My teams went 0-3 in a series of frustrating losses, each of which was depressing in a different way. But these were just a small slice of a crazy weekend in sports.
Miss State d A&M
The question going into this game was whether the Arkansas game showed A&M’s grit and ability, or revealed problems. Meanwhile Miss State was coming off a bye week after their historic win at LSU. Pundits were picking the Bulldogs despite A&M’s #6 ranking, and the line moved from the Ags being slight favorites to slight underdogs.
The game was in the early slot, starting at 11AM CDT. MSU was missing starting center Stomping Dillon Day, but at gametime it was announced that they would not play one of their better receivers. The Ags revealed that the shoulder injury that Malcome Kennedy sustained against Arkansas would keep him out of the game in Starkvegas. Aggie fans were surprised that among the large numbers of receivers on the roster, walk on Boone Niederhofer was the top choice to take Kennedy’s spot.
The Ags started fast again, scoring a TD on their first drive. State answered with a TD of their own, but with their drive including a Myles Garrett sack of Dak Prescott and the need for some penalties to keep the drive alive, I was hopeful that the Ags would come away with the win. But after starting fast again, the Ags repeated their problems of keeping drives going. A muffed punt after the second A&M possession gave the Ags an opportunity to retake the lead despite stalling on the second drive, but could not convert on 4th and 1 after a horrible spot on the 3rd down catch by Niederhofer. The D got a stop on the next MSU possession, but the Ags stalled again. The number of drops was something between 9-15 depending on who was counting. Meanwhile, although the D was able to get enough stops to win if A&M was the scoring machine we expected, MSU and Prescott got their act together, found weaknesses, and made it 21-7.
It got worse when Hill threw picks on the next two possessions, squandering a forced turnover after the first interception. This made the halftime score 28-10 after the Ags added a late FG. The D got stops on the first two possessions of the second half. But the O couldn’t shift the momentum by scoring, and when MSU scored on their third possession to make it 34-10, the chances for a comeback faded. A great catch by Speedy Noil cut it to 34-17, but we couldn’t stop State and another TD made it 41-17. The Ags scored the only points of the 4th quarter to make the final score look better, but it was still a beatdown.
As I write this, Gabe Bock and Billy Liucci are dissecting the game on the radio. The question they are addressing is whether the WR corps got surprised the last two weeks about the difference in play in the SEC West compared to the previous opponents. This sounds right to me… dropped passes aren’t just about what a WR does with his hands at the end of the play. Everything that goes into running a good rout and creating a window affects the probability of a catch. I once read that running full speed decreases visual acuity due to the amount of head movement that happens in a full out sprint. This 2009 WSJ article about Larry Fitzgerald has some interesting thoughts about what makes a great WR in terms of vision.
Northwestern d Wisconsin
Wisconsin and Stanford both had 2:30 CDT kickoffs, and between being depressed by the Ags taking the dog out, and flipping to other games, I didn’t watch all of this game. The Badgers have had trouble with their passing game all year, which puts extra pressure on the run game. Despite the poor passing, Melvin Gordon has had an exceptional year, and Wisconsin has managed to win against weaker opponents.
If A&M fans are concerned about QB play, they only need to watch the Badgers to see how good we have it. On Saturday the Wisconsin coaches decided that a below average Joel Stave is a better choice than a horrendous Tanner McEvoy at QB. Unfortunately, this improvement includes the fact that Stave’s bad passes are close enough to the receivers to be picked off, while McEvoy tends to miss so badly that even the DBs can’t find the ball.
I missed most of Melvin Gordon’s runs on the way to a career-high 259 yards. Unfortunately for the Badgers, Northwestern’s D kept Gordon from making it into the end zone more than once. The Wildcats took a 10-0 lead into halftime. Gordon’s only TD of the game cut the lead to 10-7 and the hope was that the Badgers would get another game where the run game wears the defense out for a late win. And when the Badgers stopped Northwestern at midfield after Gordon’s TD, it looked like that would be the script for the day.
Instead, starting deep in their own territory after a penalty on the punt return, the Badgers ran Gordon twice to make it 3rd and 5 from the 11. Instead of taking their chances with another run, the Badgers threw for the sticks… and Stave was picked off at the 16. One handoff later it was 17-7 Northwestern.
A missed Wisconsin FG and a good NW FG made it 20-7. The Badgers got down to the NW 16, but penalties and losses gave them 4th and 21 at the 27. Instead of trying another FG, the Badgers played for field position by taking a delay and punting. This looked like it had paid off when the D held and Wisconsin got the ball back at the Wildcat 44.
Most of the above is reconstructed from the online play-by-play. I only saw glimpses as I channel surfed. I did, however, watch live as the Badgers lined up with first and goal from the 3 with a chance to cut the lead to 6. What happened next was one of the worst combinations of play calling and execution of the weekend. With everyone watching anywhere expecting the Badgers to blast into the end zone with 3 chances to make 3 yards, OC Andy Ludwig calls a pass. Stave gets chased out of the pocket and goes to the right. Instead of throwing the ball away to take 2 chances to blast Gordon or Clement into the end zone, he tries to hit a receiver for the TD and throws a pick.
Later in the 4th, Stave hit Kenzell Doe on a long TD to get the lead to 6. But now there was only 4:16 to go. The Badgers kicked deep but weren’t able to prevent Northwestern from draining the clock to 33 seconds. A final interception gave Stave 3 for the day, to go with 1 by McEvoy. Wisconsin QBs finished the day with QBRs of 10.1 and 8.8.
Notre Dame d Stanford
While the Wisconsin debacle was going on, Stanford was in South Bend playing Notre Dame in the rain. While it could be viewed as a good old-fashioned defensive game, I’m not sure if the lack of offensive production was good D or below average offense. The Irish outgained the Cardinal 370 yards to 205. With those numbers, it’s not surprising that neither team had a 100 yard rusher. Both teams tried the run 32 times (including sacks); the leading runners where Wright for Stanford with 29 yards and McDaniel for the Irish with 41.
After a 7-7 halftime tie, both teams were futile in the third quarter. Halfway through the final period, ND broke the tie with a FG. Failure to have the holder wear gloves on an earlier attempt in the pouring rain kept them from taking the lead earlier. Stanford put together what should have been the winning drive starting with a nice Ty Mongomery kickoff return to the Stanford 42. A mix of passes and runs got the Cardinal to the ND 33, where QB Kevin Hogan converted a 3rd down by lofting a 23 yard pass to Devon Cajuste at the 10. I was kind of shocked that this was completed. The ball floated high into double coverage and the ND defenders just failed to break up the completion. After two futile running plays made it 3rd and goal from the 11, Notre Dame dropped into a pass-prevent defense, leaving a vast hole up the middle that Remound Write ran through pretty much untouched for a TD and the lead with 3 minutes to go.
With Stanford’s top ranked defense and the offensive futility displayed through the day, that should have been enough. But instead the Cardinal put in a textbook display of how to blow a late lead. They started by booting the kickoff out of bounds, giving the Irish the ball on their own 35. They then showed why people say that prevent defense is only good at preventing victories. Using a 3 man rush, they gave ND QB Everett Golson time to find holes in the secondary and march down the field. Worse, if you’re going to drop 8, it helps if they pass defenders actually know where to go. One busted coverage led to a pass interference call, giving ND the ball on the Stanford 22. The second busted coverage came on a play that was a golden opportunity for the D to save the game: 4th and 11 from the 23. Instead, the D left a tight end wide open in the left side of the end zone. TD Irish.
Stanford got the ball back with a minute to go and managed to get to midfield. But Hogan took an intentional grounding penalty and the runoff ended the game with a whimper. From the post-game.
Stanford coach David Shaw was asked what coverage the No. 14 Cardinal were in on the play.
“There was no coverage on Notre Dame’s touchdown pass,” he said. “That sounds sarcastic but he was wide-open. There was nobody on him.”