NCF Nation: what we learned 092913

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
Five things we learned during the five games in Week 5.

1. Changing impressions? Maybe rumors of Oregon State’s demise have been greatly exaggerated ... maybe. Since losing the opener to Eastern Washington, the Beavers have run off four in a row. Granted, the combined record of the four teams they beat is 6-9 (five of those six wins coming from the two Pac-12 teams). Many expected the Beavers to start 7-0, or 6-1 at worst. While no one expected that the “1” would be from an FCS team, Oregon State is still on pace. And with Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks continuing to scorch stat sheets, you have to imagine they’ll stay competitive offensively. On the flip side of Saturday's game in Corvallis, the 2-0 start was nice for the Buffs, but they reverted against the Beavers. Going out of state for the first time -- and playing for the first time in three weeks -- the Buffs managed just 300 yards of total offense in the 44-17 loss.

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsBishop Sankey had a school-record 40 carries as UW posted its first 4-0 start in 12 years.
2. Making impressions: People wanted to see what Washington looked like once the Huskies got into league play. Same for Arizona -- which hadn’t been tested after blowing through a vanilla nonconference schedule. The Huskies weren’t always clean, missing on a few opportunities especially in the first half of their 31-13 win over the Wildcats. But Bishop Sankey earned his 161 yards on a school-record 40 carries. Keith Price was good enough (14-of-25, 165 yards, two touchdowns, one interception). The Huskies are 4-0 for the first time since 2001. For what it’s worth, Arizona’s defense put up a gritty effort, keeping them in the game.

3. Impressive: Oregon, Stanford, Mannion and Arizona State’s offense. In a sloppy mess, the Ducks were still able to score 50-plus points for the fourth consecutive game. That’s a record for a program that doesn’t have many offensive records left to break. Stanford put on a dominating display on both sides of the ball. The offense looks explosive -- much more explosive than it did last season -- and deep threats are opening things up on the ground ... or is it the ground game opening up the deep threats? More importantly, the Cardinal put together a 60-minute game, which is what David Shaw had been preaching all week. Mannion’s monster season continues with six more touchdowns -- an Oregon State record. He now has 21 passing touchdowns on the year -- and that’s his career high for a single season. He leads the country in passing touchdowns, attempts, completions and yards. And the Sun Devils, who rolled up 612 yards of offense, received a dominating performance by quarterback Taylor Kelly, who accounted for more than 400 yards of total offense.

4. Unimpressive: Weather, obviously, had a lot to do with some of the offensive struggles for Arizona, Cal and Colorado. But there were also drops, fumbles, picks and flat-out bad reads and passes. Cal's offense was grounded with just 325 total yards and five turnovers. USC’s defense also falls into the unimpressive category. Give the credit where it’s due for ASU. Kelly was fantastic with some of his back-shoulder throws and Marion Grice just keeps finding the end zone. That said, the Trojans, who had been getting it done on defense, looked tired and beaten in the fourth quarter. And now they are 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2001.

5. Northern impressions: With the Oregon State and Washington victories, the Pac-12 North moves to 5-0 against the South. In previous weeks, Oregon State beat Utah in overtime, Washington State beat USC and Stanford beat ASU. The average score of those five games is 36-23. Next week brings us only one North-South matchup when Oregon makes a trip to Colorado. Arizona, Oregon State and USC are on byes and UCLA and Utah play the only South matchup. Stanford hosts Washington, WSU is at Cal, and ASU takes on Notre Dame.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
The Sooners notched a big nonconference road win for the Big 12, West Virginia’s defense came up big in an upset of Oklahoma State, and TCU finally found some offense against SMU.

What we learned about the Big 12 from Week 5:

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsQuarterback Blake Bell, making his second career start, was 22-of-30 passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns in leading Oklahoma past Notre Dame.
The Sooners are a different team with Bell: This question has to be asked: How did Blake Bell not win the starting quarterback job during the preseason? Since taking over for Trevor Knight, Bell has been superb, leading the Sooners to a big 35-21 victory Saturday at Notre Dame. Bell completed 22 of 30 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns for a Total QBR of 79.1 (scale of 0 to 100), which almost certainly will go up once the strength of Notre Dame’s defense is factored into the equation. Bell also didn’t turn the ball over, as OU controlled the game from beginning to end. Save for a Nov. 7 showdown in Waco, the Sooners’ remaining slate doesn’t look nearly as daunting as it did a month ago. With Bell running the show at this level, OU is very capable of winning every game left on its schedule.

The West Virginia defense appears legit: The performance against Oklahoma State was the best by a West Virginia defense since joining the Big 12. The Mountaineers controlled the line of scrimmage to shut down OSU’s vaunted running game, and the secondary laid the lumber, knocking receivers Josh Stewart and Jhajuan Seales out of the game with big hits. The 21 points, in fact, were the fewest scored by a Cowboys offense in a loss since the 2009 Cotton Bowl. West Virginia did give up 37 to Maryland a week ago, but the six turnovers from the West Virginia offense had a lot to with that. In holding the Bedlam schools to a combined 37 points, Keith Patterson’s unit has now locked up, perennially, two of the Big 12’s highest-scoring offenses. The Mountaineers will get their shot at another on Saturday in Waco, and Baylor’s high-flying attack will provide the toughest test to date. But the West Virginia defense will give Baylor its toughest challenge yet as well.

Oklahoma State not the same offensively: The Cowboys have basically played two teams with a pulse and scored only 21 points both times. The Pokes seems to really be missing former coordinator Todd Monken and running back Joseph Randle, maybe even more than anybody thought they would. The Cowboys never found a flow offensively in Morgantown with Mike Yurcich’s play-calling, and Randle’s successor, Jeremy Smith, finished with just 1 yard on 15 carries. Given J.W. Walsh’s limitations throwing the ball downfield, it’s been awhile since an Oklahoma State offense had this many vulnerabilities.

TCU offense gains confidence with new faces: The Horned Frogs offense finally came alive late in the third quarter of a 48-17 win against SMU. And it came alive via plays from some new faces. True freshman Ty Slanina hauled in a 20-yard touchdown with four minutes left in the third quarter to break a 10-10 tie. On TCU’s next possession, former Florida transfer Ja'Juan Story took a 56-yard pass to the house to ignite the rout. Then freshman Cameron Echols-Luper returned a punt 51 yards to set up another touchdown. Going into the SMU game, Slanina, Story and Echols-Luper had a combined five touches through three games. The trio, however, figures to be a big part of the Horned Frogs' attack going forward, including next weekend in Norman.

OU at Baylor looking like the Big 12’s biggest game: With the Cowboys’ loss in Morgantown, OU-Baylor in Waco on Nov. 7 is looking more and more like the game of the year in the Big 12. Several other pivotal matchups remain (TCU-OU, the Red River Rivalry, Tech-OU, Baylor-OSU, Baylor-Tech, Bedlam). And there are still other teams (Tech, TCU, OSU, even Texas) that could play their way to the top of the conference title race. But as of today, OU-Baylor is looking like the game that will have more conference title implications than any other.
Five lessons from four games in Week 5. Got that?

Let's go ...

1. Ohio State's young defense is growing up: Lost amid the Braxton Miller-Kenny Guiton debate this week was the fact a mostly young Ohio State defense with only one returning starter in the front seven would be put to the test by Melvin Gordon, James White and the formidable Wisconsin run game. The young Bucks certainly earned a passing grade after holding Wisconsin to just 104 yards on 27 carries. Gordon's knee injury limited the Badgers, but Ohio State prevented big runs and forced Wisconsin to win the game through the air. Linebacker Ryan Shazier shined, while linebacker Curtis Grant and lineman Michael Bennett both recorded sacks. The loss of safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending ankle injury is a big blow, but Ohio State has enough talent in the secondary to make up for it, as long as they don't run into Jared Abbrederis again soon. Ohio State's offense will win plenty of games, but you know what they say about defenses and championship. These might not be the typical Silver Bullets, but they're developing and can build on Saturday's performance as they face an even another formidable offense in Northwestern next week.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoel Stave and the Badgers hung around, but they were eventually tamed by Michael Bennett and the Buckeyes.
2. Wisconsin is an excellent 56-minute team: Gary Andersen's crew showed plenty of grit Saturday night in Columbus. Quarterback Joel Stave quieted some of his critics -- thanks in large part to a career performance from Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, 1 TD) -- and linebacker Chris Borland was brilliant, as usual. But Wisconsin's inability to finish off halves remains a troubling trend, and it surfaced in the loss to Ohio State. The Badgers trailed by only three points when freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton dropped an easy interception near the goal line. Miller found Philly Brown for a 40-yard touchdown on the next play, giving Ohio State a huge boost with one second left in the half. Wisconsin struggled to manage the clock down the stretch as its comeback attempt fell short. This isn't a team built to come back in games based on the pass game, and it showed. Coupled with the Arizona State debacle (granted, more officiating than execution), Wisconsin has had a lot of bad things happen at critical moments. That's what could separate the Badgers from a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.

3. Iowa will be a factor in the Legends Division: The Hawkeyes might not be a great team yet, but it's clear they are vastly improved from last season. On Saturday, Iowa went into Minnesota and pushed the Gophers around on their home turf, piling up 464 total yards and allowing only 30 rushing yards in a 23-7 win. The pig will return to Iowa City, but even more importantly, the hogs up front are getting it done in classic Kirk Ferentz fashion. Iowa has rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season and went for 246 against a Minnesota defense that thought it had made strides in that area. This team has an identity, and it starts with the power running game led by Mark Weisman and a solid offensive line. Quarterback Jake Rudock has shown an ability to extend plays, and Iowa even got an explosive play in the passing game when Damond Powell took a short pass 74 yards to paydirt. The defense is also playing well right now; the Gophers' only score came after a long kickoff return. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 and gets Michigan State at home next week, while Northwestern and Michigan still must come to Kinnick Stadium. The schedule is difficult the rest of the way, but Iowa will have a big say in who wins the Legends.

4. Nathan Scheelhaase is the Big Ten's most improved player: A year ago, Scheelhaase was sputtering at the helm of one of the nation's worst offenses, hardly resembling the player who had shown promise as a freshman and during the first part of his sophomore season. No Big Ten player has made bigger strides in the past season than the Illinois senior quarterback, who threw five first-half touchdown passes Saturday against Miami (Ohio) and finished with 278 pass yards on 19 of 24 attempts. Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing yards and is second in touchdowns (12), tripling his total from last season. He's just five touchdown passes shy of his single-season best and 15 shy of Kurt Kittner's single-season team record. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit deserves a lot of credit for Scheelhaase's surge -- and that of the entire Illini offense -- but Scheelhaase clearly is back on track after a year and a half in the dark. It will be interesting to see what he does this week against Nebraska's shaky defense.

5. Future starts now for Etling, Purdue: Darrell Hazell stuck with senior quarterback Rob Henry through this season's early offensive struggles, but the Purdue coach realized it was time for a change Saturday against Northern Illinois. The last straw was Henry's second interception of the first half, a terribly thrown floater into the Huskies' end zone. That prompted Hazell to give the reins over to true freshman Danny Etling, the prized former recruit who made his collegiate debut. This was no fairy tale, so Etling didn't lead the Boilermakers to a comeback victory. He threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and narrowly avoided another one. But Etling (19-for-39, 241 yards) did show good mobility and flashed his strong arm, especially on his first career touchdown pass, a 16-yarder to Cameron Posey. The offense will have more of a chance to stretch the field with him under center. Quarterback is hardly the only problem for Purdue, which got housed 55-24 at home by a MAC team and might have a hard time finding another win this season. But while Boilers fans don't like to see the words "Danny" and "hope" in the same sentence, Etling at least gives them something to look forward to as Hazell tries to work the program out of this mess.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
It was another wild weekend in the SEC. Here are five things we learned around the conference in Week 5.

Georgia and LSU are title contenders: Everything about the game lived up to the hype. Well, except maybe the defenses, but we'll get to that later. LSU and Georgia nonetheless played a game for the ages Saturday afternoon, with quarterbacks Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray trading blows seemingly every time their teams got the football. Georgia ultimately prevailed, of course, but it's impossible to walk away not feeling like both teams are well positioned to make a run at an SEC championship. It's only LSU's first loss, and we've seen how that's no deterrent to making a run at the postseason. The Tigers will get their shot at No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 9. And Georgia, by winning, avoided a dreaded second loss on its resume. The Bulldogs seasoning-opening loss to Clemson actually might end up adding some style points in the end. With Florida's offense struggling and South Carolina playing inconsistent football, Mark Richt has to feel good about his program's position in the East.

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesMike Davis helped South Carolina salvage a win at UCF with 150 rushing yards in the second half.
Get used to high scoring games: Calm down all you doomsday sayers: The SEC isn't imploding before your very eyes. Yes, it is very unusual to see this many shootouts in a league that's long prided itself on dominating defense. Georgia and LSU used to win in knockdown drag-outs, but Saturday was so much different as the schools combined for 943 yards and 85 points. But what happened in Athens, Ga., wasn't the final nail in the coffin of SEC defenses. Let the season progress. Mettenberger and Murray are two of the best passers in the country, and the LSU and Georgia defenses are very young. They're talented. They'll learn. And they're not going to be happy with what happened, neither one of them. Alabama pitched a shutout against a high powered Ole Miss offense, and Florida gave up just one touchdown to Kentucky. When it comes to defense, maybe not all is lost. Not yet.

Alabama showed why its No. 1: The week was all about questioning Alabama -- everything from the secondary to the offensive line to whether the Tide was actually worthy of being ranked No. 1. Nick Saban asked for positivity from his fan base and warned against playing to expectations. Alabama's head coach wasn't worried about answering any one question in particular, just the simple matter of whether his team could beat No. 21 Ole Miss. As it turns out, his team won and answered most of the questions in the process. The Tide's defense was dominant once again, pitching a shutout against Ole Miss' high powered offense, and the offense, which couldn't move the ball consistently or effectively on the ground before, suddenly rediscovered both. Alabama ran for a season-high 254 yards against the Rebels and moved the chains, converting on 8 of 17 third-downs. In short, Alabama looked like itself again, thumping a ranked team at home.

Mike Davis belongs in the conversation: He doesn't usually come up much when discussing the league's top tailbacks. T.J. Yeldon and Todd Gurley usually dominate that conversation. But Mike Davis' name belongs in that group. The South Carolina sophomore has earned his stripes through four games this season, rushing for 508 yards and six touchdowns. The Gamecocks needed every one of his 167 yards Saturday afternoon against UCF, 150 of which came in the second half of the 3-point win on the road in Orlando.

Tennessee is a ways off: This was supposed to be the much needed breather before returning to its gauntlet of a schedule. The Vols, fresh off beatings at the hands of Oregon and Florida in consecutive weeks, couldn't get out of their own way against lowly South Alabama at home on Saturday, winning by the skin of their teeth, 31-24. Maybe they were looking ahead to Georgia and South Carolina, which come to town the following two weeks. Whatever the reason, Butch Jones shouldn't be happy. Tennessee wasted a 24-point lead before holding on with a late interception on fourth-and-goal. Justin Worley and the Vols offense turned the ball over three times and were just 4 of 11 on third downs.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
Here’s a look at five lessons learned in the ACC this week, in no particular order:

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQB Logan Thomas accounted for 279 yards of offense in the Hokies' win over Georgia Tech.
1. Virginia Tech is still a contender. Quarterback Logan Thomas, who was playing through an abdominal strain, had one of his best games in years in the 17-10 win at Georgia Tech and, in the process, helped validate the program as a contender again in the Coastal Division. Virginia Tech’s offense had played so poorly that the Hokies needed three overtimes to beat Marshall the previous week. There was plenty of doubt surrounding the team as it headed to Atlanta to take on an undefeated Georgia Tech team that was No. 4 in the country in rushing offense. The Hokies were just 2-of-10 on third-down conversions and ran for just 55 yards, but it didn’t matter. They got what they needed from Thomas -- 19 of 25 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown and 16 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown -- and another stellar performance by the defense. The Hokies have won titles with that recipe before, and showed they can do it again.

2. North Carolina is on the bowl bubble. The Tar Heels were playing ECU, not Clemson, but you’d never know it by the score. UNC lost 55-31 in embarrassing fashion on their home field. ECU finished with 603 total yards, the second-highest total ever allowed by UNC at home. North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner had another subpar performance, but the players around him didn’t help out much, either. There was plenty of blame to go around as UNC dropped to 1-3. They’ve got to win five more games to become bowl eligible, and they’re not going to win again anytime soon if they continue to play the way they did against ECU. Six straight conference games await, starting with a road trip to Virginia Tech on Oct. 5 and followed by Miami. The loss to ECU could be the beginning of a downward spiral for the Heels. Or, it could be a much-needed wake-up call. Either way, the margin for error is nearing nonexistent.

3. Florida State’s defense needs work. As expected, Boston College was well-prepared, well-coached and gave the Noles its best shot despite a 48-34 loss. As expected, BC relied on its running game and Andre Williams. Not expected: FSU didn’t seem ready for it. It was the most points FSU had allowed BC in the series' history. The Eagles jumped out to a 14-point lead, scored on all three of their opening drives, ran for 200 yards and converted 2 of 3 fourth downs. Williams finished with 149 rushing yards -- the most by a runner against FSU since 2010. If FSU’s defensive line struggled against BC, expect more of the same next week against Maryland, and certainly on Oct. 19 against Clemson.

4. Virginia’s offense looks worse than last year. Pitt’s defense played better, but it’s hard to believe the Panthers improved that much just a week after allowing Duke 55 points. Virginia was simply inept on offense in the 14-3 loss, finishing with just 188 total yards, 3 of 18 third-down conversions and 1 of 4 fourth downs. Pitt’s Aaron Donald and the D had a little something to do with that, but so did quarterback David Watford, who completed just 15 of 37 passes. Last year, UVa’s passing offense was No. 37 in the country. This year, it’s one of the worst in the country. Watford has taken much of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles, as he is in his first year as a full-time starter, but there was plenty of blame to go around on Saturday.

5. Pitt is at home in the ACC. The Panthers now have won back-to-back games in their new conference and have a chance to move into a tie for the top spot in the Coastal Division if they can win at Virginia Tech next week. Pitt’s lone loss was to Florida State in the season opener. If they can escape Blacksburg with a win, the Panthers could be 6-1 heading into Atlanta on Nov. 2 for another key divisional game against Georgia Tech. With the win over Virginia, Pitt put itself right in the mix in its first season in the ACC. We’ll see how long the Panthers can stay there.