Gordon’s Left Foot: The Week 5 College Football Recap

I think bragging is a terrible offense. There’s nothing worse than someone who can’t have a minor success without broadcasting it to the world. It’s a sign of deep insecurity and shallow character. Boasters, braggarts, and grandstanders are the worst people in the world. I’d never have one as my friend.

Which is why I’m not going to get into the results from my Week 5 preview. Was I a perfect three-for-three in upset predictions, calling wins for Auburn, Kansas State, and Pittsburgh? Sorry, that’s not for me to say. Did I pick Clemson’s win at Virginia Tech, Wisconsin’s effortless romp, Alabama’s domination of the Gators, the wild unpredictability of A&M and Arkansas, and Illinois’ tenuous hold on an undefeated record? Who knows, man. Who knows. If it were true, I wouldn’t flaunt that record here. It’s not my place. And if people* want to go around saying I’m some kind of expert with a sixth sense about the game, that’s their business. As a professional, I try to stay outside that fray.

*My mom.

I’m just here to be humble and talk college football. Let’s get to the Week 5 action.

The Meaningless Lead Department

Hoo boy, Texas A&M. Hoooooo boy.

A week after blowing a 17-point lead against Oklahoma State, the Aggies rolled up a 35-17 halftime lead against no. 18 Arkansas … and blew it again, eventually losing 38-35. In case you’re keeping track at home, here are the combined first- and second-half scores run up by Texas A&M in the past two weeks.

First Half: 55-20, A&M
Second Half: 52-12, opponent

The net result is two losses, and a no. 24 ranking in this week’s AP poll. If Texas A&M had won the two games, against Oklahoma State and Arkansas, what would its ranking be? My guess is no. 5, behind Wisconsin and just ahead of Boise State.

But why has it happened that way twice in a row? It’s evident that Texas A&M’s defense isn’t very good, but why couldn’t the offense continue scoring at a pace similar to the first half? It’s hard to say. In the second half against Arkansas, A&M mixed up the play-calling and continued to move the ball (before the fourth-quarter desperation drive, the Aggies earned at least one first down on four of six second-half possessions). The Aggies turned it over once, which certainly didn’t help, but that’s not nearly enough to account for blowing an 18-point lead. On the other hand, what about the play-calling? Not the overall game plan, mind you, but rather the situation-specific tactics. Check out these three A&M offensive plays from the second half.

1. Early third quarter, leading 35-20. Fourth and 2 at the Arkansas 44

The odds favored the Aggies, whose rushing attack had been nothing short of excellent all game. A&M coach Mike Sherman decided instead to try to draw Arkansas offside, burning a timeout in the process. When that failed, he punted on 4th and 7. The kick went 19 yards, and Arkansas responded with a clinical 75-yard touchdown drive that lasted all of two minutes and 27 seconds.

2. Late third quarter, leading 35-27. Fourth and 4 at the Arkansas 45

Punt. This time, it went 31 yards, and Arkansas didn’t score on the ensuing drive. But it still gave the ball away and kept A&M points off the board.

3. Early fourth quarter, leading 35-27. Fourth and 1 at the A&M 49

Finding themselves once again at midfield, the Aggies took the conservative route a third time, settling for a 37-yard punt off the foot of Ryan Epperson. Starting at their own 14, Arkansas needed just six plays and 100 seconds to score the game-tying touchdown.

Is it possible to come up with a logical defense of the punt for all three plays? I guess so, insofar as it’s possible to come up with a defense for almost all bad decisions. But whether you look at it from a statistical or a situational angle, Sherman’s game management is indefensible. First, the math: On each of those plays, A&M had a better than 50 percent chance of getting a first down. Run or pass, it didn’t matter. They averaged 7.1 yards per play. Second, situational: How do you protect a lead? By scoring more points or controlling the ball. Often, these go hand-in-hand. It was incumbent on Sherman to keep the ball in his team’s hands and try to widen the gap. Especially — ESPECIALLY — since his defense stinks.

Instead, he was risk-averse, and it cost him the win. As the game ended, the losers watched in disbelief from the sidelines. “That can take a team’s heart,” the announcer said. I disagree. A&M’s heart wasn’t taken — it was given away.

Other Top 25 Clashes

If I was a bit starry-eyed about Clemson last week, I am now a card-carrying member of the Death Valley cult. If you live anywhere within a 100-mile radius of my apartment in North Carolina, there’s a decent chance I’ll be knocking on your door this week, armed with pamphlets detailing Tajh Boyd’s various miracles. And yes, that includes the one when Boyd walked across water just to throw a pie in Bob Stoops’ face.

But Clemson’s 23-3 win at no. 11 Virginia Tech was less about Boyd and its electric offense and more about the under-appreciated defense. Facing a team with a mediocre quarterback in Logan Thomas, the Tigers front line packed it tight and dared the Hokies to run. And man, did Virginia Tech try. The Hokies tried 40 times, in fact, but only managed 3.3 yards per attempt. When they finally turned to Thomas, the results weren’t much better; he completed 15 of 27 passes for 125 yards, averaging just 4.6 yards per attempt. Andre Branch registered three sacks for Clemson, and no matter what Tech tried, nothing worked against the Tigers.

While I’m here, I should mention one of the most exciting aspects of the Tigers — its coach, Dabo Swinney. The man is quite … excitable, which you saw after Clemson’s win against Auburn. And I really enjoyed the piece below on his coaching style, which included this great Swinney quote: “There’s some coaches out there, even when they win, they’re miserable. Now I don’t get that. This is a hard deal, man. This ain’t no easy game. When you win, man, you need to enjoy it.”

Elsewhere, it was another predictable bloodbath for the Alabama Crimson Tide, as they invaded the Swamp and left it in tatters. All our preconceived notions about the ‘Bama defense were confirmed as it held Florida to 0.5 yards per rush and just 222 total yards overall. But the really frightening part about this game was the offense. Against a Florida unit that had been quite efficient against the run, Trent Richardson gained 181 yards on 29 carries, a healthy average of 6.2. A.J. McCarron played an efficient game, spreading the ball to seven receivers and avoiding any big mistakes. It’s a bit depressing to admit this in a year when the college football landscape has been so unpredictable, but the Nov. 5 showdown between Alabama and LSU is starting to feel an awful lot like the de facto national championship game.

Last things last, Nebraska’s first Big Ten game did not go as planned — unless the plan was to get slaughtered on the road as a show of thanks to the conference for admitting it, which is totally plausible. Those Midwestern folks are unfailingly polite. One way or another, Russell Wilson and the Wisconsin Badgers checked their hospitality at the door in a 48-17 win. Wilson threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and running back Montee Ball scored four touchdowns of his own. Speaking of Wilson, it’s time for a brand-new feature:

The Heisman Watch

I think it’s that time of year, amigos.

Crazy dark horse candidate: What about Florida State quarterback Clint Trickett?! He’s got the third-highest QB rating in the country (182.6), seven touchdowns to just two interceptions, and, when you think about it, the job he did replacing EJ Manuel against Oklahoma and then nearly winning on the road at Clemson was pretty astonishing for a freshman. But hold the phone: Manuel is on the mend, and Trickett’s probably headed back to the bench. That’s the same Manuel with a 144 rating and six touchdowns and four interceptions against inferior teams. Scratch this one.

Trendy defensive hopeful who will never win: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU. There’s a lot of buzz around Mathieu at the moment, especially after his one-man wrecking crew act against West Virginia. He’ll need some interception returns for touchdowns fairly soon if he wants to stay on the national radar.

Top 5:

5. Robert Woods, USC — Leads the country in receptions and total receiving yards, and averages 13.6 yards per catch. Plus, the Heisman committee should be pretty eager to give another USC player the award after their last winner was generous enough to give it right back.

4. LaMichael James, Oregon — After a slow start against LSU and Nevada, he’s rushed for 492 yards in his last two games. His season average is up to 9.4 yards per carry, second in the country. His candidacy depends almost entirely on having a good game against Stanford on Nov. 12, one of the few times of the year when all eyes are focused on the West Coast.

3. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh — He’s already had two games with 200-plus rushing yards, and he leads the country in total yardage. He’s also second in attempts, 11th in touchdowns, and pretty far down the list in yards per carry at 5.8, but if he strings together a couple huge games, he has an outside shot to threaten the 2,000-yard mark. That’ll raise some eyebrows.

2. Robert Griffin III, Baylor — The loss to Kansas State this weekend doesn’t help, but you can’t penalize a guy because his team doesn’t play defense. Griffin has an incredible 230.3 QB rating, the highest in the country, and 18 touchdowns with just one interception. He leads the nation in completion percentage at 82.3, and is second only to Wilson in yards per pass attempt. I have him at no. 2 by virtue of his schedule, which is about to get hard, and because unlike Wilson, he has no shot to be on an undefeated team.

1. Russell Wilson, Wisconsin — 13 touchdowns in the air, two on the ground, one interception, and second place to Griffin in quarterback rating. But what really makes Wilson the heavy favorite is the remainder of Wisconsin’s schedule, which includes just one ranked team (the Illini, who aren’t very impressive). He’ll have ample time to pad the stats.

Upsets of the Ranked

As predicted on the pages of Grantland, Auburn toppled no. 10 South Carolina on the road. South Carolina had played with fire a bit too long, winning narrowly against Georgia and Navy, and its luck ran out against last year’s champions.

Pittsburgh routed no. 16 South Florida 44-17. Ray Graham the Battering Ram chalked up 226 yards on the ground, and it was really never a contest. But can you really consider South Florida a ranked team before conference play starts? This whole temporary-powerhouse thing seems to happen every year. That rating should come with an asterisk.

Kansas State beat no. 15 Baylor 36-35 to complete the “I Called It!” trifecta. Again, Baylor was a tough team to really evaluate coming in. Sure, they beat TCU, but it was a near-collapse, and how good is TCU really? Well, we found out the answer to that question this week, too …

Probably not too good. The no. 20 Horned Frogs saw their 22-game home winning streak snap, as Southern Methodist University beat its in-state religiously named rivals 40-33 in overtime.

A Ride on the Gambling Emotional Roller Coaster

Stanford was favored by 20.5 over UCLA, and was winning by 19 with the game winding down. But did they take a knee, punt, or respectfully shank a field goal? No sir. Stanford drove it mercilessly downfield, scoring the spread-beating touchdown with under two minutes remaining. And in southern California, several promising screenplays will no longer be green-lighted by the minor barons of the movie world.

Wildest Finish

After trailing 28-17 at home in the fourth quarter, no. 24 Illinois came all the way back on Northwestern to take a 31-28 lead. The crowd went crazy and the upset momentum was gone. Game over.

OR WAS IT? Illinois fumbled while trying to run out the clock, and Northwestern ran five straight times for the go-ahead score. With less than 1:30 remaining, Illinois was stunned. The comeback was for naught, and the undefeated season was over.

OR WAS IT? Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illinois offense took over on the 31, and needed only a minute to go the length of the field, scoring on a Scheelhaase sneak to go up 38-35. With just seconds remaining, this, truly, was the end of the game.

OR WAS IT?

Yeah, that time it was over. But kudos to Northwestern for the coolest desperation play of the year. In situations like that, it probably helps to be a school of brainiacs. There were some serious algorithms going on in that play.

Check in Thursday for the preview, when I’ll be sorting out the Red River Rivalry and introducing a rambling 100,000-word document called the “Clemson Manifesto.”


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Filed Under: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Gordon's Left Foot, Illinois, Kansas State, Russell Wilson, Shane Ryan, Stanford, Texas A&M, UCLA, Virginia Tech, 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.

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