The College Football Notebook

November 8, 2009 3:19 PM

Alabama's Stars Step Up

In big games, stars have to play like stars. So did former NFL analyst John Madden say during playoff games. Alabama’s key people stepped up offensively and made sure they held off LSU and clinched the SEC West. Greg McElroy broke out of his October slump and had a good game. Julio Jones at wideout made up for a stupid penalty on the goal line that cost his team points by coming up with a 73-yard catch-and-run TD pass in the fourth quarter to give the Tide the lead for good. And last, but certainly not least, Mark Ingram established himself as the man to beat for the Heisman by rushing for 144 yards. Ingram is a very physical runner and even facing a good defense, he just muscled over tacklers. There’s nothing not to like about this back, and while his team is far from unbeatable, they came up with 14 points in the final period to rally for a win.

Alabama kept the LSU offense well under control, but they did need a key break from the officiating crew to help seal the deal. I was in the middle of a lot of channel-changing, as I went back and forth between the Ohio State-Penn State game and then had to stop in and check the Breeders Cup Classic when it ran at 6:45 ET. In a rare display of timeliness I managed to see the key points of everything, from Terrelle Pryor’s big touchdown pass, to Quality Road’s scratch and Zenyatta’s stunning move on the outside, and a disputed interception by LSU. The Tide led 21-15 late in the game. McElroy threw a pass to the sidelines and the ball was picked off. Officials ruled that the defensive back did not get his foot down. I felt the replay clearly showed he had tapped the foot down, but the booth let the call stand. Not only did the Tigers lose possession and manageable field position, but ‘Bama was able to eventually get the lock-up field goal in a 24-15 final. There’s no guarantee LSU could have scored had they been given the ball—in fact, the way both defenses were playing you’d have to bet against it—but it did cost them the chance.

The Alabama-Florida showdown we’ve been all anticipating is now official. Both teams have clinched their divisions. Both still have a couple tests to pass to make it a battle of unbeatens, but even if they lose a game, a one-loss SEC champion is now virtually certain to make it to Pasadena. Beyond Texas, the only other unbeatens are Cincinnati, Boise State and TCU. Does anyone really believe a 12-1 Gator or Tide team that had just won a big showdown battle would lose a vote against any of those three? As far as the national title picture goes in the SEC, there’s nothing left to do but wait for December 5 in Atlanta.

Iowa’s loss to Northwestern helped clear up some of the clouds on the national championship picture. The Hawkeyes got out to a 10-0 lead, but just played with fire far too frequently. The Wildcats recovered a fumble in the end zone for one touchdown and got four turnovers overall. Recall that Iowa had five turnovers the previous week against Indiana. That’s too much for anyone to overcome, but especially a team that relies on playing it close to the vest. But losing the game wasn’t the worst part—losing Ricky Stanzi to injury was. With next week’s showdown game with Ohio State ahead, Kirk Ferentz will give the ball to redshirt freshman James Vandenburg, whose stat line in relief on Saturday read 9/27 for 82 yards. The path to the Rose Bowl that looked so good on Saturday morning, looked bleak by nightfall.

Ohio State came up with a very impressive road win at Penn State. This one was a good game until late in the third quarter, as the defenses slugged it out. The Buckeyes held a 10-7 lead on the strength of their special teams. Ray Small had run a poor punt back inside the Nittany Lion 10 to set up the only touchdown. Then Pryor stepped up and made a big play, hitting DeVier Posey on a 62-yard touchdown pass. Media reaction has said how this was the day Pryor stepped up and made the plays. Yet another case of putting too much on the quarterback. The pass to Posey was Pryor’s only contribution to the win. Of more note was the way Ohio State dominated in the ground game, shutting down PSU and rolling up 228 yards of their own. Small tacked another big punt return to set up points. It was old-fashioned running the ball, defending the run and playing special teams that made this win happen. Somewhere, Woody Hayes is smiling.

Cincinnati and Boise State stayed unbeaten, but neither helped their cause if they were thinking about making the flight to Pasadena on January 7. Both got out to big leads, let a weak opponent back in it, and then had to fight for survival. On Friday night, Boise led Louisiana Tech 27-7 at half, but saw it narrow to 30-28 early in the fourth quarter. Cincy was in prime-time on Saturday night and when they led 30-10 at intermission, it looked like the kind of blowout they would need to impress pollsters. But UConn cut it to 40-38 and attempted a two-point play to tie it with five minutes left. It came up short, but the loss of style points probably means that any slim hopes of the Bearcats making the title game are gone, even if a crack in the Texas vs. Florida/Alabama scenario should appear. Still, a huge day for Zach Collaros who threw for nearly 500 yards. An amazing performance by a guy who was backing up a potential Heisman winner in Tony Pike less than a month ago. Cincy is still undefeated and Brian Kelly is still the hottest name in coaching right now.

No one would like Kelly more than Notre Dame, and his phone number is surely in the Rolodex of Irish A.D. Jack Swarbrick after Saturday. ND’s home loss to Navy once again completely exposed them as a team that’s a one-man show behind Jimmy Clausen. The quarterback was all-everything again, throwing for 452 yards, constantly hooking up with Golden Tate and the newly returned Michael Floyd. But there was no running game. They couldn’t stop the run. And they couldn’t force turnovers, even though Navy’s option attack is really a high-risk, high-reward offense . The option requires the quarterback to put the ball in the belly of the fullback and then determine in the middle of the play whether to give it to him or take it to the outside, where he then reads the linebacker to determine whether to keep or pitch to the trailing back. So while it is difficult to prepare for the option because so few teams run it anymore, it is doable and a team with athletes should be able to get a few fumbles out of it. Notre Dame didn’t.

I watched ESPN as Lou Holtz, Mark May and Rece Davis commented on this game. Now Holtz is one of my all-time favorite coaches, joining Joe Paterno on any short list of personal faves (both rank behind Barry Alvarez, whom this native-born Wisconsinite ranks on a stratospheric level all his own). But Holtz was incredibly ungracious to the kids at Navy, dismissing their win as a fluke and saying that it was obvious Notre Dame was the better team. Then why has this happened two times in a row in South Bend? Holtz pointed to a couple turnovers that happened as ND was going in for points. One of them came when Clausen was trying to finish off a gutty run at the one-yard line when he took a heavy hit and the defender stripped the ball. Why is this a fluke? A defender stood up and made a play. Isn’t that the point of the game? The interception was a tough break, on a batted ball. But turnovers are not automatically flukes. And when Navy does this to Notre Dame two straight times, it’s time to stop dismissing their wins as such.

The Irish loss was one of two that really opened up room in the race for the four at-large bids to the BCS (the ones that go beyond the winners of the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 & Pac-10). The other was Oklahoma. The Sooners dropped their fourth game of the year in Nebraska, as Landry Jones threw five interceptions in a 10-3 loss. It was shades of 1978 when OU’s wishbone fumbled seven times in a three-point loss to the Cornhuskers. That year, the Orange Bowl (whom the old Big Eight was connected to) overlooked the game and invited Oklahoma to a rematch. No such generosity will await the Sooners this year. They are out of the BCS and if they turn around and knock off Oklahoma State at the end of this month, they could knock their entire conference out of the at-large picture.

It’s the ACC who’s tied to the Orange Bowl these days and the race for the division titles got a little clearer. Georgia Tech closed in on the Coastal crown when they survived Wake Forest in overtime, 30-27. Paul Johnson took a huge risk on 4th-and-goal from the 3 in OT when he opted against a tying field goal and went for it. He got it, but I completely disagree with this decision. The percentages of making such an attempt are just not that good. I am completely at a loss as to why Johnson would take such a risk, and had it failed, every media outlet in the country would be talking about his imprudence. Please note I think Johnson’s a great coach, but I don’t get this at all. But he got away with it, and avoided falling into a three-way tie with Miami and Virginia Tech. And in the Atlantic, Clemson rallied from an early deficit to beat Florida State and take control of the division race with two games left. The Seminoles are now out of it. I’ve often defended Christian Ponder in this space, due to his lack of help from the running game and defense. Can't do that today.The D was still AWOL, but he got real ground support from Jermaine Thomas. But Ponder still threw four picks and yet another hope for a happy ending for Bobby Bowden disappeared.

Be back tomorrow with a look at the Pac-10 and the race for some of the minor bowl bids.

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