It’s mid-October, and the national championship race is just as unclear as ever. The top 3 teams in the nation won on Saturday by a combined 20 points. Florida squeaked past Arkansas after coughing up 3 first-half fumbles, giving up twice their season average in passing yards and their first 100-yard rusher of the season.
Texas also had a relatively weak performance from their QB. Pre-season Heisman front-runner, Colt McCoy had a pedestrian day in the Red River Rivalry going 21-39 for 127 yards, a TD and a pick. He also ran 14 times for 33 yards and fumbled once. Despite all the sloppy play and close victories, they all share one thing in common: they won. All three teams are still undefeated and control their own destiny. Undoubtedly they’ll all be tested again, but they’ve shown the intangibles that all championship teams have in finding ways to win. With everyone gunning for them, they all know the road to Pasadena won’t be easily navigated.
Arkansas at Florida
Arkansas is the most improved team in the SEC. The same defense that gave up 530 yards and 52 points against Georgia held Tim Tebow and the Gators to 391 yards and 23 points. Give credit to Hog’s DC, Willy Robinson; his defense is finally playing as good as Bobby Petrino’s offense. They scorched Florida for the most points (20) and yards (357) they’ve given up all season. But Florida’s defense was also without three starters including Brandon Spikes, who left on the second series of the game with a groin injury and DT’s Lawrence Marsh and Jaye Howard. Keeping Ryan Mallet and company contained isn’t easy. The loss of Spikes, Marsh and Howard became more obvious as the game went on. Backup RB, Dennis Johnson, filling in for injured Michael Smith, bruised his way to a tough 107 yards.
Florida benefitted from some questionable calls/no-calls, and a very “un-clutch” Alex Tejada. The pass interference call mid-way through the fourth on Ramon Broadway was questionable. The unsportsmanlike-conduct call on the ensuing play was unacceptable, not to mention the no-call on Riley Cooper for offensive pass interference. Without these misses by the refereeing crew, who by the way, also called the Georgia/LSU excessive celebration game, Florida would have had a much tougher time winning, if at all. But still, give credit to Tim Tebow. The man is almost unstoppable on 3rd and medium. He put the Gator’s offense on his back and carried them on that final drive ending the game with a win. Florida has a tough game against South Carolina coming up, but their place in the SEC championship game was pretty much solidified this Saturday.
South Carolina at Alabama
It wasn’t pretty but Alabama won. They did it with a dominating defense and a Heisman-like performance from sophomore running back Mark Ingram. His 246-yard performance ranks third in Bama history. South Carolina’s defense did a good job of putting pressure on Greg McElroy, and it showed. Two out of his first four passes were intercepted, and he had fumbled twice by halftime.
Mark Barron’s 77-yard interception return was the Tide’s only first half TD. South Carolina’s defense kept them in the game as long as they could until Mark Ingram took control in the fourth quarter. On Bama’s only offensive TD drive he ran five straight times for 68 yards. In my opinion that’s what the Heisman is all about. He won’t admit it, but he knows he carried the offense to the win. It wouldn’t have mattered in the end; Bama’s defense didn’t let the Gamecocks score after two field goals in the second quarter. Julio Jones didn’t have a catch, but with 75 return yards, in relief of injured Javier Arenas (bruised ribs), and a forced fumble after C.C. Whitlock’s interception, “it was one of his best games” says Nick Saban.
You can’t replace Arenas, but fellow senior Marquis Johnson put in a career performance with 6 pass break-ups and 2 tackles. The “ole ball coach” went after him again and again, and at one point threw three straight fade routes his way. It was all for not though; Johnson defended South Carolina’s star, 6-foot-3-receiver, Alshon Jeffery, five times in the red zone and held him to 3 catches for 31 yards. The tide may have had ugly QB play and penalties galore, but they found a way to win, and that’s all that mattered.
Texas vs. Oklahoma
The headliner of this sloppy defensive game unanimously seems to be Sam Bradford. I’m sure you all know he reinjured his shoulder and you have to feel for
the guy. He really seems genuine in his love of the game and this must be devastating. Injuries are part of any sport, but when so much is on the line it really gets to you, especially when you exacerbate a previous injury. The mental aspect of having to start all over after having just gotten better is tough to deal with. Regardless, he’s a tough kid and he has the best doctors in the country advising him. He’ll be back, whether it’s in crimson and cream or not.
Colt McCoy didn’t help his Heisman status much but he still got the job done. Texas wasn’t impressive and despite giving up 3 turnovers and getting out-gained 269 to 311 yards, they managed to pull out the 16-13 win. Texas’s defense held the Sooners to -16 yards on 22 rushes, and forced 5 turnovers. Neither team played well but Texas played physically enough to squeak out the win. You have to wonder, though, if a healthy Bradford and Jermaine Gresham would’ve pushed OU past Texas. I can’t say either way but I do know Texas definitely has some work to do.
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
This Saturday put the best teams in the nation on display and showed everyone all their weaknesses. And maybe no team was exploited quite as much as Virginia Tech, one of my favorites, to make the NC game until this week. Through the first three games their biggest weakness seemed to be their run defense. But after they shut down a potent Miami rushing attack, and followed up by holding Duke and BC to a combined 83 yards rushing, it looked like they’d worked out all the kinks. Then came Georgia Tech. Anyone who plays the Jacket’s spread-option attack, will give up some rushing yards, but VT’s defense proved they can’t handle a quality running game, giving up 309 yards on the ground.
On the flip-side Georgia Tech’s defense wasn’t spectacular, but it got the job done, holding VT to 3 points at the half and 10 points going into the fourth quarter. GT’s offense helped them out as well, keeping the VT defense on the field for 38:22 of the game. They’ve kicked it into over-drive since their mid-September loss to Miami, averaging 444 ypg. Junior QB Josh Nesbitt has to be considered in the Heisman race and he proved why against VT. He rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns and willed his team to victory. He basically plays the role of running back/quarterback in leading the spread option attack. He’s in every play, running his heart out, and his development in Paul Johnson’s attack should be commended. Two years in, and Johnson’s players are really buying into the system. They control their fate in the coastal division now, and are looking to win their first ACC championship game.
Ohio State at Purdue
I wasn’t sold on Ohio State and Saturday reinforced my suspicions. When Terrelle Pryor committed to the Buckeyes, weeks after national signing-day two years ago, the consensus was, “watch out”. Almost everyone, including myself, couldn’t help but see the similarities with Vince Young. Pryor wasn’t so highly touted without a reason; he really is a “freakish” athlete. This season, though, his QB play has been increasingly suspect (10 TD’s, 8 INT’s), but the play calling isn’t helping him. Every play he’s had to make something happen, which is where he’s at his best, but not when he has to do it EVERY SINGLE PLAY. OSU’s offense has got to find an identity and they can’t keep relying on backyard playmaking from Pryor. Their defense is still among the best in the nation, but unless their offensive troubles can be remedied, their reign at the top the Big Ten won’t last. Jim Tressel’s a good coach and the next two games (Minnesota, New Mexico State) will help their offense start rolling and hopefully give Pryor some much-needed confidence.
Purdue shouldn’t be forgotten; they played their hearts out, dug deep and wanted the win more than OSU. Their defense forced five turnovers and their offense dominated time-of-possession. Anytime you can do that you put yourself in aposition to win. Purdue snapped their 5 game loosing streak and even more impressive, snapped a 19-game loosing streak against ranked opponents. The Boilermakers can still go “bowling” by winning out, but with games at Michigan and Wisconsin, it’s easier said than done.