On Saturday morning, the schedule of games appeared to be the least interesting of any Saturday all season. By the end of the night, when Tennessee hung on in overtime to beat South Carolina, that judgment had been proven a wee bit premature. So, too, were the high rankings of USC, Oregon and Iowa.
The Trojans had won 10 consecutive games by at least 11 points since last year's 30-28 narrow escape against California. Judging by USC's play on Saturday, that memory made little impression. The Bears won Saturday, 34-31, in triple overtime. The Ducks committed nine turnovers in handing Washington State a 55-16 victory, and the Hawkeyes, one week before their showdown against Michigan, allowed Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker to throw two quick touchdowns and never caught up, losing 20-10.
(While we're on the subject, my dismissal of Michigan State after its 20-19 loss to Louisiana Tech on Sept. 13 proved to be knee-jerk as well.)
As shocking as Oregon's loss may have been, Washington State went into the game ranked 21st and certainly could have been expected to play well enough to win. Few people off of Strawberry Canyon gave the Cal Bears a chance to beat USC, which had looked to be in midseason form in its first three victories.
"I think that's what they do every year," Cal wide receiver Jonathan Makonnen said. "I think they always take us lightly. They really don't respect us. They're a talented team, but they were lackadaisical out there."
For instance, senior tailback Adimchinobe Echemandu workhorsed for 147 yards on 34 carries, becoming the first rusher to gain 100 yards against USC in 17 games. For instance, the Bears took four leads, and USC tied them every time. Given all those chances to fall apart, Cal chose instead to keep fighting.
When sophomore quarterback Aaron Rodgers got banged up in the third quarter and came out, junior Reggie Robertson, who lost the starting job to Rodgers two weeks ago, completed 9-of-12 passes for 109 yards and an overtime touchdown to Makonnen.
'It's just so great to see the look in our kids' eyes that they never have a doubt," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, the main reason for that look. In a season and a half, Tedford has taken the laughingstock of the Pac-10 and converted it into a team that looks as if it will challenge for the 2004 conference championship -- if not sooner. After all, the Bears don't have to play Washington State this season.
Meanwhile, Oregon quarterbacks Kellen Clemons and Jason Fife, in 120 attempts, had thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. The pick-less streak barely made it into the game. Fife's first pass was picked off, another would be later in the quarter, and by the time the game ended, the pair had thrown seven interceptions. The Ducks admitted after the game that they hadn't stopped thinking about the 31-27 upset of Michigan the previous week, and that they simply weren't ready to play Saturday.
There's nothing like a reality check to humble a team.
"You get on a streak like this and you think, 'This can't happen,' but it did," USC coach Pete Carroll said.
Changes Special For Bruins
The biggest turnaround in the past week didn't happen at Oregon. It didn't happen with Marshall, which lost to Troy State, 33-24, one week after upsetting Kansas State, or with Toledo, which, one week after upsetting Pittsburgh, surrendered 162 yards and two touchdowns to Syracuse tailback Walter Reyes and lost, 34-7.
No, the biggest 180 was performed by the UCLA punt defense team. A week ago, Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins set NCAA records with 277 return yards and three touchdowns against the Bruins in a 59-24 victory. On Saturday night, UCLA allowed San Diego State eight return yards on six punts in a 20-10 UCLA victory.
In the interim, Bruin assistant coach Brian Schneider spent the longest week of his life. Schneider coaches the UCLA punt coverage team. He reviewed the tape of the Oklahoma game the next morning.
"On the first one (74 yards), we missed a couple of tackles and he made a great play," Schneider said. "The second one (84 yards), we had five unblocked guys. He got outside one and just outran us. The last one (65 yards) was a combination of a lot of things."
His meeting with the punt team after reviewing film "was pretty quiet," Schneider said. "We were humbled. You have to learn from it and respond." Specifically, he said, "We have to get guys in proper lanes. We have to coach guys to run down harder, and the players have to run down harder."
On Tuesday, Schneider held tryouts for the coverage team. The starting linebackers, safeties and corners all received invitations -- mandatory invitations. Senior linebacker Brandon Chillar, Schneider said, "made three tackles, and they scored three times. He was one of the only guys out there running around."
By Thursday, linebackers Spencer Havner and Justin London, free safety Ben Emanuel and strong safety Jarrad Page had all made the team. In addition, corner Matt Ware and even tailback Tyler Ebell had entered the expanded rotation of "gunners", the players who split wide and race downfield as the first wave of coverage.
"You need guys who can get off the initial jam and run," Schneider said. "You really want those guys to disrupt the returner and make him go sideways."
San Diego State returner Kyle Conerly carried his first attempt seven yards, and yes, Chillar made the tackle. But even that play had a silver lining: the Aztecs were penalized 10 yards for an illegal block. Conerly's other two returns went for no gain and one yard, and the tackles were made by freshman wideout Joe Cowan and freshman defensive back Mil'Von James. It was Cowan's first tackle of the year. The new punt team downed one punt inside the 10, and the other two were not returned.
Vols Get Their Kicks
On a weekend when so many favorites came out flat and paid the ultimate price for it, Tennessee did so and escaped with a 23-20 overtime victory over South Carolina. That's the way things go in a rivalry in which the Volunteers have won 11 in a row.
But even coach Phillip Fulmer acknowledged that Tennessee had cut it too close.
"Sometimes you win a game like that when you are outplayed," Fulmer said late Saturday. "We made the plays to win. We didn't play our best. You are going to have games like this when you don't play well. We didn't play well, period. So much of the game is emotion. I think we left some of it on the field last week."
That 24-10 victory over Florida, coupled with Georgia's loss last week to LSU, means that Tennessee came into the game as the only unbeaten team in the SEC East. The Vols played as if they had been reading the standings a little too long. They rushed for only 117 yards and converted on only four of 13 third downs.
One big reason they won is punter Dustin Colquitt. After being a finalist for the Ray Guy Award as a sophomore, Colquitt is kicking even better this season. On 21 punts in four games, Colquitt is averaging 49.2 yards per kick, with a net of 45.0 yards. Colquitt pinned South Carolina inside of its 10-yard line three times in seven punts.
"Dustin won the game tonight," Fulmer said. "We won the game because we had field position and they didn't." Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz agreed, calling Colquitt
For all the talk before the season of how Tennessee needed to improve its team chemistry, to upgrade its running game, and to keep quarterback Casey Clausen healthy, very few people mentioned Colquitt. That's the way it goes for punters and special teams, which, as UCLA discovered, get more attention for playing poorly than they do for playing well.
But Colquitt made it clear Saturday night that as long as he's kicking, Tennessee will have a big advantage in field position. That's a tenet of coaches as conservative as Fulmer. He still adheres to such old-fashioned beliefs, which are so out-of-date that Fulmer's winning percentage is .811 (107-25).
Washington corner Derrick Johnson sat out the first half against Stanford because he missed a mandatory team meeting last week. He made up for his absence. With fewer than three minutes to play and the Huskies protecting a 21-17 lead, Johnson intercepted a pass from Stanford freshman Trent Edwards and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown to seal the Washington victory.
"It was a very similar situation to last week and having Reggie Williams sit out," coach Keith Gilbertson said. "I am not going to change -- they are. Rules are rules."
My idea of clutch is coming off a heartbreaking loss, blowing a lead, trailing on the road at halftime, and dominating in the second half. Guess that makes Pittsburgh clutch. The Panthers did all of that in winning at Texas A&M, 37-26. ... Pitt once again didn't make Rod Rutherford available to the media, this time after he threw a career-best five touchdown passes. ... Maybe Penn State coach Joe Paterno had a point about the Big Ten officials after all. However, what will be tougher to find -- pennant fever in Anaheim or a Big Ten official who will actually throw a flag when JoePa runs onto the field? ... Though Toledo and Marshall thudded back to earth, Northern Illinois and Miami set themselves up as the teams to beat in the MAC West and East, respectively. The Huskies, 4-0 after beating a third BCS-conference team, Iowa State, 24-16. The RedHawks, after a 42-37 defeat of Cincinnati in the Victory Bell game, are 3-1. Miami gets both Bowling Green and Marshall at home in November. ... A recent survey of nearly 5,500 I-A players released by the American Football Coaches Association found that 30 percent of the players said that they would have taken advantage of an early-signing period like the one basketball has. Also, in a breakdown of players by ethnicity, 72 percent of offensive linemen are Caucasian, while 53 percent of defensive linemen are African-American. ... Regarding the news that a professor ran out of his office and photographed Florida State quarterback Chris Rix's car in an illegal parking spot: Yes, Rix still possesses a sense of entitlement that he shouldn't, but doesn't that professor have enough to do? ... It's a good season in Kansas when October starts and the coach has more chins than losses. Come to think of it, Mark Mangino has more wins at the school than the basketball coach. Bill Self hasn't coached a game there yet. The Jayhawks are one of best surprises in a very surprising September.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.