Historically, the starting quarterback at Alabama comes in one model and one model only. He is not an "athlete," or a "dual threat." He is not a statuesque pocket passer coveted by the NFL*. Compared to his teammates, he wasn't even that highly recruited. No: Invariably, the starting quarterback at Alabama for at least three decades running is a clean-cut, homegrown kid with unfailingly floppy hair whose path to immortality in his home state involves a key drive or two to preserve a championship and otherwise avoiding anything that might undermine the defense. (Which will be great, because no Alabama team from Wallace Wade on up has ever been great without a great defense.) Every so often the name changes. The mold never does, though, and in the Nick Saban era it was conceivable that it never would.
That paragraph ends in the past tense for very obvious reasons, only one of which is the suddenly prolific A.J. McCarron. If his coach had his way, McCarron would still only be the efficient, "within the offense" manager he was seemingly born to be. In 28 career starts prior to Saturday, McCarron had only passed for 300 yards in two of them, one of which was last year's 29–24 loss to Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, in which he set career highs for attempts (34), yards (309) and interceptions (2) and spent the majority of the game throwing out of shotgun spread sets in Alabama's only blemish of the season. In that game, A&M's initial burst of energy on offense forced the Crimson Tide too far outside of their methodical comfort zone. In Saturday's season-defining, 49–42 win in College Station, Saban embraced a very different template, and allowed the world to see his quarterback in a very different context.
That fundamental shift makes reviewing the yields from a game like this (1,200 yards of total offense, 91 points, 62 first downs, etc…) almost an exercise in futility. A&M made it abundantly clear it was going to be that kind of game, striking for two quick touchdowns on its first two chances with the ball, and so it was: The Aggies' eventual output was so far beyond any precedent against an Alabama defense over the last five years that the previous barriers are irrelevant. They were never even in sight. From start to finish, this game played out almost entirely on what we would usually view as A&M's terms.
But then they turned out to be McCarron's terms, too. After being forced into a three-and-out on its first offensive series, and subsequently finding itself in a 14–0 hole on its second, Alabama found the counterpunch it never landed in 2012, driving for four consecutive touchdowns on drives covering (respectively) 75, 80, 80 and 93 yards to close the half. On the first of those drives, McCarron attempted passes on five of six plays, completing four, capped by a 22-yard touchdown to Kevin Norwood. On the second, McCarron passed on all six plays, capped by a 44-yard bomb to DeAndrew White off a flea-flicker. On the third, McCarron passed on three of four plays, capped by a short screen pass that Kenny Bell took to the house from 51 yards. Combined, those three drives featured 14 passes to two runs and took 5:23 off the clock. Alabama led 21–14 and would not trail again.
With a lead in hand, the Tide reverted to their more physical M.O. the rest of the way (see below), finishing with a characteristic 236 yards rushing on 6.6 per carry. Still, they continued to call on McCarron to throw to set up the run: On their final three, ground-based touchdown drives, McCarron completed five more passes for first downs, three of them on first-and-ten. When it came to one of the most critical decisions of the day, a third-and-goal call with just under six minutes to play and Bama leading 42–35 – having already blown a decisive goal-to-go opportunity on the preceding possession by fumbling inside the A&M 5-yard line – coaches opted to ignore the clock and trust their quarterback; they were rewarded on McCarron's fourth touchdown pass of the day, an easy, five-yard flip to Jalston Fowler out of the backfield that doubled as a dagger.
It's been a long time since Alabama has asked its quarterback to be this good in a game of this magnitude, or since Alabama has needed its quarterback to be this good. It's been even longer since he's delivered. McCarron came into Saturday off arguably the worst performance of his career against Virginia Tech, and responded with one that should go down as his best. Given his track record, and his already-secure place in the lineage of Crimson Tide quarterbacks, that's saying a lot. But in this era, in a conference full stocked with quality, veteran QBs, this particular team may need every bit of it.
(* For the record, the last Bama quarterback drafted in the first two rounds was Richard Todd, in 1976, who was also the last Bama quarterback to start more than two games in his NFL career.)
• OLE MISS 44, TEXAS 23. The tendency after games like this is to shake one's head, wring one's hands and/or laugh one's ass off as one of the most venerable, well-appointed vessels in use continues its descent in front of our eyes, silver-haired captain en tow. First, though, it's worth acknowledging just how far Ole Miss has come under coach Hugh Freeze. On Sept. 15, 2012, the rebuilding Rebels – losers of 14 straight SEC games, coming off a 2–10 debacle under Freeze's predecessor, Houston Nutt, in 2011 – were on the wrong end of a 66–31 beating in Oxford, arguably Texas' most complete performance of the entire season. From there, they went on to put the fear of god into Texas A&M and LSU, thumped a ranked Mississippi State outfit in the regular season finale and clinched a winning record in the [insert third-tier financial institution] Bowl. Almost exactly one year later, they walk out of Austin with Ole Miss' first 3-0 start since 1989, having just delivered a 54-point swing from last year's loss with a lineup that already features four true freshman starters.
(As far those freshmen go: I caught this game in person, and while five-star receiver Laquan Treadwell looked like the early star of the group against Vanderbilt – and certainly looks the part, physically, as does left tackle Laremy Tunsil – I'm here to attest that headliner Robert Nkemdiche is a freak apart. A few days short of his nineteenth birthday, he looks he was assembled out of oak trees. He's built like a slab of iridium. Just an unfathomably dense individual.)
Now, as for Texas. What's left to say? The litany of disappointments over the past four years is well-documented, and after last week's collapse at BYU, the up-and-coming narrative that vaulted the Horns into the top ten in many preseason polls has been replaced by a palpable sense of dread. This is a team just waiting for things to go horribly wrong.
For a half-hour or so on Saturday night, the Longhorns looked like they had some fight left, rebounding from an early, 14–0 deficit in the first half to score 23 consecutive points. Just before the half, Ole Miss tacked on a field goal following a sketchy targeting penalty, cutting the lead to 23–17, and Texas decided to call it a night. Ole Miss outscored UT in the second half 27–0, manufacturing back-to-back touchdown drives on its first two possessions out of halftime, and sent Darrell K. Royal Stadium to a very dark place on a 73-yard punt return by Jeff Scott (see above that extended the Rebels' lead to 37–23. Everyone in the building saw the boulder coming, and no one had the will to push back.
The defense took most of the heat for the debacle in Provo (deservedly so), and only improved Saturday relative to one of the worst performances in school history. But the ongoing malaise on offense actually has much deeper roots, specifically that Texas still has no idea who or what it is offensively. Is it a spread passing team? A spread running team? A power running team? A balanced attack that thrives on play-action? There were traces of all of the above against Ole Miss, all of which we've seen at various points since 2010, with a dash of hurry-up for good measure. Ultimately it's all grasping. If the coaches ever believed in any of it, they're running out of time to convince anyone else.
• UCLA 41, NEBRASKA 21. Nebraska's number one priority coming into this game was curbing the giveaways: The Huskers turned the ball over more times in 2012 than any other offense in the Big Ten (35), including a dozen turnovers in their four losses that led to 52 points for opponents in those games. Quarterback Taylor Martinez has fumbled more times in his career than any active player, etc. So good news! Nebraska only committed one turnover on Saturday, a fourth-quarter fumble by Ameer Abdullah, which did not lead to UCLA points or contribute to the outcome in any capacity.
Of course, by then it was pretty much the only thing that didn't contribute to UCLA points, of which there were already more than enough to salt the game away. Right now the defense is reminiscent of the High Callahan era, circa late 2007. In the third quarter alone, the Bruins scored four unanswered touchdowns in a span of 22 offensive plays, none of them the result of a turnover, big return or outrageously good field position. As a team, they finished with 504 total yards, making them the first repeat members of a rapidly growing club: Even disregarding the turnovers, Nebraska's four losses in 2012 were all as lopsided as they looked on paper, if not more so, due to huge offensive days by UCLA (653 yards on 7.0 per play), Ohio State (498 on 8.0 per play), Wisconsin (640 on 10.7) in the B1G title game and Georgia (589 on 8.3) in the Capital One Bowl. In the opener this year, Wyoming (!) bombed the Huskers for 602 yards on 8.1 per play in a 37–34 ambush. As bad as they are right now – currently next-to-last in the Big Ten in total defense, right where they finished last year – we should be well past the point of surprise when it happens again.
True, on the other side, the offense was not exactly a revelation: Two of its three touchdowns en route to a quick, 21–3 lead covered 28 and 26 yards, respectively, following an interception and a turnover on downs by the UCLA offense. From there, Nebraska's last eight possessions of the game resulted in five punts, the aforementioned fumble and a turnover on downs of its own. Until the defense gets fixed, though, there's only so much cushion it can be expected to give.
• ARIZONA STATE 32, WISCONSIN 30. There is much to be said about Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon (193 yards, 2 TDs on just 15 carries), and about Arizona State's surge for three consecutive, extended touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters. But everything that happened in this gem was hopelessly eclipsed by the bizarro ending, which instantly belongs among the greatest, worst and most confusing moments in recent memory – all the more so because it played out amid the delirium that begins to set in around 1 a.m.
1. The Scenario. Arizona State leads, 32–30. Wisconsin has the ball, 1st-and-10 from the ASU 13, with the clock momentarily stopped at 18 seconds to move the chains. The Badgers are out of timeouts.
2. Stave takes a knee. It was ambiguous in real time – ESPN's play-by-play guy says right away, "he didn't take a knee, he just put the ball on the ground!" – and it's equally ambiguous on the replay. (Personally, my first reaction was to compare Stave to the patron saint of setting the ball gently on the turf at the worst possible moment, Clint Stoerner. On Twitter, I fielded responses in the aftermath arguing that his knee clearly was down, and that it clearly was not.) But that was only because of Stave's unorthodox technique and angle relative to the camera. It's obvious from a different perspective that, yes, his knee was down:
That's with 16 seconds left. Second down, clock is running.
3. ASU players are justified in jumping on the ball. If the relationship between Stave's knee and the ground is uncertain enough to confuse viewers after multiple, Zapruder-like replays, it's uncertain enough for the Sun Devils to treat it as if it's a live fumble. Why not? It may be a long shot, but under the circumstances, if there is any doubt whatsoever they're obligated to go for the win.
4. Officials should have stopped the clock. The immediate pro-Badger sentiment after the game was that Arizona State should have been assessed a delay of game for sitting on the ball. I wouldn't go that far, because (again) the Devils had good enough reason to attempt to recover a potential loose ball. Once it was clear that Stave had been ruled down, though, and that the previous play was dead, then the officials are obligated to clear the scrum and reset the ball. Multiple whistles blow the play dead with 15 seconds to go, and both the referee and umpire indicate the play is dead when ASU players start swarming to the ball with around 12 seconds to go. From there another ten seconds elapse before the line of scrimmage is cleared and the ball is spotted for play, by which time Wisconsin has no chance to get a final snap off. Once the play has been blown dead that can't be allowed to happen.
5. Wisconsin is too lackadaisical in getting lined up. It would be a lot easier to sympathize with the Badgers if they were actually set, waiting to spike the ball, instead of milling about with no apparent sense of urgency. Stave himself seems to not even realize the clock is still running, as he spends three seconds with his back to the line, gesturing to the referee that he intends to spike the ball, and four more nonchalantly strolling back to the line. At no point from the time the whistle blows, at 15 seconds, to the point he begins wildly gesturing toward the clock at three seconds is Stave in position to take a snap if the ball was set. It's hard to hold up someone who's not ready.
In retrospect, I've decided Wisconsin has a bigger beef than I initially allowed against the refs, who were inept under any combination of specific variables. And losing in that kind of fashion doesn't tell us any more or less about the Badgers' prospects in the Big Ten than winning on a last-second field goal would have. It's a fluke decision. But they certainly could have done more in those dying seconds to further their cause.
• MICHIGAN 28, AKRON 24. How close was Michigan to actually – like actually – losing this game? Akron's final, failed pass into the end zone as time expired came from four yards out, which is pretty damn close. Long before that point, though, the Zips had let scoring opportunities slip through their fingers on a pair of missed field goals and a pair of interceptions in Wolverine territory, one of them coming on 1st-and-goal from the two earlier in the fourth quarter. Akron's offense crossed midfield eight times, and came away empty on six of them.
Had it been able to make good on even one of those opportunities, we might be talking now about one of the greatest point-spread upsets (Akron was +37) in the history of the sport. Although the Zips are FBS, officially, it would have been an even bigger shock as far as I'm concerned than Appalachian State's infamous ambush in Ann Arbor in 2007 – at least Appalachian State was good at the time at the level it plays on, using the historic upset as a springboard to its third consecutive FCS championship. Akron hasn't beaten a MAC opponent since 2010.
I'm hesitant to say that being taken to the brink by the worst team on the schedule means anything in particular for the rest of Michigan's season (it will serve as a wake-up call and motivation to prove the doubters wrong and so forth, etc.), although it does offset last week's optimism-generating win over Notre Dame enough to reset expectations for the Wolverines to default preseason levels. If they look sluggish next week at UConn, it's time to start worrying.
Time to Rethink: USC's Offensive Armageddon. A week after falling flat on their face against Washington State, the Trojans generated 521 yards of total offense Saturday – 257 rushing, 264 passing – in a 35–7 win over Boston College. Quarterback Cody Kessler, last seen watching a Washington State cornerback return an interception for the Cougars' only touchdown, rebounded from a dismal 72.7 efficiency rating in that game to finish 15-of-17 for 237 yards and two touchdowns against B.C., good for an astronomical rating of 244.2. Even our old friend Marqise Lee got in on the fun, taking an 80-yard pass from Kessler to the house in the second quarter.
MIKE EVANS • WR, Texas A&M. With his over-the-top size (6'5", 225) and production (82 catches for 1,105 yards last year as a redshirt freshman), Evans was hardly a secret to anyone in the SEC, or pro scouts. For anyone else who'd yet to be clued in, though, they were introduced to an irresistible force against Alabama, whose outrageous numbers against Bama's helpless cornerbacks were matched only by the visceral sight of a man that large, with that much control over his body, using his absurd wingspan for pure stiff-arming evil:
That was the second of three A&M consecutive touchdowns in a barn-burner of a fourth quarter, but Evans made his presence felt right away: On the first series of the game, he hauled in a pair of bombs covering 32 and 35 yards, respectively, setting up the Aggies' first touchdown. On the second series, he brought in a 34-yard bomb to set up the Aggies' second touchdown. Altogether, he finished with seven receptions for 279 yards (a school record), good for just shy of 40 yards per catch. What will stick is the incredible ease of it all against a secondary used to operating in lockdown.
ALABAMA'S OFFENSIVE LINE. On the other side, the Crimson Tide reasserted their core identity every bit as emphatically. Rebounding from a miserable debut against Virginia Tech, Bama's starting five – from left to right, Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie Kouandjio, Ryan Kelly Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd – owned the line of scrimmage against the Aggies, keeping McCarron spotless in the passing game and grinding away as methodically as ever in the power running game. Alabama's top three running backs, T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Jalston Fowler, combined for 236 yards on 6.6 per carry despite a long gain of just 16 yards between them.
When the objective switched from matching fire with fire, courtesy of McCarron, to snuffing out as much clock as possible at the end of each half, the big men responded by paving the way for the two longest drives of the day: An 11-play, 93-yard march that took 6:23 off the clock en rote to the Crimson Tide's fourth consecutive touchdown at the end of the second quarter, and a 9-play, 65-yard march that took 5:36 off the clock in the fourth, ending with the icing touchdown pass from McCarron to Fowler. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
JEFF SCOTT • RB/KR, Ole Miss. Watching Scott set the perimeter of Texas' defense on fire, I kept coming back to two comparisons. One was to his spirit totem among recent Rebel running backs, Dexter McCluster, with whom Scott shares everything – diminutive size, overwhelming quickness, omnipresent lethality in the return game – right down to the dreadlocks. The assumption coming into the season was that Ole Miss would employ a backfield-by-committee, with Scott serving as the proverbial "change of pace," but between him and quarterback Bo Wallace in the read-option game, there hasn't been much need for anyone else. Against the Longhorns, Scott accounted for 243 all-purpose yards (170 from scrimmage, 73 on a dagger-wielding punt return), thereby recasting his decisive role in the Rebels' wild, opening-night win over Vanderbilt as an opening salvo.
The other relevant comparison – more of a contrast in this case – was to Scott's counterparts on the other sideline, especially Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, five-star prototypes in the mold of the sturdy, 220-pound bruisers that once defined Texas' offense, but now define its limitations. While the Longhorns have committed to keeping one foot in the spread, scheme-wise, personnel-wise they still seem bound by the assumptions of outdated, "pro style" measurables. Gray and Brown look like NFL-bound, between-the-tackles plodders in the Ricky Williams/Cedric Benson tradition, but they're not home-run threats and add no value as receivers. In fact, it's been years since Texas has had anyone on offense who fit that description. (Jamaal Charles, maybe?) Would Mack Brown ever stoop to recruiting a 5-foot-6, 160-pound back who runs like a squirrel, even if he didn't step out of central casting for the draft? If Jeff Scott can't convince him, it's not going to happen.
WISCONSIN'S FAKE PUNT. The worst part of the ending in Tempe? It stole the thunder of a critical fake punt the Badgers ran midway through the fourth quarter, which was audacious not only for the obvious reasons – failure in ASU territory at that point, already trailing by eight points due to a suddenly hot Sun Devil offense, probably would have sealed Wisky's defeat – but also for letting the game ride on the arm of the starting middle linebacker, Chris Borland.
Borland's completion to Jacob Pedersen achieved its first goal, keeping the Badgers' wilting defense on the sideline; a few plays later, it achieved its second goal when the offense scored to cut the deficit to two points, setting the stage for some last-second drama. In all, a delicious bit of gamesmanship and deception that is only slightly improved by having actually worked.
TRAVIS WILSON • QB, Utah. Although he was responsible for three interceptions in the Utes' overtime loss to Oregon State, Wilson was the only quarterback Saturday who could begin to rival Johnny Manziel for pure, sandlot entertainment value, mainly for the spectacle of watching a guy who's officially listed at 6'7", 240 pounds scramble for 142 yards and three touchdowns. (Altogether, Wilson accounted for 423 yards and five touchdowns.) As with Mike Evans, no person that big should be able to move that well without having his oil changed every 30 yards.
NEBRASKA'S UNIFORMS. When you take pride in a term like "Blackshirts," and proceed to allow 41 points while wearing actual black shirts, you deserve all the scorn you get. Black jerseys are supposed to be a badge of honor when the defense is playing well, as opposed to another unwanted, awkwardly appropriated marketing campaign for Adidas. Plus who settled on that lame stencil font for the numbers?
BOGUS TARGETING CALLS. Texas Tech's win over TCU on Thursday night was marred by an egregious "interfering with the returner" flag that significantly affected the outcome of that game in the name of player safety, even though the TCU coverage man in that case did everything in his power to (successfully) avoid contact with the returner. Alabama's Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix can sympathize after being briefly ejected on this ridiculous call at Texas A&M:
Ha Ha extends his arms in a play for the ball, leads with his shoulder and shifts his head to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact – which is kind of amazing – and is still reflexively flagged because Texas A&M's bench flips out and that's how it's going to be now when you're trying to play safety. Replay was able to overturn the automatic ejection that comes with the penalty, at least, but not the penalty itself. Because we wouldn't want to call into question the officials' judgment here.
MAJOR APPLEWHITE • Offensive Coordinator, Texas. The defense was still bad against Ole Miss, but there is plenty of blame to go around for a team that was outscored 27–0 in the second half. After a solid first half, the Longhorns' last seven possessions yielded four punts, a fumble and two turnovers on downs, and the offense failed to advance beyond the Ole Miss 40-yard line. Beyond "look for Jaxon Shipley on third down," this attack has no fixed idea about what it wants to be from one possession to the next.