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September 8, 2008
Monday with Mike: Now the fun really starts
Week 2 of the season was, well, weak. But Week 3 is here, which means the season truly begins.
When two of the most intriguing games in Week 2 had betting lines of 20-plus points – Florida over Miami and Oklahoma over Cincinnati – you kind of got the idea that it was the least-intriguing week of the season. That's not the case for Week 3.
This game has been circled on college football calendars since the end of the 2007 season. Admit it: You've been reading and thinking about this game since, oh, early February. Well, now it's here.
The big question is whether Ohio State tailback Chris Wells will be 100 percent. He hurt his foot in the opener against Youngstown State, then sat out Saturday's desultory victory over Ohio University. Ohio State ran for 162 yards against the Bobcats, but the Buckeyes' offense isn't that scary without Wells. If Wells doesn't play, USC rolls. Can Ohio State win if Wells is only 85 or 90 percent? No. That doesn't mean Ohio State is a one-man offense. It just means that USC is not going to lose to a team that has Dan Herron, Maurice Wells and Brandon Saine playing tailback.
Ohio State has to be worried that Chris Wells won't be able to go full-throttle. As successful as the Buckeyes have been the past two seasons – a 23-3 record – those seasons are remembered more for the Buckeyes' losses in the national title game than they are for all those victories. A loss to USC and the critics will be back in full throat: "When Ohio State plays a tough opponent, it always loses."
Buckeyes players know what's at stake.
"There's going to be a lot of national attention," Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman told reporters Sunday. "It's a statement game for us."
But that's not the only game worth a mention. Also intriguing this week are Wisconsin at Fresno State, Kansas at USF, Michigan at Notre Dame, Oregon at Purdue, UCLA at BYU and Georgia at South Carolina.
Yes, the season finally is really here.
BREAK UP THE PIRATES
East Carolina has had some success in its football history, including finishing 11-1 with a No. 9 ranking in 1991. But the Pirates never had beaten three consecutive top-25 teams before.
"We played two elite programs (this season) and I am just proud of the way our team has grown," ECU coach Skip Holtz told reporters. "They are playing with desire, passion and togetherness. It is so fun right now to stand on that sideline and watch our defense play as good as it is."
Indeed, ECU's defense dominated the Mountaineers, with the Pirates finishing with a 386-251 yardage advantage. WVU rushed for 179 yards, but its so-called new-look passing attack – which had some success last week, albeit against a middling I-AA program – was shut down to the tune of 72 yards.
"They beat us up," WVU quarterback Pat White told reporters after the game.
It was assumed ECU would have the best defense in Conference USA; frankly, if you've seen much C-USA football, you know that's not exactly high praise. But that defense has been better than expected. ECU goes a legit two-deep across the front four and has a nice linebacking unit. The secondary was the question mark, but the unit has played well this season, though it hasn't exactly faced a high-tech passing attack.
ECU defensive tackle Jay Ross and defensive end C.J. Wilson had their way with WVU's experienced offensive line. Ross, a 6-3, 306-pounder who is a bull in the middle, had eight tackles, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry, while Wilson had five tackles and 1.5 sacks.
"It feels like we won a championship today," Wilson said.
The hot start for ECU, which has propelled them into the top 20 in both media polls, means keeping Holtz, 44, might be difficult. He agreed to a six-year contract extension, through 2013, four days before the victory over Virginia Tech. But the contract can't be signed until the university's board of trustees approves it Sept. 25. Specific details – including annual salary and any buyout clause – won't be made public until after the trustees meet.
AN UGLY WIN STILL COUNTS
Have to think there were more than a few people chuckling when they saw Notre Dame was having trouble with San Diego State on Saturday. (That's a San Diego State team, by the way, that lost to Division I-AA Cal Poly last week.)
The Irish trailed 13-7 going into the fourth quarter, but two TD passes from Jimmy Clausen helped Notre Dame rally for a 21-13 victory. Clausen threw for 231 yards and three TDs, but also tossed two picks.
What has to worry Irish fans – and coach Charlie Weis – is that Notre Dame managed just 103 rushing yards against a team missing seven projected defensive starters. Cal Poly ran for 263 on the Aztecs.
Perhaps the most damning thing of the day for the Irish happened in San Diego State coach Chuck Long's postgame news conference. He was asked who was better, Notre Dame or Cal Poly. "That's a tough question," Long said. "It's hard to say who's better."
Weis acknowledged that it was an ugly win but said, "I'll take an ugly win any day of the week."
This week, Notre Dame plays host to Michigan. First team to 10 points wins.
ORANGE LEFT RED-FACED
Coaches of "Big Six" schools who are on the hot seat and want to keep their jobs don't want to lose to MAC schools – especially at home. But that's what happened to Syracuse's Greg Robinson on Saturday, with his Orange falling 42-28 to Akron.
The Carrier Dome was at least one-third empty and Robinson apologized for the performance. "The fans had every right to be upset and disappointed," he told reporters. "I'd better get my act together."
The loss gave Robinson, who's in his fourth season at the school, a 7-30 record. It's becoming more and more obvious that Robinson is not the right man for the job, and you have to figure at least a few coaches out there are wondering how long it would take to make Syracuse a contender again in the Big East.
The offense got a spark Saturday from a quarterback change, with Cameron Dantley – the son of former NBA all-star Adrian Dantley – throwing three TD passes. And the Orange ran the ball well, too, finishing with 218 rushing yards. The problem was the defense – Robinson's specialty – was chewed up by the Zips, who had 478 total yards.
Syracuse has won three games against "Big Six" opponents in Robinson's tenure, and unless the Orange beat Division I-AA Northeastern on Sept. 20, this team easily could go 0-12.
POINTS A-PLENTY IN THE PAC-10
Two Pac-10 teams scored 66 points. But one of them did it against a conference foe – and that has to make everyone else in the league a bit nervous.
Oregon pounded Utah State 66-24, but that type of margin was almost expected. Utah State is one of the worst programs in the nation. The other league team to score 66 was California – and the Golden Bears did it against league foe Washington State, winning 66-3. On the road.
"I don't think I've ever gotten my butt kicked this bad," new Cougars coach Paul Wulff told reporters.
It was the largest losing margin in Washington State history.
Cal lost tailback Justin Forsett (1,543 yards) from last season. But replacements Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen combined to rush for 280 yards and four TDs on 23 carries against the Cougars. Best scored three TDs, including scores on runs of 80 and 86 yards. The 80-yarder came on the game's first play and obviously set the tone.
Cal now has had three 80-plus-yard runs this season. The Golden Bears never had had more than one in a season.
Cal's quarterbacks struggled a bit – three combined to 14 of 24, for 114 yards – and coach Jeff Tedford didn't like it. Still, Tedford can't be that upset. His team travels cross-country this week to face a Maryland team coming off a 10-point loss to Middle Tennessee State. Then comes a game against a weak Colorado State team followed by a Pac-10 showdown with Arizona State on Oct. 4. Cal also gets UCLA and Oregon at home, but must travel to USC.
Cal started 5-0 before collapsing last season and finishing 7-6. This season's defense should be better, and if new starting quarterback Kevin Riley avoids mistakes, Cal could finish second in the Pac-10.
One of the week's biggest head-scratchers: Alabama managed just 172 yards of offense in a 20-7 victory over a Tulane team expected to be one of the two or three worst in Conference USA. "It's a little disappointing. It's our goal to play with consistency … but we were unable to do that," Alabama coach Nick Saban – who won his 100th game as a college coach – told reporters. "We did not make progress as a team." Alabama scored on a punt return and on a blocked punt. And after a big-time performance against Clemson, Tide senior quarterback John Parker Wilson was back to his usual confounding self, going just 11 of 23 for 73 yards. He also was sacked four times.
Two weeks, two narrow victories for new Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. Last week, the Hogs scored in the final two minutes to beat Division I-AA Western Illinois 28-24. This week, the Hogs scored in the final two minutes to edge Louisiana-Monroe 28-27 – a ULM team that was whipped 34-0 by Auburn last week. Arkansas rolled up 506 yards and had no turnovers but still barely got out alive. The biggest problem is an inconsistent defense that was bad against the run last week and awful against the pass this week. Louisiana-Monroe senior quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster threw for 270 yards, the second-best performance of his career.
At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
North Carolina at Rutgers, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: Both were off this past weekend, UNC after squeezing past McNeese State and Rutgers after losing to Fresno State. Rutgers still needs to prove it can run the ball effectively without Ray Rice. North Carolina needs to show positive signs in Year 2 of the Butch Davis era.
Iowa State at Iowa, noon: Both are 2-0, but neither has played anybody. Thing is, the winner puts itself in great shape for a bowl bid with a 3-0 start. Iowa State has won two of the past three, including a 15-13 victory last season when Iowa was a 17-point favorite.
Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, 3:30 p.m.: Georgia Tech's triple-option offense passed its first test in impressive fashion, rushing for 162 yards in a 16-13 victory at Boston College on Saturday. BC's run defense was the best in the ACC last season – and it should be one of the two or three best in the ACC this season. Georgia Tech's defense is no slouch, either. It did a good job against BC's offense, holding the Eagles to 262 total yards. Virginia Tech's offense hasn't shown much this season. Could the Hokies start 1-2 after beginning the season in the top 20?
Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer rushed for five TDs in the Spartans' rout of Eastern Michigan. That gives him seven in two games – or one more than he had all of last season, when big back Jehuu Caulcrick got the call when the Spartans were inside the 5. Ringer's five TD runs Saturday covered 15 yards total.
Florida coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen gush about the playmakers they have on offense. Well, after seeing the Gators play twice, Meyer and Mullen seem to be like kids with a bunch of toys – they want to play with them all equally and not have any favorites. News flash to Meyer and Mullen: Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow need to be your favorite toys. Use them a lot, then start using the others.
Mr. Smith, meet Mr. Johnson. Tulsa went from one plain-named quarterback (Paul Smith) to another (David Johnson), but the Golden Hurricane's offense keeps rolling along. Johnson leads the nation in passing efficiency after two games. He is completing 78.9 percent of his passes, for 750 yards, nine TDs and no picks. Truth be told, he has played against two horrible defenses, UAB and North Texas. However, playing horrible defenses is going to be the norm for Tulsa this season. Thus, given Tulsa's proclivity to throw the ball and the cruddy schedule, it's possible that Johnson throws for 4,500 yards this season. Smith threw for 5,065 last season.
There have been 54 games matching Division I-A teams against I-AA opponents. I-A schools are 52-2; the losers have been San Diego State (to Cal Poly last week) and Army (to New Hampshire this past weekend).
Arkansas State pounded Division I-AA Texas Southern 83-10. The last Division I-A team to score 80 in a game was Texas Tech, which beat I-AA Sam Houston State 80-21 in 2005. Corey Leonard completed nine passes for Arkansas State – which opened the season with an upset of Texas A&M – and four went for touchdowns. Arkansas State led 31-0 after one quarter and 52-0 at halftime. Texas Southern quarterback Bobby Reid – who transferred from Oklahoma State – finished 3-for-12 for 53 yards, with a TD and two picks.
We talked about UTEP's pitiful defense last week. Well, the Miners were at it again – or, rather, not at it again. They lost 42-13 to Texas – the eighth time since the beginning of last season that UTEP has allowed at least 40 points and the 24th time since the beginning of the '05 season they've allowed at least 30 points. UTEP has allowed at least 30 points in 23 of its past 32 games.
The first BCS standings of the season come out Oct. 12.