The College Football Notebook

September 7, 2009 9:46 PM

Relief At Michigan & ND

If there are two coaches who enjoyed their Monday holiday more than Charlie Weis and Rich Rodriguez, I can’t imagine who they might be. Notre Dame was sparkling in its 35-0 dismantling of Nevada. Jimmy Clausen threw at will on the Wolfpack defense, racking up 315 yards and four touchdowns in the air. Even more impressive was the performance of the Irish defense in shutting out a team known for its offensive prowess. On ESPN’s Gameday Lou Holtz was so excited that he went so far as to call Weis the most underrated coach in America. I love Sweet Lou, but that is as over the top as Mark May thought it was in the studio exchange. But no matter—Weis needed to win two of his first three games to get off to the kind of start necessary to enable a BCS push. And with Michigan and Michigan State up next, he had to have this one.

Michigan’s 31-7 win over Western Michigan was equally noteworthy. Keep in mind that Western Michigan beat Iowa in 2007 and Illinois in 2008, knocking each team out of a bowl game. And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Wolverines have had some issues with midmajor teams the past couple seasons. There’s no reason to think a mediocre team could have played the way Rodriguez’s team did on Saturday. They shut down the run and rolled up 242 yards on the ground themselves. Beating a MAC team isn’t a sign that Michigan is back—that will only happen when we’re again ho-hum about such an occurrence. But this game was a sign of life in Ann Arbor.

Michigan was the bright spot on what was otherwise a cloudy day, figuratively speaking in the Midwest. The Big Ten did not fare well. Iowa barely escaped Northern Iowa at home. Wisconsin had to hold off a furious rally to defend their home turn from Northern Illinois. On Thursday night, Indiana nipped Eastern Kentucky. Illinois was absolutely battered by Missouri. Ron Zook’s Illini program was supposed to have the recruiting classes to be a serious contender by this point, but they were never competitive in their rivalry battle in St. Louis, with their pass defense being shredded.

But nowhere is the Big Ten drawing more fire than in Ohio State’s great escape act against Navy. The Buckeyes got all they could handle, before winning 31-27. However, I’m not sure why this game being close was such a surprise. It’s not as though Navy is the Citadel. The Midshipmen are a consistent bowl program and won eight games last year. Simulating their wishbone attack in practice is basically impossible. And the Bucks were looking ahead to USC. The recipe for a strong challenge was there. It was no fluke—it was Navy, not Ohio State, shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers. The Midshipmen look well on their way to another 8-9 win season and it will be interesting to see them match up with Pitt later this month. In the meantime, we still don’t really know what to think of Ohio State and won’t until this time next week.

I haven’t hesitated to call attention to some of my preseason and pregame picks that worked out well, so fairness dictates that I also eat crow where it’s on the menu. There must be something about teams named the Wolfpack that have it in for me. I had pegged N.C. State for the conference championship game and Russell Wilson for a darkhorse Heisman bid. The latter is obviously completely out the window after Thursday night against South Carolina, although I’m not ready to give up on the former. As discussed yesterday, it looks like that can be written off to SEC superiority over the ACC and me not adequately considering that prior to Thursday’s game.

My call of Nevada as the next great midmajor came crashing down. I wasn’t surprised by the loss—I picked the upset, but you certainly can’t be shocked by a loss at Notre Dame. And I wasn’t entirely shocked by the collapse of the defense. But I am completely taken aback at the way the Nevada offense was so utterly inept against an Irish defense that hasn’t stopped too many people over the past few years. And in today’s finale to the weekend, I was completely stunned by the way Rutgers imploded at home against Cincinnati. Watching the Bearcats run away with this game made one wonder which team it was that had all the returning starters and which one was rebuilding its entire defense, from the coaching staff to virtually the entire starting lineup. Brian Kelly’s star is rising, and bringing this column back to where it began, it’s a good thing Weis and R-Rod had the kind of start they did, because there’s a coach right in their own backyard who’s destined for a marquee job sometime soon.

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