By Dave Hershorin
October 4, 2006

Thursday night’s football between Auburn and South Carolina proved to be some of this weekend’s best action. Ball control was evidently in vogue during the second half. The Tigers followed a 17 play, 85 yard drive (that resulted in a FG that put them up 17-10) with a perfect onsides kick and wound up allowing the Gamecocks no official time-of-possession or yards in the third quarter. In retrospect, the 13 play, 52 yard drive that ended with a TD on the first play of the fourth quarter was just too much for the ole ball coach. Overcoming a 24-10 lead proved impossible, though USC reversed roles and kept the rock for a 15 play fourth quarter drive that resulted in 93 yards and a TD by TE Jared Cook to cut it to 24-17. After a three-and-out by Auburn that feature three conservative runs by the conference’s best back, Kenny Irons, Spurrier protégé Syvelle Newton lead the Gamecocks on an 18 play, 75 yard drive that looked like it could tie things up. On first-and-five from the Auburn 34, RS frosh Cook had the safeties beat and had the tying score on his fingertips, but he couldn’t hold on and South Carolina lost it when a pass on fourth-and-one from the Auburn five yard line was incomplete to all-conference sophomore WR Sidney Rice in the corner of the endzone on an isolated jump-ball. Spurrier’s guys earned 24 first downs to the Tiger’s 16, but the Tigers scored on all four red zone chances while South Carolina converted just one of their four when inside the 20. Auburn didn’t earn any more vaunted first place votes in the polls with this struggle of a game - they lost one. The good news was how Wazzu clung to Southern Cal until succumbing at home 28-22, thus taking away both of the Trojan’s first place votes and increasing Auburn’s lead to 28 points over USC. Without anyone staking sovereign claim to second place, it is still not clear who is most likely to face Ohio State if things keep going in this direction.

The other Thursday night game between TCU and BYU knocked the Horned Frogs from atop their then-No.17 ranking and out of the ranks of the undefeated. Like in last year’s 51-50 OT loss, BYU did major damage with the arm of QB John Beck. The senior set a MWC record with 521 passing yards and had five TDs against TCU in ‘05, but needed only 321 yards and three scoring strikes on 23-of-37 passing this time. Usually-consistent Horned Frog hurler Jeff Ballard struggled to get his 296 yards on a 26-of-49 effort that included both an INT and a fumble, but only one TD, though he did run it 12 times for 63 yards to lead TCU’s ground efforts. The Cougar D just did all the things needed to keep the TCU offense from inflicting damage – they forced five punts and two turnovers while keeping the Horned Frog pass offense in check. BYU’s punt unit poignantly won the field position battle, especially in the second half when their net of nearly nine more yards per punt meant that the Cougars started their average drive on their own 33, whereas TCU started their average drive from their own 23. All three second half punts by TCU resulted in BYU TDs. The Cougars ended the nation’s longest winning streak at 13 games, one short of the TCU school record set partially by their 1938 national championship winning squad that featured Davey O’Brien the year he won the school’s only Heisman Trophy. It was their first conference loss, too, after they had swept through their initial eight Mountain West tilts in ’05. This leaves No.20 Boise State, which leveled MWC perennial Utah 36-3 in Provo, as the only other undefeated mid-major to currently threaten the BCS. But remember, TCU did bounce back from last season’s second week loss to SMU to finish ranked 11th. Before this win, the Cougars hadn’t beaten a Top 25 team in 12 tries since 1999. Too bad BYU lost 16-13 to Arizona in their opener, for their 30-23 2OT loss to Boston College might have meant enough respectability so that this win could have garnered national recognition in the polls.

Ohio State was supposed to get a pretty big test by going into Iowa City. Last year, the Buckeyes won in the Horseshoe 31-6 over the Hawkeyes, but this year’s depleted back seven wasn’t supposed to be able to keep up with Iowa senior QB Drew Tate’s experienced arm. The Buckeye’s surprisingly good pass defense held Tate to 19-of-41 passing for only 249 yards as they took three INTs away from him. The Buckeyes instead rode their QB’s arm to the 38-17 win, relying on senior Troy Smith’s 16-of-25 performance that yielded a modest 186 yards and four TDs. OSU ran it 50 times for 214 yards, so the accuracy of Smith’s efforts was scantly needed. Sophomore LBs James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, senior CB Antonio Smith and senior FS Brandon Mitchell are names you will hearing of soon, leading OSU defensively as they see to it the Buckeye’s hold their No.1 ranking. I guess Lee Korso had better recognize, huh, High Street? The season ender with Michigan should feature two top five teams if they can both win out.

The matchups this weekend are pretty darn good and should truly test some of the top 25. Here are the top five games to pay attention to…

Texas and Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout pits the No.7 Longhorns with their 14th-ranked rivals. They both have one loss (thanks to Pac Ten officiating), but senior Sooner QB Paul Thompson hasn’t thrown an INT in two straight games as he surprisingly ranks 13th in QB efficiency. But Texas freshman Colt McCoy ranks 8th in efficiency, and the Sooner secondary looks a bit more vulnerable. Texas has a clamp-down run stopping effort so far, and it comes down to phenom RB Adrian Peterson versus the Longhorn's No.2 run defense that has allowed just 36 yards per game so far…so far. This game has had national championship implications since 2000, but not likely this time. Both need the win, though, to gain admittance amongst this season’s upper echelon of I-A teams.

Tennessee at Georgia – No.10 Georgia is hunkered down in Athens for an SEC East showdown with No.13 Tennessee. It looks like the winner of this one will be in position to chase first place Florida, while the loser will then need some luck to finish atop this division half. The Dawgs have the nation’s sixth-best total defense and the No.1 scoring D – they’ve only allowed three TDs and four FGs all year. The Vol’s offense boasts the No.2 team pass efficiency rating, and UT has a decent defense. With Georgia’s anemic offense sputtering, bet the under. Essentially, the UGA defense has to stop Erik Ainge, who has 12 TD passes and 1,389 aerial yards. He is the nation’s fifth-rated QB, so Georgia’s fifth-ranked pass defense has to be up to the challenge since they have yet to meet a ranked team this season. Both have one loss.

No.5 Florida gets ninth-ranked LSU in the Swamp. The Tigers have both the top pass efficiency and total defense, but the Gator’s 13-ranked total offense has consistently done the job to keep UF undefeated. State’s only blemish was when they lost 7-3 to second-ranked Auburn. LSU junior QB JaMarcus Russell has throw only one INT and is the second-best passer in I-A. UF is only 1-3 in their last four tries against LSU, but the Bayou Bengals are 0-1 in the SEC and needing a win desperately to keep any possibilities of being in the BCS alive.

No.11 Oregon at No.16 Cal. Everyone may be fawning attention on first-year starter Josh Booty at USC, but Cal’s sophomore field general Nate Longshore is quietly leading the nation’s eight-ranked passing attack. Oregon’s mix of run and pass has enough success to rank the Ducks fourth in total offense. The boys from Eugene seem to have a better pass defense, but both have seen quality competition and have measured themselves well against it. With Oregon beating Arizona State 48-13 in Tempe last week, this game will clearly determine who has the inside track for catching Southern Cal.

Air Force and Navy face off for the first leg of the Commander’s Cup. Both schools have great rushing attacks – Navy’s ranks first in the nation and Air Force’s third. Both have low-profile pass offenses - the Airmen, ironically, have the 119th-rated passing attack in I-A, and the Midshipman rank only one spot higher. Air Force seems to have a more stout run defense, which looks to be the critical stat, though Navy has looked very strong again this season. Navy has escaped with a three-point win the last three times, and with both having only one-loss coming into this one, pick your times to run to the bathroom carefully.

Ball State’s Nate Davis may be the highest rated freshman QB, but the freshman QB with the most yards (1,084) and poise is South Florida’s Matt Grothe. Grothe had a nationally-televised coming out party on Friday in a 22-20 loss to 24th-ranked Rutgers. The Lakeland-native lead his Bull’s by going 16-of-25 for 241 yards and by being the team’s best rusher with 61 yards and two ground scores. Grothe came up short on a failed two-point conversion with 0:15 seconds left to tie the Scarlet Knights. His ability to go 5-of-7 and throw the big TD pass in the final drive to almost knot it proves that this USF team will be formidable for years to come.


Lagniappe

Texas Tech took Texas A&M off of the list of unbeatens by edging the Aggies 31-27 in College Station. Tech’s No.3 “Air Raid” passing attack looked sharp as sophomore Graham Harrell amassed 392 passing yards and four TD passes (his third time this year with at least four scoring strikes). Harrell has only two INTs to go with the nation’s second-best passing yard total of 1,559…The Hurricanes struggled to get by Houston 14-13 in Coral Gables. Miami still shows signs of offensive futility, but the defense held the Cougar’s No.10 passing offense to under 200 yards to bring UM to .500, though still unranked…Washington won 21-10 at Arizona and is now 4-1. Ty Willingham now gets to lead his guys into Los Angeles for a showdown with USC, a school he is 4-7 all-time against…Northern Illinois senior TB Garrett Wolfe continued his assault on Barry Sander’s single season rushing record (2,628) by amassing 353 yards and three TDs on 31 carries against Ball State to earn the Walter Camp offensive Player of the Week honors. Wolfe has gained more rushing yards in five games, 1,181, than anyone in I-A history. With an average of 236 yards per game on the ground, Wolfe leads the nation and has nearly 70 more YPG than Rutgers TB Ray Rice, who is in second. Gaining an average of 9.3 ypc, only Navy junior RB Reggie Campbell (10.6) has a higher average. Wolfe’s 127 carries is third-most…Five of the nation’s top ten runners are underclassmen, and two are freshmen…Utah still has yet to allow a sack. Oregon has allowed only one…UTEP has allowed 10 total punt return yards, and 13 schools have allowed under 20 punt return yards…Fresno State has a three game skid going after falling to Colorado State 35-23. Some talked of Fresno as a BCS-buster, but the WAC-ee 1-3 Bulldogs should earn another W as they go into struggling Utah State…Memphis, Stanford, Northwestern and Fresno lead the country as all have averaged less than 30 penalty yards per game. But whereas many will say avoiding penalties leads to more wins, note how these four squads are a combined 5-14 in 2006…The nine worst penalized schools average 70+ yards per game against them, but they are a combined 24-15…UCLA has allowed only nine of their opponents’ 47 third-down tries to be converted, a rate of 19.2%...Indiana sophomore Marcus Thigpen is the only player to have two TDs on KORs, and Oregon State junior WR Sammie Stroughter is the only player with two scores on punt returns. Both lead the nation in their respective categories, too…Kentucky sophomores Myron Pryor (DT) and Marcus McClinton (FS) both lead the country with four forced fumbles. All-SEC WLB Wesley Woodyard has three FFs for the Wildcats…Michigan has allowed no points yet in the third quarter…LSU has allowed no points yet in the first quarter, and has allowed only six in all of their first halves combined…Ohio State and West Virginia now have the nation’s longest I-A winning streak(s) with 11. Division II Grand Valley State has the NCAA’s best winning streak with 17…The top four teams for scoring defense are all from the SEC – Georgia, LSU, Auburn, and Florida, respectively. All are ranked in the top 10…