Gordon’s Left Foot: A College Football Recap

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When I was a kid, before I knew any better, I rooted for Notre Dame football. You can blame the influence of my stepfather or my Catholic roots or the musty old books I found in the school library, with their whitewashed tales of Knute Rockne. It certainly didn’t hurt that starting in 1991, every Irish home game was on television. In any case, one of the greatest moments of my young life came in 1993, when Notre Dame beat Charlie Ward and no. 1 Florida State 31-24 in the second-to-last game of the season. All that remained was to knock off Boston College at home, and the Irish would have a shot at a national championship.

But things didn’t go as planned. The Eagles jumped out fast and held their ground. It took a furious 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback for Notre Dame to reclaim a slim lead near the end, but David Gordon, BC’s left-footed kicker, found himself lining up a 41-yard attempt with seconds left to pull off a stunner. The kick wobbled, and appeared to be heading right. I still remember the tiny swell of hope as I let my mind map out the ball’s trajectory. It would veer wide, wouldn’t it?

No. Gordon had done his worst.

A year or two later, I realized there was no good reason for me to support Notre Dame. In college football terms, I became a man without a country. That’s continued to present day, and it’s actually quite a nice break from the usual stress of affiliation. But the melodic strains of those two weeks in 1993 have persisted, reemerging from time to time in my personal sports landscape. Ward played 10 seasons for my New York Knicks, including the ill-fated 1999 trip to the NBA Finals. After his starring role in my personal sports tragedy, Boston College coach Tom Coughlin later balanced his karmic output in one of my greatest triumphs — a New York Giants Super Bowl win against the hated, undefeated Patriots. And 17 years to the day after his kick, David Gordon married my elderly Aunt Gloria.

Just kidding on that last one. Nevertheless, the connection lingers. That’s the origin story, and this is Gordon’s Left Foot.

On to the Week 2 features!


The Best Finish

Appropriately enough for the installment, this goes to a devastating Notre Dame loss to Michigan. The Irish dominated three quarters in Michigan’s Big House and established a 24-7 lead, but it all went to hell for them in the fourth quarter when Denard Robinson, Michigan’s electric QB, led his team to 28 points. There were two really incredible moments here that stand out above the others, which were merely unbelievable.

1: After Michigan scored its third touchdown, Notre Dame looked dead. The Irish got the ball back with 1:12 left, trailing by four, and had to count on their sophomore quarterback, Tommy Rees, to drum up some magic in a rabid, hostile atmosphere. Michigan fans, silenced early, were loudly releasing four quarters’ worth of emotion. They smelled blood, and the blood smelled Irish — which makes it so remarkable that Rees moved his team 61 yards in less than a minute for the go-ahead score. It was as cool a performance as you could ask from a young quarterback, and it would have given his school a legendary road win had it held up.

2: On the next drive, with 23 seconds left and 80 yards ahead of them, Michigan was dead to rights. Only a total breakdown could bail the Wolverines out, but that’s exactly what Notre Dame handed them on a green-and-gold platter. Somehow, receiver Jeremy Gallon swung free on the right side against a prevent defense. And I mean really, really free. He ran 64 yards, most of it untouched, and all of a sudden Rees’ drive was destined to become a footnote. Michigan won the game a play later, and I’ll be amazed if we see a situation bungled so badly by any Division I defense this season.

I loved Brent Musburger’s shock, by the way. He couldn’t have captured the moment any better. “They left him alone!”

Boldest Fashion Statement

The refs for ND-Michigan game wore poor-boys caps! It was the first night home game in Michigan’s history, so both teams wore throwback jerseys. The refs got on board, too, and part of their ensemble were the old-school, eight-panel caps most of us know from Newsies.

I can’t be the only person who associates these hats with Irish people, right? I’m surprised Michigan coach Brady Hoke didn’t protest. You can’t wear the gear of the other school! It’d be like facing an Urban Meyer-era Florida team and seeing the refs come out with shirts made from redacted police records. Speaking of which …

Hey, Did Auburn Lose Yet?

Man, I hated me some Cam Newton. You have to go back to UConn point guard Khalid El-Amin to find a college athlete who had such an infuriating presence. I think it was his phony, phony smile, on display every week. It was like he was jumping out from the television to let me know he’d gotten away with something; that the bad guys were going to win.

I met an Auburn fan this weekend, and whenever I meet them I ask if they liked Newton on a personal level. I always expect them to say something like, “Yeah, maybe he wasn’t the best guy, but he did the job on the field.” Auburn fans always defend him both ways, though, and this week was no exception. After I tried to explain my revulsion, the Auburn fan told me it “sounds like a personal problem.” Typical, but perhaps fair.

Last year, I rooted for Newton to lose every game. Needless to say, that didn’t go well. But my bitterness has only grown in the offseason, I’ll continue to root against Auburn until that cathartic day when it finally crashes and burns.

Unfortunately, Auburn has not lost yet. The Tigers held off visiting Mississippi State, ranked 16th, to win yet another nail-biter at home and their 17th straight overall. The visiting Bulldogs had a chance to score a game-tying touchdown with 10 seconds left and the ball on the 1-yard line:

Is it just me, or should Chris Relf really have scored there? I know it’s easy to criticize, and it was one hell of a hit by backup safety Ryan Smith, but man, all the momentum was on Relf’s side. Even stretching the ball as he fell might have been enough. Two other quick thoughts:

1: While it wasn’t a terrible instinct for Relf to take the ball himself, a pitch to the option back probably would have resulted in an easy touchdown. Failing that, he could have just run to the empty corner of the end zone rather than taking on the last defender with any chance to make a play. It’s got to be a very tantalizing failure for a Mississippi State team that hoped to make the SEC title game in the nation’s toughest conference.

2: Remember, that was just second-and-goal. Shouldn’t Mississippi State be taking a shot in the air in that situation? If nothing else, that would give them two plays, since an incompletion stops the clock. Why not send someone on a fade or a quick slant? By running, they resigned themselves to one play, do-or-die.

Top 25 Battles

There was only one this week, with no. 3 Alabama trouncing no. 23 Penn State in Happy Valley. Penn State has some experience beating SEC teams (LSU in ’09, Tennessee in ’06), but the outcome of this one still felt predictable. Not many teams have what it takes to compete with the really strong SEC schools, but Joe Paterno’s presence makes it feel like some quaint, old-timey squad going up against a harsh, modern vision of mega-football. On the offensive side, especially, the Nittany Lions had nothing for them. Penn State’s woeful passing numbers tell the story: Quarterbacks Robert Bolden and Matt McGloin completed a combined 12 of 39 passes for 144 yards, averaging 3.7 yards per completion. There’s an athletic disparity here that really renders the situation hopeless for the PSUs of the world.

Upsets and Close Calls

Aside from Mississippi State, no. 21 Missouri was the only ranked team to fall to an unranked team (bad week to have a long M name). Mizzou’s overtime loss at Arizona State has to be especially grating since its schedule is two weeks away from getting really, really hard. With five ranked opponents on the docket, the Tigers might find themselves flirting with .500 in November.

Then again, there might not be much to fear from fellow Big 12 giant Texas, which squeaked past BYU 17-16 after Mack Brown yanked starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert in favor of Case McCoy, Colt’s younger brother. If you’re not keeping track, children in the McCoy family are named Colt, Case, and Chance. Doesn’t that sound like a Zane Grey western novel? What are they trying to prove with this monosyllabic masculine stuff? Isn’t McCoy cool-sounding enough? On the other hand, they’ve been very successful, which is why my first three children will be named Gun Smoke, Hard Times, and Old Yeller.

No. 12 South Carolina avoided an “upset,” if you can call a tough SEC road loss an upset, with a 45-42 win at Georgia. Melvin Ingram, a defensive end, somehow managed to score two touchdowns for the Gamecocks. It was a fantastic win for coach Steve Spurrier’s bunch, and they’re now in great position to win the SEC East, by far the weaker half of the conference. They’ll face their toughest competition, Florida, at home, and the last big roadblock to running the division will be Oct. 29 at Tennessee. By the way, I saw the end of this game, and I have to ask: Has any team ever downed the ball without both lines immediately getting in a fight? South Carolina had to kneel twice to end the game. The first time, the linemen were all pushing and shoving after the whistle, jawing at each other, and a Georgia player threw a sort of half-punch. The second time, no punches, but the shoves and shouts returned. Victory formation is a hazard.

The only other close call came in Columbus, where Ohio State nearly blew its 90-year winning streak against teams from Ohio with a 27-22 escape against Toledo. Despite the win, the Buckeyes managed just 301 yards of total offense to Toledo’s 338, and the Rockets drove the ball down to the 17 before being stopped on downs late in the fourth quarter. With two ranked opponents and a road game in Miami coming up in the next four weeks, it feels like only a matter of time before OSU drops its first game in the post-Tressel era.

A Ride on the Gambling Emotional Roller Coaster

Great, heart-wrenching comedy over on the West Coast: with Utah attempting a game-tying 41-yard field goal on the last play of the game, USC’s Matt Kalil blocked the kick, and Torin Harris recovered the loose ball and ran it in for a touchdown. That made the final 23-14 in a game the Trojans were favored to win by eight or nine for most of the week. You can imagine the joy and pain at this surprise cover, depending on the bet. Then, a reversal — the entire USC bench rushed the field in celebration, and the refs threw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. It didn’t affect the outcome, but it nullified the last touchdown. Everyone left the game thinking it was no good, and that USC won 17-14. No cover! And THEN, two hours later, the PAC-12 released a statement saying that unsportsmanlike penalties against the bench are dead ball fouls, and can’t be enforced in that situation because the game was already over. Touchdown good! USC covers!

A lot of babies gained a new pair of shoes on this one. And then lost them. And then got them back again. Or something.

Poignant Moments in Duke Football

You remember when I said I was a man without a country in college football? That was only about 80 percent true. The other 20 percent of my soul belongs to Duke University and its miserable, disappointing shell of a team. While I was in school between 2001 and 2005, Duke won just eight games in four years. It’s a little better lately, but not much. Even going .500 in any given year seems like a pipe dream. Stanford demolished us 44-14 this weekend, and I was on hand in Durham to witness the carnage. I won’t bore you with the details, but the ongoing tragedy of the program leads to some real poignant moments that pierce you with the cold arrow of the human condition.

Believe it or not, there was a point in Saturday’s game when it seemed like we might have a chance. But by the third quarter, hope was predictably squashed. During a lull in play, a soft-spoken man behind me sighed deeply to his wife. He hadn’t shown a philosophical bend up to this point, but now he was ready to really examine the meaning of what he’d witnessed. I swear I’m not making up the following dialogue:

“God,” he told his wife. “There are so many highs and lows.” He sighed again. “It’s like life, but in three hours.”

I turned around. “Not as many low points in life, though, right?”

“I don’t know,” he said, really considering. “Maybe.”

For a Duke fan, football is no escape. And since we weren’t here last week, here’s a bonus. I was on hand to watch Duke lose to Richmond last Saturday, and on the second play of the game, Duke’s quarterback fell over while attempting to pass. I sent my stepfather a text.

Our QB fell over. Second play. Bad omen?

It turned out he’d been watching on ESPN3. Within a minute, I had a response:

I thought he looked good falling.

See you next week.


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Filed Under: Auburn, Cam Newton, College Football, Duke, Georgia, Gordon's Left Foot, Joe Paterno, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Shane Ryan, South Carolina

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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