Sunday, October 7, 2012

PITTSBURGH -- Thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 16-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles: What it means: The Steelers avoided their first 1-3 start under Mike Tomlin with a sloppy yet dramatic win over the Eagles. Shaun Suisham's 34-yard field goal as game expired helped Pittsburgh improve to 2-2 and keep pace with the Ravens. Ben Roethlisberger led a 14-play, 64-yard winning drive in the fourth quarter, which came after Philadelphia took its first lead of the game. The Steelers are 5-1 under Tomlin following a bye and have won five straight home games. Roethlisberger comes up big: Roethlisberger carried the Steelers once again and led them on a game-winning, fourth quarter drive. He completed 4 of 5 passes for 50 yards. His biggest play was converting a third-and-12 with a 20-yard pass to Antonio Brown. Mendenhall makes his mark: Running back Rashard Mendenhall made an impact in his first game since ACL surgery in January. He jumpstarted one of the worst defenses in the NFL with 81 yards on 14 carries. He scored the Steelers' only touchdown on a 13-yard run (off a Roethlisberger lateral). Not making the stop: The Eagles took their first lead of the game in the fourth quarter because the Pittsburgh defense couldn't make the critical stop. The Steelers allowed Philadelphia to convert twice on fourth-and-short and gave up the two-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek on third-and-goal. Receivers don't step up: The Steelers had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown on their final drive of the first half. Brown dropped a pass in the end zone, and Jerricho Cotchery stumbled after making a catch and fell two yards short of the goal line. A drop by Mike Wallace on third down ended a drive in the third quarter. Penalties haunt defense: With the Steelers ahead 10-0 in the third quarter, the defense helped the Eagles to their first touchdown. Two 15-yard penalties were critical in the 80-yard drive. Ryan Clark was flagged for unnecessary roughness, and Ryan Mundy was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Not cashing in: The Steelers defense got turnovers early, but the offense failed to capitalize. Pittsburgh scored no points off two Michael Vick fumbles, although one in the red zone stopped the Eagles from scoring. The Steelers only had three takeaways before this game. Injuries continue to hurt Steelers: Safety Troy Polamalu left in the first quarter after re-injuring his calf, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley later went out with an injured hamstring. Both never returned. Polamalu missed the past two games with a calf injury, and Woodley was sidelined six games last year with a hamstring injury. What's next: After having a bye, the Steelers play their second game in five days when they play at the Tennessee Titans.
Here are some thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 17-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals: What it means: The Dolphins were finally rewarded for their hard work and effort. Miami had been very close to victory the past two weeks but suffered back-to-back overtime losses. The Dolphins finally got over the hump by beating a solid Cincinnati (3-2) team on the road. The Dolphins snapped Cincinnati's three-game winning streak. Miami improves to 2-3 and has one more game before the bye week. What I liked: The Dolphins stayed poised late in the game, which is something we haven't seen this season. Miami couldn't make plays in the fourth quarter of close games up until Sunday. But Miami's defense got big stops and turnovers and the offense did just enough to preserve the win. The Dolphins' defense continues to play well. Cincinnati's offense, particularly its passing game, is not easy to defend. But Miami did a good job of mixing blitzes with zone and man coverage to keep the Bengals guessing. Good defense helped Miami jump out to a 17-6 lead in the second half. That was enough to hold on. What I didn't like: The Dolphins got away with some sloppiness in the first half. Miami turned the ball over once on special teams and fullback Jorvorskie Lane fumbled near the goal line in the opening period. But Miami's defense did a good job of holding Cincinnati to six points off Miami's two early turnovers. Miami's running game wasn't as stout as usual. The Dolphins as a team averaged just 1.9 yards per carry. What's next: The Dolphins will return home for the first time in three games next week when they host the St. Louis Rams (3-2). St. Louis will have 10 days to prepare for the Dolphins. But this is a good opportunity for Miami get back to .500 before the bye week.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –- The New York Giants hadn’t even broken a sweat yet and found themselves down 14-0 to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. But once the defending champs got warmed up, they routed the winless Browns, 41-27. What it means: The Giants took care of business and won a game they had to have with a brutal schedule ahead of them. The Giants are 3-2 through their first five games but their final 11 games are against either division foes or playoff teams from last year. Bottom line, Giants had to win this one and they got the job done with several key starters or contributors out for the game. Quick turnaround: There’s something about these 1 p.m. home starts for the Giants against an inferior opponent. Last season, the Giants struggled at home against Seattle, Washington and then-winless Miami. On Sunday, the Giants fell behind 14-0 less than five minutes into the game. Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled on the first offensive play of the game to set up Cleveland’s first touchdown. And then Brandon Weeden hit Josh Gordon on a 62-yard touchdown bomb on middle linebacker Chase Blackburn. But the Giants outscored Cleveland 27-3, including the last 20 points of the first half, to go into halftime up 27-17. Salsa time: With Hakeem Nicks out, Victor Cruz picked up the slack, scoring three touchdowns. In fact, the Giants receivers all stepped up. With Ramses Barden also out with a concussion, Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle saw plenty of action. Randle had five receptions for 78 yards and Hixon had four catches for 48 in the first half, respectively. Stevie Wonder: Starting in place of the injured Kenny Phillips (knee), Stevie Brown had quite a first half. He intercepted an overthrown pass by Weeden and returned it 46 yards to give the Giants the ball at the Browns’ 40. Two plays later, the Giants scored to tie the game at 17-17 in the second quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, Will Hill forced a Josh Cribbs' fumble and Brown recovered and took it to the Browns’ 29-yard-line. Eli Manning hit Cruz for the second time in the end zone to put the Giants up 24-17 with 1:10 remaining in the half. Brown has done very well filling in. He had a pick against Carolina coming in for Rolle and should continue to start for Phillips, who could miss next week’s game with an MCL injury. The Giants do have to make a roster move on Monday to make room for Tyler Sash, who's served his four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Angry Ahmad: Bradshaw may have fumbled his first carry of the game but he ran angry and hard for not only his first 100-yard game of the season but a career-high 200 yards. Andre Brown was knocked out of the game early with a head injury but Bradshaw had 80 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. Bradshaw's neck looks just fine. And David Wilson scored his first touchdown in explosive fashion -- a 40-yard run spelling Bradshaw. What’s next: It’s an NFC Championship game rematch as the Giants travel to San Francisco for a highly-anticipated reunion with the Niners.
LANDOVER, Md. -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 24-17 victory against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on Sunday. What it means: The Falcons are 5-0 for the first time in franchise history. They’re also high atop the NFC South standings. This was not a particularly pretty game, but there’s a nice trend developing. The Falcons, who many view as a “dome team," have won three outdoor games already this season. This one came on a day that was cool and rainy. Play of the day: With the Redskins driving, cornerback Dunta Robinson saved the game for the Falcons with an interception with 1:53 remaining. Hit of the day: Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon knocked Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III out of the game with a big hit in the third quarter. The Redskins said Griffin was “shaken up’’ and he did not return to the game. He was replaced by Kirk Cousins, who threw two fourth-quarter interceptions. One thing I never want to see again: Joe Hawley attempting to catch a pass. With fullback Lousaka Polite out with an injury, the Falcons sometimes used Hawley as a blocking back. But with 5:50 left in the third quarter, the Falcons tried to throw a pass to Hawley. He was wide open, but the ball went right off his hands. When you have the talent at the skill positions that the Falcons have, Hawley should never be thrown the ball. He never gets old: Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez has said he’s 95-percent sure he’ll retire after this season. He might want to re-think that. Gonzalez had a huge day, catching 13 passes for 123 yards.
PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' last-second loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon. What it means: A taste of their own medicine, as the Eagles lost the close game this time after the Steelers one-upped them on fourth-quarter drives. It was a sloppy game all around, and a tough loss in a tough place to play. But if you were waiting for the day all of the Eagles' mistakes were going to cost them one of these one-point or two-point games, Sunday was the day. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was impressive late, but he was awful enough in the first half to dig the Eagles a hole from which they could not escape. Tale of two QBs: Vick was 7-for-12 for 70 yards in the first half, and he also rushed four times for 11 yards and lost two fumbles. Philadelphia trailed 10-0 at the half, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had just put on a clinic in responsible, efficient quarterbacking with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that took 7:21 off the clock. It was a study in critical contrast. But out of nowhere in the fourth quarter, Vick and the Eagles topped it with a 17-play, 79-yard drive that bled 8:18 off the clock and gave them their first lead of the game with 6:33 left to play. On the drive, Vick was 7-for-10 for 57 yards and the 2-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek. The Eagles converted two fourth downs and two third downs on the drive, including the third-and-goal from the 2. Had they played offense this way all game, they may have actually won somewhat easily. For the defense: Roethlisberger was able to find some things in the Eagles' secondary, showcasing what an important part pressure plays in the Eagles' defensive schemes. Nnamdi Asomugha is not winning consistently enough in man coverage, and Antonio Brown had some fun against the Eagles' defensive backs. Philadelphia also struggled to contain Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall in his first game of the season, and they were unable to make the stops they needed to make on the drive that moved the Steelers into field goal range at the end of the game. For the second game in a row, the Eagles did not record a sack. What's next: The Eagles host the Detroit Lions at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. The Lions are 1-3, have lost three games in a row and are coming off their bye week. It will be the second consecutive week in which the Eagles' opponent was off the week before.
Even as he has dazzled with his play throughout the first month of his first NFL season, Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has engendered one common concern in those who have watched him -- a fear that, based on the manner and frequency with which he runs the ball, he's exposing himself to too many hits, or one very big one. In the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons -- a game in which the Redskins' defense has played extremely well and kept them in it against one of the league's two remaining undefeated teams -- Griffin took a shot from Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon and was knocked out of the game. Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins took over at quarterback on the Redskins' next offensive series while Griffin was taken to the locker room for treatment. Cousins went to work right away and completed a 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss to give the Redskins a 17-14 lead with 12:24 left in the game. Officially, the Redskins announced that Griffin was "shaken up" and questionable to return in the fourth quarter. That could mean a concussion, which could put his status for next week's game in jeopardy. We will, obviously, keep you posted.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Chris Kuper will make his season debut Sunday. Kuper is active and is expected to start at guard for Denver at New England. Kuper is one of the better interior offensive lineman in the NFL. He broke his left forearm during training camp in August. Kuper practiced fully this week and he was listed as probable to play. Manny Ramirez took Kuper’s place in the first quarter of the season. Ramirez often struggled, so Peyton Manning will surely appreciate the return of Kuper. Also, Denver running back Knowshon Moreno is inactive for the third straight game. Rookie Ronnie Hillman will continue to take his place. As expected, New England tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) is not active. There has been light rain here Sunday, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to impact the playing field at this point.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Jacobs' regular-season debut with the San Francisco 49ers will wait at least another week. The team named Jacobs among its inactive players against Buffalo on Sunday. Jacobs isn't really needed at this point. So, even though he's healthy enough to practice following a knee injury suffered in August, the veteran running back will sit out this game. His former team, the New York Giants, visits Candlestick Park in one week. Receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James are also inactive. The 49ers haven't needed their rookie draft choices to this point. Having Ted Ginn Jr.Jr. healthy at receiver allows the 49ers to keep active five veteran wideouts with starting experience, including two with considerable recent experience as returners (Kyle Williams, Ginn). Also inactive for the 49ers: guard Joe Looney, nose tackle Ian Williams, safety Trenton Robinson and quarterback Scott Tolzien. Veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, sidelined by a knee injury recently, is active. He might not be needed much, however, because the Bills play primarily with three-plus wide receivers at a time. As a result, the 49ers' base defense might not play much.
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez returned to practice for the first time this week since suffering an ankle injury last month. But Hernandez isn't ready to return to game action just yet. He is inactive for Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos. Hernandez could return as early as next week. The Patriots are rolling offensively but can still use their most versatile weapon. Hernandez can play all over the field and has the ability to stretch the field. He is a wild card who opens things up over the middle for teammates Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. The Patriots are 2-2 and looking to win at Gillette Stadium for the first time this season.
Good morning and welcome to Week 5 in the NFC North. I'll soon be heading down to the Metrodome, now that the Twin Cities Marathon has cleared out of downtown Minneapolis. But first, a few random notes and thoughts here for your Sunday morning consumption: As ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best will undergo tests this week to determine if he's any closer to being ready to be activated off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and thus cleared for full contact. Best isn't eligible to begin practicing until after next Sunday's game at the Philadelphia Eagles and couldn't play before the Oct. 22 Monday night game at the Chicago Bears. There have been no hints about Best's progress, or lack thereof, meaning his future is no less clouded at this point. The Green Bay Packers added defensive end Mike Neal to their active roster Saturday, and he will be in uniform Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Rookie defensive lineman Mike Daniels was among the Packers' Sunday morning deactivations. That list also included running back James Starks and cornerback Davon House. Starks is once again a healthy scratch. It's pretty amazing that a player who entered the preseason as the Packers' No. 1 running back can't get onto the field now that he has recovered from a turf toe injury. The Packers are going to ride the Cedric Benson Express, it appears.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Good note from the San Francisco 49ers this morning: Aldon Smith needs 1.5 sacks against Buffalo to break Reggie White's sack-era record for fewest games to reach 20 career sacks. White needed 22 games. Smith has 18.5 sacks in his first 20 regular-season games. Smith, who led the 49ers with 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011, had one sack wiped out by penalty in Week 4. He has 4.5 sacks through four games this season, putting him on pace for 18 sacks over a 16-game season. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has taken only four sacks in 136 drop backs this season. Additional Bills-49ers notes, from ESPN Stats & Information: Fitzpatrick's 12 touchdown passes are a franchise record through four games. Fitzpatrick has thrown all seven of his interceptions against teams sending four or fewer pass-rushers. The 49ers have picked off 21 passes since the beginning of last season when sending four or fewer, third-most in the NFL. Opposing defenses have sent five or more against Fitzpatrick on 35 of 136 drop backs. The 49ers have sent added pressure 20.7 percent of the time since the start of last season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. That includes 27.1 percent this season. Fitzpatrick completed only 2 of 10 passes when targeting Stevie Johnson in Week 4. Fitzpatrick and Johnson have the lowest completion percentage in the NFL this season among QB-WR combinations with at least 20 targets. The 49ers have 386 yards rushing outside the tackles, most in the NFL by 83 yards. They average 7.9 yards per carry on these rushes, third-best in the league. Their 18 rushing first downs on these runs rank first in the league. The team gave left tackle Joe Staley a contract extension in 2009, after Staley's second season. Right tackle Anthony Davis, who appears to be playing at a high level, is already in his third season. Not that agents would ever think of such things. Alex Smith's 29-yard pass to Vernon Davis in Week 1 stands as the 49ers' longest completion in 2012. San Francisco and Minnesota are the only teams without a 30-yard pass play. Smith had 15 such plays last season. The Bills have allowed three. Aldon Smith has recorded 18 of his 18.5 sacks when the 49ers sent four or fewer pass-rushers. No player has more on such plays.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu lasted one quarter before reinjuring his right calf against the Eagles on Sunday. Pittsburgh announced that his return is questionable. Polamalu had missed the past two games with a right calf injury and decided to return after full participation in every practice leading up to this game. He said he injured his right calf the week leading up to the season opener in Denver. The injury was aggravated in the game. The right calf has been a troublesome injury for Polamalu. It's the same calf he hurt in the playoffs last season. A tender right calf kept him out of practice leading up to the divisional playoff game at Denver. Leading up to this game, ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell told me that it would be easy for Polamalu to have a setback considering the injury. "Not only do you have the inability to function or push off well, you run the risk of it being a bigger tear and a bigger injury, knocking you out for multiple weeks," she said. Ryan Mundy, who had started the past two games for Polamalu, has replaced him again.
LANDOVER, Md. -- The Atlanta Falcons are struggling as they try to start the season 5-0 for the first time in franchise history. They’re tied, 7-7, with the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. The Falcons put together a nice drive at the end of the first half and Matt Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez with 1-yard touchdown pass. But Ryan didn’t have a great first half before that. He made two uncharacteristic mistakes. Ryan had a pass intercepted by Ryan Kerrigan, who returned it for a touchdown with 10:11 remaining in the second quarter. Ryan and center Todd McClure also botched a snap with 4:56 remaining in the second and the Redskins put together a nice drive, but didn’t come away with any points as Billy Cundiff missed a field goal attempt. Atlanta has played well on defense, but the Falcons need to get their offense going in the second half if they want to stay undefeated. I'll be back with a Rapid Reaction soon after the game ends and a full column a couple of hours after that.
Even the best teams tend to have cracks. Arrive at the wrong matchup against an opponent equipped to exploit it, and a top team can lose even if it plays well. The 4-0 Houston Texans are not invincible as they prepare for "Monday Night Football" at MetLife Stadium against the Jets. The teams they’ve beaten are a combined 5-11. If the Texans dispatch the Jets, that combined record will be 7-14. How should the Jets take aim at the Texans? There are not a lot of obvious avenues, but here’s what I would try. Attack the middle of the defense: No, the Jets don’t have a guy with the potential of running back Chris Johnson. But Johnson got almost all of his 141 rushing yards last week between the tackles. The Texans showed a soft spot there. While the Texans like defensive tackle Shaun Cody, he’s probably the weakest part of their excellent defensive front. Inside linebacker Bradie James also doesn’t qualify as a strength. Use formations and blocking schemes that give you a chance to isolate and go after those two guys. “I think the NT position is weak and they might be susceptible to an interior power running game,”'s Matt Williamson said. “I also think you want to do everything possible with personnel, formations and motion to get their OLBs in coverage-against whoever.” I’d rather see the Texans in their base defense with James than in nickel with Brice McCain in the mix. Test Kareem Jackson: The Texans' No. 2 cornerback has gotten a lot better. But he’s been a better zone defender than man defender in his time with the Texans. He jumped a route and returned an interception of Matt Hasselbeck 63 yards for a touchdown last week. Make Jackson show he’s up for the task again. The Jets may not have high-quality wide receivers without the injured Santonio Holmes, but they should scheme to get Jackson in man situations and test him. “I know that Kareem Jackson has improved quite a bit this season, but he is the guy to target rather than Johnathan Joseph for sure,” Williamson said. Don’t let Houston get an early lead: Houston’s outscored opponents 31-8 in the first quarter, and once the Texans have the lead they can really do some damage. With a lead, they can dedicate time to the run and work the play-action and the bootleg scheme that spins off of it. “They rarely play from behind -- and I don’t think they are real adept at doing so,” Williamson said. “Getting up early is key.” Fare well in these three departments and the Jets will have a chance. But they may not have the personnel or capacity to do it all. “[The Texans] are a really tough team to play against,” Williamson said. “You know they want to run, so I think you dedicate your D to stopping that -- even at the expense of Andre Johnson maybe blowing up. I think you want Matt Schaub throwing the ball a ton… “But overall, best of luck with all that.”
PITTSBURGH -- Honestly, 30 of the worst minutes of professional football I've ever watched. The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the Philadelphia Eagles 10-0 at halftime of a game of which neither side should be proud and for which Eagles quarterback Michael Vick should be getting screamed at by teammates and coaches throughout the intermission. Vick has fumbled the ball away twice in the game, raising his personal turnover total for the season to 11 and the team's to 14. Both fumbles were on runs up the middle on which he chose not to slide and demonstrated a continued refusal to prioritize protection of the football. Earlier in the drive that resulted in the first fumble, he made a rotten decision to throw a ball up in the air and nearly saw it intercepted, and he fumbled on another run only to have the play overturned when it was ruled that a Steelers player had touched his foot while he was on the ground. More than once, he has thrown deep downfield into double coverage, and in general he has looked nothing like the responsible quarterback who went turnover-free in last Sunday night's victory over the Giants. Each team has been penalized five times -- the Steelers for 56 yards and the Eagles for 35. But the difference in the score (which could have been worse, had Jerricho Cotchery not fallen down just short of the goal line on a catch he made just before the half) is the two turnovers and the mastery of the quarterback position the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger showed while orchestrating a 12-play, 75-yard, 7:21 touchdown drive in the second quarter. Roethlisberger was ducking blitzes, faking pitches and managing to keep plays alive while also appearing to play under control and managing to read the field and the difference. If Vick was taking notes, he could come out and be a different guy in the second half. And if the Eagles' defense can keep the score close, it would give Vick a chance to win the game with his fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season. But the way he played in the first half makes it feel as though the Eagles are very far from being able to even hope for such a thing. The Steelers get the ball back to start the second half, but Vick will get it back eventually. The difference in this game might come down to whether he's able to keep it.
PITTSBURGH -- Some thoughts at halftime, where the Steelers lead the Eagles 10-0: The Steelers' defense is getting turnovers, but the offense isn't capitalizing. Pittsburgh scored no points off two Michael Vick fumbles. The Steelers only had three takeaways before this game. Ben Roethlisberger is carrying the offense once again. He's 15-of-25 for 137 yards in the first half and hasn't received much help. Center Maurkice Pouncey has snapped the ball over his head twice in shotgun. Antonio Brown has dropped two passes including one in the end zone. Injuries continue to hurt the Steelers. Safety Troy Polamalu left in the first quarter after re-injuring his calf, and linebacker LaMarr Woodley hurt his hamstring. Both are questionable to return. Rashard Mendenhall made an impact in his first game since tearing his ACL in the 2011 season finale. He scored on a 13-yard run (it was a lateral from Roethlisberger) for the Steelers' only touchdown of the first half. The Steelers dominated time of possession in the second quarter. Their two scoring drives in that quarter were both 12 plays and went for more than 70 yards. They combined to take 9 minutes, 49 seconds off the clock.

Friday, October 5, 2012

With two marquee matchups in the SEC this weekend, the question has to be asked: Can any of these teams stop mighty Alabama? From the way the top-ranked Crimson Tide has looked through its first five games of the seasons, many think it'll be tough for any team not named Alabama to stop this squad. But no team is truly unbeatable and Alabama has its weakness, even if they are very small. Which SEC team can stop Alabama? 9% Florida 24% Georgia 13% LSU 24% South Carolina 30% None of the above (Total votes: 8,743) Still, someone from this weekend has to stand a chance, right? With No. 4 LSU taking on 10-ranked Florida and No. 5 Georgia battling No. 6 South Carolina, the winners have to get a little more respect when it comes to taking on the Tide. Will it be LSU? The Tigers haven't looked the part in their last two outings, but stopping the Gators in the swamp would go a long way to rejuvenate this team. If LSU can put together its most complete game of the season, the Tigers should top Florida and regain some of that lost luster. That means getting more production from quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his receivers. LSU then takes on South Carolina at home and Texas A&M on the road before hosting Alabama after a bye week. Can the Gators take down the Tide? This team is probably getting the least amount of love in this group, but the Gators have shown some mettle this year with back-to-back SEC road wins in hostile environments. They were also trailing in the second half in both games. But Florida has been dominant in the second half and has yet to allow any points in the fourth quarter this season. A more balanced offensive attack and better quarterback play have gone a long way. The Gators get Georgia and South Carolina in the state of Florida, but still have to travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on Florida State at season's end. Georgia could do it, right? The Bulldogs own the SEC's best, most balanced offense. But that defense looked shaky against Tennessee. Still, if this team can put everything together against a very talented South Carolina team, the Bulldogs might go on a run similar to last season. They don't play Alabama or LSU during the regular season and a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., to take on the Gators will be their toughest game after Saturday. The talent is championship-worthy, but that schedule makes things even smoother for the Dawgs. And what about South Carolina? The Gamecocks might have the toughest running back in the league in Marcus Lattimore, and have been able to be quite balanced on offense with Connor Shaw playing some solid ball at quarterback. But Georgia's defense will bring a lot of heat Shaw's way and is on a mission to finally stop Lattimore, who has gutted this defense in the past. Plus, South Carolina's secondary better grow up in a hurry with Aaron Murray's passing attack headed to Columbia, S.C. The Gamecocks play at LSU and Florida in back-to-back weeks after this weekend, so they have the toughest road to Alabama. Or will no one challenge the Tide? Is this team just too good and to complete to be tested? Maybe ...
There are plenty of young kids across the league making a big impact. Here are the league's best through the first month: Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: Fields was forced into action after a knee injury sidelined Ross Forrest for the season. So far, he's been unbelievable. Fields will be facing better offensive lines soon, but he's been the Big 12's most productive defensive lineman to this point. TCU's nonconference schedule has been about as good as anyone's in the league, too. Fields, a 6-foot-4, 240-pounder from Arlington, Texas, is leading the Big 12 with 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. J.W. Walsh/Wes Lunt, QBs, Oklahoma State: You can't really separate these two, but they've both excelled so far this season, giving Cowboys fans plenty of hope that Brandon Weeden's old spot will be filled admirably for the next four years. Walsh ranks fourth nationally in passer rating after filling in for Lunt, who suffered a knee injury in the Cowboys' third game. He's thrown for 797 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Lunt, meanwhile, has completed 68 percent of his passes for 588 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Lunt's expected to take the job back over when he gets healthy. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor: Art Briles decided to put his faith in a redshirt freshman, enlisting Drango to protect Nick Florence's blind side. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder beefed up in his redshirt season, and it's already paying off. Baylor ranks second nationally in scoring offense and total offense, ranking second nationally in passing offense. The offense also ranks 44th in rushing offense. Isaiah Bruce, LB, West Virginia: Bruce made a big splash in his first start, earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 1 against Marshall. He's only continued to be productive after that 16-tackle performance. He's second in the Big 12 with 43 tackles, four tackles for loss and returned a fumble 43 yards for a touchdown in that Marshall win. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma: Shepard had to fight for playing time early on, but in just his first start, he showed a ton of promise, leading the Sooners in receiving against a good secondary in Kansas State. He hardly played in the opener, but he caught three passes for 48 yards against Florida A&M, and his breakout game against the Wildcats featured seven grabs for 108 yards and his first career touchdown.
The way Kyle Flood sees it, too much has happened to cloud Rutgers' memory since its 2011 loss to Connecticut. There has been a bowl game, spring practice, training camp and four more games this season. There is also a new head coach, too, along with different players in different spots. [+] Enlarge Chuck Cook/US Presswire Kyle Flood's unbeaten Scarlet Knights will host Connecticut on Saturday at noon. "I think what motivates our team is the opportunity to be 1 0 this week," Flood said during his weekly Monday news conference. "If you string together enough of those 1 0s, you have got an opportunity to play for a championship. "So every week in the Big East conference, because we don't have a conference championship game, every week is a Big East championship game. So for us to continue moving toward our goal, our motivation is simple: We want to be 1 0 this week." That conference title Flood speaks of was taken away from his Scarlet Knights last season when, with a chance to clinch a share of their first Big East championship, they were routed at UConn, 40-22, in their regular-season finale. At 4-0 and ranked 22nd in the nation going into this year's contest with the Huskies, Rutgers has big dreams on the line again, in Flood's first season. But coaches and players insist they are not getting ahead of themselves after just one month. "We actually live off of that," running back Jawan Jamison said of the past. "We realize what happened in the past, and we're just trying to build off of that for the future, not let it get to us at all. Our coaches do a pretty good job of keeping us humble and keeping us grounded." Rutgers had actually won five of its previous six meetings with UConn before last season, and the Scarlet Knights had won the three prior meetings by four points or less. That made the deal even sweeter for the Huskies, who boast the Big East's top defense after five nonconference games. Rutgers is second. "It felt good last year because we had been in so many close battles with them in the years before, and they had always beaten us by three or two points here and there," UConn linebacker Jory Johnson said. "So it was good to come out and start fresh against them last year and really have that game in control the whole time. This year they're playing really well, their offense is clicking. "It's going to be a big game, going on the road and playing in a hostile environment. But that's something that we look forward to. We're looking forward to going on the road and playing a big-time opponent, because now we can really show how good our team is."
It's already been a rocky start to SEC play for Missouri, and now this. Freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, has been suspended along with four other freshmen for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt. Green-Beckham, along with freshman receiver Levi Copelin and linebacker Torey Boozer, was arrested Wednesday night on suspicion of possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana, according to a report in The Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. The two other freshmen who were suspended, defensive lineman Harold Brantley and tight end Brandon Holifield, were also passengers in the car when the arrest took place, but they weren't arrested. According to the Tribune's report, University of Missouri police captain Brian Weimer said an officer on patrol found the players at 11:49 p.m. in a white Lincoln Navigator in Lot G south of Memorial Stadium. Weimer said the officer detected the odor of marijuana and when the players got out of the car, the officer found marijuana. Landing Green-Beckham was a huge recruiting coup for Missouri, which has lost its first two SEC games each by 21 points. The Tigers have struggled to score points this season, and Green-Beckham had not been a big part of the offense until last week when he caught his first touchdown pass -- an 80-yarder in the 21-16 win over UCF. Green-Beckham was the only one of the three arrested freshmen scheduled to play this Saturday. The other two were expected to redshirt this season.
We don't know how much Shawn Eichorst made as Miami's athletic director because Miami, as a private institution, doesn't release salary figures. But it's safe to assume Eichorst's salary in his new job at Nebraska will go a little further. Nebraska announced it will pay Eichorst a base salary of $973,000, as the school's athletic director. Eichorst resigned Thursday as Miami's athletic director and will join Nebraska's staff Tuesday as a special assistant to chancellor Harvey Perlman. He'll take over the athletic director position Jan. 1 when Tom Osborne retires. Eichorst becomes the Big Ten's third highest-paid athletic director behind Ohio State's Gene Smith (base salary: $1,074,546) and Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez (total compensation: $1,040,800), whom Eichorst served under as Wisconsin's deputy AD from 2009-11. He'll be the sixth highest-paid AD in the country. The next highest-paid Big Ten ADs are Michigan's Dave Brandon ($700,454), Illinois' Mike Thomas ($575,000) and Purdue's Morgan Burke ($505,918). Osborne, conversely, had been one of the lowest-paid major-conference ADs at $277,969 annually, so this is a sizable bump. Not surprisingly, Eichorst's contract also has a large buyout, beginning at $2 million for his first year. Perlman said he interviewed two external candidates for the job. Eichorst toured Nebraska's campus last month after coming to the Midwest for the Miami-Kansas State football game. Nebraska reached out to Alvarez during the vetting process and received a strong stamp of approval. Eichorst obviously knows the Big Ten, and Perlman said league commissioner Jim Delany is very pleased with the choice. Nebraska will introduce Eichorst at a news conference Tuesday in Lincoln.
Michigan State offensive lineman Jack Allen won't face a suspension or any other disciplinary action from the Big Ten after the league reviewed tape of a possible eye-gouging incident in last week's Michigan State-Ohio State game. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis released a statement Thursday that the league determined Allen didn't violate its sportslike conduct policy. Allen appeared to reach inside the helmet of Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, and Ohio State sent tape of the play for the Big Ten to review. "As athletics director, I had an opportunity to be involved in this review process and while his actions ‘weren’t a football play,’ this clearly wasn't an eye-gouging incident," Hollis said in a prepared statement. While Thursday's news might surprise some, the Big Ten typically doesn't take action unless a blatant sportslike conduct violation has occurred, such as Illinois' Jonathan Brown striking a Northwestern player in the groin after a play or Michigan State's William Gholston intentionally twisting the helmet of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Some saw last Saturday's incident as blatant eye-gouging, but Hankins didn't have any immediate complaint and several players had their hands in opposing players' facemasks after the play. I'm not saying the league should have or shouldn't have taken action, but the situation didn't appear to be as clear cut as, say, the Brown or Gholston incidents from 2011.
North Carolina did not get a real test last week, not against an Idaho team that is one of the worst teams in the country. Given the 66-0 result of that game, and its 27-6 win over East Carolina the previous week, how much do we really know about the Tar Heels headed into their big showdown against Virginia Tech on Saturday? [+] Enlarge Cal Sport Media via AP Images The Tar Heels' Giovani Bernard -- a threat to score on the ground, through the air and on special teams -- is healthy again. "I think we'll know a lot about this football team after this game," coach Larry Fedora said. "Obviously, Virginia Tech is a very good football team. They've always been great on special teams. They're known for their defense and they're going to play hard-nosed football, be a physical team." Here is what we do know about North Carolina. Running back Gio Bernard is back, and Fedora says his star player is back to 100 percent after a knee injury held him out of two games this season. Despite missing those games, Bernard has seven total touchdowns and is expected to see the field in a wide variety of ways Saturday. The defense appears to be improved, and its play up front could be a huge advantage for the Tar Heels in this game. The Hokies have struggled all season on the offensive line, whether its been a failure to open consistent holes in the running game or being able to protect quarterback Logan Thomas. Teams have shown if you can pressure Thomas, you will increase your chances of winning. North Carolina, meanwhile, is right behind Florida State in total sacks so far this season with 14. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams leads the team and is No. 3 in the ACC in sacks with 4.5. It is important to note that eight of those sacks came in the past two weeks -- seven against East Carolina. In its only ACC game against Wake Forest, North Carolina only had one. So either the pass rush has definitely come along, or it was helped along because the opponent was not as strong. Assuming North Carolina can sustain its pass rush, it faces another challenge in actually taking Thomas down. Fedora says the only two players on his defense that will outweigh the 260-pound Thomas are his defensive tackles. "When you go to get that guy down on a pass-rush or a sack, it's going to take seven or eight guys to get him down," Fedora said. "It's something we understand, our guys are going to have to fly to the football, we're going to have to get there, we're going to have to gang-tackle. That's what's going to have to happen. He presents a unique challenge for any team."
Gene Chizik is hoping that his Tigers used their bye week to their full advantage. With all the issues Auburn had through the first four weeks of the season, Chizik made sure players and coaches saw all the glaring mistakes that put his team in bad situations. He wanted them to see those mistakes and learn from them before the bye was over with. [+] Enlarge AP Photo/Dave Martin Following his team's 1-3 start, Gene Chizik said there's an "urgency to win" around Auburn. Changes and tweaks were made, and Chizik hopes they work on Saturday, especially against an Arkansas team that really has nothing to lose with its 1-4 record. Chizik said his team knows where it stands with its own 1-3 record. Auburn is on the verge of being on the outside when it comes to the postseason. Chizik said neither he nor his team are running from the realization of how big Saturday's game against the Razorbacks is. "There's an urgency around Auburn, without question, when you're 1-3," Chizik said. "And there's an urgency to win." With a loss, Auburn will likely miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2008 and it doesn't help that the Tigers own the SEC's worst offense (297.8 yards per game) and the third-worst defense (419.3). But the defense looked much better against LSU last week, holding the Tigers to just 12 points and forced LSU into a handful of mistakes. Chizik said his team was more than energized in that game, and the hope is that it carries over to this weekend. "Our kids are hungry and they want to win," he said. "That's the expectation this Saturday as well." He's even seen an increase in leadership. Guys like Corey Lemonier, Jeff Whitaker, Onterio McCalebb and T'Sharven Bell have all stepped up to guide this team. Having these vets step up will go a long way if they can really take hold of their teammates. Even with all the issues Auburn has had, the Tigers have to feel confident facing the SEC's worst defense. Arkansas is allowing more than 500 yards and 40 points a game. Even Auburn's offense should be able to do something with that. And a fast start against a reeling team is what Chizik said his team needs if it's going to pull out a must-win on the Plains. Arkansas' offensive talent can't be forgotten, and Chizik doesn't want to have to play catchup with the Hogs. "Certainly for us, forget about the opponent, we need to have a great start," he said. "We need to have something good happen. We need to be able to get a little bit of momentum for our football team."
Coaches spend a lot of time worrying. For instance, right now Mike Riley is worried about his pass defense, and the fact that the Beavers gave up some big yards last week against Arizona. Now he faces a Washington State team that likes to chuck the ball. Mike Leach is also worried about Oregon State's defense -- particularly the defensive ends. And as only Mike Leach can, he proposed how he plans to stop them. "Basically have a bunch of people go to Corvallis sometime this week. Take them out. Make sure they stay out too late," Leach said. "Shanghai them and leave them in a foreign country. That's what we have in mind. But there are some flaws to that and some bugs to that idea that we're working through." [+] Enlarge Jaime Valdez/US Presswire Mike Riley's Beavers have been battled-tested through their first three games. Oregon State has won all three by a combined margin of 13 points. Though a bit on the silly side, he makes a good point. The Beavers are tops in the conference in third-down defense, allowing teams to convert just 20.5 percent of the time. And they are No. 2 in rush defense. While the Cougars will probably stick to their script of 70-30 pass-to-run ratio, Leach knows the Beavers are averaging better than two sacks per game. Scott Crichton has three of those to go with five tackles for loss. For the No. 14 Beavers (3-0, 2-0), Saturday's matchup with the Cougars (2-3, 0-2) is their first game at home in almost a month. Since their 10-7 win over No. 13 Wisconsin on Sept. 8, the Beavers have gone on to win close games on the road against No. 13 UCLA (27-20) and Arizona (38-35). It's been a white-knuckle start to the season for Oregon State, for sure. But that's a good thing, says Riley. "It's taken all 3 hours and 27 minutes in all of them," Riley said. "We've had two onside kicks and then a last-minute interception to save the game. It's been tough. Besides the wins, the main thing I've liked about the team is they've competed and kept their poise. They've kept their head down and not gotten overwhelmed with the situation which is neat to see. It's a good sign that they just kept playing." Besides the defense, much of Oregon State's success this season can be attributed to the increased efficiency of quarterback Sean Mannion. But it helps when a good quarterback has good receivers -- and an argument can be made that Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks are playing as well as any wide receiver duo in the country. The pair ranks second and third respectively in the Pac-12 in receptions per game. Through three games, Wheaton has 27 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Cooks isn't far behind with 21 catches for 404 yards with a pair of touchdowns. Maybe more impressive is that Cooks is averaging 19.2 yards per catch and Wheaton has 14.9. "It's growth from all of them for sure," Riley said. "Markus has been a real leader in that regard. He was tremendous in the offseason with this team and Brandon is a young guy that is one of the hardest workers around. Those three spent the summer together throwing the ball around and that's always good. They have worked together a lot through the last couple of years. "Most notable [regarding Mannion] is confidence. He was always poised, even as a freshman playing last year. He always kept his wits about him. He's always good to talk to on the sidelines. He has good explanations for what's going on. Again, the playing time from a year ago and the study and the poise and confidence is a great characteristic of that guy." Confidence was an issue for Washington State the first few weeks of the season. But improvements were made in defeat against Oregon. The Cougars showed a bit of moxie in taking their shots at the No. 2 Ducks -- which Leach hopes is a step in the right direction. "I thought we got better this week," Leach said. "There were only a handful of plays that the game could have been differently and we need to figure out how to get those plays. It's one thing to play hard. It's another thing to play hard and play precise and have things in context and we need to improve on that. "... Nobody is satisfied with just a good showing."
Instant analysis from USC's 38-28 win over the Utes in Salt Lake City, Utah: Player of the game: Matt Barkley This was the best overall performance of the year for the Trojans quarterback. It started with a rough beginning -- he got stripped of the ball on first series which Utah returned for a touchdown -- but he regrouped and was very consistent the rest of the way. Barkley completed 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, but more importantly to USC fans, he looked like the old Barkley again. Game ball: USC defense It was still very much a ballgame at halftime, with USC only up 24-21, but the Trojans defense did a terrific job of shutting down the Utes’ offense in the second half. The Utes did not have a second-half score until a meaningless late touchdown and only gained 111 yards in the final two quarters. The win was sealed for the Trojans when Nickell Robey intercepted a pass and returned it for a 38-yard score in the fourth quarter. Star in the making: Star Lotulelei Lotulelei is considered as one of the elite defensive players in the country and tonight was the biggest stage for him to live up to that ranking. Well, consider it mission accomplished. He made several big plays early against a pretty good center in Khaled Holmes and showed an impressive combination of size and agility. The Trojans eventually made some adjustments which slowed his impact, but there’s no doubt that Lotulelei is a big-time guy. Turning point: Third-down conversion for Trojans from Barkley to Marqise Lee USC was down 14-0 early in the game thanks to a pair of turnovers that were turned into points by Utah. USC got stopped on two early plays and was facing a third-and-7 when Barkley hit Lee for 18 yards. The drive continued and eventually ended up with a Silas Redd touchdown run to make it 14-7. If the Trojans hadn’t converted on third down, Utah likely would have had good field position after a punt and all of the momentum. What it means for USC: The Trojans showed resiliency The signs were all there for potential trouble, as Thursday night conference road games had been trouble for highly-ranked USC teams in the past and the Utah crowd was fired up to see it happen again. The Trojans had some hiccups -- two early turnovers and 14 penalties -- but they righted the ship and outscored the Utes 38-14 after spotting the Utes two early touchdowns. What it means for Utah: John White IV is back It wasn’t the result the Utes were hoping for, especially after getting spotted 14 points at the beginning of the game, but the good news was the solid running from White (13 carries for 68 yards). The star running back has been limited lately due to injury, but he ran hard in this game and was productive when the game was still in doubt in the first half. USC made some adjustments in the second half that slowed him down, but the Utes will need White for the remainder of the season, as he is the prime contributor for their offense.
SALT LAKE CITY -- It took the Utah Utes 165 seconds to score 14 points in Thursday night's game against No. 13 USC. It took them more than 56 minutes to score 14 more, as the Trojans' offense and defense both tightened up for a 38-28 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Here are five things we learned about USC in the win: 1. This team has some fight Fourteen points in 2 minutes, 45 seconds? USC essentially gave itself a real-life spread to fight back from in this game -- and, fittingly, the Vegas spread for this one hovered around 14 points. The Trojans handled it with aplomb, weathering the storm to an impressive extent and taking back the lead before halftime in a hostile environment. Coach Lane Kiffin said it was a situation that he'd be glad happened by the end of the year. That makes sense. USC is going to face tougher teams than the Utes, for sure, but it's probably not going to face a tougher start than that all season. Star receiver Marqise Lee said the 14-point deficit gave the Trojans "an opportunity to fully understand our team as a whole." "Is SC going to break down or pick it back up?" he envisioned people around the country asking after that. "There you see: We pick it back up." 2. USC's defense is better than people realize [+] Enlarge Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire Aside from points off turnovers and those scored against backups, USC's D was solid against Utah. In Lane and Monte Kiffin's first season with the Trojans, the USC defense was downright awful at times. And the Trojans still had some bad moments in 2011. But the truth is, this unit hasn't had a bad game, yet, this year. They're actually starting to become a force. Taking away Utah's first two touchdowns that USC's defense had almost nothing to do with and the fourth-quarter score against the backups, the Trojans allowed only seven points and created seven points of their own with a Nickell Robey pick-six. A Lane Kiffin-coached team being good on defense? Yes, it's true. Kiffin admitted after Thursday's game that his defense was playing the best it has in his 30-game tenure at USC. 3. Woods can still play His numbers weren't fantastic, but Robert Woods was a big part of USC's offensive performance in the Trojans' win. He and Lee were both given more room with which to work on Thursday night, probably because Utah saw from the tape of the Cal game that USC's ground attack can be effective. And both guys did a lot with it, Woods pulling down six grabs for 69 yards and a score and Lee flirting with 200 yards on 12 catches. Woods had a first-half scare when he tried to deliver a block on Utah's Brian Blechen during a punt return, then stumbled to the turf while trying to run off the field. His explanation said a lot, though. "I just got dazed for a little bit and tried to get up, not stay down," Woods said. "For pride." The junior receiver has a lot of that. 4. Holmes is an ideal leader It's unusual in football to be able to correctly fault a single player for an opposing touchdown, but USC center Khaled Holmes really was directly responsible for both of Utah's early scores. He had bad snaps on two of the Trojans' first five to give the ball to the Utes and a holding penalty mixed in there on a failed run play. Here's the thing, though: From then on, he played great. And he took full responsibility for his mistakes afterward, apologizing to his teammates in the locker room after the game before Kiffin even had a chance to speak. He said he made a point to forget the plays after Utah scored twice in the first three minutes. "You have to," Holmes said. "Quarterbacks have to forget it if they throw a pick, cornerbacks have to do it if they get beat deep. Unfortunately I had two terrible plays. But I was able to past them, and the guys never faltered with their confidence in me. And I couldn't be any more grateful for that." Holmes didn't offer any excuses. He's had to come out of games twice in the last four weeks due to injury, but he didn't even mention that. 5. Barkley might yet have a chance at the Heisman Based on his early-season play, experts around the country had been rapidly dropping USC's Matt Barkley on their Heisman Trophy leaderboard, and deservedly so: He hasn't really been playing as well as he did late last year. But he had a fantastic game in Salt Lake City, completing 23 of his 30 passes for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He made only one or two bad decisions the entire game ... and two drops by his receivers prevented his numbers from really looking supreme. Sure, if West Virginia Mountaineers' Geno Smith keeps putting up "video-game numbers" -- as Barkley called it this week -- he'll be the Heisman favorite. But to count Barkley out would be premature.