Controversy can't stop Auburn -- and neither can putrid defense
And on the seventh day, he played.
Following a week of intense speculation over the status of embattled Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the presumptive Heisman frontrunner skipped on to the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday's game against Georgia wearing his usual ear-to-ear smile. Once again he dominated, rushing for 148 yards, throwing for 151 and accounting for four touchdowns in the Tigers' 49-31 victory. No. 2 Auburn (11-0) wrapped up the SEC West title and moved one step closer to a possible BCS National Championship Game appearance.
In the days leading up to the game, as more people claimed on the record that Newton's father, Cecil, had solicited six-figures for his son's commitment to Mississippi State; as the Auburn administration went into "no comment" mode; and as the NCAA stated emphatically that "Solicitation of cash or benefits by a prospective student-athlete or another individual on his or her behalf is not allowed under NCAA rules," many assumed Auburn would sit Newton pending the ongoing investigation.
But he played. And barring some dramatic turn, he's going to keep playing. According to the
Clearly, Auburn is standing by its man.
In the most telling "report" yet, Charles Robinson of
Marsh, it should be noted, is a law professor at archrival Alabama. (Update:
So that's where we stand. Auburn has been accused of no wrongdoing. Newton is eligible and will likely remain so right up through Jan. 10, since NCAA investigations take months, if not years, to be resolved. No one can say with any certainty how this might play out. In the meantime, Newton will keep playing, and his BCS and Heisman pursuits will continue unabated, albeit under a cloud of suspicion.
On the field Saturday, Auburn did what it's done all season: put the ball in Newton's hands and let him do his thing. No amount of hyperbole can properly describe what Newton has done this season, but the most simplistic analogy is that he's Auburn's Vince Young. He's also the first player in SEC history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000.
Georgia actually played relatively good defense in the first half. The Dawgs held the Tigers' running backs in check, intercepted Newton once and forced two punts in jumping to an early 21-7 lead. But Auburn clawed back, and Newton fired an 18-yard laser to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen for the tying touchdown just before halftime. An understandably worn-down Georgia defense offered little resistance the rest of the way, allowing touchdowns on five straight Auburn possessions.
Of course, just as we can count on Newton to rack up 300 or so yards of offense every week, we can count on the Tigers' shaky defense to keep its opponent in the game. Auburn, the No. 2 team in the country, possesses the nation's 99th-ranked pass defense. It showed Saturday, as Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray fired three first-quarter touchdowns to wide open receivers, including two to star A.J. Green, who torched the Tigers for a season-high 164 yards on nine catches.
The rare occasions when Auburn stopped Murray usually involved intimidator Nick Fairley bursting through the line and barreling into Murray -- more than a few times, after Murray had released the ball. A nasty brawl broke out in the final minutes when, after Fairley took out Murray's legs, Georgia's offensive linemen intentionally went after Fairley on the next play. Two Tigers defensive linemen (Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc) were ejected for throwing punches. By rule, they will miss the first half of the Nov. 27 Iron Bowl.
It's that suspect Auburn defense that is keeping alive a steady stream of skeptics who assume the Tigers will eventually go down, most likely against 8-2 Alabama in two weeks, or possibly against 7-3 South Carolina in the SEC title game. Surely a team with the nation's 51st-ranked defense won't play for the national title, right? (Worth noting: Bitter Auburn fans often lament being left out of the 2004 title game in favor of an Oklahoma team that gave up 55 points to USC. That Sooners defense finished the season ranked 13th.)
But while Auburn has yet to show it could slow explosive teams like Oregon, Boise State or TCU, no one has provided any evidence that Newton can be stopped. Not upcoming opponent South Carolina, against which Newton posted 334 total yards in a 35-27 win on Sept. 25; not LSU's fifth-ranked defense, against which Newton ran for 217 yards; and apparently not even a slew of unseemly allegations.
In baseball, they sometimes play games under protest. In college football, Auburn will continue to play under suspicion -- regarding both Newton's eligibility and its defense. But neither has stopped Auburn yet, and there's no sign that they will.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly is a sideline reporter's worst nightmare. He's polite, he smiles, but he talks really, really fast while saying nothing. Asked at halftime by Lewis Johnson about Oregon's "slow start" (the Ducks led just 8-7 at the time on a Cliff Harris punt return touchdown), Kelly replied brusquely, "That's why we play four quarters." Asked what halftime adjustments he might make, Kelly said, "I don't know. Gotta go in the locker room and figure that out" -- and off he went.
The Ducks (10-0) made enough adjustments to squeeze out one offensive touchdown and 317 total yards, but if not for Cal kicker Giorgio Tavecchio's unfortunate illegal motion penalty and subsequent 29-yard field goal miss at the start of the fourth quarter, we may be talking about a new No. 1 team today. Oregon won 15-13, but the Bears' defense did what no other had this season: render the Ducks' offense mortal.
"Their front seven is probably the best seven we've played against," said Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who ran for a season-low 91 yards and missed much of the fourth quarter with an ankle injury. (He was on crutches and in a walking boot afterward.)
Indeed, the Bears (5-5) somehow possess the nation's 10th-ranked defense despite losing 52-31 to Nevada and 48-14 to USC. But those games were on the road. At home, Cal plays like a team possessed, holding foes to 9.8 points per game. Oregon was actually better than average.
At the end of the day, the Ducks survived, and if anything probably grew from the experience. Their defense held the Bears to less than 200 yards of offense. They bled the last 9:25 off the clock on an excruciating 18-play drive. And they showed for the first time that they can win a close game.
"We knew that this season isn't going to be all blowouts," said defensive tackle Brandon Bair. "We were going to have to have a character-building game where we're going to come out and it's going to test who we really are."
It's no news flash that Oregon's offense can be stopped. We've known that all along, in part because Boise State and Ohio State stopped it last season. With all due respect to Auburn, a national-title matchup between the Ducks and Boise or TCU would be fascinating, because those teams both possess dominant defenses. In the meantime, Oregon closes with slumping Arizona (which lost at home to USC on Saturday) and 4-5 Oregon State.
TCU won its home finale over a 7-2 team, improving to 11-0 in the process, yet it was an unquestionably disastrous weekend for the Horned Frogs. Such is life in the BCS.
In an incredibly bizarre game, the Horned Frogs -- who had held six straight conference opponents to single-digits -- fell behind visiting San Diego State 14-0 in the game's first six minutes, proceeded to roll off 37 unanswered points while holding the Aztecs to one first down until late in the third quarter, then had to fend off a furious SDSU rally to win 40-35. Meanwhile, assistant coach Eddie Williamson was rushed to hospital and underwent angioplasty after suffering an apparent heart attack in the first quarter (he was in stable condition Sunday); star running back Ed Wesley was limited to one carry due to a foot injury; and receivers Jeremy Kerley and Josh Boyce were sidelined by game's end.
"It's not the final score we would have liked to have had," said coach Gary Patterson, "but the bottom line, it falls under my category of [winning] by one point."
Ah, but the voters -- 90 percent of whom probably didn't see the game -- felt differently. Just a week after moving past Boise State for No. 3 in the polls following its 47-7 rout of then sixth-ranked Utah, TCU slid back below the Broncos on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Utes' 28-3 meltdown at Notre Dame devalued TCU's signature win.
The Horned Frogs remained ahead of the Broncos in the latest BCS standings, but Boise State closed the deficit by about half and is expected to close the gap in the computers if it wins out against 6-3 Fresno State, 9-1 Nevada and 4-6 Utah State. TCU has only 1-9 New Mexico remaining. While you can question the timing of TCU's poll drop -- neither Oregon nor Auburn were penalized for close fourth-quarter games against teams with worse records than SDSU -- ultimately the teams will be judged by their bodies of work.
A week ago, TCU seemingly had the upper hand thanks to its rout of a top 10 team. But with Utah nearly falling out of the polls this week (and likely entering Saturday's game with San Diego State as the underdog), Boise's victory over Virginia Tech now stands as the better feat of the two. The Hokies, winners of eight straight, moved into the top 15 of both polls this week, while upcoming foe Nevada (9-1) moved up to 18th in the coaches' poll.
"I am projecting Boise catching TCU in the computers, but keep in mind that isn't definite -- a lot can happen in three weeks to mess that up," said CollegeBCS.com's Jerry Palm. "[Sunday's] poll shuffling makes it more likely Boise passes TCU overall, but again, not definite. Voters are fickle. Boise is a seven-point win over Fresno State from seeing a shuffle go against them."
Prepare for a fun few weeks of lobbying from both sides.
If you play in the SEC and you've won seven games, you get to be ranked, even if you've gone 0-3 and averaged 10.3 points against the three currently ranked SEC foes (Auburn, LSU and Alabama) on your schedule.
Last week the Aztecs, then 7-2 (including a last-second loss at Missouri), earned 42 points in the AP poll. This week, they went on the road, scored 35 on a top five team -- and lost 10 points. That's poll logic for you.
There, now. Boise and TCU both get a home. The Sugar Bowl gets its Big Ten glamour team (and a rematch of the LSU-Ohio State national title matchup there three years ago), the Orange Bowl gets a top five team and everyone (except Stanford and the Fiesta Bowl) goes home happy.
Unless of course Oregon or Auburn loses, in which case the Boise/TCU fight will be for more than just a BCS berth. Or unless the Orange Bowl, with its Big 8 ties, elects to go with the loser of a possible Nebraska-Oklahoma State Big 12 title game, which both teams could enter 11-1. The Huskers and their traveling horde are getting a bid somewhere. You can book that.
• Ten years and two jobs later, Steve Spurrier is heading back to the SEC Championship Game, an event he once dominated (going 5-2 with Florida). While Spurrier is best known for his tutelage of a string of standout Gators quarterbacks, the unquestioned star of South Carolina's historic, division-clinching, 36-14 beatdown of Spurrier's alma mater was freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who carried a school-record 40 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns.
"That was about right, running it about 50 and passing it about 20," said Spurrier. "That's a pretty good formula for us." Lattimore's supreme talents were evident early this season, when I proclaimed him "the most impressive freshman running back since Adrian Peterson," and nothing's changed my opinion. Lattimore has now rushed for 964 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing the better part of two games with nagging injuries.
• Talk about redemption. A week after his potential game-winning 40-yard field goal against North Carolina sailed wide right, Florida State's Dustin Hopkins drilled a 55-yarder (it would have gone in from 65) as time expired to beat Clemson, 16-13. FSU (7-3) remained in first in the ACC Atlantic despite playing without injured quarterback Christian Ponder. In his place, E.J. Manuel ran for 71 yards and threw for 210, including an 18-yard completion to set up Hopkins' kick.
• Northwestern's 21-17 upset of No. 13 Iowa was bittersweet. After throwing what became a game-winning 20-yard touchdown to Demetrius Fields with 1:29 left, star quarterback Dan Persa ran to celebrate with Fields and ruptured his Achilles' tendon. He's done for the year. In his place, redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, a suburban Chicago native, will make his first career start at Wrigley Field, where Northwestern and Illinois are playing the first college football game since 1938.
• Texas A&M, 3-3 and left for dead a month ago, is now 7-3 and the No. 18 team in the country. Behind three second-half touchdown runs and a fourth straight 100-yard game from tailback Cyrus Gray, the Aggies rallied from a 30-14 deficit at Baylor to win 42-30. Mike Sherman's team has completely reinvented itself since switching to quarterback Ryan Tannehill three games ago and now has its longest Big 12 winning streak in four years. Unfortunately, it's a tad too late to win the division.
• And now, I will risk the wrath of readers everywhere by doing the unthinkable: praising Lane Kiffin. All things considered, Kiffin's first USC team has surpassed expectations. Rather than folding after their draining loss to Oregon, the Trojans (7-3) have gone on to beat Arizona State and knock off No. 18 Arizona, 24-21, for Kiffin's first road win over a ranked team. Junior Marc Tyler, who found new life under the new regime, rushed for a career-high 160 yards.
• Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon has been rightfully lauded for an almost certain All-America season (he notched another 145 yards in Saturday's 33-16 win at Texas), but it's time to give quarterback Brandon Weeden his due. He's now thrown for a school-record 3,391 yards, 27 TDs and 10 INTs following his second straight 400-yard passing day. "He made some throws tonight that very few college quarterbacks can make," said Texas coach Mack Brown.
• Just when you thought Ron Zook had Illinois (5-5) headed back in the right direction, the Illini lose to 1-9 Minnesota on Senior Day, 38-34. This on the heels of a crushing 67-65 triple-overtime loss to Michigan that undoubtedly had a carryover effect. Was Illinois caught looking ahead to a possible bowl berth? Said Zook: "You don't think I don't think they don't think about the bowl game?" Huh?? If they don't win at Northwestern or Fresno State, they're not going to one.
• See -- all Colorado needed was a coaching change. In their first game under interim coach Brian Cabral -- a former player and staff member since 1989 -- the Buffs (4-6) snapped a five-game losing streak to rout Iowa State, 34-14. Cody Hawkins threw three touchdown passes while (this is not awkward at all) his fired father watched from
• What has happened to Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn? The sophomore, who earned MVP honors at last year's Poinsettia Bowl and led the Utes to six of their first eight wins (he missed two games to injury), followed up a miserable performance against TCU with a 28-3 loss at then 4-5 Notre Dame. Coach Kyle Whittingham chalked the loss up to "ineptness on offense" and admitted he considered pulling Wynn for backup Terrance Cain. Controversy.
• Miami (7-3) may have a quarterback controversy on its hands, too, but with good reason. Since replacing the injured Jacory Harris as starter, freshman Stephen Morris has led the 'Canes to consecutive wins over Maryland and Georgia Tech and consecutive 500-yard offensive outputs for the first time since 2002. But heading into a crucial game against division leader Virginia Tech, coach Randy Shannon insists Harris will be the starter as soon as he's cleared by doctors to return.
• Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson may be down to his last days. Following yet another near-miss, a 17-13 loss to No. 6 Stanford (which hadn't previously scored fewer than 31 points), the Sun Devils stand 4-6. Four of their losses have come to currently ranked teams, three of those by less than a touchdown, but because two of their wins came against FCS foes, they'll miss a bowl for the third straight season. "It is very disappointing," said Erickson, who dropped to 23-24 at ASU.
• This week in the Big East: Jordan Todman's 37-carry, 222-yard night led Connecticut (5-4, 2-2) over Pittsburgh (5-4, 3-1) last Friday, yet the Panthers remain alone in first. Syracuse (7-3, 4-2) beat Rutgers (4-5, 1-3) to stay within a half-game, but previously lost to Pitt. Its best hope is to beat the Huskies and hope the Panthers lose twice more to fall into a possible tie with USF (6-3, 3-2) or West Virginia (6-3, 2-2), both of whom the Orange have beaten.
• Speaking of Syracuse, coach Doug Marrone already has more wins (11) in his first two seasons than predecessor Greg Robinson had in four (10).
• No. 6 Wisconsin's 83 points against Indiana marked the most by a Big Ten team since 1950, the most by the Badgers since 1915 and begged the question: How many would they have scored had John Clay played?
• Texas (4-6) is one loss away from becoming the first team to miss a bowl entirely a year after reaching the BCS title game.
• Florida International (4-5, 4-1 Sun Belt), 9-27 in coach Mario Cristobal's first three seasons, knocked off Troy (5-4, 4-2) to take over first place in the Sun Belt.
With its 45-28 win over Kent State, Army (6-4) became bowl eligible for the first time since 1996 and set the stage for a historic occurrence. For the first time in history, all three service academies will play in a bowl game in the same season. If the Black Knights upset either Notre Dame or Navy, it will mark just the third time since 1963 that all three finish with a winning record. (Air Force and Navy both have seven wins.)
"It's an awesome feeling," said Army linebacker Stephen Anderson. "It means a lot to the seniors in our last go-around to (perhaps) play one more game. That's incredible."
Unlike Navy (which has accepted its bid to the Poinsettia Bowl) and Air Force (which will land in one of the Mountain West's bowls, most likely the Independence), Army does not have a predesignated bowl partner this year. But it shouldn't have trouble finding a spot. The Pac-10, among others, will not be able to fill all of its bowl slots, and the service academies are always a big draw for bowl organizers because of all the loyal active or former military personnel around the country.
In fact, it may work out that Army will land in, of all places, the Armed Forces Bowl. If TCU makes a BCS bowl, the Mountain West will likely be one team short, and if BYU finishes 6-6, the Fort Worth bowl could choose to let the New Mexico Bowl take the Cougars, freeing up a spot.
Army faces Notre Dame this weekend at Yankee Stadium.
Despite its 1-9 record and 16-game Pac-10 losing streak heading into Saturday, there were ample signs Washington State was finally becoming competitive. During a brutal three-game stretch in October, its defense held ranked foes Oregon, Arizona and Stanford below their season scoring and yardage averages. Finally on Saturday, in the last of 11 straight games without a bye, the Cougars made their breakthrough, stunning Oregon State 31-14 in Corvallis.
"When you're rebuilding a team and a program, it doesn't always come at once," Wazzu coach Paul Wulff said Sunday. "It's bits and pieces, bits and pieces, and all of a sudden it comes at once."
Wulff, a former Cougars offensive lineman, has endured one of the more brutal rebuilding jobs in recent memory. A program that notched three straight 10-win seasons and a Rose Bowl berth from 2001-03 had fallen into an abyss. Wulff took over a roster decimated by APR scholarship cuts and mass disciplinary and academic attrition ("We were an average I-AA team at that time," he said of the talent level he inherited) and went 3-22 his first two seasons. Last year's team was outscored 357-80 in Pac-10 play.
This year's team took its lumps too, most notably in a 65-17 season-opening defeat to Oklahoma State and a 42-0 loss to Arizona State two weeks ago. But behind talented sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel -- one of eight freshman or sophomore starters on a generally young team with 25 first-year players -- WSU had become known for giving teams a tough first half, then fading. Not Saturday. The defense, led in part by true freshman safety Deone Bucannon, jumped to a 21-0 lead and held the Beavers to 261 total yards.
"We finally put all three [phases] together," said Wulff. "I think we've come a long, long ways, and we're still nowhere near where we're going to be. We want to be a seasoned, veteran football team."
Perhaps that will come next year, or more likely the year after. In the meantime, the Cougs get two weeks to enjoy the rare taste of victory before the season-ending Apple Cup against Washington on Dec. 4.