Week 5 Post-Amble: Honey Badger, RussellMania, & October Football


Facades built in September dominance of weaker opponents begin to tumble in October like so many leaves. Indeed, polls and Heisman chatter through the season’s first month are about as deep as your average Bachelor contestant, but the autumn weeks start to expose these shallow contenders.

Conference play is afoot, and though there is much football to be played some clear candidates to spend January in New Orleans emerged. Badgers were the weekend’s headliners. First, in Madison, Nebraska rolled into Camp Randall Stadium for the program’s inaugural Big Ten contest. Both Nebraska and Wisconsin represented the other’s first genuine test — yes, Nebraska handled Washington, but the Huskies are not a team with the conference championship and BCS expectations of a Wisconsin. Likewise for UW, Oregon State/South Dakota/UNLV were mere speed bumps on an otherwise glass-smooth road.

The Badgers proved their dreams of a BCS Championship were not pie-in-the-sky. WWE dubs its annual signature show WrestleMania “Showcase of the Immortals.” The moniker “RussellMania” fits UW quarterback Russell Wilson, who is primed to have moments that will live in Badger immortality on the program’s greatest showcases. Saturday’s romp over Nebraska was one such example. The lights shone their brightest, and Wilson rose to the occasion with a pair of passing touchdowns and another rushing. Were the Bronze Man given today, and Wilson the recipient, this blogger would take no umbrage.

Perhaps the single greatest detriment to Wilson’s Heisman candidacy comes from his own roster. Running back Montee Ball crossed the goal line four times against Nebraska, giving him 13 on the season. That’s the most of any Bowl Subdivision rusher. The balanced nature of the Badger attack isn’t conducive to eye-popping figures. In sharing carries with James White and Russell Wilson, Ball’s yard per game average of 102 ranks just No. 28 nationally. Talk about a dilemma any player would love to have in a teammate.

A badger of another variety continues his own Heisman-worthy start. Defensive players are at a tremendous disadvantage competing for the Heisman, hence only a single representative from that side of the ball winning in its history. Accruing tangible statistics and moments is integral to winning the honor, and it’s simply harder to do so on defense. Furthermore, Heisman candidacy is nothing more than effective PR. LSU’s “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu is getting both.

Nicknamed for the similarly ferocious demeanor to that of the honey badger and equally similar patch of blond hair, Honey Badger Mathieu forced his fourth fumble of the season and returned it to the house in LSU’s effortless dispatching of Kentucky. Moments like that have given Mathieu tangible, big play moments, and thus garnered the attention early in the season to get his name on the tips of pundits’ tongues and keyboard strokes.

Arguments can be made for both the LSU and Alabama defenses being the A-1 best of college football. The answer will be revealed the first week of November. One truth evident leading up to that date is the Tigers will have their hands full containing Trent Richardson.

Richardson’s talent is well documented. Last season when both he and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram were sharing the backfield, common chatter was that Richardson was the superior of the two. Since becoming the No. 1 ball carrier, his number hasn’t been called enough to accrue the lofty numbers of other top FBS backs like Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James.

But Nick Saban was biding his time, toying with previous foes North Texas and Kent State, and even Arkansas/Penn State before choosing a major impact moment to unleash the Tide’s most dangerous power. A reporter compared Will Muschamp as the Padawan of Jedi Master Saban; the manner in which Richardson was utilized against the student was more like the Emperor Sith Lord breaking out the Force Lightning to the tune of 181 yards and two touchdowns.

One Man Does Not A Football Team Make…But It Can Help

College football’s top individual honor isn’t exclusive to the “best” player. Team success is a huge factor in determining the Heisman winner. This isn’t exactly breaking news given even the most novice of fans realize that. Were it given to the Most Outstanding Player, or perhaps even the truly Most Valuable, Robert Griffin III’s campaign wouldn’t have taken a mortal blow Saturday.

But, it’s not. And, it was.

RG3 threw five more touchdown passes against Kansas State and completed 74 percent of his attempts thus bringing his season totals to 18 TDs (most in the FBS), and actually lowers his season completion percentage to 82. He did throw a pick, his first of the entire campaign. The Bear defense allowed K-State 36 points though, and BU fell to 3-1. Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State still loom on the BU slate, so a handful more losses are likely.

Those defeats, should they come, won’t be Griffin’s fault. Any hope the Bears do have to upset those foes though rests largely on him. The first signs of a BU turnaround after 15 futile seasons were seen in 2008, RG3’s freshman campaign, and said glimmers of hope dimmed with him injured in 2009. His value to that program is unprecedented. Whereas other star players have five-star recruits backing them, Griffin is something of a one-man show. That’s no slight on Kendall Wright, one of the best receivers in the nation, but he’s a piston and Griffin’s the engine (more on this later)*.

A similar dynamic is evident at Northwestern, which got Dan Persa back in the lineup in a tough loss to Illinois. The UI game was the Wildcats’ first without Persa last season, and the result was much different from Saturday’s three-point differential — 18 points different, to be exact. Pat Fitzgerald couldn’t be getting the talented playmaker back at a more opportune time. NU is 2-2, not a terrible record but both losses could have well been wins. A full strength Persa is likely to turn those close Ls into Ws by making those around him better.

That’s what a truly valuable player does: elevate those with which he plays. To that end, the Heisman frontrunner does indeed fit the bill. Stanford’s Andrew Luck controls all facets of the Cardinal offense with the calm efficiency of a quarterback with a decade of pro experience. He calls plays in the huddle, directs traffic from under center, makes the right decision, runs almost as well as he throws and acquiesces to teammates when it benefits the team. There isn’t a more consummate field general in the collegiate game.

There seems to be nothing Luck can’t do, and against UCLA that included receiving.

Of course, the value of a quarterback and his ability to boost teammates’ production is much easier to gauge than it is other positions. Staying in the Pac-12, while Luck and the Cardinal worked over UCLA, Arizona State overcame a lethargic start to best Oregon State, 35-20.

Spectators are accustomed to judging a defensive player by his highlight reel plays, whether monstrous open field hits, a key interception, or a bone-crunching sack. Vontaze Burfict has plenty of those in his resume. Against OSU though, his night was devoid of any gasp-inducing hits — he totaled just two tackles altogether. However, his very presence buoys the Sun Devil defense.

Watching come from behind the line on a blitz is fascinating. Not only does he have strong safety speed in defensive end size, but he also utilizes one of the most picture perfect swim moves on would-be blockers. His ability to get past the initial blocker forced backs to pick him up on blitzes, which in turn opened the backfield to teammates Jamaar Jarrett and Will Sutton.

*Please make no inference that I suggest the quarterback makes the receiver. A worthwhile receiving corps makes any quarterback look better, and in some cases a single target can take his passer to ridiculous heights. Justin Blackmon-to-Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State is one example, a partnership I liken to Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford’s for the Detroit Lions. Weeden, like Stafford, can put a ball in a location and if it’s even in the same neighborhood, Blackmon (like Johnson) will get it.

No such relationship was more evident in Week 5 than Robert Woods-Matt Barkley at USC. The Trojans moved to 4-1 with a 48-41 defeat of Arizona in which Woods hauled in 252 yards worth of passes. Barkley put up career bests just about across the board, thanks to Woods establishing himself as arguably the nation’s best target. A weak UA secondary certainly supplemented that declaration, but the level of competition doesn’t much matter. A couple more 200-yard receiving days and Woods will enter the Heisman discussion.

UA’s Nick Foles won’t — at 1-4, it looks increasingly unlikely he’ll even get to play in a bowl game, which is a shame because he’s playing as well as the best quarterbacks in the nation. He almost singlehandedly kept UA in pace with USC, but without a defense to back up his efforts his stellar play will go unnoticed.

A McNabb Moment

I have covered prep football for about five years now, including three in California. Only Friday did I learn that the California Interscholastic Federation ends regular season football games in regulation. As I watched a 30-yard field goal sail through the uprights with two seconds remaining to tie a game at 17, two things went through my mind: the first was, “Can this kicker get immediate eligibility to replace Alex Zendejas at Arizona?” and 2. I’d miss my 10:30 p.m. deadline for The North County Times newspaper.

Yet on the ensuing kickoff, a squib, the visiting team’s returner gained about 10 yards before he was tackled, at which point the PA announcer declared, “AND THIS ONE ENDS IN A TIE!”

Donovan McNabb took flak for admitting he didn’t realize an NFL game could end in overtime. Well, Friday’s conclusion was my McNabb moment.

Best Month?

Every year around this time, the debate of the best sports time of year peaks its head out like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog’s Day: is October the greatest sporting month? The Major League Baseball Playoffs got cracking Friday, using arguably the most exciting single day of regular season baseball as its launching pad this year. The National Hockey League drops the puck Thursday. The NFL and college football seasons are hitting their stride. And the NBA…hey, Midnight Madness is in October. *Ahem*

October isn’t just the perfect month of sports, it may be the best month overall. The autumn brews are typically the best of most breweries’ specialty beers — if not they’re best beer period (looking at you, Samuel Adams). Pumpkin flavored baked goods are readily available, which I consume with vigor. October’s also the one month when it’s socially acceptable to watch schlocky horror films.

Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers define predictability. Yet like Georgia Tech and its option offense this season, the victims know what’s coming and are powerless to stop it.

Race for the ACC

Paul Johnson’s methodical option has Ga. Tech 5-0 after scoring 24 fourth quarter points to put away NC State. The thought preseason was a team named Tech would play for the conference championship and Orange Bowl bid in December; of course, the popular choice was Virginia Tech. The Hokies? Oh, just the latest victim of the untamed Tigers at Clemson.

A sequel of the 2009 ACC Championship game could be on the horizon, the key difference being those Clemson and Georgia Tech teams almost backed into the title game. This season’s versions have played like truly upper tier teams, setting the tone for an all-together surprising league.

For teams like Clemson and Ga. Tech to ascend, others must falter. NC State and Maryland were nine-game winners a year ago, but struggling to get above .500 in 2011. Most surprising though may be 3-1 Wake Forest, which got its most recent victory over 1-4 Boston College. BC came into the season with one of the seven longest bowl streaks in college football. Now, last year’s Eagles were 2-5 and finished on a five-game win streak to reach the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but that’s a lightning bolt not likely to strike twice.

A True Surprise, I Guar-own-tee

Not since Adam Sandler portrayed Cajun Man on “Saturday Night Live” has the Louisiana-based folk been in the spotlight. The Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns are changing that. ULL won its fourth straight, holding off Florida Atlantic in a potential letdown game coming off its defeat of Florida International.

The program has never been to a bowl game, but quarterback Blaine Gautier is playing well enough to rectify that.