Rushing The Field: That Was Supposed To Be Competitive, Right?

Honest question: is 35-3 a bad enough beating for Ohio State that we can no longer consider them candidates for the BCS championship game? After watching USC’s offensive pick apart the secondary and the Trojans’ front seven on defense get after Todd Boeckman early and often, it seems that Jim Tressel’s ethic and mentality in Columbus may need just as much of a change as Lloyd Carr’s did in Michigan. That wound up with Carr leaving and Rich Rodriguez replacing him, but I am not suggesting such a drastic step.  What it may require is Tressel stretching out his recruiting area — because he can get every athlete in the Midwest and many in the Atlantic part of Big 10 territory that he likes, but he isn’t attracting players that can be difference makers in out-of-conference games.  I don’t think Beanie Wells would have made a lick of difference, either, and you know what? I don’t like the Buckeyes much when they have to play Penn State are their spread offense later this year, either.

They may not be able to get by Wisconsin, who grind out wins. For every play that Fresno State made against the Badgers in the San Joaquin Valley, the Badgers had answers and their defense was able to keep Tom Brandstater in check.

The dirty little secret about USC? They have the easiest path to the MNC game because the Pac-10, usually good for 2nd in conference strength behind the SEC these days, is in a down cycle. USC was one of only two Pac-10 teams that won an out-of-conference game convincingly, and I would rather not count Oregon State-Hawai’i as any sort of meaningful OOC game. Oregon lost another QB and snuck by Purdue in OT, to be fair.

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A Tale Of Two Halves

In the first half of the game, yoiu would have been forgiven for thinking that Karl Dorrell was still in charge at UCLA — it was such an offensive abortion and an affront to football that Tennessee was playing down to the Bruins, who were put behind the eight-ball by their juco transfer QB Kevin Craft’s 4 first-half picks.  (Rex Grossman thinks that’s a bad job of taking care of the football right there.) Essentially, defense ruled that first half — whether it be the Bruins’ punt block for a TD or Tennessee taking advantage of the picks.

But something funny happeened — Tennessee forgot they had a secondary that was much, much better on talent than the decimated UCLA receiver and running back corps, and Craft ran two touchdown drives complete with TD passes to a back-up tight end. (It only confirms that it’s not just the QBs at UCLA that appear to be made of papier-mache.)  The dirty secret is that Jonathan Crompton often looked just as uncomfortable as Craft in the first half (bumping into Arian Foster doesn’t help matters), recovered to drive twice, with one being the FG that sent it to overtime. It’s hard to blame kicker Daniel Lincoln for missing the chip shot that gave UCLA the win, but we wouldn’t even have been there if Phil Fulmer had remembered to make some form of halftime adjustment.

I know it’s difficult to assume that Craft will not suck after watching four picks, but maybe after the first time he drives on you, it might be worth considering. (Honestly, it never should have gotten to overtime — DeWayne Walker should keep the game ball for trotting out a sick defensive line and telling them to attack.)

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The Shakedown: Six Days ‘Til Kickoff

Come next Saturday, I’ll be planted in front of the TV for every Saturday afterwards as giant dudes bash heads for school pride (or something like that.) Better take a look at who’s competing for the chip this year, and who’s got the best shot. (Note: this is how I’ve arranged the top 10, I know Georgia’s #1 going in, folks.)

(Rey Maualuga is coming for you, puny quarterbacks.)

1. USC – This isn’t pure SoCal homerism. I think the Trojans get the better of the Buckeyes and the Pac-10 isn’t a whole lot outside of Arizona State this year. If Mark Sanchez (or Mitch Mustain) can be anything resembling good and there is a wide receiver that stands out, they have the easiest path to get to the MNC game. The defense will be nasty, but the offense needs a star to pop out — whether that’s Joe McKnight, Vidal Hazelton, Damian Williams, somebody needs to be a go-to-guy. Of course, you can win big-time with team effort, and the fact that the Pac-10 looks to be in a bad swoon (Arizona State is the only other program that has any upside to look at this year) means a nice, laid-out path to the BCS game. Of course, we wrote all this last year before Stanford.

2. Ohio State – If there is any sort of karmic justice in the sport, OSU will find a way to nab a 2nd loss after losing to USC, thus promptly knocking them out of title contention. However, it took a miracle from Illinois to do it and they still have the best talent in the Big 10, by a long shot.  Their odds of making it back to the BCS title game really do depend on how much the defense can make up for losing Vernon Gholston to Sundays and whether Todd Boeckman will be consistent enough in throwing to the two Brians at wide receiver. If not, the Sweater Vest may bring in Terrelle Pryor earlier than he’d like to.

3. Georgia – The Dawgs’ in-conference schedule will eat them up. Probably won’t have more than one loss, but I don’t think they make it unscathed. They could live up to this pre-season #1 ranking they have if Matthew Stafford can up his completion percentage and Knowshon Moreno continues the form that had everyone drooling last year. Probably second best defense in conference to LSU.

4. Oklahoma – Bob Stoops has a real good chance to go undefeated in the Big 12 — but that defense allows way too much on the ground. The Sooners have laid eggs in their last few bowl games, but bring Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray back for what was a good, solid offensive attack last season. That said, there are few coaches I loathe more than Stoops — he’s whiny and petulant, an SEC coach without a bit of the inherent humor that comes with coaching in that conference.  He should be fortunate that OSU has lost two straight BCS championship games — otherwise, someone would notice he’s 0 for his last 4 BCS bowl games in the past four years.

5. Mizzou – If the Tigers’ vaunted defensive haul is true, then Chase Daniel and Co. stand a real good shot at taking out Oklahoma come Big 12 Championship Game time — and even though teams will probably double team Jeremy Maclin all season, it will only make Daniel and the spread attack in Columbia that much more dangerous. The thought that Gary Pinkel has a bunch of defensive starters returning and is confident that this team will keep others out of the end zone could make them a dark horse favorite if the tops falter.

6. LSU – Fear the Hat, but Les Miles has a quarterback deficiency. If Ryan Perrilloux hadn’t been such a dunce cap, this team likely would have been #2 pre-season with their loaded status at all the skill positions on offense and a robust defense returning, even with Glenn Dorsey moving on to play on Sundays. As is, they’re a favorite for the SEC West crown and a chance to knock off UGA.

7. Florida – The Gators are here until the team proves it has a secondary, essentially. I don’t care how much Tim Tebow you throw at opponents — there are teams they won’t be able to keep out of the end zone and there are defenses (the U, LSU, Georgia) that will pound Tebow, Percy Harvin, and Emmanuel Moody around.

8. Texas Tech – Mike Leach’s Pirate Academy could put a very real scare into OU, Texas and any of the Big 12 South’s regular powers. I don’t expect them to make a championship game yet — but the defense will be a load better and Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree are back. If nothing else, Leach’s teams are nothing short of fun to watch — and hopefully Fox Sports will do a lot of regional games with them.

9. Clemson – In a very, very weak ACC (Virgina Tech is offensively depleted; Boston College is trying to replace Matt Ryan), Tommy Bowden is running out of excuses. He has Cullen Harper, a backfield tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller (plus a freshman back by the name of Jamie Harper hoping to get PT), and he’s fallen short the past few years. An ACC title has to be his or he may not be back.

10. West Virginia – The Mountaineers go as far as Pat White’s legs and arm will take them, and as long as Bill Stewart will stay out of the way as head coach. (This was still an epic hiring error.) They certainly won’t be in a position to make the BCS game — not that the conference is great, but when USF has your number, no division is yours.

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Take The Skinned and Headless Bowling, Part II.

Kentucky 35, Florida State 28 – Not like FSU wasn’t completely shorn of players for the Music City Bowl, but it certainly didn’t look like it. The Seminoles were able to get offensive drives scoring and put up plenty of points — but the absence of players hit them hard defensively, where Kentucky QB Andre Woodson threw for four touchdowns and 358 yards against Bobby Bowden’s squad.

Cal 42, Air Force 36 – It seemed like Cal had no get-up-and-go early, with the offense sputtering under Nate Longshore and the Falcons getting out to 21 first half points. Kevin Riley then relieved Longshore and it was a completely different ball game, turning into an offensive shoot out. The crucial part came when Air Force QB Sean Carney had his leg bend in a way that really shouldn’t happen (so much so that announcer Dan Fouts told the audience to turn away), and the Bears were able to come back and solidify another winning season.

Oregon 56, South Florida 21 – Two things I learned from the Sun Bowl: the Big East isn’t as good as I thought yet, because South Florida, on paper, should have been much more competitive against a down on its luck Pac-10 team; Oregon is more resilient and has a better system than I thought, because for most of the season, I thought Dennis Dixon really was the ultimate key to it. He may be the best catalyst, but Justin Roper ran it well by using a heavy dose of running back Jonathan Stewart — 253 yards rushing.

Fresno State 40, Georgia Tech 28 – Pat Hill’s Mustache Riders romp on a BCS-conference opponent again while the Chan Gailey Equilibrium (TM EDSBS) strikes in combination with what is quickly becoming the Curse of the Interim — Jon Tenuta’s balls-out defensive calling skill didn’t work against Bulldog RB Clifton Smith, who rushed for 152 and 2 scores. Wait, Bulldogs? No wonder Tech folded — dogs, whether from Fresno or from Athens, seem to give them issues, and the Humanitarian Bowl was no different.

Oklahoma State 49, Indiana 33 – The Cowboys won on the strength of Zac Robinson; the QB threw for 3 scores and more than 300 yards in a game that very few got to see (thanks, NFL Network, not like many outside the fans of the two schools wanted to see the Insight Bowl.)

Auburn 23, Clemson 20 – So the Tigers have something interesting offensively going, with somewhat of a two-QB system between senior Brandon Cox and the future QB, Kodi Burns, who scored the winning touchdown in overtime after a game in which Auburn was able to put the screws to Cullen Harper, limiting Clemson’s attack in the Chk-fil-A Bowl.

Photo: AP/Bill Waugh