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Archive for December, 2006

Davey O’Brien Award Preview

The three finalists for the 2006 Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award presented annually to the nation’s best college quarterback are Colt Brennan of Hawaii, Brady Quinn of Notre Dame and Troy Smith of Ohio State.

All three finalists come from winning teams this season. This is a pretty solid trio, but two different Cougars, John Beck of BYU and Kevin Kolb of Houston, could have easily replaced Brennan on this list. Both seniors led their teams to conference championships and posted among the most successful stats across the board.

Brennan compiled the most phenomenal statistics for the entire season (373 of 517, 4,990 yards, 53 TDs, 11 picks) but his final regular-season performance against Oregon State was essentially a bust. He tossed two interceptions and misfired during a failed game-winning drive attempt in the last few minutes of the contest. It was Brennan’s first national exposure of the season with ESPN carrying the game on the West Coast in the late evening hours, and it turned out that the most impressive elements in the Hawaii offense were a couple players by the names of Nate Ilaoa and Davone Bess.

Perhaps Matt Hayes of The Sporting News summed up Brennan the best: “…in three games against BCS teams, the Rainbows were 1-2 and Brennan had seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Against the remainder of a dog-filled schedule — and I’m throwing Boise State among the dogs, too — he had 46 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s Timmy Chang, everyone. He’s not a Heisman Trophy candidate.”

To that, we might add, he’s also not the nation’s best college quarterback, as represented by the Davey O’Brien Award criteria.

Brady Quinn will graduate with most of Notre Dame’s passing records safe and secure in his personal accomplishments file. He has been the cherubic poster boy face of the Fighting Irish for the past four years, guiding the Golden Domers to a 30-17 record during his signal-calling tenure. Perhaps the most glaring weaknesses on Quinn’s resume are his 0-4 record against vaunted rival USC, and a winless record in two blowout bowl games versus Oregon State and Ohio State.

Still, it’s difficult to argue with the numbers he has posted against a more difficult schedule than Brennan has faced this year (274 of 432, 3,278 yards, 35 TDs, five INTs). The merits of his career record should also be considered since the sum of his collegiate experience factors into the field general that he is today (914 of 1,567 for 11,614 yards, 93 TDs, 37 INTs).

Troy Smith is the most likely of the three finalists to win the O’Brien honors. He soundly outplayed Quinn on a national stage in last year’s Fiesta Bowl–an indelible image not lost on the award’s voters. Smith has been nothing but money in every big game he’s played in since last year’s loss at Penn State, helping the Buckeyes compile a nation-leading 19-game winning streak heading into the Tostitos BCS National Championship game.

Perhaps the most impressive factor in Smith’s favor, and certainly more important than his stats (199 of 297 for 2,507 yards, 30 TDs, five INTs) is that he managed to convert himself from a run-first-type quarterback (136 carries, 611 yards rushing) last year to a poised pocket passer (62 carries, 233 yards rushing) this season. His field vision improved dramatically in the process, enabling him to utilize the vast array of offensive assets at his disposal in the heat of the battle.

Remarkably, Smith’s completion percentage also improved from 62.9 to 67 percent, and his sack count actually dropped by one from last year. Still a dual-threat to tuck the rock in and run, if need be, Smith forces opposing defenses to account for his mobility as well as his accurate arm. His improvisational playmaking abilities are reminiscent of the great Cornelius Greene, the Buckeye QB in the mid-1970s who would have won the Heisman Trophy had it not been for a teammate by the name of Archie Griffin.

Doak Walker Award Preview

If you were a defensive coordinator, any one of the three 2006 Doak Walker Award finalists would give you a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to stop them. Mike Hart of Michigan, Darren McFadden of Arkansas and Steve Slaton of West Virginia are the finalists in consideration for this prestigious award.

Mike Hart was a semifinalist for the award in 2005. The junior running back compiled 1,515 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns in 12 games this season, and ranks fourth nationally in total rushing yards. He has averaged more rushing yards per game (122.6) than any back in University of Michigan history.

Hart’s signature game came against arch-rival Ohio State on Nov. 18. He picked up 142 yards on 23 carries (6.2 average) and three touchdowns. In his 32-game career at Michigan, Hart has rushed for 3,632 yards and 27 TDs, and he has 57 receptions for 518 yards and two touchdowns.

Darren McFadden has rushed for 1,558 yards and 14 TDs on 265 carries in 13 games this season. The strong, blazing-fast sophomore running back leads the SEC in total rushing yards and yards per game and has scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and passing in 2006. McFadden is just the third back in Arkansas history to have consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

McFadden rushed for a personal-best 219 yards and two TDs on 25 carries (8.8 average) in a Razorback win at South Carolina on Nov. 4. His other signature game this year came on Nov. 24 against the stingy LSU Tigers defense when he amassed 182 yards on 21 rushes (8.7 average) and two TDs.

Steve Slaton is another sophomore speed back who creates fits for anyone trying to defense him. He has hauled the rock 245 times this season, accumulating 1,733 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also has 25 receptions good for 340 yards and two TDs and leads the nation with 187 all-purpose yards per game. Slaton has rushed for over 100 yards in 14 of his 17 career starts.

Slaton’s signature game this season came in a Mountaineer win at Pitt on Nov. 16. He rushed 23 times for 215 yards (9.3 average) and two TDs, and caught six passes for 130 yards (21.7 average) and two more TDs.

This year’s Doak Walker Award is truly up for grabs. The voters really can’t go wrong casting their ballot for any one of these three finalists.

The Doak Walker Award recognizes the nation’s premier running back for accomplishments on the field, achievement in the classroom and citizenship in the community. The Doak is now in its 17th year and it is the only major collegiate football award that requires all candidates to be in good academic standing and on schedule to graduate. The most recent honorees include Reggie Bush, Cedric Benson, Chris Perry, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Luke Staley.

The winner of the Doak Walker Award will be announced on ESPN’s Home Depot College Football Awards Show on Thursday, Dec. 7.

AP Top 25 Weekly Recap

NO. 1 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES. Well, the biggest news in Columbus this past week was that head coach Jim Tressel declined participating in the final regular-season USA Today Coaches Poll, for obvious reasons, and the Buckeyes finally found out who their opponent will be on Jan. 8 for the national title. Junior LB James Laurinaitis won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy awarded to the nation’s top defensive player. Expect more awards to roll in for the Bucks in the next week as they begin preparing for Florida in earnest … Ohio State finished the regular season in rare company as a wire-to-wire No. 1 team.

NO 2. FLORIDA GATORS. Maybe Urban Meyer should be a lobbyist — without question, he did a lot of lobbying to get his Florida Gators into the national championship game … in the end, though, what probably tipped the balance to Florida and away from Michigan was the allure of the unknown … Ohio State and Michigan have already played – and play each other every year — so there is no mystery about how such a game might unfold … Florida and Ohio State, on the other hand, are from two different football worlds, with no common opponents … the Gators also saved their best game for last, a 38-28 victory over Arkansas in the SEC title game … although Meyer’s team gave up four touchdowns, two of those came on gimmick plays and one of an interception return by Antwain Robinson … meanwhile, Florida kept the Razorbacks’ dynamic RB duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones largely under wraps … on the other side of the ball, Chris Leak rose to the occasion and Percy Harvin morphed into Reggie Bush .. another plus for the Gators was the fact that they came from behind after losing an early lead.

NO. 3 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES. Kudos to Lloyd Carr for not playing the whiner card before or after the final BCS rankings were announced … We’re sure Bo Schembechler is very proud right now of his protégée. So, it’s the Rose Bowl Game for Michigan–the third time in the last five years–to pick up its share of the most lucrative bowl payout in the BCS. The Wolverines will head out to southern California right around Christmas and enjoy the finest pre-game activities any bowl game offers with the historic Lawry’s Beef Bowl, Disneyland, Universal CityWalk, and all the glitz and glam and local media coverage that Hollywood can shine on the wide-eyed youngsters before they get ready to do battle with the Trojans on New Year’s Day. Look for the Wolverines to get real nasty about winning The Granddaddy of Them All this time around.

NO. 4 LSU TIGERS. So what happens to those 32,000 Rose Bowl tickets LSU fans supposedly bought? After the dust had settled on Saturday, with Southern Cal losing to UCLA and Florida moving past Michigan, a USC-Wolverine pairing became all but obvious … LSU was still handed a plum, though, a meeting with Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl … this will give Tiger QB JaMarcus Russell, who has been somewhat overshadowed by Troy Smith and Brady Quinn this season, a chance to engage in an aerial dogfight with Quinn “mano a mano” … interestingly, LSU coach Les Miles voted Florida No. 2 over Michigan, despite the fact that he’s a Michigan grad and former Wolverine assistant coach … “I just voted my conscience,” Miles said.

NO. 5 LOUISVILLE CARDINALS. The oranges were flying near the end of Louisville’s 48-17 victory over Connecticut, and West Virginia helped out with a triple-overtime defeat of Rutgers … the Big East may not have been the best conference in college football this season, but it was probably the most entertaining … Brian Brohm entertained Louisville’s fans with a 341-yard, four-touchdown performance against UConn (two of those scoring passes going to Harry Douglas) … and now the Cardinals, who all season have fed off a need to prove themselves, find themselves the “overdogs” in an Orange Bowl matchup with Wake Forest, the one BCS Cinderella team left standing.

NO. 6 WISCONSIN BADGERS. Well, the Badgers learned they’ll be facing Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl and it should be one of the finest clashes outside the national title game and the Rose Bowl this year. Wisconsin’s stout defense will have its hands full with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Markus Monk, but they should be up to the test. Remember, hardly anyone gave the Badgers a chance last year against Auburn and the Red and White promptly set all their doubters straight, sending Barry Alvarez off with another signature bowl win. It’s really a shame Wisconsin didn’t get the chance to play Ohio State this year … the Badgers are one of the few teams besides Michigan that could possibly stand toe-to-toe in the trenches with the Buckeyes … It will be interesting to see what happens to junior cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu, who was arrested recently on burglary charges in DeKalb, Ill. along with his twin brother Bill, who plays football for Northern Illinois University.

NO. 7 OKLAHOMA SOONERS. Paul Thompson and Malcolm Kelly were not names on the tip of every college football fan’s tongue when the season started … Thompson was a good wide receiver who had failed a previous try at quarterback, then was brought back under center when starter Rhett Bomar left school … Kelly was acknowledged as a talented wide receiver, but who was going to throw to him? By the time the Sooners faced Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game in Kansas City last Saturday, however, Thompson and Kelly had ripened into stars … Thompson outshone Nebraska QB Zac Taylor, throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns — both to Kelly, who caught 10 passes for 142 yards … meanwhile, an aggressive Oklahoma defense forced five Cornhusker turnovers in a 21-7 victory… next up, Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

NO. 8 USC TROJANS. Pete Carroll was gracious in the wake of USC’s loss to cross-town rival UCLA, “Give credit to UCLA. They made it a difficult day … They kept us from doing what we wanted to do. We had no rhythm. We did not anticipate this happening.” Bruin defensive end Bruce Davis added his perspective, “Their offensive line was real wide-eyed. People said we’re small, but we were big enough to knock Booty on the ground.” It was just the fourth loss in 59 games for the Trojans, so forgive them and their fans if they seem a bit shocked and edgy–even grumpy–about having to play in the Rose Bowl Game this time around without the national title at stake. The forthcoming contest with Michigan will be the second such meeting in the last four years: the Trojans defeated Michigan 28-14 in the 2004 Rose Bowl Game to claim a share of the national championship.

NO. 9 BOISE STATE BRONCOS. And so, they’re in! Let the parade down Boise’s Main Street start! Roll out the smurf turf carpet all the way to Glendale because these Broncos are feeling like they are the High Horses of College Football right about now. Will the Sooners be able to tame these buckin’ Broncs? Don’t bet your life on it … Ian Johnson is the real deal and could easily be piling up his yardage and end-zone visits with any major program in the nation … a huge pre-game letdown might occur if head coach Chris Peterson bolts for greener pastures like every head coach before him has done during the past decade … he’s being mentioned for the Miami job …

NO. 10. AUBURN TIGERS. It was a remarkable year for the Southeastern Conference, with eight league teams getting bowl bids … relegated to what has become a second-tier bowl, the Cotton, Auburn now has to chance to show what might have been … the Tigers beat Florida and LSU, the two SEC teams in BCS bowls, but stumbled against Arkansas and then unaccountably went into the tank against Georgia … a victory over 9-4 Nebraska of the Big 12 would provide a measure of redemption, and Tommy Tuberville’s Tigers will have time for their assorted nagging injuries (such as a season-long ankle problem for star RB Kenny Irons) to heal.

NO. 11 NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH. The Sugar Bowl is the next stop for Charlie Weis & Co. with one of their most difficult tasks of the season before them in the form of the LSU Tigers. Weis acknowledges he’ll need to find a way to prepare his boys for the Tigers’ speed … We suggest renting some jet-packs at your local Ace Hardware store, Charlie … As expected, Brady Quinn is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and he’s headed off to New York to rub shoulders with Troy Smith and Darren McFadden … Irish fans should not expect Quinn to capture the coveted honor over Smith, but it will be a nice dress rehearsal for his appearance at the NFL draft in April. This time of the year is when Notre Dame fans kind of wish they were part of a major conference so they could see a host of their players rake in all-conference honors … such is the life of an Independent.

NO. 12. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS. The Hogs went toe-to-toe with Florida in the SEC title game, coming from behind to take a second-half lead before falling 38-28, and the return of explosive offensive performers Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Markus Monk bodes well for next season … the Razorback secondary was exposed somewhat against Chris Leak and Florida, though, and it will be tested again in the Capital One Bowl if Wisconsin QB John Stocco has recovered from his separated right shoulder.

NO. 13 WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS. Playing for pride and without star QB Pat White, WVU still managed to nip pesky Rutgers in triple overtime, 41-39 … that spoiled the possibility of a “Cinderella Bowl” between Rutgers and Wake Forest in Miami and sent Louisville to the Orange … it also marked the emergence of backup QB Jarrett Brown, who threw for 244 yards and ran for another touchdown on a broken play … White and RB Steve Slaton, the most potent 1-2 offensive punch in the nation for much of the season, were both bothered by injuries in November … Slaton did score twice against Rutgers, and both should be healthy in time for a New Year’s Day meeting with Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

NO. 14 VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES. The Hokies were one of the hottest teams in the country by season’s end and feature one of the thorniest defenses … Tech now has a Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl date with Georgia team that looked awesome at times (the first half against Tennessee, the whole game against Auburn) awful at others … the Bulldogs’ unsettled quarterback situation should play to Virginia Tech’s strength, because the Hokies love to blitz and feature fast-closing DBs and linebackers … on the other hand, Georgia is almost playing at home … Frank Beamer has put together a typical Hokie team — no big names, but a lot of speed and fire.

NO. 15 WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS. This season, it was as if someone took the ACC, turned it upside down and shook it … league bullies Miami and Florida State fell out of the bottom, and perennial bottom feeder Wake Forest rode a stingy defense, a first-rate kicker (Sam Swank) and some imaginative play calling to an Orange Bowl berth against Louisville … Wake won’t be favored against the Cardinals — but then again, the Deacons haven’t been favored over anyone else, either.

NO. 16 RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS. “There’s a lot of hurt in there,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said last Saturday night, pointing to the visitors’ locker room after his team lost at West Virginia in triple overtime. “A lot of sad young men” … and with good reason … it seemed that Schiano’s overachieving Knights — the biggest thing to emerge from New Jersey since Springsteen — had a golden opportunity to beat the Mountaineers and capture the BCS Orange bowl bid … star WVU quarterback Pat White wasn’t playing and the Mountaineers had to be in a funk after a startling loss to South Florida … as it turned out, though, Rich Rodriguez dusted off backup Jarrett Brown, who threw for 244 yards, and in a game that came down to the final play, Mike Teel’s two-point conversion attempt to Ray Rice misfired … so instead of Miami and a national spotlight, the Knights will go to Houston to play Kansas State in the Dec. 28 Texas bowl, a contest televised only by the NFL Network (???)… still, the idea of Rutgers going to bowls two years in a row remains a little mind-blowing.

NO. 17 TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS. It may be played in Orlando, but there is nothing Mickey Mouse about this year’s Outback Bowl … both Tennessee and Penn State have proved they could play with anybody on their good days, with the Vols losing by just a point to BCS finalist Florida and Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions giving Michigan all it could handle in dropping a 17-10 decision … Tennessee will probably have trouble running against a Penn State defense led by linebackers Paul Posluszny and Dan Conner, but it’s questionable that the Lions have any DBs capable of staying stride-for-stride with Volunteer wide receivers Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain … conversely, the biggest question mark for the Vols is whether their patched-together defensive front will be able to penetrate a formidable Nittany Lion offensive line.

NO. 18 TEXAS LONGHORNS. The Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30 may not be pretty for underachieving Iowa, because Mack Brown’s Longhorns are going to have something to prove in front of a lot of home fans … despite closing losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M, Texas is still a formidable team with a lineup full of future pros … the Longhorns had better keep QB Colt McCoy healthy this time, though, because freshman backup Jevan Snead has flown the coop.

NO. 19 BRIGHAM YOUNG COUGARS. Still basking in the glory of a come-from-behind, last-second victory over rival Utah, the Cougars are just two weeks away from facing a formidable emotional obstacle in the shape of a solid Oregon Ducks team led on offensive by former Cougar head coach Gary Crowton. About half of the current Brigham Young roster was recruited by Crowton during his four-year tenure in Provo (2001-2004). He even recruited current BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall away from New Mexico as his defensive coordinator in 2003. “I acknowledge that there will be an interest in Coach Crowton’s relationship to our program,” Mendenhall said. He is a dear friend and I am grateful for the opportunities he has provided me throughout my coaching career.” BYU hasn’t won a bowl game since it defeated Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl and ended up ranked fifth in the nation under QB Steve Sarkisian (who is now assistant head coach at USC). The Cougars are intent on ending that streak in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21.

NO. 20 CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS. Cal’s gotta be experiencing some déjà vu this time of year as it heads to the Holiday Bowl, disappointed at failing in another bid for the Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth, with a Big 12 team from Texas waiting to do battle with them in San Diego. Jeff Tedford’s name has been bandied about regarding the Alabama and Miami jobs but he’s not biting … he’s been steadfast about remaining in Berkeley until his kid graduates from high school … Look for Cal’s humiliating Holiday Bowl defeat at the hands of Texas Tech two years ago to provide ample motivation this time around against Texas A&M. The Bears will also benefit from having “been there, done that” recently … it will help to keep them focused on the game.

NO. 21 TEXAS A&M AGGIES. The Aggies face a rugged test in the Holiday Bowl, meeting a California team ranked just above them at No. 20 … this should be a fun game, though, because both teams offer a lot of offense … for the young Aggie backfield of Stephen McGee, Michael Goodson and 270-pound Jorvorskie Lane, which also has a chance to get a leg up on next year … Cal’s defense is better, featuring three probable early NFL draft picks … on the other hand, the Bears haven’t tried tackling Lane yet, and Aggie QB McGee gets points on grit alone

NO. 22 NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS. If you happened to catch the Big 12 championship on television last weekend, you’d have to admit the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry just ain’t what it used to be … you can thank Nebraska for that … the Huskers haven’t been living up to their storied tradition, while the Sooners have managed to reload year after year under Bob Stoops. Still, the Cornhuskers are enough of a draw, even with a 9-4 record, to gain the invite from the Cotton Bowl to play against a very solid Auburn Tigers squad. It will be a chance for both teams to leave the season with a little sparkle in their stockings for next year.

NO. 23 BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES. It’s really difficult to figure out what happened to this Boston College team this year. The Eagles had all the makings of an ACC divisional champ and figured to have their best shot at a BCS bowl, but they choked and sputtered their way through the last half of the conference schedule–the easy half. Anyway, they’ll get to face the Navy Midshipmen in the Meineke Bowl as a consolation prize. They’ll look to extend their winning streak of six bowl games (the longest in the nation) against a Navy team that is thrilled to be there.

NO. 24 OREGON STATE BEAVERS. It would really be fun to see this Beaver team take on Boise State at a neutral site this week. Oregon State is so much better than they were the second week of the season when they got walloped on the creepy blue smurf turf field in Boise. OSU kept Hawaii gunslinger Colt Brennan in check over in the islands last week, intercepting him twice (both by Sabby Piscitelli) and forcing the Warriors to play catch-up most of the game. Beaver WR Sammie Stroughter caught an 80-yard bomb, and he is the real deal. He could go high in the NFL draft in April if he chooses to leave school a year early.

NO. 25 TEXAS CHRISTIAN HORNED FROGS. The Frogs climbed back into the AP Top 25 for the first time since they were soundly beaten by conference foe BYU back in late September. TCU lost only one more game after that to finish 10-2 and ended up grabbing second place in the Mountain West Conference. The Frogs will kick off the Division I-A college bowl season when they take on NCAA rushing leader Garrett Wolfe and the Northern Illinois Huskies in the San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. TCU has just the recipe for stopping the run, so it could be a long night for Joe Novak and his Snow Dawgs.

Biletnikoff Award Preview

The Biletnikoff Award is presented annually to the nation’s outstanding receiver. The three finalists for the 2006 award include Jarett Dillard of Rice University, Calvin Johnson of Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame’s Jeff Samardzija.

Of course, this award is just as subjective as all the other honors being handed out this time of year, so you shouldn’t be shocked that marquee names like USC’s Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, Ohio State’s Ted Ginn, Jr., or DeSean Jackson of Cal didn’t make the finalist cut.

Perhaps what perplexes fans the most is the lack of distinct criteria for determining the award winner. If the most important receiving stat is total receptions, total yards or yards per game average, then where is the national leader in all three categories–Chris Williams of New Mexico State–with 92 catches, 1,425 yards and 118.7 yards per game?

If the key benchmarking category for receivers is yards per catch, then what about Mississippi State’s Tony Burks with a whopping 24.3 yards per catch average? Interestingly, Jarrett Dillard’s nation-leading 20 touchdown receptions render him the only Biletnikoff finalist to lead the NCAA in a receiving statistical category.

Well, it is what it is, so let’s take a look at the three finalists and see what “it is” that separates them from the rest of the pack, and from each other.

Both Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5, 235-pound junior) and Jeff Samardzija (6-5, 218-pound senior) have the prototypical big receiver physical attributes that pro scouts drool over. Johnson’s line for the regular season reads 59 receptions, 899 yards (15.2-yard average) and 13 TDs. Samardzija has 70 grabs, 958 yards (13.7 average) and 11 TDs.

Samardzija has benefited from playing on national TV every week for one of the nation’s most recognized college football programs, as well as profiting from the attention lapped upon his Heisman candidate teammate, Brady Quinn. His signature moment this year came against UCLA game when he caught a pass from Quinn with 40 seconds left and outmaneuvered several Bruin defenders for an improbable 45-yard, game-winning touchdown.

Johnson has been making circus catches for three years now, and he’s regularly featured on ESPN’s “top ten plays of the day” throughout the college football season. He’s been compared to the Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, and would have accumulated far more impressive statistics if he had the fortune of being paired with a better passing quarterback than Reggie Ball. Most analysts expect Johnson to turn pro after this season rather than sticking around to break in a new Tech QB.

In stark contrast, Jarrett Dillard is just a sophomore and one of the smallest receivers in Division 1-A football at 5-11 and 160 pounds. But good things often come in small packages, and Dillard is no exception. His 82 receptions, 1,176 yards (14.3 average) and 20 TDs stand the tallest among the three finalists, particularly when you consider that Dillard has played with two different quarterbacks this year in a revamped Rice offense that was anchored to the ground game for years under former head coach Ken Hatfield.

Will Rice’s shifty sophomore receiver walk away with this prestigious honor over Notre Dame’s Samardzija and Georgia Tech’s Johnson?

The Biletnikoff Award will be presented on the ESPN College Awards Show on Dec. 7.

Unitas Award Preview

The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation, Inc. awards the top senior collegiate quarterback in the country every year with the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. This year’s five finalists are John Beck (BYU), Kevin Kolb (Houston), Brady Quinn (Notre Dame), Troy Smith (Ohio State) and Drew Stanton (Michigan State).

Following are the comparative stat lines for these five finalists:

John Beck, BYU 261 – 371 (70.4 %) 3,510 yds, 30 TDs, 6 int.
Kevin Kolb, Houston 266 – 393 (67.7 %) 3,423 yds, 27 TDs, 3 int.
Brady Quinn, Notre Dame 274 – 432 (63.4%) 3,278 yds, 35 TDs, 5 int.
Troy Smith, Ohio State 199 – 297 (67.0%) 2,507 yds, 30 TDs, 5 int.
Drew Stanton, Michigan St. 164 – 269 (61.0%) 1,807 yds, 12 TDs, 10 int.

See anyone who stands out like a sore thumb? Yes, it’s baffling why Stanton is even on this list. Besides having the lowest marks of any finalist, his team had a losing record and failed to qualify for a bowl game. In the Big Ten Conference alone, Wisconsin’s John Stocco and Iowa’s Drew Tate, both seniors, produced better passing numbers and consequently, their teams are bowl-bound.

One game could have made a difference for Stanton and the Spartans this year. On Sept. 23, Michigan State was undefeated after its first three games and were hosting a Notre Dame squad that was coming off a blowout loss to Michigan. The Spartans raced to a 17-point halftime lead over the Irish and it appeared Drew Stanton was well on his way toward numerous post-season awards.

Instead, Quinn rallied Notre Dame while Stanton and the Spartans wilted in the second half. The 40-37 comeback victory catapulted Quinn and the Irish into an eight-game winning streak, and ultimately, an invite to the Sugar Bowl. Had Stanton’s second-half performance even remotely come close to matching his output in the first half, Notre Dame would be playing in a second-tier bowl game and, quite possibly, Stanton would be heading to New York City this week–instead of Quinn–as a Heisman Award finalist.

Brady Quinn’s signature game in 2006 certainly came against Michigan State, but if you happened to see it, you would have to agree that it was more of a Spartan meltdown than anything else. The same can be said for another comeback win against UCLA. The Bruins dominated Notre Dame in South Bend until the closing two minutes when Jeff Samardzija took a pass and miraculously eluded UCLA’s entire back seven for a game-winning 45-yard touchdown play. It was all Samardzija and Quinn just fed him the rock a few yards off the line of scrimmage in what was supposed to be a very safe, keep the sticks moving type of pass route.

Quinn’s stats against Michigan and USC are the most telling with regard to where he fits into this group of finalists. Against Michigan, his completion rate was 50 percent (24-48, 248 yards) and he threw three picks in addition to three scores. Although he didn’t register any interceptions against USC, he was effectively contained, completing less than 50 percent of his passes (22-45) for only 274 yards.

This pattern holds true with virtually every big-time opponent Quinn has faced. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, he managed a 29-45, 286-yard performance free of any picks or TDs. Last year against USC, he was 19-35 for 264 yards, with one score and one interception. Quite simply, Quinn is a rock-solid quarterback, but he has failed to distinguish himself from the pack on the biggest stages of his collegiate career.

Kevin Kolb is one of only 10 players in NCAA Division I-A history to surpass the 12,000-yard mark in passing, with 12,568 heading into Houston’s matchup with South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. His signature game this season was a remarkable 21 for 28, 313-yard, four-TD, no-interception performance in a 34-25 upset win over Oklahoma State.

In two other games of note, Kolb almost engineered an upset victory over the Miami Hurricanes, losing 14-13 on the road. He was 18 for 28 for 196 yards and no interceptions in that game. He also rallied the Cougars from 16 points down to Rice with three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of the first game of the year. That win proved to be the deciding factor in Houston’s claim to the West Division crown of Conference USA.

John Beck was selected as the preseason Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year and he did nothing to dispel that projection throughout the course of a record-setting season. He set a conference record by winning the offensive player of the week honors seven times throughout the year and walked off with the season-ending honors as well with a unanimous vote.

BYU lost only two games in the regular season–twice on the last play of the game against two BCS opponents, Arizona (16-13) and Boston College (30-23). Nevertheless, Beck turned in outstanding performances in both games, going 28-37 for 286 yards and one TD (with another TD pass called back) against the Wildcats, and 38-59 for 436 yards, one TD and two picks against the Eagles.

Nearly every one of the Cougar games featured a signature Beck performance, but the two that stand out the most came against bowl-bound Texas Christian (10-2) and Utah (7-5). Beck went 23 of 37 for 321 yards and three TDs against TCU and 28 for 43 for 375 yards and four TDs against Utah, with the last score being the game-winner as time expired. With 10,646 yards passing in his career, Beck has passed Jim McMahon, Steve Young and countless other BYU greats, and now stands second to only Ty Detmer in that category on BYU’s career passing yardage list.

Since he became the de facto starting QB for Ohio State following last season’s narrow home loss to Texas, Troy Smith has but one game on his resume that he wishes he could take a mulligan. It came in a 17-10 road loss to Penn State last year. Since then, Smith has led the Buckeyes on a nation-leading 19-game winning streak and the No. 1 ranking throughout the entire 2006 regular season.

Known for his clutch play in big-game situations, he has engineered three straight victories over arch-rival Michigan, including this year’s 42-39 thriller that was easily the highest-rated college game on TV in 2006. In that game, Smith went 27 of 37 for 300 yards and one TD, while picking up 37 yards on the ground off 11 carries with another touchdown.

Ever since his MVP performance in last year’s 34-20 Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame (19 of 28 for 342 yards, two TDs, plus 66 yards on 13 carries) Troy has been the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy this year. He only helped his cause by going 17 of 26 for 269 yards and two TDs on the road in a huge 24-7 win over Texas, which, incidentally, was the second-highest-rated college football game this season.

Every post-season award has its own criteria for evaluating and determining a winner. In the case of the Unitas Golden Arm Award, we think it’s only fitting that the winning quarterback possess the icy cool, confident leadership that Johnny U himself exhibited on the field. All things considered equal, either Troy Smith or John Beck should be the QB to take this prestigious award home.

Cougars and Ducks Roll the Dice in Vegas

You can’t help but find intrigue in the multiple storylines that connect the Brigham Young University and Oregon football programs as they prepare to clash in the 15th annual Las Vegas Bowl. Both teams are looking to end embarrassing bowl game losing streaks. The Cougars’ drought stretches back nine years to when they knocked off Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl, and the Ducks are winless since their 2002 Fiesta Bowl victory over Colorado.

Speaking of streaks, the Cougars would like to extend their nine-game winning streak they bring into the contest, while Oregon carries the burden of a three-game losing streak, although those losses came to two Top 25 teams and an Arizona Wildcat squad that was just beginning to reach its potential at the close of the season.

Both teams regularly butt heads on the recruiting trail in the Pacific and Mountain West regions but rarely on the field (Oregon leads the series 3-2, and their last meeting was 15 years ago). Luke Staley, the 2001 Doak Walker Award winner and a former high school Player of the Year in Oregon, holds most of BYU’s single-season rushing and scoring records. Haloti Ngata, the Ducks’ best defensive lineman in the history of their program, and now a standout rookie in the NFL, hails from Utah and verbally committed to Brigham Young in 2001 but reneged at the last minute and signed with Oregon.

The Ducks are currently trying to persuade two of BYU’s top 2007 verbal commits, J.J. DiLuigi of Canyon Country, Calif. and Marcus Matthews of Beaverton, Ore., to renege as well.

And then there’s the Gary Crowton-Bronco Mendenhall storyline. Crowton, the Ducks’ current offensive coordinator, was forced to resign from the BYU head coaching post in 2004 after three consecutive losing seasons. The defensive coordinator he recruited from New Mexico during his reign in Provo, Mendenhall, is now the head coach and the D-coordinator for the Cougars. Both coaches are inventive tacticians on their respective sides of the ball and have a pretty good handle on each other’s tendencies.

The press has been feasting on the underlying emotions of this storyline ever since the matchup was announced in late November, but the real crux of this connective issue is which coach will be able to outscheme the other and get his players to execute at the highest level.

Crowton is a master at game planning when he has several weeks to prepare (he never lost a season opener as head coach at BYU) so it won’t be a surprise to see the Ducks throwing several new wrinkles into their offense to confound BYU. Likewise, Mendenhall will probably show some new looks with the Cougar defense–especially since his depth chart at cornerback has been decimated by injury and a player suspension–although Mendenhall is prone to focus more on execution of fundamentals and containing Oregon’s big-play capabilities.

BYU’s keys to a 2006 Las Vegas Bowl victory

1. Control the clock

Even if the Cougars can manage some quick-strike scoring, they’ll be better off by managing long, time-consuming drives that keep their defense off the field. The more clock time BYU can control, the fewer attempts the Ducks will have at penetrating the Cougars’ severely weakened defensive secondary. Long, time-consuming drives have been the staple of offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s unit since Beck & Co. began executing it to near-perfection in their second game of the year this season against Tulsa. It’s a rhythmic–almost poetic in football terms–offensive attack that methodically surges toward the opponents’ goal with remarkable efficiency. You can be sure that Oregon will be doing everything it can to disrupt the flow of the Cougar offense, but BYU needs to maintain its poise and draw upon experience from last year’s Las Vegas Bowl game versus Cal.

2. Force and convert turnovers

Quite simply, the Cougars need to win the battle of turnovers. Besides the obvious, where potential points are taken away from the Ducks, turnovers provide shifts in momentum that can inspire their teammates’ offensive efforts. Oregon has been turnover-prone this season, handing the ball over to opponents 30 times–with 18 of those miscues occurring in the Ducks’ five losses. Conversely, BYU has one of the best turnover margins in the country this year.

3. Contain Jonathan Stewart

Stewart is the most potent offensive threat in the Ducks’ arsenal. BYU needs to contain him to force Oregon to rely on its passing game. If they can succeed in making the Ducks one-dimensional by chewing up the clock and limiting Stewart’s effectiveness, it will free up the Cougars to implement more blitz packages. Heavy pressure on the Duck QB, whether it’s David Dixon or Brady Leaf, will help prevent them from picking on the cornerbacks with the deep ball. It’s important to note that Dixon is a good scrambler and he’ll need to be contained as well if he’s calling the signals. Look for Crowton to try confusing the Cougars by using both QBs and changing up or disguising the type of plays each has been running during the season.

Oregon’s keys to a 2006 Las Vegas Bowl victory

1. Pressure and harass John Beck

The BYU offense runs like a precision time piece when the quarterback has time to survey his options. Archrival Utah had the most success of getting to Beck this season, and for two quarters, the Utes stymied the Cougar attack. Oregon has looked at that game film over and over to identify weaknesses in Brigham Young’s pass protection, and the Ducks will be doing everything they can to mimic the Utes’ success for an entire 60 minutes. The Ducks have the best pass defense in the Pac-10, holding opponents to a measly 156.7 yards per game. On the other hand, Oregon ranks second from last in rushing defense in the Pac-10, yielding an average of 146 yards per game at a 4.2-yard per rush clip. This brings us to…

2. Strangle the Cougar ground attack

BYU has a formidable running game and will force the Ducks to pick their poison. It’s really next to impossible to contain the Cougar passing and rushing attacks for an entire game. Arizona stifled the Blue and White rush, holding Brigham Young to 26 net yards on the ground. Conversely, John Beck notched 286 yards passing and had one touchdown pass called back for receiver interference–a highly questionable call that even the Pac-10’s announcers disagreed with–that would have given BYU the win in Tucson at the start of the season. Utah was also successful in limiting the Cougars to only 54 yards on the ground, but the Utes were sliced and diced for 376 yards passing.

3. Exploit BYU’s weakened defensive secondary

Much has been made of the injuries and a player suspension that have crippled BYU’s defensive secondary since the Utah game. It will be interesting to see what Mendenhall and his DB coach Jaime Hill have done to shore up this vulnerability. It would stand to reason that if the Cougars had some reliable depth at cornerback, they would have been getting more reps during the regular season, and this didn’t happen. It behooves Oregon to launch an all-out aerial invasion on whomever BYU plays at cornerback because they are either hobbling with a not-quite healed injury or lacking sufficient game time experience to keep Jaison Williams, Jordan Kent and Dante Rosario from compiling some pretty big reception numbers.

What to expect

Because of BYU’s weakened secondary, this game has all the makings of a shootout. Oregon has faced several prolific offenses this season with Cal and USC providing the closest resemblance to the Cougars’ offensive weaponry. Both games were resounding losses, but while the Ducks held Cal to 189 yards passing and USC to 176 yards through the air, both opponents’ running games were able to get the job done with the Bears gaining 239 yards on the ground and USC notching 180 markers. Oregon also turned the ball over four times against Cal and yielded a punt return for a TD, while USC forced two turnovers. A major key for both teams in their wins against the Ducks came in limiting Jonathan Stewart to 42 yards or less on the ground.

The only common opponent BYU and Oregon have played this year is Arizona. The Cougars lost on the road in their season opener 16-13 and the Wildcats went to Autzen Stadium on Nov. 18 and spanked the Ducks, 37-10. Oregon limited Arizona’s passing attack to 133 yards, but the Ducks yielded 230 on the ground while also committing six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles).

Historically, BYU has had a very difficult time containing big-time playmaking running backs during the bowl season, and Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart clearly fills the bill as a ball carrier of that stature. One need not look any farther than last year’s fiasco in trying to stop Cal’s Marshawn Lynch as an example. However, save for the secondary vulnerabilities, which only came to light in the past month, the Cougar defense is drastically improved from last year.

Oregon will pose the strongest pass defense the Cougars have faced this season; conversely, BYU’s passing attack is more refined than any the Ducks have went up against. If regular-season momentum and close-call experience from the previous Las Vegas Bowl are worth anything in a matchup like this, then it should be a close, high-scoring affair with a slight edge to the team that has possession of the ball in the closing minutes of the game. If you’re a gambler, this matchup is too close to call, so just roll the dice.