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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday, November 13, 2005

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While wondering at his football fandom fortune: Saints on a bye? Southern Miss on Sunday is even better...

ABC posted an interesting statistic in the second quarter of the Ohio State-Northwestern game: of all the major conferences taking advantage of replay this season, the Big Ten leads everyone with a 40.7 percent overturn rate; the SEC is last at a mere 23.4 percent. SMQ has already complained that, since - unlike the NFL's coach challenge system - the same official who calls for a replay and reviews it must look at the play several times before doing so, the overturn rate should be about 75 percent; the low, low rates across the board seem to suggest officials are arbitrarily stopping play about three times as often as necessary to take minutes out of the game to accomplish nothing.

But this statistic is interesting for another reason: could the overturn rates reflect different regions' cultural outlooks? We Southerners tend to be stubborn and conservative, notoriously staunch defenders of the status quo; we don't care much for challenges to authority in these parts. Hence, fewer than one in four official calls are overturned. The Big Ten, however, home of progressive, justice-seeking Midwesterners, is traditionally much more likely to take advantage of the system to initiate change; when they perceive a mistake, it's corrected with haste.

Does that argument make any sense? Probably not - there's a good chance the numbers mean the SEC is actually reviewing way more plays than necessary, which would represent a rather gratuitous challenge to the field officials' authority. But it is an interesting, if un-scientific, debate.


CLEMSON 35, FLORIDA STATE 14: SMQ stuck with the Bowden Bowl only long enough to see the formerly stout FSU defense get ripped up by multiple middle screens to Chansi Stuckey. With the NC State defeat last week, the Seminoles' first ever back-to-back ACC losses, and this one looked like the beginning of a meltdown.
Last week, SMQ bemoaned Florida State's reliance on extremely green skill players in the crunch; today, ESPN displayed a revealing statistic: FSU's two stud senior running backs, Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington, have combined for only 152 rushes, for 727 yards and six touchdowns. Even adding in this year's receiving numbers (48 catches for 506 yards, one touchdown), that doesn't nearly touch the duo's 2004 production (311 rushes, 1,838 yards, plus 40 catches for 250 yard; 11 total touchdowns). Some of that has to do with Washington's recent injury troubles - he's missed the last two games, with obvious effects - and the recent pickup in carries by freshman Antone Smith, but with a redshirt freshman quarterback beginning to hit a wall late in the season, it's time to lean more heavily on the senior backs. Booker averaged seven yards per pop against Clemson, and only notched 16 carries. Smith, meanwhile, had a Barry Sanders-like six carries: one for 20 yards and five for minus three. When things start slipping downhill, experienced, proven playmakers deserve the ball more often.

OHIO STATE 48, NORTHWESTERN 7: Didn't stick long here, either, once A.J. Hawk returned a blocked punt for a touchdown to put OSU up three touchdowns early. Obviously, the Buckeyes are as impressive on their five-game win streak as just about any team in the country, especially with two losses: OSU's scored at least 35 in every game (at least 40 in each of the last four) and held three of the last four to 10 points or less. Not that impressive against Indiana and Illinois, but holding high-flying Northwestern (fifth nationally in total offense entering the game) to one touchdown and less than half its average allotment of total yards is a testament to a defense living up to the hype.
ABC's Gary Danielson remains the top color guy anywhere in the college game. He diagnoses plays immediately, and more consistently and with more expert, not-obvious-to-every-fan insight than any one else. On consecutive red zone trips by Ohio State in the first half Saturday, Danielson called the Buckeyes' shot ahead of the snap: first, he circled an H-back lined up as a second, offset tight end, and warned OSU would try to throw to him; Troy Smith proceeded to roll out, looking for the noted gentleman, and wound up throwing the ball away because Northwestern knew what was coming, too (OSU eventually scored, anyway, though Troy Smith's third down scoring run should have been looked at, as his elbow hit shy of the goalline). Next possession, Buckeyes move it inside the Wildcat 10 again, Danielson points to an extra blocker at the end of the line with no defender wide of him and notes, "That looks like a good place to run outside" seconds before Troy Smith runs outside of the blocker for another score. Perhaps Danielson, like Ron Jaworski in the NFL (criminally without his own three-hour game tape review show, which should replace the puff of both Sunday and Monday Countdowns), should get some X and O breakdown time on the WWL.

SOUTH CAROLINA 30, FLORIDA 22: The fourth quarter of this one was almost impossible for SMQ to watch, not because of the play, but because of a hideous stadium shadow falling onto the field that proved beyond the grasp of regional TV cameramen to neutralize, and a continuous scroll across the bottom of the screen by the local affiliate warning that the game would be cut off to show LSU-Alabama in its entirety. And indeed it was, sending SMQ to five full minutes of uninterrupted local commercials and eight more minutes of people running onto the field in Tuscaloosa as Florida (he later discerned) drove for a field goal and stopped USC to get the ball back with a chance to tie...only to blow it with a very Zook Era-like twelve men on the field call on the South Carolina punt. Oh well; Brodie Croyle walked out of the tunnel with verve, at least...
Florida receiver Dallas Baker played this game with a broken rib and punctured lung. Is that Jack Youngblood territory?
It's a shame Sidney Rice has been confined to regional coverage the past two weeks, because the kid's been spectacular. Saturday, he singlehandedly turned a short third down pass into a spinning, lunging effort for a first down on an eventual USC touchdown drive in the first half; on the same possession, he made a blind diving catch for 21 yards - his head turned about .0056879 of a second before the ball gravitated into his arms like a magnet. In the third quarter, he went up and grabbed a stop fade, spun out of a tackle and flew down the sideline for a 64-yarder that set up a score and began South Carolina's second half pull away. Overall: five catches, 112 yards, three 'wow' moments, and he's only a redshirt freshman.
SMQ is familiar with three of South Carolina's defensive coaches from their Southern Miss days: co-coordinators Tyrone Nix and John Thompson and secondary coach Dave Wommack all have served as part of a lineage of USM defensive coordinators before moving on. Yet South Carolina's defense showed none of the "organized chaos" system employed so well by USM over the years, highlighted by, well, chaos, namely guys jumping around all over the place before the snap, blitzing from unorthodox angles, dropping as many as nine, employing one or zero down linemen, and all sorts of similar craziness. Not that any of it was needed, given the Gamecocks got plenty of pressure on Chris Leak with the more conventional sets, but SMQ enjoys the unorthodox looks anytime he can see them, and hoped the concentration of practitioners would show some functional schematic insanity.
Urban Meyer's "sophisticated" offense remains a conventional cloud of dust affair; by employing both a blocker in the backfield and a fullback motioning in from the slot on most running plays, the Gators may as well be running the wishbone half the time. The passing game is a similarly short, safe affair, to the extent that, while attempting to come back with a little over eight minutes on the clock and down 11, it took Florida four minutes to pick up two first downs, and more than six minutes to drive down for a field goal to get within eight. The Gators scoring drives Saturday:
9 plays, 67 yards, 3:29, Field Goal
9 plays, 89 yards, 4:22, Touchdown
12 plays, 80 yards, 7:06, Touchdown
17 plays, 55 yards, 6:13, Field Goal (This with the clock winding, down two scores)
The longest play of any of those drives, by far, was 31 yards (Leak's first touchdown pass, to Chad Jackson, against blown USC coverage). There's consistency, but, as the announcers pointed out, without Andre Caldwell, UF "has no Sidney Rice" to produce big plays; everything has to be ground out, even in desperation time. That's very tough to do when you're also giving up 30 on the other side.

LSU 16, ALABAMA 13: This one lived up to its hype as the game of the day and one of the best of the season, though SMQ is turned off by CBS' lackluster presentation and the quasi-tragic figure of Verne Lundquist, increasingly leaning on forced catch phrases ("How a-BOUT that?!"), weekly obsessing over the AFLAC trivia question, laughing a bit too loudly at his own verbal trips and solemnly copping to "lonely nights" after being teased by Todd Blackledge for attempting actual research. Then again, any aging white man who once referred to Bonnie Bernstein as "B-squared" earns little sympathy from SMQ.
Blackledge and Lundquist did do well to focus on the success of LSU's defensive line, particularly the tackle duo of Claure Wroten and Kyle Williams, who consistently screwed everything up in the Alabama backfield with blazing first steps and instant penetration. Alabama's line eventually tried to focus so much on these two, it lost sight of other routine tasks, fumbling a snap and allowing LaRon Landry to fly by untouched for a hit that nearly knocked Brodie Croyle out of the game in the third quarter while his blockers stood watching the tackles drop into coverage on the zone blitz. Overall, 'Bama's line troubles kept them walking on egg shells while Chris Jackson missed kick after kick with good field position in the second half; the Tide had 30 yards in the entire half (SMQ doesn't count the 40 yards gained on the final play of desperation, allowed by LSU defenders draped across the goalline to prevent a score as the clock ran out) and earned two first downs. Blech.
Brian must have loved the call: LSU ball, down 10-0 on the road, first possesion of the second half, fourth-and-goal from the Alabama one at the end of a 78-yard drive, and the Tigers go straight ahead for a touchdown against a fierce defense. No mincing field goals! It was the right call, a bold call to set the tone for the rest of what would turn into a dominating half in hostile territory. LSU couldn't have won it with a field goal there, because it wasn't going to get back in that kind of position. Good job of taking the opportunity that exists rather than playing it too conservatively and hoping - in this case, against the odds - that things will go your way again.
LSU dodged a bullet at the end of regulation, inexplicably blitzing and leaving D.J. Hall one-on-one with 11 seconds left in the game. Had Croyles' throw been on target - one of a half dozen overthrows of open receivers Croyle missed during the game - Hall had his man burned at least into winning field goal position. A big part of it may have been LSU's consistent pressure, but Croyle was way off on a lot of throws, and didn't get any help from butterfingery receivers. But why was LSU bringing six in that spot, when Tennessee had lost in Tuscaloosa by giving up an almost identical play to Hall on blitz a few weeks ago?
Okay, Wallace Gilberry and JaMarcus Russell are old friends or something from Mobile, but SMQ cringes at such intersquad fraternizing in the immediate aftermath of a tense loss. Was Gilberry congratulating Russell for destroying his team's undefeated season and SEC and national championship hopes? Where is the insane, over the top competitiveness? SMQ expects rage and tears after a heartbreaking loss, not sportsmanship.
This win by LSU means literal butt-kissing will be on display at SMQ's place of employment Monday morning due to an inebriated bet between co-workers. SMQ, of course, will be only a neutral observer, but also an amused one.

AUBURN 31, GEORGIA 30: Elaborating on the aforementioned SEC replay conservatism, is the league too slow to call for a replay? Georgia might think so: up six in the third quarter, UGA return man Thomas Flowers loses the ball on a punt; excessively conservative announcer Bob Davey calls the play a "clear fumble," though SMQ thought Flowers' knee was very, very close to being on the ground when the ball was knocked out. No review, Auburn goes ahead on an end around by Devin Aromashodu on the ensuing play. Later on, Georgia's Brandon Sutherland "caught" a pass in the flat before losing the ball, which was scooped up by Auburn's Karibe Dede and run in for a touchdown. SMQ agrees Sutherland probably had the ball before a fumble, but TV replays showed it was close enough for an extended look. Again, no review. SMQ isn't saying these were bad calls, only critical ones that deserved to be scrutinized when the system allows; reversal of either one would have probably turned the final outcome Georgia's way.
With the game and a division title on the line, how do you let a guy run open down the middle of the field on fourth and ten? It's okay that Georgia didn't blitz here - SMQ criticized LSU for blitzing late, though the situation was different, and he's not going to be a hypocrite on this matter - but if you're going to drop into coverage and give the quarterback time on a long yardage down, for God's sake, cover. Linebakers dropped two yards and covered no one, the strong safety got turned around and watched as Aromashodu found all kinds of room in the middle of the two deep. Give Georgia's line credit for keeping McClover and Co. off of Cox; fourth and ten throws don't come any easier. UGA had to play aggressively on this critical play, and mostly watched while "covering dirt instead of the man," as Chris Spielman would say.
Yet Georgia may have been better off had the weird "fourth down fumble" rule not taken Aromashodu's (or, actually, a hustling Courtney Taylor's) touchdown off the board. Only needing a field goal to win with under two minutes left, Auburn was able to run the clock all the way down and make the easy kick with six seconds left, and Georgia never had the shot with the ball it would have had if Aromashodu had hung on and scored. Also, on that big play, even though he fumbled, give Aromashodu tremendous credit for swatting the ball back into the end zone after it was punched out of his hands; it was on its way out of bounds otherwise, which meant a touchback and Georgia ball if not kept in play and recovered by Auburn.
The Tigers could make a big jump with this win. Supposedly, this is a defensive team, but Brandon Cox looks much more poised since that opening day disaster against Georgia Tech (he threw for way over 300 in that one, too, actually, along with all the picks), but the big development since then is the emergence of Kenny Irons to take some pressure off Cox. Irons also gives the play-action game more pop, and few scheme off the play-action as well as Al Borges; Saturday, good fakes led to a few first down throws, as usual, and Ben Obumanu's end around for a score when end Will Thompson bit on the dive action. If LSU should manage to blow the division title over the next two weeks, the other Tigers are good enough to beat Alabama and claim the thing for themselves; if not for all the unforced kicking errors in Baton Rouge, Auburn would control its own destiny. A much better team than we saw early in the season.
Wow, Georgia really missed Shockley more than SMQ thought. The Bulldogs lose this one by three touchdowns with Tereshinski III getting sacked four or five more times. Also, and SMQ thought he knew about the guy already, but Leonard Pope: OMG. A beast.

Alabama: Must score to go undefeated...Rutgers: Still getting votes? A fraud of a fraud...South Carolina: Just a tad improved...Vandy: Forget about the bowl...if Jay Cutler gets hurt in the last two games, can he wrangle a medical redshirt?

SMQ finally nails his upset pick - Iowa State over Colorado - as well as another corn state-based upset in Wisconsin, and the record vanishes. And thus the prognostication prowess, already so poor SMQ doesn't even track of his sorry picking record, slips bit more.

SMQ gets an upset pick right!

You can't prove nothing...all right, SMQ thought the minus-18 line was way too high for Ohio State over Northwestern (though he did like the Buckeyes), and was as schoked as anyone by South Carolina's win.

Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten: Combined for 13 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, two more quarterback hits; but the LSU defensive tackles' footprint on the second half dismantling of the Tide offense was bigger than any statistics show, other than the number of points (0) and yards (30) Alabama managed after the break. Consistent penetration on almost every play disrupted the run game, ruined Croyle's timing, and got the senior antsy on the occasions he had time, leading to bad throws, a goofy fumble on a pass attempt and a muffed snap.
Drew Olson: 22 of 27, 510 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions; SMQ doesn't want to get overly carried away by statistics...but damn. Olson went 91 yards for a score on the first play from scrimmage. That's an incredible performance, whether or not Arizona State's defense has quit on the season. Again, what the hell happened at Arizona? The Wildcats follow up their wipeout of the Bruins by losing Saturday to awful Washington.

Upset of the Week

Dual shockers: first, Oklahoma State, winless in the Big XII, gets out front 14-0 and holds on to beat Texas Tech. This is a team that had given up 34, 38, 62, 37 and 47 points in five consecutive losses, and suddenly raised up to stop a Raider offense that averaged 44, had scored more than 50 six times and never put up fewer than 28. This makes no sense.

Nor does Kentucky walloping Vanderbilt. The Commodores made a comeback effort with 19 in the fourth quarter, but down 48-24 (34-10 at the half), it wasn't nearly enough. Jay Cutler threw for 396 yards, Vandy outgained the 'Cats 518 to 371 and had only one more turnover (three to two); the difference was ultimately Bo Smith's first quarter touchdown return of a blocked field goal to put UK up 21-3.

By the way, Rafael Little? Four 100-yard plus games in his last five; he also has 122 receiving against Auburn, and 86 receiving Saturday to go with his 198 yards and four touchdowns. Guy's got over 1,300 total yards on the season, and SMQ has never, ever heard of him until looking up UK-Vandy game stats.

Time to Re-think...

...Syracuse's status as a program of any repute, and its decision to can always mediocre but never horriffic Paul Pasqualoni. The Orangemen only gave up 89 yards passing Saturday, but were still romped by USF, 27-0, for its seventh straight defeat. The 'Cuses' offensive rankings: 102 (rushing), 106 (passing), 113 (scoring), 114 (total). They did beat Buffalo; otherwise, 0-8, including 0-6 in the Big East, with Notre Dame and Louisville left to play. Oh, for the days when Pasqualoni stalked the Carrier Dome sidelines! Remember, the guy did manage a tie for the league title his last year; maybe he was doing a fabulous job with a terrible bunch of nobodies. Eh...probably not - he did have Donovan McNabb. But he was better than this.

SMQ Complaint of the Week

What is the advantage of the whacked out, spread 'em across the field punt formation? Traditionally, punt teams want to protect the inside and make rushers come a long way for the block; this newfangled thing en vogue the past three seasons leaves massive, gaping holes to run through on either side of the center, with a bevy of upbacks instead who look like they're about to get a punt right up the ass while trying to protect against oncharging, previously unmolested rushers with momentum. This is inviting a block; Miami's made a living out of blasting this formation, most recently against North Carolina, and Florida State added Clemson to its list of victims with a block for a score yesterday - hardly the first time it's come back to bite the Tigers.

SMQ supposes the idea, like that of the only slightly less annoying roll-out "rugby kick," is to enhance the downfield coverage by getting guys into their lanes at the snap and, theoretically, to spread the return/block unit out to account for every man in case of a fake. The successful fake to block ratio, though, in SMQ's estimation, is substantially one-sided.

SMQ Homerism
The crazy, four games in three weeks on four different days of the week road trip ends for USM today in Houston, a game rescheduled by Hurricane Rita and played on a Sunday due to USM's un-movable (must be on TV!) and ultimately dramatic game at Marshall Tuesday. The Eagles can come out of the trip 3-1, 3-0 in the league, and still controlling their own destiny to win the C-USA's East Division with Memphis and Tulane left (though it would have been nice for UAB to reduce Southern's margin of error by beating Central Florida rather than blowing an 11-point second half lead to the Knights Saturday in Birmingham).

But that's only if they get by Houston, who is scary as it can be. Not only because the Cougars required USM to make a desperate comeback for an undeserved overtime win in Hattiesburg last year, but because they've kept up the close stuff this year: UH played Oregon within two touchdowns in the opener and lost to division leaders UTEP and UCF by a combined five points, the former in double overtime. It also whomped Tulsa, who shamefully beat USM by three touchdowns in Hattiesburg.

SMQ has a healthy respect for junior Kevin Kolb, who guided the Cougars' criss-crossing spread attack to way over 500 yards and 31 points in one of the worst gashings an offense has ever put on a Southern Miss defense last year. Yet Kolb's Cougars still lost, as they did the year before to USM, and, before Kolb arrived, the four meetings before that. Also note that the Eagles' biggest strengths, punting and turnover margin (plus 1.25 per game, seventh in the country) are Houston's biggest weaknesses (the Cougars are 117th in net punting, 94th at minus-.63 turnover margin per game); those are prime field position stats, and USM's otherwise pedestrian offense has been excellent at converting those short field opportunities into scores. Don't be surprised if UH outgains Southern by a mile again, but comes up short by committing turnovers and/or special teams mistakes. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
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9:57 AM

I did love the call; conversely, I was screaming to fire Mark Richt at the end of the Georgia game. So much so that an Absolute Axiom of Football Strategery came to me:

Always have the last meaningful possession in a football game.

Meaningful != 20 seconds to score a TD.
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And don't let the name fool ya - second guessing the phenomenal athletic feats and split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress is for every day of the week.

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