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Gordon’s Left Foot: The College Football Recap

Let’s confront the scourge of college football. Forget the boosters, the agents, the arrests, and the embarrassing lack of a playoff. Those distractions can be stored in the attic of our minds on Saturdays. What’s really aggravated me recently — and what I’m convinced will soon have a major impact on a big game — is the excessive-celebration penalty.

On Friday night, BYU and Central Florida were knotted at 17 in the fourth quarter, when UCF forced BYU to punt. It was a booming 61-yard kick, and J.J. Worton had to sprint toward his goal line to receive it. The ball went off his hands as he tried to make the catch, and BYU’s Michael Alisa recovered at the 8-yard line and ran into the end zone. Because it was a “muffed” punt rather than a fumble, BYU wasn’t allowed to advance past the point of recovery. But members of the punt unit, thinking they had just given their team a critical lead, were ecstatic. They formed a massive, celebratory pile in the end zone, and the flags flew for excessive celebration. Instead of first-and-goal, BYU was pushed back to the 23. The Cougars eventually scored, but the penalty could have changed the outcome of the game.

And what’s the point? There’s so much adrenaline in football, so much violent tension, that to expect players not to celebrate after a score is absurd. What’s behind this conservative ideal? Exactly whom does celebration hurt? Why don’t we want players to express their joy and showcase their personalities?

Football is supposed to be fun, but the draconian rules feel designed to stifle that aspect and turn the players into automatons. Any flicker of personality is punished. In its absence, we’re supposed to revere some imaginary stoic star who calmly hands the ball to the official after a big touchdown and trots back to the sideline. It almost feels like the NCAA is trying to enforce a broader moral code, and, hypocrisy aside, that is most definitely not its place. It makes me so mad I could dance in front of a referee.

If I had to design the touchdown celebration rules, they’d be a lot shorter than the NCAA’s Rule 9-2. This is all you need:

1. Don’t taunt, bait, or demean an opponent. Keep the celebration about you and your team.
2. Keep it under a minute.
3. The team with the best choreography gets a four-point bonus.

I’m willing to negotiate on the last rule. Otherwise, one and two are all you need.

Let’s move on to the Week 4 highlights before I make myself dizzy.

Apologies?

This week’s apologies section has a question mark because I’m not sure if it’s truly warranted. But here are the facts: After I doubted LSU in last week’s preview, they invaded Morgantown and drubbed West Virginia, 47-21.

But is “drubbed” the right word? Let’s look at the stats. The Mountaineers ran up 533 yards of total offense, while LSU had just 366. West Virginia averaged 6.1 yards per play, while LSU averaged 5.3. Each team punted six times.

From the numbers, it feels like West Virginia had a slight edge, right? But then you look deeper, and it’s obvious how the Tigers made up the difference. West Virginia turned it over four times to LSU’s zero. LSU had a kickoff return for a touchdown and an interception return inside the 5. The Mountaineers were penalized twice as often as the Tigers. And LSU punter Brad Wing was exceptional, placing all six kicks inside the 20 and several inside the 10.

There’s a couple ways to look at this. You could say that LSU is more disciplined and better coached. You could say its superb defense forced mistakes by West Virginia, from the turnovers to the penalties, that go beyond the total yardage numbers. You could say the Tigers focused more energy on special teams, and that it paid dividends.

But, if you were less generous, you could say LSU was a bit fortunate. It’s easy to forget that at least two of the West Virginia turnovers were some combination of bad luck and the virtuoso stylings of defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who made a ridiculous tip interception on a blitz and also ripped the football away from a receiver in the first half. And the lopsided final score gives no indication that West Virginia pulled within six points after a third-quarter touchdown drive, and that Morgantown was ready to erupt. Then Morris Claiborne returned a kickoff 99 yards, and the momentum was gone forever.

I’m ready to concede that LSU is elite, even with Lee at quarterback. I’m done doubting the Tigers, at least until the Alabama game. On the other hand, I don’t think you can blame the Mountaineers if they see Saturday night as a missed opportunity. With a little luck and better execution, they could have gone into the fourth quarter of a home game with a lead.

Funniest Football-Related Legal Tweak

It is now a third-degree felony to burn couches in Morgantown, W.Va. Bless you, Mountaineers fans. You burned so many couches, and were so incorrigible, that a misdemeanor was no longer punishment enough. And you wonder why the ACC won’t accept you. I can’t wait for the first student to try the “technically, it was a sofa” defense.

Uh-oh, These Guys Might Be Really Good

Two teams qualify for this category.

1. Clemson — With a 35-30 win over Florida State, this is now the team to beat in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. Also, freshman Sammy Watkins is my new favorite player. Even though Florida State’s stellar defense knew he would be Tajh Boyd’s primary target, Watkins still racked up 141 receiving yards and two touchdowns. His speed and “jukiness,” a term I’ve just invented, always make me leap up from my couch (not for too long, though, lest a West Virginia fan burn it). Check out the highlight reel:

https://www.youtube.com/v/hN5n4BsbH7s?version=3&hl=en_US&start=12

2. Oklahoma State — if you didn’t read Brian Phillips’ piece about Squinky, the subterranean creature who exists only to doom Oklahoma State football, wait no longer. Squinky was on hand for Oklahoma State’s 30-29 win over Texas A&M, but even he couldn’t stop the Cowboys’ lightning-strike offense. A&M took a 20-3 lead into the half, and it looked like another disappointment in the offing, but the deferred aerial blitzkrieg materialized in the third quarter. In the span of 15 minutes, OSU amassed an incredible 278 yards and three touchdowns. It would have been four, but receiver Justin Blackmon somehow dropped the ball (Squinky’s doing?) as he was about to cross the goal line. What’s more, they ended the quarter on the 4-yard line, poised to score again.

This was the NCAA version of total football, and the closest we’ve come to a perfect offense since the Mike Leach days at Texas Tech. It was the most entertaining half hour of the week, and even though they couldn’t quite sustain it to the end, it only took just one quarter to do enough damage for an entire game. That’s a serious attack.

The Second-Most Embarrassing Moment of the Weekend

One of the few lowlights of Tajh Boyd’s day is best expressed in GIF form, courtesy of Bubbaprog:

This is like a highlight montage from the beginning of a sports movie, before the good guys get their act together. Even my girlfriend, who has zero interest in college football, texted me after this one. “Did you just see that play in the fl at and Clemson game? Embarrassing!”

And yet, this wasn’t even …

The Most Embarrassing Moment of the Weekend

First, it wouldn’t be sporting if I didn’t mention that Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill made this astounding one-handed catch early in the Yellow Jackets’ win over North Carolina. But then, at a crucial moment in the fourth quarter, he slipped past the UNC secondary and found himself about as wide open as you can be in a Division I football game. There was nobody in a 20-yard radius, and if he caught Tevin Washington’s pass, he could have walked, waltzed, or sashayed into the end zone. Alas, he did not; it hit his hands and bounced to the turf. I can’t find video, unfortunately, but it was an excruciating moment. I was watching at a bar in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the UNC fans had already conceded the touchdown with the pass in the air. It took them a second, amid the groans and curses, to realize he’d dropped the ball.

This made me wonder: What major sport has the most humiliating missed opportunities? Here’s my Top 5, from least humiliating to most.

5. Hockey — Missing a wide-open net. Since the goal is so small, the goalie is never far away. Plus, the game is so fast-paced that a missed shot is never too embarrassing.

4. Basketball — Blowing the wide-open layup or dunk. It’s never fun, and it can be especially brutal in front of a hostile crowd, but there are so many shots and attempts in basketball that it’s quickly forgotten. Here’s one for Boston fans.

3. Baseball — Dropping a fly ball. Pretty terrible, especially because it’s so rare. The all-time greatest example was when Carlos Martinez’s fly ball bounced off Jose Canseco’s head and went over the wall for a home run.

2. Football — Bungling a touchdown catch. All eyes are on the receiver, and unlike basketball there’s nowhere to hide when you screw up.

1. Soccer — Missing the open goal. This gets top billing just because goals are at such a premium in soccer, and a player who misses an easy one literally steals a rare moment of happiness from his fans. For the latest example, watch Fernando Torres’ miss against Manchester United. (Set to the creepiest laugh track in history.)

Other Top 25 Battles

In the least surprising result of the year, no. 3 Alabama killed no. 14 Arkansas 38-14. They barely even needed to play the game, it was so predictable. Still, this was cool stuff from Tricky Nick Saban:

https://www.youtube.com/v/QxYxFJf_slo?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0

Upsets of the Ranked

Only two ranked teams fell to the lower sorts, and neither one was actually favored. We know about Clemson over Florida State, but in the late Pac-12 game, Arizona State dominated no. 23 USC 43-22. Again, the Sun Devils went off as favorites, so “upset” is relative.

The only near-death experience came in Illinois, where the 23rd-ranked Fighting Illini escaped with a 23-20 win over Western Michigan. It’s the team’s first 4-0 start since 1951.

A Ride on the Gambling Emotional Roller Coaster

Virginia Tech was favored over Marshall by 21-22 points, and led 30-10 with six minutes left in the fourth. They were on the move, marching into Marshall territory and bound for that inevitable final score, when Tech running back David Wilson fumbled the ball at the 14-yard line. Marshall recovered, and proceeded to waste enough time to preserve the 20-point deficit. They didn’t win the game, but they beat the spread. In the mountains near Blacksburg, Va., electricity bills are going unpaid this month.

Free Tips for Teams on a Desperation Drive

Here’s some basic advice for when you need a touchdown or field goal, have a long way to go in less than 90 seconds, and are out of time-outs:

1. Don’t take a sack. This shouldn’t be that difficult. Have an outlet receiver whose head you can throw the ball 20 yards over if things get dicey. A sack means 15 seconds wasted before you can run another play.

2. Don’t throw a short pass unless you KNOW the receiver can get out of bounds. If he doesn’t reach the sideline or the first down marker, that’s another 15 wasted seconds.

That’s essentially it. Those are the two things you absolutely can’t do, because they kill the clock. Even an interception downfield isn’t quite as bad. At least you took a shot. Surely coaches know this already, right? Wrong. Here are three of the desperation drives from Week 4.

UNC, down 7, 1:35 remaining: One short pass, one sack, one first down pass, one short pass, one sack, penalty, game over.

UCF, down 7, 1:10 remaining: One first down pass, one short pass, two sacks, game over.

Western Michigan, down 3, 1:05 remaining: One short pass, one first down pass, one sack, one short pass, one first down pass, game over.

Of the nine completed passes thrown on these drives, five of them didn’t make first-down yardage. I’ll never understand how coaches can continue to be risk-averse when the greatest risk is caution.

Wildest Finish

Remember how Syracuse got that gift of a win in last year’s bowl game against Kansas State? Well, they did it again Saturday against Toledo. With less than three minutes left, Syracuse scored the go-ahead touchdown to take a 29-27 lead. Syracuse kicker Ross Krautman came on and appeared to miss the crucial extra point. Lucky for him, the refs ruled it was good, and then actually upheld the bad call after a replay. Take a look:

What the video doesn’t show, unfortunately, is the reaction of the referee under the right goal post as the ball passed him. He wore an expression that said, “I have no freakin’ clue,” and then, for lack of a better idea, shot both hands in the air. Good.

Toledo responded with a nice drive and hit what should have been a game-winning field goal as time expired. Instead, it tied the game at 30, and Syracuse won in overtime. The Big East later released a statement saying the refs screwed up. For Toledo, that and a dollar will get ’em a cup of coffee.

See you Thursday for the Week 5 preview.


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