Bowl Chaos Season

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The gamble in Ohio was inspired by a Gamble from Ohio. The 2007 college football season turned on a piece of advice given by Brian Gamble, a freshman wideout from Massillon who altered the course of gridiron history when he made so bold as to nudge an Illinois teammate on the sideline at the Horseshoe last Saturday. Gamble spoke up during a timeout that the Ohio State Buckeyes will regret having taken for the rest of their lives.

Illini quarterback Juice Williams was pacing the sideline like Hamlet with 6:53 left against the top-ranked Buckeyes. Having staked his team to a 28-21 lead with four touchdown passes and zero picks, the sophomore was pitching the football equivalent of a perfect game.

But he could see how things might slip away. On fourth-and-one from his 33, Illinois coach Ron Zook sent out the punt team.

It was the proper call. No matter how slender the distance -- "I'm telling you, it was one inch," Williams insisted the next day -- you punt the ball. You don't chance handing the Buckeyes a short field, in their own house, when you're clinging to a one-touchdown lead. The problem was, pacing that sideline, his guts in a knot, Williams knew he could pick up the first down. When Ohio State called a timeout it only prolonged his torture. Should he say something to Zook?

Rebellion brewed among the Illini. Williams could hear defensive players questioning the decision to punt. As linebacker J Leman later put it, "We didn't go through all those 6 a.m. winter workouts, didn't suffer in summer conditioning, didn't come all the way to Ohio to give the ball back to them."

Halfway through the timeout, Gamble approached his quarterback. Feeling his oats, perhaps, after having caught the touchdown pass that put his team up 21-14 just before the half, the 18-year-old told Williams, "If you think you can get it, you've got to tell him."

Williams walked over to Zook and tapped him on the shoulder. It was the tap heard round the college football cosmos, the tap that set in motion the events that soon laid waste to whatever order and sanity the BCS rankings had promised to provide. With closing wins over Illinois and Michigan, the Buckeyes were guaranteed a return to the BCS title game. Yes, there would be an unseemly brawl for the other spot: The airwaves would fill with recriminations and gripes about strength of schedule, the what-ifs and why-nots of one-loss teams. But one half of the equation, mercifully, would be filled in. The rancor would be halved.

Welcome, instead, to chaos. Or as Antony says in Julius Caesar, "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war."

And Tigers (on two campuses) and Ducks and Jayhawks and Sooners and Mountaineers, and yes, even the undefeated Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, who won't allow the fact that they have no shot at playing for the national title prevent them from expounding on the unfairness of it all.

This cacophony is brought to you by Zook, who changed his mind, of course. "You better get it, or I'll hurt you," Williams recalls him saying. ("I don't think he really meant it," the quarterback allowed the next day.) Torpedoing over the left buttock of center Ryan McDonald, Williams moved the chains with a two-yard gain, then got on with the job he did better than anyone else this season: exposing the soft underbelly of a unit that had begun the day ranked No. 1 in total defense and scoring defense. That fourth-down conversion was followed by a trio of third-down conversions -- Williams calling his own number on each -- that allowed the Illini to devour the final 8:09 of the clock.

Thus did the Buckeyes' loftiest ambitions die under the bright lights of the Horseshoe. With running back Rashard Mendenhall gashing the defense on early downs and Juice moving the chains, Ohio State couldn't get the unranked visitors off the field. (In the fourth quarter the Illini ran 26 plays to OSU's three.) In the end the Buckeyes were proved unworthy of a BCS title-game berth. The burning question: Who the hell is?

There was not a lot of suspense at Tiger Stadium last Saturday, with Louisiana Tech on the homecoming menu. That was fine with LSU fans, whose nerves are a bit frayed these days, the result of coach Les Miles's proclivity for living on the edge. The Tigers ran their record to 9-1 with a 48-point win over the Bulldogs. One of the loudest cheers of the night arose when the news came over the public-address system that the Buckeyes had gone down.

Jacob Hester, who had a career-long 87-yard touchdown run against Tech, couldn't resist drawing a distinction between LSU and the Buckeyes: "The parity in college football is unbelievable. The thing is, when you have those close games, you have to pull 'em out."

Or if you don't pull them out, make sure the loss happens early enough in the season for your team to work its way back up the rankings. On Oct. 13 the Tigers lost at Kentucky in triple overtime, but they didn't panic. "Me and [quarterback] Matt Flynn and [defensive tackle] Glenn Dorsey told the guys, 'Hey, it's early in the season; we've got a lot of games in front of us; we can still work our way up to where we need to be.' "

Flynn speaks from experience. He was a redshirting freshman on LSU's 2003 national champions. That team, you'll recall, overcame a mid-October loss (to Florida) to reach the national title game.

As will these Tigers, if they win at Ole Miss this week, at home against Arkansas on the day after Thanksgiving and in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1, against Tennessee or Georgia, in all likelihood.

With the egg laid by Ohio State, LSU moved to the top of the BCS. Advancing to No. 2 was Oregon and its dynamite quarterback, Dennis Dixon, who runs the Ducks' spread option with a virtuosity that Williams can only hope to achieve. "He's got a little Dennis in him," Patrick Chung allows, somewhat grudgingly, of Williams. Chung, Oregon's starting rover, sat in his apartment last Saturday -- the Ducks were idle -- watching Williams upend the Buckeyes. Did he jump off the couch? Shout for joy?

"No, no, no -- it wasn't like that," insists Chung, who recalls thinking, All right, we needed that. That helped us. Now let's get back to work.

Not helping Oregon was Michigan's flat performance at Wisconsin. Every game the Wolverines drop -- and they will be underdogs against Ohio State this Saturday -- devalues the Ducks' victory in the Big House in September. Devalues it, at least, in the unseeing eyes and heartless algorithms of the BCS computers. And that's not the only way Oregon stands to get hosed.

Even if the Ducks win out -- they've got Arizona this Thursday in Tucson, UCLA in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 24 and Oregon State at home on Dec. 1 -- they could be bounced from the title game by events beyond their control. Profitable though it would be, the Pac-10 refuses to cleave itself into divisions and schedule a championship game. The BCS computers don't give a fig for the Pac-10's virtue; the Ducks stand to be leapfrogged by a team that has a conference title game.

Does that possibility prey on his mind? "Not at all," says Chung. "We've just got to play to our potential."

And hope for others to stumble?

"I never root for teams to lose. You can't wish the worst on people."

It would take a hard heart to wish any ill on the Kansas Jayhawks. They climbed to No. 3 in the BCS, upping their record to 10-0 by whipping Oklahoma State. Kansas hasn't been 10-0 since 1899.

Yes, that would be a trio of Big 12 teams clustered in the top five. The game of the year in this most surprising of conferences will be played not in Norman or Austin or Lincoln, but at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., where the Jayhawks will take on No. 5 Missouri. The winner's reward: a likely matchup against fourth-ranked Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.

The Tigers, by the way, scored a double victory on Saturday. After its 40-26 win over Texas A&M, Missouri got a verbal commitment from Blaine Gabbert, a 6' 5", 230-pound quarterback from Parkway West High in suburban St. Louis upon whom has bestowed five stars, its highest ranking. Indicative of a new order in the Big 12 North, Gabbert backed out of a commitment he'd made to Nebraska. He told reporters that he wanted to succeed Chase Daniel.

Icouldn't believe the way it ended. Juice just took over. Every time I turned around he was converting a third down." The speaker was Daniel, who found a TV set following Mizzou's win and watched the Buckeyes tumble.

Benched for brief periods earlier in the season, Williams was playing the best game of his career. But his light shone brightest in those last eight minutes. Following the Gamble, he converted those three third downs. The last came on a third-and-two from the Ohio State 30 with 2:19 left.

The call was a zone read, with special instructions. Williams could fake the handoff to Mendenhall, but under no circumstances was he to part with the ball.

"What if they have two guys outside waiting for me?" Williams asked Mike Locksley, his offensive coordinator.

"No matter what, pull the ball."

He pulled the ball. Linebacker Marcus Freeman was waiting for him. With a timely hip fake, Juice picked up three, sealing the latest upset in a season so rife with them that the word threatens to lose its meaning.

"Everyone is dangerous," says Daniel. "All I know is, based on what's happened, anything can happen."