Viewed in a vacuum, Florida State’s come-from-behind, 56-41 win over North Carolina State on Saturday is an inkblot we can interpret in multiple ways. On the one hand, it’s impossible to deny that the defending champs looked listless and sloppy opposite an ostensible doormat: NC State scored 18 seconds into the game, held the lead for nearly three full quarters, and finished with more yards (520) than any FSU opponent since 2009. The Seminoles committed four turnovers, three from Herculean quarterback Jameis Winston, who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble while also enduring three sacks. Their 19-game winning streak was in jeopardy from start to finish.
On the other hand, the Noles were unfazed by the initial blow, responding to a 24-7 first-quarter deficit to outscore the Wolfpack 49-17 over the final three quarters. Winston finished with 365 yards passing, four touchdowns, and a 173.3 efficiency rating.1 The offense as a whole produced 10 plays that covered at least 20 yards from scrimmage and converted eight of 11 third-down attempts. In the second half, FSU scored touchdowns on five of its last six full possessions, forced three turnovers on defense, and left with a 15-point victory in a game it was favored to win by 18. Was this some kind of harrowing escape, or just another day at the office?
For some context, an average efficiency rating for a college passer is roughly 135.0. (The NCAA formula is calculated differently than the NFL’s.) During last year’s Heisman campaign, Winston’s final rating was 184.8, the third-best single-season rating in FBS history.
Viewed in the context of the rest of Florida State’s season, and especially in the context of the astronomical expectations that preceded it, the ragged start is a more compelling theme than the comeback. Where is the cold-blooded juggernaut that obliterated all comers in 2013? That team outscored ACC opponents by 39 points per game and didn’t face a single-digit margin in the fourth quarter until the BCS title game. That team left no doubts whatsoever.
Wasn’t the 2014 edition supposed to be the same team, only a year older? Yet here we are, a month into the season, when every win has been accompanied by a new round of apologies. Yes, the Noles narrowly survived an opening-week scare from Oklahoma State, but the 37-31 win wasn’t that narrow — FSU never trailed against the Cowboys — and anyway, everyone is entitled to knock off a little rust. Yes, the Noles needed overtime to fend off Clemson after getting several late, improbable breaks in regulation just to force the extra session, but how many other teams could find a way to vanquish a ranked opponent with its best player reduced to a cheerleader? And yes, the Noles were a little slow out of the chute against NC State, a team that lost every ACC game in 2013, including all but one by a double-digit margin, but once the Noles picked up speed, the result was lopsided as usual.
It’s tougher to rationalize the following: The defense is yielding nearly 30 points per game to FBS opponents, compared to 12.6 last year, and ranks 79th in total defense, compared to third in 2013. Through four games, the 2014 Seminoles carry a negative turnover margin, while the 2013 Noles avoided the red in every game. On Sunday, Florida State earned 27 first-place votes in the new AP poll, down from 34 in last week’s poll and 57 in the preseason. In the Coaches Poll, FSU ceded the top spot for the first time this season, to Alabama.
That divide between the pollsters who have seen enough to drop FSU and those who remain unwilling to punish a team in victory highlights the real question: Ultimately, what says more about Florida State right now — that the cracks are so clearly visible, or that the facade of a championship team has held despite them?
The same question applies more broadly to the way we talk about champions in general, especially in college football, where subjective public opinion has always served as the final arbiter of who wears the crown, or at least of who gets a shot at it. A persistent strain of the conversation seems to view winning a championship less as a goal a team achieves than as a reflection of what a team is. Like the elusive “It Factor,” the Heart of a Champion dwells within. Verdicts frequently hinge on the beholder’s sense of whether that heart beats inside of a specific team or player, driving it toward its destiny. When is a close, hard-fought victory a result of indomitable will triumphing over adversity, and when is it a breakdown that exposes specific vulnerabilities?
As always at this point in the season, the only viable answer is “Ask again later,” which is why the Heart of a Champion label tends to be awarded retroactively. In reality, every eventual champion exhibits flaws, lapses, and inconsistencies that call its worthiness into question until the title is in hand.2 In the BCS era, 13 of the 32 teams that played for the national championship suffered at least one loss in the regular season, and six of them went on to hoist the crystal football in the end.3 Undefeated champions in 1998 (Tennessee), 2000 (Oklahoma), 2002 (Ohio State), 2004 (USC), 2005 (Texas), 2009 (Alabama), and 2010 (Auburn) all won at least one game in the regular season that they trailed in the fourth quarter, often in highly dramatic fashion; Tennessee had Clint Stoerner’s fumble, Ohio State had the “Holy Buckeye,” Alabama had Terrence Cody’s block, and Auburn had Cam Newton leading fourth-quarter rallies against the likes of Clemson and Kentucky. The list goes on, up to and including Auburn’s one-in-a-billion run to the championship game last year and Florida State’s drive to beat the Tigers in the final minute.
My favorite recent example of this was the local notion that Alabama lacked “drive and motivation” in 2013, a season in which it spent 14 consecutive weeks (including the preseason poll) ranked no. 1 before watching a national championship berth slip away in the most absurd possible fashion in the final week of the regular season. The 2013 Crimson Tide finished with the exact same regular-season record (11-1, 7-1 SEC) as the Bama teams that won the BCS title in 2011 and 2012; only the external circumstances changed. Still, an inward explanation for failing to “three-peat” had to be at fault.
LSU lost twice en route to the 2007 title, both times at the hands of opponents that ended the season unranked.
The only possible knock against FSU going into last year’s title game was that — unlike Auburn, survivor of a series of heart-stopping fires — the Seminoles hadn’t faced “adversity,” the implication being that blowing the doors off their entire schedule had left them lacking that certain je ne sais quoi in the clutch that defines a “true” champion. Viewed through that lens, Florida State arguably proved more by overcoming a dismal first half against Auburn, its first and only encounter with its own mortality all season.
By contrast, in three of their four wins this season, the Noles have been defined primarily by their vulnerabilities. Are the stumbles against Clemson and NC State the prelude to an inevitable fall against, say, Notre Dame or Miami, the evidence of the regression or rot that will prove to be FSU’s undoing? Or is the record amid “adversity” proof in itself that this team is good enough to weather any storm until it rediscovers its full potential? Ask again in two months. Right now, all we know is that the eventual 2013 champs never had a reason to confront those questions.
• Minnesota 30, Michigan 14: There’s not much new to say about Michigan, a zombie team with no offense, no prospects for improvement, and no reason to believe its head coach will survive the season. The pitchforks came out after a 31-0 debacle at Notre Dame, the torches followed last week’s 26-10 flop against Utah, and the villagers are now on their way to the castle in the wake of the Wolverines’ worst loss to Minnesota since 1977. (Not that there’s much competition for that distinction, considering they’d lost to the Gophers only twice in the intervening 36 years.) Coach Brady Hoke has retreated to the bunker, where he can serve out his last days on the job in willful oblivion to the outside world.
Whatever thin veneer of sympathy may have remained for Hoke evaporated Saturday in the fourth quarter, when he reinserted beleaguered quarterback Shane Morris in a 30-7 game after Morris had limped off looking groggy and concussed following a brutal hit by Minnesota’s Theiren Cockran. (Cockran was flagged for roughing the passer and arguably should have been ejected.) After the hit, Morris rose to his feet, nearly collapsed, and briefly had to be supported by his teammates, but somehow managed to wave off trainers and remained in the game to throw a near-interception on the following play.
At that point, Morris was mercifully replaced by former starter Devin Gardner, who’d remained nailed to the bench during the team’s latest miserable offensive performance. A few plays later, though, Gardner’s helmet popped off at the end of a tackle, requiring him to leave the field for a play. Predictably, third-stringer Russell Bellomy began to trot onto the field — only to be recalled in favor of Morris, whose return was met with incredulity by ESPN’s commentators and much of the crowd.
Brady, curious as to the decision to leave Shane in after he got hit. Might’ve had a concussion …
“Well, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if he might’ve had a concussion or not. I don’t know that and that wasn’t something — Shane’s a pretty competitive, tough kid and Shane wanted to be the quarterback and so believe me, if he didn’t want to be he would’ve come to the sideline or stayed down.”
Brady, just to be clear on when Shane Morris got the hit to the head, did you see him kind of wobbling and fall?
“I did not.”
OK, because it looked like he was out on his feet. Nobody saw that on the sideline?
“I didn’t see it. I can only answer for me.”
At the end of the game Morris was taken off the field on a cart. Do you know what his status is?
“I do not. I do not.”
On Sunday night, Hoke issued a statement saying that Morris had been removed with a leg injury and reiterating that player safety is always a top priority. That’s going to be tough for anyone who’s seen the above clips to believe, but it’s the only update we have on Morris’s status. We don’t have any updates on Hoke’s status, but at least in the quarterback’s case, fans still have reason to root for a positive outcome.
• No. 16 Stanford 20, Washington 13: Stanford’s defense remains as nasty as ever, a frightening prospect given the number of first-rate starters it lost on that side of the ball.4 But for an outfit that thrives on field position and other bottom-of-the-box-score metrics, the offense is still a marvel of inefficiency when it comes to putting the ball in the end zone. In their first Pac-12 game, against USC, the Cardinal outgained the Trojans by 122 yards but managed just a single touchdown in nine opportunities inside the USC 35-yard line and lost, 13-10. Against Washington, they were better, finishing off two extended drives with touchdowns, but they still settled for a pair of field goals inside the UW 20-yard line, missed a third field goal attempt, and lost a fumble at the Huskies’ 11-yard line. Again, the total yardage (Stanford 364, Washington 179) tells a very different, more one-sided story than the final score.
More on the Cardinal defense below and later this week.
For the season, Stanford ranks 113th in red zone touchdown percentage with just eight touchdowns in 19 opportunities, the worst ratio in the Pac-12. Combine that with an alarmingly high rate of lost fumbles — including one that resulted directly in a touchdown for the Washington defense on Saturday — and you have a team living much closer to the edge than it should be ahead of a trip to Notre Dame.
• Missouri 21, no. 13 South Carolina 20: How thin is the line between agony and ecstasy in the SEC East? Two weeks ago, South Carolina beat Georgia by the narrowest possible margin on a fourth-down measurement that gave the Gamecocks a decisive first down with 1:22 to play, and with it an indispensable victory in the division race. This time, Carolina got the other end of the same stick against a division rival when Mizzou’s Russell Hansbrough sneaked across the goal line on fourth-and-goal with 1:36 to play, completing the most dramatic, potentially season-crushing comeback of the week.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Missouri trailed by two touchdowns, 20-7, and appeared to be dead in the water: At that point, the Tigers’ previous 10 full possessions had resulted in 10 consecutive punts, and Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper had just come down with an acrobatic touchdown catch for the apparent dagger. Without warning, however, Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk snapped out of a three-hour funk, hitting on consecutive completions covering 41 yards and 26 yards, respectively, to set up a short Hansbrough score to close the gap to 20-14 in a span of 36 seconds. After a three-and-out by the Gamecocks, the Tigers marched 51 yards on nine plays for the game winner. Altogether, Missouri was just 2-for-16 on third down, but 3-for-3 on fourth down, including two fourth-and-1 conversions on the go-ahead drive.
On such margins, South Carolina’s chances of winning the SEC East suddenly hang by a thread. At 2-2 in conference play, the Gamecocks have already reached the point of no return, in which another conference loss will effectively eliminate them from the race.5 Even if they get out of Auburn with a win on October 25 — a sucker’s bet from this vantage point — and subsequently take care of business against Tennessee and Florida, they’ll still need some help getting Missouri (currently 1-0 in the conference standings) to three losses to offset the tiebreaker. There are other scenarios, of course, but none of them would be necessary if Carolina’s maligned defense had managed one more stop.
Is it fair to ask a team to play half its conference schedule in the first month of the season, when the rest of the league is busy rounding into form against nonconference foes? On the one hand, earlier conference games are less likely to be affected by injuries that accumulate over the course of the year. Then again, younger players are still getting up to speed in September, and overall team chemistry is more likely to be a work in progress. Discuss.
• No. 12 Georgia 35, Tennessee 32: It’s a testament to Todd Gurley’s talent and Georgia’s lack of supporting weapons that Gurley touched the ball 34 times in this game, and it still felt like not nearly enough: Every time the ball winds up in another Bulldog’s hands seems like a wasted opportunity. But Gurley’s periodic absences through the first three quarters seem to be a deliberate effort by UGA coaches to save their workhorse for the fourth. Against Clemson, their patience paid off in a dominant second half, including two backbreaking touchdown runs in the final frame. On Saturday, Gurley once again saved his best for last:
|Todd Gurley Carries vs. Tennessee|
Gurley has averaged 12.1 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this season, with 10 of his 21 attempts going for first downs and four going for at least 20 yards. (That includes a demoralizing 51-yard sprint against the Vols that extended Georgia’s led to 28-17.) Having a hammer like that to swing down the stretch is a great luxury, but resisting the temptation to bang away nonstop from the opening kickoff must take a stupendous effort.
• No. 22 Ohio State 50, Cincinnati 28: The only reason to mention this game is the sheer insanity of Ohio State’s offensive output: 101 plays, 710 yards, and 45 first downs in nearly 42 minutes of possession time. The Buckeyes were nigh unstoppable, with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett (330 yards passing, four TDs, 79 yards rushing, no turnovers) earning a lion’s share of the credit.6 But it’s also worth noting that OSU’s defense yielded three touchdown passes of 60 yards or longer from Cincy quarterback Gunner Kiel — all to the same guy, wide receiver Chris Moore — which the locals took as a sign that the rebuilt secondary isn’t ready for prime time in the Big Ten. Based on what little we’ve seen from Kiel, though, it’s debatable whether there’s another quarterback on the Buckeyes’ schedule who will be able to challenge them as effectively downfield.
OSU actually exceeded the school record for total offense in the fourth quarter, then lost it on a botched shotgun snap that cost it minus-20 yards.
It’s time to rethink: Boise State’s ability to win without Chris Petersen. If you were paying attention the past couple of years, you already knew that Boise State was a few steps removed from the front-running, giant-killing outfits of 2008-11, which logged 50 wins, 38 consecutive weeks in the top 10, and a ton of airtime as the nation’s most visible, divisive upstart. Last year the Broncos fell to 8-5, marking the first time they’d fallen short of 10 wins since 2005, then lost miracle-working head coach Chris Petersen to Washington. But the Boise brand still carried enough cachet coming into 2014 to earn the Broncos a handful of Top 25 votes in the preseason magazines, and to make them the overwhelming favorite to win the Mountain West Conference.
So what to make of Saturday’s 28-14 flop at Air Force, a game in which Boise State committed seven turnovers and trailed 28-0 in the fourth quarter? Adjusting for degree of difficulty — Air Force came into the weekend riding a 10-game MWC losing streak, including a 17-13 loss to Wyoming earlier this month — this looks destined to go down as the Broncos’ worst loss in a decade, or even longer. If the Falcons finish with a losing record,7 they’ll be the first sub-.500 team to beat Boise State since 2007. Among current members of the MWC’s Mountain Division, Air Force is the first to beat Boise since 1997.
They’re currently 3-1, but their other two wins have come at the expense of Nicholls State and Georgia State.
It’s still early, of course, and there are no obvious candidates to fill the void at the top of the conference; the 2013 champ, Fresno State, is a shadow of last year’s squad after losing prolific quarterback Derek Carr and a handful of other key players to the NFL. But surely Broncos fans knew they’d eventually have to acknowledge the curtain falling on a decade of dominance and grudgingly begin to reintegrate with the rest of the mid-major plebes. Whether they’re ready to admit it or not, it appears that moment has arrived.
Best of the week …
• Stanford OLBs James Vaughters and Peter Kalambayi: Vaughters, a senior, and Kalambayi, a redshirt freshman, combined for 15 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks against Washington, helping to hold the Huskies to their lowest output in terms of both total yards (179) and yards per play (2.6) since 2010 — a.k.a. the year U-Dub went 0-12 under coach Tyrone Willingham. Even including the defensive touchdown off a Stanford fumble, 13 points marked Washington’s lowest-scoring effort in a Pac-10/12 game since 2010, when it lost 41-0 to … Stanford.
• Maryland WRs Stefon Diggs and Deon Long: Last year, Diggs and Long saw their seasons cut short in October by suffering broken legs in the same game. On Saturday, they made up for lost time by hauling in 16 catches for 220 yards and a touchdown in the Terps’ 37-15 win over Indiana, kicking off Maryland’s Big Ten existence with a lopsided victory on the road. If you skipped the part above about Ohio State’s secondary, scroll back up and read it; if you did read it, read it again, because the Buckeyes play at Maryland this Saturday, and while the Terps might not have a quarterback of Kiel’s ability, they can make up for it with Diggs and Long.
• Clemson QB Deshaun Watson: I was on the Watson bandwagon after his second collegiate completion, a 30-yard touchdown strike between a pair of Georgia defenders in Week 1,8 and watching him unload for 435 yards and six touchdowns on Saturday in his first career start made me feel like a proud uncle or something. What a fearless arm this kid has.
Honestly, I was.
With true freshmen, “fearless” is not always a compliment. But in the last two weeks, Watson has led a near upset of Florida State and a 50-35 blowout over North Carolina while completing 72 percent of his passes and delivering an obscene 191.7 efficiency rating in the first extended action of his career. He has nothing to fear.
• Fat Guy of the Week: Akron DL Se’Von Pittman. Pittman, a once-hyped recruit who transferred to Akron from Ohio State, led the charge Saturday with three tackles for loss and one sack in the Zips’ 21-10 upset over Pittsburgh, their first win over an opponent from a Power 5 conference since 2008. Although Pittman is listed as a defensive end, at 6-foot-3, 268 pounds, he also saw significant time as a tackle and made an impact in the middle.
In his first four games, Pitt tailback James Conner averaged 175 yards on 6.4 per carry; on Saturday, he was stuffed for 92 yards on 3.7 per carry.
• Catch of the Century of the Week: Auburn WR D’haquille Williams. This probably needs to be viewed several times to get the full effect of what’s happening here, beginning with the tip by a Louisiana Tech linebacker (see here for a slightly better view) that sends Nick Marshall’s pass spinning off its intended trajectory. Had the ball gone where Marshall intended, it might have been picked off. With the tip, it should have been picked off, if not for Williams, who pirouetted on a dime like a 6-foot-2, 216-pound ballerina and snatched a touchdown from the jaws of two closing safeties with one hand.
Watch the Louisiana Tech linebacker whose premature celebration turns into a full-blown double face-palm as his teammates crash into each other, both having arrived a step too late to lay a hand on the receiver or the ball. Auburn won, 45-17.
… and the worst.
• Penn State’s Offense: The deficiencies on Penn State’s offensive line were no secret coming into the season, and all of those fears have been borne out: Through five games, the Nittany Lions are averaging a dismal 3.1 yards per carry on the ground and have allowed 35 tackles for loss, most in the Big Ten. (Even more than Michigan, which has allowed 31 TFLs.) The most obvious effect of the makeshift front, however, is the regression of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg from a polished pro prospect to a happy-footed neurotic under a steady barrage of pressure.
In the Lions’ first game, against Central Florida, Hackenberg looked comfortable and poised, passing for a school-record 454 yards in a solid, come-from-behind win. On Saturday, he completed less than half his passes (22 of 45) against Northwestern for a meager 4.8 yards per attempt; he was also sacked four times, and the only touchdown he was responsible for — a 49-yard interception return by Northwestern’s Anthony Walker — was for the wrong team in a 29-6 debacle in Happy Valley. (He also lost a fumble on the first play following the interception, leading to a Wildcats field goal.) Hackenberg’s completion percentage has dropped from the week before in each game this season, a trend that shows no signs of abating until he gets some kind of help up front.
• PBU, Crossbar: TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin doinked a pass off the goalpost in his own end zone, which sounds hilarious in the abstract and turns out to be about 100 times more hilarious once witnessed:
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Of course, the apparent safety was negated by an offside penalty on the Mustangs, which is a perfect distillation of the kind of year it’s been for SMU. The Horned Frogs won, 56-0, with Boykin passing for 280 yards and four touchdowns.
• Arkansas in the Clutch: Arkansas led no. 6 Texas A&M 28-14 entering the fourth quarter, and, still leading 28-21 with less than three minutes to play, needed just one first down to clinch an eye-opening, season-defining upset. From there, the Razorbacks (a) fumbled a snap that took the offense off-schedule, (b) missed a field goal that would have extended the lead to 10, (c) allowed A&M to drive 73 yards in two plays for the tying touchdown, and (d) went on to lose in overtime in just five plays. After racking up 484 yards of offense and a 14-minute advantage in time of possession, the end result was still a 35-28 loss, Arkansas’s 14th in a row in SEC play.
• Colorado in the Clutch: In the wildest game of the day, Colorado and Cal went to double overtime tied at 56, having already accounted for more than 1,200 yards of offense and 14 touchdown passes between quarterbacks Sefo Liufau (Colorado) and Jared Goff (Cal). The Buffaloes received the ball first in the second OT and quickly earned a first-and-goal from the Golden Bears’ 2-yard line. Three plays later, facing fourth-and-goal from the 1 with the game on the line, the Buffs threw caution to the wind and … ran the wrong way.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, your thoughts?
After the gaffe, Cal played it safe, then sent out kicker James Langford to put the win on ice, snapping a 15-game conference losing streak in the process. (No small feat for a team that lost its last game by blowing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead, capped by a Hail Mary on the final play.) MacIntyre recovered enough of his faculties after the game to acknowledge a “miscommunication” between Liufau and senior tailback Tony Jones, but refused to cast individual blame: “That was a mess-up at a tough time. [But] that play did not lose the football game though. We could have made a bunch of others during the regular game.”
• Kentucky Butt Pass: The play-by-play officially records this as “Patrick Towles sacked for a loss of 9 yards to the Kent 47 Patrick Towles fumbled, recovered by Vandy Nifae Lealao, return for 0 yards.”
But if there’s ever been a play more deserving of the term “butt pass,” I haven’t seen it, and I don’t want to. Despite this, Kentucky won, 17-7.