Commentary

Utah State, uniforms among surprises

Originally Published: September 6, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Bus tokens sold separately in Boise (1) ):

Let there be lights

Football returned last weekend, and amid all the uncertainty surrounding the sport, it was reassuring to see that some things remain the same. Ohio State (2) can play defense with or without Jim Tressel, shutting out an admittedly awful Akron program that now has scored a total of 10 points in its past three season openers. Oklahoma State (3) can score no matter who is calling plays, racking up 61 points without getting a touchdown from wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who had 21 of them last year. And Lane Kiffin (4) still can call for a two-point conversion for no good reason. Pure genius.

But with every new season come new dynamics, and this Saturday we get a big one: an actual night game in Michigan Stadium (5).

[+] EnlargeNine-banded armadillo
Richard Heathcote/Getty ImagesThe nine-banded armadillo could be the unofficial mascot of Saturday night's Notre Dame-Michigan matchup.

They've been playing in the Big House since 1927, but not until Notre Dame (6) limps into Ann Arbor fresh off its face-plant against South Florida will they kick off a game there at dark. Thus the Wolverines will join the ranks of the Panamanian night monkey, Cyprus spiny mouse and nine-banded armadillo as nocturnal animals.

The Dash has secured an exclusive copy of a statement sent to the Michigan administration by the Nine-Banded Armadillo Association of America: "Welcome to our world."

(Brainstorm: Since Michigan does not have an actual wolverine mascot, The Dash suggests procuring a nine-banded armadillo as a fill-in. Who wouldn't want to see that armor-plated oddity on the sidelines in the Big House? Especially since, as Wikipedia puts it, "The armadillo can jump 3-4 feet straight in the air if sufficiently frightened." That beats rolling over and playing dead when sufficiently frightened, which is what Michigan has done for the last several years against Ohio State.)

By all accounts, the Michigan fan base is insanely excited about joining the 1980s and playing at home at night. Athletic director Dave Brandon said in the spring that the school "could probably sell 150,000 tickets" for the game. And Stephen Nesbitt, co-managing sports editor of the Michigan Daily, said he knows students who are getting more for their Notre Dame ticket than the cost of the entire season student pass.

"Students are getting $300 just for this game," Nesbitt said. "That's a price normally reserved for Ohio State."

Even recent games against the Buckeyes haven't carried the anticipatory payload of this one.

"It's early in the Brady Hoke era; people are very excited," Nesbitt said. "It's not at the end of a .500 year. The Ohio State game has lost its luster recently."

Although the Fighting Irish did their best to rub the luster off this game, nobody in Michigan seems to have noticed. After decades of noon kickoffs, the tailgaters will not have their pregame festivities rushed for once.

"I assume it will be like always -- start at the crack of dawn," Nesbitt said. "Just go a lot longer. It will definitely be a stamina test."

For Michigan fans seeking night-game role models, The Dash has a handy list. These are the six places that come alive the most after dark:

[+] EnlargeTiger Stadium
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesWolverines fans could learn a thing or two from the crowd at Tiger Stadium, annually one of the best night-game atmospheres.

Tiger Stadium (7), LSU. From Bourbon Street to Baton Rouge, the freaks come out at night in Louisiana. And nowhere are they more raucous and unnerving than at Tiger Stadium. LSU played its first night game there on Oct. 3, 1931, beating something called Spring Hill 35-0. According to the LSU athletics website, the Tigers are 219-60-4 at night in "Death Valley" since 1960, and just 21-26-3 during the day over that span. And of course, vampire-in-residence Les Miles is extra tough after dark, winning 28 of 29 home night games.

Beaver Stadium (8), Penn State. They added lights to the place in 1984, and night games there have been electric ever since -- especially for white-outs. The three largest crowds in school history all were for night games. Unfortunately, Penn State will not host any night games this season. Perhaps the Big Ten and other televising networks took Joe Paterno's bedtime into consideration.

Camp Randall Stadium (9), Wisconsin. Turns out honey badgers are nocturnal, and if you've seen a certain YouTube video, you know honey badgers don't care about a lot of things, being up late among them. Honey badgers don't give a, um, darn. LSU fans might be the only group that puts the additional tailgating time of night games to more productive (or maybe consumptive) use than Wisconsin fans.

Lane Stadium (10), Virginia Tech. "Enter Sandman." Exit ears ringing -- on Thursday nights, especially. In a wine-and-cheese league (apologies to exceptions Florida State and Clemson), nobody's fans get cranked for night games like the Hokies'.

Los Angeles Coliseum (11), USC. The Trojans have been playing night games there forever -- since 1923, to be exact. Autzen Stadium is loud at any time, but the Coliseum seems to produce markedly higher decibel levels for night games than it does during the day.

Kyle Field (12), Texas A&M. We all know the Aggies will yell at any hour of the day, including midnight for practice. But tee up a football at night and they really get giggity. Ask SMU quarterback Kyle Padron, a 3,000-yard passer in 2010 who was reduced to a panicked interception thrower Sunday night and benched after two disastrous series.

State of Arizona: Prove yourself

There is optimism amid the cacti in Tempe and Tucson, a belief that this could be one of those rare years when both Arizona and Arizona State are good at the same time. How rare? Well, only twice in history have both been ranked in the final AP Top 25 -- and not since 1986, when the Sun Devils won the Rose Bowl and finished No. 4, while the Wildcats won the Aloha Bowl and finished No. 11. (The other time was in 1975, when Arizona State finished No. 2 and Arizona No. 18.)

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Chris Morrison/US PresswireArizona QB Nick Foles faces his first true test of the season on Thursday night.

Both teams are in the Pac-12 South, where USC is ineligible to play in the league championship game. Both teams began the year receiving votes in the preseason polls. Both teams easily won their openers against pushovers. Both teams now will step into the weeknight spotlight against ranked opponents from the Big 12, with a chance to demonstrate competence and command respect.

Arizona at Oklahoma State (13), Thursday. The Wildcats will be trying to reverse a 26-point loss to the Cowboys in the Alamo Bowl last season. It won't be easy. Arizona blitzed Northern Arizona through the air Saturday, which is no surprise -- with Nick Foles throwing and Juron Criner catching, it has one of the best hookups in the country. The concern for a team with a totally rebuilt offensive line is a running game that produced just 75 yards against the FCS Lumberjacks. Still, the bigger challenge for Arizona will be slowing an Oklahoma State team that will score on everybody. Dash pick: Oklahoma State 34, Arizona 24.

Missouri at Arizona State (14), Friday. The Tigers are banged-up after an unspectacular defeat of Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. And they're on the road against a stout defense that shut out opening opponent UC Davis until the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils have lost 11 straight against ranked opponents, but most of them have been closer than expected. This may be their time. Dash pick: Arizona State 21, Missouri 17.

Five more early credibility games

There is a big difference between 1-0 and 2-0, especially if you opened with a cupcake. The winners of these five Saturday games will be 2-0 and have a right to feel pretty good about themselves:

BYU at Texas (15). The Cougars rallied from a 13-point hole to beat Ole Miss in Oxford last week -- a big victory. Meanwhile, the Longhorns beat Rice about the same way they beat Rice last year -- unimpressively. Still, if Texas avoids giving the ball away as well as it did against the Owls, it should win. Dash pick: Texas 23, BYU 16.

Utah at USC (16). The Dash almost looked like a genius picking Minnesota to upset the Trojans last week. Almost. But USC wheezed by 19-17, while the Utes ho-hummed past Montana State. After completing only one pass longer than 8 yards in that game, Utah will have to be more productive through the air to have a chance. Dash pick: USC 24, Utah 14.

Mississippi State at Auburn (17). We know that the Tigers looked as shaky as any defending national champions ever have in their comeback victory against Utah State (see below). We also know that the Bulldogs were dazzling in crushing Memphis. But you should also know that Memphis will be one of the 10 worst FBS teams in America this year, so don't get too excited. This game will be close. Dash pick: Mississippi State 31, Auburn 28.

(Side note: Don't look for a lot of pregame chitchat or a long postgame embrace between the Tigers' Gene Chizik and the Bulldogs' Dan Mullen. Two words: Cam Newton.)

Alabama at Penn State (18). Both teams played mix-and-match quarterbacks against overmatched opening opponents, neither with great results. But one of these teams has the best defense in the nation. Dash pick: Alabama 27, Penn State 7.

Cincinnati at Tennessee (19). There wasn't a whole lot to learn from either team's opener, but there was an appearance in relief by delightfully named Bearcats reserve quarterback Munchie Legaux (20). If Munchie plays much in Neyland Stadium, it's probably not a good sign for Cincy. Dash pick: Cincinnati 27, Tennessee 25.

This is your fault, Oregon

Maryland (21) went and did it Monday night. Went and shattered the previously well-stretched bounds of taste and class in football uniforms. The Terrapins wore the ugliest helmets in the game's history. Then they went in before kickoff and changed into … something even worse.

[+] EnlargeMaryland Terrapins
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireMaryland made a splash by beating Miami, but the Terps' unis stole the show.

Before: hideous.

After: atrocious.

This was Under Armour's over-the-top fashion statement, as the apparel company evolves from click-clack to make-The-Dash-yack. The Terps will incorporate 32 new uniform looks this year, hopefully not at a cost that will inhibit the softball team's ability to eat on road trips.

Under Armour's promotional release states that the uniforms are "inspired by characteristics specific to the Maryland state flag and University of Maryland." This was the state flag redesigned on acid. State pride is nice and all, but not every flag translates well into football headgear.

The release also says that the uniform "pays homage to the special Terrapin football heritage and to those who have taken the field as a TERP since the beginning of the football program." Two reactions: (1) special? Really? The school has won one title in the pedestrian ACC in the last 26 years, and (2) somebody get Randy White and Boomer Esiason on the phone and ask them how they feel about that homage.

Bottom line: This is what Oregon (22) and Nike have unleashed -- creating buzz and a brand not through a rock-steady iconic look, but through a rotating array of visual assaults. Start with garish, then amp it up from there. Nike's Pro Combat series added to the mishmash last weekend, with Boise State and Georgia (23) wearing jarring new looks.

Boise is one thing -- it doesn't have much uniform tradition to worry about. But Georgia, with deep tradition, wore uniforms that were universally panned -- at least by adults.

The bigger question is how they played with recruits. If they like the uniforms, it might not matter who else is repulsed by them.

Standing tall

One Saturday last October, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand suffered a horrifying in-game injury. His comeback from that injury has been a captivating and uplifting story.

On the same Saturday, another player suffered a similar injury. Nobody noticed, because it happened at Division III Luther College in Iowa. But the comeback story of Chris Norton (24) is every bit as captivating and uplifting for the few who know it.

Norton fractured his neck and compressed his spinal cord making a tackle on a kickoff against Central College. According to Luther College sports information director David Blanchard, doctors initially estimated he had a 3 percent chance of having movement below his neck.

On Saturday, Norton is planning on standing for the national anthem and coin toss when Luther hosts William Penn. That deserves a standing ovation from The Dash.

Requiem for an upset

This should be Utah State Week (25) in college football. For the first time ever, we should all be saluting the oft-ignored Aggies. They should be getting the Appalachian State 2007 treatment -- their coach and players on television shows and websites nationwide, and Dashette Selita Ebanks (26) inquiring about Aggies season tickets.

[+] EnlargeSelita Ebanks
Rob Kim/Getty ImagesDashette Selita Ebanks salutes Utah State's Week 1 performance.

But they're not.

Utah State did absolutely everything right for nearly 58 minutes against the defending national champion Auburn Tigers (27). A program that has not had a winning record in 15 years went into the belly of the SEC and controlled the game against a program that wouldn't even consider recruiting the Aggies' players. A massive underdog starting a true freshman quarterback did not commit a turnover, had just 38 penalty yards and executed brilliantly on gutsy fourth-down and fake-field-goal calls.

"We were looking to break down some doors that have never been broken down at Utah State," said coach Gary Anderson (28).

No doubt about it, this was Utah State's finest football moment. Right up until it got away. With spoiled Auburn fans shamefully heading for the exits, their team somehow rallied from 10 points down in the final minutes to win.

"They made a couple of plays at the end they absolutely had to have to win the game," said Anderson, whose fearless calls gave his team an opportunity to win.

The biggest play Auburn made was an onside kick that should be used in a training video. Chris Brooks' (29) perfect high-bouncer was snatched out of the air by a leaping Emory Blake, giving Auburn a sudden chance to score two touchdowns in the final 2:07 and win a game it should have lost.

Utah State was left to lament that play, and a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first half that stopped momentum in what looked like a potential upset rout. As so often happens early in the year, special teams can have an outsized impact on an outcome.

The other play that got away from the Aggies was Auburn's touchdown pass from Barrett Trotter to Philip Lutzenkirchen (30) with 2:07 remaining. It was third-and-15, and if there is one Tiger you absolutely had to blanket in the red zone, it is the polysyllabic tight end. Until that play, one-third of Lutzenkirchen's 21 career catches were for touchdowns. Now his pay-dirt percentage is bumped up to 36.4.

So Utah State left The Plains with the same feeling as the previous 15 Auburn opponents. But it didn't leave without hope.

"It's not a moral victory," Anderson said. "We're way past that. … We're very disappointed but understand where we're headed as a program."

Having a quarterback like Chuckie Keeton (31) will certainly help point the way. He was as poised as any true freshman making his college debut The Dash has ever seen, completing 70 percent of his passes and running for two touchdowns.

"He won the job in camp because of [his composure]," Anderson said. "I waited for him to hit a wall … and he never did. He continued to impress us.

"But did he perform above my expectations? The answer would be absolutely yes. He wasn't fazed by the environment."

Back in their home environment of Logan, Anderson did something unusual at practice Monday morning. He moved the usual team meeting outside, to midfield of the stadium, where he had the players stand on the school logo.

"We want that logo to be known nationally," Anderson said. "That's something we've talked about. We need to win one of these games, and then we'll have the opportunity to get that logo out there nationally."

So close, Aggies. So close.

Then there was the other onside kick of the week

The diametric opposite of Brooks' perfect onside kick was the flub by SMU's Brad Namdar. Down 14-7 in the first quarter at Texas A&M on Sunday night, June Jones (32) went daring and called a slow-roller onside kick to be recovered by the kicker himself.

It appeared to be there for the taking -- except Namdar overran his own kick and had the ball bounce off the back of his foot after traveling just a few yards. It rolled backward for a net of 1 yard and the Aggies took possession.

"I don't know what else to do besides laugh," Jones said.

Another option besides laughter would have been to call that with a more experienced kicker. Namdar is a walk-on who had only been on the team for a few weeks.

In other Conference USA humor news …

Huge props to the Rice band (33) for spelling out "$EC" at halftime at Texas, to the amusement of Longhorns fans miffed at rival Texas A&M's anticipated move to the Southeastern Conference. The Owls band has six more opportunities to suck up to the home fans on the road this season by making fun of their rival. The one exception is at Houston on Oct. 27, since Rice would probably be tasked with making fun of itself.

How's this for openers?

No offense to Everett Withers, Will Muschamp, David Shaw, Dave Doeren and Pete Lembo, but the two best Week 1 performances by coaches in new jobs were both turned in by guys who lost.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJerry Kill's Minnesota squad nearly upset USC in Week 1.

Kudos to Jerry Kill (34) at Minnesota, whose Gophers would have won at USC if only they could have slowed down ridiculous sophomore receiver Robert Woods (17 catches, 177 yards). Predecessor Tim Brewster recruited some talent but didn't know what to do it with it. Kill will.

And kudos to Miami's Al Golden (35), who went to Maryland after the worst August of any coach in the country. Golden has been coaching under a massive NCAA scandal that didn't happen on his watch, and he was without eight suspended players for this game. Yet they led late in the fourth quarter and had a chance to win inside the final minute. Great work in a tough spot.

And then there was the worst debut. That was turned in by Kevin Wilson (36) at Indiana.

During the preseason Wilson got testy on the air with radio host and former Illini quarterback Jack Trudeau when Trudeau made fun of the Hoosiers' historic ineptitude. The Dash can only imagine what Trudeau is saying now that Wilson's team lost to Lembo's Ball State team 27-20 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Indiana gave up 210 rushing yards to a team that only ran for that much three times last season. There may not be a lot of other opportunities to win this year for Wilson.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Skip Holtz (37) of South Florida went into South Bend and beat his alma mater, in the process reminding everyone of the magic associated with that surname at Notre Dame.

Coach who should take the bus to work

That would be the current coach at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly (38). A season that began with great hype immediately hit the rocks as the Fighting Irish killed themselves with mistakes against the Bulls. Along the way Kelly repeatedly lost his mind on the sidelines -- not exactly a Tom Osborne approach to handling adversity. And after saying he hoped starter Dayne Crist would be his quarterback for 13 weeks, Kelly had to pull him in the first game and give Tommy Rees a shot. He'll take a quarterback controversy into what should be an insane atmosphere at Michigan.

Putting out an APB for …

… Former Houston gunslinger quarterback David Klingler (39). The run-and-shoot QB threw for more than 9,000 yards with the Cougars and remains third on the school's all-time passing list. He was a first-round NFL pick who didn't last too long in the league. Anyone with information on Klingler's whereabouts, please advise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Oklahoma running back Joe Washington, is alive and well and living in Baltimore. But he's still active at his alma mater, working as a special assistant to the athletic director and as the executive director of the Varsity O Association. The Dash thanks the armada of Oklahoma spies who sent info on Little Joe, including his daughter Brandy.

Point after

When hungry in the football-loving town of Dallas, The Dash recommends a visit to The Porch (40). They've got some intriguing dishes -- smoked brisket enchiladas, short rib stroganoff -- but the burgers are the highlight. You can't go wrong with the expansive beer list, either.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.