Week 11: Duck, Duck, Goose?

Week 11 of the college football season featured several thrilling games.  When the dust had settled, only three (non-probation) teams remained undefeated: Oregon, Kansas State, and Notre Dame — or, as far as the BCS is concerned, Duck, Duck, and Goose.

I. Narrowing It Down, Part 1: National Notes

Texas A&M 29, #1 Alabama 24: Last week I mentioned that Alabama’s aura of invincibility had disappeared after their last-minute escape at LSU.  This week, their luck — if you want to call it that — ran out completely.  Or, if I am being more objective, I should instead state that they ran into a better team.

Yes folks, I just said that.  The Saban Machine, playing at home, lost to Texas A&M not because of a fluke, and not because of a letdown from the LSU game, but because the Aggies were better — at least on this day.  Freshman sensation Johnny Manziel staked A&M to a stunning 20-0 lead before the Tide realized what had hit them.  Previously un-intercepted AJ McCaroon threw two, including his final pass, with Alabama facing 4th and goal from the 2.  The Tide also fumbled once and had 12 penalties for 112 total yards.

The most impressive statistic, however, was A&M’s 421 total yards.  Manziel accounted for 253 through the air and a critical 92 more on the ground to keep Alabama off balance all game.  This is a freshman quarterback!  But no matter: he just strolled into Bryant-Denny Stadium and played virtually mistake-free football (no turnovers, 24-31 passing) in front of 101,821 of his closest, er, friends.  Simple as that.  What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that the SEC is likely to miss out on a shot at the national championship for the first time in seven years.  With Oregon, Kansas State, and Notre Dame unbeaten, Alabama (or Georgia) would need two of them to lose in order to open up a spot for a once-defeated SEC team.  Stranger things have happened, though, and you don’t need to look much further than last year, when Alabama somehow made it into the championship game despite not winning its division (let alone its conference).

But enough about Alabama; this game was about Texas A&M.  Looking at it in retrospect, I should have realized that the Aggies were going to win this game before it was even played.  After all, who can possibly defend someone named Johnny Football?  Who (other than perhaps Greta) could stop a running back whose first name is Christine?  (He scored both of A&M’s rushing touchdowns.)  Finally, is there anyone in the universe who can score on a defensive back named Deshazor?  (Certainly not McCarron, whose final pass was intercepted by His Impenetrability.)  The Tide had no chance against such superior names.  Talent had nothing to do with it.

OK, maybe it did have something to do with it.  Regardless, this was a monumental victory for Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M, who are now one of the hottest teams in the country.  Anyone want to take them on?  I didn’t think so.

#2 Oregon 59, Cal 17: More below in the Pac-12 Roundup.

#3 Kansas State 23, TCU 10: Don’t let the relatively close score fool you.  The Wildcats smothered TCU the entire game, leading 23-0 until the final seven minutes.  Collin Klein was not spectacular, but did nothing to harm his Heisman candidacy.  Playing the week after a head injury, his passing was slightly off, but his running was as good as usual: he accounted for both of K-State’s touchdowns.  The story of the night, however, was the Wildcat defense, which limited the Horned Frogs to 96 rushing (and 274 total) yards.  With games at Baylor and vs. Texas to close out the season, Bill Snyder may finally get his shot at the national championship game.

#4 Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6: Boring but efficient?  Pretty much.  After last week’s Houdini against Pitt, the Irish will take any no-drama win they can get.  This game qualifies.  Notre Dame did not score in the final 25 minutes, but they didn’t need to.  Their defense held BC to just two field goals.  ND avoided the fate of the 1993 team, which lost on the final play of the final game of the season to BC to finish 10-1 and miss out on a chance at the national championship.

As it stands, Notre Dame will move up to #3 in the BCS standings, and will need a loss by either Kansas State or Oregon to jump into the title game — assuming they can get by Wake Forest and USC, which is anything but a foregone conclusion.

#5 Ohio State: Fradulent Undefeated #1 was off this week, but hopefully will lose to Wisconsin this coming Saturday.  Please, Buckeyes, do not go undefeated while on probation.  That leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

Syracuse 45, #9 Louisville 26: Fradulent Undefeated #2 did not survive, getting walloped in what is arguably the ugliest stadium in the country, the Carrier Dome.  Ryan Nassib led the Big East’s top offensive unit to 45 points, thereby upstaging another strong performance from Louisville freshman QB Teddy Bridgewater.  Louisville’s problem area all season has been its defense, and this time, it finally caught up to them.  The Cardinals can still win the Big East, but any long shot hopes at a national championship berth are history.

II. Narrowing It Down, Part 2: Pac-12 Notes

To put you in suspense, I will start with the games that had little or no bearing on the conference race before discussing the games that determined who was still alive for the division titles.

Washington 34, Utah 15: Once again I should have seen this coming.  Mitt Romney lost to Washington (D.C.) last Tuesday, so it only makes sense that Utah would also lose to Washington (state) on Saturday.  Call it a bad week for the Mormons.  The Utes had scored 49 in successive weeks, at home, against Cal and WSU, while UW had yet to score more than 21 points in any game this season against FBS competition.  So what happened?  Utah regressed — badly — fumbling five times, going a putrid 1-13 on third downs, and accounting for only 188 total yards.  Meanwhile, Washington found an offense against what had been a relatively stout Utah unit.  This is a very disappointing loss for Utah, which hasn’t won a road game since last November at WSU.

Arizona 56, Colorado 31: “I’ve been Ka’Deemed” should become the new official worship song of the University of Arizona Football Christian Church, following Ka’Deem Carey’s messianic 366 rushing yards (one for every day of the leap year!) and five rushing touchdowns, both conference records.  To their credit, overmatched Colorado trailed just 21-17 with under three minutes to go before halftime, but the Wildcats finished off the Buffaloes 35-14 thereafter.  At least there are signs of life for CU’s program, which reached its moribund low last week in losing 48-0 at home to Stanford.

Oregon 59, Cal 17: Don’t be misled: this one was close for quite a while.  Cal was right there, trailing 24-17 midway through the third quarter, and had the ball.  Then, like a sudden thunderstorm from nowhere, disaster struck.  Backup Cal QB Allan Bridgford’s screen pass was picked off; Oregon scored on the next play.  31-17.  Then 38-17.  Then 45-17.  Then 52-17.  Then 59-17.  The final 20-25 minutes could have been taken from the scene of a Batman episode: Whack!  Bam!  Pop!  Crash!  Pow!  Note too that all five of those TD’s were through the air.  Cal had sold out to stop Oregon’s run game, which had decimated USC the week before.  The Bears bottled up the Ducks on the ground, but that merely allowed Marcus Mariota to have a career day.  Good night, Cal, and peaceful retirement dreams, Jeff Tedford.

USC 38, Arizona State 17: Let’s call this “Hmmmm #1.”  On the one hand, USC’s defense returned, holding ASU to 15 first downs and 250 total yards while forcing four Sun Devil turnovers.  On the other hand, ASU actually led this game 17-14 in the second half, due in large part to two Trojan fumbles and three more Barkley interceptions.  USC fans must be relieved to get this win, but cannot be happy with the play of the offense — save for Marqise Lee (10 catches, 161 yards, TD) and perhaps Curtis McNeal (31 rushes, 163 yards, 2 TD).  The Trojans did limit themselves to four penalties, which is a plus.  But if the Trojans turn it over five times against UCLA on Saturday, they can’t expect to come out with another victory.

What the Trojans do NOT need are any further shenanigans (deflated balls, questionable number changing, blocked media access) that draw international attention.  The following video was posted by an animation company in Taiwan.  I pity USC AD Pat Haden.  He’s a class act who never would have hired Lane Kiffin in the first place, but he’s stuck with him, and with videos like this (which I first saw on the CBS Sports website):

UCLA 44, Washington State 36: “Hmmmm #2.”  In last week’s blog, I explained that UCLA had to get out to a fast start and put the game out of reach early.  Otherwise, WSU had a legit shot at the upset, because strange things happen in Pullman.  So…which of those occurred?

Yes.

As it turns out, UCLA, buoyed by four (!) blocked kicks, raced to a 37-7 halftime lead, and for all intents and purposes, the game was over.  Or was it?  Anyone who knows the history of WSU football knows that the Cougars can conjure up crazy offense at any time, particularly when they’re way behind.  Saturday was no different.  Trailing 44-14, the Cougars refused to die, finding their offensive rhythm on a frigid night in the Palouse.  WSU scored 22 unanswered points to close the gap to 44-36 with 90 seconds to play.  UCLA finally ended the comeback bid by recovering the onside kick, but the scare is worrisome: WSU put up 30 first downs and outscored the Bruins 29-7 in the second half.  UCLA also committed three turnovers as well as a whopping 12 penalties for 126 yards.

So, what do we make of all this?  On the one hand, UCLA captured its fourth victory in a row, finishing 4-1 on the road for its best away record since 2002.  That is a major accomplishment for a team that has had so little road success in recent years.  Jim Mora spun the result by saying, “Sometimes they’re ugly; it’s not always going to be just beautiful,” further adding, “we are 8-2.  We won a game in difficult conditions.  That bodes well for UCLA football.”  I suppose that is true, at least on the surface.  But like USC’s five turnovers vs. ASU this weekend, UCLA can ill afford to give it away three times to the Trojans and expect to win.  Nor will 73 yards rushing on 38 attempts get it done.

Nevertheless, the victories by USC and UCLA set the stage for a second straight Pac-12 South Division Championship game on Nov. 17 at the Rose Bowl.  As you know USC was ineligible to “win” the division last year, but we all know the Trojans were the best team in the South.  This time, however, both teams are eligible.  Whoever wins the game advances to play either Oregon or Stanford for the conference championship.  Thus, we have a de facto conference semifinal, and what better matchup than the classic UCLA vs. USC?

More on the Cross Town Rivalry in the Upcoming Events section.

Stanford 27, Oregon State 23: the conference game of the week did not disappoint, as the Cardinal took advantage of an ill-timed error by Beaver QB Cody Vaz to escape with a sloppy but critical four point victory.

Stanford raced to a 14-0 first quarter lead, but Oregon State came storming back for 23 unanswered points, and with six seconds to play in the third quarter, it looked like the better team — the Beavers — were going to win it.  That’s when new starting QB Kevin Hogan made the play of his college life.  As he was being brought to the turf, he somehow managed to flick the ball to RB Stepfan Taylor, who made several outstanding moves in space to arrive majestically in the end zone, garnering the praise of coach David Shaw, who said it was the best play of Taylor’s career.  That may be true, but it never would have happened without Hogan’s heroics.

Nevertheless, Oregon State still had the lead in the 4th quarter, and also had the ball.  But with nine minutes to go, Vaz lost the handle — the fumble was not forced — and Stanford recovered.  Seven plays later: TOUCHDOWN Stanford.  Ballgame.  A hugely deflating loss for Oregon State, who was gifted with four Stanford turnovers — but whose lone fumble cost them a shot at not only a conference championship, but a likely BCS berth.  Oh, the pain.

III. North and South: Lining Up the Champion

Let’s get the also-rans out of the way first.  The following teams need not apply:

South: Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Colorado

North: Cal, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State

I’m not going to bother with conference power rankings this week because the teams that have been mentioned above have already separated themselves from the top two in each division.  I will state that the Arizona schools are not too far behind UCLA and USC, and that Oregon State is still a better team than Stanford; but by virtue of the Cardinal’s win on Saturday, the Beavers have missed the cut.

What this means is that, for all intents and purposes, the berths in the conference championship will be decided this weekend (save for one scenario which I will get to below).

South: UCLA (8-2, 5-2) vs. USC (7-3, 5-3).

Gosh, where do I begin?  Do I even have enough room to cover this?

Let’s start with the facts.  UCLA has a better record, is higher ranked, and is playing at home.  Therefore the Bruins are favored, right?  Wrong!  USC is a 4-point favorite — something which plays into UCLA’s hands, if you ask me — and the point spread is based on what I have said from the beginning of the season: USC is the most talented team in the division.  On paper, USC should win this game — but they should have won vs. Stanford and Arizona as well, and they did not.  The Trojans have actually played worse as the season has progressed (the opposite of what they did last season, when USC was one of the hottest teams in the country at season’s end). Matt Barkley continues to throw interceptions like they are going out of style.

Meanwhile, UCLA continues to be the wild card, but has put together four victories in a row, including the huge road win over ASU and the 66-10 thrashing of #24 Arizona at the Rose Bowl.  Perhaps I should give my team some credit?  Perhaps.  I’m still reluctant to do so because although the Bruins have players, they are an extremely young team.  This inexperience showed last week when a 30-point lead at WSU nearly evaporated completely in what would have been a disastrous loss.  On the other hand, the Bruins totally dismantled Arizona the week after USC blew a 15-point lead to the Wildcats.  But then again, USC easily defeated Cal, while UCLA got upended 43-17 at Berkeley.  On the other hand….

The point of all this is to say that no one really knows what is going to happen on Saturday.  Both teams have motivation to defeat their rival.  Both are motivated by the prospect of winning the division title.  Naturally, bragging rights comes into play.  But the intangibles stop there.  USC’s main motivation is to try to salvage a season in which they have dramatically underperformed.  UCLA, on the other hand, will be sparked by a desire for vengeance.  The Trojans absolutely obliterated the Bruins at the Coliseum last season.  Anyone remember that game?  Let’s see…what was that score?  Oh yeah: 50-0.  Or should I write, FIFTY TO NOTHING.

You don’t think the Bruins are motivated by that?  The intangibles edge goes to UCLA.  USC has won five straight, but the last five weren’t close or interesting (save for last year’s game, which was interesting in a macabre sort of way).  Last season, I put UCLA’s chance of winning at 5%, and that was generous.  Translation: I expected a Trojan blowout.  I did not anticipate 50-0, however.

So what about this season?  Does Mr. G. play the role of Guru once again?  Only to say this: I set UCLA’s chance of winning at 42.857%.  Bank on it.  And for those of you who don’t care for percentages, don’t blame me — I’m not the one who made a 3-in-7 chance of winning so complicated in percentage format.

I will add this: there IS one thing of which I am certain.  This won’t be no 50-0 game.

North: Oregon (10-0, 7-0) vs. Stanford (8-2, 5-2)

No, no, NO.  Don’t even think about it Stanford.  This is NOT your season.  This is NOT your game to win.  You’ve already maxed out your season with five — count ’em, FIVE — victories by a touchdown or less.  Do not ruin the conference’s chance at a national title.  Don’t even think you can win at Oregon on Saturday.  If you do, you just might, darn you.

Flash back to 2001.  After losing at home to Stupid Washington State University, Stanford had the audacity to travel to Eugene the following week and defeat Oregon, 49-42.  What did that do, you ask?  It sent Oregon to the dumb Fiesta Bowl to take on Colorado.  Oregon was the 2nd best team in the country, but a BCS glitch allowed Nebraska to play in the championship game instead of Oregon.  Why?  Because of Stanford.

But wait: there’s more.  Later that season, UCLA came in undefeated and ranked #4 in the nation.  Stanford decided to play their best half of football in history (that may be a slight overstatement), racing to a 31-7 halftime lead.  UCLA clawed back to 31-28, but Stanford finally outlasted the Bruins in what Uncle Roger deemed the “Bullfight” game.  That knocked UCLA out of the national championship race.

Naturally Stanford followed this effort by losing to Washington the next week, 42-28.

The upshot of all this is that Stanford finished the season 9-2, but ended up in the now-defunct Seattle Bowl, losing ignominiously to Georgia Tech, 24-14.  As cousin Adam put it, Stanford was nothing more than a “gala” in 2001.

By the power invested in me as sole author of this football blog, I hereby call upon Stanford to LOSE to Oregon this Saturday.  You had your run at (or near) the top of the conference last year, and the year before that.  That’s long enough.  You’re still Stanford.  No one cares about you — not even your own fans.  (Please, stop the whining.  Both teams were in the top 20 and playing a crucial game to keep their conference title hopes alive, but the stadium still didn’t sell out.  You can’t even fill a 50,000 seat stadium under those circumstances?  Pathetic.)

For those of you who would like some actual football analysis at this point, I will simply say that Oregon has now scored 40 or more points in 13 consecutive games — a new record for major college football.  The contrarians out there will point to the fact that I predicted Oregon would defeat USC last year in Eugene.  I was wrong then, but I hope (please God) I’m not wrong again this year.  Oregon MUST win this game.  If they do, they win their division, then must win at Oregon State to finish 12-0 and defeat the USC/UCLA winner to end up in the championship game.

Don’t blow it, Oregon.

IV. Scenarios

In case Oregon blows it, Stanford would control its own destiny in the North division.  That would set up some VERY interesting possibilities, the most bizarre of which occurs if UCLA defeats USC.  But let me begin with the more mundane.

First: to reiterate, if Oregon beats Stanford, the North is a done deal.  Oregon wins the division.

Second: if Stanford defeats Oregon, the Cardinal would win the division if they also win at UCLA the following week, OR if Oregon then loses to Oregon State.

Third: the most juicy, the most preposterous, and yet the most deliciously contradictory situation occurs if the following happens.  Let’s say Oregon gets food poisoning the day before the game against Stanford, allowing the Cardinal to squeak out a 27-26 decision (how else is Stanford going to win that game?).  Now assume that UCLA beats USC.  The final game of the season features Stanford traveling to UCLA.  Stanford must win that game to ensure themselves of the North Division title.  UCLA, however, will have already clinched the South.  If UCLA then defeats Stanford, they would have to play a conference championship game against Oregon.  Does ANYONE want to play at Oregon right now?  Didn’t think so.

But wait a minute — what exactly does that mean?  If UCLA were to lose to Stanford, they would not have to play Oregon, but instead would play for the Pac-12 championship at…Stanford??!?!?  Good heavens!  What this means is that, paradoxically, it is actually in UCLA’s best interest to intentionally lose to Stanford so that they don’t have to play Oregon.  Has anyone ever heard of such?  Not in college football.  Certainly this occurs in the NBA, when teams will lose at the end of the season in order to give themselves a more favorable opponent in the first round of the playoffs.  But in college football?  I’ve never heard of this before.

I can’t see myself attending the UCLA-Stanford game rooting for Stanford.  Ever.  No, not ever.  So please, Oregon, make all of this fantasizing a moot point.  Take care of business and put me out of my misery.  Defeat Stanford, and make all things clear and bright.

V. Previews

If you’re still reading, you must really love college football.  Or crazy scenarios.  Or my writing style.  Or you have too much time on your hands.

USC at UCLA: Already covered.

Stanford at Oregon: Ditto.

Dumb Cal at Oregon State: What a miserable way for Tedford to end his Cal coaching career: with a loss in Corvallis — assuming the Beavers recover from the hangover of the Stanford loss.

Stupid Washington State at Arizona State: Good timing for the Sun Devils, who need a win to get to bowl eligibility.  They are going to win that 6th game.  Right?

Arizona at Utah: A bigger game for the Utes, who must win to stay alive for bowl consideration, than for Arizona, who’s already there.  Utah will bring everything they have.  If it’s not enough, so be it.

Washington at Colorado: Who cares?  (Sorry to be curt; maybe I’m tired.)

VI. Final Notes: Around the Nation

  • Ball State 34, Toledo 27: The Ball crashes the Glass Bowl and breaks all the Rockets.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
  • Florida State 28, Virginia Tech 22: The Seminoles escape with a win in Blacksburg.  I can’t remember the last time Va Tech was 4-6.  I thought Frank Beamer didn’t know what a losing season was.
  • Wisconsin 62, Indiana 14: There will be no Big Ten Armageddon.  Wisconsin takes Indiana out of the Rose Bowl picture.  Hopefully the Badgers can do the same to Ohio State this week.
  • Michigan 38, Northwestern 31 (OT): Did you see the most recent episode of “That’s Why You’re Northwestern” on ESPN?  It features the Wildcats giving up a 53-yard pass with two seconds to play that allows Michigan to kick the game-tying field goal and send it into overtime, after which the Wolverines win.  Wait a minute…sorry: that’s what actually happened on Saturday.
  • Virginia 41, Miami (Fla.) 40: Taking one from Northwestern’s book, Miami finds a way to give it away at the end.  Leading 40-35 with a few seconds to play, the Hurricanes allow a TD pass in the back of the end zone to lose to a weak Cavalier team and fall to 5-5 on the season.  Not that I’m complaining.
  • Florida 27, Louisiana Lafayette 20: So close, and yet — no.  The Ragin’ Cajuns actually led this game by a touchdown with just a few minutes to play, but the Gators scrambled for the tie, then won the game with two seconds remaining by — get this — blocking a punt and returning it 36 yards for the winning score.  Talk about a missed opportunity.  That one really has to sting for ULL.
  • Missouri 51, Tennessee 48 (4 OT): Yet another wild finish.  The Vols led 28-21 with 47 seconds to play and Missouri facing 4th and 12, but couldn’t seal the win as the Tigers connected for a game-tying 25-yard TD pass.  Four overtimes later, Mizzou kicked the game winner, sending Tennessee to its 13th SEC loss in its last 14 conference games.  Read that last sentence and ask yourself: can that kind of futility possibly allow the coach to survive another year?  It shouldn’t.  Dooley should resign, but he’ll probably be forced out.  Not a good time to be a Vols fan.
  • Georgia Tech 68, North Carolina 50: That’s a regulation score folks.  No overtime.  No kidding.
  • Massachusetts 22, Akron 14: So what if Akron was 1-9?  That was UMass’s first win as an FBS member, and they did it on the road.  Well done, Minutemen!
  • Nebraska 32, Penn State 23: An important win for the Huskers, who are on pace for the Big Ten Championship game and a possible spot in the Rose Bowl — but not a rematch vs. UCLA.  (Right?)
  • Oklahoma State 55, West Virginia 34: Where have you gone, Geno Smith?
  • Georgia 38, Auburn 0: Oh dear oh dear oh DEAR.  Auburn, losing 38-0 at home?  I hate to say it, but Gene Chizik had this coming.  He dumped Iowa State for the Auburn job.  Auburn should not have hired him in the first place, but somehow he lucked into Cam Newton for a season, and all the pieces fell into place — for one season — before falling apart completely.  From 14-0 to 3-9 in just two seasons is a remarkable turnaround, only in the wrong direction.  Eeeeeegads.
  • Vanderbilt 27, Mississippi 26: The Commodores make it six wins for the season with two games to go.  Who says academic institutions (Stanford, Notre Dame, and UCLA are all in the top 20) can’t compete?
  • Louisiana Tech 62, Texas State 55: Enough with these basketball scores.  ENOUGH, I say!
  • Colorado State 33, UNLV 11: If you think I included this game for any reason other than the pleasing score, you don’t know me very well.
  • BYU 52, Idaho 13: This is the third time this season we have seen this improbable score!  I was extremely amused by the ending of this game.  Idaho, trailing by 42, kicked a field goal on the game’s final play, then began celebrating.  I guess anything is worth a party when you’re 1-9.

Had enough?  So have I.

–Mr. G.

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