Is Notre Dame back? What exactly constitutes back? Twice under Charlie Weis and once under Bob Davie, the Fighting Irish reached BCS bowls. Of course, Notre Dame lost multiple games each of those three campaigns, including its three bowls games by a combined 73 points.
Merely reaching a BCS bowl may not be the ultimate litmus test of whether Brian Kelly has Notre Dame football back, and a mid-September win is hardly the measuring stick. However, there was something special to Notre Dame’s dominant win over Michigan State. The Irish defense completely shut down Sparty’s offense, freezing Michigan State out of the end zone en route to the first road win by a team in this rivalry 2007.
There’s been debate among football pundits about the Michigan State offense. Losing quarterback Kirk Cousins and career receiving leader BJ Cunningham took some of the punch out of the passing facet, which was widely evident against Notre Dame. Contrast that to the very early Heisman buzz running Le’Veon Bell generated. Thus, Notre Dame’s showing can be spun as unimpressive against a lackluster offensive team, or indicative of its tenacity against one of the nation’s most talented rushers.
The Irish will have plenty of opportunities to either silence the detractors or validate the supporters with the nation’s most treacherous schedule still ahead. The hurdles continue next week against Denard Robinson, the Michigan quarterback who has made his name largely with heroics to down Notre Dame. In the meantime, an undeniable truth of the Fighting Irish defense is that its given up all of 30 points in three games.
Such stinginess is necessary for an offense still finding its identity. Everett Golson’s maturation is a trial by fire, and against the stout Michigan State defense he didn’t pass particularly. George Atkinson was explosive again. While Cierre Wood reintegrated as the workhorse of the rushing game, Atkinson carried for better than 8 yards per attempt.
Notre Dame’s win makes the series record 6-5 since 2002, and marks the Irish’s first win streak over that same span. Florida-Tennessee has failed to match that competitiveness. Tennessee had an opportunity to progress beyond years of disappointing with all the nation’s eyes on it, and the Volunteers gagged in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.
After building a lead and the sting of eight straight losses starting to dissipate, the Vols surrendered 24 consecutive points. How Florida’s defense chomped down on Tyler Bray set the tone for the second half, if not the whole season for UF. The Gators piqued national curiosity a season ago with a hot start, but were not really tested before suffering a beatdown against Alabama. This UF team has had to win hotly contested clashes, including a pair on the road in the SEC wherein each opponent had as much emotional energy behind it as possible. Should the Gators extend another in-conference win streak — the nation’s longest, over Kentucky — an Oct. 6 date with LSU in Gainesville has huge implications.
UT is 2-1 and likely headed to a bowl game, though it’s no given. The SEC East may lack an Alabama or LSU, but it’s deep and challenging. The Vols will have few opportunities like it was presented against Florida. Does merely making the postseason buy Derek Dooley more time as head coach? His may still be the hottest seat in the SEC…aside from Kentucky’s Joker Phillips.
PLAY OF THE WEEK: WESTERN KENTUCKY’S TWO-POINT CONVERSION
There exists an unspoken rule that underdogs must take gambles that otherwise defy football logic. UL-Monroe head coach Todd Berry employed such illogical logic in the Warhawks’ defeat of Arkansas, going for seven different fourth down conversions. Against Auburn on Saturday, Berry defied his own precedent and attempted a field goal in overtime. Playing it safe was anything but, and cost ULM its possible second defeat of an SEC foe.
Willie Taggert didn’t play it safe against Kentucky. UK scored a final minute touchdown to force the extra frame, and struck immediately. All the momentum was the Wildcats’. Coaching a program not far removed from 0-12 to success requires creativity, which Tagger exhibited with his call in overtime — or, more accurately, his team exhibited and Taggert facilitated.
His gamble came inches from not paying off, but quarterback Kawaun Jakes snatched the low pass thrown by running back Antonio Andrews. From there, it was easy as pie with the entire UK defense biting on the initial lateral. With two in-state losses, the Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in the commonwealth, say nothing of the SEC.
THE NOT-PLAY OF THE WEEK: UTAH’S FANS
Home field advantage can mean so much for a team. Noise can disrupt the visitor’s play calling, disorient kickers, and bring the energy level of the homestanding squad up a few notches. But fans’ impact should remain in the stands, a fact that Utah supporters nearly proved in the fashion most detrimental to the home team imaginable.
UU students emptied their seats early and took the sideline in preparation to storm the field. The problem? The game wasn’t over when BYU kicker Justin Sorensen had his game-tying field goal attempt blocked. His 51-yard attempt was made a 36-yarder because of the 15-yard penalty the overzealous fans incited.
Ute backers could have learned a lesson studying the recent history of their team’s new conference. Premature field rushing compounded the sting of Arizona’s Rose Bowl-denying loss to Oregon in 2009.
THE HARBAUGH TREE VS. THE CARROLL TREE
Stanford’s fourth consecutive win over USC is unprecedented for the program, but perhaps more impressive is how former head coach Jim Harbaugh and current head coach David Shaw have dominated the entire Pete Carroll coaching tree. The Cardinal went 2-1 against Carroll-coached Trojan teams after Harbaugh brought his staff, including Shaw, up the California coast from the University of San Diego.
Lane Kiffin has yet to defeat Stanford in three tries, whether it was Harbaugh or Shaw on the sidelines. In Steve Sarkisian’s three attempts to cut down the trees, Washington has lost by a combined 109 points. The Huskies have a bye week before taking on Shaw’s Cardinal on a Thursday night affair Sept. 27. Going into that game, the Harbaugh tree has an 8-1 record against the Carroll tree: 10-1 if you count Harbaugh’s two wins over Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks since the former became the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach.
Minnesota held off a late rally effort by Western Michigan on Saturday to move to 3-0. Now, the Golden Gophers’ non-conference schedule has not exactly been the most arduous — WMU followed FCS program New Hampshire and UNLV — but Minnesota had a nasty habit of losing such games in season’s past. The Gophers lost four games to non-AQ conference and FCS opponents in the last two seasons. Failure to put away the South Dakotas and New Mexico States on their schedule have rendered defeats of Iowa and Illinois a lot less meaningful.
Minnesota is halfway to bowl eligibility with a home date against 1-2 Syracuse capping the non-conference schedule, Iowa the week to follow (the Gophers have held the Floyd of Rosedale each of the last two seasons) and four other home Big Ten conference games to follow.
The Golden Gophers last postseason was the 2009 Insight Bowl, in which they faced Iowa State. The two could conceivably face one another in a bowl game this year, with the Cyclones off to their own 3-0 start. ISU survived in competitive tilts against Tulsa and rival Iowa and handled Western Illinois in no-doubt-about-it fashion. The Cyclones draw a Texas Tech team they blasted 41-7 last season in Week 5.
UTSA is in just its second season of college football, and first as a Bowl Subdivision member. The Roadrunners’ start is rollicking, 3-0 after a blowout of Georgia State. Now, Larry Coker’s team has yet to play a true FBS opponent: in Week 1, UTSA beat transitional Sun Belt program South Alabama, held off Div. II Texas A&M Commerce in Week 2, then built its first win streak over an opponent in Roadrunner history with the GSU win.
The Roadrunners face Div. II Northwestern Oklahoma State before seeing New Mexico State in the WAC debut.
FACTS & FIGURES
- Since taking a 28-7 lead over UL-Monroe in Week 2, Arkansas has been outscored 79-3.
- North Dakota fell in its bid to upset San Diego State at Qualcomm, but not for lack of offense. The Fighting Sioux put up two touchdowns and one extra point more on the Aztec defense than Army and Washington combined. In fact, scoring points has been of little difficulty for UND; impressive for a team that lost its starting quarterback to injury early.
North Carolina transfer Braden Hanson went down, but the Fighting Sioux missed no beat with Marcus Hendrickson behind center. That’s in part because UND wide receiver Greg Hardin is among the most productive in all college football with seven touchdowns and better than 25 yards a reception. Three of his scores came Saturday against SDSU.
The Fighting Sioux rank third in points per game among FCS programs, behind only Old Dominion and Wofford. Neither have seen a defense like San Diego State’s though, which entered Saturday’s game as one of the best in points allowed. The trip may have resulted in a loss, but painted a positive picture for the Fighting Sioux’s prognosis in a stacked Big Sky Conference.
- Washington unloaded 31 points in the second quarter of its 52-13 romp over Portland State. The Huskies fell short of matching the most points an FBS team has scored in a quarter this season: Oklahoma State and Florida State both dropped 35 in the opening stanza against Savannah State. UW did match the Cowboys’ and Seminoles’ five scores. Four of those came on offensive possessions, the fifth a returned blocked kick. Considering the average amount of possessions in a game is eight, the feat’s impressive.