September 4, 2010

Winners and losers: Ole Miss derailed

On the day that Georgia's Aaron Murray and Penn State's Robert Bolden made their college debuts, who would have expected Jacksonville State's Coty Blanchard to make the biggest impact of any freshman quarterback?

Blanchard, a true freshman, showed the poise of a fifth-year senior Saturday while rallying his FCS team to a stunning 49-48 double-overtime victory over host Ole Miss.

Ole Miss led 31-10 at halftime before Jacksonville State began its remarkable comeback. Blanchard and junior Marques Ivory split time at quarterback for Jacksonville State, but it was Blanchard who delivered the two biggest plays of the day.

The Rebels were on the verge of victory until Blanchard stunned the Rebels with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Kevyn Cooper on fourth-and-15 in the second overtime. Then, rather than sending the game to a third overtime session, Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe chose to win or lose it on the next play. Blanchard rewarded his coach's faith by delivering a 2-point conversion pass to Calvin Middleton.

By the time he was through, Blanchard had led the Gamecock to their first victory over an FBS school in nine years. Jacksonville State beat Arkansas State 31-28 on Sept. 22, 2001. The Gamecocks led Florida State in the fourth quarter last season before falling 19-9.

Of course, this victory meant much more than that 9-year-old win over Arkansas State. Arkansas State is a Sun Belt member. Ole Miss plays in the mighty SEC, home of the past four national champions.

"I think there were some circumstances we probably couldn't repeat in 100 years if we tried to do it again," Crowe said, "but we'll take it."

Blanchard's remarkable performance spoiled the Ole Miss debut of Jeremiah Masoli, who led Oregon to the Rose Bowl last season. Masoli transferred to Ole Miss after off-field problems caused Oregon to kick him off its team. He was eligible to play Saturday only after winning an appeal with an NCAA board a day earlier.

While splitting time with Nathan Stanley, Masoli went 7-of-10 for 109 yards with one interception Saturday to help Ole Miss build a 21-point lead. But on this day, he wasn't the best quarterback on the field.

"Crazy stuff happens sometimes," Masoli told reporters. "I never expected us to be in overtime."

Jacksonville State clearly had the most reason to celebrate and Ole Miss had the biggest cause for concern Saturday, but here's a look at the other winners and losers from the first weekend of the college football season.

WINNERS

Oregon RB Kenjon Barner: LaMichael James? Who's that? With James serving a one-game suspension, Barner stepped into the starting lineup and scored five touchdowns in the first half of a 72-0 blowout of New Mexico. Barner ran for 146 yards and caught a 60-yard touchdown pass to account for almost 30 percent of the Ducks' school-record 720 yards of total offense.

Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Michigan doesn't have a quarterback controversy anymore. Robinson, a sophomore, ran for 197 yards - the highest single-game total ever by a Michigan quarterback - and also went 19-of-22 for 186 passing yards in the Wolverines' 30-10 beatdown of Connecticut. Robinson - whose nickname is "Shoelace" for his penchant for leaving his cleats untied when he was younger - beat out incumbent starter Tate Forcier and freshman Devin Gardner for the starting job, though Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez kept his decision a secret up until the Wolverines' opening possession. Nobody will need to bother asking Rodriguez who he plans to start next week at Notre Dame.

Iowa's poise: Iowa's 37-7 victory over Eastern Illinois might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but keep in mind the Hawkeyes needed to block two field-goal attempts in the final seconds to squeak past FCS program Northern Iowa 17-16 in their 2009 season opener. This time, Iowa methodically took care of business against an overmatched opponent.

Georgia QB Aaron Murray: All this redshirt freshman did in his debut performance was throw for three touchdowns and run for a fourth score to lead Georgia to its highest single-game point total since the 2004 season. Murray's performance in a 55-7 rout of Louisiana-Lafayette was particularly impressive because Georgia was missing star WR A.J. Green and starting TB Washaun Ealey.

Penn State QB Robert Bolden: Bolden, the first Penn State true freshman quarterback ever to start a season opener, threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns and one interception - which came after WR Derek Moye fell down on the play - in a 44-14 victory over Youngstown State. That performance likely was good enough to help Bolden remain atop the depth chart for next week's game at Alabama, though Penn State coach Joe Paterno wouldn't name a starter just yet. "We're going to play it week by week, practice by practice and hopefully come up with different situations, and we'll go from there," Paterno told reporters afterward. "Whether that means we'll have one quarterback all year or three alternating or what, I really don't know right now."

Kansas State RB Daniel Thomas: Thomas, the 2009 Big 12 rushing leader, picked up right where he left off by rushing for 235 yards and two touchdowns in Kansas State's 31-22 triumph over UCLA. Thomas' performance was all the more impressive because the Wildcats' utter lack of a passing attack allowed UCLA to stack the box in a futile attempt to slow down the running game.

Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Bell gained 141 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 carries in a 38-14 triumph over Western Michigan. That made him the first freshman in school history to rush for at least 100 yards in his debut performance.

Notre Dame's defense: All the talk before the season was about new coach Brian Kelly's spread offense, but it was the Irish's problems on defense that led to the ouster of former coach Charlie Weis. And it was the defense that led Notre Dame to a 23-12 victory over Purdue in Kelly's debut. Notre Dame sacked Purdue quarterback Robert Marve four times and picked off two of his passes while allowing only one touchdown all day.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher: FSU's former coach-in-waiting couldn't have asked for much more in his first game since taking over for the legendary Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles exploded for 35 second-quarter points and their defense also showed plenty of potential in a 59-6 rout of Samford. "We are going to play one way only," Fisher told reporters afterward, "and that's with effort and passion." Of course, the Seminoles put up those huge numbers against an FCS program. The real test comes next week at Oklahoma.

Clemson RBs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper: C.J. Spiller now plays for the NFL's Buffalo Bills, but Clemson's rushing attack remains in good hands. Ellington and Harper each scored twice and rushed for more than 100 yards apiece in a 35-10 rout of North Texas. Ellington ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Harper ran for 102 yards and one touchdown on nine attempts, and he also caught an 8-yard touchdown pass.

Missouri CB Carl Gettis: Gettis delivered one of the best plays of the day with a leaping one-handed interception that helped Missouri preserve a 17-13 lead over Illinois. Gettis also downed a punt at Illinois' 1 later in the game, and the Tigers went on to win 24-13.

Colorado WR Scott McKnight: His 27-yard touchdown in a 24-3 victory over Colorado State was his 168th career reception, breaking the school record set by Michael Westbrook, who starred for the Buffaloes from 1991-94.

LSU CB/KR Patrick Peterson: Everyone knew he was a top candidate for the Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back. But he looked like an overall player-of-the-year candidate in the Georgia Dome. He played solid defense for much of the night, and also scored on an 86-yard punt return in LSU's 30-24 victory over North Carolina.

The heart of North Carolina QB T.J. Yates: All summer long, he heard the criticism that he wasn't good enough and that North Carolina's star-studded defense would have to carry the Tar Heels all season. Yet with most of the stars on that defense watching after being declared ineligible for the game, Yates came oh-so-close to leading North Carolina all the way back from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit.

Virginia RB Keith Payne: He left Virginia's football team before the 2009 season and returned only after the Cavaliers fired Al Groh and hired new coach Mike London. Good decision: The fifth-year senior rushed for 114 yards and four touchdowns in a 34-13 victory over Richmond.

Auburn QB Cam Newton: The former five-star prospect finally made his first career Division I start four years after he originally signed with Florida. It was worth the wait. Newton ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns - including a 71-yard burst - and also threw for 186 yards and three scores in Auburn's 52-26 victory over Arkansas State.

Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez: The first freshman quarterback ever to start a season opener for the Huskers, Martinez delivered a huge performance in a 49-10 trouncing of Western Kentucky. Martinez, a redshirt freshman from the Los Angeles area, ran for 127 yards and three touchdowns, and he also threw for 136 yards.

Oklahoma State RB Kendall Hunter: Two years ago, Hunter rushed for 1,555 yards as one of the nation's top running backs. Last season, he mustered only 382 yards because an ankle injury limited him to eight games. Don't be surprised if Hunter matches his 2009 season total by next weekend. Hunter rushed for 257 yards - 208 in the first half alone - and four touchdowns in a 65-17 thrashing of Washington State. He became the first Oklahoma State player to rush for 200 yards in a half since Barry Sanders in 1988.

Northwestern QB Dan Persa: In his first career start, Persa, a junior, went 19-of-21 with three touchdown passes and also rushed for a team-high 82 yards as Northwestern edged Vanderbilt 23-21.

Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray: Now that he isn't splitting carries anymore, Murray may be on the verge of producing a special season. He ran for 218 yards and two touchdowns in the Sooners' closer-than-expected 31-24 victory over Utah State.

BYU's two-quarterback system: We still believe BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall eventually will have to settle on one quarterback, but we had to marvel at the Cougars' remarkable balance in a 23-17 victory over Washington. Junior Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps each threw for exactly 131 yards.

TCU QB Andy Dalton: TCU's 30-21 victory over Oregon State gave Dalton his 30th career victory as a starting quarterback, breaking the school record he had shared with College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh.

LOSERS

Ole Miss defense: Who would have expected Ole Miss to give up 49 points to an FCS program? Certainly not the thousands of fans who poured out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium after Ole Miss grabbed a seemingly insurmountable 21-point halftime lead. While Jacksonville State merits plenty of praise for its stunning comeback, the Ole Miss defense deserves an equal amount of grief for an incomprehensible meltdown. "Without a doubt, it's the worst loss of my career," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt told reporters afterward.

Freshman mistakes: Blanchard, Murray and Bolden delivered quality performances, but not all the freshman quarterbacks shone in their debuts. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase showed plenty of moxie in the loss to Missouri, but he also threw three interceptions and lost a fumble as the Illini squandered a 10-point halftime lead. Colorado State's Pete Thomas completed 75 percent of his pass attempts against Colorado, but he also threw three interceptions.

The Big East: Preseason conference favorite Pittsburgh lost at Utah on Thursday night. Two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati fell 28-14 at Fresno State on Saturday to end its 18-game regular-season win streak. Connecticut, a popular sleeper pick to win the conference, was pounded by a Michigan team that went 5-7 last season. Why does this conference get an automatic BCS bid when the Mountain West doesn't?

New Mexico: On second thought, maybe the Mountain West doesn't get an automatic bid because it has lightweights such as New Mexico at the bottom of the standings. After going 1-11 last season, the Lobos opened the 2010 campaign by falling behind 59-0 in the first two quarters of a 72-0 loss to Oregon. New Mexico coach Mike Locksley is only in his second season, but it's not too early to put him on the hot seat.

Florida's offense: Maybe life without Tim Tebow won't be so smooth after all. The Gators struggled to move the ball all day in a 34-12 victory over Miami (Ohio), a Mid-American Conference team that went 1-11 last year. Although they gained 212 total yards, 187 of them came in the last 13 minutes of the game. Florida gained 113 of those yards on two plays - a 72-yard touchdown run by Jeff Demps and a 41-yard run by Mike Gillislee. The Gators played without starting linemen Xavier Nixon and Carl Johnson, and preseason All-America center Mike Pouncey - who played guard last season - turned every shotgun snap into an adventure. "I didn't imagine the offense's incompetence that we experienced today," Florida coach Urban Meyer told reporters afterward.

The SEC: Ole Miss blows a 21-point lead against Jacksonville State. Florida struggles to put away Miami (Ohio). The SEC probably will remain the nation's best conference this season, but the results of the opening week of the 2010 season suggest that the gap may be narrowing.

North Carolina's suspended players: The way Yates, WR Jheranie Boyd and TE Zack Pianalto played for UNC, you have to think the Tar Heels would have won if only a few of those suspended players in the Georgia Dome stands had been able to contribute.

LSU's killer instinct: LSU is playing is college football's toughest division. If LSU doesn't step up its fourth-quarter production, the Tigers are going to have a tough time competing with Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas.

Washington QB Jake Locker's Heisman candidacy: We understand Locker's a virtual lock to get drafted in the first round next year. And he didn't have a particularly bad game against BYU. But if Locker really is one of the best players in the nation, he needs to start improving his completion percentage - as well as his team's winning percentage.

Kansas' offense: The Jayhawks had an equal number of turnovers (three) and points in a 6-3 loss to FCS program North Dakota State. New Jayhawks coach Turner Gill must find an answer at quarterback, as neither Kale Pick nor Jordan Webb established any kind of rhythm.

Oklahoma's defense: If Utah State QB Diondre Borel can throw for 340 yards against the Sooners, how can they expect to contain Florida State's Christian Ponder next week? Oklahoma did intercept Borel three times, but the Sooners allowed the Aggies to hang around far too long in a seven-point win.

Vanderbilt's luck: Vanderbilt made a third-down stop that should have given the Commodores one final chance to win the game, but Northwestern picked up a game-clinching first down when officials penalized Commodores S Jay Fullam for hitting Persa too high. It looked like a tough call for Vanderbilt, though officials often err on the side of caution in these matters. The Commodore really only had themselves to blame for the loss, as they missed an extra-point attempt as well as two two-point conversions.

Nebraska's run defense: The Huskers may need some time to adjust to the absence of DT Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey rushed for 155 yards against a defense that ranked ninth in the nation against the run last season.

Cincinnati without Brian Kelly: Notre Dame hired Kelly away from Cincinnati after he led the Bearcats to a 12-0 regular-season record last year. Cincinnati has lost its first two games without Kelly - the Sugar Bowl and this year's season opener against Fresno State - by a 79-38.

Cancer: Boston College LB Mark Herzlich stopped the disease in its tracks as ferociously as he typically stops opposing quarterbacks. One year after being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma - a rare form of bone cancer - Herzlich returned to action Saturday and delivered five tackles in a 38-20 victory over Weber State. Of course, his numbers are beside the point. His mere presence on the field constitutes the most heartwarming story of the 2010 season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.




 

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