Hail, Sparty: Recapping Week 8 in College Football

When the most anticipated game of the weekend delivers the best finish, what more can you do than show the video? It’s only Week 8, but I’m ready to ordain an official Play of the Year:

As French football fans say, MON DIEU. Here are some scattered thoughts for the Monday after:

1. I absolutely loved Kirk Herbstreit’s incredulous laugh as he and Brent Musburger watch the replay and wait for the final decision (starting at 1:03 above). It’s exactly what I was doing at home, and what thousands of viewers must have been doing across the country. To win on a successful Hail Mary is one thing; it’s a wild rarity that has a solid place among the most dramatic outcomes in sport. But to win on a successful Hail Mary that doubles as a life-or-death struggle at the goal line, with both sides massing their forces to fight for that final, epic inch … well, that’s cinematic. That’s not something that’s supposed to happen in real life. And when it does, you just have to laugh. Herbstreit’s excellence as an announcer has many facets, but one of the most overlooked is his empathy with the average fan. Who else could have pulled that off?

2. I can’t decide if it would have been better if Keith Nichol clearly broke into the end zone so the Michigan State fans wouldn’t have been deprived of their moment of raucous celebration by the video replay process, or if the battle at the goal line was worth the delay. On one hand, the lack of a clear outcome heightened the drama. On the other, it would have been more insane to watch the fans rush the field and mob the pile of players in the end zone. Tough call.

3. Despite the loss, kudos to Mike Taylor, the Wisconsin linebacker who fought like hell to keep Nichol out of the end zone and almost dragged him down, somehow, from behind. He was an unlucky lean away from preserving an undefeated season and becoming a cult hero in Madison.

4. You can’t possibly pick on any one player in a play so ridiculous, but if you’re Jared Abbrederis today, the Wisconsin receiver who was inserted on defense for the final play, aren’t you still beating yourself up for mistiming the jump? In the replay, you can see him trying to hang in the air as long as possible, defying gravity to the last moment, but coming down a split second before he can bat the ball down. If he’d timed it right, that ball’s getting slammed to the turf.

5. I loved the referee’s delivery as he rendered the final verdict almost as much as I loved Herbstreit’s laugh. It’s like he understood the weight of the moment, and could barely get the words out. Then, as the end of his mangled soliloquy was swallowed up in the East Lansing roar, he sprinted off. That was the most acceptable blown line since Neil Armstrong flubbed his on the moon.

And it was a fitting end for a game that fulfilled everyone’s expectations. The Badgers started with 14 quick points, and looked like they might steamroll the Spartans. Russell Wilson was on target, and Montee Ball was having the game of his life. In fact, the very first play from scrimmage seemed like a declaration of fate, a bit of poetic justice that might set the tone for a blowout. Ball took the handoff, and collided with Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis. This was the same Lewis who had touted the Spartans defense before the game, even going so far as to say they would hurt Wilson. But against Ball, Lewis was knocked backward and stayed down. He eventually hobbled off the field, and you couldn’t have scripted a better “screw you” from Wisconsin.

But Lewis would be back, as would the Spartans defense. It controlled the game for the better part of the next three quarters, and Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins had the best performance of his life, completing 22 of 31 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns against one of the country’s best defenses. But just when Michigan State looked to be pulling away, Wilson rejuvenated his Heisman hopes (after two costly interceptions) by leading a pair of brilliant touchdown drives to tie the game. And the rest is Hail Mary history.

Elsewhere in the Chaos …

Texas Tech snapped Oklahoma’s 39-game home winning streak with a 41-38 stunner. This one was delayed for the better part of two hours because of a storm, and when the teams finally kicked off, it had all the ingredients of a college upset. Including:

The shock-and-awe start. Red Raiders quarterback Seth Doege, who would end up with 441 yards on the day, was absolutely dissecting the Oklahoma defense. After hitting Alex Torres for a touchdown early in the third quarter, he’d spurred his team to an improbable 31-7 lead.

The lucky breaks. Oklahoma’s Michael Hunnicutt missed a 39-yard field goal in the second quarter. Late in the fourth, he missed another, shorter kick. Tre’ Porter made a hugely difficult third-quarter interception on Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones’ pass. Oklahoma lost a fumble on a long pass that would have set up another scoring chance. Texas Tech didn’t have a single turnover.

The “Oh crap, we don’t belong here” moment. It came in the third quarter, when Jones hit Kenny Stills for a 58-yard touchdown. The lead was cut to 31-14, and suddenly the dynamic Tech offense couldn’t move. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the lead had shrunk to 31-24, and it looked like Tech’s carriage was pumpkin-bound.

The necessary, unlikely recovery. With 85,000 fans screaming them down, and the momentum completely gone, Doege led two straight fourth-quarter drives for 10 points, pushing the lead back to 41-24.

The desperate hang-on. From there, it was time for the terrifying bunker mentality. Oklahoma responded immediately with a 55-yard touchdown bomb from Jones to Jaz Reynolds. 41-31. Another long drive produced a short field goal opportunity, but Hunnicutt missed (see also: lucky breaks). Tech tried to stall, but its offense isn’t geared toward that kind of game, and Oklahoma got the ball back and scored in 35 seconds on a strike from Jones to James Hanna. 41-38. Then, with everything at stake, Tech recovered the ensuing onside kick and downed the ball (from the shotgun, no less) to kill the final seconds. Everybody … breathe.

Who’s Even Undefeated Anymore?

The LSU Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide, who rolled against SEC competition and will meet in two weeks for BCS title game play-in. The Clemson Tigers, whose absurd offense disguised a weak defense for another week by hammering North Carolina. The Oklahoma State Cowboys, whose even absurd-er offense ended any talk of an upset against Missouri. The Stanford Cardinal, who responded to one of the Pac-12’s worst defenses about how you’d expect — with 65 points. The Boise State Broncos, who haven’t lost since approximately 1875. The Kansas State Wildcats, who are an absolute delight but who play Oklahoma this Saturday. And that’s it, right?

Whoa, That Team’s Undefeated?

No, it’s not. Because Case Keenum and the Houston Cougars walloped Marshall 63-28 to move to 7-0 on the year. The Cougars lead the NCAA in passing yards and points scored, and will almost certainly not lose in their last five games against Conference USA competition. It won’t matter, of course, since unlike Boise State, they haven’t accumulated the indie cachet to even sniff a BCS bowl with a 12-0 record, but I thought their horn was worth blowing anyway. (Hmmm … probably could have phrased that better.)

Seriously, Notre Dame?

This could become a weekly feature, I think. On Saturday, attempting to come back against USC, the Irish showed the world how to kill momentum. As only the Irish can do. Trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter, with the ball on the 1-yard line and the energy completely in Notre Dame’s favor, this happened:

After a fourth-quarter interception and fumble, the Irish lost 31-17, giving Lane Kiffin a signature win as USC coach. Which, as you already know, is the last thing this great country needs.

Why is Andrew Luck a Heisman candidate?

Just thought I’d ask. Any time an analyst is asked for his or her Heisman rankings, Andrew Luck is always either first or second. It’s uncanny, but it doesn’t make sense. Here’s what we know about Andrew Luck:

    1. He’s a highly skilled college quarterback.
    2. He came into this season with a lot of hype.
    3. Regardless of how the Heisman voting pans out, he’ll likely be taken with one of the first three picks in the NFL draft, if not the first overall.

But none of those three things should matter. The Heisman trophy should be dictated by performance, not by hype or potential or anything else that can’t be quantified on the field. The numbers don’t lie, and when we turn to their cold comfort, here’s the Luck profile:

  • Tied for 5th in completion percentage (among the top 25 in passing yards)
  • 3rd in yards per attempt (among the top 25 in passing yards)
  • 4th in QB rating (among the top 25 in passing yards); 5th, if you include Russell Wilson
  • 23rd in passing yards
  • 23rd in yards per game
  • 8th in touchdowns

Keenum and Robert Griffin III have better numbers in all six of those categories, and Keenum just set an NCAA record for total offense in a career. Kellen Moore is superior in five of six, and he just tied a record for most wins by a quarterback in a career (a record he’ll break next week). Wilson leads in three of the categories (QB rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt), and has rushed for 212 yards. So what do these stats tell us? First, that Luck is a great quarterback. Second, that it would be very generous to include him in a top-five discussion at his position, much less among the entire country. And yet, he’s almost a lock to be a nominee. You hate to think the voting owes more to publicity and reputation than actual performance, but …

Well …

Moving on.

The Heisman Watch

Crazy Dark Horse Candidate: Jordan White, Western Michigan. Upside: Still leads the NCAA in receiving. Downside: Still plays for Western Michigan, which only 20 percent of college football fans recognize as an actual team.

Trendy Defensive Hopeful Who Will Never Win: Luke Kuechly, Boston College. Here’s everything I know about Luke Kuechly: He leads the nation in solo tackles with 61. Also, he plays for one of the worst major conference teams in America. In other words, he spends his weekends throwing his body at gigantic men for a team that will probably not win a game. (Again, probably could have phrased that better.)

Top 5:

5. David Wilson, Virginia Tech. His 134 yards against Boston College put him atop the NCAA with 984 yards.

4. Trent Richardson, Alabama. He didn’t have a great game against Tennessee, racking up just 77 yards, but the effort was enough to put him into second in total rushing yards. And with 6.5 6.6 yards per carry, he’s more efficient than Wilson. A great game against LSU in two weeks would earn him a top-three spot.

3. Kellen Moore, Boise State It’s almost impossible to distinguish the top three quarterbacks, a group that no longer includes Russell Wilson. Moore is fourth in QB rating, second in completion percentage, first in touchdown passes, and tied with Colt McCoy for the most wins by a college quarterback in NCAA history.

2. Robert Griffin, III, Baylor. It’s almost a crime to put Griffin second. He’s top 20 in passing yards despite the fact that he’s also rushed for almost 300, first in QB rating, first in completion percentage, top five in touchdowns with 22 (and just two interceptions), and second in yards per attempt.

1. Case Keenum, Houston. Keenum needs to start getting more attention. As the all-time NCAA career leader in total offense, you can make a good argument that he’s the greatest offensive talent in NCAA history. He’s also within range of the record for total passing yards and touchdown passes. Consider that. This year, he’s first in passing yards despite 76 fewer attempts than second place, third in QB rating, third in yards per attempt, fifth in completion percentage, and has just two interceptions to 23 touchdowns, the third-lowest among qualifying QBs in the country. All that and he’ll probably have an undefeated season. Works for me.

See you Thursday, when the preview will cast its eye somewhere in the vicinity of Manhattan, Kan.

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Filed Under: Alabama, Andrew Luck, Gordon's Left Foot, LSU, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Russell Wilson, Stanford, Wisconsin