College Football Recap: Crown the Tigers

Five titles for the book about the Alabama-LSU game:

“The Questionable Classic”
“Czar Nicholas Comes Unglued”
“The End Zones Were Not Breached”
“The Foster Debacle”
“Catch the F*&%ing Ball, Michael Williams”

Or maybe it should have something to do with soccer. Over the weekend, Twitter was afire with living room pundits comparing LSU-Bama to the beautiful game, and their words were not flattering. These analogists, diametrically opposed to anyone who believed the long defensive standoff was a sign of something epic, were peeved at the pace of play and wanted more scoring.

I came down somewhere in the middle. We knew these teams had the best defenses in the country, and each unit lived up to the hype. In that sense, it was fascinating to watch them stifle each other all day and sure, maybe there was a grandiose feel to the struggle. At times. On the other hand, the offenses were embarrassingly uncreative, and that goes especially for LSU. It was very much like watching a boring Italian soccer team bunker down and protect the goal without ever establishing a lead, just hoping for penalties. If I were a British commentator, I’d call the tactics “cynical.” And the one thing that was eerily reminiscent to soccer — the team that played the better game lost.

In soccer, one way to measure which side controlled the run of play is by comparing shots on goal. For the football equivalent, let’s look at each team’s legitimate scoring opportunities.

Alabama:

    1. Missed field goal attempt after a 43-yard drive.
    2. Missed field goal attempt after a 62-yard drive.
    3. Blocked field goal attempt after a 22-yard drive.
    4. Made field goal attempt after a 79-yard drive.
    5. Made field goal attempt after an interception.
    6. Interception on a trick play that looked like a sure touchdown.
    7. Missed field goal attempt in overtime.

LSU:

    1. Made field goal attempt on a 74-yard drive.
    2. Made field goal attempt after an interception.
    3. Made field goal in overtime.

So if you take these potential points, Alabama had a 25-9 lead. It also led in the two major statistical categories — first downs and total yards. For most of the game, the LSU offense looked completely hopeless. And while the Tide weren’t exactly lighting things up either, they at least managed to move the ball and create chances. But a series of errors and other issues, detailed below, killed (almost) every spark.

The missed field goals. You have to feel terrible for Cade Foster, because this was one of those unfortunate games that had few heroes, but a very prominent goat. After his first two misses, I found myself agreeing with Alabama coach Nick Saban’s decision to fire away. I admired his confidence in the defense, which paid off in both cases by forcing punts, and felt that the long attempts were worth the risk. But looking back, I think I was wrong. First of all, Foster came in having hit just 1/3 from long distance on the season. That’s not a stunning track record of success. Second of all, while Saban didn’t get burned by either missed attempt in terms of points, he did lose valuable field position. The fact that Alabama only managed a 3-3 tie by intermission despite never punting owes itself to those lost yards. For comparison, when Alabama did punt at the beginning of the third quarter, it pinned LSU deep, forced an interception, and would have been inside the 10 if not for an illegal block on the return.

In retrospect, it’s evident that the Tide’s great defense was a reason to punt, not a reason to attempt desperate field goals. If Saban had pinned LSU on the first two possessions rather than relying on Foster, an uncertain commodity, you have to believe they would have scored more than three points.

Penalties, interceptions, and bungled trick plays murdered the Crimson Tide. On their second possession of the game, a steady march from their own five, a substitution penalty stalled the drive and led to a missed field goal. In the second quarter, at the LSU 24, Saban tried a tricky run to Marquis Maze on the left side. It looked like nobody knew where they were supposed to be, and Maze lost six yards. Three players later, a 49-yard field goal was blocked. Late in the third, quarterback A.J. McCarron threw an interception that gave LSU the ball at the 15-yard line. (And at that point, LSU did not look like they were capable of scoring without being handed a gift.) Early in the fourth, Saban dialed up the perfect play out of the wildcat, but Maze’s pass to a wide open Michael Williams was severely underthrown. Even so, Williams should have made the catch, but he let LSU’s Eric Reid wrench the ball from his grasp on the way down for the interception. Then, in overtime, another substitution penalty pushed Alabama back and left the Tide with a 52-yard field goal that Foster had almost no chance, physically or psychologically, of making.

Maze, who was hampered by an injury, hurt his team with the interception and essentially ended its chance to win in regulation on the ensuing punt. After LSU took over on the 1, the Bama defense produced a three and out. In his own end zone, Brad Wing launched a long kick, and Maze, incredibly, didn’t go back to make the catch. Instead of establishing possession near the midfield, Maze watched as Wing’s punt rolled all the way to the 18. It was a 73-yard result, and a potential game-winning drive was cut at the knees before it could begin.

It’s important to give LSU some credit. The Tigers defense, while not quite as dominant as Alabama, made plays when it was necessary. Eric Reid had an unbelievable game, and the season-saving interception was only the most visible element of his excellence. Tyrann Mathieu, as mean a dude as you’ll ever seen on the field, was up to his usual intimidation in the secondary. The linemen and linebackers held Trent Richardson to 89 yards and 3.9 yards per carry, which any team would gladly take, and though McCarron had some success in the air and good protection all night, the secondary would never let him strike the fatal blow.

One negative thing we learned about LSU is that the endless punditry regarding QB Jarrett Lee’s “game management” and “efficiency” was just so much hokum. In Thursday’s preview, I wrote: “My suspicion is that after coasting in neutral for most of the year, Lee will be forced to come out from behind the curtain. Playing well under the caution flag is fine and dandy, but we’re about to see if he can walk that high wire without a net.”

Well, that question has been answered definitively. The situation in Tuscaloosa was far too big for Lee, and credit goes to Les Miles for recognizing it early. He gave him enough rope to throw two interceptions, but after that he brought in Jordan Jefferson, who provided enough spark late in the second quarter to produce the first sustained drive and the game-tying field goal, and moved the ball well enough in the second half to at least earn some first downs and keep the time of possession roughly equal.

There’s something a little sad, though, about Lee finding himself out of his element. He was never supposed to be the starting quarterback, but Jefferson’s arrest and suspension thrust him into the spotlight. Nobody believed he could handle the pressure, but he proved them wrong game after game. And if not for Alabama, he might have lasted the whole season by playing cautious and avoiding the big screw-up. But the panicky quarterback everyone expected in August finally emerged in early November, and he hadn’t accumulated enough faith from his coaches to avoid a quick hook. Now, though he might still get some snaps or even start, his season is essentially over. Without the confidence of the staff, how can he feel like a legitimate starter again?

One last observation: Nick Saban is a force of nature. Whenever they cut to him, he was like every Al Pacino character brought to life, full of dramatic gesticulations and uninhibited rage. My favorite moment came when McCarron failed to pick out the correct receiver just before the first field goal:

And that’s about all I have on Alabama-LSU. I’ll say, for the record, what everybody already knows: LSU is the national champion. It’s depressing, but it’s true. Nobody but Alabama will ever be able to match up with this team. The defense is just too strong, and now it has been tested in the Tuscaloosa pressure cooker. Crown the Tigers now.

An Alternate Universe: Oklahoma State-Kansas State

While the country’s two best defenses were butting heads in Alabama, something of an entirely nature was happening in Stillwater, Okla. In fact, I’m not even sure the Cowboys and Wildcats were playing the same sport. After an absurd back-and-forth game featuring scads of touchdowns, yards, fumbles, and drama, Kansas State was stopped on the goal line as the Wildcats attempted to tie the game, and Oklahoma State maintained its undefeated record with a 52-45 win.

Just as with LSU-Alabama, there are two ways to view this game.

    1. An inspiring, dynamic clash of high-powered offenses that couldn’t be stopped.
    2. A comic farce featuring porous defenses that were only capable of making a stop if the other team gave the ball away or the clock ran out.

And again, there’s truth to both. But what I take from this game is that when Kansas State scored with just over three minutes remaining, I initially thought the Wildcats left Oklahoma State far too much time. But then I reconsidered; Oklahoma State would probably score too quickly and leave Kansas State with too much time. Again, there were three minutes on the clock. That’s how little confidence the defense inspired.

And, man, you have to feel that Oklahoma State is in for a vicious reckoning when the Cowboys welcome Oklahoma on Dec. 3. It’s not a definite outcome by any means. Oklahoma showed at least once (against Texas Tech) that its defense is imperfect, so maybe Oklahoma State will survive until the BCS title game, in which case the reckoning will come from LSU. Because, I mean, a defense that gives up 507 yards can’t possibly win a title … right?

In any case, it’s probably best not to consider the future and just enjoy the show.

A Real Pro

Speaking of enjoying the show, here’s Kirk Herbstreit experiencing an earthquake on live television after the Oklahoma State game. Notice the look of sheer terror on his face that lasts about three seconds before he goes right back into analyst mode:

Elsewhere Among the Ranked

No. 7 Arkansas handled business at home, beating no. 9 South Carolina, 44-28. The decisive play came in the fourth quarter, when Arkansas DE Jake Bequette laid this monster hit on Connor Shaw that caused a fumble and led to a Razorback touchdown:


That means Georgia now controls its own destiny in the SEC East, and Arkansas can create a three-way tie in the West with a shocker at LSU on Nov. 25. But the Razorbacks’ 38-14 loss to Alabama, along with the recent escapes against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, make that scenario seem very unlikely.

The End of a Career?

Everett Withers is the man who took over for Butch Davis at UNC when Davis was fired for various violations stemming back to last season. As you might imagine, Withers was tagged with the interim label. After an early win, he dedicated the game ball to Davis, a man who was not exactly held in high esteem by UNC chancellor Holden Thorp. This week, before facing NC State, he thought it would be a good idea to start the trash talk.

“I think the kids in this state need to know ‘the flagship school,” he said. “They need to know it academically. If you look at our graduation rates opposed to our opponent this week’s graduation rates for football, I think you’ll see a difference. If you look at the educational environment here, I think you’ll see a difference.”

Tom O’Brien, the coach at State, fired back: “As far as the flagship, here was a guy (Withers) who was on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis. You have an agent on staff, you are paying players & you have academic fraud. That’s a triple play. At our school, number one, all classes have a syllabus. Our guys go to school, they are not given grades, and they graduate.”

The real killer, is that later in the day, Thorp actually apologized to his counterpart at NC State. If Withers was looking for a vote of confidence from the university, he got the exact opposite. Then, against that backdrop, his team lost to O’Brien and State (one of the worst teams in the ACC) 13-0. It was the fifth straight loss for the Tar Heels to their in-state rivals.

Guess who probably won’t be coaching UNC next year?

The Remaining Undefeateds

It’s down to five.

1. LSU — The biggest test remaining is Arkansas, and Georgia or South Carolina in the SEC title game. It certainly doesn’t seem like any of them will even come close.

2. Oklahoma State — The Cowboys have to beat the Sooners, but won’t have to play a conference title game. If they win out, their BCS score should be high enough to put them in the title game.

3. Stanford — The Cardinal will face Oregon next weekend, but are lucky that USC is barred from the Pac-12 title game, sparing them a rematch.

4. Boise State — TCU is on the docket this Saturday, but the Broncos are gravy after that.

5. Houston — The toughest conference games, against Tulsa and SMU, are yet to come, and the Cougars should also get no. 25 Southern Miss in the C-USA title game. It’s doubtful that even dominant wins down the line could earn the Cougars an at-large BCS berth.

The Heisman Watch

Crazy Dark Horse Candidate: Henry Josey, Missouri. He leads the country with 8.6 yards per carry among the top 50 running backs in total yards. Nobody’s ever heard of him, and he has no chance, but I like his chutzpah.

Defensive Hopeful Who Will Never Win: David Amerson, NC State. His nine interceptions lead the nation, and he returned one for a touchdown.

Top 5:

5. Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State. This spot is reserved for the nation’s leading rusher, an honor Hillman took from Virginia Tech’s David Wilson this week.

4. LaMichael James, Oregon. Since Richardson’s candidacy took a huge hit with the LSU loss, I’m handing the 4-spot to James. Despite only having seven games under his belt, he’s slowly making his way up the rushing leaderboard.

3. Russell Wilson, Wisconsin. Highest QB rating in the country, most yards per attempt, and only three interceptions. The two losses hurt, a lot, but he still has a chance to lead his team to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win.

2. Robert Griffin III, Baylor. He completes 74 percent of his passes and averages more than 10 yards per attempt. He’s the best player in Texas, and he’s coming off a 406-yard passing performance in a tight win against Missouri. He plays with the confidence of a guy with a good defense to back him up, and that defense does not exist.

1. Case Keenum, Houston. The latest NCAA record Keenum broke was the career passing yards mark, which he claimed with 407 yards against UAB in Week 10. This year, he has the most yards, most touchdowns, highest completion percentage (tied with Kellen Moore), best touchdown-to-interception ratio, and an undefeated team. Nobody can touch him, at least in a just world.

Stanford-Oregon highlights the Week 11 match-ups. See you Thursday for the preview.


Previously by Shane Ryan:
About Last Weekend: Rolled Tide
2011-12 College Football All-Name Team, Part I
About Last Night: Seminoles Fitted For Bowling Shoes
Grantland’s College Basketball All-America Preview: Part Two
Week 10 College Football Preview: Armageddon in Tuscaloosa

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Filed Under: Alabama, Arkansas, Baylor, Boise State, College Football, Gordon's Left Foot, Kansas State, LSU, Nick Saban, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, South Carolina, Stanford, UNC

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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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