Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: OU road win showcases D, understudies


For all of the talk about how shaky the Oklahoma Sooners have been when traveling outside their state, Bob Stoops' bunch sure looked pretty solid visiting a Florida State team set on revenge after the 'Noles were drilled last year in Norman.

Saturday in front of a record crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium, the Sooners D was tenacious, thumping the 'Noles all night, knocking out starting QB EJ Manuel, suffocating FSU's running game and coming up with big plays whenever necessary. It may not have been a rout like last year, but it was good enough for OU's first non-conference road victory over a top-five team since 1977.

Better still for Stoops, this game proved to be a coming-out party of sorts for some of OU's other young guys besides familiar headliners Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles.

For many of us outside Norman, if we knew anything about OU middle linebacker Tom Wort, it was probably that he was raised in England, or that he's a big fan and buddy of former pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior, but Saturday night the Sooners LB and his flashy biceps bands seemed to be everywhere. Wort had eight tackles (three for loss), a sack and a half and one of those huge defensive plays when he picked off a Manuel pass as the 'Noles were driving deep into OU territory. Wort's development fit in well with the return of OU's best defender, Travis Lewis, who made a somewhat surprising and inspired return from a broken toe. Lewis had been expected out until the Texas game Oct. 8 and mostly watched practice while wearing a boot this past week as his team prepped for the Noles.

"I didn't want to take the spirit out of him and say there's no way in heck he was going to play," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables told the Oklahoman. "The fact he played, I wasn't really [surprised] because he's a knucklehead. The fact he played well I was a little bit surprised to be off over a month off."

Stoops called Lewis' return "shocking" considering the All-American hardly was able to practice Wednesday. Regardless, Lewis (eight tackles) also showed up big on Saturday night.

The Sooners' stars on offense were OU's "other" wideout sophomore, Kenny Stills, who had a huge TD reception late in the game and a big seven-catch, 125-yard night, responding to an FSU defense determined to not allow Broyles to beat them; and Dominique Whaley, the feisty running back who came to OU as a walk-on. He ran hard to grind out a few first downs on the Sooners' game-sealing drive.

Landry Jones had a night with a few more ups than downs. He came in with his own history of struggles in road games, having a TD-INT ratio of about 1-1, which paled in comparison to his 6-1 TD-INT mark at home. No doubt the 'Noles gave Jones plenty of problems, but late in the game he was 5 for 7 with the big TD pass to Stills, and the Sooner running game and OU defense was able to take it from there.

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OU will face a couple of more explosive offenses later in the season in Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, but it's doubtful the Sooners will face a tougher road environment this year than what they overcame at FSU.

The 'Noles defeat derailed what had been a pretty respectable showing for the ACC. The hoops conference had several big out-of-league tests Saturday, including a couple against higher ranked opponents. Clemson rallied from a 21-7 deficit to end No. 21 Auburn's 17-game winning streak as Tajh Boyd carved up the Tigers D, throwing for 386 yards and four TDs in his third career start.

As shaky as the Auburn D has been this season, Clemson displayed some intriguing firepower. Of course, we've seen flashes of this before. With games against FSU and Virginia Tech on the horizon, Dabo Swinney's team needs to show it can handle success.

In Miami, the Canes drilled No. 17 Ohio State 24-6 as UM's running game really took it to the Buckeyes early and often. Lamar Miller, UM's super-fast tailback, almost equaled Miami's rushing yardage total from their loss to OSU last year (120) in Columbus in the first quarter (115) alone. Miller is rapidly emerging as one of the nation's top players, the kind of talent the Canes haven't had in the past few years. There haven't been a lot of difference-makers on offense for this program lately, and Miller is definitely one. He also ran behind a big, athletic O-line that responded to being challenged by line coach Art Kehoe.

Miami ended up doubling last year's rushing total against the Buckeyes, gaining 240 yards with a robust 5.7-yard per carry average. Still, this was not a resounding performance for Jacory Harris. He threw two INTs and another pass that could've been a pick-six. In a word, it was shaky. Again. He's going to have to be sharper if the Canes plan on surviving an ACC road schedule that includes trips to FSU, Virginia Tech and UNC.

As for the Buckeyes, Luke Fickell's offense was far too one-dimensional. OSU QBs actually had more passing attempts (15) than passing yards (13) through three quarters. I suspect if Fickell knew he was going to be the coach beyond 2011, he'd be leaning on freshman QB Braxton Miller more, but after the Miami game, he might give the kid the keys right now as OSU gets ready for the Big Ten schedule.

The downside for the ACC, Maryland couldn't overcome a big hole against West Virginia, where Geno Smith upstaged Danny O'Brien. On top of that, their two future ACC members, Pitt and Syracuse both lost too.

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 No question Tennessee's hopes took a major hit in the Swamp when sophomore Justin Hunter, the Vols' freak of wideout, left the Florida game early with an leg injury. Hunter puts a lot of stress on a defense and helps open things up for Da'Rick Rogers underneath. But with the way the Gator D was mixing up its looks and coming after Tyler Bray, the Vols were facing an uphill battle. UT's inexperienced, sophomore-laden O-line couldn't create running lanes for Tauren Poole, and James Stone had plenty of issues getting the ball back to Bray out of the shotgun. The Gators knocked Bray around and didn't allow him to get into rhythm in his first real true SEC road test in hostile territory.

For Gators QB John Brantley and new UF OC Charlie Weis, it was a much different story. Weis has some multi-dimensional, exceptionally fast toys to play with in Gainesville. Chris Rainey is looking like a smaller Percy Harvin in this offense and Weis was able to create and exploit mismatches against inexperienced Vol defenders. Rainey, fellow blazer Jeff Demps and Trey Burton accounted for 338 of the Gators 347 total yards, or over 97 percent of their attack, giving rival SEC teams plenty to think about.

 Weis isn't the only new OC getting settled in at his new digs. Former Boise State offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin hit on some trick plays and had UCLA on its heels all day in the Rose Bowl, and Texas now seems to be on the right track. The Longhorns' QB issues appear to be settled, and freshman RB Malcolm Brown has stepped forward to give Texas an identity on offense. Of course, you wonder how much of this is due to the Bruins' ineptitude. Rick Neuheisel's team again came out flat. They appear to be going backward. Veteran QB Kevin Prince had a brutal game, throwing three INTs. Maybe more surprising, his teammates on defense weren't much better. Texas ran for 284 yards against what was thought to be an improved Bruin D, which coming out of this game looks -- and sounds -- like it has big, big problems entering Pac-12 play.

"We could do a better job of tackling in practice," defensive tackle Cassius Marsh told Jon Gold. "I don't think people know the difference between thudding up and tapping them. That's something we should emphasize this week. We need to practice tackling in order to execute in the game."

 I'm not going to anoint Russell Wilson as the Heisman frontrunner given that Wisconsin has played three suspect defenses, but the former N.C. State QB has been extremely sharp considering he's adapting to a new system, new staff and new teammates and didn't even have the spring to get acclimated. Wilson had never completed better than 59 percent of his passes in his three seasons starting in the ACC, but he's connecting on 76 percent with the Badgers and has been lethal in the red zone.

 Vandy, which only won four games the previous two seasons, is one of the better stories of September. After throttling Ole Miss Saturday, the Commodores are 3-0. And it was the way they pounded the Rebels that was so impressive, holding Houston Nutt's team to under 3 yards a carry, while rushing for almost 300 yards and 5.7 yards per run on 49 attempts.

James Franklin, the new Vandy coach, has been making waves on the recruiting trail, beating bigger programs for blue-chip kids. As surprising as that has been, I had figured Vandy would end up losing some of those kids if (and when) the losses piled up and recruits would reconsider signing with a 4-8 team, but the attitude adjustment and the sales job the coach has made with his program is playing just as well with the guys already in his program, and that truly is impressive. Franklin became Vandy's first first-year coach to start 3-0 since World War II.

"In all honesty, this is the best team I've ever been around in terms of approaching it as a 'just one-game season,' " Vandy O-line coach Herb Hand told me Saturday night. "And, hopefully, we'll be able to go 1-0 this week against South Carolina."

Hand said the staff asks their players "Can you give us six seconds of focus?" and for the team to just worry about "what's in the now."

"That's been a reflection of Coach Franklin," Hand said. "Anything that has happened prior to 2011, who cares, man? All that matters is 2011 and these guys have bought into that."

That has translated into the team making a lot of big plays. They have had a pick-six in every game and already have 10 INTs, one more than the Commodores had in all of 2010. Rob Lohr, a slightly undersized but explosive DT, has blossomed into a force anchoring the defensive. He had two more TFLs against Ole Miss, giving him six in the past two games.

Whether Houston Nutt can get Ole Miss back on track will be an interesting subplot in the SEC over the next two months. Nutt started out great in Oxford, winning back-to-back Cotton Bowls. His free-wheeling persona was ideal coming after the hard-edged style of Ed Orgeron. But now that most of Orgeron's recruits are gone, the Rebels have lost their spark and aren't responding well. Many of Nutt's moves have been backfiring. They have dropped nine of their past 10 SEC games, and Nutt is only 5-10 in the past 15. It also doesn't help his cause that Dan Mullen has things cranked up over in Starkville. Ole Miss' schedule is back-loaded. This team needs to get things sorted out fast. Losing is one thing. Getting blown out by Vandy is another matter.

 Props to Ron Zook. Illinois is off to its first 3-0 start since 2001. With upcoming games against WMU, Northwestern and at Indiana, the Illini have a great shot at opening 6-0 before playing host to Ohio State on Oct. 15. Keep an eye on the Zooker's team. He has a very good triggerman in QB Nate Scheelhaase and plenty of weapons. The defense is playing well, having only allowed two TDs on their opponents' six red zone trips. Before the season, I figured this would be an eight-win team. I'm starting to think this should be a 10-win team, at least. Their road schedule couldn't be much more favorable with trips to IU, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota.

 Some good news for Bo Pelini: Nebraska's young O-line seemed to mature in a hurry. They came out in the second half and really took it to a physical Washington front. Rex Burkhead is a workhorse, and speedy Taylor Martinez is nerve-wracking to deal with for 60 minutes and it sure looked like U-Dub wore down. I like what new OC Tim Beck is doing there in spite of the green offensive line. Going no-huddle in the first half only seemed to help take some gas out of the Huskies' tank and that paid dividends later in the day.

 Speaking of three-and-outs, not one senior is ranked in the top 15 in the NCAA in rushing. Other numbers of note: BC's Luke Kuechly is leading the country in tackles by almost six per game more than the No. 2 guy in the country. Best third-down D in the country? Alabama? Nope. LSU? Nope. Try Ohio, which has only allowed eight first downs on 43 tries. Worst third-down defense: Auburn, which is has surrendered 35 of 55 (64 percent).

 Stat line of the day: Texas Tech QB Seth Doege went 40 of 44 passes for 401 yards and five scores in a 59-13 romp over New Mexico.

 Stat line of the night, Take 2: Robert Griffin III goes 20 of 22 for 265 yards and three TDs, meaning RG3 has now thrown eight TDs and just eight incompletions. Some QBs are doing well if they have a 1-1 TD-INT ratio. Griffin's at a 1-1 TD-INC ratio. Wow.

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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