Tinkering: I'm going to alter the format here at The National just a hair. On Mondays, you'll get in-depth coverage of a couple of games -- one, the most exciting game of the week (at least from the perspective of your idiot blogger here), and the other of a game which seems to have passed somewhat under the radar despite quite probably having a lot of significance in the larger picture. This will allow me to get the heavy lifting out of the way, and give me more time to cover more games on Tuesday than I otherwise would have on Monday, by saying less about them. If that makes sense. Plus, it will help alleviate the "slow news Tuesday" problem.
So, we'll start this week with two nail-biters involving SEC teams. After the jump, I'll look at Mizzou's win over Arizona State, which didn't get much play over the weekend. But first...
Game of the Week, Obvious Edition: Louisiana-Monroe, fresh off their upset of Arkansas last week, traveled to The Plains for the middle contest in their three-week tour of death. Two weeks ago, one would have been forgiven for expecting the Warhawks to suffer three straight brutal defeats on this run; now, there seems to be every possibility that they'll come away with two wins and an overtime loss. From a neutral perspective -- or as neutral as one can be when one roots for chaos, anyway -- they should be aiming for three-for-three.
Monroe was ahead 14-7 in the second quarter, with less than four minutes to go, when Philip Lutzenkirchen caught a 16-yard pass to midfield and was pushed out of bounds by Cordero Smith. Inexplicably, Smith was flagged for unnecessary roughness even though all his did was push Lutzenkirchen out of bounds; the flag added another 15 yards to the gain, putting Auburn at ULM's 33. It may or may not have impacted the following play, which was a 33-yard toss from Kiehl Frazier to Quan Bray for a touchdown. The important thing was not the touchdown pass itself, but the possibility that the play-calling was affected by the drastic change in field position; Auburn may have burned more time before scoring in that event. Had that been the case, time might have run out in the half before Auburn could have gotten into position two minutes later for another 33-yard touchdown, this one an absolute prayer of a hail-mary hauled in by Sammie Coates. I don't wish to suggest that athleticism and hops don't impact the result of a hail mary, but at the same time I think we all realize that they tend to be, by their very nature, pure dumb luck.
In short, Louisiana-Monroe could have gone into halftime leading 14-7, and at worst the game really should have been tied at 14. Instead, Auburn went into the locker room with a 21-14 lead, and that would be vitally important later.
Auburn extended the lead to 28-14 on the opening drive of the second half. A 15-play Warhawk drive ate almost seven minutes off the clock before ending with a blocked field goal, another huge play for the Tigers which helped save the game. Auburn drove quickly, but the drive died and the momentum shifted completely when Smith "atoned" for his earlier non-mistake by forcing Mike Blakely to fumble at the ULM one-yard line; Mitch Lane recovered and got out to the five to give the Warhawks a little breathing room. And then Kolton Browning and the Warhawk defense each decided it was time to get to work.
ULM's drive, crossing into the fourth quarter, didn't result in a score, but it did end in a punt which forced Auburn to start from within their own ten. The Warhawks forced them into a three-and-out, and again Browning was able to move Monroe early; again, though, the drive stalled when Browning was sacked on 4th-and-10 just inside Auburn territory. Six plays later, after Auburn had only managed to move 13 yards anyway, Frazier was picked off by Lane. This time, the Auburn defense wasn't able to stop Browning, who either rushed himself or passed every single play of the ensuing nine-play, 59-yard drive to get the Warhawks within a touchdown.
Auburn was unable to answer, losing two yards and going three-and-out before punting. The following Warhawk assault was also nine plays for 65 yards, including a couple of ridiculous circus catches by Brent Leonard; again, Browning either completed a pass or rushed on every play of the drive. When Browning hit Colby Harper on a 6-yard fade, all of a sudden we were tied again. Auburn managed to advance to their own 42 with 37 seconds to go, but facing fourth and five, punted; Monroe took a knee to go to overtime.
The overtime was ugly, however. The Warhawks had the ball first, and Brent Leonard gained five yards on the first play, but Browning threw two incompletions before Justin Manton's field goal attempt was blocked. Auburn picked up a first down on a ten-yard Tre Mason run on their first play, and opted to take a knee to center the ball on the next before Cody Parkey booted a 35-yarder to secure the win and prevent Louisiana-Monroe from printing "2012 SEC West Champions" t-shirts.
Not to take anything away from Auburn, and in fact this statement actually serves to give them more credit for this win than some have been willing to offer, but this needs to be put in perspective: Louisiana-Monroe made it to overtime, on the road, against SEC teams twice in two weeks. This is a real football team, with a real defense -- remember, 14 of those Auburn points were either aided by bad refereeing or the result of (mostly) dumb luck -- and a dangerously explosive offense. We might be tempted to downgrade this loss on the idea that Auburn's not that good, or the Arkansas win on the basis of what Alabama did to the Razorbacks, but that would be wrong. The Warhawks aren't going to be playing in any BCS championship game, but they're a good team, possibly even capable of reaching a bowl game if they were in one of the big-boy conferences this year.
And if I'm the Baylor Bears, I'm not spending one second thinking about West Virginia, because they really need to be spending every moment preparing for this one. Especially after what happened to the Bears on Saturday, which we'll get around to discussing tomorrow...
Game of the Week, Unorthodox Edition: Missouri rolled in their first game out, destroying FCS Southeastern Louisiana, before looking less-than-stellar in their SEC debut at home against Georgia last week. Arizona State also beat the snot out of an FCS team in week one before beating almost as much snot out of Illinois last week. The Tigers -- having to move forward without injured QB James Franklin -- needed a win desperately, otherwise they'd be facing the very real possibility of a lonely and boring December; Arizona State, on the other hand, was looking for some validation of their bona fides. Early on, it looked like Missouri was going to get their way.
The Tigers jumped out to a 10-0 lead before ten minutes had passed, courtesy of an Andrew Baggett field goal and a 6-yard run by backup QB Corbin Berkstresser. They added to the lead in the second period when Kendial Lawrence scored from seven yards out, but with two and a half minutes to go before intermission Taylor Kelly hit D.J. Foster on a 33-yard scoring pass to get the margin back to ten at 17-7. Lawrence scored again from a yard out in the third, and as the fourth quarter loomed Arizona State was facing a 24-7 deficit.
Then things turned.
On fourth and ten at their own 42, Missouri tried to punt. A bad snap went through Trey Barrow's hands; he passed to Kip Edwards, trying to salvage the disaster, but it was a loss of six and a turnover on downs. The Sun Devils weren't exciting, but as the fourth quarter started ticking down they got into the end zone on a two-yard run by Marion Grice. The Arizona State defense then forced Mizzou three-and-out, and after Kelly hit Grice for a 36-yard completion followed by a 16-yard connection with Rashad Ross, Grice rumbled in from nine yards out to bring Sparky within four points after a failed extra point attempt caused by a bad snap. It would be a mistake with far-reaching consequences.
Missouri drove into ASU territory before Baggett missed on a 48-yard attempt (which, had be been successful, would have rendered the point-after failure utterly moot in any event). The Sun Devils then drove deep into Tiger real estate, getting first-and-goal at the Mizzou 8 before shooting themselves in the foot with consecutive false starts. On first and 18, however, Kelly hit Jamal Miles, who got down to the Tiger 1.
Two straight tries into the line resulted in a loss of two yards, and here's where a lesser impact of the missed extra point comes into play. There were now just under four minutes on the clock, and while I would have been inclined to go ahead and go for it on fourth down here anyway, had the Sun Devils only trailed by three, Graham could have opted for risk aversion and kicked a field goal here to tie the game. That option was taken away from him, though, and the Sun Devils had no choice but to try and get into the end zone. Kelly failed to hit Kevin Ozier in the end zone, and Missouri took over on their own three.
The Tigers accomplished absolutely nothing on their possession other than to cut the remaining time on the clock in half. Barrow's punt was not long, and Jamal Miles snapped off a 25-yard return to get the Sun Devils back to the Mizzou 21. Again, the missed PAT reared its head here, as with only 1:58 remaining Arizona State could have been somewhat conservative with the play-calling, with the idea being that if they weren't able to get into the end zone, they could at least tie. Instead, they had to strap on their gamblin' shoes, and on third down Kelly was picked off by Kenronte Walker at the goal line, sealing the victory for Missouri.
We didn't really learn much about either team here, other than the knowledge that they're both capable of competing with a like foe. Missouri once again melted down somewhat in the fourth quarter, just as they did against Georgia; although their defense certainly quite a bit of deserves credit for knuckling down and halting the Sun Devil threat on the final two drives, the fact that Arizona State had to score a touchdown on each drive rendered an advantage unto the defense which made their task quite a bit easier. We can't really judge the offense -- positively or harshly -- and there's no real need to anyway, as it appears Franklin should return for South Carolina next week.
As for the Sun Devils, it's hard to say whether the result of this game says anything particularly negative. They had every chance to win the game, and just couldn't capitalize, which makes them the anti-Kansas State, I suppose. But it's hard to look at this game and not assume Arizona State's in line for one of the Pac-12's better bowl bids, although they don't look like they'll seriously challenge for the South Division title.