Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Football Weekend Roundup: Good, Bad, and Ugly

 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Every week, editors Jeremy Conlin and Joe Parello bring you the good, the bad and the ugly from the pro and college football weekend that was.

The Good


They picked up the most impressive win of the college football weekend and looked rather convincing doing it, especially in the second half. People might knock it because it was against a Big Ten team (more on them later), but Michigan State will, in all likelihood, blow through the rest of their schedule undefeated and be a good bet to be the No. 4 seed in the playoff (my assumption is that a one-loss Big Ten team would get the nod over a one-loss Big XII team, and I don't see Oklahoma or Baylor running the table).

They're better known for their speed all over the field, but it was their defensive line that really made the difference in the game. After being unable to get off the field on third down for most of the first half, the Oregon front four stepped up in the second half and got consistent pressure on Connor Cook, which spurred a 28-0 run to end the game.

Oregon moved up to No. 2 in the AP Poll, and now holds the second-most first-place votes in the Coaches' Poll (although they're still only in fourth, behind Alabama and Oklahoma). It would probably take a loss from one of the teams above them for the Ducks to leapfrog anyone, but both Alabama certainly has a tougher schedule ahead of them - Oregon has clear sailing until October 11, when they play at UCLA, and their only other real test comes at home - they host Stanford November 1. Meanwhile, Alabama has to play four currently ranked teams, two on the road (at No. 14 Ole Miss and at No. 10 LSU) and two at home (vs. No. 7 Texas A&M and vs. No. 5 Auburn). With so many good teams, it seems unlikely that any team in the SEC will run the table, which would mean any even one-loss team from the Pac-12 would probably make the playoff. Right now, all signs point to Oregon.



I'm not sure it really qualifies as "good," but it was certainly a savvy move on the NCAA's part to drop Penn State's postseason ban on the same day as the Ray Rice story - I had about 10 conversations about Ray Rice today and not one about Penn State. To be honest - I don't even know how the news was received by the media and the general public. All I know is that nobody is talking about it, which is probably what they wanted.


The Legion of Boom/12th Man/Beast Mode/Russell Wilson

There pretty much wasn't anything bad about Seattle's Thursday night thrashing of Green Bay. The Seahawks once again looked like the best defense in football, led by their Legion of Boom secondary. Seattle held Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packers offense to just 255 total yards (only 175 through the air), while Marshawn Lynch had his typical "20 carry, 100+ yard, two touchdown" game, and Russell Wilson again threw for a pair of scores with no turnovers.

The crowd was also in midseason form, making itself heard through the TV and just generally sounding like a madhouse. As I said in our season preview, it is very difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but Seattle may be the best bet to do it in a decade.


Carolina's Defense

Joe and I both picked Carolina to cover a +2.5 spread against Tampa Bay. We made that pick on Thursday, when Cam Newton seemed likely to play. Sunday morning, we learned that Cam Newton would not play. We considered changing the pick (and Tweeting something to that effect, so we'd have it on record), but ultimately decided not to, in part because we thought we were too late - the one o'clock games had already kicked off and we had forgotten that the Carolina game was later. But regardless of the why, we stuck with Carolina. And we're glad we did.

Carolina's defense is still really, really good, you guys. Tampa Bay mustered just 264 yards of offense, and 54 of those yards came on a run from fullback Jorvorskie Lane. If you take out the outlier, the Bucs carried the ball 16 times for just 48 yards, surrendered three sacks, and turned the ball over three times. You generally can't win football games like that, regardless of which former Cleveland Browns cast-off your opponent is starting at quarterback.


Matty Ice

Setting a team record of 448 passing yards and tossing three touchdowns with no turnovers may not be a sustainable way for Matt Ryan and the Falcons to win, but damn was he good in the opener at New Orleans.

Ryan also kept several drives alive with, gulp, his feet. Not normally known for his mobility, Ryan converted a big pair of second half third downs with his legs, and helped dig Atlanta out of an early 13-0 hole. In the final 80 seconds of regulation, Ryan completed three big passes, including a dime to Devin Hester for 21 yards to set up the tying field goal.

He wouldn't have to do much in overtime, however, as a Marques Colston fumble set up the Falcons' game winner.

Oh yeah, and Matty Ice now holds Atlanta's all-time record for touchdown passes with 156. All in a day's work, and the Falcons appear to be back on track.


Fight On!

Don't look now, but could USC be a likable underdog? While I won't go that far, the Trojans, lacking significant depth after years of scholarship restrictions, never seemed to fade in Palo Alto against a usually physical Stanford squad.

USC's defense continually tightened in the Red Zone, and the Trojans out gained the Cardinal on the ground by 30 yards, led by Javorius Allen's career-high 154 on 23 carries.

With 2:30 remaining in regulation, USC made the game-winning plays it hadn't the last five or so seasons. First, kicker Andre Heidari, with ice water in his veins, knocked through a 53-yarder to put USC up 13-10 (he actually beat Stanford with a field goal last year, so ok, they've had some winning plays).

But, with the Cardinal driving for a game-tying or game-winning score, Trojan linebacker J.R. Tavai came off the edge and hit Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, forcing a fumble and sealing a huge road win for new USC coach Steve Sarkisian.


The Bad


But as good as USC was, Stanford still should have won this game. The Cardinal out gained USC 413 to 291 on the afternoon, but committed a pair of turnovers and just couldn't come away with anything once it got into USC territory.

On all nine of Stanford's drives, it pushed its way inside the USC 35-yard line, but came away with only 10 points. Part of that was play calling, as Stanford steered away from the run the farther into Trojan territory it got, despite running backs Remound Wright and Kelsey Young each averaging over five yards per carry on the day.

The rest of it was just a lack of execution. Kicker Jordan Williamson missed a pair of field goals, and the Cardinal offense's efficiency dropped to 3 yards per play, while it had been 9 yards per play outside the Trojan 35.

The uncharacteristic performance by Stanford cost it the nation's longest active home winning streak, which ended at 17 games.


San Diego's Third Downs

The Chargers offense was so great in 2013 because they ran the ball well, stayed ahead of the chains, and absolutely dominated on third downs (they posted the best conversion rate in the league). That formula fell apart Monday night in Arizona. They mustered just 52 rushing yards (2.2 per carry) and committed six penalties, which means they were constantly behind the chains. They finished just 6-for-15 on third downs.


St. Louis

Wow, so that was a disaster. Other than giving up over 6 yards per carry, including 102 yards and a score on only three carries by Cordarrelle Patterson, making Matt Cassell look like a model of efficiency (17-25 for 170 yards, 2 TDs and no turnovers), turning it over twice, and just generally never even competing with a team that went 5-10-1 last year, everything went really well for St. Louis.

The Rams also saw injuries to backup quarterback Shaun Hill star defensive end Chris Long and first round pick offensive tackle Greg Robinson in their humbling 34-6 loss at the hands of Minnesota. Perhaps even more embarrassingly, the Vikings did all this while only attempting THREE passes of more than 10 yards downfield all game (Cassell went 1-3 for 18 yards on such throws), leading to Minnesota's first road win in over a year.


Pennsylvania Teams for Half the Game

The Steelers and Eagles, combined, played one hell of a game Sunday. That is, if you combine Pittsburgh's first half, which saw it jump out to a 27-3 lead over Cleveland on the back of 278 yards and a touchdown from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, with Philadelphia's second half, in which the Eagles erased a 17-0 halftime deficit with 34 unanswered points.

But man were both teams bad for the other halves of their respective games. First of all, the Eagles were losing 17-0... To the Jaguars... In Philly. Nick Foles threw an interception and lost two fumbles in the first half, while the Eagle defense made Chad Henne and Allen Hurns look like Young and Rice to the tune of two catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns on Jacksonville's first two drives of the day.

Foles bounced back, with a ton of help from Darren Sproles, and the Jags again became the Jags in the second half, leading to a 34-17 Eagles win.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh just couldn't do anything in the second half against Cleveland, allowing the suddenly up-tempo Browns to march up and down the field for 24 unanswered points, led by Isaiah Crowell's (who?) two third quarter touchdowns, while the Pittsburgh passing game failed to produce 90 yards in the second half.

Pittsburgh was bailed out when its defense suddenly regained form late in the fourth, and Roethlisberger hit receiver Markus Wheaton twice on a last minute drive to set up Shaun Suisham's game winner.


The Ugly

Ray Rice

There is just so much wrong with this situation, not the least of which being that the NFL seems to think we're all idiots. The league claiming that it had not seen the newly released video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee, now wife Janay Palmer, after it had been reported that the league had seen the footage, and the NFL NEVER REFUTED THAT FACT, must mean that Roger Goodell thinks we're all infants.

No commish, we're not, we know you saw the footage, and that you were going to bring Rice back after an insignificant two-game suspension. It wasn't until that tape saw the light of day and the public outrage grew too loud that you had no choice.

It's unfortunate that this tape being released is the only thing that led to actual punishment for Rice, especially when the first tape of him dragging Palmer's limp and unconscious body out of the elevator told us all we needed to know. He hit Palmer, and hit her hard enough to knock her out. Whatever came before that could only justify it in the most extreme of circumstances (ie, she had a gun or had somehow surprised Rice and put him in an extremely vulnerable position).

It seemed like everybody latched onto those incredibly unlikely scenarios. There was no evidence that Palmer had a weapon of any sort, and how realistic is it to think that she could bring much bodily harm to a 220 lb. running back on her own? But still we heard it, "we can't pass judgement on Rice because we don't know what happened in that elevator!"

Yes, yes you did. Now the whole world knows all too well. Not saying the first video would be enough to convict him in a court of law, but the prosecutor had the second tape of Rice punching Palmer. The fact that this man isn't on trial right now is a joke, and the NFL just now making a move, when it could literally do nothing else, makes the league look far smaller than it should.


New England's Offensive Line

I guess they miss Logan Mankins.

Or, at the very least, Dante Scarnecchia.

Mankins' replacement in the starting lineup was Jordan Devey, who didn't last long. They moved to Marcus Cannon who played poorly, but not indefensibly so. In any event, the Patriots couldn't keep Tom Brady upright in the second half and couldn't generate much push in the running game.

Scarnecchia was the Patriots longtime offensive line coach, who retired following last season. He had a long history of plucking no-name prospects and turning them into serviceable, or even blue-chip lineman. Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell (two current starters) were both undrafted free agents. Stephen Neal started 81 games between 2002 and 2010 and didn't even play college football (he was a wrestler). Dan Koppen was a 5th Round pick who eventually made a Pro Bowl. The Patriots have long had one of the best offensive lines in football, despite only spending four first-or-second round picks on lineman in the last fifteen years (Matt Light in the 2nd Round in 2001, Logan Mankins in the 1st Round in 2005, Sebastian Vollmer in the 2nd Round in 2009, and Nate Solder in the 1st Round in 2011).

Contrast that with, say, Green Bay, who has now spent 12 draft picks over the last six years on offensive lineman and can't block anybody. Pittsburgh has spent 11 draft picks over the same span, to similar results.

It could just be a fluke occurrence, but it's unlikely, considering Miami's pass rush isn't exactly world-class. If Minnesota's makeshift defensive line of the post-Jared Allen days look like the second coming of the Purple People Eaters against the Patriots in Week 2, there could be a long-term problem at hand.


The Big Ten

The expanded Big Ten now has 14 teams. 13 of those teams were in action this past weekend (Indiana, mercifully, had the week off). The Big Ten went 8-5, which doesn't seem like it's so bad, until you realize that those wins were over juggernauts such as Ball State, South Florida, Middle Tennessee, Western Illinois, Howard, Akron, McNeese State, and Western Kentucky. The only teams who played fellow power conference teams (Michigan State played Oregon, Michigan played Notre Dame, Ohio State played Virginia Tech) all lost by two touchdowns or more. That 8-5 straight up can be more accurately portrayed as 2-11 against the spread. If you like gambling on college football, I might suggest betting against the Big Ten.


The Big Ten (Again)

So yeah, it wasn't a great day for the Big Ten. First of all, Michigan State had the conference's finest performance of the week, but that was a 20+ point loss to Oregon, and Wisconsin's expected thrashing of FCS Western Illinois was really the only highlight of the day for the B1G.

Illinois, Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland all won unconvincingly against bad teams, while Purdue and Northwestern each looked awful in losses to MAC squads. Ohio State's offense was lost without Braxton Miller in a home loss to a solid, but far from elite Virginia Tech team, and Michigan probably had the worst day of all in South Bend.

After making a huge fuss about Notre Dame deciding to cut off the historic rivalry between the two schools, the Wolverines responded by getting absolutely throttled 31-0 by the Irish. Devin Gardner was terrible, Michigan again couldn't run the ball and nobody on UM's supposedly improved defense could dream of slowing down Everett Golson and the ND offense.

All this and, while I admittedly haven't checked Twitter in a few minutes, Brady Hoke still had a job in Ann Arbor. I would expect that to change pretty soon.

It was a total and utter failure by the entire league, and will lead to a larger narrative that may end up keeping the Spartans out of the College Football Playoff, even if they rattle off 11 in a row the rest of the way. What team left on their schedule will be viewed as a quality win?


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