Kiper: 2002 season preview index

Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

Irish eyes should be smiling

What a first big weekend of college football. There were so many exciting games, fantastic finishes, and new stars in the making. And to think it's all just beginning.

In a game involving two mystery teams, Notre Dame had the upper hand over the Maryland Terrapins in Tyrone Willingham's first game as the Fighting Irish's head coach.

Carlyle Holiday
The Irish faithful hope that injured QB Carlyle Holiday can play against Stanford.
Willingham and his staff must be commended. In watching tape of the game, I thought Notre Dame looked extremely well prepared. The Irish were fundamentally sound in just about every area and were extremely disciplined.

Offensively, Carlyle Holiday managed the offense consistently. He also took care of the football and came through with several key runs.

In the coming weeks, Holiday will still have to prove he can beat a defense with his arm, although against Maryland he was solid throwing the shorter aerials.

Up front, junior center Jeff Faine was one of the best players on the field. He did a phenomenal job anchoring the middle, even though as a group the Irish offensive line had its share of problems. For such a veteran group up front, the Irish failed to gain the necessary push in run-blocking situations and also allowed too much pass pressure on Holiday.

Defensively, senior CB Shane Walton (three interceptions) contributed heavily to the shutout, coming through with one of the stellar individual efforts of the week.

For the Terrapins, they looked like a shell of the team we saw last season. The QB situation is night and day compared to last year, when Shaun Hill stabilized the offense and competently directed the attack each week. Lefty Scott McBrien, a former transfer from West Virginia, had his share of struggles, while Chris Kelley's lack of game experience is forcing him to shake off a great deal of rust.

On defense, senior LB E.J. Henderson may have been regarded as 100 percent recovered from April back surgery going into the game, but he failed to perform up to the level expected.

Ralph Friedgen, the 2001 Coach of the Year, has quite a challenge ahead. This team has a lot of work to do between now and Sept. 14, when the Terrapins play host Florida State. Strides definitely must be made against Akron on Saturday at Byrd Stadium.

As for the Irish and Tyrone Willingham, they'll be competitive even against opposition with better personnel if they continue to play with the poise, confidence, discipline, sound fundamentals, and outstanding kicking game that was evident throughout their 22-0 victory over Maryland.

Even with all that said, a 6-6 record must still be viewed as a very successful season for Willingham and his staff. If the Irish achieve an even better record, Willingham would deserve to be placed among the top candidates for Coach of the Year.

Dave Revsine and I, along with the entire "College GameDay on ESPN Radio" crew, were in Athens, Ga., for what turned out to be a real nail-biter. The return of what has always been a tremendous southern rivalry couldn't have been more exciting and entertaining.

Georgia, the co-favorite in the SEC East along with Tennessee and Florida, prevailed 31-28 over Clemson, but there were so many twists and turns as well as momentum swings. The game's outcome wasn't decided until the waning seconds.

Tommy Bowden's Tigers battled hard the entire way, but costly penalties as well as terrible special teams play led to their downfall.

With the game tied 7-7, a penalty resulted in a re-kick that sophomore Fred Gibson turned into a return for a TD, allowing Georgia to go up 14-7 when the momentum should have instead been with Clemson.

After falling behind 21-7, Clemson appeared to seize control, scoring 21 straight points to hold a 28-21 lead. But then Georgia re-asserted itself, scoring the final 10 points of the game.

As for Clemson, I thought QB Willie Simmons did an excellent job. He demonstrated exceptional arm strength, a great deal of toughness, and the ability to create positive opportunities with his legs.

Several costly drops, which could have resulted in touchdowns, plagued Simmons. He hit Airese Curry in stride, but Curry dropped the football. Kevin Youngblood wasn't able to pull in a pass in the end zone, and Derrick Hamilton was unable to adjust his body to haul in another potential TD.

The only thing Simmons needs to work on is decision-making. When he scrambles out of the pocket, he makes questionable throws across his body to the middle of the field, and they can often result in key turnovers. Early in the game, instead of throwing the ball away, Simmons forced a pass into the end zone that was picked off. He also had two other near misses on throws that could have easily been intercepted.

Otherwise, Simmons proved without a doubt that Bowden has the right man for the job both this season and in 2003.

Going into the game, I thought Hamilton, the Tigers' standout sophomore WR, needed to haul in six or seven passes for Clemson to have a chance to win the football game. Instead, it was the junior Youngblood who stepped up as the Tigers' go-to option against the Bulldogs.

A major concern for Bowden has to be the offensive line. On far too many occasions, Simmons was pressured heavily and forced to run for his life.

Defensively, the Tigers got after Georgia quarterbacks David Greene and D.J. Shockley, while LB John Leake made several key open-field tackles.

For Georgia, Shockley overshadowed Greene at QB, proving he can beat defenses with both his arm and his legs. As for a QB controversy, Greene has shown the necessary poise and overall ability on enough occasions to be a major part of the equation. There is no questioning Shockley, a redshirt freshman, as a budding star of the future in the SEC.

Some observers feel the two-QB system doesn't work, while others view this as a nice change of pace that creates many a sleepless night for defensive coordinators as they prepare for two QBs.

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden worked the two-QB system perfectly for a number of years in Tallahassee, so Georgia head coach and former FSU offensive coordinator Mark Richt saw first hand how it could be done.

There is no question that junior RB Musa Smith is a vital ingredient. He's a keep-the-chains-moving type who always gives the Bulldogs a solid performance when he's at full strength.

Defensively, Georgia pressured Simmons, with blue-chip senior LB Boss Bailey coming through with a key sack in the fourth quarter.

The rebuilt secondary, minus three starters (all selected in the 2002 NFL draft) from last season, still has a lot of work to do, although Clemson's receiving corps is one of the better groups (even without the injured Roscoe Crosby) the Bulldogs will face this season.

Another key to the game was field position. Georgia's three possessions in the fourth quarter began at the Clemson 31, its own 44 and the Clemson 45-yard line. Penalties, poor special teams coverage and missed field goals compounded the situation.

Clemson has to shake the loss off in a hurry. Louisiana Tech's aerial assault, led by standout junior signal caller Luke McCown, comes to Death Valley on Saturday.

Georgia gets a week off before preparing for an SEC East battle on Sept. 14 against Lou Holtz's Gamecocks of South Carolina on the road in Columbia.

In what turned out to be the thriller of the day, Michigan pulled out a hard-fought 31-29 victory over Washington at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Instead of the controversial catch by Michigan's Braylon Edwards, the gut-wrenching thing for Husky fans should instead be the illegal participation penalty (15 yards) that actually came after Washington had called a timeout.

As for the Edwards' reception, it was a bang-bang play that I believe the officials ruled incorrectly. What fooled people was that Edwards didn't immediately go for the recovery. In slow-motion replay, there is no way you could definitively rule it wasn't a catch.

The illegal participation penalty would have been bad enough; the fact it came after Washington had called a timeout should make it much tougher to swallow. There were just six seconds remaining when Washington was called for the penalty after an incomplete pass on third and 10.

Instead, the ball was moved 15 yards to the Washington 27-yard line where Michigan spiked the ball after the automatic first down. Then came the game winning 44-yard field goal by junior Phillip Brabbs, who redeemed himself after missing earlier FG attempts from 36 and 42 yards out.

Byron Leftwich came out firing strikes all over the field against an out-manned Appalachian State squad, completing 27 of 41 aerials for 469 yards and 4 TDs without an interception. With Darius Watts out with a separated shoulder, sophomore Josh Davis emerged as the go-to option for the Thundering Herd, hauling in 11 receptions for 264 yards.

In order for Leftwich to remain at or near the top of the Heisman Trophy list and for the Thundering Herd to climb the rankings, they will need a victory in their showdown with Virginia Tech on Thursday, Sept. 12, at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.

Remember, the Thundering Herd's only other contest outside of the MAC is against Troy State, so the opportunity for another statement-type game doesn't exist. Virginia Tech is it.

When Florida hosts the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes at "The Swamp" on Saturday, the Gators will be looking for another WR option to emerge opposite blue-chip senior Taylor Jacobs.

In their win over UAB, Jacobs hauled in eight receptions for a whopping 246 yards and two TDs. The problem is that all the other Gator wideouts combined for just seven catches.

On the plus side, the Gator running game was in high gear, with senior Earnest Graham ready to establish himself as one of college football's elite running backs. Graham finished with 182 yards on just 13 carries against UAB, scoring a pair of TDs.

QB Rex Grossman completed 16 of 26 passes for 337 yards and two TDs, as well as an interception. For Grossman and Miami's Ken Dorsey, Saturday's game could easily determine which one of the two signal-callers remains at or near the top of the Heisman list.

LONGHORNS SHORT ON GROUND GAME While the Texas defense pitched a shutout against North Texas, the Longhorns failed to score a point in the second half of their 27-0 victory on Saturday. Chris Simms was solid overall, completing 16 of 26 passes for 186 yards and one TD, with Roy Williams being the primary target (five catches for 81 yards).

However, the Longhorn offensive line failed to perform at anywhere close to the level expected. North Texas's defense limited Cedric Benson to just 49 yards on 18 carries.

I know margin of victory supposedly doesn't matter, but come on! A national championship contender should not come up completely empty in 30 minutes of action against North Texas.

Maybe I as well as some other college football analysts have overrated the Longhorns once again. Mack Brown should put that statement on the wall in the Texas locker room.

While South Carolina's new signal-caller Corey Jenkins accounted for 279 yards of total offense in the Gamecocks' 34-24 victory over a game New Mexico State squad, the restructured defense, minus a number of key starters from last year, allowed 212 yards rushing and over 400 yards of total offense to the Aggies.

In Tennessee's 47-7 route of Wyoming, junior signal-caller Casey Clausen completed 22 of 33 passes for 238 yards, with sophomore Tony Brown picking up the slack for the injured Kelley Washington at WR. Brown finished with a team-leading seven catches for 77 yards.

In the backfield, sophomore Cedric Houston emerged as the main running threat against the Cowboys, finishing with 10 carries for 106 yards and a pair of TDs.

Unfortunately, the Vols suffered a major injury when standout junior LB Kevin Burnett sustained a possible season-ending knee injury during the first quarter. The Vols had already lost DE Constantin Ritzmann for the season with a knee injury.

When you combine the loss of Burnett and Ritzmann with the completely restructured defensive line that is without Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson, Will Overstreet and Bernard Jackson from last season, the Vols' front seven will have some questions to answer when they face the likes of Florida, Georgia, and Miami (Fla) in the weeks to come.

At Oregon, new signal-caller Jason Fife made a strong account of himself as he attempts to fill the big shoes of Joey Harrington as the Ducks' QB. Fife, a strong-armed 6-foot-3, 217-pound junior, completed 14 of 26 passes for 166 yards and three TDs in their 36-13 victory over a Mississippi State squad that was without starting signal-caller Kevin Fant.

With Fant suspended for the game, inexperienced redshirt freshman Kyle York was forced to step in. The youngster did a very commendable job, throwing for nearly 200 yards.

Congratulations to new head coach Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen of the Naval Academy. After winning just one game the last two years, Navy rolled to a 38-7 upset victory on the road over SMU.

Long before Saturday's game, I said Johnson was a great hire for Navy. His system fits the personnel. In my opinion, Johnson is to the triple-option attack what Steve Spurrier is to the "Fun 'N' Gun." There is no question the future is bright for the Middies.

Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories

Copyright ©2002 ESPN Internet Ventures.
Click here for Terms of Use and Privacy Policy applicable to this site.