Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Thrills under the lights at the Big House


It's not quite time to jump off the Notre Dame bandwagon, at least not yet. (US Presswire)  
It's not quite time to jump off the Notre Dame bandwagon, at least not yet. (US Presswire)  

You didn't have to ever set foot in Ann Arbor or South Bend to feel compelled to scream and shout at your TV late Saturday night. One of the most bizarre, frenetic and riveting endings in years was unfolding at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines -- led by their spectacular junior quarterback Denard Robinson -- broke the hearts of Notre Dame, rallying from a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit to beat an Irish team that had dominated much of the game. So much drama was packed into the final 90 seconds of action it made you forget that these were not top 10 opponents grinding it out on this huge stage in front of almost 115,000 fans. Just about every snap was a highlight. In 72 seconds, there were three touchdowns.

The defeat for Notre Dame comes just a week after the Irish dominated South Florida but made crucial mistakes at the worst possible moments to lose their opener in South Bend. So much for the luck of the Irish. These days it would be more fitting for them to have a black cat on their helmets.

Robinson was, again, heroic for Michigan. He has brutalized the Irish the past two seasons, rolling up a mind-boggling 948 yards of total offense to go with eight TDs. His performance in the fourth quarter Saturday night was downright epic: 7 of 9, 202 yards, three passing touchdowns to go with six carries for 24 yards and another TD. In all, he accounted for a staggering 226 of his team's 229 yards.

Still, several times Saturday night, it seemed like the Irish were doing as much to assist Robinson as his new offensive coaches had been hampering him. The new Michigan scheme, more pro-style than the shotgun zone-read system that former coach Rich Rodriguez employed and for which Robinson appeared so ideal, looked maddeningly restrictive for the dynamic Floridian.

Robinson's biggest gifts, in addition to his freakish ability to accelerate from 0 to, well, a speed no one else in Big Ten football seems to have, are his instincts to maneuver in tight spaces. As the Irish built their early lead, Robinson looked out of sync, like somebody actually tied his shoes together. He was 2 for 9 passing and only had one Denard-like run in the first half. Michigan managed just six first downs through three quarters. Robinson completed four passes and threw two interceptions. The plays where he looked most comfortable were those when things broke down and he just played. Like the 77-yard completion to Junior Hemingway, where he had 300-pound defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore clinging to his legs as he unloaded a pass downfield.

In the fourth quarter, with a big lead, Notre Dame looked more uncomfortable than Robinson did once the game seemed out of reach. Repeatedly, Irish defensive backs were in decent position, but unable to make a play on the ball. Gary Gray, a cornerback who has played a ton of college football, looked like he had lost all confidence by the time Robinson threw the game-winning touchdown pass toward him in the final seconds. The Irish were flagged for pass interference on the play, but it didn't matter. Michigan snagged the winning pass regardless.

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I suspect if the Notre Dame secondary didn't have so much experience the performance might've seemed more understandable, but no less painful given the past two losses for a team that so many expected to be a contender for a BCS bowl this year.

Despite Robinson's magic and the Wolverines' 2-0 start, it still doesn't look like they have enough on both sides of the ball to be a legit top 10 team. No doubt, they are getting better. The defense, which was so atrocious the past few years, still is far from what you would expect from a Michigan D. The Irish piled up 513 yards. But at least Greg Mattison's defense is getting turnovers, and that is significant. The team that was 109th in turnover margin last year and near the bottom of the Big Ten in takeaways has forced eight turnovers in two games. Better still, they showed plenty of grit, which was sorely lacking in 2010. Repeatedly in the second half, the Irish had third-and-short and handed the ball to talented young tailback Cierre Wood, but on three different occasions, the Irish were denied.

I admit I expected more from Notre Dame this season. I figured with their added maturity from more time in Brian Kelly's system and upgrades in the defensive front seven, this was a team with a good chance to go 10-2. Now, with Michigan State on the horizon and several other solid teams remaining, anything better than 8-4 looks generous. I caution Irish fans not to jump off the Kelly bandwagon. It has been a brutal eight days, but he is still the right guy for this job and a dramatic upgrade from his predecessors. He knows how to run a program, having won at every other stop he has made. The Irish didn't fall from the top of college football in a year and we now know they won't get back close to it in a similar amount of time.

But good teams keep the mistakes to a minimum and Notre Dame simply isn't doing that. The Irish have committed 10 turnovers. That's one more than Wisconsin had in 13 games last season. It is almost impossible to win if you keep losing the turnover battle. Of the bottom 20 teams in turnover margin in 2010, only three had winning records and none did better than 8-5.

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 Marcus Lattimore pounded Georgia last season for almost 200 rushing yards. Once again, the South Carolina power back hammered away at the Dawgs, rushing for almost 100 yards in the fourth quarter alone. Lattimore finished with 176 yards this time and UGA has lost nine of its past 15 games. Steve Spurrier has quite a talented bunch that is more than just Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. His D-line is nasty, which has become a virtual prerequisite if you're going to field a championship-caliber team in the SEC. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the athleticism defensive tackle Melvin Ingram displayed was the presence of freshman phenom Jadaveon Clowney, who is already living up to his hype (two sacks and one forced fumble that led to an Ingram TD on Saturday.)

As much as Mark Richt tried to dismiss talk that the game in Athens against South Carolina was "a must-win" for Georgia, it was as close as anyone's going to get in early September. The 0-2 Bulldogs face a delicate situation -- playing the rest of the season with little margin for error as their coach is only one or two more slipups away from getting the boot. What makes this dynamic so hard for a team is that saying you can block out all of the talk is much easier than doing it. The vibe hovers over a team, where it's in the back of many players' and coaches' minds because it's also in the minds of their families who are so affected by the outcome.

 Looks like Alabama found its answer at quarterback in AJ McCarron, who was solid in a hostile environment, going 19 for 31 with a touchdown and no interceptions at Penn State. McCarron played just how Nick Saban needs him to: he didn't make many mistakes, played smart, hit some big throws and kept things moving for Trent Richardson and the run game. On the other side, the 'Bama defense caused fits for another rival offense as Nittany Lions QBs combined to go 12 for 39 for just 144 yards. Thus far opponents have only completed 37 percent of their passes against the Tide. Obviously, it's still early and the Tide really haven't seen any proven quarterbacks, but keep in mind last season's top defense in that category, TCU, held QBs to 49 percent.

Penn State quarterbacks in their past three games against SEC defenses: one touchdown, nine interceptions. They are also 42 of 109.

 I didn't think Russell Wilson would end up a Heisman contender, but after the first two weeks, I'm starting to think he has a shot to get in the race. He definitely looks like a good fit in the Badgers' offense. His running ability is a great added dimension to a deep backfield and a nice group of receivers. Wilson's feet make this team even tougher in the red zone. By the way, Paul Chryst's offense has been unreal in the red zone, scoring on 61 of its past 62 trips inside the 20, including 55 TDs, which is an unreal TD percentage.

 Nebraska struggled more than I expected against Fresno State. I realize Robbie Rouse is a very good back, but this is still a Fresno team with an almost entirely overhauled O-line that was missing its starting center, yet Rouse racked up 169 rushing yards against the vaunted Huskers D. Keep in mind this was a Fresno offense that only had 210 yards total against Cal a week earlier.

 Nice win for Auburn. The Tigers are loaded with young players and are showing promise, especially as both their revamped lines get some seasoning. Michael Dyer is a great building block, along with steady Emory Blake on the outside. Add to that the presence of offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn, one of the sharpest minds in football, and you have an intriguing team to keep an eye on in 2011.

 Lane Kiffin's best contribution to Tennessee football will go down as recruiting Tyler Bray. The lanky Californian was committed to San Diego State before Kiffin came after him. Bray is blossoming into a star as a sophomore. His confidence continues to surge, and with good reason. He has two great young receivers in Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers and a promising young O-line that has started to jell. Bray lit up Cincy on Saturday, going 34 of 41 for 405 yards, becoming the first Vols QB to throw for over 400 yards since Peyton Manning did it 14 years ago. Bray also broke Manning's single-game completion percentage record (30 or more completions). It remains to be seen whether the Vols have the maturity or enough defense to get back into the Top 25, but they will be fun to watch. I'm very curious how they respond to next week's road trip to the Swamp.

 Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson, a former UCLA signee, had a monster game in the Buffs' loss to Cal, catching 11 passes for a school-record 284 yards and two TDs. It's pretty scary to think how explosive a group of skill players Serra High in Southern California must've had a few years ago. Richardon's old Serra teammate, Southern Cal's Robert Woods, was one of the receiving stars of Week 1, catching 17 passes. In addition to them, Serra also had Marqise Lee, the Trojans' most impressive freshman on offense.

 Virginia Tech had a surprising number of penalties and struggled in the passing game, but the Hokies' D was tough, limiting a capable ECU offense to 112 total yards in a 17-10 Tech win. The Hokies had five sacks, nine tackles for loss and did a great job of containing Pirates receiver Lance Lewis (three catches, 17 yards.) He had 13 catches against South Carolina in Week 1.

 Interesting stat shown on the Versus telecast of the Utah-USC game: Entering Saturday night, Trojans QB Matt Barkley had a 40-15 TD-INT ratio in his career in the first three quarters of games. In fourth quarter, he's only 4-9 and completing less than 50 percent. Defensively, the Trojans' D has also had issues late in games the past year and some of that no doubt is due to their lack of depth. Thus far, USC has been able to make big plays in the final minutes to avoid upset losses.

 Central Florida had no trouble dealing with Boston College on Saturday night. The Knights, who won 11 games last year, have a shot to be a Top 25 team this year. Sophomore QB Jeff Godfrey is the real deal. His playmaking skills and improved decision making make this team really potent in the red zone, where they are 14 for 14 this season, with 11 TDs in two games.

 A follow-up on something I tweeted late Friday night after Florida International's win at Louisville. I mentioned that the rise of the Sun Belt program in Miami is even more remarkable given how bleak a situation coach Mario Cristobal took over a few years back. I said no coach in FBS took over a worse program. The reason: FIU was like no other program at that level. There was no infrastructure. They had no film library. They had no academic support system in place for the players. They had to build everything from scratch when Cristobal's staff arrived. "Our first month of official visits, we didn't show them the locker room or the weight room," said a former staffer. "We were running smoke and mirrors. Everything focused on the campus and the city of Miami. We'd just show them plans of what we were building."

The facilities were laughable. The program also had administrative issues where players had a hard time even getting their Pell Grant money. On top of that, Cristobal also inherited a dreadful APR rating and the program was going on academic probation, so they couldn't even go after full recruiting classes.

But they did do quite a job selling. One of those sold was stud wide receiver/kick returner T.Y. Hilton, whose blazing speed took the heart out of the Cardinals on Friday night. Hilton had visited a few AQ programs but bought in to Cristobal's vision and wanted to stay close to home and his family. The result is one of the better stories in college football for a team coming off the biggest win in the program's history.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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