Before Notre Dame and Michigan kicked off, I wrote here that I couldn’t recall the last time either one of these programs played defense in a truly big game. I still can’t recall. The Irish and Wolverines staged a shootout in Ann Arbor. And when it was over, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney was surely breathing a huge sigh of relief and his conference came away with a big win. Michigan’s freshman quarterback Tate Forcier guided a last-second drive to pull out a 38-34 triumph. Between Forcier’s heroics and Matt Barkley leading a similar drive for USC and that has to be a first—two freshman quarterbacks leading game-winning drives in the day’s two showcase games.
ND’s loss was no fault of Jimmy Clausen. The junior gunslinger continued to show he is, as they say, the real deal. He threw for 336 yards, three TDs and zero picks, splitting most of his throws to receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate. The Irish had a real running game, as Armando Allen piled up 139 yards. If there was any doubt that Charlie Weis can coach an offense, even without Brady Quinn, they should be eliminated after the season’s first two games.
But if there’s doubt that Weis can build a defense those are only enhanced after Saturday’s game. Notre Dame put on an offensive show against a team with a freshman quarterback and still couldn’t close the deal. This is an improved Notre Dame team, but even if we give them every benefit of the doubt for the year ahead, we haven’t seen the defensive improvement that was supposed to come with Weis’ improved recruiting classes. Notre Dame’s season—or even it’s BCS hopes—were not lost on Saturday. If they get to 9-3, Weis is almost surely coming back. If they go 10-2, they are just as surely going to a BCS game. Which allows room to lose to Southern Cal and still have a big year. But teams that don’t play defense lose games they shouldn’t, and if ND can’t get this problem fixed, a season-wrecking upset is in their immediate future. I like Coach Weis and I like Notre Dame, but in his fifth year, there’s no evidence that this program will rise to anything higher than the Marino-era Dolphins, constantly trying to win shootouts.
Between Michigan’s win and Ohio State’s near-miss, the Big Ten will likely see a little bit of the heat they’ve been under cool down a little bit. But while Michigan had a nice win, we may look back on it as just a good game between two teams on the fringe of the Top 25. The jury is still out on Penn State—they didn’t have any problem beating Syracuse at home, 28-7, but they didn’t look like a burgeoning national contender in doing so. And beneath the Big Three, the conference has enormous problems. None more so than in East Lansing, where Michigan State inexplicably coughed up a game to Central Michigan, losing 29-27. It was a fluky finish—MSU was caught offsides after CMU missed a game-winning field goal. The Chippewas then cashed in the second chance. But that the game was this close to begin with is a total shock to those of us that expected the Spartans to compete for the conference championship and the penalty itself will drive disciplinarian head coach Mark Dantonio nuts. Northwestern had similar problems, barely getting by Eastern Michigan.
Wisconsin played a more reputable opponent in Fresno State and the game was a thriller going two overtimes. But in watching this game I was struck by how much faster Fresno was than the Badgers. Midmajor teams are not supposed to have a talent edge on Big Ten programs, but it was clear that Fresno had the better personnel, and would have won this game on a neutral site. They should have won the game in Madison for that matter, but UW came up with a couple key interceptions to save the day. Fresno hosts Boise State on Friday night. After that game we’ll have a better feel for how good Fresno—and by proxy, Wisconsin—really is. Purdue completed the day of disappointment for the Big Ten’s middle class when they lost at Oregon, the same Duck team that looked helpless in Boise.
If Delaney looks for sympathy, one place he’d better not call is the ACC offices of John Swofford. After losing two games to Division I-AA opponents in Week One, the ACC nearly dumped another, before Florida State rallied to beat Jacksonville State in Tallahassee. And in College Park, Maryland had to rally to tie James Madison late and then win in overtime. Virginia was blasted by TCU. The conference breathed a sigh of relief when North Carolina rallied late to beat UConn up in Storrs. This is a league that has to rank seventh right now, certainly lower than the non-BCS Mountain West and last among the Big Six. But if nothing else, Thursday night’s wild Clemson-Georgia Tech game, won by the Yellow Jackets, suggests that the race for the league’s automatic Orange Bowl bid will be exciting. And basketball is never far around the corner on Tobacco Road.
Wrapping it up with the Big East, Pitt blew out a pretty good Buffalo team 54-27 on the road. And when did Cincinnati suddenly turn into a “we don’t rebuild, we reload program?!” Sure, it was just Southeast Missouri State, but 70-3?!?! That’s what national powers do. Brian Kelly’s attractiveness to folks in the South Bend area has to be pretty high right around now.
The Notebook returns Wednesday with a look at Week 3.