Pac-12 doormats UCLA, Oregon State reinvented into winners
How dramatically can a team reinvent itself in the course of one offseason? Well, how many yards did UCLA gain in Week 2?
The Bruins wore their traditional blue and gold uniforms Saturday against Nebraska, but anyone who had the misfortune of watching their offense the past several years would not have recognized the squad that knocked off the 16th-ranked Huskers, 36-30. Two years ago, Rick Neuheisel's Bruins ranked 100th nationally in total offense; last year they were 72nd. In two weeks under replacement Jim L. Mora, UCLA has fared better than all but two teams nationally in racking up 645 yards against Rice and 653 against Nebraska, the most the Huskers have allowed in a game since 1956.
As he left the Rose Bowl field, redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley yelled to the crowd: "This is just the start."
Two other first-year Pac-12 coaches, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez (59-38 over defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma State) and Arizona State's Todd Graham (45-14 over Illinois) notched impactful Week 2 victories Saturday. Slowing down Oklahoma State's high-powered attack had to be particularly satisfying for Rodriguez after the grief his defense took during his failed Michigan tenure.
But no major program in America has undergone a more radical offensive transformation than UCLA's under Mora and new coordinator Noel Mazzone.
After Neuheisel's failed attempt to run the Pistol offense, first with the completely miscast Norm Chow, then with NFL-import Mike Johnson, Mazzone has installed a hurry-up, one-back attack that the Bruins have seemingly picked up with ease.
"They're a bunch of young guys that have done a good job overcoming my coaching," joked Mazzone, who, coincidentally, was ousted at Arizona State when Graham replaced Dennis Erickson.
The seemingly obvious reason UCLA has improved is Hundley, a gifted dual-threat athlete who was 21-of-33 for 305 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against Nebraska. He had a 72-yard touchdown run the week prior against Rice on his first college play. After years of watching guys like Kevin Craft, Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut either struggle or get hurt, fans finally have the game-changer they've been awaiting in Hundley.
But Hundley has a lot of help. He's got a veteran tailback in Johnathan Franklin who has exploded in the new offense, gaining 214 and 217 yards, respectively, in his first two outings. And he's got a pair of talented classmates in redshirt freshmen Steven Manfro and Devin Lucien, who have upgraded UCLA's receiving corps.
"I thought we had a lot of skill guys, some good team speed," Mazzone said of the roster he inherited. "I didn't really know about the offensive line."
Indeed, the O-line had been a sore spot for several years, and this team is starting three true or redshirt freshmen. But Mazzone's offense may be as friendly as any for an inexperienced blocker. Quick passes, often to the running backs, require less protection and make it difficult for opponents to blitz.
UCLA's defense will have its own problems stopping people this season -- Nebraska's Taylor Martinez broke a 92-yard touchdown run, and the Huskers averaged 6.6 yards per play -- but Bruins fans finally have cause for excitement.
It doesn't always take a massive coaching overhaul to resuscitate a fallen program, though. One need only look further up the West Coast to Saturday's stunner in Corvallis, Ore., where Oregon State -- 5-7 and 3-9 the past two seasons -- knocked off two-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin. A team that ranked 84th nationally in total defense a year ago (and in fact lost 35-0 to the Badgers in Madison) shut out Monteé Ball and Co. for 58 minutes, hanging on to win 10-7 after a late Wisconsin touchdown. It was an eye-opening performance for a Beavers team whose original opener against Nicholls State got postponed.
At most BCS-conference programs, a pair of down seasons like the ones Beavers coach Mike Riley just endured would have elicited so much heat he'd have been compelled to fire half his coaching staff. But Corvallis is a different kind of place.
"We have a good group of people I've been with for a long time," Riley said Sunday. "We know we had a couple of rough years but we just kept working. We believe in what we do with kids, that it's about growth and development."
Riley and longtime defensive coordinator Mark Banker employed a couple subtle tweaks Saturday (they played more nickel than usual, with cornerback Jordan Poyer notching a key sack of Badgers quarterback Danny O'Brien using that look), but for the most part, Oregon State is employing the same approach of developing overlooked players into the type of unit that produced a Top 25 rushing defense when the Beavers played Oregon for a spot in the Rose Bowl in 2009.
Four sophomore starters -- defensive linemen Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn, linebacker D.J. Welch and safety Ryan Murphy -- got notably bigger and/or faster after being pressed into action as freshmen. Welch, who had 18 tackles last season, had seven against the Badgers, including two for loss.
Results like these aren't usually the byproduct of one side. Nebraska had issues defensively last season, and apparently those problems have grown worse. Wisconsin was given great benefit of the doubt for a team that lost an NFL opening-day quarterback (Russell Wilson) and six assistant coaches; clearly, these aren't the same Badgers.
But nor are these the same Bruins or Beavers.
"I like the confidence our whole team played with [Saturday]," said Riley. "I loved everything about the offseason, but it was still a mystery to me how we might look like, and not having that first game, the mystery lasted longer.
"I sure hope we [can keep it up], because we play some great running teams."
Indeed: After another bye week, Oregon State's next game is against ... UCLA.
In the wee hours of the morning, as the highlights from Louisiana-Monroe's stunning 34-31 upset of eighth-ranked Arkansas played on endless loop, the man most responsible for the heroics went home and straight to bed.
"My arm was sore from throwing  times and I had a headache from yelling and screaming," Warhawks quarterback Kolton Browning said Sunday. "But I'm feeling great today."
Browning, a three-year starter from Manbank, Texas, shattered all of his previous career highs with a 42-of-67, 412-yard, three-touchdown performance in leading the Warhawks back from a 28-7 third-quarter deficit. With Razorbacks star quarterback Tyler Wilson sidelined in the second half with an injury, Arkansas went scoreless over the last 24:42 of regulation, but it still took two astounding fourth-down conversions at the end for ULM to compete the upset.
First, on fourth-and-10 from the Arkansas 23-yard line with less than a minute remaining, the left-handed Browning stepped up in the pocket and went for the home run, hitting receiver Brent Leonard just in front of his defender and in just the right spot for Leonard to step into the end zone. "It was a great relief," said a reserved Browning. "It's crazy when you go in there with [53,000] people yelling, and suddenly it gets quiet."
After Arkansas kicked a field goal in its half of overtime, the Warhawks opted to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Razorbacks' 16. Browning rolled to his left looking to go downfield again, but Arkansas had his receivers covered. So Browning channeled his inner-Vince Young vs. USC, cutting back across the field and making a beeline for the right corner of the end zone. "I looked back and there's a big hole," Browning said. "I saw all that grass there and I went for it."
In doing so, Browning capped Louisiana-Monroe's first win over an SEC foe since knocking off Nick Saban-led Alabama in 2007. That win came against a 6-6 Crimson Tide team; this came against an Arkansas team that won 11 games a year ago and entered the game ranked eighth in the country. It marked the Sun Belt's first-ever win over a top 10 foe and the Warhawks' first victory over a ranked team since moving up to Division I-A in 1994.
"Everybody was excited," said Browning, a fourth-year junior who's yet to experience a winning season. "We did what we always knew we were capable of doing, which is beating what everybody considers an elite opponent. We enjoyed finally getting over the hump."
There was a moment Saturday night that perfectly captured SEC fans' unparalleled collective pride -- and the reason everyone else resents it. As Georgia players celebrated their 41-20 win over Missouri, the Bulldogs' red-clad cheering section in the lower bowl of Faurot Field broke out the ubiquitous chest-beating "S-E-C, S-E-C" chant ... at a game between two SEC teams.
But the Tigers had it coming as soon as defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson made his now-infamous "Old Man Football" comment about Georgia a week earlier. (Richardson apologized to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt after the game.) So of course, both Georgia-Mizzou and Florida-Texas A&M became referendums on the conference's self-proclaimed brand of "Grown Man Football."
What's amazing is how similarly the two games played out. Texas A&M jumped to a 17-7 first-half lead as the Gators struggled to get a handle on the Aggies' up-tempo offense. Kevin Sumlin's team ran 46 plays before intermission, racking up 269 total yards. But Florida came out after halftime and completely shut down freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, limiting the Aggies to 65 yards -- just 2.8 per play -- and winning 20-17.
Neither Missouri nor Georgia could get much going in the first half, and the score was just 3-3 with two minutes left before intermission. Then both teams woke up and combined for six scores over the next seven series. But the Dawgs did a nice job containing Tigers quarterback James Franklin's rushing attempts, and once Franklin got behind and needed to pass, Georgia star Jarvis Jones almost singlehandedly
Together, the Gators and Bulldogs combined to outscore the newbies 24-0 in the fourth quarter. That essentially reinforced the very point the SEC old guard wanted to make (while of course conveniently ignoring Arkansas' fourth quarter against Louisiana-Monroe).
"They started looking kind of sluggish, not moving around so much like in the first quarter when they were all hyped up," said Georgia receiver Marlon Brown. "We kept grinding and grinding, and I think we just wore them out."
Congrats to the Sooners on their 69-13 rout of Florida A&M. But with all of Oklahoma's offensive question marks, why would anyone keep this team above Georgia and Michigan State, both of which already have quality wins on their résumés?
The Cougars should have been ranked this preseason. They certainly should have entered the polls after their opening-night clinic against Washington State. But they'll move up soon enough if they beat Utah and Boise State the next two weeks.
That Fiesta Bowl spot opposite the Big 12 champion, which I'd previously earmarked for Wisconsin, is suddenly up for grabs. While I'm not entirely confident in the Hokies (nor would the Fiesta Bowl be thrilled about taking a team that's struggled to sell BCS tickets recently), I'm surer of them right now than I am of a second Big Ten team finishing in the top 14.
• Lost in the hubbub over the two SEC newcomers' games, LSU delivered an emphatic statement by pummeling visiting Washington, 41-3. Just last week the Tigers lost preseason All-America tackle Chris Faulk to a potentially season-ending knee injury, but that didn't stop the Tigers' four-headed backfield from grinding out 242 rushing yards. And with
• Remember when Auburn won a BCS championship with a Heisman-winning quarterback? Was that really only two years ago? The Tigers' latest post-Cam quarterback, sophomore Kiehl Frazier, has struggled mightily in two starts and tossed three interceptions Saturday against Mississippi State as Auburn fell to 0-2. Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell, on the other hand, made several spectacular throws in the 28-10 rout, finishing 20-of-29 for 222 yards and three touchdowns.
In light of the disappointing starts for Arkansas and Auburn, there's reason to believe Dan Mullen's team may be the best in the SEC West not named Alabama or LSU. After sliding to 7-6 last season, the Bulldogs will look to return to their nine-win level from 2010. Gene Chizik, on the other hand, suddenly can't catch a break. Next up for the Tigers: Louisiana-Monroe.
• A week after enduring the wrath of Alabama's defense, Michigan's Denard Robinson took a page out of 2010, posting his third career 200/200 game (218 yards rushing, 208 passing) in a 31-25 win over Air Force. Robinson had 426 of Michigan's 422 total yards. Yes, you read that right. That included touchdown runs of 79 and 51 yards. "Not to be cocky or anything but once I get in front of everybody and I see the end zone, I don't think I'm getting caught," Robinson said.
• Meanwhile, Ohio State rival Braxton Miller is starting to take on a Denard-like workload. With tailback Carlos Hyde suffering a knee injury in the second quarter against UCF, Miller carried 27 times for 141 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-16 win. This, after notching 161 yards on 17 carries in the opener against Miami (Ohio). Not that Urban Meyer was pleased with OSU's rushing attack. "We're down to our third tailback, and it looked like it," Meyer said. "We have to get better."
• It's not often a quarterback posts a stat line like Matt Barkley's on Saturday. In a strange, rain-delayed 42-29 win against Syracuse at half-empty MetLife Stadium, USC's quarterback threw for just 187 yards -- but tied a career high with six touchdowns. Marqise Lee now has 21 receptions and four touchdowns in two games, but Robert Woods overshadowed him this week with an electrifying 76-yard run. "I hope nobody forgets about me," joked Woods.
• Currently sitting one spot behind Barkley at No. 10 nationally in pass efficiency: Kansas State's Collin Klein -- you know, the bulldozer who usually just runs the ball. In Saturday's 52-13 rout of visiting Miami, Klein was a lethal 9-of-11 for 210 yards, albeit with an interception. Not all has changed: Klein also ran 22 times for 71 yards and three scores. Bill Snyder's assessment of the Wildcats' clinic: "We're a work in progress," Snyder said, "but we're vastly improved."
• Yet another eye-popping quarterback: Louisville sophomore Teddy Bridgewater. Through two weeks, he's completed 81.7 percent of his throws (49-of-60) for 576 yards in wins over Kentucky and Missouri State. "He's what, 19?" tight end Nate Nord said of Bridgewater. "He plays like he's in his 30s." The South Florida native's December 2011 recruiting flip from Miami to Louisville was deemed a signature moment for Charlie Strong's program, and that's proving accurate.
• As Penn State kicker Sam Ficken's nightmare unfolded Saturday against Virginia -- he had an extra point blocked and missed four field goals, including the potential game-winner, in a 17-16 loss -- the inevitable reaction was: Bill O'Brien's team misses Anthony Fera more than any other transfer. But Fera suffered a groin strain over the summer and has yet to play for Texas, so Ficken likely would have played regardless. Not that it's any solace for the 0-2 Nittany Lions.
• Saturday may have been the finest moment to date in USF quarterback B.J. Daniels' up-and-down career. Down 31-20 at Nevada late in the fourth quarter, Daniels threw a 52-yard touchdown to Chris Dunkley with 2:37 remaining. Then, after getting the ball back a minute later, Daniels threw a go-ahead 56-yard touchdown to Andre Davis with 38 seconds left in a 32-31 win. Daniels finished 22-of-40 for 363 yards and three scores; Davis had 12 catches for 191 yards and two scores.
• The Tommy Rees era at Notre Dame is not over. While redshirt freshman Everett Golson initially overtook the 16-game starter, who was suspended for last week's opener against Navy following an offseason arrest, Rees saved the day Saturday in a 20-17 win over Purdue, leading a two-minute drive to set up Kyle Brindza's game-winning 27-yard field goal. Golson's thumb was bothering him, but coach Brian Kelly said he would have enlisted Rees regardless. But there's no controversy. Really.
• Speaking of Purdue ... is the Boilermakers' Big Ten Leaders Division poised to be this season's version of the 2011 Pac-12 South? Following losses by Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Penn State, the division is a combined 7-5. Ohio State, which is ineligible for the league championship game, has two of those wins; Indiana has two others, against Indiana State and UMass -- and the Hoosiers on Saturday lost starting quarterback Tre Roberson for the season.
• South Carolina did not miss injured quarterback Connor Shaw in a 48-10 win over East Carolina. His replacement, Dylan Thompson, threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns. "If Connor is 100 percent, he's our guy," Steve Spurrier insisted afterward. "Now we know if something happens to Connor, Dylan can go in there." Fast forward to endless sideline shots of Spurrier and/or Thompson the first time Shaw comes back and throws an interception.
• Why do we ever doubt you, Paul Rhoads? Iowa State pulled off its first back-to-back wins over archrival Iowa since the late '90s with a 9-6 struggle that hung in the balance until Cyclones linebacker Jake Knott tipped and intercepted a James Vandenberg pass from the Iowa State 32 with 1:11 left. "This is the best feeling in the world, one that I'll remember the rest of my life," said Knott, a prospective All-America who's quietly notched 245 combined tackles the past two years.
• The WAC may be on its last legs, but it's going out in style. On Friday, Utah State ended a 12-game losing streak to rival Utah with a 27-20 overtime victory. One night later, Louisiana Tech and Houston set an NCAA record for combined first downs (78) as Louisiana Tech won 56-49. Poor Houston, 13-1 last season, is now 0-2, with both losses coming against WAC foes (Texas State last week). Cougars quarterback David Piland threw for 580 yards ... and lost.
• Of all the consequences of conference realignment, the worst might be that Saturday night's Florida State-Savannah State game got scheduled. (West Virginia had to bail on FSU.) The carnage was only 55-0 thanks to FSU pulling its starters in the first quarter and officials using a running clock after halftime. The game was called after two weather delays.
• Nerd Alert I: Northwestern topped Vanderbilt, 23-13, in rain-drenched Evanston. Nerd Alert II: Stanford shook off last week's ugly opener to rout Duke, 50-13.
• Not even Charlie Weis' schematic advantages could prevent moribund Kansas from falling to Rice, 25-24, on a last-second 45-yard field goal.
• But even Weis feels sorry for Colorado coach Jon Embree. The Buffs, 3-10 last season, have opened with losses to Colorado State and Sacramento State (more on that one later).
In a disturbing moment replayed repeatedly Saturday, Tulane safety Devon Walker suffered a cervical spine fracture following a head-to-head collision with a teammate while making a tackle against Tulsa. Walker remains in stable condition after undergoing a three-hour surgery Sunday at St. Francis hospital in Tulsa, where neurosurgeons stabilized his spine. He did not suffer a collapsed lung, as initially reported, but doctors preventively performed CPR on Walker while he was still on the field.
Tulane team doctor Greg Stewart told
"We're just hoping and praying for the best for Devon and his family," said Tulane spokesman Roger Dunaway. So, too, will the rest of us.
For the second straight year, Sacramento State knocked off a Pac-12 foe. Last year it was Oregon State, this year Colorado. Mind you, the Big Sky school is not exactly an FCS power. The Hornets finished 4-7 last year. But they've got at least one new weapon in their arsenal: kicker Edgar Castaneda.
Castaneda, a transfer who moved upstate last offseason from City College of San Francisco, nailed a 31-yard field goal with no time remaining to knock off the Buffs, 30-28. It proved quite fruitful for the walk-on; in his postgame locker room speech, Hornets coach Marshall Sperbeck awarded Castaneda a scholarship.
"I was relaxed; it was just another kick," said Castaneda, who got carried off the field in Boulder. "I was calm."
Here's how drastically Castaneda has upgraded Sacramento State's special teams: He's made five field goals in two games; the Hornets made three all of last season.
The scholarship seems like a worthy investment for Sperbeck.
On the contrary, Southern Utah's receiver hauled in this Hail Mary against Cal in far more acrobatic fashion.