When I woke up Saturday morning, I was completely convinced that the balance of power in college football rested exclusively in the Big 12 and SEC. By midnight, things had changed. The Pac-10 made a major statement yesterday, clearly separating themselves from the rest of the country and making a strong case for inclusion with the Big Two.
UCLA beat Tennessee in 19-15, in Knoxville no less. The Bruins weren’t exactly sharp, committing nine penalties and only rushing for 85 yards. But they forced four Volunteer turnovers and played defense in a way that belied their traditionally soft reputation. Jonathan Crompton was unable to get the ball downfield and it was the UCLA defense that kept hold of a 19-10 lead after three quarters. Time will tell how much this win really means for Rick Neuheisel. It’s worth remembering that UCLA won this same matchup last Labor Day weekend out west, and the only thing the game foreshadowed was the end of Philip Fulmer in Knoxville. Perhaps all we learned from this is that Tennessee’s return to grace is nowhere near. But in the meantime, it was still a big statement win on the road for the Pac-10 against one of the SEC’s marquee programs.
Then we have the USC-Ohio State showdown in the Shoe. I thought this was an exceptionally played football game, although advocates of offensive football might disagree. I suspect USC will not get the credit it deserves for their 18-15 victory. Big Ten-bashing has gotten so intense in the media that the great escape the Trojans had to pull off will probably get looked on a little skeptically. But that’s not right. I often want to ask media people—just how bad do you really think someone’s supposed to beat a good program? USC brought in a freshman quarterback and a rebuilt defense and won in Columbus. What more do you really expect?
Pete Carroll’s management of this game was outstanding. I loved the way the final drive was coached. Taking over on his own 13 with a little more than six minutes left, Carroll did not abandon the running game or treat it like a sideshow, only to be used for the occasional draw-trap. He got the ball in Joe McKnight’s hands, both in the air and on the ground and just ran his offense free of panic. That kind of cool-in-a-crisis playcalling surely made it easier for Matt Barkley to keep his head as the young quarterback completed some clutch throws.
I also had to wonder what game Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musberger were watching, as they talked of how Ohio State was controlling the trenches on both sides of the ball. You mean the same Ohio State offense that was completely impotent on the ground and unable to punch it in on 1st-and-goal from the two-yard line in the first half? The same offense that, after reaching the SC 35 in the fourth quarter, was unable to smash out another first down that would have gotten a field goal to give them an eight-point lead and assure overtime? USC’s offensive line was far from dominant, but there was at least a vague hint of something resembling a running game throughout. The same could not be said for Ohio State and that’s why the Trojans were in position to rally in the fourth quarter. They beat OSU by outmuscling them.
Elsewhere in the Pac-10, Oregon made it 2-0 against the Big Ten with a home victory over Purdue. The 38-36 thriller doesn’t suggest the Ducks are really in the conference running, but it was still a nice non-conference feather in the cap. One team that will be in the conference fight is Cal, and they did what national contenders do against no-name teams and that’s bury them. Eastern Washington fell to the Golden Bears 52-7. And even Stanford was noble in defeat. They fell to Wake Forest 24-17, but that was a road game that involved a west coast team dealing with a three-hour time difference for an early start. No shame in losing that type of game to a respectable program.
While the Pac-10 was getting its wins, the Big 12 was getting a dose of humble pie. Oklahoma State was upset by Houston 45-35. Over the course of the season a lot of writers, probably including me, will occasionally deride an unbeaten asking “Who have they beaten?” This game shows just how tough it is to take care of games you’re supposed to win. The same team that beat Georgia was unable to keep its focus against the Cougars and it showed those of us who are high on Okie State that their maturity level is not at the same level as their talent.
All in all, not a bad day for the Pac-10. Their showcase program wins a big road test. A road win against the SEC. And the Big 12 takes a tough loss. The debate over who the best conference is just got a third wheel to join the fray.
See you back here tomorrow night to look at more of the action from Saturday.