As the seconds ticked away yesterday afternoon at Bill's House, that was the thought that started to creep into my head. Despite my cynical and hasty prediction -- and everyone else's, I may add -- two weeks ago that we were out of the North Division race, none other than your Kansas State Wildcats stand, alone, atop the standings halfway through the conference season.
That said, it's a little early to make travel plans for Dallas just yet, although you can rest assured I will be at Jerry's House should we somehow emerge from the tangle. It's too early because this team is not the dominating juggernaut that could handle games against the likes of OU, KU, Mizzou and Nebraska like it did back in the early 2000s, but there are reasons to hope this fine Sunday afternoon. While the schedule likely does get a little more difficult in the final four-game stretch, how much more difficult is it really? Oklahoma has been written off as a loss since the beginning of the season, and as long as we don't play another "Tech" game down there, I'll be OK. Then we have home games against KU and MU. Does anybody really fear KU at this point? They are entirely capable of beating K-State, I admit, but it's not a foregone conclusion like it was before the year. And Mizzou is playing with a one-legged quarterback. I know an injury is supposed to heal over time, but that's only if it's rested and protected. As long as Blaine Gabbert keeps playing, he's going to have to run, push off it to throw, and have defenders fall on it. That's not going to be conducive to healing. Then, of course, the finale is a trip to Lincoln to face Nebraska. Despite losing at home to ISU yesterday -- who suddenly doesn't look like such a slouch, either -- I'm not ready to count the Huskers out, but in keeping with the theme thus far, they're eminently more beatable now than they looked, say, two or three weeks ago.
Anyway, that's a topic that we shall expand upon this week. For now, let's turn our attention to yesterday's game.
What I liked...
...taking the early momentum. This team needs confidence early each and every game, and it got it yesterday. The first drive stalled and resulted in only a field goal, but it was points on the board and solid ball movement.
...the reformation of Josh Cherry. It's like the light has switched on for this kid. Granted, he's probably not going to bang home many 50-yarders, but as long as he can put it through the uprights from 25-35 consistently, he'll be doing his job.
...big Daniel Thomas chewing up yards. Twenty carries resulted in 145 rushing yards, easily the best offensive performance of the day.
...a stout defensive performance after Colorado's first-drive touchdown. After the first drive, I was worried, thinking back to last year's defensive implosions. I should have known better with this coaching staff. Time and time again, the defense answered the bell yesterday, stifling the Buffs even when the offense wasn't holding up its end of the bargain.
What I didn't like...
...doing nothing on offense in the second half. In defense of Grant Gregory and the offensive unit, it was a lot windier yesterday than it probably seemed on TV. The flags at the top of the stadium were constantly flapping hard toward the North, meaning any drive headed toward the south end zone was an adventure. Still, we're going to play on a lot of windy days, and we still have to find a way to move the ball. I'd like to lay some of the blame for the second half stall on the coaching staff, because it seemed like we just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge with the victory, but they gave the offense chances to open it up and they resulted in mistakes.
...giving Tyler Hansen hours to throw the ball, then not making tackles when the protection finaly broke down. It was nice to pick up four more sacks, but we could have had at least two more. Our defensive secondary did an oustanding job blanketing the field, forcing Hansen to hold the ball a long time. He proved to be a slippery sonofabitch back there, although the defensive line got better at finishing plays as the game went along.
...not protecting Grant Gregory very well. Very rarely could Gregory drop back, survey the field, check down a receiver or two, and then deliver the ball. Most of the time, before he could even read his first receiver on anything other than a very quick pass, he had a defendar already in his face. Our passing game has to improve against the four teams in our stretch run, and it starts up front.
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What it means and where we're going...
As mentioned, it means we stand in sole possession of the division lead halfway through our conference slate. Feels nice to say that. Of course, they don't hand out trophies for leading the division after four games, so improvement needs to continue down the stretch.
Next week, we travel to Norman, Okla., to face the Oklahoma Sooners. As you're all aware, the Sooners are 4-3 on this year, although they're eight points away from being 7-0, and all three losses came against varyingly competent teams (BYU --> Miami --> Texas). Last week, against undoubtedly their weakest competition of the year, they hammered KU in Lawrence. I know confidence is running at an all-time high around these parts, but winning in Norman will be the tallest task this team has faced this year.
Previous Opponent Roundup
Massachusetts lost, 34-12, to Richmond yesterday in sloppy game (weather and otherwise). Apparently, UMass was trying to imitate Nebraska, as it turned the ball over seven times.
Louisiana took one on the chin at home, losing 51-29 to Florida Atlantic. The Ragin' Cajuns are now 4-3, 2-1 in Sun Belt play.
UCLA lost to Arizona, 27-13. The loss drops the Bruins below .500 (3-4), and they remain winless in Pac-10 play.
Nobody cares about Tennessee Tech.
See below for recaps of Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M.
Big 12 Conference Roundup
Iowa State 9, Nebraska 7
No, that's not a misprint. Without Austen Arnaud or Alexander Robinson, the Cyclones strode out of Lincoln with a victory yesterday. While I can't fault the Nebraska defense -- it's incredible that they only allowed nine points when the offense had eight turnovers -- the Nebraska offense is ghastly right now. Roy Helu is hurt, Zac Lee has no confidence with 1.8 million red-clad football geniuses calling for Cody Green to play, and the receivers can't catch the ball. That's a really bad combination.
This game really throws the North into chaos, as it establishes Iowa State, at 2-2, as a potential division contender. Nebraska falls to 1-2, and has looked like dog dung in its most of its conference action this year. Think about it: three bad quarters against Missouri, four bad quarters against Texas Tech, and at least three bad quarters yesterday. If not for a fourth-quarter Mizzou meltdown in Columbia, the 'skerz would be 0-3 and Bo Pelini would really be on the run up north. Nebraska gets a chance to calm the waters this weekend as they travel to Waco to face hapless Baylor, while Iowa State travels to College Station to face bipolar Texas A&M.
Oklahoma 35, KU 13
The outcome of this game was never really in doubt. Todd Reesing threw three interceptions in the first 20 minutes of the game en route to a 14-0 OU lead. Credit to KU's defense for making a bit of a stand in the second quarter to hold the halftime deficit to 21-6, but Oklahoma slammed the door on any visions of a comeback that may have been dancing in KU's head with a quick touchdown to start the second half.
This game did two things, in my mind. First, it served notice that Oklahoma will not mail the season in, and that while they may have lost some games early, they will not lose games to marginal conference competition. Second, it put another dagger in the History Awaits campaign. Now, barring the wackiest of tiebreakers, we can write KU out of the division race if it loses to bipolar Texas Tech in Lubbock next week. As we all know, Oklahoma returns home to face K-State in Norman on Halloween.
Oklahoma State 34, Baylor 7
Ho-hum, the Cowboys traveled to Waco and dispatched punchless Baylor with ease, not allowing a score until a meaningless touchdown with seven minutes to go. There's not much to say about this one, as OSU dominated in every phase of the game. Zac Robinson was outstanding, completing 23 of 27 passes for 250 yards and three TDs, with no INTs.
Perhaps the most meaningless game of the day, this one did nothing to change any perception of either division race. It does set up a big showdown in Stillwater next weekend, as the Pokes "welcome" Texas for a showdown of teams who are undefeated in conference play. Meanwhile, Baylor gets to play the role of the bounceback girl for Nebraska.
Texas A&M 52, Texas Tech 30
In the "What the fuck?!" moment of the day, the Aggies turned the tables on every notion of common sense by beating Texas Tech in Lubbock. Strike that, not only did A&M beat Tech, they pretty much dominated. Both teams rolled up yards by the dozen, but only A&M could conver that to points. With Sticks Sheffield hurt, Tech reverted to Taylor Potts, who responded by throwing for 400+ yards and two costly interceptions. Meanwhile, the Texas Tech defense that had looked so stout against Big 12 competition thus far mysteriously disappeared, allowing 34 first downs, 559 total yards, and 322 rushing yards (not a misprint). Remember, this was an A&M team that was held to negative rushing yards last week by K-State.
While this game did nothing to change much in the South division race -- it's pretty clearly UT and Oklahoma State at this point -- it provided Texas A&M partisans with some much needed bragging rights in this rivalry. It prevented Tech from notching a fourth-straight triumph in the series, and was probably pretty satisfying for Mike Sherman after the war of words he and Mike Leach engaged in last season.
Texas 41, Missouri 7
Again, there's not much to say about this one. Texas led by three scores before the first quarter ended, and Missouri put up nothing resembling a fight. Maybe the other half of the Unholy Alliance can help me out with this one, but I have no idea how long it's been since Mizzou was held below 200 total yards for a game. Colt McCoy did pretty much anything he wanted, Blaine Gabbert still looks like a circus sideshow limping around on one leg, and the Mizzou just generally looked like it was stuck in second gear last night while Texas was blasting down the Autobahn at 100+ mph.
Hard to say what this one means for either division race. The result was expected, although Mizzou's utter ineptness may not have been. While Texas is a huge step up in class from anyone in the North, it's clear that Mizzou needs Gabbert to get healthy and needs its defense to come together (they showed Carl Gettis yelling at and then walking away from one of his assistant coaches on TV last night) to have any shot down the stretch.