During Utah’s thorough, 62-20 humiliation of Oregon on Saturday night — somewhere between the halfback pass that slammed the door on a potential Ducks comeback and the funky punt return that extended the Utes’ lead to 42 points in the third quarter — I couldn’t help but think back to Halloween 2009. That was the night that Oregon, then regarded as an ostentatiously uniformed upstart led by an obscure, first-year head coach named Chip Kelly, laid waste to the then–West Coast overlords from USC in a 47-20 ambush on the same field, bringing the Trojans’ nearly decade-long reign of terror under Pete Carroll to an abrupt and emphatic end.
Even before the final second ticked off the clock, the line of demarcation between the old order and the new had been made abundantly clear. Prior to that night, USC had won seven consecutive conference championships1 and turned in a top-five finish in the AP poll in all seven of those seasons. In the six years since, USC has yet to claim so much as a division title or appear in a major bowl game. It was the moment when all of the tiny, barely perceptible cracks and fissures that had accumulated in the Trojans’ aura of invincibility gave way to one sudden, irreparable breach.
The Trojans shared the 2002 title with Washington State before winning it outright from 2003 to 2005 and sharing it in 2006 and 2007.
Oregon fans filed out of Autzen Stadium on Saturday with the same sinking feeling about their own side. And if it seems premature to write the obituary for an entire program based on a bad turn in the conference opener, it’s impossible to deny that the gap between the 2015 Ducks and the Oregon teams that owned the Pac-12 over the past six years is larger than anyone imagined.
A headline in Sunday’s Oregonian described the debacle against Utah as a “historic loss,” and in many ways it was: The final margin represented Oregon’s most lopsided defeat since 2003 and its worst loss in Eugene since 1977. The offense — the highest-scoring unit in the Pac-12 in each of the past eight seasons — came up empty against the Utes on 11 of its first 13 possessions, and only a meaningless, 96-yard touchdown drive in the dying minutes kept the Ducks from posting their worst output since 2007 in terms of both yards and points. Starting quarterback Vernon Adams was benched in the second quarter for backup Jeff Lockie, who subsequently served up two interceptions that led to Utah touchdowns. On the other side, 62 points was the most Oregon has allowed in a game since 1985, and left the Ducks ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense by more than 10 points per game over the nearest competition.
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It would be disingenuous to suggest that Oregon’s first loss of the season, a 31-28 heartbreaker at Michigan State in Week 2, somehow foreshadowed such a wholesale collapse two weeks later. Last year, the Ducks rebounded from an even worse loss in early October to win nine straight en route to a Pac-12 title and the national championship game. But the defeat in East Lansing does make it harder to dismiss the meltdown against Utah as a forgettable, one-time lapse. The reality is, at 2-2,2 Oregon is unranked in the new AP poll for the first time since September 2009, with virtually no shot at climbing back into playoff contention, even if it manages to pull it together in time for crucial November dates against Cal, Stanford, and USC. And based on what we’ve seen through four games, there’s no reason to believe a face-saving resurgence is on the horizon.
The Ducks’ wins have come at the expense of Eastern Washington and Georgia State.
On some level, Oregon fans had to be bracing themselves for the proverbial rebuilding year, even if their past success guaranteed that the Ducks would open in the top 10 in the preseason polls and as unanimous favorites to repeat as champs of the Pac-12 North. Despite those projections, no program can be expected to go on averaging 12 wins a year indefinitely, as Oregon did from 2010 to 2014. And without face of the program Marcus Mariota at quarterback, hardly anyone imagined this particular team coming within 15 minutes of a national championship again. But the totality of Saturday’s collapse saw talk of “rebuilding” turn to something much darker. We will once again hear about the nagging suspicion that Oregon, the embodiment of college football’s 21st-century nouveau riche, remains less likely to sustain a perennial contender in an increasingly competitive league — much less rebuild one — than to regress to its old, middle-class status. More so than any other national program, the Ducks’ meteoric rise was defined by a transformative coach (Kelly) and a transcendent player (Mariota), and the team having looked so lethargic this season without either of them is about as troubling an omen as the young season could have supplied.
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The silver lining, of course, is that the season is still relatively young. Oregon has plenty of time to sort out the kinks defensively, settle on Adams or Lockie behind center, and ramp up to the efficient, breakneck pace that has eluded the offense in its two losses. There’s certainly no shortage of proven threats among the backs and receivers, and the upcoming schedule offers a chance at four routine October wins against Colorado, Washington State, Washington, and Arizona State. By November, it’s entirely possible that the Ducks will be back on their usual roll and in position to make overreactions to these early losses look like fleeting hysteria. It’s also worth entertaining the possibility that Utah, which leaped to no. 10 in the AP poll from no. 19, will continue to emerge as the surprise Pac-12 front-runner, and that the final score will say more about the Utes’ long-term prospects than it does about the Ducks. What feels momentous in September is often rendered obsolete within a few weeks.
Still: This loss felt revelatory. For the first time in years, Oregon looks like an also-ran. And while Mark Helfrich, Kelly’s handpicked protégé, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, he is at a pivotal stage of his tenure. It was during their third or fourth year that other high-profile successors promoted from within — see: Rick Neuheisel at Colorado, Bob Davie at Notre Dame, Frank Solich at Nebraska, and Larry Coker at Miami, among others — began to lose the residual momentum from the previous regime. It’s too soon to say for sure that Oregon is following the trajectory of those programs, which have largely faded from national relevance in the past decade, or that it inevitably will in the near future. But suddenly it’s a lot harder to take the Ducks’ staying power for granted.
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The most frustrating part of this loss for Tennessee — the Volunteers’ 11th consecutive defeat against Florida, in case you missed that part — must be that, in many ways, the Vols are the ascendant outfit they hoped to be after last year’s youth movement, yet still cannot manage to close out a relevant win. So far, watching them be better on a down-by-down basis has only served to intensify the pain when the Vols eventually, inevitably break their fans’ hearts.
A couple of weeks back, the new and nominally improved Vols jumped out to a 17-0 lead over Oklahoma in the second quarter and still boasted a 94 percent chance to win well into the fourth; from there, the dormant OU offense awoke to rally for two touchdowns in the final nine minutes and went on to win in overtime, 31-24. On Saturday, Tennessee again led by double digits late, scoring at the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter to push its lead to 27-14, and again saw its chances of winning hovering above 90 percent with less than half a quarter to play.
In the final six minutes alone, Tennessee forced Florida’s struggling, woefully inexperienced offense into three fourth-down situations that doubled as match point; in all three cases, a stop would have effectively clinched a UT win. Instead, the Gators converted all three attempts on the arm of redshirt freshman Will Grier, including the 63-yard, fourth-and-14 dagger from Grier to true freshman Antonio Callaway that yielded the go-ahead touchdown. And even then, hope wasn’t fully dashed until UT kicker Aaron Medley missed a 55-yard field goal to win. That’s the difference between 4-0 and 2-2, between resurgence and regret.
One way or another, the blame for that gulf is bound to fall on the shoulders of coach Butch Jones, who was asked to explain his decisions to (a) call timeout prior to an apparent field goal attempt by Florida late in the third quarter, allowing the Gators to reconsider and subsequently convert on a fourth-down pass that set up a touchdown on the next play,3 and (b) settle for the PAT and a 13-point lead following the Volunteers’ final touchdown rather than go for two in an attempt to extend the lead to 14. In the long run, the margins in the SEC East will prove so thin that such retrospective miscues actually wind up standing between Tennessee and a division crown. Between Georgia at the top and Vanderbilt at the bottom, the rest of the East is shaping up as a weekly free-for-all. But fourth-quarter woes notwithstanding, the Vols’ capacity to compete and (eventually) to win in that scrum shouldn’t be diminished by a couple of excruciating finishes. If you were on the bandwagon in August, think twice before abandoning it just yet.
Later, Jones explained that he was worried about a fake on the aborted field goal attempt.
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Statistically, this game was strange and interesting in a lot of ways — Arkansas racked up a 19-minute advantage in time of possession, held the Aggies to 48 offensive snaps, and lost — but the most interesting thing about any game involving Texas A&M is the presence of blue-chip wide receiver Christian Kirk, the nation’s most dynamic freshman at any position. Against Arkansas, Kirk hauled in a team-high eight catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns, the first of which covered 44 yards for the Aggies’ first score of the game …
… and the second of which turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in overtime. In between, he broke a 57-yarder through the heart of the Razorbacks secondary (setting up a field goal) and added 77 yards on kick returns, making him the SEC leader in both receiving yards and all-purpose yards through September, the latter on just 39 total touches. Arkansas achieved exactly what it wanted to offensively, chewing up clock, grinding the tempo to a halt, and keeping the ball out of A&M’s hands. But it had no answer for the Aggies wide receiver. If Kirk continues to maximize his opportunities as efficiently as he has so far, opposing game plans are going to keep winding up in tatters.
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Every team with championship ambitions has to eke out a harrowing road win or two along the way, and my inclination at this point in the season is to give the Horned Frogs more credit for making it out of Lubbock with all of their larger goals intact than to worry too deeply about how far they should fall in the next set of polls. That said, just keeping the defense intact is going to be a legitimate and lasting challenge. By kickoff on Saturday, TCU could already count six defensive starters out for all or part of the season, and the starting 11 against the Red Raiders featured a single player (safety Derrick Kindred) who had also started in last season’s galvanizing Peach Bowl win over Ole Miss. Aside from defensive end Josh Carraway, none of the other 10 had started a college game prior to this season.
The Frogs finished with 750 yards, 484 of them coming from the decorated arm of Trevone Boykin. Keep in mind, not every team in the Big 12 is going to have the firepower or inclination to go off like TCU did in this game — one that saw both squads eclipse 600 total yards with ease. But Baylor certainly can, and early indications are that West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are all going to come a lot closer to living up to their high-scoring reputations than any of them did in 2014.4 Obviously, Boykin and his prolific cohorts are more than capable of holding their own in a shootout. But the fewer shootouts they have to get involved in over the next few weeks, against the relatively pedestrian attacks of Texas, Kansas State, and Iowa State, the better they’ll feel about surviving the more high-octane competition looming down the stretch.
So far, the Mountaineers, Sooners, and Cowboys are all averaging north of 40 points against FBS opponents.
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1. Ohio State (4-0) No, the Buckeyes haven’t been the most impressive team through the first four weeks. And yes, keeping them in the top spot anyway is probably deferring too much to the preseason hype. I get it. But the hand-wringing that followed last week’s uninspiring effort against Northern Illinois was an overreaction — Ohio State struggled on offense, but it was never in serious danger of losing to NIU — and Saturday’s routine, 38-12 win over Western Michigan was a reassuring step in the right direction.
2. Ole Miss (4-0) The Rebels looked pretty uninspired themselves on Saturday, winning a 27-16 slog against Vanderbilt. Still, this says nothing at all about their championship potential on the heels of a high-intensity track meet at Alabama.
3. LSU (3-0) Leonard Fournette’s capacity to carry an otherwise ineffectual offense on his shoulders in SEC play is going to be one of the most compelling subplots of the season.
4. Georgia (4-0) Few teams this season will have as much invested in a single game as the Bulldogs have riding on this weekend’s contest against Alabama.
5. Utah (4-0) Given how well Michigan has played since its opening-night loss in Salt Lake City, the Utes now own arguably the best pair of wins by any team. If oft-injured quarterback Travis Wilson remains upright, Utah may be up here for the long haul.
6. Notre Dame (4-0) If the Irish make it to 5-0 this weekend at Clemson, the rest of the schedule sets up very, very nicely.
7. Michigan State (4-0) MSU’s win over Oregon still carries some weight in playoff consideration, but not nearly as much as it did before last weekend. In the end, the Spartans’ season will boil down to beating Ohio State in November — or coming close enough to convince the selection committee they could if given another shot.
8. UCLA (4-0) After a nightmare outing against BYU, Josh Rosen was back to his flawless opening-day form in a 56-30 blowout at Arizona, and the Bruins were back to looking like a team that has yet to realize that its championship hopes are in the hands of a true freshman quarterback.
9. Baylor (3-0) Quarterback Seth Russell completed 12 passes against Rice for 277 yards, six touchdowns, and a pass efficiency rating of 344.2 in a little more than two quarters’ worth of work. The Owls would have fared about as well if their secondary consisted entirely of inanimate objects.
10. TCU (4-0) If nothing else, it looks like the Frogs’ defensive travails are going to make them a whole lot of fun to watch for everyone who isn’t Gary Patterson.
The best of the week …
The Ohio State transfer left his fingerprints all over the Blue Devils’ 34-20 win over Georgia Tech, racking up 12 total tackles, three tackles for loss, four QB hurries, and two forced fumbles in a potentially season-defining upset in the ACC Coastal. Duke held Tech’s prolific triple-option attack to 173 yards rushing on 60 carries, yielding the Yellow Jackets’ worst yards-per-carry average over a full game (2.9) since October 2011.
On paper, ECU fans had every right to expect Summers’s turn against Virginia Tech to be brief and forgettable. As the “change of pace” option behind starter Blake Kemp, Summers had barely seen the field in the Pirates’ first three games, and technically he wasn’t even recruited as a quarterback; there just happened to be an unexpected void on the depth chart due to injury and attrition. This is to say nothing of the Hokies’ reputation as one of the most reliably rigid defenses in the country, or of the deplorable weather that Summers saw for most of the afternoon. But once he got the ball in his hands, Summers was nothing short of a revelation.
As a runner, he was a workhorse, accounting for 169 of the Pirates’ 182 yards on the ground to go with a pair of touchdowns. As a passer, he was efficient enough to keep the Hokies honest, completing five of eight attempts for 110 yards and another score. If that’s not enough to bump Kemp from the top of the depth chart, it’s certainly enough to put AAC defenses on notice.
If TCU goes on to claim the Big 12 title and/or a playoff bid, Doctson’s fateful tip in the end zone against Texas Tech will be enshrined in the sport’s collective memory for as long as the video exists. Let the record also show that Doctson was the inevitable target on that play, come hell or high water or triple coverage, because he caught everything: On a Saturday that saw TCU pass for more yards as a team (503) than any other FBS offense, Doctson finished with more catches (18) for more yards (267) than the rest of his teammates combined. The former number tied a Big 12 record set in 1996; the latter was the best single-game receiving total by an FBS player since October 2013.
Fat Guy of the Week: Texas DT Hassan Ridgeway
Ridgeway earned valuable Piesman Trophy cred against Oklahoma State by housing a fumble from 34 yards out in the first quarter. A little highlight-reel presence never hurts in FGOTW consideration. Ridgeway also excelled in more conventional Fat Guy fashion, notching six total tackles (including 1.5 for loss) and generally harassing members of OSU’s backfield for most of the afternoon. As a team, UT held the Cowboys to 103 yards rushing on 2.2 per carry, a dramatic improvement for a unit that had been gashed for well over 200 yards on the ground in each of its first three games — although not quite dramatic enough in the end to keep the Longhorns from falling to 0-3 against opponents that aren’t Rice.
Catch of the Year of the Week: Michigan WR Amara Darboh
As with all great catches, a picture of Darboh’s whirling, one-handed beauty against BYU speaks a thousand words.
Just to make it fair for everyone else, we’ve exempted LSU’s Übermensch tailback from the standard Superlatives competition in favor of devoting a running weekly category exclusively to his Herculean exploits. This week, Fournette clinched the September Heisman in a landslide, with a 244-yard romp at Syracuse on 26 carries,5 highlighted by a makeshift, 48-yard gain on a schoolyard-worthy play that called for Fournette to block.
In addition to the official numbers, Fournette had an 87-yard scoring run erased by an illegal-formation penalty that had no impact on the run itself.
The man is now improvising highlight rushing plays off the cuff like a jazz musician. After his violent performance against Auburn, Fournette’s strides through the Orange secondary were so smooth that he wasn’t touched on either of his touchdown runs (covering 14 yards and 62 yards, respectively), depriving America of the spectacle of 200-pound scholarship athletes ricocheting off his thigh pads like small children.
And the worst …
Last week, Texas lost by one point when kicker Nick Rose botched a routine extra point to tie in the final seconds against Cal. Saturday, Texas lost by three points when punter Michael Dickson botched a routine snap deep in UT territory, setting up Oklahoma State for the game-winning field goal as time expired.
“There ain’t no way we were going to lose that game in overtime,” Hassan Ridgeway told reporters after the loss. “Not at all.” One day, perhaps — dare to dream! — the Longhorns’ special teams will actually allow them to make it that far.
ASU moved the ball well enough in a 42-14 loss against USC, putting up 454 yards of total offense to the Trojans’ 455. But the majority of the Sun Devils’ production didn’t yield much. On four first-half trips inside the USC 35-yard line, ASU went 0-for-4, with two missed field goals and a pair of lost fumbles — the second of which USC returned 95 yards for a touchdown — en route to a 35-0 deficit at the half.
Trailing 27-24 at Minnesota with seven seconds to play, Ohio lined up to attempt a 53-yard field goal to tie. As is custom, Gophers coaches called a timeout just prior to the decisive kick in an attempt to ice Bobcats kicker Josiah Yazdani, who — as is also the custom — nonchalantly followed through with a warm-up kick. But wait!
Yes: In the seconds immediately following a pointless timeout by Minnesota, called with the express purpose to delay the end of the game, an intrepid official called a delay-of-game flag on Ohio because of Yazdani’s unsanctioned kick. Now faced with a 58-yard attempt following the penalty, the Bobcats opted to scrap the field goal altogether and throw up a Hail Mary instead, which fell predictably incomplete. Gophers win, and Ohio coach Frank Solich is left to wonder what the hell just happened:
“The thing that bothers me on that type of play,” Solich said. “Is that the ball gets snapped, so apparently the center doesn’t hear the whistle, either. But somehow you’re expecting the kicker to hear it when he’s concentrating on the snap. The crowd is very, very loud. He’s following through to what, he thinks, is maybe the game-winning kick.”
Here’s how the rulebook defines delay of game, which is … not entirely helpful:
Was Yazdani’s kick “deliberately advancing the ball after it is dead”? Was it “clearly designed to delay officials,” even though the officials had just stopped the play in order to delay it? Is there any existing precedent or plausible justification whatsoever for that flag to have been thrown in that situation? I could go on, but before I get flagged for delay of column, I’ll just answer: Nope.