Stanford handled adversity; now LSU and Alabama get their turns
On Saturday night, No. 4 Stanford went on the road to face a ranked USC team playing its de facto Super Bowl in front of 93,607 raucous spectators. For the first time since last November, the Cardinal faced actual adversity, falling behind by 10 early in the third quarter, going back ahead, then watching the Trojans reclaim the lead twice more, including when star quarterback Andrew Luck did the unthinkable and threw a pick-six to fall behind 34-27 with 3:08 left.
The action only picked up from there. Luck led a game-tying 76-yard drive that ended with 38 seconds left, set up or threw three more touchdowns in overtime and completed his first two-point conversion of the season in the third extra period,
Naturally, the Cardinal lost 40 points in the latest AP poll and 29 points in the latest Harris Poll.
For better or worse, we're obsessed with style points. Each game the title contenders play is a chance to pick apart their flaws, and any close call is considered a sign of weakness. Yet I'd argue we learn far more about teams when they're tested than when they cruise.
Stanford handled adversity Saturday like it was routine, with cameras spotting Luck smiling on the sideline each time USC scored in the second half (except of course after his pick-six). In Week 8, Oklahoma did not. Undefeated Oklahoma State has blown out seven of its eight opponents, but its signature win was a 17-point rally against Texas A&M. Previously undefeated Clemson battled back several times this season but finally dug a hole it couldn't escape (21 points) in Saturday's 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech.
Now comes college football's latest Game of the Century, the Week 10 showdown between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. This meeting would mean just as much if each team had won all of its games on last-second field goals; however, the great anticipation surrounding the contest largely stems from each team having steamrolled the competition to this point. Finally, we get to see them face a worthy adversary.
Alabama's toughest test to date was a 27-11 win at 8-1 Penn State the second week of the season. If you've watched the Nittany Lions' offense, you know the game was essentially over when Nick Saban's team went up 17-3 just before halftime. The Tide have won their other seven games by no fewer than 24 points.
LSU's closest call was a 19-6 Thursday night win at Mississippi State on Sept. 15. If you watched the Bulldogs' floundering offense that night, you know the game was over when Jarrett Lee threw a 19-yard touchdown to put the Tigers up 16-6 with 11:56 left. The Tigers have won every game since by at least 25 points.
"Philosophically, in terms of how you want to build a team, our two teams are similar," said Saban. "They're a little bit different style wise than us, but certainly get their results the same way."
To this point, LSU and Alabama both look like reincarnations of the early 2000s Miami teams, brimming with speed, athleticism and depth on both sides of the ball. Barring another blowout by one side on Saturday night, we'll finally get to see how they respond when challenged.
We know that LSU generally pounds teams into submission with its deep stable of running backs. But what if Alabama shuts down the Tigers' ground game like it has every opponent's to date? Can the vastly improved Lee and Jordan Jefferson win a game in the fourth quarter with their arms?
We know Alabama's defense is as talented and fundamentally sound as they come. But what if Les Miles digs into his usual bag of tricks like he did last year, calling the famous fourth-and-1 reverse that helped LSU to victory and immortalized Miles' grass-eating habit? Can Saban's notoriously disciplined unit handle the unexpected?
Speaking of the unexpected, we don't know what these two coaching masterminds did during their bye weeks. We're sure to see things from both teams we haven't through eight games.
"With an extra week to prepare, we go through a real self evaluation and whatever statistics or tendencies we have, we try to break them," said Miles.
The beauty of Saturday night's game is that style points won't matter; only the final score will. The winner will continue its seemingly inevitable march to New Orleans. There's no risk of being "exposed," because no reasonable person would expect either team to put on a clinic. But we'll still learn something.
We know there's a quarterback on the West Coast who doesn't get frazzled by anything. Ditto for that guy in Boise. And there's a team in Stillwater, Okla., that continues to score 50 points a game with ease. The eventual SEC champ will likely be favored over any of them, regardless of how Saturday's game plays out. But a fourth-quarter comeback or a last-second touchdown may say more about the winner than its previous eight blowouts.
Saturday night's Stanford-USC game was the tensest high-caliber matchup I've seen this season. With the Cardinal's national championship hopes on the line and Luck's performance under the microscope of all those curious NFL fans who'd tuned in, the teams engaged in a back-and-forth thriller that served as a showcase not just for Luck but also for Lane Kiffin's resurgent Trojans. The Coliseum was sold out and rocking like in Pete Carroll's heyday.
"As a player, it was the most energetic and electric crowd I've ever seen at the Coliseum," said USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
It's unfortunate then that Kiffin chose to overshadow the moment by fixating on individuals not on either team. "I'm really disappointed in the officials," Kiffin said afterward. "Extremely disappointed."
Kiffin's beef centered on the end of regulation, when the Trojans ran out of time to kick a potential game-winning field goal after Robert Woods caught a screen pass and scampered sideways for nearly 10 seconds. Officials originally ruled Woods out of bounds and the clock hit 0:00; however, following a replay, the officials decreed that Woods had gone down in bounds, but that time had run out anyway. Kiffin claimed he'd called a timeout with one second left, and that the officials knew it.
"It was communicated to them, they communicated to me, exactly the situation," Kiffin said. "... I called timeout with one second left on the clock."
Has anyone ever seen a football coach successfully squeeze in a timeout in the one second between his player's knee touching the ground and the clock hitting zero? I didn't think so.
Obviously, no coach is big on moral victories, but this certainly was one for USC. Kiffin's young team has progressed considerably since the beginning of the season, when they bumbled their way through wins over Minnesota and Utah and got crushed at Arizona State. If you're a Trojans fan wondering whether the controversial 36-year-old Kiffin is the right guy to steer the program going forward, it's got to be encouraging to see so many of Kiffin's recruits shining. Saturday night that group included receivers Woods and freshman Marquise Lee, but also sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey, who had the go-ahead pick-six of Luck; redshirt freshman linebacker Dion Bailey, who recorded a game-high 13 tackles; and redshirt freshman tight end Randall Telfer, who outperformed his touted Stanford counterparts.
"It hurts right now because we were so close," said Barkley. The Trojans may also be close to turning the corner, so long as their coach focuses on his players instead of the officials.
Two weeks ago, most of us believed Wisconsin would run away with the Big Ten title. Suddenly the Badgers are two games back in their own division, and the conference race is a jumble of six teams that could feasibly reach the Dec. 3 conference championship game -- including two traditional powers left for dead just a few weeks ago.
Saturday night against the Badgers, Ohio State (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) looked very much like the OSU that won Big Ten championships in each of the past six years, holding Wisconsin's powerful rushing attack to 89 yards on 29 carries while rushing for 268 yards of its own. Dan Herron, in his second game back from suspension, went for 160 on 33 carries. The Buckeyes led 26-14 late in the fourth quarter.
But then, just like he did last week against Michigan State, Russell Wilson led the Badgers back, throwing 17- and 49-yard touchdowns to Jared Abbrederis in the final 3:48 to put Wisconsin up 29-26. But also just like last week, the opposing quarterback broke the Badgers' hearts. OSU freshman Braxton Miller scrambled, then unleashed a 40-yard strike to wide-open receiver Devin Smith in the end zone to give Ohio State a
"We don't ever look at ourselves as underdogs," said oft-criticized coach Luke Fickell. "This is a huge win, a signature win. This is for this team, this is for this program. This is what we expect."
Earlier in the day, resurgent Nebraska (7-1, 3-1) put a damper on Michigan State's previously magnificent October (wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin) with a 24-3 home victory. Ever since Nebraska's second-half rally against Ohio State on Oct. 8, the Huskers' once-struggling defense has also looked like its old self. Saturday, Nebraska held MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins to 11-of-27 passing for 86 yards and an interception.
"I thought our guys were locked in this week," said Huskers coach Bo Pelini. "I'm proud of that group. They saw today what we're capable of doing when they play the right way. That's a pretty good football team we played out there."
Meanwhile, after yet
It might be wise to look at the remaining road schedules. Big Ten teams are 8-18 on the road in conference play. One-time national title contender Wisconsin is 0-2.
What's the difference between 8-1 Penn State and 7-1 Arkansas, which both suffered their sole loss to No. 2 Alabama? The Nittany Lions win with defense, not offense. Period.
In determining the Big Ten's Rose Bowl rep, I ignored my own advice and predicted Nebraska would win one of its two remaining road games, at Penn State or Michigan. That gave me a Wisconsin-Nebraska title game. Assuming the Badgers' morale isn't shot, they can certainly still make a run to Pasadena, and the Fiesta Bowl would love to get its hands on a 10-win Nebraska team (over a 10-win Oregon team).
Meanwhile, we bid a fond farewell to Syracuse, which appeared in this space last week following a 49-23 rout of West Virginia. Saturday, 3-4 Louisville squashed the Orange, 27-10. The Mountaineers return, giving this lineup four past, current or future Big 12 members.
• The Eric LeGrand story just keeps getting better. On Saturday, the paralyzed former Rutgers player -- who is so upbeat about his circumstances he makes you feel guilty for ever complaining about anything --
• Last week I misread a press release and mistakenly wrote that Houston quarterback Case Keenum had broken the NCAA career touchdown record. In fact, he was still four shy. Keenum rendered that mixup moot last Thursday by throwing for
• Oklahoma's Landry Jones set a new career high with 505 passing yards in Saturday's
• It wasn't pretty, but formerly embattled Georgia coach Mark Richt (6-2) got
• Quarterback Tevin Washington's career rushing night (176 yards) helped Georgia Tech hand fifth-ranked Clemson its first loss while also preserving Tech's chances of winning the ACC's Coastal Division. The Jackets (7-2, 4-2 ACC), who snapped a two-game losing skid, remain a half-game behind No. 12 Virginia Tech (8-1, 4-1) but host the Hokies a week from Thursday. Frank Beamer's team, which survived Duke 14-10, gets 12 days to prepare for the triple-option.
• Remarkably, the one other team that has a shot in that division is Virginia (5-3, 2-2). Props to second-year Cavs coach Mike London, whose team went to Miami last Thursday and stunned the Hurricanes 28-21 two weeks after handing Georgia Tech its first loss. London broke out a fake field goal and a halfback option, in which running back Perry Jones threw a 37-yard touchdown. (He also caught a 78-yard score.) Virginia should at least reach its first bowl game in three years.
• It seems like Brian Kelly has done a lot of apologizing during his two-year tenure in South Bend. His latest act of contrition was directed at his own players after several of them
• It may sound crazy, but is Oregon's offense better right now with redshirt freshman quarterback Bryan Bennett? Saturday against Washington State, Chip Kelly pulled starter Darron Thomas -- whose injured knee may still be bothering him -- after he threw a pick-six just before halftime that cut the Ducks' lead to 15-10. With Bennett in the game, Oregon (7-1) rolled to a 43-28 win, but with help from speedy freshman DeAnthony Thomas' 93-yard kick return touchdown.
• Poor Vanderbilt. First-year coach James Franklin has clearly upgraded the Commodores (4-4), who led No. 10 Arkansas 28-17 in the second half thanks in part to a strong second start by quarterback Jordan Rodgers, brother of Aaron. But in a very Vandy-esqe script, Arkansas' Jerry Franklin returned a fumble 94 yards, to tie the score 28-28, and Vandy's Carey Spear missed a 27-yard field goal with eight seconds left that would have sent the game to overtime.
• What a week for Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who on Tuesday signed a new seven-year contract (despite his tenure getting off to a 1-6 start), then on Saturday knocked off Iowa 22-21 to claim the Floyd of Rosedale (a bronzed pig, for the unaware). It's not such a good week to be Kirk Ferentz, the $3.7-million-a-year coach now on the wrong end of the Gophers' past two Big Ten victories despite Hawkeyes running back Marcus Coker going for 252 yards on Saturday.
• As the cliché goes, you've got to play 60 minutes to win in the SEC. Hopefully Texas A&M gets the message prior to its arrival next season. For the third time this season, Mike Sherman's Aggies (5-3) blew a double-digit second-half lead, this time against Missouri (4-4), which rallied
• Not surprisingly, Florida State (5-3) has gotten its act together since quarterback E.J. Manuel returned to the lineup. The Seminoles blanked N.C. State 34-0 on the heels of similar blowouts over Duke and Maryland. Amazingly, Manuel (25-of-34, 321 yards, two touchdowns, one pick) is playing despite suffering a Grade 3 separation to his non-throwing shoulder. "If you could see it now, it's still sticking up," he said. "It hurts, but I don't feel it."
• Maryland's plan to fill Byrd Stadium has gone terribly awry. First they expect you to
• Texas outgained hapless Kansas 590-46 in its 43-0 win Saturday. Somewhere in between is the number of viewers who saw the game on the Longhorn Network.
• Best wishes to two great running backs who suffered season-ending injuries this week, Pitt's Ray Graham (knee) and Oklahoma's Dom Whaley (broken ankle).
• Condolences to the family of Bob Barry Sr., longtime voice of the Sooners and Oklahoma State before that, who passed away Sunday at the age of 80.
Last Friday night, I finally saw
During Oklahoma State's 59-24 win over formerly ranked Baylor on Saturday, the ABC broadcasters made a point of constantly referencing the Cowboys' 102nd-ranked total defense. After giving up another 622 yards Saturday, the unit dropped to 111th. Looking at those numbers, you would never know Oklahoma State led 49-3 at the start of the fourth quarter and wound up holding Robert Griffin III -- who came in with a 22-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- to one touchdown and two picks. Though he finished with 425 passing yards, Griffin had just 152 at halftime, by which point the Cowboys led 35-0.
"We played an awfully good game," said Cowboys defensive coordinator Bill Young. "We gave up a lot of yardage. We let them convert a little too much in middle of the field, but we were exceptional in the red zone."
Oklahoma State reminds me a lot of last year's Oregon team, and not because of the array of uniforms. The Cowboys and Ducks both had an electrifying offense that overshadowed an unsung and frankly misunderstood defense. In fact, Brandon Weeden and Co.'s quick-strike attack contributes to the Cowboys' unflattering defensive numbers. For one thing, the defense is constantly on the field, having played 660 snaps, including 105 on Saturday. By comparison, Alabama's defense has seen 458 plays. Oklahoma State's defense has essentially played two extra games.
Meanwhile, Young usually empties the bench by the fourth quarter, so the other team piles up meaningless yards and points against second- and third-stringers. "Against Tulsa [a 59-33 win] we were ready to start grabbing people out of the stands," Young said.
No one would confuse Oklahoma State's defense with Alabama's or LSU's, but the Cowboys have their share of playmakers -- defensive end Jamie Blatnick, linebacker Shaun Lewis, safety Daytawion Lowe and cornerback Brodrick Brown, among others -- who excel at one thing in particular: forcing turnovers. The Cowboys lead the nation in interceptions (17) and fumble recoveries (12).
"Every single time in practice, we don't blow the whistle until we've had every possibility to strip the ball out," said Young. "We always post the number of turnovers we created the day before. If they don't get five a day against the scout team, we run after practice. ... It doesn't happen very often."
For a better read on Oklahoma State's defense, you might want to try
It's been an unusual year in the Sun Belt. Troy, champion or co-champion for five straight seasons, is 2-5. FIU, co-champion last season and popular preseason pick, beat Louisville and UCF early but is just 2-2 in league play. Arkansas State, coached by former
But sitting there in third, having rallied from an 0-4 start to win its past four and go 4-1 in conference play, is the biggest surprise of them all: Western Kentucky. Since moving up to the Sun Belt and FBS in 2009, the Hilltoppers have often been viewed as team No. 120 out of 120. After going 0-12 that first year, the school fired coach David Elson and replaced him with former Stanford assistant and WKU alum Willie Taggart. He went 2-10 last year and began this season with losses to Kentucky, Navy, Indiana State and Arkansas State.
But the tide turned with an Oct. 6 double-overtime win at Middle Tennessee State. Led by star running back Bobby Rainey, the nation's sixth-leading rusher (126.8 yards per game), the Hilltoppers beat then 6-1 ULL two weeks ago, and on Saturday pulled out another overtime win, 31-28 over Louisiana-Monroe, capping off a wild finish in which the teams combined for three touchdowns in the final 59 seconds of regulation.
"This was a big win for our program," said Taggart. "In the past, the end of this game might have been a situation where we folded, but that shows the growth and progress of our football team to go out and get the win."
Sun Belt teams generally need at least seven wins to get a bowl berth, which will be no small feat for WKU since its remaining schedule includes a body bag game at LSU. But the fact that a bowl berth is even a possibility seemed unfathomable just two years ago.