As usual, Tigers light up the night
Many have tried to win in Death Valley, few have succeeded
Death, taxes and those towers of light in Baton Rouge.
Those are the real certainties in life, ones that you can’t escape.
On Saturday, when LSU’s Jeremy Hill split the middle of the Gamecocks’ defense and sprinted into the night, he sealed the Tigers’ 35th victory under those lights in 36 tries since Les Miles first donned his famous white-and-purple cap in 2005. Tim Tebow, of course, helped give LSU that lone loss in 2009. Unless you have one of the most iconic college football players in history on your sideline, you’re simply not going to beat the Tigers under those eight banks of light.
But, for some reason, I picked South Carolina to win. I knew about LSU’s record when the 92,542 that cram into that concrete and steel monolith and have a full day to draw to a frenzy before a night game. I’d long understood the terrors of Death Valley when the moon rose, how seemingly no team could make it out of the maelstrom alive. But the Gamecocks looked too complete in their win against Georgia a week earlier, the Tigers too impotent on offense against Florida, for me to simply peg my prediction to the night sky.
South Carolina stifled the Bulldogs, holding one of the nation’s top offenses to seven points. It carved up the talented UGA defense, putting up 35. It rode the victory to the No. 3 ranking in the nation, one that no one questioned because it possesses a talented dual-threat quarterback, one of the most punishing tailbacks in the nation and a defense that will send several players to the NFL. LSU, meanwhile, suffered its first regular-season defeat since 2010 thanks to an offense that could only muster 200 yards against the Gators.
And the Gamecocks, who rightfully wore camouflage to battle on Saturday, played like the better team for much of the night, leading nearly the entire second quarter and most of the second half. The game seemed to be under their control, but the crowd and those lights loomed over it all. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the big play -- and the roar -- were coming.
Protecting a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, Gamecocks’ quarterback Connor Shaw sprinted to his left and, feeling the pressure of those monsters in white and yellow and the heat from those lights, tossed a prayer into the LSU secondary. It floated into Eric Reid’s arms and he scampered back to the South Carolina 22. A field goal followed, giving the Tigers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. They cemented the win five minutes later when Hill took a pitch and eviscerated an otherwise brilliant Gamecock defense.
The inevitability that had been hanging above the South Carolina sideline, the unspoken thought, “They just don’t lose when these lights turn on,” finally sunk in. You could see it in the Gamecocks’ eyes. Overcoming a nine-point deficit with five minutes to go isn’t impossible, especially with South Carolina’s weapons. But not against LSU. Not on the road. Not after the sun had set. Shaw did muster a touchdown, but that’s all South Carolina would get. LSU 23, South Carolina 21.
The lights in Baton Rouge claimed their 35th victim. It won’t be their last.
The heavens opened up over South Bend on Saturday evening (divine intervention?), helping muddy up the 120 yards of grass that the Irish have defended so exquisitely this season -- they’ve only allowed three offensive touchdowns at home all year. The slow track played into the hands of the Irish defense, which may be the best unit in the country not wearing crimson helmets. Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes, who threw for 360 yards a week before against Arizona, mustered a mere 125 yards in the deluge. Stanford’s lone touchdown came on a sack-and-fumble of Notre Dame triggerman Everett Golson in the second quarter. Stanford carried a three-point lead late in the fourth -- the Irish hadn’t trailed all season until this game -- and knocked Golson out of the contest on the Irish’s last drive. But on-again-off-again starter Tommy Rees (Rees and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly have the type of tumultuous relationship that you and your college roommate did) stepped in and pushed the Irish into field-goal range. Three consecutive Rees completions in overtime put Notre Dame ahead for good. The vaunted D let Stanford get within a yard of the tie, but kept Stepfan Taylor out of the end zone on four consecutive carries from inside the 4, sealing the 20-13 win. Rees went 4 of 4 in the fourth quarter and overtime and with Golston’s status is uncertain moving forward, it looks like Kelly and the embattled quarterback might patch up things and start going steady again.
For anyone in the stands on Saturday yearning to get out of the Cotton Bowl and back to the Texas State Fair so they could eat another heaping plate of deep-fried everything or try to win a deep-fried cowboy hat, the pesky football game didn’t get in the way for long. One of the nation’s most compelling rivalries -- the battle for trading posts along the Red River -- was compelling for all of about eight minutes. Oklahoma 63, Texas 21. And it wasn’t even that close. Oklahoma let off the throttle in the fourth quarter after it'd pushed the lead to 56-8. Throttle actually doesn’t go far enough in this case; they let off of whatever it is that controls the warp drive. Landry Jones, who has drawn some heat from the locals recently, beat Texas for the third consecutive year, piling on 321 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Oklahoma tailback Damien Williams set the tone early with a 95-yard TD gallop in which he ran by Texas defenders like they’d been drinking fried Gatorade (given the setting, a distinct possibility). Because of the dominant effort, Oklahoma, quite loudly, announced that it’s not out of the running for the Big 12 title.
Well, that was exhausting. Anyone who watched the Texas A&M-Louisiana Tech contest likely felt like they’d done an extended session of P90X -- and left many feeling we may have seen our game of the year. A&M jumped out to a 27-0 lead, and it looked like Louisiana Tech’s undefeated start and No. 23 ranking were a mirage. But the Bulldogs proved they do have one of the nation’s best offenses, storming back in the second half and pulling within two in the fourth quarter.
That’s as close as they’d get, as A&M quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel (not the most creative nickname we've heard) showed off his speed on a 72-yard gallop with two minutes remaining. It was part of his SEC-record 576 total yards of offense.
Just for fun, Louisiana Tech scored a pair of touchdowns in the last two minutes, and had a shot to tie it with a two-point conversion that failed. A&M 59, Louisiana Tech 57.
That crazy score is not a typo. Brian “Writing” Burnsed doesn’t do typos.
The words “starting quarterback” and “knee surgery” mix about as well as pizza and orange marmalade (and, for fans, can have the same stomach-turning effects). Well, Oregon State fans had to eat a healthy serving of marmalade pizza last week when they learned starting quarterback Sean Mannion -- sixth nationally in passing yards-per-game and the cornerstone of the Beavers’ undefeated start -- would go under the knife to repair a pesky torn meniscus. (For the uninitiated, the meniscus is a small disk of cartilage in the knee.) A tough road game at BYU loomed and backup Cody Vaz -- who hadn’t played since 2010, and whose preposterously cool name is sponsored by the year 2072 -- had less than a week to prepare. Sounds ominous, right? But these are the mighty Beavers we’re talking about. The game was tied at 14-14 at the half before “The Vaz” found his footing, propelling the Oregon State to a 42-24 win on the back of 332 yards, three scores and no picks. Did I mention that BYU entered the game with the nation’s third-best scoring defense, allowing a measly 8.8 points-per-game? Vaz don’t care. Mannion should be back in a few weeks after his meniscus gets back to being a pointless annoyance rather than a painful hindrance. In the meantime, The Vaz looks like he can hold the fort and maintain the Beavers’ undefeated start -- they’re 5-0 for the first time since Germany invaded Poland -- with no games against ranked teams coming until Nov. 20 against Stanford.
Not going to lie to you, I kind of thought that Duke would march into Lane Stadium and enjoy its Thanksgiving dinner a month early. And, for a half, it was basting the turkeys, but it never was able to put the Hokies in the oven. I’m stopping this running metaphor now, because it’s making me salivate and I might drool on the keyboard. Duke came to Blacksburg riding a four-game winning streak and the Hokies had lost a couple in a row. The Devils roared out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter and it looked like they’d knock off Virginia Tech for the first time in a dozen tries, but, unfortunately for Duke, there were still 45 minutes to play in one of the nation’s most hostile environments. The Hokies hopped on freshman running back J.C. Coleman’s shoulders -- toting that much angst must be tough for a 192-pound guy -- and he carried them for 183 yards, a pair of scores and 41 unanswered points. Normalcy has been restored in Blacksburg, at least for three quarters.
After losing starting quarterback Casey Pachall, TCU’s nation-best winning streak ended in Week 6. Pachall’s replacement, freshman Trevone Boykin, struggled against Iowa State in his first start, tossing three picks. But Baylor, owner of the nation’s worst-ranked defense, was the medicine that the ailing freshman needed. Boykin tossed four touchdowns, no picks and completed 73 percent of his passes against the Bears in TCU’s 49-21 win on Saturday. I won’t go as far as to say that the Horned Frogs are going to start another dominant winning streak -- not with a tough Big 12 schedule looming -- but the game will serve as a huge confidence boost for the freshman moving forward.
Despite the off-the-field tumult surrounding the program, UNC is quietly having a terrific season. On Saturday, the Tar Heels went on the road and held a talented Miami (Fla.) offense to 14 points. Now-healthy sophomore running back Gio Bernard almost single-handedly carried the offense ... again. Bernard eviscerated the Canes defense, taking his 27 carries for 177 yards and a pair of scores in the 18-14 win. The refs’ throwing arms got a workout in this one – the only thing that kept the game close were UNC’s 15 penalties for 140 yards.
What was supposed to be an impressive season from Michigan State keeps getting worse. On Saturday, the Spartans were bested by Iowa in double-overtime. It’s tough to call this one a two-OT thriller though, unless you’re a kicking aficionado. All nine points scored in the overtime periods came via the boot and the game had seven field goals and only two touchdowns. Stud Spartan running back Le’Veon Bell did what he’s been doing all season, pounding his way for 140 yards on 29 carries, but the passing game continues to struggle. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed only 12 of 31 attempts, a big reason the Spartans were just 6-for-18 on third down. The Spartans suffered their second conference loss; meanwhile Iowa quietly has snuck to the top of the Big Ten Legends Division. Really? Figuring out the Big Ten is about as tough as the GPA-assaulting honors physics class I took in high school.
Speaking of the Big Ten making no sense, after skidding early, Wisconsin has improved drastically. On Saturday, the Badgers derailed Purdue, scoring 38 consecutive points en route to a 38-14 victory. The Badgers only ran for 467 yards -- little more than a quarter mile -- highlighted by Montee Ball’s punishing 247 yards. His second touchdown of the day tied him with Ron Dayne for most rushing touchdowns in Big Ten history and his third TD of the game set the record at 72. Ball struggled out of the gate this year, but has regained form, averaging 152 yards on the ground during the past three weeks -- all conference games. Ohio State and Penn State are ahead of Wisconsin in the Leaders Division, but are ineligible for postseason play. Despite the rocky start, it looks like the division is still Wisconsin’s to lose and that the Badgers will have a chance to defend their conference crown in Indianapolis.
The usual suspects down south have hogged the spotlight this year; well, other than the Hogs themselves. Alabama, LSU, Florida and South Carolina are in a heated race for an SEC crown and, seemingly by default, a national championship -- each team finds itself in the top seven of the newly released BCS standings. But three of those squads already have a loss. There’s another SEC team that’s undefeated and sitting at No. 12 in the BCS (The SEC has six teams in the top 12, which is just absurd). It’s the Bulldogs, of course, but not the ones from Athens, Ga. Mississippi State is 6-0 after a 41-31 win against Tennessee on Saturday. The Bulldogs led for all but five minutes in their third conference win. Things seem grim for Tennessee, which is now 0-3 in the SEC, but it does have a bright spot in Cordarrelle Patterson, whose father must’ve been a Swiss Army Knife. Patterson had a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown, caught an 11-yard touchdown pass and tacked on 57 rushing yards. The junior college transfer, who looks like a man amongst boys -- tough to do in the SEC -- also halted the erosion of the polar ice caps on Saturday. Big day all around, young man.
First, the good news. Six games and 25 touchdowns in, and Geno Smith still hasn’t tossed an interception. The bad news? Another pick-free day didn’t matter one bit on Saturday against Texas Tech, which looked like it might have Alabama's second-string defense. The Mountaineers' offense had been burning through defenses so ruthlessly that greenhouse gas levels in Morgantown have spiked this fall. At 52 points and 570 yards per game, the Mountaineers seemed unstoppable, but then they met Tommy Tuberville and his SEC pedigree in Lubbock, Texas, on Saturday. The Red Raiders held West Virginia to 14 points in the shocking 49-14 win, an amazing feat given that the Mountaineers usually have 14 midway through the coin toss. Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege out-Genoed Geno, throwing for 499 yards and six touchdowns. Smith, meanwhile, was held to only one scoring toss.
Didn’t Auburn win the national championship two years ago, or was I dreaming? After falling to Ole Miss by three touchdowns on Saturday, the Tigers are now 1-5, with their lone victory coming in overtime against a team from the Sun Belt. Ole Miss came into this contest having lost three of four, so I’d assumed Auburn would make a game of it. The Tigers did take a lead in the second quarter, but it was short-lived as Mississippi outscored Auburn 24-3 in the second half. The win ended a dubious streak for Ole Miss: The Rebs hadn’t won a conference game in their previous 16 tries. Auburn has started a similar streak of its own; the Tigers have dropped their past six SEC clashes with the last win coming against, you guessed it, Ole Miss. (Don’t lie, you didn’t actually guess it.)
Kansas is 3-15 during the past two seasons. Oklahoma State is the inverse -- 15-3. So, we should have assumed that the Cowboys would make quick work of the Jayhawks, right? Their contest last weekend looked like it was sticking to the script as Oklahoma State jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Jayhawks head coach Charlie Weiss then sent highly touted quarterback Dayne Crist -- who has three touchdowns, seven picks and has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes this season -- to the bench. Freshman Michael Cummings stepped in and led the Jayhawks to 14 unanswered in the fourth. Kansas fell 20-14, but in Cummings and the near-comeback win they may have found a glimmer of hope in what has been a dismal two years in Lawrence, Kan.
Don’t let Florida’s 14-point win against Vanderbilt fool you; this one was much closer than the scoreboard insinuated. The Commodores led for much of the first quarter and pulled within a touchdown in the fourth. It’s been an odd season in Nashville, as the Commodores have played, perhaps, their two best games against their two best opponents. In Week 1, they pushed South Carolina to the brink -- the Gamecocks escaped with a 17-13 win -- and on Saturday Vandy went toe-to-toe with Florida for three-and-a-half quarters. They won a tough road game at Missouri and got blown out in a tough road game at Georgia. Psychologists have diagnosed schizophrenia for lesser emotional swings. Still, the program is headed in the right direction after struggling in the SEC for years.
If Ohio State was going to drop a Big Ten game this year, I assumed it would’ve been to Michigan State or Nebraska. The Buckeyes passed those tests in consecutive weeks and seemed destined to run the table in the conference in Urban Meyer’s first year at the helm. What I didn’t assume, however, was that the Buckeyes would yield 49 points to Indiana -- and not in basketball. Well, I assumed wrong, because they did just that. Still, they escaped Bloomington with a win because their potent offense scored 52 of its own. Ohio State led by as many as 18 in the fourth quarter, but surrendered a pair on Indiana touchdowns in a 35-second span. Though it was a loss, this may have been the most important, and most impressive, showing in Kevin Wilson’s brief tenure as the Hoosiers’ head man.
1. With apologies to our SEC overlords, the most compelling race for a conference crown might be in the Big East this year. No, I’m not kidding -- stop shaking your head at me and don’t even think about closing your browser. On Saturday, Rutgers and Louisville beat Syracuse and Pitt, respectively, and both improved to 6-0. The two squads stand 15th and 16th in the BCS. Oh, and they play on Thursday night in the season’s final week in a game that could decide the conference title and a BCS bowl berth. Cincinnati is undefeated as well, and could have a say in who takes the conference title, but Louisville and Rutgers seem to have separated themselves from the pack. There’s a real possibility that both of these teams could be undefeated heading into that Nov. 29 clash. If that happens, it should be one of the most riveting games of the year and a chance for the Big East to enjoy a rare moment in the sun.
2. A slew of teams became bowl eligible by winning their sixth game in Week 7. The usual suspects (if you haven’t seen that movie, by the way, I give you permission to stop reading and head to your nearest Redbox) are there -- Alabama, Oregon, Florida, Kansas State, Notre Dame, LSU, etc. -- but there are a few surprises. Rutgers and Louisville, as I just mentioned, already have six wins. Northwestern captured its sixth W of the season with a 21-13 win against Minnesota. Last year, the Wildcats didn’t earn their sixth win until Nov. 19. And Duke, which hasn’t been to a bowl game since the 1994 season, fell just short of earning its sixth win against Virginia Tech. Still, at 5-2 it looks like the Blue Devils could qualify for a rare, delectable taste of postseason play quite soon.
3. Remember when Michigan was ranked No. 8? Then remember when Alabama gave it the same treatment that Ivan Drago gave Apollo Creed? And remember when Denard Robinson tossed four picks against Notre Dame? That’s probably all you remember about Michigan’s season so far. But it’s not as disappointing as you might think. Alabama and Notre Dame now stand first and fifth in the BCS, respectively, so there’s no shame in those losses. Michigan might not be elite, but the Wolverines aren’t as bad as you thought they were after those losses. On Saturday, the Wolverines blanked Illinois 45-0. Take away the games against Alabama and Notre Dame -- the nation’s top two defenses, by the way -- and the Wolverines are averaging more than 45 points per game and are winning by an average margin of 33. Dreams of a national championship in Ann Arbor, Mich., have long been extinguished, but given the offense’s explosive performances against non-superhuman defensive units, the Big Ten title is well within reach.
Here are the games you should be looking for on Saturday when you're glued to the television:
No. 9 South Carolina
at No. 3 Florida
3:30 p.m. ET
Where’s Keith Jackson when you need him? Because, Whoooooaaa Nelly, we’ve got a good one on Saturday. (Who is Nelly, by the way? He can’t be referring to the rapper, can he?) South Carolina heads to the Swamp in a game that might decide which team represents the SEC East in Atlanta this year. This is the best Gamecock squad that Steve Spurrier has brought down to his old stomping grounds in his eight years at the helm in South Carolina. Florida has shocked quite a few people outside of Gainesville by jumping to No. 2 in the BCS standings. If the Gators can topple the Gamecocks, they’ll be there to stay. If they can’t, the Ol' Ball Coach's team might steal the spot.
No. 4 Kansas State
at No. 17 West Virginia
7 p.m. ET
The Mountaineers’ surprise loss to Texas Tech took some of the shine off of a game that looked like it might decide the Big 12 champion. Still, the stakes are high, and not just in the context of the Big 12. A Kansas State win means the Wildcats might have a shot at the national title. A loss, and the Big 12 is back up for grabs. Both are explosive offenses -- West Virginia is averaging 45.7 points per game and Kansas State 40.8 -- but have polar opposite styles. The Wildcats ride quarterback Collin Klein’s punishing running style and precise, underneath passing attack while West Virginia takes the word “forward” in forward pass quite seriously.
No. 6 LSU
at No. 20 Texas A&M
Johnny "Football" gets his toughest test in his impressive freshman campaign. LSU has grown men on the defensive side of the ball, who are certain to hound the talented Manziel all afternoon. But, remember, the Aggies almost toppled Florida earlier this season, thanks to Manziel and one of college football’s best home crowds. If they can get inside inexperienced LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s head, A&M has a chance to pull a huge upset.
No. 2 Oregon
at Arizona State
9 p.m. ET (Thursday)
OK, here’s the plan. Ask your girlfriend if she wants to watch some Thursday night fireworks. She’ll say yes, because girls like that type of stuff and it’ll break up the monotony of the usual weekday routine (HGTV for her, SportsCenter on continuous loop for you). When she’s ready to head out, invite her to the couch and turn the TV to the Oregon, Arizona State game. “See, darlin’? Fireworks!” After she storms off, enjoy a contest between a pair of teams scoring a combined 93 points-per-game. I don’t see Oregon getting upset, but Arizona State’s offense under first-year head coach Todd Graham is combustible -- it hung 51 on Colorado last Thursday. Enjoy the fireworks and get comfy on the couch -- you’ll be sleeping there.
Views and opinions expressed here are soley those of the writer.
Follow Brian Burnsed on Twitter at @brianburnsed