College Football Recap: Stanford Survives

Kirby Lee/US Presswire

For the past two Saturday nights, football fans have lived a charmed life. Last week, we got the Hail Mary Game. This week, there was a slice of triple-overtime insanity when undefeated Stanford survived a scare from USC. Those were the best games of the year, and the Musburger-Herbstreit duo were on the scene for both. There’s a lot of season left, but it’s hard to imagine a better back-to-back stretch. Somewhere in the world, a prime time TV programmer is dancing a jig. And so am I, because this was the most surprising week of the season.

Let’s leap into the action:

The Best Finish

In the third overtime, with Stanford up eight and both defenses looking like ragged sled dogs that just finished the Iditarod in last place, USC was set to score the latest touchdown. Lucky for us, someone with a cell phone captured the twist:

The best part of that clip, to me, is the solemn PA announcer saying, “fumble on the play …” about ten seconds after the entire crowd gasped in horror. Stanford was already in the midst of a wild celebration, and USC was slouching off the field. That’s a little like announcing an earthquake when it’s over. Oh, really? An earthquake? I was wondering why the ground was shaking and my house fell into a giant crevasse that didn’t exist a minute ago. Thanks for the update, PA man.

That was the grand finale, but it was by no means the sole pyrotechnic. Earlier, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck had passed himself out of the Heisman race with a critical interception that USC returned for a touchdown, and then passed himself back in with a game-tying drive at the end of the fourth. And before regulation could end, USC receiver Robert Woods cost his team a shot at the game-winning field goal with a misguided but well-intentioned attempt to stop the clock. With less than ten seconds left, Woods caught a pass across the middle and made a desperate sprint for the sidelines. He was dragged down as the clock expired (according to the officials, anyway), but the great irony of the situation is that USC had timeouts remaining. If he’d simply gone down after the catch, the Trojans could have stopped the clock immediately and booted a long field goal on the final play. Woods was obeying all his instincts as he raced for the sideline, but in this case, an ounce of awareness would have better served his team.

With the win, Stanford preserved its perfect record and a faint national title hope. Others wouldn’t be so lucky.

The Dream Is Dead

You were beautiful, Clemson, with your sumptuous bounty of points. We’ll never forget coach Dabo Swinney and his country-fried enthusiasm. Or quarterback Tajh Boyd, standing regally in the pocket as the electric options unfolded. Hell, the Sammy Watkins trademark speed burst will be etched into the back of our eyelids forever. But the defense was always a question. Sure, we ignored it for a while. We looked the other way. We were young and idealistic, and what mattered was that you won. When we watched your games, it felt like nothing could go wrong. Then you went to Maryland, and things got bad. You escaped, and we sighed and smiled, but in some ways that was the beginning of the end. We wondered, and we worried. What if the great offense blundered, as it was prone to do in stretches, on the same day that the defense collapsed?

And then this. Georgia Tech. The famous option offense, with its run-first and run-last mentality. The team that plays with a lead better than any other team in the country. You had to prevent Georgia Tech from getting that lead, but you emphatically did not. You committed four turnovers, and you trailed by 21 going into the fourth. Even then, you had a great chance to pull within seven after a crucial interception. But the Boyd-to-Watkins combination, so lethal all season, so apt to rescue you in the dicey moments, produced this:

The clueless Watkins look, as the ball went over his head into the hands of the enemy, was the perfect microcosm of the day. But then again, so was the soul-killing nine-minute drive that followed from Tech, burning down the clock and killing the last vestiges of hope. That drive. It still makes me sick, Clemson. It was a brutal, grinding contrast to the free-flowing style you’ve employed all season. It was the German national team beating the ethereal Dutch in the 1974 World Cup finals. It was the San Antonio Spurs landing fatal body blows against the elegant Suns in 2007. It was strength over grace.

And now you’re done. No national title. Maybe a BCS bowl. But then again, probably not. Once the magic is gone, it’s gone for good. You can’t re-believe in Santa Claus. You can’t restore a fallen idol. There’s another loss in store for Death Valley. We can all feel it, but none of us wants to look. It was good knowing you, Clemson, and maybe we’ll see you around the way.

Elsewhere Among the Ranked …

Speaking of dead dreams, Oklahoma pitilessly blasted the second Manhattan Miracle into oblivion with a 58-17 win over Kansas State. Unlike the Clemson loss, where you got the sense that a team’s inherent flaws had critically undermined it at last, this was more like a rude awakening from a utopia that was always too good to be true. The Wildcats hung their hats on the undefeated record, but they’d scraped and clawed their way to that perfect distinction. Against Oklahoma, K-State faced the harsh reality of a superior team, and no dramatic finish can bridge that gap.

The box score says it all. OU’s absurd 690 yards of total offense dwarfs the 240 from Kansas State, and Landry Jones’ 505 yards and five touchdowns confirms that the Wildcats defense was never very good in the first place. It was a tiny, fleeting victory that Kansas State managed to stay within a touchdown for two quarters, but the floodgates opened in the second half and washed the Wildcats right off the field.

In the only other ranked clash, no. 14 Nebraska made a fool of me by beating no. 11 Michigan State, 24-3. Here now, in circular three-score format, is a presentation of why college football makes no sense:

Nebraska 24, Michigan State 3
Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17
Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31

You tell me, man. You tell me. I thought State’s defense would be too much for Nebraska, even on the road, and the Spartans’ previous win against Wisconsin’s great D proved that Kirk Cousins and the Michigan State offense were capable of putting points on the board. Nebraska was a one-loss team, but it had been exposed against Wisconsin and almost lost at home to Ohio State. So what happened?

The best you can say is that the Cornhuskers defense found its footing. It helped that Alfonzo Dennard, maybe the best cornerback in the country, was healthy. And the Spartans hurt their own cause with 90 penalty yards. But all in all, this was a different Michigan State offense than the one we saw last week. Michigan State averaged just 3.2 yards per play in the air and 3.4 on the ground, and Cousins was under pressure all day, getting sacked four times while completing just 11 of 27 passes. The Spartans defense was more or less up to its usual standards, allowing only 270 yards of offense and almost completely shutting down the passing game. Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead gained 130 yards, but it came on 35 carries for an unimpressive 3.7-yard average. The first 10 points of the game were set up by a Cousins interception and a poor punt, each of which gave the Cornhuskers possession with a short field. Two long drives in third capped off the scoring, and did enough damage to secure the game.

As if things weren’t confusing enough, Wisconsin lost its second straight game on a long, desperation touchdown pass, falling 33-29 to Ohio State.

That gives interim coach Luke Fickell yet another huge win for a program that began the year under a black cloud. If he doesn’t get a contract after this year, there’s no justice. Somehow, the Ohio State Buckeyes are one of the best stories in college football just a few months after they were one of the worst.

And that, apparently, is life in the Big Ten.

Who’s Even Undefeated Anymore?

As of today, it’s LSU (bye), Alabama (bye), Oklahoma State (crushing win over Baylor), Stanford, Boise State (bye), and Houston (74-34 win over Rice on quarterback Case Keenum’s nine touchdown passes). By the BCS rankings, the winner of this week’s LSU-Alabama game would almost certainly play Oklahoma State for the national title, if these teams all managed to win out.

Well Done, Joe Paterno

It’s worth at least a token mention that with Penn State’s excruciating 10-7 win over Illinois, JoePa now owns the all-time record for wins (409) in Division I football. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment, but this game was something less than unbelievable. In the inclement weather, neither team recorded even 100 yards passing, and the most exciting part of the game was a flurry of snowballs thrown on the field by students. The whole thing ended, appropriately, with a clang.

Upsets and Close Calls

I’m not sure why, but before Saturday I’d never heard the derogatory term “Gaggies” used in reference to Texas A&M. These days, it’s making a lot of sense. In the latest chapter of its season-long heartbreak saga, A&M blew yet another halftime lead and went on to lose to Missouri in overtime. This one came on top of the Arkansas and Oklahoma State debacles that cost A&M a shot at the conference title, and the situation wasn’t any more dignified. After 28 first-half points, A&M finished the final two quarters with just three. A series of stalled drives and turnovers, as usual, allowed Missouri to storm back, and you have to wonder about the job security of coach Mike Sherman. He’s clearly put a competent team on the field, but the inability to finish casts serious doubts on his in-game coaching abilities. It can’t be easy for A&M fans to consider the fact that they could, and even should, be 8-0. Maybe this is reactionary on my part, but as a fan, I’d be calling for Sherman’s head.

A week after stunning Oklahoma on the road, no. 20 Texas Tech apparently decided that it had accomplished quite enough for the year.

In the Cocktail Party, no. 22 Georgia won a back-and-forth contest with Florida 24-20. Georgia’s defense allowed just 32 yards and a single first down in the entire second half. Bulldogs QB Aaron Murray threw two fourth-down touchdowns, including this gutsy third-quarter strike to Tavarres King:

No. 10 Arkansas continued to be one of the more amusing teams in college football, gutting out a 31-28 road win against lowly Vanderbilt when the Commodores missed a last-second 27-yard field goal. It was the second comeback win in a row for the 7-1 Razorbacks, who rallied to beat Ole Miss last week.

The Heisman Watch

Crazy Dark Horse Candidate: Ian Campbell, UTEP. Campbell leads the nation with 47.8 yards per punt. Isn’t it about time a punter won the Heisman? No? Anyone?

Defensive Hopeful Who Will Never Win: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois. The dude has recorded six forced fumbles this season and tops in the FBS in sacks (11.5). He’s also third in tackles for loss (16.5). What more do you want from a guy who can’t win?

Top 5:

5. David Wilson, Virginia Tech. He stays in this spot as long as he leads the country in rushing yards, which he does, with 1,185.

4. Trent Richardson, Alabama. After a bye week, he’s still just one touchdown away (18) from the top spot nationally.

3. Kellen Moore, Boise State. He’s the fourth-highest-rated QB in the country, with the fourth-most touchdowns (24), only five interceptions, and the highest completion percentage of any qualifying quarterback. Plus, he has the most wins of any quarterback in FBS history, his team is undefeated, and you can’t sack him; he’s been caught behind the line just twice all season.

2. Robert Griffin III, Baylor. Playing for a team with absolutely no defense, he’s managed to become the country’s third-highest-rated QB and one of only three players averaging more than 10 yards per attempt, all while racking up a terrific 23:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the third-best completion percentage among eligible QBs.

1. Case Keenum, Houston. Most passing yards (3,204), most touchdowns (32), tied for fewest interceptions among top 50 quarterbacks (3) despite over 300 attempts. On top of all that, he owns the FBS career record for touchdown passes and total offense, and his team will almost definitely finish the year undefeated. That’s good enough for me.

We’ve got a de facto national semifinal coming up this weekend. Stay tuned for the Thursday preview.


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Filed Under: Gordon's Left Foot, Alabama, Andrew Luck, Arkansas, Clemson, College Football, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois, LSU, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Robert Griffin III, Shane Ryan, Stanford, USC, Wisconsin

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere