PALO ALTO, Calif. -- One of the most endearing and compelling parts of a college football season is the annual reminder that the storylines, assumptions and suppositions of an offseason end up pancake-blocked by the reality of results.
That’s what happened in the Pac-12 this weekend, as the league’s two marquee games appeared to offer a classic contrast between power and speed. But the takeaways from Oregon’s sizzling 46-27 victory over Michigan State and USC’s dumbfounding 13-10 win at Stanford don’t fit the neatly into the pre-game narrative.
Stanford and Michigan State entered the weekend as two of college football’s consummate smashmouth programs, engineered to break your will. Oregon remains college football’s bellwether program for speed, spread and tempo, while USC has evolved from its Student Body Right roots to embrace a no-huddle offense.
But a referendum on style -- speed vs. power -- never emerged. USC ran just 59 plays against Stanford, downshifting its tempo after running 105 plays against Fresno State. Oregon won as much because of new coordinator Don Pellum’s defensive adjustments as Marcus Mariota’s magic. Pellum began playing more Cover 2 in the second half, the key to Oregon giving up just three second-half points.
“People throw ‘soft’ at us all the time,” said Oregon defensive tackle Arik Armstead. “I don’t know if their questions are answered, but I feel like we did a good job.”
The Ducks now have to be considered a heavy favorite to emerge from the Pac-12’s North division. They still have to topple two-time Pac-12 defending champion Stanford, but after watching the Cardinal self-destruct over and over against USC, it seems unlikely they can capture another conference title. Stanford, at times, teased with its potential against the Trojans, especially quarterback Kevin Hogan (22-of-30 for 285 yards). But given the mistakes and the absence of a go-to tailback, can the Cardinal really survive a road gauntlet of Washington, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and UCLA?
“We can play so much better,” Shaw told The Inside Read after the game. “We can’t talk about it, we have to do it.”
The Pac-12 South race is more muddled. It’s hard to get behind either UCLA or USC considering their outings this weekend. The Trojans surely deserve credit for ending Stanford’s 17-game home winning streak. USC coach Steve Sarkisian compared the ugly win to one of his early marquee victories at Washington when he knocked off his old USC mentor, Pete Carroll, during his first season with the Huskies in 2009. But can we really expect USC to survive its season with just 62 healthy and available players? One surprising aspect of USC’s win was how Sarkisian’s ballyhooed up-tempo offense changed gears.
The perception after USC ran 105 plays against Fresno State was that the Trojans were turning into Oregon South. But in reality, Fresno just kept handing the ball back to the Trojans so quickly in USC’s 52-13 win that the tempo of the USC’s redesigned offense got blown out of proportion.
“It’s fast, but it’s actually USC football,” USC AD Pat Haden said before the Stanford game. “That’s how we view it. There’s a lot of USC principles. That was important for us in our decision making process. You see tight ends, you see fullbacks, you see pulling guards.”
Neither UCLA nor Arizona State has played a conference game yet, but we’ve learned a bit about both. The Bruins appear destined to be that trendy Top 10 team that implodes in mid-October and has everyone wondering why they were ranked so high in the first place. They have looked vulnerable on both sides of the ball in lethargic wins at Virginia (28-20) and against Memphis (42-35).
Things appear to be lining up for Arizona State, which won the Pac-12 South last season and ended Lane Kiffin’s career by hanging 62 points on the Trojans. All that seemed forgotten in the preseason, especially the fact that quarterback Taylor Kelly beat out Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley for second-team Pac-12 last season. (He finished behind Mariota). Through two games against inferior competition this season -- Weber State and New Mexico -- there’s no reason to think Kelly won’t be the Pac-12’s second-best quarterback again.
The strength of Arizona State, even with a mediocre defense, epitomizes the Pac-12’s quality depth. That’s why the best news of the weekend for the Pac-12 came with the Big Ten’s prodigious flop with its three marquee teams -- Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State -- getting manhandled in primetime games. The Pac-12 had been set up to fail, as there’s enough quality depth in the league where an undefeated team remains unlikely.
But if a one-loss Oregon team, for example, is compared to a one-loss Big Ten champion, it would be hard for the College Football Playoff selection committee not to take the Ducks after their resounding performance.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott pointed out to The Inside Read on Saturday that the Pac-12 only participated in the BCS title game three times in 16 years. It’s unlikely the Pac-12 will need an undefeated team to get a playoff slot this year. However, the way this season is trending it could end up being extremely important.
Three-and-out1. Georgia’s Floyd goes from small town to the big time
Leonard Floyd hails from a one-traffic-light town. The signal in the Georgia star outside linebacker’s tiny hometown of Chauncey, Ga. (population 342) isn’t even a stoplight. It’s actually just a yellow flashing light.
That is reflective of the singular nature of the rural town, which is located 65 miles southeast of Macon, Ga. It has just one grocery store, a lone restaurant and a single gas station. “You would probably miss it,” Floyd said of his hometown. “Wouldn’t even realize you were [there].”
But the 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore is putting Chauncey on the map with his play. He’s emerged as one of college football’s most feared pass rushers and a likely first-round pick in next spring’s NFL draft should he leave early. He had two sacks, seven tackles, a forced fumble and a staggering six quarterback hurries in Georgia’s season-opening win against Clemson. And when he takes to the field Saturday at South Carolina, the streets of Chauncey will be deserted like they always are when the Bulldogs play.
“Everybody knows they better be huddled around their television,” Chauncey mayor Carrie Carr said. “We’re so proud of him.”
Growing up in Chauncey, Floyd spent much of his youth playing basketball in the middle of the street without any worry of being interrupted by passing cars. By night, he played legendary games of hide-and-go seek with other neighborhood kids. But Floyd livened up Chauncey by making a name for himself on the field at local Dodge County High, which is 11 miles from his hometown. He signed with the Bulldogs in 2012, but didn’t qualify academically.
After a year at Hargrave Military Academy, he finally enrolled at Georgia, which was trying to figure out how to replace departed All-America and NFL first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Floyd proved to be a worthy successor last season as he racked up team highs of 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss along with 22 quarterback hurries, second-most on the team.
Even more amazing is that he did it all essentially on pure ability and almost zero technique. “The whole season I just played,” Floyd said. “I was just trying to make plays. I played 100 miles per hour.”
Perhaps even scarier for the SEC is that Floyd was underwhelmed by the league’s competition. “I figured it would be harder than what it was,” Floyd said.
That may sound like a joke, but Floyd isn’t laughing. Under first-year Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, he now knows how to set the edge, uses his hands more and is playing more controlled, none of which he did last season.
Floyd believes he has matured as a player, but remains as confident as ever.
“Nobody else is better than me,” he said.
Back in Chauncey, the town’s residents feel the same way about Floyd. The mayor is working to organize a parade for their hometown hero. She knows she better hurry because with Floyd’s year at Hargrave, he could enter the NFL draft after this season. He plans to discuss the possibility at its conclusion with his mother and the Georgia coaches.
“I’m always open to it,” Floyd said of leaving for the NFL.
These days, Floyd doesn’t spend much time in Chauncey, even though he laughingly admits that he’s “probably the only deal” there right now. His mother now lives in neighboring Eastman, where the biggest draw is the Walmart Supercenter.
He’s “scared” to go the store because of all the attention he attracts. Now, that’s real excitement for someone from Chauncey.
2. Rapper Bun B has some advice for Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill
Bun B has a song for Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill to listen to. It’s “Pushin’” from the Port Arthur, Texas rapper’s 2005 solo album entitled, “Trill.” The street anthem is hardly about football, but features rappers Scarface and Young Jeezy and has a chorus of “Keep on pushin.’”
That’s what Bun B wants Hill to do after the sophomore recently anointed himself with the nickname “Kenny Trill” following his school-record 511 passing yards in the Aggies’ season-opening win at South Carolina. “Kenny definitely exhibits trill character,” Bun B said, “but in order to put that kind of a name on his shoulders at such an early point of his college career, it’s just too much weight to carry.”
Bun B would know because as one half of the southern rap duo Underground Kingz (UGK), he and Pimp C (who died in 2007) popularized the term trill. It’s often described as a combination of the words true and real, but Bun B has his own definition.
“It’s more of a way of life,” Bun B said. “It’s really more of how your character stands and how you carry yourself in high-pressure situations. It has nothing to do with being a gangster or a thug or anything like that. It means you’re willing to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to representing yourself and whoever you’re down with.”
Nonetheless, the hit-making Bun B is flattered that Hill wants to be associated with trill. Hill was still seven years from being born when UGK was formed in 1987. “Growing up in Texas, being able to call yourself trill is kind of a badge of honor,” Bun B said.
To be trill, Hill will have to continue to shine with his play, but also be coachable, a leader for his teammates and carry himself with character, according to Bun B. The rapper has never met Hill, but plans to talk with him later this season when he visits Texas A&M.
“I don’t want him to feel like it’s a judgment on him or anything like that,” Bun B said. “It’s just really early and one game, which was one incredible game, but we want to see a full season. It’s easy to be the man when you’re winning and you throw for over 500 yards, but let’s see how he handles the rough times like after a loss.”
Bun B and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin are friends dating back to Sumlin’s previous job as coach at Houston. The sports-savvy rapper is also friends with former Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel.
With Hill succeeding Manziel, Bun B understands the comparison between the two. “It’s a great thing to be compared to such a competitor like Johnny especially as the Texas A&M quarterback,” Bun B said. “It’s Kenny’s time to prove what he can do. It’s Kenny’s time to be his own man and to earn his own nickname and to not feel like he’s the second coming of Johnny.”
Bun B will be keeping tabs on Hill this season. And if Hill keeps it trill, Bun B just might have another song for him to listen to. The rapper said he’d consider making a song for Hill and the Aggies like he did for Houston during Sumlin’s final year in 2011. That’s if Sumlin is interested.
“Coach is about wins,” Bun B said. “He’s not about songs and praise too early. Let’s say maybe after they win conference and that [playoff]. That’d be a good time.”
3. Time to toughen up that schedule
One of the great unknowns of the first season of the four-team playoff is how the selection committee will judge strength of schedule. Will Michigan State be penalized for losing at Oregon? Is a road loss at a Top 5 team better for a program than Texas’s A&M’s laugh-out-loud non-conference slate of Lamar, Rice, SMU and Louisiana Monroe?
Here’s one tea leaf: The five athletic directors on the selection committee -- Arkansas’ Jeff Long, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, USC’s Pat Haden, West Virginia’s Oliver Luck and Clemson’s Dan Radakovich -- have embraced strong out-of-conference schedules for their own programs.
“I don’t know how best to articulate it other than you’re right on,” Haden said. “We have, all 13 members, met four or five times. Everyone is going to have their own metrics and own criteria. Every single one of them will talk about strength of schedule. That’s important.”
Three of the opening weekend’s biggest out-of-league games -- West Virginia-Alabama, Georgia-Clemson and Wisconsin-LSU -- involved teams run by athletic directors on the committee, and Long said this weekend that he’s moving away from scheduling FCS teams, something every SEC school did this season.
USC plays Notre Dame annually, and it also has home-and-home matchups with Texas and Alabama at a neutral site in the next five years. Arkansas has home-and-homes with TCU and Michigan. West Virginia has BYU, Virginia Tech and Tennessee. Wisconsin has Alabama, LSU, BYU and Virginia Tech. Clemson has its annual matchup with South Carolina, along with a date against Notre Dame and a home-and-home with Auburn.
“The commissioners have been crystal clear with the committee that we want conference champions and strength of schedule to be the deciding factor when you have clusters of teams that look similar from a won-loss perspective,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told The Inside Read on Saturday. “We made the clearest possible statement. You’re not going to be able to distinguish teams based on data and or won-loss record. It’s going to come down to subjectivity, so we gave them really clear guidelines.”
The BlitzWhen Virginia Tech’s team buses pulled onto campus at 3:45 Sunday morning after stunning No. 8 Ohio State, 35-21, there were a few hundred fans waiting for Hokies. The win ranks easily as Tech’s best victory since winning the ACC Coastal in 2011 and brings some much-needed mojo back to Blacksburg.
“As much as you try to ignore the talk, you hear the talk,” said Virginia Tech associate head coach Shane Beamer. “You hear, ‘The program is descending. Will they ever be able to get back to where they were?’”
The Hokies pulled off the upset with a 3-3 defensive front that was hatched in SEC country. The scheme came from defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s trip to see friend and Mississippi defensive coordinator Dave Wommack in late February. It was a sharp departure from the 4-3 and 4-2 defensive fronts that Foster has traditionally used during his 33-year coaching career, and proves that he remains one of the nation’s most innovative defensive coordinators.
“It was the first time we’ve kind of used this look,” Foster said. “I put all my eggs in one basket.”
Foster is hesitant to reveal much about the scheme (“I don’t want to give it out.”), but it’s the combination of a package that Virginia Tech previously used and one from Mississippi. The front consists of a nose guard, two three-techniques, two edge defenders and a Mike linebacker.
“We were banking on stopping the run and making their young quarterback [J.T. Barrett] have to beat us throwing the football,” Foster said. “We mixed in a couple of pressures, but were also able to add a sixth or seventh guy into the rush based on how they were blocking.”
The scheme was originally created with the intention of stopping Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason, and the Buckeyes’ run-heavy spread offense. They averaged 308.6 rushing yards per game last season, but only had 108 yards on 40 attempts on Saturday night.
Barrett, a redshirt freshman making just his second career start, was also sacked seven times. “They weren’t going to change their offense because Braxton was hurt,” Foster said.
Beamer chuckled on Saturday after seeing images of the celebrations in Blacksburg after the Hokies’ victory. He said it looked like Mardi Gras, as fans stormed the streets and climbed light poles. Now a season of minimal expectations suddenly became one where Virginia Tech may be favored to win the ACC Coastal.
“It was a great win,” Beamer said. “From a recruiting standpoint, a perception standpoint, it did so many things for us last night.”
• Michigan Coach Brady Hoke is notorious for cutting off journalists’ questions and issuing short and uninspired answers in press conferences. When asked what’s been missing in road games against rivals the past few years -- admittedly an awkward query -- Hoke shot back a typical one-word answer after a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday night: “Winning.”
Fittingly, that sums up exactly what’s been missing in the Wolverines program under Hoke. And there’s not much else to say. Hoke is coaching for his job the next 10 games.
It was the tenor of Michigan’s 31-0 loss at Notre Dame that’s most troubling, as this is the type of momentum-sapping, optimism-stripping and program-debilitating loss that gets athletic directors worried about the state of their program. There’s little doubt that the search firm vultures and agent sharks salivated as Michigan imploded Saturday night. Michigan is emerging as this year’s Texas, at least until Florida loses: the job that could dictate the off-season hiring market.
Michigan made a big deal out of the hiring of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, a story spun as Michigan stealing him away from Alabama and ponying up to make him one of the five highest paid assistants in college football. All that seems a bit foolish after getting shut out by a team with four suspended players on defense, including its star defensive back and a starting defensive lineman. Heck, even Rice scored 17 on the Fighting Irish.
Hoke went 11-2 his first season in 2011, and has dropped to 8-5 and 7-6 the past two years. Putting a magic number on what Hoke needs to win this year is foolish. What’s more important will be the competitiveness in games at Michigan State and at Ohio State. Michigan can’t afford two blowout losses that look like the Notre Dame game. That would just re-affirm how far the Wolverines are from their biggest rivals.
Michigan has one sure win among its next 10 games, as Miami University (of Oxford, Ohio, not Coral Gables, Fla.) comes to the Big House next week. After that, the Wolverines are capable of losing to the rest of their opponents. More than one loss from the listless group of Utah, Minnesota, at Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana, at Northwestern or Maryland would be considered troublesome for Hoke.
Hoke is on the clock. And for now, he appears to be running out of answers.
• Even with Saturday’s 13-10 victory at Stanford, USC has been college football’s early-season punching bag after cornerback Josh Shaw’s fabricated hero story. The embarrassing saga was sparked by the athletic department’s decision to issue a news release detailing how Shaw injured his ankles after leaping from a second-floor balcony to save his nephew from drowning. The story turned out to be a lie.
The fictional tale is a black eye for the program and first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, but even worse, it further blemishes USC’s sketchy reputation for truthfulness among NFL teams. A number of NFL scouts already felt that former Trojans coaches Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin and their respective staffs weren’t as forthcoming as they should have been about their players’ issues. Now, one NFL scout said he’ll be even more skeptical of what Sarkisian and his assistants tell him in light of them being duped by Shaw. He describes USC as a “bubble” program.
“I’ll have to weed through even more of SC’s bull----,” the scout said. “It definitely hurts. I’m not going to believe what I hear out of their mouths. It’ll be more about their mannerisms and how their body language is.”
What Shaw must do to return to the field for the Trojans remains unclear, but while his NFL stock has taken a hit, he will likely still end up getting drafted, but later than his third- or fourth-round grade according to the scout. “I wouldn’t believe in that kid [in that range],” the scout said. “It’ll have to be at very discounted price.”
• Arizona State coach Todd Graham was busy watching film Monday morning for his team’s game Saturday at Colorado. So much that he didn’t know that a storm dumping as much as five inches of rain had caused widespread flooding in the Phoenix area. Besides an ocean of submerged cars on Interstate 10, there were also power outages. “It’s raining I think,” Graham said. “It looks pretty bad.”
Arizona State sports information director Mark Brand said the flooding was the worst he could recall during his 31 years living in the Phoenix area. The rain caused the cancelation of many classes Monday and the Sun Devils’ weekly press conference. Some Arizona State’s coaches offices' also had leaks from the relentless rain. But Graham didn’t have a problem getting to work at 5 a.m. Monday.
“I hadn’t seen any of it,” Graham said. “We’ve been locked in here in this room. I guess we better turn the TV on.”
• Central Michigan coach Dan Enos was in a familiar situation Saturday. His team’s stunning 38-17 road rout of Purdue came without explosive senior wide receiver Titus Davis, the Chippewas’ best player. He missed the game with a knee strain he suffered in their season-opening win.
Enos knows all too well how to have his team survive injuries after an epidemic of them last season. For much of 2013, he was also without his then-best player, running back Zurlon Tipton, now a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts who broke his ankle in a season-opening blowout loss at Michigan. That was the same game that Enos also lost his then-starting quarterback to a season-ending injury. A week later his starting left tackle succumbed to the same fate. Two other players also had season-ending injuries before the end of September last year, a big reason his team had just one win in its first five games.
“It demoralizes your team especially when the players were as good as those guys were,” Enos said. “But what we gained through those injuries was experience.”
That experience was evident Saturday in the efficiency of redshirt sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush, who completed 11 of 16 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He started last season third on the depth chart, but was pressed into starting 10 games because of injury.
After Rush’s early struggles, the Chippewas won five of their final seven games to finish with a 6-6 record that was more impressive than most realize because of the injuries. They have now won five straight dating back to last season and Saturday’s victory was their second against a Big Ten team during Enos’ tenure (at Iowa in 2012).
“It’s another stepping stone,” Enos said of beating Purdue. “Our players and coaches know that we’ve got a good thing. We’re doing things the right way and not taking any shortcuts.”
• West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s wife, Kerry, is back home after having a routine surgery last week at the Cleveland Clinic related to colon cancer. The 39-year-old mother of two was diagnosed in March, but doctors have since declared her cancer-free. “[The procedure] went very well,” Tony Gibson wrote in a text.
The Gibsons are grateful for the outpouring of support from across college football they have received after recently sharing Kerry’s fight publicly.
“Thanks for everything,” Gibson wrote. “We really appreciate the prayers.”
• Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell had to make international trips every time he made recruiting visits to see Ducks freshman tailback Royce Freeman. At least that’s what Campbell’s cell phone indicated when he tried to make calls while visiting Freeman in his hometown of Imperial, Calif. It’s approximately 20 miles north of Mexico in the southeast corner of the state. “It’s way back there, man,” Campbell said. “You have to be going there to find it. You don’t just run up on Imperial.”
But Campbell is glad he made the trips after Freeman’s pair of fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 38 and 14 yards last Saturday in Oregon’s 46-27 victory over Michigan State. He finished with a game-high 89 yards on just 13 carries. “He’s a really great little back,” said Campbell, who has coached running backs at Oregon for the last 31 years. “He’s going to do big things here. He’s a very mature kid physically as well as emotionally.”
Campbell refers to the 6-foot, 229-pound Freeman as little because he compares him to one of his former running backs, Jonathan Stewart, who now plays for the Carolina Panthers. The newcomer weighs six pounds less than him. “He’s that type of kid,” Campbell said of Freeman. “He’s a power guy with a lot of speed.”
In high school Freeman broke the CIF San Diego Sectional career records for rushing yards (7,601) and touchdowns (111) while averaging 11.8 yards per carry. He chose the Ducks over Florida, UCLA and USC the summer before his senior year.
Campbell raves about Freeman’s parents, Roy and Sheila. Freeman’s father works for the U.S. Immigration Service and his mother at Imperial Valley College, a junior college. “He comes from an awesome family,” Campbell said. “They’ve nurtured him. I wish we had 120 of him.”
• Highly touted LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette generated plenty of buzz Saturday night when he struck the Heisman pose after his first career touchdown. But not everyone took so kindly to his celebration.
“He’s no Heisman,” said an assistant whose team is on LSU’s schedule this season.
The assistant said Fournette better be as good as advertised because his antics make him an even bigger target in the alpha-male SEC. “You want to build your reputation up as a player,” the assistant said. “If you’re going to get crowned, let someone else do it.”
Four In (and one out)
The Read's weekly playoff predictions
- Oregon: With a bullet after undressing Michigan State.
- Georgia: Had to be pleased with a bye going into a game with SEC East nemesis South Carolina
- Oklahoma: The Sooners must be licking their chops for Red River.
- Florida State: The Seminoles and Clemson have a bye before their Sept. 20 game.
- Alabama: No Big Ten team will be close to this spot for a while.
Q&A with Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien
Houston Texas Coach Bill O’Brien spent two years at Penn State, where his contributions transcended his 15-9 record. O’Brien resuscitated the program from the depths of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and modernized it from the atrophy of Joe Paterno’s final years. He left Penn State after two seasons, and no one in State College, Pa., flinched because they were so grateful for what he’d done there. His efforts came to fruition Monday when the NCAA announced it had immediately restored Penn State’s postseason eligibility and restored its scholarship count to 85 for 2015-16. O'Brien couldn't be happier about Monday's NCAA decision to restore scholarships and reverse the bowl ban at Penn State. "I think that’s great news for Penn State," O'Brien said at his weekly press conference in Houston on Monday. "Penn State is a fantastic place."
In a recent interview in his office in Houston, O’Brien reflected on the how he’s seen the NFL change after two years in college, his time at Penn State and what he’d tell early entry candidates for the NFL draft.
You spent two years away from the NFL, what changed schematically while you were gone?
You definitely see the fast pace a lot more than you did two years ago. You see the up-tempo, no-huddle, trying to trap different personnel on the field and different matchups. You see that not necessarily with spread offenses. Even if you watch Chip in Philly, he still has a tight end on the field most of the time. It’s not as much that in the spread. It’s NFL offenses in an up-tempo mode. Not every team is doing it. You see more of that than you did.
I know you were an assistant coach early in your career at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. But I’m wondering if your two years in college this time around changed the way that you evaluate players for the NFL?
That’s a great question. This year in the draft, I probably watched just about every draft eligible player. There were about 100 early eligibility guys (102), which I think was the most of all time. Having been in college and knowing what those kids go through, how they’re in their formative years in college and now they’re making this big jump when they’re not even 20 years old, some of them. At this level, they’re playing against grown men. That’s something that stood out to me, here are these young guys who have played three years or a redshirt year and two years in college. And, all of a sudden, they’re playing against J.J. Watt. That was a big difference for me when I was in the league before. There was still a decent amount before, but not over 100.
I think 39 players went undrafted last year, a stunning number. What would you do if one of your former players called asked your advice to leave college early?
I believe two things there. I believe if a kid called me, like a kid at Penn State who felt after three years he felt ready to come. I’d say to that guy, ‘Hey, remember now, you’re going from college football to a man’s league.’ We just got done practicing against Denver for three days. I was thinking about all of their guys, and I was thinking about our guys. I was thinking about a 20-year old guy having to go against Duane Brown all of a sudden or Andre Johnson. That’s a big jump. I would encourage guys to stay in school as long as they can, unless they are physically mature enough to make the jump. There aren’t a lot of guys who are ready to make that jump and play right away.
How close have you followed Penn State since you left?
I have a lot of responsibility here, obviously. But when we get down time, I still have a lot of friends there and friends on the staff. John Donovan, the offensive coordinator, is a real good friend of mine. I’ve spoken to him a few times. I’ve spoke to some of the players. They’re doing great. Like we were saying before, that’s a fantastic place that’s going to be on the rise for a lot of years. Probably get back to where it should be, which is championship level football.
I think people who follow college football and the NFL casually would be fascinated by how much time you spend on pure football here compared to in college.
At Penn State, if you broke it down to percentages, it was probably 33-percent football, 33-percent recruiting and then 33-percent making sure that you are meeting with administrative people to talk about how we’re dealing with the NCAA sanctions or how raising money for the football program or the athletic department. You remember for two years we went on an 18-stop caravan tour. That took three-and-a-half weeks, I believe. I enjoyed that. Here it’s about football and evaluating personnel and Xs and Os. I’d say it’s 90-percent football here. Maybe at other (college) places you can go 50-percent football and 50-percent recruiting, but in the situation we were in at Penn State, it was some football, some recruiting and some of, ‘Here’s our plan for raising money for overcoming the sanctions.’”
I’ve always thought you did wonders in your time at Penn State to keep the program together, stabilize a toxic situation and still win on the field. How do you view your two years there?
I’ve thought about this a lot. People always say that to me and I really appreciate that. It’s a huge compliment. I always think about this. No. 1, the kids there were awesome. I miss those kids, I love those kids. They practiced hard, lifted hard and went to class. We never really had discipline issues. Just great kids. We had a really good group of coaches and administrators there. We had some really good coaches on our staff. Good strength staff, good trainer.
The student body there was incredibly supportive every week. It was incredible to come out and see 25,000 students at every game. That place as it relates to college football is a very, very special place that had a horrible thing happen. It has been able to learn from the mistakes of what happened and also come back and be a successful place. It is a great school.
Heisman fiveThamel’s list
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon: Name recognition? Check. Big performance in spotlight? Check. Staying healthy? Probably his biggest key.
2. Todd Gurley, Georgia: A marquee game against South Carolina can help him keep his momentum rolling.
3. Everett Golson, Notre Dame: When you combine the Notre Dame brand with his performances and redemption story, it’s hard to imagine him not being in New York.
4. Jameis Winston, Florida State: The Clemson game gives him a chance to make up for an uneven performance -- by his standards -- against Oklahoma State.
5. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: Texas A&M’s pathetic out-of-conference slate will only allow Hill to continue to pad his numbers.
1. Winston: Still hasn’t done anything to lose the Heisman, but his attorney using the surname of the quarterback’s alleged rape victim in a statement last week is deplorable.
2. Gurley: The hype is real when he gets compared to Jim Brown ... during an off-week.
3. Mariota: It’s too bad Saturday’s performance won’t count as much as the season progresses because of the Big Ten’s impotence.
4. Rakeem Cato, Marshall: He heeded to last week’s advice here that he start putting up big numbers (267 passing yards with two TDs and 143 rushing yards with TD in 48-7 rout of Rhode Island).
5. Golson: The Fighting Irish have the schedule for him to win the award (five of their remaining opponents are ranked), but also to lose it.
• Tim Polasek had just finished cutting down trees for the day in the Wisconsin woods when he scrambled to answer his ringing cell phone. The call eight years ago was from North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl, who wanted to hire Polasek, then a part-time lumberjack and assistant at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, an NCAA Division III school. Bohl was offering Polasek a graduate assistant position at the FCS school, a job that would pay less money than he was making in his two combined gigs.
Polasek accepted, but he had a bigger problem. He didn’t have the money to make the eight-hour drive to his new job. So he sold his driver to a local golf pro to get gas money. Upon his arrival, Polasek slept on the floor of the Fargodome for two weeks.
Now, the North Dakota State offensive coordinator is one of college football’s rising young assistants and played a big part in the Bison’s season-opening 34-14 rout of Iowa State. They racked up 506 yards of total offense and scored all their points after a 14-0 deficit in their fifth straight win vs. an FBS team. “It’s a heartwarming story,” said Bohl.
This season is Polasek’s first back in Fargo and as an offensive coordinator after spending last year as the tight ends and fullbacks coach at Northern Illinois. Before that, he was an assistant at North Dakota State for six years after just one season as a graduate assistant. The intense 35-year-old was also a key recruiter in securing former Bison star quarterback Brock Jensen. He led the program to three consecutive FCS national championships (2011-13) under Bohl, now Wyoming’s first-year coach.
“He’s hungry,” Bohl said of Polasek. “He does a marvelous job. He’s a really good person and a really good football coach.”
Eventually, Polasek got the money to buy his driver back. It turns out the local golf pro never had any intention of selling it. “He was just trying to help Tim out,” Bohl said.
• After California’s season-opening win over Northwestern, Golden Bears defensive coordinator Art Kaufman asked his players to stand up if any of them started at their current position last year. Only one player did. When he asked if any of them last season started at any position, played another position or got playing time at all, another half-dozen players stood up. Finally, Kaufman asked those who took snaps in the victory to stand if they did not play last year for Cal and another 15 players rose.
“I knew there was some inexperience, but I didn’t realize to that degree,” Kaufman said. “We’re really starting from ground zero with guys with the experience at the position they played at.”
Yet thanks to Kaufman’s aggressive 4-3 defense, second-year California coach Sonny Dykes has already doubled his win total from last season with Saturday’s 55-14 victory over FCS Sacramento State. The Golden Bears are surrendering just 19.5 points per game this season. That’s a drastic improvement from last year’s disastrous 1-11 campaign in which they allowed 45.9 points per game, second-worst in the FBS. It also got former defensive coordinator Andy Buh reassigned within the athletic department.
“These guys are hungry for success,” Kaufman said. “The only thing I’m going to demand is give me all you’ve got and they are. They’re playing hard and they will play smarter and smarter as we go through it.”
Kaufman’s hiring in January was a coup for Dykes. It came a few weeks after Kaufman was fired as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, where his unit ranked 14th nationally in scoring defense (21 points per game) last season.
Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville attributed Kaufman’s dismissal to recruiting, not his defense. Kaufman was nominated in consecutive years for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant, while defensive coordinator at North Carolina (2011) and Texas Tech (2012).
He made it a point not to watch any of California’s games from last season. “That way it’s kind of an evaluation process without pre-judgment,” Kaufman said.
That approach helps explain why Kaufman got the answers he did following the Golden Bears’ season-opening triumph. After his questions, he went around the locker room and told each defensive player what they needed to do better.
“We’re OK,” Kaufman said. “We’re not playing Northwestern, Sacramento State or Arizona. We’re playing us. This is all about us. It’s what we can do.”
When first-year Wyoming coach Craig Bohl took his new job in December, he figured his days eating fresh fish were numbered. But it turns out the former North Dakota State coach has found a nice selection at Altitude Chophouse & Brewery. The restaurant’s name is appropriate considering Laramie sits approximately 7,220 feet above sea level.
It prides itself on its award-winning microbrewery and causal Rocky Mountain atmosphere complete with tree-stump bar stools. Bohl orders the cedar plank salmon along with rice pilaf and asparagus. He skips desert because he’s watching his waistline, but balances it out with two glasses of red wine for his heart, of course.
“It’s really been a pleasant surprise,” Bohl said.