Sunday, September 26, 2004

NCAA Football With Shobe: Week 5

Chris, Lee, and Kirk are always searching for labels to define each weekend as the season rolls on, and this week it was "Step-Up Saturday." Time for a lot of conference openers and matchups that finally pit underdogs that don't look quite so much like practice teams against both light and heavy favorites.

I'll get Purdue out of the way first this weekend. Kyle Orton kept up the pressure in his budding Heisman campaign with a very solid performance against another so-so secndary against the Illini. Still, 3 games in, no interceptions? sheesh. his accuracy is something to behold; if you saw the game you won't soon forget the lob wedge tossed perfectly into Brandon Jones' outstretched arms after Jones sprung loose from his blitz-block assignment into a backfield emptier than the Sears parking lot on Sunday morning. That said, Purdue's defense against the run was of the bend, keep bending, maybe even break variety, giving up 137 yards in the first half, which bested their total from the first two games. Credit Ron Turner and the Illini with an inspired offensive game plan and QB Jon Beutjer with the lack of creativity required to exploit a glaring weakness repeatedly when that's precisely what is called for. Apparently, up-the-gut is one way to beat Purdue's economy size D-line. Next weekend in South Bend is shaping up to be a spectacular contest. I'm lucky enough to have tickets to the game so I'll attempt to bring some photos home with me for the Week 6 column.

Husky fans must now look back on the Don James era as some sort of fable told mostly by grandparents to doe-eyed children at their feet. "Why, there was a time when teams would tremble -- tremble, i says -- at the thought of playing in Husky Stadium." T'was surely the case in 1991 when UW went 12-0-0 and enjoyed all the kiss-yer-sister glory of a co-national championship with Miami. Yesterday, Notre Dame shoved the hapless Huskies around in South Bend on their continuing trek back to national prominence. ND has Washington's number, having beaten them all 4 times they've played. I had the misfortune of witnessing ND apply the 5-point palm exploding heart technique to UW when I was in grad school there. An afternoon spent in a cold, soaking rain capped off by a ND interception run back for a touchdown just as the Huskies were driving for a game-winning score late in the 4th quarter. Classic shillelagh-to-the-forehead outcome for the opposing team.

Enough prattle about my personal misfortune in selecting rooting interests. USC gets a test from Stanford? It wasn't quite a tackle-the-band finish, but for the Trojans to surmount an 11-point halftime deficit and win by 3 takes just the sort of guile and determination reserved for a national power. USC tailback Reggie Bush is getting all sorts of snaps this morning from the usual wags as a Heisman contender, if only for his PlayStation double-spin move on a punt return in the 4th quarter that set up the eventual game-winner.

Pretty much the entirety of Wayne Larrivee's play-by-play call of Purdue/Illinois. Wayne kept referring to Purdue's Taylor Stubblefield as last year's standout receiver "(John) Standeford" and defensive coordinator Brock Spack as "Spock." Ok, so Spack is eerily prescient when it comes to calling pass defenses, but I haven't yet caught him mind-melding with the secondary during timeouts. What's the deal? No one could be bothered to pop for a 2004 Media Guide?


Monday, September 20, 2004

NCAA Football With Shobe: Week 4

This week's posting is much abbreviated due to the fact that I didn't get in front of a TV until the 2nd quarter of Notre Dame/MSU. Busy weekend overall.

First, a bit of housekeeping. I've been posting these updates with a numbering scheme that ran along with the Purdue/Big Ten schedule, so I pretty much dropped an entirely valid August week of college football. Thus, like many fine software applications, I've decided consistent versioning doesn't matter and this week's entry jumps to Week 4.

A number of Michigan boosters I've chosen to associate myself with, for better or worse, preached to me their strong belief in the ultimate iffyness of Notre Dame's real character on both sides of the ball. I think that's a required going-in position to start each season if you're a Michigan fan, but no matter: there was plenty of evidence to back it up during week 2's humbling at the hands of BYU. That Michigan fell to the Irish in South Bend had everything to do with Michigan's own shortcomings this season, they reasoned, not so much because the Domers have suddenly figured it all out.

6 MSU turnovers, gold hats flying to the ball, and much Spartan home crowd silence later, it's apparent to me that ND is very much in the process of figuring something out, and Purdue better keep focused on the Illini this weekend before pondering what should be a premier early season matchup with the Irish on October 2nd. (I'm lucky enough to have a ticket to the game, so I'll post some cameraphone images with my week 6 update). Even ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit noted in the closing minutes of MSU's failed comeback bid that the Purdue-ND matchup should be a real proving ground for both teams. (College Gameday in South Bend twice this year?) Even still, some of my maize-and-blue facepainted associates would have me think the Boilers have too many offensive options to consider losing. They haven't seen how mightily we've struggled in South Bend since, oh, Nixon was in office.

The ND fans I know are remaining suspiciously, disturbingly quiet on the entire issue. I think they realize this is just as big for them as it is for us, and maybe any Purdue fan should see that as real program progress.

There's plenty of anger in the Florida ranks over officiating and stadium clock control during this weekend's blood feud with Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. As Michael Hickerson over at points out,
"As a Tennessee fan, all I can say is--now you know how we all felt in 2000 when a clearly dropped pass was called a touchdown and the Gators won. Certainly I don't want to see a game decided by officials, but the ball bounced in the Vols favor and we got the win. I think both sides are now even on the "getting the short end of the stick on bad calls in Neyland Stadium rule."

I say this sort of thing always cuts both ways and it's a maddening yet essential part of the game, much like the umpire with the shoebox-sized strike zone for your favorite pitcher. Big Ten replay experiment aside, part of the charm of the college game, especially compared with the NFL, is its varsity fallibility. Young players make more mistakes at this level, leading to more drama for the fans and heightened danger of costly penalties. Officials also blow makeable calls, especially in lynchpin games within a conference or national title hunt. As you work your way through each autumn, each game means more and the pressure mounts, and it's invariably a bold combination of discipline and talent that comes out on top on New Year's Day. You just hope your side gets a few calls, and your opponents don't get as many charitable whistles on their home turf. It all has a cosmic way of evening out over a few years, and it's just something any long-term college football has to accept in order to stay focused on things that really matter, like scoring elite season parking passes and bitching about special teams gaffes.


Saturday, September 11, 2004

NCAA Football With Shobe: Week 2

Week 2 in the college pigskin saga has finally revealed a proper upset (or two); a question about which teams appear to be "dominant" early in the season vs. merely sleepwalking through inferior patsies (does this even matter in week 2?); and a pesky Fresno State situation. Around the action in ~300 words; we'll go places Corso's not so fast to visit, my friend.

In sport, the best drama comes from the improbable outcome. Last weekend saw nothing of the kind - there were no upsets among the Top 25. This week? Haw. Har-dee-har-haw!

First: can anyone truthfully say they're completely surprised/shocked/dismayed that Notre Dame found shelter in the arms of Touchdown Jesus and sent Michigan's woeful ground attack packing in the second half? I certainly have little love for the Leprechaun and his minions in South Bend, but I sure as hell have respect for the power of mystique and tradition; there's no such thing as a walk in Notre Dame's home stadium, even during the most uncertain days of the Ty Willingham movement. I didn't see any of the game except as highlights, but I did catch the 4th quarter on the radio. Sounds like Michigan suffered from some freakish turnovers, bad decisionmaking in playbook choice (if the pass works, Lloyd, why keep calling halfback toss right? huh?), and a mostly demoralized defense in the face of the usual Papal magic act. ND fans, your penitent days may be behind you. That said, I *really* want Navy to find away against these guys. A 41-year losing streak just isn't good for the war effort.

Second, BCS conspiracy theorists: your new black helicopter is Fresno State. A solid walloping of a (vastly overrated?) Kansas State side has left a whole lotta flat-grade asphalt in front of the surging wheels of the Bulldog New Year's Day Express. Who's going to derail an undefeated season for them now? Fun Stuff. Glad the Boilers didn't have to stare them down in the pre-conference season, I tell you whut.

Third: Nebraska -- in Lincoln -- to Southern Freaking Missisippi, shaved 21-17. The old adage, "three turnovers and you should lose, four and you will lose," caught the Blackshirts napping at home. I can only imagine the howling rage and heavenward-directed fist-shaking in the tailgating acres outside of Memorial Stadium. I doubt Bill Callahan was pleased.

It's only week 2, so it's fun to pretend like any of this stuff we've seen so far really matters in telling more about conference and national title pictures. Separation Saturday this ain't. That said, I heard John Saunders on ABC already labeling USC's performance against CSU as sure evidence of USC's "dominance." Shoot, same could be said of Oklahoma (63-16 over hapless Houston), LSU over Arkansas State (53-3), Florida over the fabulous Eastern Michigan {mascot} (49-10), even Hampton over those wildmen from Howard (47-14). So, since Purdue was a house afire against Ball State by a 59-7 margin, that must be worth at least a three slot drop in the AP given last weekend's polling logic. By transitive property, that also means the Boilers should get at least a half victory over Boston College, even though they out-tested Penn State and a much-rankled JoePa.

Having seen Kyle Orton's effort in person today, I gotta say the guy has accuracy I simply haven't seen in the college game since I really started to care in my early 20s. He threw three passes today for 30+ yards that could only be caught by his intended receiver in that over-the-shoulder, gotta-make-you-cartwheel-to-get-it way of his. I think Orton was 26 for 29? That's scandalous. Here's hoping Purdue can find some of this same juju when it heads to Notre Dame in two weeks. The Domers are apparently back in the business of stirring up the echoes again, so nothing's for certain, vegas handicappers be damned. Purdue hasn't won in South Bend since Hester Prynne was fending off suitors with pointy hats from Back Bay. So yeah, I'm still concerned.

Stop the presses...I see here Western Illinois beat Cheyney 98-7. Sheezus. Did the Western O-line get to drive their pickup trucks in-game? It's a good thing they didn't tack on a field goal because I don't think ESPNEWS' ticker supports three digit scores. If that's not dominance (albeit of the divsion II variety), then what the flip is?

It doesn't look like this is the year for big MAC upsets over proven powers in the Big Ten (among other places). Or, is it? Marshall, Marshall, Marshall! You pulled this week's Oregon State, by the looks of the final score and that last-gasp OSU field goal to top you in regulation. The ghost of Craig Krenzel Past, or something. That damned Buckeye good fortune seems to be in early effect. OSU hasn't lost at home in 17 games, and the Thundering Herd just came so daggone close.

Other MAC teams playing ranked or significant opponents went 0-fer today, especially the unfortunate Western Michigan Cowboys, victims of a 63-0 stonewalling at the hands of Virginia Tech. MAC teams still represent trouble to the unsuspecting, but no one from this conference is going to pull a fast one this season, it seems.

Oh c'mon. Still too early to tell. But it's going to be a great season. I have little reason to doubt USC, Miami, Oklahoma, and LSU will be the usual suspects. But the Big Ten remains wide open (Iowa? Purdue? Sure, make room OSU and UM) and the Big 12 seems to be trouble, so there should be something to savor each Saturday morning.


Monday, September 6, 2004

College Football with Shobe: Week 1

Getting college football started during the Labor Day holiday weekend leads to all sorts of temporary schedule madness: a full slate of Saturday and Sunday games with a Monday Night marquee matchup tacked on for good measure. Hurricane Frances had no mercy in mind for Florida or the NCAA, however, so that Monday night special between Florida State and Frances' Miami namesake squad will have to settle for following the NFL's own prime time debut. Still, if you've been waiting all summer like I have for this weekend to get going, there's really no such thing as too much football, no matter how goofy the timetable.

Hard to pick just one (there were no upsets among ranked teams), but I guess Fresno State's defensive secondary gets the edge over other deserving units and teams. Husky Stadium is a tough away opener for anyone, no matter how depleted an appearance UW offers on the field. Sounds like the Bulldogs' safeties made sure the offense wouldn't have to do all the pullin'. FSU is now enduring media darling status as a BCS spoiler, but Kansas State provides another road test next weekend.

Oregon State! You're on the national stage, you're taking it to LSU under the madcap lights in Baton Rouge and it's up to your placekicker to seal the deal. Instead, Alexis Serna shanks it like a 23 handicapper after making the turn at Municipal Links. The fact that Serna took advantage of a final chance in overtime to miss the extra point is just twisting the knife. Nowhere else in football can a position be so easily singled out to toe the frayed line between success and season-long second guessing. Oh, the pain to be a Beaver fan on a night like this past Saturday's. Ironically enough, New Orleans Saints fans can surely empathize. But they don't quickly forget.

Seeing Tennessee on the tube on Sunday night. This first week of pre-NFL college activity always throws me off. It's either that or the checkerboard paint.

Purdue's Kyle Orton. Numbers like (16/30, 287 yards, 4 TD/0 INT) lead to hanging 51 unanswered points on the certified patsy-free Orangemen. Orton's playcalling, leadership, and rail gun arm were much touted heading into this season, and he acquitted himself mightily after a shaky 1st quarter. And yes, I'm hopelessly biased. But it's my column, son. If no one besides Pointer or Kubat is gonna cover them, I gotta do what I can.

ESPN's Bob Davie, 4th quarter of Tenn-UNLV: "There comes a point when you want to know if that Excessive Celebration call is reviewable, don't you?" Never, Bob. Not even under general anesthesia.

See you next Sunday morning for the Week 2 installment.