this season. The Tigers have yet to win a home game by fewer than 31 points, outscoring their opponents 274-36 -- an average victory margin of 40 points.
Check out some of these other stats. The LSU offense has scored 35 touchdowns, while the defense has allowed only two. The Tigers have rushed for 19 touchdowns and given up only one TD on the ground. And they are completing 74 percent of their passes with a TD-INT of 16-2. Opponents are completing 45 percent with one TD pass and nine INT. Now, that is dominance!
Oh, by the way, LSU is 0-2 on the road this season. Next up: a trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee.
|FINAL THOUGHTS FROM THE FINAL CREW
A lot of lessons are learned in college athletics, and one of the most important is the reward of being resilient. After a few weeks of having their character questioned and their head coach ridiculed, the Michigan State Spartans collapsed (falling down 38-3 at Northwestern) and then stood together to fight back, all in a matter of hours. By not giving up in the face of adversity, they were able to do something that had never been done before (overcome a 35-point deficit to win a major-college football game), and their season has a new outlook because of it.
Helmet Stickers Go To:
• Ian Johnson, Boise State
183 yards rushing, 4 TDs vs. Idaho
• Devin Thomas, Michigan State
Blocked punt vs. Northwestern (returned for TD)
I can't recall another Saturday with so many comebacks and games being won in the final minute. It was fun to watch. Unfortunately, for every game like that, there is a losing team with a devastated locker room. Most fans forget about that part, but I can't. I've been there a few times.
Helmet Stickers Go To:
• Ray Rice, Rutgers
39 carries, 225 yards, TD vs. Pittsburgh
• James Pinkney, East Carolina
Career-high 391 yards passing, 3 total TD vs. SMU
The way Colt McCoy managed the Texas offense in his first road game was incredible. He wasn't bothered by the weather, he was oblivious to the crowd, and he was in total control of his team in the clutch. He led like a seasoned veteran, not a redshirt freshman. So much for the one question many people still had about this team.
Helmet Stickers Go To:
• Shawn Bell, Baylor
School-record 394 yards passing, 5 TD vs Kansas
• James Davis & C.J. Spiller, Clemson
Combined for 382 yards, 4 TDs vs Georgia Tech
Michigan State engineered the greatest comeback in I-A history.
|LOOKING BACK: GEORGIA TECH-CLEMSON
|TIGERS' ONE-TWO PUNCH
|Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller ran over and around Georgia Tech to keep the Tigers in the running for the ACC title, writes Mark Schlabach. Story
Clemson ran through Ga. Tech on offense and shut down Calvin Johnson on defense Saturday.
|LOOKING BACK: ALABAMA-TENNESSEE
|A number of highly ranked teams had close calls Saturday, but none had a more emotional victory than Tennessee's over Alabama, writes Ivan Maisel. Story
Michigan gritted out a tough win vs. Iowa.