HIGHS AND LOWS from December 3rd weekend
By Dave Hershorin
NationalChamps.net Managing Editor
 
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December 6, 2005

Akron won its first-ever Middle American Conference (MAC) crown Thursday night via their 31-30 win over Northern Illinois in the title game in Detroit. Both the Zip’s offense and defense reacted well as the Huskies led 24-10 entering the fourth. That’s when Luke Getsy, a former-Pittsburgh backup who is too talented to sit and who wanted face-time so bad he transferred up the 76, took matters into his own hands by going 15-for-21 the rest of the way. More important was how Getsy poignantly rushed for 18 yards on five gutsy runs, including one for a seven yard score to bring his team to within three (27-24 with 7:35 left) and two for crucial first downs on their winning drive. The Akron D, which allowed two TDs on NIU’s prior two third-quarter drives, made the Huskies’ main weapon - junior RB Garrett Wolfe – act human for only 44 yards on his final 11 fourth-quarter carries. Garrett had 238 yards on his prior 31 carries, proving to be unstoppable most of the first three quarters; his two scores seemed to dot the ‘I’ in what seemed like a probable NIU win. But by holding Wolfe to only three gains of over five yards in those final drives (seven runs of 2 yards or less), Akron only allowed the Huskies two late FGs and gave itself a chance for the win. But, in hindsight, the ultimate factor became Kiki Gonzalez’ first-ever block of a kick - he got a hand on Chris Nendick’s 49-yard first-quarter FGA that sealed the deal. This game was what all conference championship games should be like – a well-played contest that required superior offensive talent to overcome stifling defensive efforts, the kinds of defenses that get teams into their respective slots for their title shots. Accordingly, Akron proved a bit better by not allowing NIU to score in the first quarter, the seventh time the Zips have accomplished that feat this season and their third-straight game of such. When Wolfe scored NIU’s opener in the second, it was the first offensive TD the Zips had allowed in 151-plus minutes since the Ball State game November 5th, so give it to Northern Illinois for making this one what they did. Given that Akron had only allowed 245 rushing yards on 95 attempts in their prior three games, Wolfe amassing 270 on 42 tries – the first 200+-yard rusher allowed since Wisconsin’s Anthony Davis ran for 247 on the Zips 9/6/03 – is news enough. Getsy & Co. had to overcome eight penalties (for 70 yards), two turnovers and tough punting numbers (averaged 10.1 yards less per net punt than NIU) to even their all-time series record at five-apiece (Zips also won 48-42 in OT, 9/24/05). I know I didn’t see Akron coming back in August (or even September), but I would like to know if anyone, save Zip fans, chose these Rubber-Bowlers as this league’s winner. Seriously, let me know…I may have a job for you.

Tulsa got things going Saturday as they battled Central Florida in the first-ever C-USA championship game. It was essentially a home game for UCF - the division winner with the best record gets to host this annual party - and the Golden Knights set a school record for attendance at the Citrus Bowl. But much of the 51,000+ went back to their Orlando abodes sadly disappointed as Tulsa throttled UCF 13-0 in the second half to ultimately win 44-27. Somewhat of a balanced affair for the opening 30 minutes, the Golden Hurricane defense took over by causing three second-half TOs (four total for the game) and ultimately scoring 17 total points off of the two INTs and two lost UCF fumbles. That effort marked the 13th consecutive game in which Tulsa has forced at least two TOs and the seventh time this campaign they have forced three. Individually, it was Tulsa senior TE Garrett Mills’ day as he became both the game’s MVP and the all-time NCAA leader for receiving yards by a TE in a single season. Mills’ eight snarls for a career-high 152 yards vaulted him past BYU’s Chris Smith (who previously held the TE-receiving mark with 1156) by eight yards (Mills has 83 catches for 1164 yards in ’05). Moreover, Tulsa continue to run the vaunted “wide-open” offense of coordinator Charlie Stubbs, head coach Steve Kragthorpe’s secret weapon, to perfection as they take aim at Fresno State in the year-ending Liberty Bowl in Memphis. The Golden Hurricane offense has scored 30 or more in 22 of the 37 games coached by Kragthorpe. Tulsa’s balanced attack (rank 39th for rushing and 40th in team passing) has opponents covering possible sweeps, reverses, options and play-action with varying results, most of which include winded defensemen running 50-or-more yard per play for 60 minutes. It all equals the school’s first title in their new conference and the first since they won their 25th Missouri Valley Conference title in 1985. Also to the losers go some spoils: UCF backs into its first-ever I-A postseason appearance, the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, to face WAC co-champ Nevada (beat Fresno State to earn their spot). The Golden Knights look even better heading into next season, where many have them on the fringe of making some top 25 polls just two years after going 0-11. In this era of parity, maybe either/both of these schools could become the next mid-major to threaten the BCS…but that’s a HUGE maybe.

I guess I had to call out Florida State as much as I did before they would show that my scathing article from last week’s HIGHS and LOWS doesn’t fully reflect their streaky nature. Sure enough, the Noles surprised most with their 27-22 win in the inaugural ACC title game held in Jacksonville. Seeing that the game’s top rusher was FSU junior Lorenzo Booker (seven carries for 31 yards), it came down to first-year starter Drew Weatherford and junior Heisman-tease Marcus Vick, two QBs who seemed to switch profiles for this game. Since the elusive Vick was intelligently contained and constantly pressured by Mickey Andrews’ bunch, he only completed 50% of his throws (26-for-52, one INT, one passing TD, two rushing TDs) and was never allowed to command any part of the proceedings. Vick’s 52 attempts eclipsed his season-high of 28 against Boston College, though, he only earned 55 more yards than versus BC and that speaks volumes for the Nole defensive effort that made sure-shooter Vick seem human. Weatherford finally got the protection in a big game he has longed for and produced the modest, ball-control results required for FSU to claim its 12th ACC title in the 14 years they have been a member. In rather un-Beamer-like fashion, Tech allowed an 83-yard punt return for a score and then two TDs via TO (one after an INT and one after a fumble) as the Noles broke a 3-3 halftime tie with 24 unanswered points. Three frantic TDs late couldn’t save the Hokies as their last-ditch on-sides kick was painstakingly recovered one-yard short (VT recovery with 1:44 left was penalized for only going nine yards). It was a close ending for a tilt that featured the nation’s highest rated (total) defense (VT) against FSU’s 15th-ranked D. State snapped its first 3-game losing streak since 1985 and avoided its first four-game skid since 1975. But FSU seemed to win in spite of its offensive coaches, not due to them. The Nole’s predictable play-calling only lead to 3-of-13 third-down conversions and 272 total offensive yards, numbers that would have haunted FSU if those VT TOs hadn’t royally handed it to them. VT’s last win over FSU was 13-10 in 1975, when guys named Beamer and Bowden were just cutting their coaching teeth. Elder-statesman Bobby claimed his 15th-straight win over the Hokies, never having lost to Tech even as head man at WVU (3-0 vs. VT when in Morgantown). Many thought the Atlantic division was a step ahead of those in the Coastal, but with the win, the Atlantic teams finish 10-9 intra-league and each aggregately land at 38-29 for overall record(s). The ACC has placed seven teams in the AP top 25 over the course of the 2005 season, but we only see five of them returning to the top 25 for the opening poll in ’06, not a good trend for the newly-reconstructed conference. But the most-noticed trend has to still be Tech’s late-month record over the last decade. In games played in November, December and January over the past nine campaigns (including this one), the Hokies are 23-21, with five of those seasons reflecting two (or more) losses after they hit month eleven. Both FSU and Tech have a disturbing streakiness that keeps them out of most current short lists for annual superiority, instead being relegated to the “let’s see first” pile of college football sorting that contains teams boasting talent, yet still hitting road bumps. Who knows which Hokie and/or Seminole squad(s) you might see weekly. Still, one thing is for sure – both have top-rated talent/recruiting and sit perched for yearly visits into the top 5…it’s just how well that talent is progressively procured and presented that proves where voters will place them by campaign’s end. That brings us back to Jeff Bowden…

The only other game worth watching was the Georgia-LSU title game for the SEC crown, but that wasn’t even good after the Dawgs beat the Tigers down 21-7 by halftime. Georgia did it with five crucial sacks and two big INTs (one returned for a TD, the other eventually led to a TD) while posting only two penalties. Georgia also held Tiger QB JaMarcus Russell, 14-1 previously as a starter, to only 11-of-19 passing for 119 yards, but with no passing TDs for the first time in nine games (LSU won those previous nine, their most consecutive regular season wins since 1973). The other LSU loss was to Tennessee 30-27 in OT in the Tiger’s second game, which coincidentally was also the only other game this year in which Russell had a rushing TD. Russell had to do something with his main backfield weapon/mate Joseph Addai injured. Ergo, if you make the Mobile junior beat you with is feet, you’ll probably win, and the Dawgs followed that plan to perfection for the 34-14 payback win (lost 34-13 to LSU in ‘03 title game). Georgia wins its 12th SEC title and second under head guy Marc Richt, who will unceremoniously step aside as offensive coordinator next year so he can concentrate solely on his daunting head coaching duties. Richt’s seniors broke the school mark by winning 44 games (44-8), one better than the 1980-83 seniors (43-4-1) who won three consecutive SEC crowns (‘80-‘82) and the national title (1980). Four-straight 10+-win campaigns also ties the mark set by the same Hershel Walker-led squads. It is Richt’s second conference crown in four years, and vaults the Dawgs into the Sugar Bowl for the eighth time. Though UGA is 3-4 previously in Sugar Bowl dates, Richt is 3-1 in bowl appearances (1-0 in Sugar Bowls), and UGA is 7-1 in its past eight post-season trips. Georgia is over a TD favorite to beat West Virginia, another strong defensive squad (8th-ranked total defense, 10th scoring allowed) that will bring a full 60-minutes of effort as the Big East’s BCS bid. LSU, after giving up to UGA the most points they’ve allowed this season, loses its first game in a domed stadium since their 30-15 Sugar Bowl loss to Nebraska in 1987, a streak of 10 indoor tilts that also had the Bayou Bengals 4-0 in the Georgia Dome. LSU next draws Miami in the Peach Bowl, which means both the Tigers (Dec 30th) and Dawgs (Jan 2nd) return to the very same field for their next/final tilts. Due to the situation in New Orleans, the Superdome is not viable, and, therefore, the Sugar Bowl had to find new digs. Miami, which last played LSU close to two decades ago (44-3 UM win 11/19/88), returns to the same bowl in which they trounced Florida 27-10 last year. It will be only the third time since 1969 that these two powerhouses have met, with LSU ahead 8-3 all-time in the series. Just like UGA, the No10 Tigers again match up with a similarly superior defense (No.9 Miami ranks 3rd in total defense, 2nd in scoring allowed, and tops in both defensive passing categories), so scope the under in both bowl matchups.

Syracuse finished with one win (31-0 vs. Buffalo) for only the fourth time ever (also in 1936, ’45, and ’48), and it was the first time they have earned no Big East wins. With only two losing campaigns out of their last 22 (4-8 in 2003, 2-9 in 1982), most are curious as to just why they got rid of Paul Pasqualoni (107-59-1 overall at SU, 62-33 vs. Big East) and picked up first-time head coach (at any level) Greg Robinson. When Dr. Daryl Gross came on last year as AD, he claimed that he had to let PP go so that the program wouldn’t continue “slipping into mediocrity”, and, accordingly, looked for his replacement. Many thought Gross would hit another dinger after his hire of Pete Carroll at USC went so well. After the turnover, newbie coach Robinson decided to hire another first-timer as his offensive coordinator, Brian Pariani, whose career coaching highlights were all as an NFL tight ends coach for the Denver Broncos. Result? The Orangemen finished 115th out of 117 teams for total offense. When you factor in first-time QB coach Major Applewhite bringing hurler Perry Patterson’s numbers down significantly, changes at the top have made these upstate New Yorkers definitively worse, not better. Conversely, Pasqualoni (6-3 bowl record at SU) landed in Dallas with the Cowboys (7-5) as their tight ends coach and has proven to be a factor in the team’s second-place divisional standing. The same types of questions orbit Nebraska AD Steve Pederson’s decision to jettison Frank Solich (58-19 at NU) after his 10-3 finish in ‘03. Replacement Bill Callahan, also void of any collegiate head coaching experience upon his hire, came in as a hot prospect after taking Oakland to the Super Bowl in his first season as top guy there. Mired at 12-10 over Callahan’s tenure, the Cornhuskers now hover around 110th for their offensive rushing rank, a far cry from the days of NU running domination just recently passed. Solich, now at Ohio University, has struggled to keep the Bobcats competitive, but expectations in Athens are not quite the same as they are at the storied program in Lincoln.

Coaching changes for next year include Virginia DC Al Golden heading up to Philly to lead Temple into its MAC affiliation (by 2007), and Virginia OC Ron Prince breaking up the monotony at Kansas State. Prince became a hire after the school was forced to find a black candidate to satisfy BCA regulations. After taking Virginia to only 69th in total defense this year, it is probably Prince’s recruiting skills that will make KSU top brass happiest. The real story here is U of V losing its two top assistant coaches, or maybe about Prince becoming the second-youngest head coach in the division, or about how he is from right down the road in Junction City. But the one fact most will report about is how this currently makes Prince only the fourth black head coach in I-A. Noteworthy? Yes. Is it worth basing yet another story on racial motives instead of basing it on an individual’s football criterion? No… Prince was quoted on Monday, "I'm hopeful that someday this won't be very significant. I hope that we will move past this [kind of] moment." Easier said than done when big-time sports writers make sure that football-related facts play second fiddle to racial motivations, the same basic sequential problem for which many minority candidates of other coaching positions have to deal as our media continually guarantees that skin color trumps ability. It’s like “Wow! Let’s jump up and down because a black guy became head coach!” I personally take the Chris Rock approach of “What you bragging about? S___ like that is supposed to happen.” Like most respectable coaches teach – don’t get excited by little things so that you lose focus on the bigger picture. When the media can stay away from “headline candy” and poignantly make it about what happens on the field instead of skin color, then maybe we can finally get past race as the primary pivot within items we see in our everyday lives/news. Race sells more papers, simply put, so realize that it is financial motivations like this that keep racism alive as individuals allow our arcane, advertisement-based media to set society’s agenda(s).

Lagniappe
Elvis will leave with the Bronko Nagurski Award. DE Elvis Dumervil, the senior DE from Louisville who finishes the regular season leading all I-A players in sacks (20), forced fumbles (10), and who comes in second with 22 tackles-for-loss, is now officially recognized as the best defensive player of 2005. With its front line soon gutted, the Redbirds have their work cut out if they are to return to their ranking of 20th in run stoppingSpeaking of having their work cut out, UL will be without the services of sophomore QB Brian Brohm until next year sometime. Brohm, second in the NCAA with both his 166.7 QB-rating and 68.8% completion rate, tore the ACL and meniscus while bruising his right knee against Syracuse and underwent surgery for it Monday. Hunter Cantwell was bumped in at QB versus UConn and went 16-of-25 for 271 yards for a 30-20 win in his starting debut, but the speedy red-shirted frosh gets Virginia Tech’s No.2 pass defense next in the Gator BowlWith Southern Cal and Texas finishing as the only two unscathed, we see for only the second time in the history of the AP poll the No.1 and No.2 teams from preseason finish the regular season in the same spots. Last year, it was Oklahoma and USC doing the same, but with the ’04 Auburn squad also finishing undefeated, the AP removed itself from the BCS’s exclusifying proceedings. The AP ostensibly realizes that only two teams – under the current format - can compete in any national championship discussion(s), so then why does the BCS continue to wish for this same kind of 1-2 finish if such a matchup doesn’t always clear up the “who’s #1” debate?...One of the most intriguing bowl matchups is in the Cotton, where Texas Tech brings its second-ranked offense into Dallas against Alabama’s second-rated defense. The Red Raiders also rank No.1 in passing offense and No.4 in scoring, while ‘Bama is No.1 in scoring defense and No.4 in both pass-stopping categories. In big games, advantages go to the better defense and therefore the Crimson Tide. But more significant will be the other half of the game, when ‘Bama fields its struggling offense (ranked 73rd) against a quality Tech D (26th total) that finished the regular season ranked 8th against opponent’s passingOregon, though ranked fifth in the BCS one spot ahead of Notre Dame, was bypassed for one of the big four bowls so that the Irish can go. All true fans should want to have the “Irish exception” dealt with soon, before more/their teams fall prey to Notre Dame’s unfair inclusion into this elite eight (automatic BCS bid for ND if they reach nine wins). Aren’t there still only 11 teams in the Big Ten?...Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan finish as the lone teams with 10 total turnovers lostTrue fodder - Hawaii, Kentucky, Fresno State, Minnesota, North Texas, Wyoming and New Mexico State are the only teams with no touchbacks on any of their collective puntsThink controlling punts doesn’t matter? As we’ve predicted all along, Fresno completes the regular season as the only team aggregately allowing foes under 10 returns of punt (7). Of the 11 teams allowing foes under 100 PR yards, Fresno again led I-A with 40 total yards allowed. Last year, Fresno led the five teams giving foes under 100 PR-yards by allowing only 27 yards, but was second to Utah (8) by allowing 10 total returns. You can either send your 11 guys barreling down the field to try and tackle some speedster, or you can just be poignant with your punts and save your team some injuriesOregon State led the NCAA by throwing 23 INTsOnly two teams placed two players each in the top 20 for total tackles. New Mexico State seniors Jimmy Cottrell (1st with 14.9 tackles per game) and Matt Griebel (9th, 12.4) match Iowa seniors Chad Greenway (3rd, 13.4) and Abdul Hodge (T-6th, 12.4), but Cottrell and Griebel finish one-two for total tackles with 179 and 149, respectively (though both played in 12 games, one more than any other top 30 finisher)...Neither Ohio State nor Notre Dame, the 2006 invitees to the Fiesta Bowl, has beaten a top 10 program this campaign. Ironically, ND led in the fourth quarter against USC, as did OSU when it played Texas. Just imagine the calamity if both had won those tilts and we had eight with one-loss vying for those Rose Bowl spotsFresno sure tanked, losing both games after their narrow 50-42 loss to Southern Cal. Nevada and Louisiana Tech both used the same plan that USC proved worthy to down what seemed to be a Bulldog team on the verge of reaching the “next level”. But the Bulldogs (La. Tech) beat the Bulldogs in their home closer by 12, so the transitive property (geometry) means La. Tech would possibly beat the Trojans, who only won by eight (hey, 100,000-1 odds are possible, just ask a lottery winner)UCLA’s Maurice Drew (1st in I-A with 29.07 yards per punt return) and Boise’s Quinton Jones (2nd, 20.53) make this the second straight season with two players finishing over 20 yards per punt return. Before OSU’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Utah State’s Kevin Robinson did it last year, it was 2000 the last time this happenedDrew also led individuals in I-A with three punt returns for TDs. Fresno and Texas were the only teams to tally four PRs for TDPivotal stat pertaining to the Rose Bowl title game: Southern Cal has intercepted 22 of their foes’ passes while Texas has only gotten 10. Inversely, Texas ranks 10th and Southern Cal 75th for pass defense (6th and 38th, respectively, in all-important efficiency)And finally, talk about predictable irony – after 2004 saw Texas Tech’s Sonny Cumbie and Hawaii’s Timmy Chang finish first-second in passing (based on completions per game, not total yards), 2005 now has their replacements (Cody Hodges and Colt Brennan) placing the same. How’s that statement for these program’s consistency?