Rushing The Field: Another SEC Barnburner

Seriously, if we’re gonna go through this every week with SEC teams in the night game on ESPN, it’s gonna be a real long, nail-biting season.  LSU pulled out the victory in the Tiger Bowl against Auburn thanks to a late touchdown pass from Jarrett Lee, who was subbing after Andrew Hatch got concussed, to Brandon LaFell to end a game largely characterized by the hard hits on both sides along with fits and starts on offense that have to infuriate Auburn fans. I mean, just watching the passing on Tony Franklin’s offense look spectacular one minute and awful the next has to drive the Auburn faithful nuts rights now.  So much more of the game was about the heavy hitters on defense, and the eight guys LSU rotated in and out on the D-line came through and pounded Chris Todd in the end to secure the win.  Les Miles would also like to remind you about the size of his play-calling balls.

When UGA’s Rennie Curran took Rudy Carpenter’s helmet with him on a sack in the first half of Georgia’s visit to Tempe to face Arizona State, I knew this game was going to be in favor of the Dawgs, and ugly in the second half. Matthew Stafford now has a new target in A.J. Green, who caught for more than 150 yards last night and a score on top of two more touchodwns from the reliable Knowshon Moreno.  Carpenter now has a fifth off-brand orifice thanks to an offensive line that can’t protect him; at least two of them were provided by USC’s Rey Maualuga.

The Tennessee Volunteers just flat out gave up when Florida came to town. The final score does say that the Vols got on the scoreboard, but really, when you’re down 27-0 in the third quarter, do any points after that count?  It wasn’t exactly a spectacular game for Tim Tebow, and that offense still looks a little too dependent upon him and Percy Harvin, but the Vols defense had very few counters and the Vols on offense — well, this is a team with two studs at RB in Arian Foster and Monterio Hardesty whom they can’t open holes for and get the ball to. Jonathan Crompton is still being asked to do way too much.  In joining Steve Spurrier as the second Florida coach to beat Tennessee and Phil Fulmer four times in a row, Urban Meyer would be perfectly within his rights to snark, “You can’t spell Outback without UT.”

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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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Fixing Up Quarterbacks

Scene: A back room in the Bruins’ weight room facility in Westwood. Head coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow are there with gloves on and powder blue aprons. Newsprint is all over the place, a kiln is in the corner, and there are large canisters of paste.

Neuheisel: OK, bring him in. (Trainers drag in QB Ossar Rasshan, who started several games last year.) Thanks.
Chow: Dorrell left us with some shoddy workmanship, didn’t he? Jesus. At least with some work, we can have him ready in three weeks, just in case we need another sacrificial lamb.
Neuheisel: This is not how I planned my return, Norm. I mean, I don’t remember art skills being part of the job application when Guerrero asked me to fill it out.
Chow: Aw, quiet and pass the clay. I think Ossar’s injury is one we can fix with some surplus clay and just put him in there for a bit. (Points to kiln.) Ossar, does it feel okay?
Rasshan: Coach, it’s pretty damn painful. Are you sure?
Chow: It’ll have to do, bud.
Neuheisel: Fine. (Passes clay). Look, we’re supposed to be immediately competitive with USC, right? I find out Cowan’s got rubber bands for ACLs and Karl was keeping Olson together with papier mache. I paid the teacher off so I’d pass art, y’know? Sculpture is not my bag here. I mean, now I’m resorting to bitching about Carroll’s kid cussing to get recruits. This was supposed to be easier.
Chow: Certainly isn’t what I’m used to in the college ranks.
Neuheisel: Not like some of the pros are any better. Billick insisted that marble was the best applicant to get Steve McNair back together again.
Chow: Fisher at least gave me some raw materials to work with. At least we had a budget for some decent metals and high-quality plastics for repair work.
Neuheisel: Howland gets all of the budget. It’s not new here, it’s just how it is, and he won’t share his cybernetic synthesis equipment.
Chow: You couldn’t have negotiated that in?
I was just happy to have the job in the first place. I mean, get employed, then ask for the perks when you get a little bit of a good thing going. But the facilities, that’s definitely the first thing we need to hit the circuit for.
Chow: You can. (Slops clay and smooths it on Rasshan’s left knee.) If I didn’t hate the booster circuit, wouldn’t I have a head job by now?
Rasshan: Ah, at least it cools. That feels better….
Neuheisel: Given. How long should he be in the kiln before we send him over to the medical center?
Chow: Hmmm….(reads manual.) This thing says 24 hours or so, then ship him off for finishing and rehab.
Neuheisel: OK. Hey, O, ready for the heat?
Rasshan: God, this crap sucks….let’s go for it.

(Neuheisel and Chow load Rasshan’s leg into the kiln.)

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Not Exactly The Way To Establish New Standards

College football squads have traditions, but this isn’t one I’d heard of before at UCLA: “Over the Wall” day, where players, after stretching, run and jump over the wall at Spaulding Field and leave practice for the day. Slick Rick had asked the seniors not to do it this year — yet they did.

The decision to go “over the wall,” said to have been organized by seniors, will probably cost the Bruins a day of spring practice, although Neuheisel was going to check with the NCAA whether he could get the day back.

If not, the lost day of practice might come in handy with a new offense and questions about the offensive line. It also left a handful of potential recruits and visiting high school coaches with no practice to observe. This was also a day the team was practicing in full pads in advance of Friday’s scrimmage.

Neuheisel, who has already been marking the days until the Bruins’ season opener against Tennessee on Sept. 1, grudgingly cited it as a case of college tradition.

Still, Neuheisel said, “I don’t want to make too big a deal of it. It is what it is and there are still plenty of days left in spring to get the improvement that we need.”

Problem is, the records that the Bruins have put up in the past few years under Dorrell aren’t exactly meriting of a continuation of such a tradition. Not exactly the way a new head coach wants to start when he’s supposed to lay the law down in Westwood, particularly with a serious offensive line deficiency and a new offensive system to put in.

Photo: Liz O. Boylan/Los Angeles Times

Should They Stay Or Should They Go?

Your basic evaluations as to which high profile freshmen should be declaring for the Association or should decide to stick around for another season in the college ranks.

Derrick Rose, Memphis – Guaranteed lottery pick, and depending upon the franchise that lands the first overall pick, could go #1 in the draft. Regardless of what happens against Kansas tonight, should punch his ticket to the Association.

Michael Beasley, Kansas State – If you are averaging 26 points and more than 10 boards a game in your freshman year in college in a conference like the Big 12, you are probably ready to go pro. Those are numbers beating Carmelo Anthony’s marks, and if Beasley had someone else to play with outside of Bill Walker the Wildcats might have gotten further.

Jerryd Bayless, Arizona – Already declared, might have wanted to stay another year. It may not be fair or right, but he reminds me a lot of a bit less polished version of Gilbert Arenas (and no, it isn’t necessarily because he wore “0” at Airzona too.)  He’ll probably turn out fine, but a year actually being coached by Lute Olson and a more open offensive system would have been better for him.

Eric Gordon, Indiana – I really don’t know if there was any other choice than for Gordon to leave.  There was too much instability and uncertainty about NCAA violations that Kelvin Sampson left with that Gordon might have been stuck with a school that could be punished severely. He was consistently good in conference, but faded when hitting the Big 10 and NCAA tourneys.

O.J. Mayo, USC – Started out his freshman year flat, got much better as Pac-10 conference play rolled on and grew into his role as leader.  Honestly, he needs to stay one more year and then he’ll be set to go. There are some shot creation situations he could use some more work on, at least from what I could see when I watched USC games this season.

Kevin Love, UCLA – After watching him just get boxed in by Memphis’ front-court tandem on Saturday, he needs to spend another year in Westwood lifting weights and focusing that post game further. The Tigers had players that are the caliber of guys Love will see in the Association — and he just looked kind of schlubby in comparison.

Photo: AP/Matt York