Another thrilling week of football saw another top-five team fall by the wayside. We are starting to find out who the real contenders are in college football, and who will be just another 9-3 conference runner-up.
As we wrap up the first half of the season, here is a special mid-season award presentation by Fifth Down.
The Johnson + Johnson Band Aid Award: Oklahoma Sooners
Talk about down on your luck. Bob Stoops’ team lost the best tight end in the country, Jermaine Gresham, for the year before the season even began. Then, in what is already one of the most infamous plays in program history, Heisman Trophy quarterback Sam Bradford sprained his shoulder on a sack in the second quarter against BYU.
The injury kept Bradford out for the rest of that game and up until this past Saturday against Baylor. During that stretch, the once fourth-ranked Sooners lost to BYU and Miami, and have fallen to 20th in the AP poll.
Bradford looked spectacular in his return, completing 27 of 49 passes for 389 yards and a touchdown. It’s a good thing he had the Baylor game to get back into the swing of things. Next week, the Texas Longhorns come calling for a showdown in Dallas. Even with a banged-up offense, the Sooner defense has looked strong all season, and Bradford gives them a hope against their hated rivals on Saturday.
The Lou Holtz Award for Hope: Notre Dame
There is not a single bum…er…college football fan not screaming at his or her television when prior to the season, Lou Holtz predicted Notre Dame would play for the national championship.
After all, the Fighting Irish hadn’t shown much fight in the past few years, going 10-15 since 2007.
It looks like the crazy prediction might not be too far off the mark. While there is virtually no chance the Irish will play for the BCS championship, they are a last-second touchdown from being undefeated and most likely a top-six-or-seven team.
Jimmy Clausen has finally lived up to his billing as the next great Notre Dame quarterback. In leading the Irish to a 4-1 record, Clausen has thrown for 1,544 yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions. He is the highest-rated passer in the country, and is easily in the mix for this year’s Heisman.
The rubber meets the road this week when the USC Trojans roll into South Bend. The Irish have struggled to beat middle-of-the-road teams like Michigan State, Purdue, and Washington. Still, wins should be taken with no grain of salt these days, and a 4-1 record is something to be very proud of, no matter how it was earned.
Game of the first half of the season: LSU-Georgia
In this one, the teams might have well have traded kneeldowns for 57 minutes, then played the final three minutes. Up until the final moments of the game, neither offense showed any signs of life before breaking out for a flurry of scores.
Trailing 7-6 with 2:53 to play, running back Charles Scott scored from two yards out to give the Tigers the lead. The two-point conversion failed, however, leaving the score 12-6.
Joe Cox and the Georgia offense seemed doomed, having only produced a single touchdown all game before that. Instead, Cox turned into Tom Brady, completing several key passes for a perfectly executed two-minute drill. The improbable drive culminated with a play-of-the-year candidate, a stunning catch by A.J. Green in the back corner of the end zone, for the go-ahead touchdown.
After scoring, Green was called for a disputed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which was enforced on the kickoff. Tigers returner Trinton Holliday took advantage of the penalty and returned the ensuing kick into Bulldog territory. With under a minute to go, the Tigers seemed poised to move the ball into range for the game-winning field goal.
Instead, Scott carried the ball on the second play of the drive and took it to the house for his second score in three minutes, silencing Sanford Stadium in the process. Not only were the two scores by Scott instrumental in defeating the Bulldogs, but they resuscitated a season-long slump Scott was enduring.
There have been quite a few thrilling games already this season, but the pressure and impact of an SEC rivalry game and the controversial officiating makes for an easy choice in this category.
Player of the first half: Toby Gerhart, running back, Stanford
This guy is the best-kept secret in college football. He is the nation’s leading rusher, and is on pace for 1,500 yards with 20 touchdowns. Along with freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, Gerhart has resurrected the Stanford program and brought them back to relevancy in the Pac-10.
Stanford is 3-1 in the conference, having just lost to Oregon State Saturday 38-28. John Harbaugh has the cornerstones for his rebuilding project in Palo Alto with Gerhart and Luck.
Gerhart’s strongest game came against Washington, where he carried the ball 27 times for 200 yards in a 34-14 win. 2008 was Gerhart’s first year as a starter, and he scored 15 times to go along with 1,136 yards. He will easily surpass those numbers, and should Stanford make a run in the conference, he should at least be one of the top choices for the Doak Walker Award, if not the Heisman.
The What Else Is New? Award: California Golden Bears and USC Trojans
We’ve seen this all before. First off, a supremely talented USC team wins a big game early in the season, solidifying themselves as national title contenders. Then, a few weeks later, a mediocre, sometimes even horrible conference team comes from out of nowhere to knock off the mighty Trojans.
It just goes to show that phenomenal recruiting does not win championships. Coach Pete Carroll is a very relaxed coach, whose laid-back practice atmosphere is fun for the players in the moment, but is hardly the best way to prepare the team week in and week out. For that reason, teams that treat the USC game as its Super Bowl come in with much more focus, and shock the world by beating the Trojans.
The list of Trojan beaters includes Oregon State in 2006 and 2008, Stanford in 2007, and now Washington in 2009. Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian was the offensive coordinator for Carroll before taking his new job this past winter, bringing former USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt along with him. Combining that familiarity with a solid game plan and an injury to Trojans’ starting quarterback Matt Barkley, and you’ve got yourself an upset.
Staying in the Pac-10, Jeff Tedford and Cal pulled…well… a “Cal”. After opening the season 3-0 and being ranked fifth in the country, the Bears were embarrassed by Oregon 42-3 on the road. The following week, they once again failed to find the end zone in a 30-3 loss to USC.
In 2007, Cal started the year 5-0 and was considered a national title favorite before falling to Oregon State at home 31-28. They proceeded to lose in the following weeks to UCLA and Arizona State, falling out of the national picture and into Pac-10 mediocrity.
In 2006, Cal was 8-1, 6-0 in the conference, and had re-entered the championship conversation after a season-opening loss to Tennessee in Knoxville. After an upset loss to Arizona and a 23-9 defeat at the hands of USC, Cal was once again fading into the background of college football.
If the first six weeks of the season was any indication, the next month and a half of football will leave us with spectacular memories, aggravating penalties, and fantastic finishes that will make us only want more. Never take a single play, quarter, or game for granted, football fans; it will be over before you know it.