Week 6 Post-Amble: Leadership and Experience Make All The Difference

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The last time an Air Force team faced Notre Dame was year three of Charlie Weis’s tenure, and Troy Calhoun’s first at the Academy. Under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus, those Falcons rushed all over the Irish en route to a 41-24 victory. The stark contrast of Notre Dame’s new era vs. the old was apparent Saturday, when the Irish dominated Calhoun’s Falcons in a 59-33 romp not as close as the final score.

Defining the Brian Kelly-led Irish is a hard-nosed defense that against AFA set the tone immediately. Thwarting Tim Jefferson and the Falcon triple option throughout the first two quarters allowed Tommy Rees to get comfortable and play what is easily his best game of his collegiate career.

The Irish are worlds apart from the Weis-coached versions, which surrendered points in bunches and whose only means to victory was outscoring their opponents. Defensive dynamos like the Human Landmine* Manti Te’o solidify define these Irish.

* called thusly because he blows up plays all over the field. Feel free to hash-tag this where applicable.

Not far from South Bend, Michigan won its sixth straight. Fast starts are nothing new for the Wolverines. September has brought recent Michigan teams out in full bloom, but the Season of the Witch, October, was a nightmare for Rich Rodriguez’s teams. What makes Brady Hoke’s Wolverines’ less likely to disappear like so many Michael Meyers’ victims come Halloween as Rich Rod’s teams is Michigan’s found a defense.

Greg Robinson’s defenses were historically porous. Now, this year’s team isn’t giving the 2008 USC Trojans a run for their money, but the Wolverines are rising up at the right times. In Chicago against Northwestern, the Michigan defense locked down Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa in the fourth quarter.

Frustrating him allowed UM’s own quarterback to seize control of momentum, as Denard Robinson overcame a sluggish start to lead the Wolverines on three of their four unanswered scoring drives late in a 42-24 victory.

The defense answering the bell come the final quarter and Robinson’s coinciding emergence mirrored the Wolverines’ earlier defeat of those aforementioned Notre Dame Fighting Irish. A 28-point fourth quarter is the sole blemish on the Irish defense’s otherwise impressive start to 2011.

The UND defeat was an important moment to begin the Hoke era, aside from the obvious of defeating a rival. Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges had to make offensive adjustments as the Irish keyed in on the running game. Aside from the defensive anemia, inability to adapt was the most critical flaw of the past Wolverine teams. Against Northwestern, it was defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s turn to exhibit how his unit could adjust against adversity. Mattison called blitzes at the right times to frustrate Persa, and the Wolverines did not break down the stretch. Quite a bit different from the Robinson era of being forced to win shootouts.

A coaching staff’s impact is readily evident with every win the Wolverines and Irish add to their ledger.

Challenges remain on both teams’ schedules, and recent history is cause for concern of either melting down. It happened to Michigan the last two seasons and Notre Dame in ’09. The new regimes should rectify that, but nothing is guaranteed. Plenty of folks want both to reascend to football’s upper echelon because these are programs synonymous with the sport, much in the same way Florida and Texas are.

Aside from their own recent struggles, fans can remain cautious in annoting UND and UM “back” based on the premature exaltations of the Gators and Longhorns. Both squads are stocked with young talent, but the key word is “young.”

The nation has seen just how vital experience is to championship caliber football in UT and UF’s combined last three efforts. Veteran-laden defenses Alabama and LSU made life miserable on the Gators, proving emphatically that while UF may be improved from a season ago, there’s still a ways to go before the Gators return to 2006-2009 levels.

Similarly, Texas has shown great improvement from a season ago but quite obviously isn’t ready for Oklahoma. Another roster dotted with upperclassmen and wealthy in game experience, OU outclassed UT in all facets of Saturday’s Red River Rivalry.

The Longhorn secondary was no match for the wide receiver tandem of Kenny Stills and Ryan Broyles, the former of whom abused one-on-one coverage with Manny Diaz’s defense attempting to double-up the latter.

The Sooner defense also exploited Case McCoy and David Ash’s inexperience, holding UT without an offensive touchdown. OU were sharks in the water and could smell the blood that was each quarterbacks’ youthful apprehension.

Both teams will get there with their current crop, and the current lumps taken are vital components of the process. Rare are teams like the now 6-0 Clemson Tigers that can win with freshmen and sophomores filling several prominent roles. And even Clemson’s dream season is taking a potentially nightmarish turn.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd left Saturday’s rout over Boston College with a hip injury the severity of which was unknown as of midday Sunday. Boyd’s tremendous and possibly Heisman discussion-worthy start has been integral to the Tigers’ success. As a redshirt sophomore, Boyd is a veritable Methuselah among Clemson quarterbacks. Dabo Swinney would be forced to start a freshman under center should Boyd be unavailable for next week’s trip to Maryland, a team that has been on the opposite end of the early season surprise spectrum from CU.

The Terrapins dropped their third decision of 2011, starting sluggish against Georgia Tech before battling back to within five, but no closer. The loss was similar to UM’s defeat against West Virginia in Week 3. The Terrapins forced Tevin Washington out of his comfort zone, making him throw 19 times. He completed only six attempts. Surprisingly, Orwin Smith was used on just four rushes.

Tech dominated in several offensive facets, including a nearly 10-minute disparity in time-of-possession, but it translated to the Wreck’s fewest points on the campaign. GT remains one of the teams to beat in the conference, but must avoid another stuck-in-quicksand sort of outing like it had this week.

Ga. Tech and Clemson are the beneficiaries of Florida State’s surprisingly poor start, as was Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons are actually on pace with the Tigers and Jackets courtesy of yesterday’s 35-30 decision. It was the program’s sixth win all-time against FSU, and at 3-0 marks one of the best conference starts in Wake history. Internet and radio chatter after the final horn was focused on FSU being “overrated.”

While that certainly seems to be the case, credit must be due the Demon Deacons. Wake has played well, and were it not for quarterback Tanner Price suffering an injury in the fourth quarter at Syracuse would be 5-0. Now might be time to talk about WF as an ACC championship game contender; the Deacs boast a potent passing offense in Price and wideout Chris Givens, but with Givens sidelined in the second half, missed no beat using Terence Davis as the primary weapon down the stretch.

The Deacs also have a capable ground game with Josh Harris and Brandon Pendergrass. Wake was the beneficiary of four turnovers, the X-factor in trumping FSU’s more than 420 yards of offense. Jim Grobe cannot rely on such takeaway disparities to have a legitimate shot at the league crown, but even having this conversation at this juncture is a tremendous step for the program.

Texas A&M overcame a rather disgusting (and possibly Billy Madison inspired) vandalism of its bus in Lubbock to run up big points on the Texas Tech defense. The Aggies did something that has vexed them through two defeats, maintain a lead to the final zeroes despite the opponent fighting back from a double digit deficit. A&M established a two-touchdown advantage that persisted much of the evening, and that gap forced Tech quarterback Seth Doege to throw. A lot.

He completed 67 percent of his attempts, an impressive figure regardless of attempts, but an astounding one given he threw 66 times. He also gave up zero interceptions; in fact, there wasn’t a turnover between either team. That’s been a theme for Doege this season, who has just one interception all year despite throwing 227 passes. Add him to the list of prolific quarterbacks calling the Big 12 Conference home: Landry Jones (decimated Texas), Brandon Weeden (played his best game of the season as Oklahoma State scored 70 on Kansas), Robert Griffin III (steamrolled Iowa State).

The Big 12 is proving to be a quarterback’s league, which makes the 5-0 start of Kansas State all the more surprising. Fittingly with well-tenured head coach Bill Snyder, the Wildcats are a throwback football team that wins with defense. Missouri was completely stifled in K-State’s key conference win yesterday. Offensively, there’s nothing the Wildcats do that’s particularly impressive. Quarterback Collin Klein scored three touchdowns against Mizzou, but those scores are the only attention-grabbing statistic he’s compiled.

Snyder’s proving that there is indeed still a place for a stonecutter style team in a college football landscape dominated by high tempo, big yardage offenses. The contrasting philosophies of K-State and its Big 12 brethren will be put to the test, though, as the Wildcats must still face the league’s offensive juggernauts. Can the Manhattan Tortoises keep pace with the proverbial Hares?

Rutgers certainly showed its possible, taking the punch out of Todd Graham and his “High Octane Football” at Pitt. Despite starting his third different quarterback in the last 12 months, Greg Schiano got more than enough offense to complement his Scarlet Knights’ impressive defense. Gary Nova wasn’t particularly good — scratch that, at 11-for-24 with an interception he wsa pretty bad. Nevertheless, RU capitalized on four Pitt turnovers and didn’t allow Ray Graham to beat it.

Graham did rush for over 140 yards, but those yards bore little fruit. RU end Justin Francis had a terrific day. The pressure he put on Tino Sunseri helped force some of those critical turnovers, which shortened the Knights’ field to compensate for RU’s lack of offensive firepower. Had you suggested Mohamed Sanu would be inconsequential, and the Knights a 24-point winner, this blogger would have asked you to buy a bridge in Brooklyn.

The one touchdown Graham scored brought his season total to nine, well behind the nation’s leader. In fact, very few backs are anywhere near the Bowl Subdivision’s top rushing scorer. It’s not Trent Richardson, nor is it Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. With three scores in a 42-0 conference romp, Bernard Pierce now has 15 touchdowns via the ground this season. Ball’s 13 are the next closest; Oregon’s LaMichael James has barely half that.

Pierce was subject of a modest Heisman campaign last season, featured on billboards and bus benches in Philadalphia, but his far fetched candidacy was cut short immediately by injury. Rehabilitated and rejuvenated. Pierce is flying below the national radar despite being on a pace to become just the second 30 rushing touchdown scorer in NCAA history. The first was Barry Sanders, whose 37 in 1988 made him a runaway Heisman selection. Should Pierce break the 30 mark, and Temple win the MAC championship, he should at least receive an invitation to New York City. Yet, the nation’s most populace city apparently has room only for one non-automatic qualifying conference player and this season the non-BCS leagues are home to some of the best individual talent.

Pierce joins 2010 finalist Kellen Moore and Houston’s Case Keenum as the clear class of the non-AQs, all of whom are putting up impressive numbers. Moore’s candidacy is the most viable, due both to Boise State’s legitimate national championship aspirations, and his 2010 nomination. But UH’s domination of East Carolina has the prolific passer Keenum and his Cougars 6-0. Is the consistency of Moore for a title contender, the gaudy numbers of Keenum on a potential unbeaten team, or the possibly historic run of Pierce more impressive?

Speaking of non-AQs, Utah’s move to the BCS-affiliated Pac-12 has been a rough one. Arizona State handled the Utes with ease in Salt Lake City, and UU is at the South’s basement alongside Arizona. Utah’s struggles have made for a nifty little talking point among football elists who dismiss the Utes’ past championship caliber teams and other BCS-seeking non-AQs like Boise State based on this difficult stretch.

Nevermind the fact UU is in an obvious rebuilding phase. The Utes have no stability at running back or on the offensive line, two components key to Kyle Whittingham’s recent success that were ravaged by graduation this offseason. Utah’s inability to climb into the win column has more to do with youth, as discussed above, than it does the program’s place in a stronger conference. The Utes might even struggle in this year’s Mountain West, which is decidedly down.

TCU reestablished some of its lost cred with a dominating defeat of San Diego State in Qualcomm, just the second Aztec loss there in the past two seasons — coincidentally, the other was to Utah. SDSU’s surprisingly lackluster effort was outdone though: aforementioned Air Force had no shot against Notre Dame, and Wyoming went from a team with the look of a bowl game contender to Utah State’s personal slumpbuster. USU exploded for 63 points on the confused and overmatched Cowboys.