Potential over experience in Pac-12
Stanford, Oregon State choose young arms for crucial matchup
In Washington, it’s been a good week for incumbents.
Democrats held the Senate. Republicans kept the House. And Barack Obama will get four more years to sit in the nation’s most uniquely-shaped office.
Out West, though, a pair of quarterbacks have been voted out.
Oregon State and Stanford will square off this weekend in a game that likely will determine the Pac-12’s second-best team and improve one of their Rose Bowl chances (assuming Oregon manages to win out and play in the national title game).
Given the stakes, you’d suppose that coaches Mike Riley and David Shaw would lean on players with the most experience under center, the ones who’ll offer predictable results thanks to a large sample size. But both coaches have opted to replace their incumbents at quarterback. Both are taking risks for their teams’ futures, perhaps at the expense of the present. Short-term uncertainty could lead to long-term prosperity, they may be thinking.
“You can’t lose your job to injury,” is a common mantra in any sport. You can, however, lose your job to injury and a four-interception game which mars a blemish-free season. That’s the tough lesson Oregon State sophomore Sean Mannion learned two weeks ago in his first start after returning from knee surgery. Four of his passes fell into Washington defenders’ clutches, and the Beavers found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard for the first time this season. The next week, Riley turned to junior Cody Vaz, who helped steer the Beavers to a pair of victories while Mannion was recovering from surgery. Vaz won a third start against Arizona State last week as a healthy Mannion watched from the sidelines.
Yes, Mannion is a sophomore and Vaz a junior. Yes, if Riley is thinking about the long-term, it seems like it might behoove him to let the young quarterback play through his struggles. But, despite being a year behind, Mannion has far more experience than Vaz – he started all but one of the Beavers’ games last year and the first four this season. But, for Riley, he’s a known quantity. So the coach turned to Vaz, I suspect, not only because he thinks he presents the best chance to win Saturday, but because a late-season game against a quality opponent gives his less-experienced quarterback the opportunity to take command when the stakes are high, which will serve him well next season. Riley could’ve taken the safe route and handed the keys to the offense to the man on the roster who’d taken the most snaps. But, for the sake of the future, Riley’s willing to take the risk.
Similarly, Shaw has turned to a far less-seasoned quarterback at a critical juncture, I suspect, not only because he believes that freshman Kevin Hogan gives him the best chance to win on Saturday, but because he’ll have the opportunity to garner needed experience for the future. Like any savvy politician might make decisions injurious to him in the short term for the sake of benefiting him in the next election, Shaw seems willing to take a risk now.
Junior Josh Nunes was deemed Andrew Luck’s successor in the preseason, and guided the Cardinal to a 6-2 record before Shaw turned to Hogan last week to provide a spark against Colorado. After completing 18 passes, including a pair of scores, Shaw decided Hogan, despite only 24 collegiate pass attempts, would be his starter against Oregon State, his starter in one of the biggest games on the Cardinal’s schedule this season. He’s willing to toss his young quarterback in against a good team in hopes that, no matter how he plays, it plants a seed that will bear fruit next year or the year after or the year after.
Will Hogan’s inexperience be flaunted by the nation’s 30th-ranked defense? Perhaps. Might it cost Stanford the game and their outside shot at the Rose Bowl? Maybe. But will it allow the young quarterback, clearly the man Shaw wants to trust with the job in the future, a chance to acclimatize to high-pressure, high-stakes college football? Certainly.
Rather than play it safe, rather than slough criticism and responsibility for failure onto quarterbacks who’ve played enough “to know better”, these coaches, with the future in mind, have made tough decisions. They’ve turned away from trusted incumbents in favor of inexperience and potential. And, like the votes we cast on Tuesday, these coaches won’t know whether or not they’ve made the right choice immediately; they won’t know on Saturday. Like us, they’ll have to wait to see what transpires in the heat of battle – over games and seasons and years – to know if they picked the right man.
Last week, Alabama got caught up in a sumo wrestling match – a test of strength and size. This week, it’ll take part in a track meet – a test of speed and endurance.
Fortunately for the Tide, they’re malleable. On Saturday, they matched LSU in the trenches and pulled out a win in the Bayou. This week, they’ll head home and will be tested outside the hashes, horizontally, vertically and everywhere on the field as they chase Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and his talented offense for three hours.
I’m confident that their talent is diverse enough to stand toe-to-toe with LSU one week and outrun Manziel the next. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be entertaining.
Last week, for the first time all season, Alabama’s defense showed cracks when it allowed Zach Mettenberger to put up nearly 300 passing yards. The performance pushed the Tide’s defense down to second nationally from the top spot they’ve held all year. Mettenberger hadn’t topped 170 yards against an SEC opponent all season, yet he was able to have his best game of the year on Saturday. Manziel, on the other hand, has gone over 250 yards through the air against SEC defenses four times already this year. It might also be worth noting that he topped 90 rushing yards in each of those contests. Give Manziel the breathing room they gave Mettenberger, and it could be a long, tiring afternoon for the Tide. Manziel will make it fun, but I can foresee inexperience and the Bama crowd making it tough for A&M to hang around for four quarters. Still, I think this will be the most captivating first-half that we see on Saturday.
The weekend’s SEC undercard stands to be pretty entertaining too, though it’s sure to have a different feel than what could turn to a high-scoring affair in Tuscaloosa.
Mississippi State heads to LSU after a pair of losses that washed away memories of a 7-0 start in Starkville. If the Bulldogs want to be taken seriously in the SEC West, they’re going to need to knock off at least one of the three divisional heavyweights. (Yes, after what I’ve seen this year, A&M has moved up a few pounds.) So far, the Bulldogs are 0-for-2 after losing to Alabama and Texas A&M by a combined 56 points. In a vacuum, I wouldn’t give Mississippi State much of a chance against the Tigers, but LSU poured everything they had onto the field in Baton Rouge on Saturday night. Can the effects of playing a physically and emotionally-draining game against Alabama linger for a week? I have my doubts given LSU’s stellar record under Les Miles after losses (18-1), but it’s tough to guess how the team will respond after what may have been its most heartbreaking defeat since Miles put on his ball cap.
The SEC under-undercard has also piqued my interest. I’m sorry, I know that they play college football outside the Southeast, I really do, but look at the schedule this week. If last Saturday was the 2012 season’s opus, this week is its Backstreet Boys mixtape.
The Razorbacks head to South Carolina in a contest that I’ve got a sneaking suspicion will be closer than many out there believe. Yes, Arkansas’ early-season struggles and plummet from the national rankings drew a lot of attention, but this is still a talented team at its core. It was ranked No. 8 nationally at the beginning of the season for a reason. After dropping four in a row, the Hogs have won three out of four and quarterback Tyler Wilson has quietly risen to eighth-nationally in passing yards-per-game (315.8) and has tossed 16 touchdowns. South Carolina, meanwhile is reeling from a pair of losses that knocked them out of the SEC title discussion, an ugly injury to star running back Marcus Lattimore and the near-defeat to Tennessee that ensued. South Carolina may have the better team and may have had a far better season up to this point, but momentum has taken up residence in Arkansas’ corner and, sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Northwestern is going to the Big House – you should skip it and get in your last few holes of golf before the weather turns, right? After all, Northwestern hasn’t come home from Ann Arbor with a win since 2008, has only won four of the past 32 meetings and has only emerged victorious 15 times in 70 tries all-time against the Wolverines. In short, the Wildcats have struggled more in Michigan during the past half-century than anti-union political candidates.
But, despite your better judgment, don’t let decades upon decades upon decades of history influence you. This season, Northwestern has assembled one of its best teams in recent memory. It pushed Nebraska, which is the favorite for the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl trip, to the brink, forcing the Huskers to put up 13 points in the final eight minutes to escape Evanston alive. That’s the very same Nebraska team that thumped Michigan 23-9 the very next week.
Michigan has home field, but Denard Robinson could miss another game Saturday thanks to an elbow injury. Michigan, already with three losses, is even more vulnerable without their electric quarterback. As painful as it will be, go ahead and put the golf clubs into storage.
Robinson’s injury is significant, yes, but another quarterback’s status has been on everyone’s mind this week.
There are a lot of questions about K-State quarterback Collin Klein, so let’s see if head coach Bill Snyder has any answers.
“Would I expect him to play?” he told reporters this week. “I certainly hope that’s the case, and I would expect that to take place.”
The Wildcats have stayed tight-lipped on the details of Klein’s injury. Still, no one outside of the Kansas State training room and locker room can be certain and I won’t speculate further. What is certain, though, is that Kansas State’s national title hopes are intertwined with Klein’s health.
This week, the Wildcats venture south to take on a young, opportunistic TCU defense – the Horned Frogs are tied for sixth in the nation with 24 takeaways – that will certainly test Klein’s inexperienced freshman backup Daniel Sams, who has attempted all of eight passes in his young college career. Six of those – five completions – came last week when he stepped in for the injured star in the Wildcats’ victory against Oklahoma State. If Klein can’t go, Sams will have to bear the burden of national title expectations in a hostile environment at night. I know, football isn’t just about the quarterback, but given that Klein has been responsible for 65 percent of the team’s offense and has rushed or thrown for 29 of its 45 offensive touchdowns, his absence hurts K-State more than any other player going down on any other team.
If he plays, K-State will keep marching. If he doesn’t, or gets knocked out of the game again, Sams will have to grow up fast.
If I asked you who the all-time total-yardage record-holder was at Nebraska, you’d undoubtedly fire back Eric Crouch. Crouch, after all, won the Heisman and guided the Huskers to a BCS title game appearance. And if you’d said Crouch, you would’ve been right…until last week. Current Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez passed Crouch’s record with a 33-yard strike to Kenny Bell and the junior has now amassed 8,166 career yards on the ground and through the air. Martinez only needed three seasons to break the record because he lets it fly more than his predecessor – through nine games, he already has more passing yardage in a season than Crouch did in his Heisman campaign. Crouch eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards as a senior, a mark that Martinez has yet to hit in a single season, though he’ll look to add to his 666 yards on the ground against Penn State this weekend. .
A few weeks ago, I noted that the service academies all ranked among the least-penalized teams in the nation. I found it intriguing that the discipline that permeates the halls in West Point, Annapolis and Colorado Springs trickles onto the football field as well. This week, when taking a peek at the bottom of those same rankings, I found quite the opposite. As many of you may know, USC is leading the nation in penalties-per-game by a wide margin. The Trojans are committing 9.6 infractions every game, nearly a full penalty more than second-most-penalized UCLA. Which brings me to the point – the Trojans and Bruins aren’t the only ones out West at the bottom of that list. Eight teams from the Pac-12 – USC, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington, Cal, Oregon, Utah and Arizona –rank 103rd or worse in penalty-yards-per-game. I know, breaking news: the military is disciplined; the West Coast folks are known for their laid-back, carefree lifestyle.
The decision to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 and allowing teams to get the ball on the 25, not the 20, on touchbacks have predictably produced a slew of touchbacks. This year, return men are only bringing it out 6.5 times-per-game, compared to 8.5 last year. That was the intended consequence of a rule designed with player safety in mind. But I was surprised to find that, when they do chose to try to run it back, kick return average has barely shifted. Last year, returners averaged 21.6 yards-per-return. This year, it’s only fallen to 21.5, a negligible difference. You’d expect the shorter field to give the defense a better chance to smother returns early, but that hasn’t been the case. So far, at least, the rule has reduced the chances for high-speed impacts while not having a big effect on starting field position.