Defense could be key to Heisman
Mountaineers' QB puts up big numbers, but D has to hold wins
By now, you know the stats, you’ve seen the highlights.
You’ve absorbed them, marveled at them, shaken your head in disbelief at them. You’ve wondered if it was some sort of typo, some accident scrolling across your TV screen, some faulty bit of HTML code online.
But there’s no error, no mistake.
Geno Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns – four of them for 45 yards or more – against Baylor on Saturday. He completed 45 of his 51 attempts – that’s right, he had two more touchdowns than incompletions on a day when he sent the ball skyward more than 50 times. He ran for 31 yards. He threw a touchdown for every 4 minutes and 20 seconds of West Virginia possession time. All of this came against an undefeated team from a big six conference that won 10 games last year and was riding the nation’s second-longest winning streak. This was no FCS opponent. This was no cheap win.
|2000||Chris Weinke||Florida State||QB|
|2006||Troy Smith||Ohio State||QB|
|2011||Robert Griffin III||Baylor||QB|
|All-time list of Heisman Trophy winners|
|All-time BCS matchups|
The unreal stats are, indeed, real. The video of all those beautiful bombs dropping in Morgantown is no illusion.
But will those numbers matter in December? Will they matter when it’s time for the nation’s best football player to take the podium and hoist the 45-pound trophy that may be the most revered individual award in all of American sport?
Ultimately, whether or not this awe-inspiring game will be remembered isn’t up to Smith. It’s not up to his dynamic receivers (against Baylor, Stedman Bailey caught 13 balls for 303 yards and five touchdowns; Tavon Austin caught 14 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns) or his offensive line or his offensive coordinator. It’s up to the teammates who never share the field with him. It’s up to the teammates on the other side of the ball. It’s up to West Virginia’s defense.
Confused? Let me provide some context. Since 2000, the Heisman Trophy winner has played in the BCS National Championship Game in nine of 12 seasons. The exceptions were Carson Palmer in 2002, Tim Tebow in 2007 and Robert Griffin III last year. If the Mountaineers hope to get there, or come within a few BCS percentage points of doing so, it’s up to the defense to ensure they keep winning. Smith, no matter how brilliant, can’t win a shootout every single week.
After the 70-63 win against Baylor -- no, that score isn’t a typo either -- West Virginia moved up to No. 8 nationally. But, the 63, not the 8, is the most important figure in Smith’s chances for the Heisman. Baylor’s offense is explosive, yes, but how will the West Virginia defense fare as it tries to contain even better offenses around the new conference? What happens when it runs into teams that can hold Smith’s offense under 50, perhaps even under 40? The Mountaineers still have Texas, TCU, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the schedule. Can Smith hope to outscore all of those squads? Four of them? Perhaps three?
To date, West Virginia’s defense is 96th in points against, 108th in total defense, 106th in third down defense and 74th in the red zone. The Mountaineers only had to punt twice on Saturday – they scored 10 touchdowns – yet they still only managed to win by seven. When the Mountaineers take on the giants of the Big 12 and the competition stiffens, the West Virginia defense must do so in parallel. If it doesn’t, the team may find itself on the wrong end of a shootout or two or three. Lose a game, slip in the rankings. Lose two or three games, especially late, lose your relevance in the national discussion. Lose that relevance, and it can lose an individual the Heisman, no matter how gaudy and awe-inspiring his stats.
Remember, Griffin, perhaps the most notable exception to that rule, closed last season with five consecutive wins as he made his Heisman push. Fair or not, Smith could lose votes if West Virginia doesn’t do the same. Memories are increasingly short in the information age, even among Heisman voters. They’re overwhelmed by a deluge of new highlights, stats, records and opinions. When the votes are cast, Saturday’s gem could feel like a season-old relic.
So, savor what happened in Morgantown – it was one of the most remarkable individual performances in the history of college football – and hope that West Virginia’s defense can rally around its star. If Smith can keep up even two-thirds of his current pace, he deserves the trophy, the adoration and the undying respect that accompany those 45 pounds of molded bronze.
It’s Smith’s award to win. But it’s up to his team – his defense – to ensure that he gets what he deserves.
I missed the first moments of the big Big Ten (should I have gone with huge there?) showdown between Michigan State and Ohio State as I hadn’t yet shaken off the lingering effects of the Geno Smith-induced seizure I’d suffered in the early afternoon. Once I wiped up the drool and spilled Diet Dew, I was able to get my trembling finger to change the channel. Turns out, I hadn’t missed anything. This game was the perfect remedy for football fans, like myself, who needed to push their heart rates back under 100. After Ohio State put up a touchdown three minutes into the game, the contest stood 7-3 at halftime and the Buckeyes couldn’t muster another score until the midpoint of the third-quarter. This is the same Ohio State squad that entered the game 24th in the nation in scoring. Michigan State’s senior-laden defense is that good. The offense? Well, Le’Veon Bell is a beast. But Ohio State triumphed because it bottled him up, holding him to 45 yards on 17 carries. Bell did muster eight catches for 58 yards, but at 245 pounds, he’s not built to catch balls and make moves in space. The 17-16 win was massive for Urban Meyer, who, in his first try, conquered what could be his biggest threat to a string of Big Ten titles. And he did so on the road while losing the turnover battle 3-0. Good luck for the next five years, every other team in the conference.
I wrote a feature last week on the emergence of dominant wide receiver tandems in college football. Georgia, apparently, misread the memo. The Bulldogs instead have built their offense around a pair of talented running backs. Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, both freshmen, combined for 34 carries, 294 yards and five touchdowns against Tennessee on Saturday. Aaron Murray received a bevy of preseason hype and after the untimely departure of star back Isaiah Crowell, many thought the fate of the Dogs lay in the quarterback’s hands. Instead, he’s been bolstered by the two dynamic young backs. Tennessee rallied from 17 down in the third quarter to take a three-point lead, and, briefly, a few Knoxvillians pulled their Derek Dooley signed headsets out of the dumpster and put them back on the shelf next to the can of Darrell Waltrip limited-edition mountain-mist hairspray. But, unfortunately, those headsets were soon back in the trash. Murray tossed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and Marshall’s 75-yard TD dash sealed the deal. Tyler Bray continued his simultaneously brilliant and maddening season, tacking on 281 yards against a tough Georgia defense, but tossing three picks and coughing up a key fumble when Tennessee was a mere 32 yards from tying the game late.
I’ve had my eye on this squad since it held Wisconsin scoreless for 58 minutes and 30 seconds in Week 2. Oregon State has subsequently beaten a talented UCLA team on the road and has now knocked off RichRod’s dynamic new offense down in Tucson. This one wasn’t as convincing as the performances against UCLA and Wisconsin, but counts as a quality win nonetheless. After jumping out to a quick 17-0 lead, Oregon State pushed Arizona’s scoreless streak nearly to six quarters, in which it has been outscored 66-0. But the Wildcats finally popped out of their funk, surging back to take the lead in the third. In the end, the game saw six second-half lead changes, with Sean Mannion landing the last blow with a 9-yard TD pass to Connor Hamlett with 1:09 left. To me, the Beavers now have a legitimate claim as the third-best team in a strong Pac-12. Voters agree – after starting the season unranked, it’s surged to No. 14, only one spot behind conference foe and preseason No. 1 USC.
Welcome to the SEC, Texas A&M. The Aggies hung 58 on Arkansas on Saturday for their first win in the new conference. Yes, Arkansas has yielded more than 30 points four games in a row but an SEC win is an SEC win. A 48-point win in front of a home crowd desperate to fit into the toughest conference in the universe is even sweeter.
And the future looks bright in College Station thanks to the man under center. Freshman QB Johnny Manziel, who nearly conquered a tough Gator D in Week 2, went 29 of 38 for a school record 453 yards while adding three scores. Damn fine afternoon, young man. My biggest accomplishment at age 19 was mowing through an entire pan of chicken parmesan in my otherwise deplorable college dining hall. Wait, what’s that? He did more? He ran for 104 yards and a score and broke the SEC record for total yardage held by Archie “Peyton, I just fired up the grill” Manning? (Yes, I have memorized a commercial.) My goodness, Johnny. Two games in, and the Aggies now own one of the more impressive records in the conference’s 80-year history.
Listen, I don’t want to beat this into the ground, but it’s a phenomenon, a universal truth that we should all accept and relish every Saturday night. Gus Johnson will call a scintillating game; that must be etched in stone inside a temple somewhere in Mexico next to the Mayans’ prediction that the world will end this year. So far this year, Gus called Kansas State’s upset of Oklahoma, an offensive explosion between UCLA and Nebraska and Stanford’s massive upset of USC. This weekend, he added Texas’ exquisite, blow-for-blow win against Oklahoma State. There were four touchdowns of 40 yards or more in the first quarter, six lead changes through the game and the game-winning touchdown came with less than 30 seconds remaining. We could credit the teams for playing a competitive game. We could credit FOX producers for scheduling terrific games in prime time every week, or we could credit Gus, whose play-by-play almost broke Twitter as Texas drove for the winning score in the waning minutes of Saturday night’s thriller. No question where the credit lies, in my mind. Back on the field, this is a huge win for Texas. A road win against a quality conference opponent is precisely the type of confidence boost that the Longhorns needed on their march back to prominence. Don’t look now, but they’re one spot away from cracking the top 10 for the first time since Week 4 of 2010.
Good to see you, Wisconsin offense. Montee Ball, who scored roughly 742 touchdowns last year, found the end zone three times against Nebraska after mustering only three scores through his first four games this season. In the end, Wisconsin put up 27 points against a quality opponent after being held to seven by Oregon State and 16 by Utah State. Unfortunately for the Badgers, Ball fumbled on their last drive (his second lost fumble in as many weeks after never losing one through his first three seasons) and the Huskers recovered and sealed the 30-27 victory. That wasn’t the only notable W of the game – the letter was prominently displayed across the chest of every Wisconsin player. A noble, and brave, wardrobe choice. Nebraska sported a similar look – the uniforms looked like they were created by one of Don Draper’s art directors – classy stuff. It was Nebraska’s running game, of course, that earned the victory, even though the Huskers had to erase a big deficit. The three-headed rushing monster of Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah combined for 263 yards.
Now, don’t be startled after what I’m about to tell you, OK? Oregon was only leading by four at halftime of its win against Washington State. Calm down. Calm down. It’s going to be OK. Washington State’s defense, which yielded 35 points to Colorado last week, kept the clamps on Oregon for two quarters. Kudos to the Cougars for a tough first-half effort against a true juggernaut -- or whatever an extremely fast version of a juggernaut is. But, as it often does, the Blur began to wear out the Washington State defense and the Ducks scored 28 consecutive points to start the second half and seal the game. Good win for the Ducks, and good showing for a Washington State program on the mend after averaging two wins per year the past four seasons.
After a pair of well-publicized early losses, Penn State has rallied back for three consecutive wins, the most recent coming against conference foe Illinois. In the past three weeks, the Nittany Lions have outscored Navy, Temple and Illinois 93-27, a much needed rebound for new head coach Bill O’Brien. After a tough start, it seems all hope isn’t lost.
Down goes Wake! Down goes Wake! That refrain echoed through the mahogany-laden study-halls at Duke this weekend. The Blue Devils hadn’t knocked off the team that resides 80 miles to the east since 1999. That’s right, Wake had taken 12 in a row before Duke’s 34-27 win on Saturday. It has to be a relief for the Blue Devils to get the weighty Demon Deacon off their back. This one didn’t rattle the college landscape, but is sure to spawn some jovial trash-talk at posh fundraisers throughout the greater Raleigh-Durham area.
Did you know that Minnesota was 4-0? If you didn’t, don’t fret, because Iowa ended the surprise winning streak rather convincingly this weekend. Minnesota had yet to knock off any juggernauts, but the win against Syracuse a week earlier combined with Iowa dropping a shocker to Central Michigan made me think that the Gophers could take this one, setting up a battle of Big Ten unbeatens when Minnesota faced Northwestern this coming Saturday. Alas, the Hawkeyes sucked the drama out of that strangely meaningful clash with a 31-13 triumph. Meanwhile, Northwestern cruised against Indiana to remain the lone undefeated team in the Big Ten Legends Division.
Munchie Legaux! We have a new winner for the quarterback whose name sounds like a Nicholas Cage movie character. (You know the list: Cameron Poe, Memphis Raines, Castor Troy.) Just hearing his name makes me want to order an appetizer at a mom-n-pop restaurant in New Orleans; his performance in Blacksburg on Saturday was just as delicious. The Hokies suffered their second loss to a Big East team this year. The first came in a decisive loss to Pitt. Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati was more compelling – Legaux dropped a 39-yard dime (copyright Trent Dilfer) to Damon Julian with 13 seconds left, erasing the Hokies’ four-point advantage and causing ACC fans like myself to start reading articles on the 2014 basketball recruiting class. The dime (For my lone older reader – Dad? – a dime is recently-adopted slang for something akin to a perfect 10. It’s synonymous with terms in your generation like “dandy” or “swell”.) capped a nine-play, 85-yard, 1:30 drive in front of a hostile road crowd. Certainly the best clutch performance of the day, Mr. Legaux. Unfortunately, Nic Cage’s portrayal of you in a straight-to-DVD movie won’t be quite as captivating.
Kentucky led South Carolina 17-7 at halftime. Great defensive effort from coach Calipari’s guys, though I’m surprised they could only muster 17. Wait … football? Nicely done, Kentucky. South Carolina came in as the No. 6 team in the nation and Kentucky was just shut out by Florida and beaten by Western Kentucky, so safe to say that no one saw this one coming. Whatever Spurrier told the Gamecocks at halftime seemed to work, as South Carolina won the second-half 31-0 and cruised to an easy win after the early scare. After tossing only one incompletion the previous week, Connor Shaw was once again exceedingly accurate, going 15-for-18, and Marcus Lattimore added to his school record with two more touchdowns. The Gamecocks can afford mental lapses against Kentucky, but, starting Saturday, they won’t be able to survive if they sleepwalk through a half.
I’ve written enough about my beloved Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets this season. For those who enjoyed it, stop reading and get back to designing skyscrapers. For those who didn’t I’m going to focus on the Jackets’ opponent this week. Middle Tennessee State (which I may or may not be in the midst of a decade-long run with in Dynasty Mode of NCAA ’12) looked quite impressive in its 49-28 win in Atlanta. My digitally beloved Blue Raiders ran all over my actually beloved Jackets; senior running back Benny Cunningham toted the ball 27 times for 217 yards and five scores on Saturday. MTSU posted 510 total yards and converted on 7 of 11 third-down attempts. Before this week, Cunningham had only amassed 20 carries for 90 yards. It’s rare that the Jackets get outrushed, but the Blue Raiders (we have Raiders, Red Raiders and Blue Raiders – when will someone be brave enough to go with Magenta Raiders?) won the battle on the ground by 26 yards, clearly the key to the big upset.
Forget the Honey Badger, Louisiana Tech don’t care. Big Ten opponent? Louisiana Tech don’t care. Fourteen-point deficit on the road against an ACC opponent? Louisiana Tech don’t care. The Bulldogs scored 34-consecutive unanswered points through the second and third quarters in Charlottesville on Saturday. The Cavaliers tried to storm back, adding a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns, but Louisiana Tech was able to hang on for the 44-38 win a week after beating Illinois by 28 on the road. I’m eager to see how it fares against Texas A&M two weeks from now in the game that was postponed by Hurricane Isaac.
Boise State won, as it has more than 93 percent of the time in the past three-plus seasons. That’s not the story in its 31-28 win against New Mexico. The story is that it only won 31-28 against New Mexico, a team the Broncos beat 45-0 last year. It’s clearly a rebuilding year in the school’s final year in the Mountain West. Fortunately for Boise, a rebuilding year likely means a conference championship and, perhaps, an 11-1 record. The standard the Broncos have set in recent years is impossibly high, but the team will need to improve if it wants to dominate the Big East when it moves next year. Good news from the close win? Junior quarterback Joe Southwick, who has the unenviable task of filling Kellen Moore’s shoes, had his best game of the year, going 24-for-34 with 311 yards, three scores with no picks. The Broncos were up 25-0 in the first half, but New Mexico stormed back when Bob Davie made some quality halftime adjustments. Boise State teams of old wouldn’t let a lead like that evaporate.
1. If you don’t know the name Cody Getz, it means 1) you haven’t been reading my weekly preview columns and 2) you only watch games in the top 25. Second, go read my preview column from a couple of weeks ago. Done? Great. Now, take a look at these numbers through four games – Getz, the focus of Air Force’s triple-option attack, has maintained the blistering pace he set early in the season. He leads the nation in yards per attempt (8.23) among players with 50 or more carries. He’s second nationally in yards per game. His seven touchdowns are the most among any player who has played four games and are tied for second nationally. Yes, Air Force is off the radar and doesn’t play any traditional powers, but Getz’s breakout performance this year has been truly remarkable. All he did was post 222 yards on 25 carries Saturday in Air Force’s 42-21 win against Colorado State. The only man who has surpassed him nationally this year is Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson (also unheralded). Jefferson has 11 scores (most nationally) and leads the nation with 175.4 yards per game, but he’s only averaging 5.4 yards per carry while getting more than 32 totes per game. The top big name in the chase for the rushing title? UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin, who stands fourth in average rushing yardage, but is trailing Getz and Jefferson by more than 30 yards per game.
2. Perhaps the preceding 252 words about running backs were irrelevant. (Glad you read them?) Last year, FBS quarterbacks topped 500 yards six times all season. Through the first four weeks of this season, it had only happened once – Houston’s David Piland threw for 580 yards in a Week 2 loss against Louisiana Tech. This week? Five quarterbacks tossed for more than 500 yards. You already know about Geno’s day, but his opponent, Nick Florence, mustered 581yards of his own. Stephen Morris set an ACC record – 566 yards for Miami (Fla.) – in the Hurricanes’ win against NC State. Derek Carr of Fresno State threw for 536 in the win against San Diego State and Miami (Ohio) QB Zac Dysert tossed it around for 516 yards. Four other quarterbacks surpassed the 440-yard threshold. Yes, teams are throwing far more than they ever did, but I doubt we’ll see another air show like this for quite some time.
3. The Florida Gators may have had their best week of the season – and they were off. And that’s not a knock. Their two biggest roadblocks to an SEC East title – Georgia and South Carolina – both showed chinks in the armor this week. Georgia’s defense yielded 44 points to visiting Tennessee, which Florida previously held to 20 in Neyland Stadium. South Carolina, though dominant through the second half, was shaky in the first half against a Kentucky team that has struggled all season. Maybe the Gamecocks took Kentucky lightly, but Florida had to be thrilled to see one of its toughest competitors struggling against a team picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. The SEC East race may be the most compelling in football this year, and this weekend only served to bolster the intrigue.
Here are the games you should be looking for on Saturday when you're glued to the television:
No. 4 LSU
at No. 10 Florida
3:30 p.m. ET
After a couple of weeks taking a backseat to other conferences (Southern hospitality?) the SEC has decided to reaffirm control of your Saturdays. You won’t be doing anything else from 3:30 p.m. ET until about 10:30 Saturday that isn’t approved by Mike Slive or narrated by Verne Lundquist (including bathroom breaks) -- and you wouldn’t want it any other way. LSU travels to The Swamp on Saturday. LSU yielded 22 points to Towson on Saturday and escaped Auburn with a two-point win the week before; the Tigers may not be as invincible as we’d assumed. Florida, conversely, thumped Kentucky last week and already has a pair of impressive SEC road wins (Tennessee and Texas A&M) under its belt. This is a John Goodman-sized game for both teams – perhaps even John Candy-sized for LSU, which likely can’t afford an SEC loss if it hopes to capture the SEC West again.
No. 5 Georgia
at No. 6 South Carolina
7 p.m. ET
Momma, grab the block of sugar from the cupboard, it’s time to brew up another pitcher of sweet tea. (Or, if you don’t have a cupboard because it’s 2012, just go to Chick-Fil-A and grab a gallon.) The other half of your mandatory seven-hour SEC-viewing party will be Georgia’s trip to Columbia. This is the most important SEC game to date this season, pitting a pair of top-10 teams battling for the same division crown. It’s more important for South Carolina to hold serve because the Bulldogs don’t have either SEC West power on the schedule. The Gamecocks have a trip to Baton Rouge two weeks from now, so they need to knock off the Bulldogs to create a little breathing room in the race for the SEC East title. A trip to Atlanta followed by the right to try to hold Geno Smith to six touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl may await the winner.
No. 8 West Virginia
at No. 11 Texas
7 p.m. ET
Speaking of The Talented Mr. Smith, the Mountaineers get their first Big 12 road game this week against Texas. The Longhorns’ D just yielded 36 points to an Oklahoma State offense led by a freshman quarterback. Geno is no freshman. But remember that West Virginia’s defense allowed 63 points itself, and expect talented Texas triggerman David Ash to post some gaudy numbers. We’ll get to witness another whatever-is-faster-than-a-track-meet on Saturday in Austin. Beyond the undeniable entertainment factor, the stakes are high and a lot of questions will be answered. Will West Virginia hang with a Big 12 power? Is Texas back to form after a couple of down years? Which team has a legitimate shot at the Big 12 crown? Who shot J.R.?
at No. 9 Notre Dame
7:30 p.m. ET
Notre Dame’s defense has dominated a pair of Big Ten opponents in recent weeks. How will it fare against a more combustible Miami (Fla.) attack? The Hurricanes have their flaws, particularly on defense, but have posted 41.3 points per game during the last three contests. Notre Dame is at home, playing with more momentum and more talent, but this could be a surprise test. At the very least, we’ll learn if the Irish are prepared for a late-season schedule boost that ranks among the nation’s toughest.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed