Friday, December 13, 2002
Believe in the Irish
By Terry Bowden
Special to ABC Sports Online
If you were not a Notre Dame believer before the Irish got a 34-24 win over Florida State, you should be now. There was not a lot of luck involved in that game, just good, smart football played by a talented and experienced group.
The Irish do the best job in the country of controlling tempo, and their solid defense early, coupled with a good kicking game, helped them win the field position battle on every series. It seemed like every time Notre Dame got the ball it was around the 50-yard line while FSU was around its own goal line.
Because the Fighting Irish got the first score of the game with a beautiful play-action pass for a touchdown they were in the position to play the field position game for as long as it took to wear the Seminoles down, and with the score tied 10-10, it began to pay off.
As eventually happens in all of Notre Dame's games, Florida State began to turn the ball over deep in its territory. The 'Noles turned the ball over three times and gave up 17 straight points in a three-minute span in the third quarter and the rest is history.
At this point the only thing that can stop Notre Dame from going undefeated is the players buying into all the good press that will follow this win. It is hard to imagine this team becoming complacent because the Irish have been down for a while, but as with most great teams their toughest opponent will come from within.
This was the last chance FSU had to regain some national prestige this season, but the Seminoles are still undefeated in the ACC and are the only three-loss team with a shot at making the BCS. They are hoping to knock off N.C. State later in the year and take the ACC crown, but that is looking like a longshot at this point.
It all comes down to defense
All the talk coming into the Penn State-Ohio State game was about running backs Larry Johnson and Maurice Clarett, but big games are won on defense and OSU had the advantage there. The Nittany Lions came in with an offense that has been dominant at times this year, but it was stymied all day by the Buckeyes' defense.
The OSU offense cannot be expected to put up a lot of points, but it looks like that won't be necessary anyway.
Everyone talks about Ohio State safety Mike Doss, and he is great, but what an incredible story we are seeing in Chris Gamble. The guy is a wide receiver who has played cornerback at times this year and got his first start there last weekend, and he also returned punts against PSU. And do not forget the fact that he returned an interception for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Woody Hayes is smiling somewhere as he sees this throwback team trot out a two-way star in the mold of Woody's own Paul Warfield. Hayes would also be proud of the way this team runs the ball and plays great defense.
If you are a Penn State fan, though, you cannot get down on this team too much. As disappointing as the season has been, the Lions have been in every game. After two straight losing seasons you have to believe this team is still on its way to nine wins and a nice bowl, and that is an incredible turnaround.
Penn State is not all the way back, but with Zack Mills returning next year Joe Paterno's team will be a leading contender in the Big Ten.
Longhorns have refocused
With its 21-10 win over Iowa State, Texas once again refocused after its loss to Oklahoma. The Longhorns are too talented to fall flat, and in the past two weeks they have had gutsy performances in beating Kansas State on the road and an ISU team led by Seneca Wallace.
Going into the game Texas needed to do two things: not let Wallace win the game by himself and get running back Cedric Benson back in the offense.
The 'Horns gave up some yards to Wallace but kept him in the pocket and prevented the big plays he can manufacture, and the biggest plus was Benson's performance. He came back in a big way with 199 yards, and Texas has got to find a way to keep getting the ball in his hands.
I still say, though, that Greg Davis' offense is too conservative with the talent it has. With Roy Williams, Chris Simms and Benson all legitimate threats, I do not understand why that unit is not as explosive with the ball as a team like Miami.
USC going against convention
The Pac-10 has always been the only conference in the country in which offense is more important than defense. Everyone just wanted to score one more point than the opposition.
But things are different at USC this year. Coach Pete Carroll also made himself the defensive coordinator so the team would understand what a priority defense is, and because of that, the Trojans have a great chance to go after the conference title. They gave up 33 points to Oregon last week, but only after piling up a big lead and giving up 14 fourth-quarter points.
The Ducks, on the other hand, have been exposed over the last couple of weeks as having a secondary that will not be enough to get them back to the Rose Bowl. Oregon gave up more than 400 yards passing for the second straight week against USC and allowed Carson Palmer to throw five TD passes. The Ducks still have the most balanced and explosive offense in the Pac-10, but Southern Cal and Washington State are not far behind.
No comeback for UVA this time
Virginia has to be disappointed after a 23-15 loss to Georgia Tech stopped a six-game winning streak. The Cavaliers have been a great second-half team over the last two years; since Al Groh has been the coach, seven of his 11 wins have come in games his team railed at the half. Virginia had no answer after the Yellow Jackets built a big lead this time around, but as young as the team is and as good as the recruiting has been, the Cavs are only a year away.
Tech has been hot-and-cold all year, but no one in the country has done a better job overcoming injuries than Chan Gailey. With two top performers out for the year in running back Tony Hollings and defensive end Greg Gathers, and with the team down to its third tailback, the Jackets found a way to put together a great performance. The ACC is out of reach, but they can certainly get to a good bowl game if they keep winning.
Terry Bowden is an analyst for ABC Sports and contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.