Week 10: Survival at the Top

It was a weekend of close calls for the teams at the top of the college football universe.  Only two of the remaining six unbeatens won by more than two touchdowns.  One team waited until the final minute, while another needed three overtimes.  It ain’t easy having the target on your back.

IA. Survivor #1: Quack Attack

If you had told me before the game that USC would put up 51 points and 615 yards, go 8-for-13 on 3rd downs, punt only once, and add another 266 yards in kick returns, I would have assured you of a second consecutive Trojan upset over the Ducks.  In fact, all of the above occurred — save for the USC victory.

How, you ask?  Simple: Oregon did even more on offense than the Trojans.  “51 points?  No big deal, we’ll just score 62.”  What about USC’s 615 yards?  “Child’s play.  730 sounds better to us.”  Thus did the Ducks keep their perfect season intact, recording the most points and yards against USC in the storied 124-year football history of the Trojans.

Commentary?  There’s not much to say.  USC played hard and tried to win.  Oregon, however, was just better: USC’s defense could not stop the Ducks.  8, 9, 10, 11 yard rushes were as common as LA traffic on a work day.  Oregon’s defense is a cause for concern — no one had put up numbers like that against the Ducks this season — but to win by 11 points despite giving up 51?  That’s hard to believe…unless, of course, you watched the game, in which case it seemed inevitable.

IB. Survivor #2: Luck, Luck, Luck of the Irish

Notre Dame, statistically, flattened Pitt.  But when you turn it over three times and your opponent doesn’t turn it over at all, strange things can happen.  Indeed, the Panthers took a 20-6 lead into the 4th quarter at Notre Dame Stadium, and it appeared that the Irish were headed to their first loss of the season.  But ND pulled within 20-12, then scored the game-tying touchdown and two point conversion to send it to overtime.

Surely the Golden Domers could not count on a second miracle.  Right?  Wrong.  After trading field goals in the first overtime, Cierre Wood coughed it up for the Irish just before reaching the end zone.  Pitt lined up for the game winner — a 33-yard field goal — but missed, just wide right.  That forced a third overtime, and this time, Notre Dame scored a touchdown to win, 29-26.

Notre Dame has now won each of its five home games by a touchdown or less this season.  Should we be impressed?  Well…I guess so.  After all, great teams find ways to win even when they aren’t playing their best.  Still, it would be nice to see Notre Dame actually play its best one of these weeks, against someone other than Oklahoma.  This was an escape act par excellence, and the Irish can’t count on that week after week.

IC. Survivor #3: Tide Doesn’t Roll…Until the End

This one has to hurt — if you’re an LSU fan.

The Tigers had this game in hand.  They dominated Alabama in the second half on both sides of the ball and held the Tide to 1-of-9 on 3rd down conversions for the game.  Furthermore, they were ahead 17-14 with just over two minutes to play.  At home.

They lost, 21-17.  The coach has to take responsibility for this one, because he put his team in position to lose, thanks to a fake field goal (on 4th and 12???) that failed, a long field goal near the end of the first half that missed (and led to a short field for Alabama, who scored a TD with nine seconds before halftime), an onside kick that didn’t work, and — worst of all — a called blitz with a 3-point lead and a minute to go that allowed Alabama’s final touchdown.

Given the circumstances of the game, LSU should have been content to give Alabama, at BEST, a chance for a tying field goal.  Instead, after playing far too soft on the previous four plays (allowing the Tide to drive down the field quickly using simple, underneath routes), LSU gambled again and lost.  I like Les Miles, but my oh my, that was an awful display of coaching.  His team was better than Alabama on this day, but he took the W right out of their hands.  Ouch.

What did we learn?  Alabama may be good, but they are beatable.  The Tigers put up 435 yards against a defense that had been shutting down every opponent they had faced.  The Tide certainly deserves to be #1, but the aura of invincibility is gone.

ID. Survivor #4: K-State’s Head Banger

Kansas State was outgained, but Oklahoma State turned it over five times.  You ain’t never gonna beat a Bill Snyder-coached team when you do that.  Final score: Wildcats 44, Cowboys 30.

But wait: that’s not the lead headline?  No, it’s not.  Collin Klein had to leave the game with a head injury of some sort.  That is HUGE news, because without him, it will be tough for the Wildcats to stay unbeaten — and even harder for the Heisman frontrunner to maintain his lead.  The next two weeks will be crucial; can K-State keep it together, even if Klein isn’t cleared to play?

IE. Drama Free: Ohio State, Louisville Cruise

Louisville’s game against Temple was kind of close, until it wasn’t.  The Cardinals flattened the Owls in the second half to post a 45-17 win and record their first 9-0 start in school history.  As for Ohio State, they bulldozed hapless Illinois 52-22 to move to 10-0.  The Buckeyes travel to Wisconsin in two weeks, however, and for perhaps the first time in my life I will be rooting for the Badgers — for no other reason than I don’t want a team on probation to end the season undefeated, particularly playing such a weak schedule.

Now that we’ve covered the survivors at the top, let’s get back to the Pac.

II. Conference Rundown: Not Pretty

Oregon 62, USC 51: as stated above, this was a good effort by the Trojans; Oregon was just better.  The Ducks are not merely the best team in the conference but also the most frightening offensive team in football.

Washington 21, Dumb Cal 13: if you didn’t watch this game, consider yourself blessed.  Both teams played poorly, but Cal found a way to play worse, allowing UW to escape with its first road victory in 13 months despite four turnovers and 12 penalties.  I could say more, but that would be a rare form of torture.

Utah 49, Stupid Washington State 6: a week after the Cougars took Stanford to the wire, they fell apart completely in Salt Lake City.  WSU QB Jeff Tuel fumbled, threw an interception, and was sacked six times.  If you’re looking for a silver lining, the Cougars did avoid the shutout on the game’s final play.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for a silver lining, you’re too much of an optimist.

Stanford 48, Colorado 0: the Cardinal have found a new QB in Kevin Hogan; will he start the remaining games this season?  Before you get excited about his numbers (18-23, 2 TD, 0 INT) or about the defensive performance, remember: this was Colorado.  The Buffaloes are dead last in the nation in scoring defense, kickoff coverage, sacks allowed, and passing efficiency.  Colorado is terrible.  Stanford — like USC and UCLA earlier this season — gets no extra credit for this win.  We’ll see if they’ve improved (especially on offense) when they host the Beavers this coming week.  Speaking of which:

Oregon State 36, Arizona State 26: huh.  Oregon State’s backup QB, Cody Vaz, starts the game and completes just 14 of 33 passes, loses a fumble in the end zone, and throws an interception — yet the Beavers win by 10 points anyway?  That says something about the quality of the team.  Mike Riley continues to work his magic in Corvallis, despite injuries to his starting QB, running back, and leading cornerback.  That’s called overachieving, folks.

UCLA 66, Arizona 10: picture it.  I’m teaching a free seminar on parenting (no, seriously) on Saturday evening, which ends around 8:45.  I drive to the Old Pro to watch the second half of the UCLA-Arizona game.  I’m ready to watch the dramatic conclusion of what promises to be a high-scoring Pac-12 classic.

The only problem: someone forgot to give UCLA the message.

The Bruins decided that this game would be over by halftime.  The first 12 possessions — don’t blink, or you’ll miss them like I did — went like this:

  • UCLA TD, Arizona punt
  • UCLA TD, Arizona punt
  • UCLA TD, Arizona punt
  • UCLA punt fumbled by Arizona and recovered by UCLA = UCLA TD, Arizona field goal
  • UCLA TD, Arizona punt
  • UCLA TD, halftime

What?  It was 42-3 at the HALF????  I showed up and didn’t know whether to be happy at the result or angry at having missed the action.  Then I remembered UCLA’s last outing against the Wildcats: the 48-12 disaster that signaled the beginning of the end for Rick Neuheisel.

Given that I will be attending the USC and Stanford games in person, I decided that missing this magnificent breakout performance (against a ranked team, mind you) was the price I had to pay for providing a free service to the Cupertino community.  Besides, I still got to enjoy 24 more points in the second half.  Meanwhile, Uncle Roger and Cousin Greta were delighted to watch the entire game in donor seats.

Could this be the game that heralds the resurgence of the UCLA Bruins?  The last time I can recall UCLA playing a game like this against a ranked team was back in 1997-98 with Cade McNown.  UCLA had over 300 yards rushing and passing in this game, but what was even more impressive was how the defense completely shut down the Wildcats, holding them to a mere 257 yards just a week after they put up 588 against USC.

I’m trying hard not to get ahead of myself.  This team remains the wildcard in the conference.  But make no mistake: UCLA is much better than I realized, and for the first time in a decade, the Bruins have more than just a puncher’s chance against USC — if they have the maturity to take care of business at WSU on Saturday.  Which reminds me:

III. Conference Power Rankings; Week 11 Previews

South

  1. USC.  At this point I must give this ranking based on talent ONLY, not on performance to date.
  2. UCLA.  The Bruins are surging; can they keep it up?
  3. Arizona.  Great win over USC followed by tough loss to UCLA.  Where now, Wildcats?
  4. Arizona State.  Sun Devils are in the midst of a tough stretch, and now must play at USC.
  5. Utah.  Utes could jump both Arizona schools this week if they extend their two-game winning streak.
  6. Colorado.  Oh dear.

North

  1. Oregon.  Yes, they are annoying and arrogant, but yes, they are really good too.
  2. Oregon State.  The team of destiny?  If the Beavers defeat Stanford and Cal, they could end up in the Rose Bowl — even if they lose to Oregon.  I cannot say enough good things about the job Mike Riley has done this season.  No one in the conference does more with less.
  3. Stanford.  A lot like Notre Dame, but without the 9-0 record.  Of course, a win over Oregon State this weekend will force me to reconsider.
  4. Washington.  Not a good team.  Sorry, just not a good team.  All of their wins have been of the “oops, the other team screwed up” variety.
  5. Dumb Cal.  This team DOES have talent, particularly on defense, but the offensive inconsistency has doomed the Bears to a losing season.
  6. SWSU.  Please, oh please play like you did against Utah this weekend — and not like how you played against Stanford the weekend before.

Colorado at Arizona: Colorado couldn’t beat an egg right now, much less a Pac-12 team.

Arizona State at USC: unfortunately for the Sun Devils, they are going to meet an angry Trojans team at the Coliseum.  ASU has some players, but USC is going to be steaming mad after having dropped two straight.  I just can’t see SC falling to 6-4, unless they have a hangover from the Oregon loss.  Barkley and Co. must put that behind them and show maturity.  I think they will.  After all, the Pac-12 title is still within reach — despite three conference losses already.

Oregon State at Stanford: the most intriguing matchup of the week, by far.  I believe Oregon State is the better team, but Stanford gets this crucial game at home.  I expect it to be relatively low scoring and defensive.  Both teams are physical.  The winner?  Whoever makes fewer mistakes.  A Stanford loss would signal the end of the Cardinal’s reign among the conference’s elite.

Utah at Washington: also intriguing, but for completely different reasons.  I still maintain that UW is a fraud.  Utah is starting to hit its stride; can they win their third in a row?  A loss in this game would be devastating to the Huskies, but even so, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Utes win, particularly if they play as well as they did last week.  If Utah avoids turnovers and Washington plays about as well as they did in their win over Cal last week, Utah walks out of Seattle with the victory.

Oregon at Dumb Cal: before you hold your fingers over your nose in disgust, don’t forget about the near-disaster that almost befell the Ducks two seasons ago.  Oregon, undefeated and ranked #2 in the country, escaped Berkeley with a 15-13 win, due in large part to a missed field goal by Cal in the second half.  Could this happen again?  Could Cal make a game of it?  It’s not likely — but then again, it’s not impossible either.  Oregon needs to take command of this game early and make it utterly un-interesting by halftime, or else…who knows.

UCLA at SWSU: the Cougars are a train wreck right now, but this game is in the Palouse and the temperature will be in the 20’s.  UCLA needs to do to WSU what Oregon needs to do to Cal: get ahead early and end any drama before it starts.  I’ve watched enough “interesting” games at WSU to know that you can’t take anything for granted.  If the Cougars defense plays like it did against Stanford, an upset is absolutely possible.  Having said that, the 14 point spread seems rather generous to WSU.  If the Bruins play like they’re capable of, this game won’t be remotely close.  We’ll see.

IV. National Roundup

  • Vanderbilt 40, Kentucky 0: when you get shut out at home by Vanderbilt, you’re probably going to lose your job.  Quickly.  Like the next day.  So long, Joker Phillips.
  • Tennessee 55, Troy 48: Derek Dooley won’t lose his job quite as quickly, but he’ll still lose it by the end of the season.
  • Texas A&M 38, Mississippi State 13: a huge road win for the Aggies.  Can they put a scare into Alabama this week?  It’s not out of the question, folks.
  • TCU 39, West Virginia 38: the Mountaineer defense has more loopholes than Mitt Romney’s tax plan.
  • Indiana 24, Iowa 21: with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible, the Big Ten Leaders division suddenly boils down to this Saturday’s contest between Wisconsin and — INDIANA???  That’s right people: if Indiana wins that game, they have the inside track to the conference title game — even if they finish 5-7.  Stranger things have happened.  (Actually no, stranger things haven’t happened, unless they involve Greta.)
  • San Diego State 21, Boise State 19: and there goes Boise’s string of being ranked in the AP poll every week since 2007.  A landmark victory for the Aztecs: their first road win over a ranked opponent, ever!  (That seems almost impossible to believe.)

That’s all I got.  See you next week.

–Mr. G.

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