Posted on: January 4, 2012 1:21 pm
Edited on: January 4, 2012 1:24 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
As often as bowl games are derided as "meaningless" for not having a bearing on the national championship, you'd think players would have gotten the memo by now. They haven't, and though nearly any post-win bowl celebration picked at random would be evidence enough, Junior Hemingway's postgame interview with ESPN's Chris Fowler is maybe the best example we've seen this offseason:
If you'd come to a Michigan program that ranked as one of the nation's proudest, watched it suffer through its lowest point in decades amidst a torrent of in-fighting and lackluster coaching decisions, and then stuck around for its triumphant return to the top-10 -- capping it personally by scoring the team's only two touchdowns in a Sugar Bowl victory -- yeah, we think you'd be pretty emotional, too ... "meaningless" game or not.
Posted on: January 3, 2012 7:08 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Andrew Luck might be just the start of a Stanford exodus to the NFL Draft, since as of Tuesday afternoon he already has some Cardinal company.
Junior Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin announced via his Twitter account Tuesday that he will be forgoing his senior season in Palo Alto to enter this April's draft:
Martin could be one of two early-entrants from the Cardinal offensive line, as All-American guard David DeCastro is also expected to declare in the near future.
"#NERDs" or not, Martin and DeCastro stand to soon become some very wealthy nerds. In a tackle-light draft, Martin shapes up as an all-but-certain first-round selection and could hear his name called in the top 10. At 6'6" and 305 pounds with loads of experience both drive-blocking and pass-protecting in Stanford's pro-style scheme, the two-time first-team All-Pac-12 honoree ranks as the third tackle off the board here at CBSSports.com and the No. 13 prospect overall. (DeCastro, incidentally, ranks ninth.)
Posted on: January 3, 2012 2:05 am
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
"I think I am going to go ahead and enter the NFL Draft," he said, "and see what happens after that."
We already have some idea what's going to happen "after that"--Blackmon will be selected among the very top picks in the Draft, sign a contract worth millions, and very likely go on to become an excellent professional receiver. But nothing Blackmon will do "after that" will better the excitement of what he's accomplished before that at Oklahoma State, where heading into Monday's Fiesta Bowl he had already rewritten the school's receiving record book and won a pair of Biletnikoff Awards as the nation's best receiver.
Likewise, we can already write most of the "after that" for Andrew Luck. The two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up is about to go No. 1 overall in the draft and has a chance to follow in the footsteps of Peyton Manning -- maybe even at the same franchise -- as the kind of superstar pocket-passing quarterback NFL dynasties are built around. But before that, there was three seasons of pure All-American brilliance in which his Cardinal set a school record for scoring all three seasons.
For both players, the Fiesta was the final night of "before that," the final game in the collegiate careers of two of college football's most blinding stars. So it was only appropriate that with the rare chance to square off against a star of equal caliber -- in a bowl that employs the sun in its logo, no less -- both Blackmon and Luck went flat-out supernova.
Blackmon's team won, but no one would have blinked if Luck had been named the game's MVP. His numbers were phenomenal, of course: 27-of-31, 347 yards (11.2 an attempt), 2 touchdowns. He went 8-of-8 in the fourth quarter, expertly managing drives both fast (the 63-yard drive over the final 2:35 to set up Jordan Williamson's ill-fated 35-yard attempt) and slow (the 13-play, 69-yard TD march that ate up 7:21 of the final period).
But most impressive was the 10.0 degree-of-difficulty throws Luck uncorked with regularity. Passes like the one delivered to Griff Whalen in the second quarter -- an over-the-shoulder "bucket" throw to a receiver sprinting down the sideline, made with Luck moving to his right -- are referred to as "NFL throws," but we're not sure half the League's starters could make them the way Luck does. You could say Luck showed off "the complete package" against the Cowboys, but that doesn't do justice to how expansive that package is.
And still, Luck might have been the second-best player on the field. Blackmon finished with 8 catches for 186 yards and 3 touchdowns, but again, the stats don't do justice to either his physical dominance -- one-on-one coverage was a lost cause for the Cardinal -- or his knack for making those catches at the best possible time.
With the Cowboys reeling from a lost first quarter and a 14-0 deficit, it was Blackmon who pulled in a pair of lightning bolt scores (one 43 yards, the other 67) to get his team back in the game. Facing a 4th-and-4 at the Stanford 32 and his team down again late in the second quarter, it was Blackmon who caught a short pass and brushed aside two Cardinal tacklers to set up a first-and-goal (and eventual touchdown). Down seven again after a disastrous third quarter, it was Blackmon scoring to tie it (again) to start the fourth. And finally, 4th-and-3 on OSU's own 40 with under 3:30 to play and the Cowboys in "touchdown or bust" desperation mode, it was Blackmon who again abused his defender for 21 yards.
The 2012 Fiesta Bowl would have been remembered for a long, long time even without Luck's and Blackmon's fireworks; 41-38 overtime shootouts between two top-five teams decided by a heartbreaking field goal miss have a way of sticking around the game's collective memory. But what elevated the contest to stone-cold classic status was seeing two players of Luck's and Blackmon's historic talent both grab the same game by the teeth and refuse for 60 minutes -- and beyond -- to let go. It's maybe not fair to the excellent Brandon Weeden or Stepfan Taylor to reduce the game to a mano a mano battle between that quarterback on that side and that receiver on that side, but Luck and Blackmon didn't give us much choice.
And at the end of each of their respective times in college football, that's exactly how it should have been. "After that" will be interesting. But for a night, Luck's and Blackmon's shared "before that" was as good as it's possible to get.
Posted on: January 2, 2012 5:52 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
But Georgia fans will argue that the game never should have reached a third overtime after Cousins was picked off on the Spartans' first OT possession. All the Bulldogs needed was a field goal, but Mark Richt chose to have Aaron Murray kneel on second down to set up Walsh on third down--even though the kick was a full 43 yards and Walsh had gone just 19-of-31 this season. To say Walsh's miss will leave Richt in line for some second guessing is an understatement.
WHY MICHIGAN STATE WON: Richt's conservatism -- not just in overtime, but from the moment the Dawgs took that 16-0 lead -- arguably had as much to do with the Spartan win as anything MSU did. But to focus entirely on Georgia's mistakes won't do justice to the determination and guts of Cousins, who took a ton of hits in the early going and was still up for guiding one of the drives of college football's season late--a 10-play, 85-yard masterpiece that took just 1:35 and sent the game to overtime.
Contrast Cousins' poise with that of Murray, whose precision terrorized the Spartans in the first half and much of the second ... but who went an ugly 0-of-4 in overtime and took the sack that led to Walsh's final blocked attempt. Cousins wasn't always exactly John Elway himself -- he finished averaging just 6 yards an attempt and threw three interceptions -- but his cool down the stretch was what ultimately paced his team to the victory.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE WON: Not until White's block, but that block was set up by William Gholston's crushing sack on third down.
WHAT MICHIGAN STATE WON: An 11th game for the second straight year, but more importantly, the Spartans snapped a five-game bowl losing streak and earned Mark Dantonio his first postseason victory. It also helped the Big Ten avoid an 0-4 start to the day's slate.
WHAT GEORGIA LOST: Not much in the big picture, really; Richt's 10-2 season and SEC East title has already cooled any "hot seat" talk, and win or lose the Dawgs should still enter 2012 as favorites to repeat as divisional champs. But given the ease of Georgia's schedule this past season (and next), the loss may open Richt up to questions as to whether his team is ready to take the next step and beat the high-caliber teams necessary to win the SEC.
THAT WAS CRAZY: It's a shame we haven't even mentioned Georgia corner Brandon Boykin's day yet: all the senior did in his final game as a Bulldog was score on defense (tackling Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first play from scrimmage for a safety), special teams (on a highlight-reel 92-yard punt return), and offense (catching a 13-yard touchdown out of the backfield after lining up as a running back.)
FINAL GRADE: This one had everything: huge plays, giant momentum swings, NFL-caliber athletes and quarterbacks, seismic coaching decisions, and a desperate team making a desperate comeback for maximum drama. It doesn't get a lot better. A.
Posted on: January 2, 2012 4:29 pm
Edited on: January 5, 2012 12:22 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
With Shaw throwing for an efficient 229 yards (13.5 per attempt) and running for 42 more, that was all the momentum the Gamecocks would need. Taylor Martinez was entirely bottled up in the second half, finishing with just 153 total yards of offense (117 passing, 36 rushing) and unable to get his team on the scoreboard over the final two quarters.
WHY SOUTH CAROLINA WON: Because with Martinez always erratic in the pass game and the dynamic Gamecock front always likely to cause some problems with the Husker ground game, Nebraska couldn't afford to waste opportunities--especially ones that could have put them in firm control of the game. But that's precisely what they did late in the first half, when Ameer Abdullah picked up a first down on a 3rd-and-3 from the Gamecock 8, his team on the verge of extending their 13-9 lead to double-digits ... and then got hit by D.J. Swearinger and fumbled the ball away.
The Huskers could have retaken the lead after Jeffery's Hail Mary, driving to a first-and-goal at the Carolina 8 on their first drive of the third quarter. First down: crazy pass from Martinez for loss of 8. Second: rush for 5. Third: delay of game. Then a screen for a loss of 2. Fourth: a missed 35-yard field goal, Brett Maher's first miss from under 40 this season. The Huskers would go on to commit four penalties on their next drive and never threatened again. The Gamecocks were the better team, but if Nebraska had been able to keep their composure in the red zon, they could have at least stayed competitive.
WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA WON: Taking over up 23-13 with just over 9 minutes to play, Shaw led the Gamecocks on a methodical, clock-killing march that would eventually burn off more than 6 minutes and end with a Kenny Miles touchdown, putting the game entirely out of the Huskers' reach.
THAT WAS CRAZY: If this was indeed the final game for Jeffery and star Nebraska corner Alfonzo Dennard, their careers didn't end the way either player would have liked. The pair scuffled after a third-quarter play, with Dennard throwing a series of punches and Jeffery delivering a two-handed shove to Dennard's facemask; both players were ejected. And though Jeffery is the bigger name nationally, the Huskers seemed to suffer more from Dennard's ejection, their secondary losing its way over the remainder of the game.
WHAT SOUTH CAROLINA WON: Their 11th game of the season, for the first time in school history. Though the Gamecocks were always aiming for a repeat trip to the SEC title game, 11-2 with Shaw and Marcus Lattimore returning isn't a bad consolation.
WHAT NEBRASKA LOST: Their fourth game of the 2011 campaign, wrapping up the Huskers' first year in the Big Ten at 9-4. Bo Pelini has now lost his last two bowl games.
FINAL GRADE: The first half had the makings of a classic, with both teams exchanging big plays and long drives, capped by the Hail Mary lightning bolt. But the second was a major letdown, with the Huskers totally unabe to get out of their own way and Carolina slowly squeezing the life out of Nebraska's chances--and the game. B-.
Posted on: December 31, 2011 11:14 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
AUBURN WON: A Tiger offense that had been in second gear since September and was missing leading rusher Michael Dyer suddenly roared to life in Gus Malzahn's final game at the helm, scoring 43 points and racking up 454 yards, both season highs allowed (or are they lows?) for the Cavalier defense. But the story of the game was Auburn's dominance on special teams, where the Tigers blocked not one but two Virginia punts (leading to nine points), foiled a fake Cavalier field goal, successfully executed a surprise onsides kick and set up a field goal with a 62-yard Quan Bray kick return. The Tiger offense was the best it had been since Week 2 vs. Mississippi State, if not all season--but it also had the benefit of a lot of help.
WHY AUBURN WON: Those special teams played the largest role, but if the same Tiger offense that had shown up over the last half of the season had shown up in Atlanta, those special teams wouldn't have mattered for much. The difference was an unusual source for a spark: demoted backup quarterback Barrett Trotter, benched at midseason for Clint Moseley and not even considered a part of the team's bowl preparations with freshman Kiehl Frazier being groomed for a larger role. But Moseley left the game after just one series with an ankle injury, and Trotter stepped into hit 11 of his 17 passes for 175 yards and 1 touchdown.
Sure, the total yardage number isn't all that eye-popping. But Trotter only needed to make a couple of throws downfield -- the prettiest a 50-yard in-stride bomb to Emory Blake to set up a second-quarter touchdown -- to open up the Auburn screen and running games that had been bottled up since the early stages of the season, thanks to the lack of deep accuracy from the Tiger QBs (Trotter included). With everything in the playbook at his arsenal (including the read options Cam Newton used to great effect last season, thanks to Frazier's repeated successful cameos), Malzahn was unable to unleash the kind of offensive barrage that's made his name as a coach.
Virginia's offense had its moments -- the Cavaliers had 435 yards of their own -- but with the Tigers clicking the way they were and the UVa special teams providing less than no help, they missed far too many opportunities to keep up.
WHEN AUBURN WON: Tiger placekicker Cody Parkey had a nice night, depositing five of his eight kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks, perfectly executing the onsides, and hitting 3-of-4 field goals. The last of those put Auburn up 43-24 with just over 8 minutes to play, and effectively ended the game.
WHAT AUBURN WON: Their fifth straight bowl game -- good for a share of the nation's longest bowl streak, tying Rutgers and Mississippi State -- and an eighth game for third time in Gene Chizik's three-year tenure. Given Auburn's schedule and the massive roster attrition following last year's run the national title, the Tigers can't feel disappointed about their 2011 effort.
WHAT VIRGINIA LOST: A chance at a first bowl victory since 2005, but given where the program was when Mike London arrived, the Cavs will happily take 8-5 and a Chick-Fil-A bowl appearance, we think.
FINAL GRADE: Though the outcome left the realm of doubt sometime during the third quarter, the ample offensive fireworks, aggressive coaching from both sidelines, and big plays made the game a breezy, enjoyable watch all the same. It wasn't the Alamo Bowl, but what is? B.
Posted on: December 31, 2011 10:07 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Stanford has a problem, and it's a big one: Chris Owusu is not coming back. The senior wideout and one-time kickoff return threat has suffered through a concussion-plagued final season in Palo Alto and won't be available against the Cowboys.
Losing a target of Owusu's caliber would be a big blow for any offense, but for one with as few weapons at the wide receiving position at the Cardinal, it's even bigger. Just three Cardinal wideouts finished in double digits in receptions, and one of those -- Ty Montgomery -- was a true freshman with 17. Owusu had 35. Meaning that the only remaining legitimate, proven threat at wideout is senior Griff Whalen, who finished with 49.
The issue is that Whalen's 49 receptions covered just 664 yards -- a less-than spectacular 13.55 per-catch average -- and accounted for just four touchdowns. Without Owusu, the Cardinal wideouts don't appear to have any way to stretch the field, and Whalen didn't seem to prosper without his fellow senior around to deflect coverage; in the two games after Owusu was sidelined for good against Oregon, Whalen totaled just four catches for 23 yards.
Though Stanford's tight ends are as good as any in the country -- All-American Coby Fleener has been the team's true deep threat all season, averaging better than 20 yards a reception and racking up 10 touchdowns -- Andrew Luck is going to need something more than that from his wideouts. Unfortunately for Whalen, it's not going to be easy to have a breakout game given the Cowboys' strength in the secondary. He's likely to spend most of the game dealing with Brodrick Brown, the Pokes' outstanding junior corner, whose team-leading five interceptions helped him to first-team all-Big 12 honors.
If Whalen can make some kind of headway against Brown, he can keep the rest of the Poke secondary from locking in on the tight ends, do his part to keep some space open for the clock-milking Stanford running game, and maybe even give Montgomery some holes to work in. But against a corner the caliber of Brown, that's going to take Whalen's biggest and best performance of the season--and without it, Luck may simply not have enough targets for the Cardinals to keep pace with the likes of the Cowboys.
Posted on: December 31, 2011 4:44 pm
Posted by Jerry Hinnen
OKLAHOMA STATE WILL WIN IF: they can turn Stanford over. The Cowboys' defense has, without question, been an underrated part of their 2011 success; their lethal opportunism and weekly ballhawking ways have never gotten the respect they've deserved. No defense that led the entire FBS in takeaways -- the Cowboys finished with an incredible 42, the highest total not just in 2011 but in any of the past four seasons -- can be fairly called a "bad" defense.
But that also doesn't mean we'd go so far as to call them "good." 106th in total defense is 106th in total defense is 106th in total defense. And considering that the Cardinal rank 11th in total offense and seventh in yards-per-play, it's the safest of assumptions that Andrew Luck, Stepfan Taylor, Coby Fleener and Co. are going to put up a hefty number of yards. Sorry, Poke fans, but if Arizona, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State can all top 430 total yards, an offense with the Cardinals' caliber of weaponry is probably going to as well.
But all those yards don't have to mean "all those points." As mentioned, the Cowboy defense was masterful at bending before breaking the other team with a huge play. (They finished in the national top 30 in sacks, too.) If safety Markelle Martin, corner Brodrick Brown and end Jamie Blatnick can continue to force that handful of turnovers -- if those turnovers, combined with just a punt or two, can give the Cowboy defense just the occasional stop -- the Cowboy offense should be able to do the rest. That's easier said than done, of course, against the Cardinal; only eight other teams turned the ball over fewer times than Stanford's 15, with Luck throwing just nine interceptions and some of those bad bounces off his receivers' hands. But if the Pokes manage it, the hill the Cardinal will have to climb should be entirely too tall even for the future No. 1 draft choice.
STANFORD WILL WIN IF: they can run the ball, and not just well--we mean run it spectacularly. Whether by air or on the ground -- as we said -- the Cardinal are likely going to get their yards. But given the explosiveness of the Cowboy offense, it's imperative for the Cardinal to keep Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and Justin Randle on the sidelines for as long as possible. It's not just about limiting the Cowboys' opportunities, either; the more time the Cardinal defense can spend catching their breath off the field rather than battling the Cowboys' no-huddle on it, the better their chances of getting stops.
Then there's that turnover thing--with only six Cardinal fumbles lost all season, running the ball is even less likely to give the Cowvboys the turnovers they desperately crave than handing it over to Luck. The good news for the Cardinal is that all the pieces in place for such a running performance are in place; the powerful Taylor is one of the nation's more underrated running backs, Tyler Gaffney provides a tailback change-of-pace that averaged 6.4 yards an attempt, All-American guard David DeCastro leads what might be the country's best offensive line, and Luck's presence ensures that overloading the box isn't really an option for the Cowboys. It's no mystery how the Cardinal ran for 180 yards or more in half their games.
But one of those games shows how important getting that kind of production from the Cardinal ground game is so important. Against Oregon -- and a Duck offense with a similar up-tempo philosophy and dynamic athletes as Oklahoma State's -- Stanford managed just 129 rushing yards. The result was an exhausted Cardinal defense giving up 53 points, an overburdened Luck putting together his worst performance of the season, and the end of Stanford's national title hopes. 129 rushing yards against the Cowboys will, no doubt, lead to something similar.
THE X-FACTOR: Another underrated factor in Oklahoma State's historic season? Punter/placekicker Quinn Sharp. Though perhaps most fans outside of Stillwater will remember Sharp primarily for the missed kick at the end of regulation vs. Iowa State, Sharp puntedthe Cowboys to a 14th-place finish in FBS net punting and hit 20 of his 23 kicks. If the Fiesta boils down to the kicking game, Sharp should give the Cowboys an edge.