LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a game that ended just before the start of Halloween, the No. 2 team in the country got a major scare on the road.
But Florida State isn’t easily spooked -- and it’s even harder to kill. The Seminoles bounced back from a 21-point deficit at No. 25 Louisville to win 42-31 and keep their College Football Playoff hopes very much alive.
Here’s a quick look at how it went down:
How the game was won: After falling behind 21-0 in the first half and trailing 24-7 in the third quarter, the Seminoles' offense finally got going. But Florida State really showed its true championship mettle on the downs that mattered most. Louisville finished 1-for-11 on third downs, missing on its first 10, and was 0-for-2 on a pair of fourth downs -- the first on the FSU goal line during the game’s first series; the second on a dropped pass with the game on the line. Meanwhile, the Seminoles went 9-for-16 on third down, and those conversions included three long touchdowns.
Game ball goes to: While Florida State running back Karlos Williams was in the news all week for the wrong reasons, his backup -- true freshman Dalvin Cook -- made the headlines Thursday night. He gave the Seminoles a spark in the third quarter, catching balls out of the backfield and scoring on a 40-yard run. Then he provided the game-winning score on a 38-yard run down the right sideline, one play after Florida State forced a Louisville three-and-out. Cook finished with 110 rushing yards on just nine carries and added four receptions for 40 yards.
What it means: Florida State won its 24th straight game and further strengthened its playoff position. This looked like the Seminoles’ toughest remaining game, as they finish the regular season with Virginia, at Miami, Boston College and Florida before a likely ACC championship game appearance. It now will take a major upset to keep Jimbo Fisher’s team from going undefeated for a second straight season.
Playoff implication: Several teams from other conferences were pulling for Louisville, including those from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. But now the Seminoles have three quality wins (Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville) and will be a heavy favorite to claim one of the four playoff spots.
Best play: While Florida State got plenty of big plays from true freshmen on Thursday, Cook's second touchdown run was the biggest. Right after the Seminoles forced Louisville into a three-and-out deep in Cardinals territory, the freshman running back sprinted off tackle to the right and streaked to the end zone to put FSU up for good with 3:46 left.
What's next: The Seminoles host Virginia next Saturday, while Louisville heads to Boston College.
Because little Curry Sexton always knew all the Kansas State players. Knew their jersey numbers. Knew their stats.
"He knew everything about the game," said his father, Ted Sexton, who began taking his son to K-State games as a child. "Always soaked it all in."
"His best asset is his knowledge," said Tyler Lockett, Sexton's cohort at receiver. "He knows how to get open, and every time we call on him to make a big play, he makes it."
With 40 receptions and 450 receiving yards, Sexton has surfaced as a much-needed secondary receiving target alongside Lockett for quarterback Jake Waters, who is Sexton's roommate. Thanks in part to Sexton's emergence, K-State ranks 23rd nationally in scoring, despite playing at a slower pace than most Big 12 offenses.
"I'm not flashy. I'm not big. Nothing about me really sticks out," Sexton said. "But I pride myself on being reliable and being in the right place."
Sexton has been in the right place all season. But before that, he had to decide if K-State was the right place for him.
Sexton grew up on a wheat, soybean and alfalfa farm in Abilene, Kansas, a 45-minute drive from Manhattan. His capacity for football knowledge at an early age wowed everyone, including John Dorsey, his uncle who is the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs. When Sexton was 10, Dorsey was at the Sexton farm helping with the annual harvest and casually mentioned a Florida State player he was considering drafting.
"Curry immediately rattled off all his statistics, and John was like, 'My gosh, Curry knows more about this kid than I do, and this is my job,'" Ted Sexton recalled.
That acumen didn't stop with football. Curry excelled in the classroom as well. His grades, combined with his savvy on the field, drew the interest of the Ivy League.
The boy from Abilene was accepted into Harvard, Columbia and Princeton, which all offered the chance to play football, too.
"We were kind of sold on Harvard," Ted said. "They were telling him, 'Curry, come here, get your degree from here and you can go anywhere in the world -- and you won't have to ask how much they're paying, you'll tell them what you're going to make.'"
But a Harvard education wasn't really what Sexton coveted. He wanted to be a coach, or possibly even follow in his uncle's footsteps with scouting or football personnel.
On New Year's Eve of his senior year, his dream school finally called. Bill Snyder offered Sexton a scholarship, with the caveat he'd have to grayshirt, meaning he'd have to wait a year before he could enroll and join the K-State football team.
"I felt like coming to K-State would be a better learning experience if I wanted to go into coaching," Sexton said. "I didn't feel like Harvard would have benefited me as much as learning from this staff."
Harvard's education might be world-renowned, but the Crimson couldn't offer a professor like Snyder.
"He wanted to coach," Ted said. "Who better to learn from than Bill Snyder?"
The decision to spurn the Ivy League and grayshirt didn't come without angst. While away that first year, Sexton passed the time taking community college classes and helping his father at the farm. He worked out at a local rec center and at his former high school with younger brother Collin (who went on to play for K-State, too) and cousin Cody Whitehair, now the Wildcats' starting left tackle.
"It was tough," Sexton said. "When you're not part of the team, you wonder, do they really want you there?"
But Snyder had a track record of turning grayshirts into starters, giving Sexton the fortitude he needed. And that perseverance has paid off five years later in Sexton's senior season.
Wearing No. 14 in honor of the section he sat in all those years, he has become K-State's secret weapon.
He recorded 11 receptions against Auburn, and he snagged an acrobatic one-handed touchdown in the Wildcats' rout of Texas Tech.
Two weeks ago, he delivered a critical third-down catch to help K-State run out the clock and beat Oklahoma. Then, last weekend, his 24-yard grab on third-and-long propelled K-State to its first touchdown in a win over Texas.
"Curry is a very astute player," Snyder said. "He is very knowledgeable. He runs excellent routes; he's really good about deciphering defenses.
"Kind of like a quarterback out there."
When this season ends, Sexton wants to begin his football career off the field. He double-majored in business and marketing and has a minor in leadership studies, the degree Snyder championed into existence at K-State.
Until then, Sexton wants to help the team he cheered from Section 14 win another championship.
"Never once have I said I wish I was at Harvard, and I don't think I ever will," Sexton said. "This is where I always wanted to be."
Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.
This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.
Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.
The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.
Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.
Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.
Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.
The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.
Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.
Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.
Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.
OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.
There is a literal and figurative parallel between his defense and his program when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham talks about "closing the gap."
As evidence by its 6-1 start, No. 17 ranking and standing within the Pac-12 South, it’s clear Utah has "closed the gap" between the Mountain West Utes, the Pac-12 Utes and the Pac-12 competition. That is the figurative gap.
The literal gap exists between the offensive line, the quarterback and the running back. And it’s in that space that the Utah defense has laid waste.
"We’ve got good players, and that’s where it all starts," said Whittingham. "If you want to know the basis of the whole thing, it starts with good players. We’ve got guys up front who are physically gifted."
They are long and rangy. They are stout and strong. They are fast and vicious. And they like to hunt. That is why Utah’s front seven has emerged as one of the best in the league and the country.
For obvious reasons, defensive end Nate Orchard gets much of the ink. He is second nationally in sacks and third nationally in tackles for a loss.
"He’s an athletic freak," said defensive end Hunter Dimick, who plays opposite Orchard. "Plain and simply put. He deserves all of the recognition he’s getting."
We would be remiss if we didn't mention that the national leader in both categories is Washington’s Hau'oli Kikaha, and Arizona’s Scooby Wright is second nationally in TFLs. (Isn’t there some sort of stereotype about defense and the Pac-12? Oh well).
Three Utah players -- Orchard, Dimick and linebacker Jared Norris -- rank in the top seven in the league in tackles for a loss and the top eight in sacks. But as any Utah man would say, the defense is only as successful as the offense and the special teams.
That has been Utah’s recipe in 2014. Punter Tom Hackett buries a team inside the 10. The defense goes out and makes a stop or forces a turnover, Kaelin Clay posts a big punt return and the offense gets points. Wash, rinse, repeat.
"The defense can’t play great without the offense helping us out in the field-position game or scoring and taking some of the pressure off of us," Dimick said. "The offense has helped us out a great deal. The special teams has helped us out a great deal. The emphasis on all three phases is so important here. Great defense is a result of good offense and good special teams."
Typical Utah. You try to get a guy to talk about how good the defense is and all he wants to do is talk about the special teams.
Some of Utah’s success can probably be attributed to the even-front scheme it plays. As more teams nationally and within the conference trend toward the odd-front 3-4 (or variations), the Utes have stayed true to four down linemen throughout the years, as what was once the norm has become an oddity. Whittingham has always made it a priority to go heavy on defensive linemen during recruiting. He considers it his strongest position group, so he would rather have four of them out there than three.
"That’s where we are heavy, that’s what we’re going to play," Whittingham said. "We want as many of our best players on the field, and up front is definitely our strong suit."
That has also created depth across the defensive line, giving Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake plenty of combinations to play with. Combine that with an aggressive linebacking corps and you see why 12 different Utah defenders have recorded at least half a sack, and 19 have TFL credits.
The Utes have also been spending more time in a 4-2-5 nickel defense -- sometimes using it as their base. Whittingham said this was a philosophical shift to combat the spread offenses in the Pac-12. The extra defensive back clogs the secondary, allowing Utah’s front to pick up coverage sacks.
Now bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the Utes head to Tempe this week with (somewhat) control of the Pac-12 South in the balance. ASU ranks fourth in the conference, averaging 36.6 points per game. The Utes are second in points allowed, holding teams to 21.6. Something has to give.
"It all comes down to trust," Dimick said. "Like coach always says, do your 1/11th. If you do that and trust the guys around you to do their job, that’s when we have success."
Coincidentally, here comes Louisville and, specifically, its coach, Bobby Petrino. Although the division is Florida State’s to lose even if the Cardinals upset the No. 2 Seminoles Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET ESPN), a modern-day revival of the 2002 game could set the stage for years to come.
“I don’t know for sure yet. We’ll have to wait and see how this game goes,” Louisville linebacker Keith Kelsey said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Both rosters are full of talent, thanks in large part to the relentless recruiting of Fisher and the connections former coach Charlie Strong built with high school prospects and their families. A great rivalry needs players of the same caliber, and that should be a constant in this rivalry.
In college football, however, true rivalries are established because of the blended intrigue in the men patrolling the sidelines. Fisher and Petrino are among the best offensive minds in college football, perennially finishing toward the top of the leaderboard in points per game.
“If you look at their film, they're kind of similar to us,” Fisher said. “I won't say we mirror, but we have a lot of the same philosophies. Bobby's a very good coach.”
What really could make this rivalry most captivating in the ACC isn’t the play calling of Fisher and Petrino but the personalities.
Petrino has at times been a contributor to college football’s moral malaise. He unceremoniously left the NFL’s Jaguars before trying to backdoor his way out of Louisville numerous times, and then eventually left for the NFL’s Falcons. His exit from Atlanta -- and Arkansas, too, for that matter -- are all part of a humiliating public record.
He’s been called egotistical and arrogant, but he’s also been called a winner. Those same words are now being used to describe Fisher.
Fisher and his Seminoles have generated negative off-field headlines for nearly a year, and the fifth-year Florida State coach has defiantly backed his players through each incident, the latest being an alleged domestic violence incident involving leading rusher Karlos Williams, who is expected to play Thursday.
Fisher has withstood each pounding wave of criticism of his seemingly Teflon program, even firing his own shots back. He scoffs at the national perception his actions have enabled players and instilled a lack of accountability at FSU. Fisher’s approval rating outside of Tallahassee has plummeted, which he and his team have only embraced. Schadenfreude is the term thrown around Florida’s capital city these days.
Petrino and Fisher are similar, or at least perceived in similar contexts. Outside of each fan base, neither coach is well liked at the moment, and the volatile pendulum of public opinion doesn’t look to be swinging back anytime soon.
Yet that same haughtiness that rankles outside fans can endear coaches to his respective fan base. With college football rosters the equivalent of a revolving door, opposing fan bases need to acquire a certain distaste for the opposing coach. For the sake of this rivalry, Fisher’s and Petrino’s egos could be the root irritant. What FSU fans love in Fisher they’ll abhor in Petrino. And vice versa.
For the neutral fans, the appeal will always be whether this is the game that somehow neither team wins. National eyes are on this game, for reasons on and off the field, and for a conference lacking cachet in a subjective playoff system, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The ACC needs to usher in a new rivalry, and these are the right coaches and teams.
In a sense, it’s Fisher vs. Fisher or Petrino vs. Petrino, and that could make for a fun future.
Mississippi State’s head coach knew going on the road to Kentucky wasn’t going to be easy. The two weeks between games would be a factor. The crowd would, too. So would the No. 1 ranking beside the Bulldogs’ name.
“It was great; you’re ranked No. 1 and you have a bye week,” Mullen told ESPN on Wednesday. “You come off the bye week and you’re sometimes a little sluggish getting back into the routine and into the flow, and now you have everybody patting you on the back. You’re not sure how you’re supposed to react to things.”
So Mississippi State, a heavy favorite, didn’t win so handily. The Bulldogs started sluggish and then went in the opposite direction and played too tight.
“I thought we played really well. I thought they played really well,” Mullen said. “But, at times, instead of having the juice and excitement we normally have when we make a play, there would be relief.
“That’s not what we want to be. That’s not how we got successful.”
In other words, Mississippi State got ahead of itself.
Mullen and Prescott said that won’t happen again this Saturday against Arkansas. They’re over the No. 1 ranking, they said.
In fact, when the inaugural College Football Playoff Rankings were released Tuesday, Prescott said he was too busy watching film to tune in. Mullen said to wake him when it mattered.
“When’s the last one come out?” Mullen said. “I would view that one.”
“Hearing all the media stuff got us uptight," said Prescott, "but we’ve shaken it off and we’re back to being ourselves. It’s hard sometimes, but we have to remember who we are and what got us to this point.
“We just have to stay focused and know we’re the same team no one was talking about. We’re the same guys that were slightly unrecruited when we came here. We have to be true to ourselves and remember that.”
If they need a physical reminder, they won’t have to look far this weekend.
“This is a good team and a desperate team,” Prescott said of Arkansas. “They’re desperate for a win. They play everyone they play really, really hard, and we’re not going to be the exception. I don’t believe they’ve had an SEC win in two years now, and they’re hungry for one.”
It’s more than attitude that should worry State, though.
“Dealing with perception and reality of Arkansas, Arkansas is one of the better teams I’ve seen on film this year,” Mullen said. “The record might not state it for them, but they lost to a top-10 A&M team and lost a one-point game to Alabama, which is an excellent football team, and they were right there playing with Auburn Game 1 of the season."
“I’ve yet to see a team in the SEC this season that if you don’t come out and play your A-game, you’re not going to win," he added. "It’s plain and simple.”
Kentucky proved that the Bulldogs aren’t infallible when they’re not themselves.
If Mississippi State doesn’t get back to playing with a chip on their shoulder against Arkansas, then watch out.
“Playing with the juice and excitement we played with earlier in the season,” Mullen said. “To me, that’s the most important thing. Having fun while we’re playing, not worrying about anything else but the next play.”
No. 1-ranked Mississippi State needs to play more like unranked Mississippi State.
If it doesn’t, then the roles could be reversed for them.
It was the date they'd have a chance to hit the field again against the team that derailed their 2012 season. But the 2013 date would have the same result -- that circle would make no difference in the end -- it'd be another loss to Stanford, another New Year's Day spent not playing in the Rose Bowl.
"We can't make it a bigger game than it is," Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. "That's what I feel like we did last year. We were just focusing on that game way too much."
So perhaps in this game, one of the biggest benefits for Oregon will be one of its biggest questions marks -- its youth.
Though Allen and Carrington saw the effects of this game last year during their redshirt seasons, they weren't in that game seeing exactly how everything went down.
Now, their ignorance could be Oregon's bliss.
In any other game that type of inexperience might be considered a deterrent. But here, in a game in which the history has messed with the present players more and more, perhaps inexperience will be one of the Ducks' greatest strength.
"I feel like it's a little bit easier for those guys to be able to play this game," Grasu said. "Because all we can tell those young guys is treat it like you perform in practice. They do an unbelievable job at practice and it has been showing on the field every Saturday. They just have to keep doing that -- don't get too hyped up just for this game."
"Maybe that is a good thing," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said about his young playmakers. "Those guys are a little bit fresher in their perspective."
The youth certainly has been fresh for Helfrich this season, especially of late as the learning curves have really picked up.
But to him, he really doesn't think of his players in terms of grades. He looks at each of them as a player going into Week 9 of the season, and so far, all of these 18- and 19-year olds have looked like very talented Week 9 players.
"We have so many [young] guys playing prominent roles on both sides of the ball and on special teams," Helfrich said. "If they're in the game, they're our best guy doesn't matter what grade they're in."
It might not matter to Helfrich, but it could, in fact, be a help to the coach come Saturday.
Twelve years have passed since the goalposts went down, so recollections are a little fuzzy. Memories of plays have given way to memories of emotions, though, so players from both sides of the 2002 game between No. 4 Florida State and unranked Louisville are still clear.
Louisville quarterback Dave Ragone remembers that September game as a must-win for a Conference USA program fighting for respect. Florida State cornerback Stanford Samuels remembers the embarrassment of wading through UL fans as he walked off the field. Cardinals coach John L. Smith remembers it positioning the program for a move to a major conference.
And they all remember the rain.
Here’s a look back at that 2002 game, a 26-20 Louisville victory, through the eyes of three of the people who lived it.
Smith: “Two years before, we went down [to Florida State] with the same kids, but they were all sophomores, and FSU kicked our tails. We had those same kids, but now they’re coming to our place, and they remembered that [2000 game], but now they’re seniors and two years older.”
Samuels: “I remember being very confident. In the meetings leading up to the game, we were all speaking the language about how confident we felt.”
Ragone: “We started that season, and we lost to Kentucky and the air came out of the balloon because we knew we had to be perfect to be in the conversation for anything. But we also knew we had Florida State on the schedule, and that was our last chance for validity in terms of where our program was. There was a belief within the team. I don’t think anybody outside the fan base or the players thought there was any chance we’d pull that upset.”
With the remnants of Tropical Storm Isidore creating torrential downpours, rain was the constant.
Samuels: “We got there and it’s a tropical storm coming though. At the time, Coach [Mickey] Andrews believed in playing man-to-man, and that rain and the conditions it created, it made us question whether he should put us in man.”
The rain didn’t scare off Cardinals fans that evening, though. Smith said it was never a “miserable rain,” although few share Smith’s unabashed exuberance for life.
Samuels: “The atmosphere was electric. It was one of the games you dream about being a part of entering college. It was everything you wanted it to be.”
Fourth quarter and overtime
The game stayed even mostly throughout, and the box score produced nearly identical numbers for the teams.
Early in the fourth quarter, Ragone threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to knot the game at 20. Both teams were held scoreless the rest of the fourth quarter, setting up overtime.
Ragone: “When we got that game tied up and we knew we were going to overtime at our place in these conditions, their backs now against the wall, at no point did any of us think we weren’t going to win that football game.”
On the first play of the extra period, Florida State quarterback Chris Rix threw what can only be described as a water-logged duck. The ball flailed in the air and dropped into the arms of a Louisville player at the 5-yard line. On the next play, Cardinals tailback Henry Miller ran for 25 yards and a touchdown on the first play of Louisville’s overtime drive. Miller was met by his offensive line and a few thousand fans to create the largest and happiest dog pile Louisville’s ever seen.
Smith: “There was so much runoff on the ground, I thought we’d drown in the pool. I kept thinking somebody was going to drown.”
Ragone: "We were in complete hysteria. I can remember running around and not celebrating with anybody. I couldn’t find anybody. I was just running around. It wasn’t that jump-in-your-arms moment with somebody,” Ragone said. “And then the pile started, and I got my helmet ripped off and that didn’t even matter. The people who stayed, we celebrated as much with our teammates as we did with those fans. That's the memory I'll always remember."
The Cardinals fans that did not add to the chaos in the end zone decided to make a run at the goal posts. Smith, now the coach at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, has a piece of one of the goalposts in a box somewhere in his home. A few of the fraternity brothers that sawed the uprights after the win hand-delivered pieces to the Cardinals' coaching staff a few days later. Many fans still have their pieces of the posts.
Ragone: "It was taken to fraternity row; it was taken all over the city. I remember people on top of it, climbing on it. To see that goalpost go down, it felt like an out-of-body experience for a lot of us.”
Samuels: “It’s an embarrassing moment, considering who we are. At that moment, that’s one of the deepest hurts you could feel. For us to come into the game like things were under control and we would take advantage of the atmosphere and further our claim on a national championship-caliber season, and for it to end with the Louisville fans storming the field and climbing the goalposts, that was heartbreaking.”
Louisville played on a Sunday, Tuesday and three Thursdays that season, and Smith said it was all part of athletic director Tom Jurich’s plan to gain exposure for a program that one day hoped to position itself to land in a major conference.
While moving to the Big East and later the ACC was not a direct result of that win over Florida State, Smith said he believes it certainly played a role.
Smith: “Jurich said we had to position ourselves because there’s going to be changes, and leagues would move. That was probably, as I look back, the one game that put Louisville on the track where people in the country would come in and sit down and talk to us. Everybody watched it. As far as recruits, it put us on a scale where we’re invited to a lot more recruiting tables. You can now sit at the table with FSU or Miami.”
I haven’t done anything wrong. Why am I not playing? I’m at the point where I don’t even need to shower after games; I don’t even get the chance to go off.
“He was reminding me I was one of the most dynamic players he ever coached and that I could go out and play this game at a high level, if I had the heart and desire,” Lippett said. “He told me to build a bridge with my coach out here, Coach [Terrence] Samuel, and do the things they wanted to see out of me day in and day out.”
At the time, Lippett had caught just four passes in his first four games. He officially received no starts during that stretch. So, at Oden's insistence, the introverted Lippett reached out to his position coach soon thereafter. They shared breakfast, and Samuel challenged him around the bye week: Go watch film on MSU greats Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers; then go look at film of yourself.
Lippett said he was forced to “look in the mirror and stop looking at everybody else.” He sat in the film room and studied Burress’ arm extension, he stared at Rogers’ hips and feet, and he marveled at their vision. Then the cut-ups were replaced with a player similar in stature but who was slow in his transitions and didn’t get off the press nearly as well. It was him.
Lippett again phoned Oden to let him know he took his advice to heart and to update him on the film review.
“He said, ‘I got to work,’ ” Oden remembered. “I told him, ‘Work starts today.’ ”
The transformation was slow -- but immediate. Lippett would linger after practice to chat with his position coach. He’d sit closer to Samuel on the flights, as opposed to several rows back. He’d hit the film room harder, gazing at defensive backs’ feet and scribbling down notes.
With the help of Oden and Samuel, his confidence grew in lockstep with the offense’s improvement. He started in 10 games after that phone call. And, in the final six games of 2013, he accounted for at least 62 receiving yards in every contest and saved his best for the Rose Bowl, where he caught the game-winning touchdown.
Looking back, even Mark Dantonio didn’t need to pause long when asked when the transformation started.
“I do think it flipped on, it flipped right after the Notre Dame game,” Dantonio said earlier this month, alluding to September of last season. “He started catching the ball very well, and he’s such a confident player right now.”
That change might not have come without that phone call, or without Lippett’s relationship with Oden. The two still talk several times a week -- sometimes, Lippett will even phone during a Friday night halftime -- and Lippett still returns about a dozen times a year to train on mismatched barbells and an uneven track to chat in-person with his old coach.
They never seem to talk about how far he’s come -- but about how far he has to go. Even now, as Lippett leads the conference with 111.1 receiving yards per game and nine touchdowns, he’s not satisfied. He’ll acknowledge this is a good year but, in the same breath, he’ll wax poetic on how Alabama’s Amari Cooper has dominated.
But, every week since September of 2013, he’s also grown more determined that he can reach that level. He's more focused. And, above all, thanks to Oden, more confident.
“I feel like me playing confident is the biggest intangible I’ve improved upon because I’m still the same size, probably a little faster,” he said. “But heart and desire and confidence has risen in me a lot. And that’s what really shows.”
Hey Georgia Bulldogs, lift those chins up and poke those chests out. You've got a playoff run to make.
Then, the first tattered domino fell Tuesday night. The College Football Playoff committee wasn't very impressed with you. Couple that bad, early-season loss to a less-than-impressive South Carolina team with what the committee must have thought was a soft first-half slate, and you debuted in the College Football Playoff Rankings at No. 11. I even agree that the best win Georgia has is against Clemson, which just happens to be ranked No. 21, but come on. Eleventh? This team is better than that.
However, that wasn't the most disheartening news. On Wednesday, you found out that Gurley will have to sit out two more games for accepting more than $3,000 in cash from multiple individuals for autographed memorabilia. The NCAA then arrogantly boasted that it could have made things even worse for Gurley, adding a little gasoline to the already effervescent flame dancing on the program.
But fear not, Dawgs. Grab those hoses, because there's plenty of time to prove the committee wrong.
Don't like the committee or Twitter tell you that you aren't a beautiful butterfly. Don't let esteemed ESPN colleague Andrea Adelson try and steal your shine! (I heard what she said about you guys on our Spreecast, too.) You guys are the real deal, right now, and you have a chance to really impress the committee with what you have ahead in November.
Plus, you'll start the month without Gurley. Yes, he's out against a struggling Florida team and a Kentucky team still looking to grow, but Nick Chubb will once again have to carry the rushing load with Keith Marshall and Sony Michel sidelined. Hey, if he keeps trucking along without help, the committee will have to take that into account. This kid is a true freshman, yet he's dazzling fans and punishing defenders barely removed from his senior prom. Not to add anymore pressure to his already piled plate, but he does look like a young Gurley.
People want to trash your schedule? You know, the one you were dealt and had no control over this season? Well, you still have No. 3 Auburn (at home), and chances are you're headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, unless you get really sloppy. I understand that the East is, well, like an old horror movie, but that's not your fault. Don't beat yourself up because there is no real East challenger at the moment. Just take care of business, and the committee will start to come around. A win over Auburn will have you skyrocketing up the rankings.
Even though people aren't impressed with your early state, you're a better team now than you were after the South Carolina game.
I was wrong about this defense not having what it took to sustain success through the entire season. The secondary still doesn't exactly wow me, but the front seven is playing better than I thought it would, thanks to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt deciding to go with a more aggressive plan by getting those linebackers more involved in the backfield. The defensive line has been disruptive at the right times this season.
This is a defense that is getting better each week. Do not dwell on what happened during the second half of the Arkansas game. I get it, you built a commanding 38-6 halftime lead and coasted in the second half. Hey, it happens. Look at Alabama against Tennessee for crying out loud.
Before that game, you shut out Missouri 34-0 on the road in the first of two games without Gurley.
I've learned that this team doesn't need to stretch the ball with the deep pass because it runs so well. Hutson Mason would like to chuck it around, but he hasn't had to, yet, even though he's getting more comfortable with his receivers. And once Gurley gets back for the Auburn game, Mason might be able to do even more with Gurley and Chubb helping out.
The SEC and the Playoff are both there for the taking, Georgia. So ignore the Twitter tough guys. Shake off the hatin' committee. Just continue to do what you're doing, and people will come around.
I know I did.
Jon Major, No. 98 in 2008 class
Major was the top-ranked prospect in Colorado in the 2008 class and was considered a huge recruiting win for then-head coach Dan Hawkins and staff over Oklahoma and Wisconsin after officially visiting the Buffaloes, Sooners and Badgers. Former Colorado star linebacker, nine-year NFL linebacker and then Buffaloes linebackers coach Brian Cabral was the key for Colorado in Major’s recruitment. It was the second straight year that Colorado had inked the marquee name prospect in the state following offensive tackle Ryan Miller in the 2007 class. Major was the second-highest rated prospect in the Buffaloes' 2008 class behind nationally coveted running back Darrell Scott (No. 9 in ESPN 150) out of Saint Bonaventure High in California.
Major battled major knee injuries throughout his time in Boulder. Despite missing half his redshirt sophomore year, he still amassed 225 career tackles. He led the team in tackles as a redshirt junior with 85, including 11 tackles for loss in 13 games, and followed up as a senior with 70 tackles in 11 games. Major was on his way to making a splash as a true freshman quickly moving into the two-deep in the first handful of practices in 2008, but tore his ACL and missed the entire season.
Honorable mention: Craig Drummond. The 6-foot-6, now 272-pound Drummond was No. 98 in the 2009 class. He signed with Ole Miss out of the Chicago area, but left Oxford his freshman year. He was out of football three years before heading to Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. Listed as a sophomore, Drummond is now excelling on the field to the tune of 24 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception through five games. His ceiling remains high.
So the sophomore sauntered over to his dad, a guy who knows a few things about big games, and shared an embrace that served as necessary for father as it was for son.
"Don't miss the moment," David Robinson recalled telling his son. "You guys did what you were supposed to do: You took the ball, drove it right down their throats, you put it in the end zone. You can't be mad at yourself when you did what you were supposed to do.
"… I was just telling him: This is sports. In sports you win and you lose. That's the nature of sports. You can't get away from that part of it. And if you get too hung up on the losing part, then you miss the boat. The competition part, a game like that is why you play sports. That is as good as it gets."
That the Basketball Hall of Famer saw his son come so close to stealing the spotlight from the defending national champions was rewarding. That the Naval Academy graduate will follow that up by rooting against his alma mater on Saturday is somewhat surreal. But he finds himself in this position for a second straight year, this time near his old backyard, as the Midshipmen host the Fighting Irish in Landover, Maryland.
"It’s nice because all my family is going to come up -- my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents," Corey said. "For them it’s going to be really special. But for me it’s just another game we have to go and perform and win."
His father will visit the Annapolis campus for the first time since 2011, when he was back for a 25-year reunion of Navy's 1986 Elite Eight team.
Notre Dame's last outing -- and specifically his son's role in it -- reminded the San Antonio Spurs great of his own coming-of-age moment, one year before that NCAA run, also as a sophomore.
The second round of the 1985 tournament pitted 13th-seeded Navy against fifth-seeded Maryland, led by the late Len Bias. David scored 22, Bias tallied 20 and the Terrapins won by five, but David took away plenty.
"My confidence just went through the roof at that point, and I just realized, ‘You know what, there's nobody that I cannot play with,’" David said. "And I think for Corey, coming from a small school and getting on that big stage and realizing that, ‘Hey, there's nobody that you can't play with’ -- I could see that coming out of him."
It is not that the 6-foot-4.5, 215-pound Corey ever lacked for athleticism. But he never played much football until high school. And at San Antonio Christian -- with a prep enrollment under 400 -- validation was hard to find.
His coaches convinced him that the gridiron could take him places, but football was mostly foreign to the Robinsons.
Two-time NBA champion David confessed he knows little about the game other than the competitive mindset it takes to succeed at the highest level. Such potential is what drove Corey away from his old man's alma mater, as he drew heavy Division I interest.
David said Notre Dame and Corey are in some ways built for each other. Coach Brian Kelly used a signature mantra -- gentlemen off the field, tough guy on it -- in describing Corey.
"That's fun as a coach and teacher when you get somebody that is in so many ways learning every day that he steps on the practice field," Kelly said.
The tough guy in Corey was evident as he played through September with a broken right thumb. He said the pain forced him to focus on other nuances of his game. He is second on the team in catches (27), yards (359) and touchdowns receptions (four).
The gentleman in Corey comes through in mission trips, like this past summer's to Brazil. Or through jam sessions with teammates. Corey plays the piano, bass and guitar, among other instruments. His father takes credit for his son's love of music, but he cannot pinpoint the source of talent.
The Admiral can, however, trace his son's eccentricity to his forebears, including his own father, Ambrose, also a Navy man.
"My grandfather grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and there was all the racism at that time, and Central High there had the segregation issues," David said. "I grew up around the tail end of a lot of that stuff, where my parents and my grandparents had to deal with that. So I always admired how they stood strong and how my father overcame a lot of that stuff and joined the Navy and gave me opportunities that he didn't have, and I wanted to do that for my next generation and the generations after that."
Such opportunities have meant spending Veterans Day with President Obama and visiting troops in Afghanistan. David won the 2013 Heisman Humanitarian Award for charitable endeavors. Corey sees this, David said, and he knows how to handle success.
"All this stuff doesn't happen to you for your own sake," David said. "It doesn't happen to you so you can fill your shelves with trophies or line your pockets with cash; it happens so you can have a positive influence and encourage other people. It's what you leave behind that's far more important, because everything else is just going to be snatched up by somebody else. Your bank account's going to somebody else. All your records are going to go to somebody else.
"But what you really leave behind is that love that you put into other people's lives, and I think that's what he sees in my life over the years."