Week 3 of the college football season separated the men from the boys. Who would have guessed that Stanford, yet again, belongs in the first category — and that USC does not? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I. Pretenders (a.k.a. “Not So Much”)
PRETENDER #1: USC
No Andrew Luck, no Jim Harbaugh, no Toby Gerhart? No problem. It’s the same old story: Stanford has USC’s number — and this loss really hurts. More below.
PRETENDER #2: VIRGINIA TECH
The perennial ACC power lays a complete egg at winless Pittsburgh? Embarrassing. Virginia Tech was completely dominated in almost every statistical category, getting outgained by 200 yards, committing four turnovers, and allowing 27 first downs while amassing just 14. Final score: Panthers 35, Hokies 17. Expect Frank Beamer to right the ship quickly.
PRETENDER #3: TENNESSEE
Just when you thought the Vols were back…they’re not. Leading 20-13 at home in the second half, Tennessee could not close the deal, and instead had to endure Florida’s 24-0 run to end the game, thereby capturing their 8th consecutive win in the series. Can Derek Dooley keep his job at the end of the season? Check Vegas for the over/under.
PRETENDER #4: MICHIGAN STATE
Remember all that talk about how great Michigan State’s defense was? Last time I checked, you do have to score some points in order to win a game. Sparty’s hugely deflating 20-3 loss at home to the Irish puts the Big Ten in the BCS basement.
II. Contenders (a.k.a. “Gimme Some Love”)
CONTENDER #1: STANFORD
I owe the Cardinal a major apology this week. Stanford fans will love the special section below. As for USC? I bought into the hype. I don’t like being lied to. Retribution will be swift and uncompromising.
CONTENDER #2: ALABAMA
Good grief. We all knew you were good — 41-14 vs. Michigan in Week 1 proved that — and we all knew you would perform well at Arkansas this week, but 52-0? Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-yum! For the moment, the Tide belongs in its own football universe.
CONTENDER #3: NORTHWESTERN (!?)
What? Northwestern? THE Northwestern?
Stop your taunting. Yes, THAT Northwestern is now 3-0 — with all three wins over BCS schools (take that, weak schedulers) — after a dominating 22-13 victory over BC. Now before you scratch your head and ask how 22-13 can be “dominating,” look at the stat sheet. Northwestern racked up a 560-316 advantage in yardage and held BC to a paltry 25 yards on 21 carries. In other words, they won on offense and defense. Yes, they kicked five field goals because they had issues converting in the red zone, but this team is sneaky good. Don’t forget that it was Northwestern that won AT Nebraska last season to derail the Huskers from a Rose Bowl berth. With all the other teams in the Big Ten having issues, why not the mighty Wildcats?
CONTENDER #4: WEST VIRGINIA
No, they receive no additional props for a walk-through against James Madison (although it should be noted that the Dukes did upset Virginia Tech in 2010). Nevertheless, the Mountaineer offense is astonishingly efficient. To see how astonishing, see the Heisman section below.
CONTENDER #5: FLORIDA
Yes, the Gators — not the Volunteers — are back. For a second straight week, Florida put together a poised second half to win a difficult conference game on the road. Last week it was 20-17 over Texas A&M; this time, 37-20 over UT. With Georgia and South Carolina their most difficult competitors in the SEC East, Florida has a legitimate shot to make the conference title game.
CONTENDER #6: WESTERN KENTUCKY (!)
Willie Taggart is the coach of this team. Willie Taggart was an assistant under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Willie Taggart coaches like Jim Harbaugh. Need I say more? Western Kentucky, a team which entered the FBS only five seasons ago and went 0-12 in 2009, has now won nine of its last eleven games. The only losses? Er, well, those were at #1 LSU and at #1 Alabama.
If I’m the scheduler for any team in the country, I do NOT schedule the Hilltoppers.
CONTENDER #7: NOTRE DAME (maybe)
Let’s not get too carried away with this 3-0 start. Or should we? Let’s see…3-0…or is that 30, as in the total number of points the Irish have given up over their first three games? If they can hold down Michigan next week, it’s time to believe.
CONTENDER #8: LSU (perhaps)
North Texas + Washington + Idaho (all at home) = 145-31 after three games. Should we be impressed? Not yet. Playing at reeling Auburn next week followed by a gimme against Towson (who?) means LSU will likely be 5-0 by the time they finally get a challenge at Florida. The Tigers can move up to #2 in my rankings after they’ve played someone of note.
III. Significant Others
In the mix
Florida State: I’ll wait until you beat someone good. Granted, 52-0 puts you in good company (Alabama won by the same score this week), and eviscerating pesky Wake Forest is satisfying when you had lost to them 4 of the past 6 seasons. Still, it’s time to play a game away from home. The Seminoles have a laughably easy schedule this year; if they get past Clemson (also at home) next week, they won’t be tested at all until November, when they play at Virginia Tech — who lost miserably this weekend. If FSU loses one game — ANY game — they should be out of the national championship discussion. Strength of schedule has to count for something (cough cough Murray State Savannah State weak ACC).
Oregon: similar to Florida State above — but the Pac-12 season is going to be a killer, so if the Ducks can run the table, they’ll have earned their spot in the national championship game.
Kansas State: loved your win over Miami. A little dicey against North Texas this week. Let’s see how you do vs. Oklahoma.
Nebraska: nice bounce back win (42-13) over a tricky Arkansas State team.
Near Miss #1: Louisiana Monroe
Second straight week on the road vs. an SEC team. Second straight week down 14 in the 4th quarter. Second straight week forcing overtime. Second straight week the game was decided by 3 points.
Last week: win over Arkansas; this week, near miss vs. Auburn. Still, Warhawks, you have won the heart of every college football fan in the nation (exception: Razorback fans).
Near Miss #2: Utah State
After defeating Utah last week, Utah State was on the verge of another huge win at floundering Wisconsin. The Aggies lined up for a game-winning 37-yard field goal with seconds to play, but missed, allowing the Badgers to escape, 16-14. And so, you ask, why is Wisconsin still ranked? Answer: beats the heck out of me. Get with it, Coaches Poll.
Near Miss #3: North Carolina
I include this result only to show that bad coaching is an equal opportunity phenomenon. Trailing 36-7 at the half, North Carolina was all but dead. Indeed, Louisville’s outstanding young QB Teddy Bridgewater was 16 for 19 for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Now, boys and girls, as Mr. G. always asks: what do you do when you have an opponent on the ropes? YOU KNOCK THEM OUT! Charlie Strong, however, inexplicably took the ball out of his QB’s hands, and played to run out the clock in the second half. The result was predictable: 36-7 turned into 36-14 (ok), 39-14 (yes), 39-21 (a little nervous), 39-28 (more nervous), 39-34 — wait a minute, 39-34? Suddenly it’s the 4th quarter in a five-point game! North Carolina kicks off and…Louisville fumbles!! It goes down to the last minute, with the Tar Heels facing 4th and goal from the 4 yard line…the crowd is hyperventilating…the pass is headed to UNC’s tallest receiver, and — it’s JUST broken up! Final score: 39-34.
I like Charlie Strong, but that was bad, bad coaching. He is lucky to have survived this game. If Louisville had lost, it would have been entirely his fault. He owes his players that win. On the flip side, kudos to North Carolina — the team and coach (Larry Fedora) — for hanging in there to the end.
IV. Heisman Race
Let me be clear about this: in my opinion, it is way, way, WAY too early to be talking about this when only a quarter of the season has been played. Furthermore, Heisman voters should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to send in their ballots before all games have been played! I am amazed this is not a requirement!! Don’t get me started.
Having said this, I will point out one player who is worth watching, and another who isn’t.
Keep your eyes on: Geno Smith (West Virginia)
WHY (from Bruce Feldman, CBS Sports): “West Virginia hasn’t faced anyone close to a Top 25 team thus far, but you still have to do a double-take at what QB Geno Smith has been doing so far. Through two games, Smith has accounted for more TDs than he’s thrown incompletions (10-9): 66-75 (88%) for 734 passing yards to go with his nine TD passes and one rushing TD. Also: 0 INTs.” Impressive indeed — against any competition.
Take your eyes off: Matt Barkley (USC)
WHY NOT: I thoroughly enjoy reading the Foley Report, my cousin-in-law’s excellent weekly commentary on Trojan football. For those of you who don’t know, Shane Foley played QB at USC from 1986-90. He’s an ardent Trojan supporter and does an exhaustive and insightful analysis of Southern Cal football. Even though I’m a Bruin, I agree with Shane 90% of the time, and our opinions on the state of the conference generally coincide. (Proof? I predicted a USC blowout in last year’s cross town rivalry. Nuff said.)
In the case of Matt Barkley…let’s just say that topic falls in the 10% category. I’ve never liked him; I do not believe he is a good leader, based on the way he has handled himself after victories (no less) over UCLA and Notre Dame; and as a result you might conclude that I don’t want him to win the Heisman — and you would be correct. So instead of having my personal biases dictate this discussion, I instead direct you to this link:
So long, Mr. Barkley. Enjoy your NFL paycheck.
V. Pac-12 Commentary: top to (very) bottom
USC, Stanford: see special section below.
Utah: Holy cow! Or should we say, Holy War? After getting throttled 54-10 at home the previous year, BYU was looking for revenge against fierce in-state rival Utah. The Utes came out swinging, taking a 24-7 lead into the 4th quarter, and seemed to have the game in hand. The Mormons, however, responded with two late TD’s to cut the lead to three. As for the last seven seconds, you would not believe me if I explained it to you, so perhaps you should watch:
Cal: played their best game of the season in front of 105,000 crazy people at the ‘Shoe in Columbus. Cal erased a 20-7 halftime deficit as well as a 28-21 fourth quarter shortfall and easily could have won, save for three horrendously awful missed field goals and a complete breakdown on coverage that allowed the final margin of victory for Ohio State. Nevertheless, the Buckeyes must consider themselves lucky indeed to have posted a 35-28 victory over a determined Golden Bear squad that may have lost its second game, but finally found an identity.
Arizona State: similar to Cal, the Sun Devils made a valiant comeback in a hostile environment, only to fall just short against Missouri. Trailing 24-7 to start the 4th quarter, ASU rallied to cut the lead to 24-20 and had a chance to win with a minute to go, but a final (4th) turnover ended their hopes. The Devils also missed a critical extra point which would have made it 24-21.
UCLA: it is rare to feel displeased after your team wins 37-6, and yet I find myself in the happily disgruntled situation of nitpicking a near-flawless performance by the Bruin defense. Indeed, holding Houston (which, as I pointed out last week, completed 53 passes and scored 49 points in their previous game) to a solitary fourth quarter score should be cause for celebration. Furthermore, the UCLA D intercepted five passes (three by Sheldon Price) and forced a fumble. So what’s my problem? The kicking game? No, the Bruins fixed that in a big way: Fairbairn scored 13 points, hitting 4 PAT’s and 3 field goals without a miss. Additionally, UCLA finished with 29 first downs and 567 yards of total offense and had the ball for 41:14 to just 18:46 for Houston. So what is it? “It” is the turnovers: UCLA committed five of them. The Bruins are very fortunate not to have done this against Nebraska (or perhaps even Rice), because they would not have won that game. UCLA is 3-0 and has won their games with offense (vs. Rice and Nebraska), defense (vs. Nebraska), and now special teams and defense (vs. Houston). If they want to compete in the Pac-12, however, they’re going to have to play well in all three phases consistently. That remains to be seen.
Oregon State: bye week; huge early season contest at UCLA in week four.
Oregon: no credit for a lopsided win over Tennessee Tech at home.
Arizona: similar to Oregon, no credit for a lopsided win over South Carolina State at home. Actually I would have preferred to see Tennessee Tech play against South Carolina State. Fortunately, we will get to see Oregon play against Arizona next week.
Washington: defeated Portland State, 52-13. The only interesting thing: that was the identical score by which Kansas State defeated Miami the previous week. Remarkable! You may not see such a score again for a decade.
Stupid Washington State: barely survived their outing against winless UNLV, escaping 35-27. I am not impressed.
Colorado: as if last week’s home loss to Sacramento State wasn’t bad enough, consider this: while playing at Fresno State on Saturday, the Buffs allowed over 500 yards of total offense in the FIRST HALF. I repeat: Colorado trailed 55-7. AT THE HALF. Can we evict this team and send them to the Mountain West?
VI. Special Pullout: Stanford vs. USC Breakdown
Well, shut my mouth. Again.
Last year, USC forced me to eat crow after I was certain the Ducks would win in Eugene. This time, the shoe is on the other foot — or perhaps my other foot is now in my mouth — as Stanford shocked everyone (other than themselves) with another cataclysmic victory over the Trojans.
How did this happen? Again?
There are many reasons. I’ll give you my take, as best I can, by going through the game itself. Trojan fans, brace yourselves.
Let’s start with the first half. Stanford QB Josh Nunes, perhaps not ready for the big stage, started off poorly, going 6 for 17 with two picks. This should have been the death knell for the Cardinal: the game should have been over at halftime. Yet Barkley threw two costly interceptions, both in good field position, and both ill-advised. Thus, instead of a rout, USC led only 14-7 at the break.
In addition to weak QB play, USC’s coaching has to be criticized. Leading 14-7 and facing 4th and 2 from the Stanford 13, the Trojans eschewed a 30-yard field goal and instead tried for a deep pass into the end zone. Yes, the pass could have been caught, but it was not. I am aware that USC was without their starting kicker, but if your backup has been perfect on extra points, you have to have faith that he can make a chip shot field goal. In a low scoring, defensive game with few possessions, you MUST take a 10-point lead. USC did not. Stanford remained one score behind midway through the third quarter.
It is worth noting that no fault can be found with USC’s defense, which played more than well enough to win this game. The offense, however, and perhaps more disturbingly the leadership, deserve plenty of blame. USC scored NO POINTS in the final 41 minutes of play! With all of the offensive weapons at USC’s disposal, that is absolutely unfathomable. Much will be made of USC’s struggles at center due to the injury of Khaled Holmes, but the truth of the matter is that USC’s entire offensive line was completely outplayed by Stanford’s defensive front.
This brings me back to Barkley. As I have said in the past, the recipe for a champion football player is this: G.P.M.B.P.I.B.G. — Great Players Make Big Plays In Big Games. With SC trailing by 7 and the game — and perhaps the season — on the line, an unpressured Barkley missed an open Marqise Lee on a simple flat route on 3rd down, and USC was forced to punt. Yes, the offensive line did not help at all, causing Barkley to be hurried and uncomfortable all evening; but if you’re the team’s leader, especially as a 4th year starter, your team is looking to you to perform well in pressure situations! In the rare cases when the pressure has been on, Barkley has not consistently answered the bell: at Arizona State last year, at Oregon last year with the game slipping away (USC did win that game, but no thanks to the offense in the second half), and now, again, at Stanford. I’m sorry, but this is not what I look for in a Heisman Trophy winner. Anyone can play well when their team wins 49-10 or 50-0, but true greatness reveals itself when your team is on the ropes and needs you to lead. 20 of 41 with zero TD’s and two INT’s? That won’t get it done.
By contrast, Nunes’s humble reply in the face of a season-defining win was leadership embodied:
Reporter: “After two seasons (of waiting behind Andrew Luck), do you feel like you finally made a name for yourself in this game?”
Nunes: “I wouldn’t say so, not at all. I’d say the team did a great job tonight. The O Line did a great job tonight.”
The remarkable thing is that I was actually rooting for USC to win this game, if only because I wanted the Trojans to be undefeated entering the month of November. But as I approached the Old Pro to watch the end of the game, I came across a table of Trojan fans wearing “Arrogant Nation” shirts in cardinal and gold. Really? You actually put that on a shirt advertising your university?
Honestly I don’t even have a response to that one.
Instead of arrogance, Stanford did its talking the old-fashioned way. They were the more physical team, plain and simple. The won in the style of old school USC (!), by grinding down the opponent over four quarters, and imposing their will in the trenches. Defensively, the Cardinal held USC — with Barkley, two 1,000-yard backs and the country’s best receiving combo — to 280 yards on the night. Stanford not only shut the Trojans out in the second half, they limited them to just 91 yards! Thus, Stanford was able to win this game despite missing three field goals!
When I asked Cindy Kaloostian about her reaction to the game, she said that USC was “outcoached, outplayed, and outsmarted…Kiffin looked like he didn’t know who he was or where he was, and the team followed suit.” I would only add that Barkley fell into the same category as the head coach.
It is easy to criticize a team after a difficult loss, but I’m afraid the criticism is deserved. USC had all the weapons needed to make a run at a national championship. Barkley, Woods, and Lee — or at least Woods and Lee — should be sufficient for several touchdowns each game. USC’s defense, as pointed out earlier, played excellently. Stanford was playing with a first-year starting QB, who himself did not play particularly well, and Stanford’s kicking game was poor. Andrew Luck was gone; Stanford’s offensive line had been rebuilt. This was USC’s year — or it should have been.
Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps I should be giving credit to David Shaw, who expected to win this game all along without doing anything unusual. I criticized him harshly after Stanford’s Fiesta Bowl loss last year — his decision to line up for a game-winning field goal instead of taking several free tries for a touchdown at the end of the game was indeed inexcusable — but I have to give him props this time. Stanford just beat USC for the fourth straight year for the first time ever. In fact, each of Stanford’s most recent wins vs. the Trojans seems to have a nickname of its own:
2007 — Greatest Upset Ever (Stanford takes down #2 SC as a 41-point underdog)
2009 — Humiliation (or, “What’s Your Deal?” — 55-21 at the Coliseum)
2010 — Heart Breaker (37-35 on the last play of the game)
2011 — Barn Burner (56-48 in triple overtime)
2012 — Bye Bye Barkley (21-14, again over the #2 Trojans)
Losing 11 straight times to Notre Dame had to hurt, and losing 8 in a row to UCLA had to sting, but losing four in a row to Stanford, as my dad explained, is unbearable for SC fans. Send them some Prozac.
VII. Pac-12 Power Rankings by Division
(I won’t try to put this in two columns since the editor didn’t like it when I tried last week)
1. Oregon (for now)
3. Oregon State
4. Washington and Cal
6. Washington State
1. Hmmm…I guess still USC, but unlike at the beginning of the season, I now have my doubts
2c. Arizona State?
124. Colorado (there are 124 teams in the FBS; Colorado can fight it out with Idaho for the last spot)
To conclude this eventful third week, I leave you with my favorite score from this Saturday:
Hawaii 54, Lamar 2
On to Week 4!