WEEK 5 Football Fodder - Editor's Insights
  By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor


September 29, 2003

In a week featuring a mix of non-con residue and many conference openers, there was much more quality action and competition than most anticipated. Those who had inspected the seemingly mediocre slate of games likely felt that this would be a lull week. But there were overtime games galore to reemphasize this year's ongoing theme of parity.

This point hits home when we break down the schematic outlined by ABC's halftime crew, with John Saunders and Co. making it clear for all at the midway point of the Texas A&M-Pittsburgh game. Follow the logic here - Wazzu lost to Notre Dame, and then the Irish lost to Michigan, which in turn resolved to Oregon smacking the Wolverines, only to see Oregon have their heads handed to them at home by Wazzu Saturday 55-16. Any questions?

Thursday night opened the week's games as Nebraska stated its case for why the boys from Lincoln are back in full stride. They went into Hattiesburg and dominated Southern Mississippi by forcing five turnovers for a 38-14 win. USM used to be a defensive power and would have surely had more for the Cornhuskers if the 11th ranked defense from 2001 or the 34th ranked defense from 2002 were still present. But the 77th nationally ranked defense has little chance when the Golden Eagle offense makes so many miscues.

Mizzu was finally exposed for their inflated USA/ESPN #23 ranking. The Tigers, against paltry competition so far, were sporting the 52nd ranked defense. This level of play was ostensibly inadequate as we saw the Tigers exploited against the nation's #4 offense in the efficient Jayhawks. My touting of this Missouri team was premature. But offensive balance was seen in senior RB Zack Abron quality efforts taking pressure off their signal caller, so endowed QB Brad Smith could make more of his chances. But all of the credit goes to Mark Mangino and his entire squad's defensive achievement - Missouri had only 13 first downs and 196 yards.

The Penn State-Minnesota tussle revealed two evident facts the Lions had better note. Both points should not be made before properly tipping our hats to the #16 Gopher's performance, which is the real story here. Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson's call to stack the middle of their line with down-linemen (often) in standing positions forced any runs outside and into the stunts their secondary ran. PSU gained ground yards, but was thwarted in the second half at important junctures and only got 14 points. This bending, but not breaking, was the key to Minnesota's defensive presence.

That said…First, when PSU QB Zach Mills went down with a knee injury, backup Michael Robinson took over and showed why - as harped on by me here for the last two weeks - Mills should remain sitting, even if healthy. Robinson's 16-for-27 job, even with two INTs and no TDs, cuts out well the work the sophomore has to do for his real-game seasoning. But even a struggling start or two more for Robinson would do second-half-of-the-season wonders for the Nittany Lions. The second problem for PSU was clock mismanagement, and it gleamed as the second half wound down. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno couldn't figure out how to make time work for him, instead choosing not to use any time outs as Minnesota drove and wound the clock down with four-plus minutes left. PSU got the ball back, but not until there was 2:21 left. Papa Joe could have used all three TOs to conceivably conserve 75 seconds and make the Lion's end-game 4th-and-8 play at the Gopher's 13-yard line that much more-likely to succeed. PSU had earned a first down with 25 seconds left, so with that the clock stopped, right? Even with all that extra time, PSU still had to call their second TO. Calling a draw with under 30 seconds left was its own blunder of multiple dimensions. Woefully inadequate for any top-tiered team, Penn State had better reevaluate and introduce signs of the segue we all know is coming when Paterno leaves. Not only is he affecting PSU recruiting, but Joe also seems to be failing the muster as the modern game still bypasses Happy Valley.

Ohio State finally made the ending score reflect their high ranking. In beating Northwestern 20-0, the Buckeye 27th ranked defense finally dominated like they will need to when major Big Ten play begins in earnest, for them in two weeks at Wisconsin. But in the same way a team isn't ready for real competition by stacking cream-puff non-cons into their season's first half schedule, the Buckeyes similarly don't seem to be ready for their tough away games due to starting out with five at home. They have only shown up for one (soundly beat Washington 28-9 in opener), that is until Saturday. A good road test should be enough to make this squad finally submit, but Ohio State really runs hot-and-cold. No one can predict which traveling Buckeye show will make the trip, so games at Wisconsin and Michigan will likely make or break OSU's 2003 campaign. By garnering only the 26th toughest rated strength-of-schedule (NC.net ranking), OSU could be on the outside looking in (if three or more teams are still vying in latter November).

Florida came storming back to impress with their 24-21 road-win in Lexington, Ky. Another curse came to bare as Jared Lorenzen - recently, too, touted here for his clear pocket presence - made one late mistake, an freakish INT, to give the game to the Gators. Sorry, Jared, but just hold onto the ball next time. Kentucky has problems beating UF (lost 17 straight), and had an 18-point lead in the fourth to boot. Kentucky is stigmatized by the Gators in a very similar fashion to how FSU is taken with Miami. Leading at halftime for the first time since the 1988 game, UK found ways to give the Gators the win. What happened when we got bonus coverage to see this live as the score went to 24-21? Without knowing how this one would end, ESPN just as suddenly pulled out, leaving us hung out to dry for any possible closing heroics.

U Conn. unfortunately is on the proverbial football map with their surprising 6-6 effort last year. Major programs are taking the Huskies more seriously in their fourth I-A season after many overlooked them the past three. Virginia Tech took no chances as they whipped Connecticut 47-13. VT controlled both sides of the ball when needed to prove they've earned their #5 national position.

Pittsburgh and A&M put on the best show all day. An even battle was decided on the superior abilities of Panther phenom WR Larry Fitzgerald. Double-, triple- and even quadruple-team Aggie coverage schemes couldn't deny the best current player in college football. Fitzgerald decoyed, blocked, and took much physical abuse as he ultimately made the difference in this important non-conference matchup. Mistakes by both squads left the 37-26 final score up in the air until big #1 separated Pittsburgh with his highlight-reel-worthy over-the shoulder 49-yard TD snare with 7:13 left in the game. If you didn't see this one live, you surely will soon, unless the rock you live under doesn't get cable. Give A&M's speedy backfield credit for making Pitt earn this one only late. Even when starting Aggie QB Reggie McNeal went down, junior Josh Long - his backup, the season's original starter - revitalized A&M's sagging troops for a late surge before Fitzgerald's deflating blow made it 37-20. Look out for freshman Aggie RB sensation Courtney Lewis…he and junior Derek Farmer form as good a pair as in any backfield I have seen, complimenting each other (and the deceptively quick McNeal) perfectly - no team can mark three lightning bolts at once. Pitt had luck on their side that this element wasn't what decided things.

California pulled the week's ultimate upset in triple OT as they ousted USC 34-31 in Berkeley. But many of us saw Cal coming, as all of the Golden Bear's quality performances have been televised so far (versus Oregon State this week isn't). Cal's tough road workouts (at Kansas City to take on KSU - 42-28 loss, at Utah - 31-24 loss, and at Illinois - 31-24 win) have callused them for just such an upset. Southern Cal's 11-game win streak and #3 ranking were both dashed when they couldn't block a third Cal field goal in the third OT. The opening OT period was a scoreless roller-coaster - Trojan RB Hershel Dennis' fumble was lost right after he had brought his team to the two-yard line on the first two plays of the extended play. Not to be denied so soon, USC then blocked a 30-yard FGA, their second of the game, to extend the battle again. And, after that, then again. The third overtime was a Golden charm, with the Bears first home victory over a Top Fiver since 1975, when they similarly upset then-#4 Southern Cal 28-14. Everyone stayed until the end, tearing down goalposts in exuberance. The boisterous Berkeley fan-base extended all the way to "Tightwad Hill", a free gathering outside Memorial Stadium just above one endzone where the banner clad Golden Bear-backers reside and consort. The Trojans WR Mike Williams was spectacular, but not a difference maker when most needed. We will revisit this game again.

Another simultaneous overtime fracas was occurring in Tuscaloosa. 'Bama had their hands full, even as they were ahead of Arkansas 31-10 in the middle of the third. But the Crimson Tide evidently hasn't learned enough yet through past 2003 heartbreakers to avoid more painful mistakes. After 'Bama senior FS Charles Jones' INT held Arkansas scoreless in the initial OT, an excessive celebration penalty - for just normally excited behavior, nothing more, really - made 'Bama start their OT drive from the 40, not the 25. The Crimson Tide subsequently missed their 38-yard FGA, and was defeated in the next frame as a Razorback field goal offset Brodie Coyle's INT for the win.

Against an armor-chinked Alabama group that was 2-2 going in, Arkansas' victory assures the Hogs remain the Rodney Dangerfields of college football. Face it - asked to identify the SEC west's best school, most fail to pick Arkansas. Yet in the last five years, they are their division's top team. The Hogs' 39 wins is two better than 'Bama and six better than either Auburn or LSU during that span. Their SEC-best 29-5 home record eclipses runner-up Tennessee by two wins, and 19 straight non-conference road wins is the current SEC standard, as is Arkansas' 14 straight home wins. Besides sneaking up on all by winning the SEC west last year, two big road wins against blue-chip programs ('Bama and Texas) in 2003 haven't even brought the Razorbacks to any BCS conversations. "I tell ya…they can't get no respect, these Hogs." It seems to build more character in them each time they are ignored, so the players don't mind this oversight. This team could possibly fly under most radar all the way to New Orleans.

The other overtime game I saw was South Carolina-Tennessee. The Gamecocks had allowed only 15 second half yards at the 3:00 mark of the third quarter to signature their dominating performance. But the USC 'D' only got them to the OT period; it couldn't finish the deal, though. We did see why Lou Holtz is possibly the greatest active college football chief - he is the only coach ever to take six different teams to bowl appearances. It is precisely this mettle that he instills in his troops which stops powerhouses like the Volunteers (held Tennessee to 266 total yards, well under the 420-plus they had averaged coming in).

The conference games seen here (in Pittsburgh) revealed a point which has little proof backing it, but is rather valid and clear to the educated fan. It seems that when evaluating competition, from the middle to the top of specific BCS conferences, we can see which are better and worse as of now. Tennessee-South Carolina, Florida-Kentucky and Alabama-Arkansas, as well as USC-California, Mizzu-Kansas and Wake Forest-Virgina - all reflected quality play and few mistakes that make the SEC, Pac-Ten, ACC and Big XII appear strong. These games exemplified much better overall play than the Ohio State-Northwestern, Wisconsin-Illinois, Iowa-Michigan State, Penn State-Minnesota and/or Michigan-Indiana games did. The Big Ten glaringly seems to be the most lacking of all the major conferences when breaking down mean quality comparisons. My point is hypothetical - an average Pac-Ten, SEC, ACC or Big XII team would beat the Big Ten's mid-rangers. My analysis proves nothing and holds even less water, but I do not back off of this as a prognostication. Stay tuned on this one…Bowl games could be my final (un)doing on this one.

Northern Illinois is fighting the uphill battle last fought by Tulane in 1998. A non-BCS school is again undeniably one of the nation's elite. Northern Ill. has beaten three BCS-conference foes, defensively whomping these respectable programs as they visit. This is how a young Bobby Bowden put FSU on the map. But, as witnessed before, the deck is stacked against them. Ironically enough, the Tulane-led lawsuit attempting to force the inclusion of non -BCS schools into the championship mix could be just the thing. Not needing to be resolved to promote change, just the suit's pending status could be enough to make poll voters concede one of the two wild-card bids to this MAC power, if they can stay undefeated. Such a concession could legally go a long way in helping the BCS to prove their claim - that they have no ostensible bias against smaller schools. I don't think the Huskies would have any problem being a pawn if the BCS chooses to play things this way. But let them make it through their strong conference slate - games at Toledo and at Bowling Green should be the proving grounds described. Most of the country is rooting for this dark horse.

Oregon State had their defense tested, but their 36th ranked unit gave up yards instead of points. With strong California, Washington and Wazzu squads on their immediate horizon, the Beavers have their work cut out for them. RB Steven Jackson will always run well, so it is the defensive variable that will dictate any OSU team success(es) Notre Dame is one of the biggest disappointments so far, huh. With that "Worst Coast" offense, the Irish do not look to be improving anytime soon - games at both Pitt and Boston College, and home vies with Southern Cal and Florida State will possibly keep their October (and first week in November) winless In the Longhorn-Green Wave game, we heard a Detroit Lion scout detail why seeing his mark, Tulane QB J.P. Losman, from field level was paramount to just sitting in the press box. Observing Losman this way, he said, reveals leadership qualities and inter-personal skills so important to team chemistry needs at any level. J.P. impressed LSU had early troubles before getting on track to defeat Mississippi State 41-6. Hot-and-cold running Bayou Bengal QB Matt Mauck had best improve his inconsistent ways - if the Bulldogs can give LSU's passing game the trouble it did, then it is only a matter of time until LSU's lofty ranking comes to an end Oregon FS Keith Lewis has now blocked a punt in three consecutive games In beating Louisiana-Lafayette 44-23, North Texas earned an NCAA record-tying three safeties Does Wisconsin ever run out of 1000-yard rushers? Now they seem to have two - Anthony Davis and Dwayne Smith - that could reach the mark, hopefully each not canceling out the others efforts this way. So long as they keep winning, Barry Alvarez could surely care less Auburn's win over I-AA Western Kentucky won't make anyone think they are back For the first time in a long time, there is no clear-cut favorite to win any of the major conferences. Ah, October and November, our favorite months.