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September 25, 2006

Redeeming weekend for Irish

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The College Football Wire

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Consider this a weekend of redemption for Notre Dame's current coach and its former one.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis saved himself a boatload of criticism Saturday night when the Fighting Irish righted their ship in the fourth quarter with a stunning 40-37 win at Michigan State.

If the Irish had lost that game which seemed a virtual certainty at the end of the third quarter Weis would have spent the entire week hearing unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor.

Weis arrived at Notre Dame after the firing of Tyrone Willingham, who has proved this season he still can coach. Willingham directed Washington to a 29-19 upset of UCLA that allowed the Huskies (3-1) to match their combined win total from the last two seasons.

Neither team looked likely to win for most of the day.

Notre Dame was outscored 17-0 and outgained 185-20 in the first quarter Saturday. One week after falling 47-21 to Michigan, the Irish trailed 31-14 at halftime and were watching their BCS hopes go up in smoke.

"It was basically, 'Hey fellas, what's it going to be?' " Weis told IrishIllustrated.com about the halftime situation. "Are we just a bunch of also-rans, or are we going to give us a chance to win the game?"

Michigan State led 31-14 with 8 minutes remaining before doing everything possible to blow this game. The Spartans turned the ball over on each of their last three possessions, with two of the giveaways leading to Notre Dame touchdowns.

But the Irish still deserve plenty of credit for rallying from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit away from home in a driving rainstorm. The Irish won even though they went 1-of-11 on third-down conversions and were outrushed 248-47.

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn may have revived his Heisman hopes in the process by throwing for 319 yards and five touchdowns.

Washington delivered a stirring comeback of its own.

The Huskies trailed 16-0 in the final minutes of the first half before rallying to beat UCLA. Washington forced UCLA quarterback Ben Olson into two interceptions, including one that Daniel Howell returned 29 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

Willingham received plenty of criticism at Notre Dame for his lack of imagination on offense, but he has managed to turn Isaiah Stanback into a quality quarterback.

The much-maligned senior threw three touchdown passes and compiled 248 total yards (202 passing, 46 rushing) to pick up just his second career Pac-10 victory.

"For our young men to be able to come back in the manner that they came back in was really excellent," Willingham told HuskyDigest.com. "I thought our offense showed a lot of courage and our defense positioned us to have a chance to win the football game by just hanging in there."

The comebacks by Weis and Willingham and their respective teams represented just one of the top 25 storylines to come from this weekend's college football action. Here's a look at the others.

2. SPARTY'S COLLAPSE: Michigan State is still Michigan State.

What else can you say after watching the Spartans crumble in a critical situation one more time? The same team that followed a 4-0 start by losing six of its last seven games once again fell apart at the first sign of adversity.

Michigan State coach John L. Smith admitted afterward that he got too conservative after the Spartans exploded for 31 first-half points. Drew Stanton threw just four passes all incompletions - in the Spartans' first seven second-half possessions.

Then again, Stanton himself deserves plenty of blame for this collapse. The senior quarterback dropped out of Heisman Trophy contention by losing a fumble and throwing two interceptions to end Michigan State's last three possessions.

3. WALKER NOT RUNNING: Notre Dame returned 1,000-yard rusher Darius Walker and four of its starting offensive linemen from last year. So why can't Walker find any running room so far this season?

Notre Dame has gained just 2.7 yards per carry and is ranked 108th in the nation in rushing offense through four games. After compiling 1,196 yards on the ground last year, Walker has rushed for 227 yards so far this season.

Part of the problem is that the Irish have fallen so far behind the last two weeks that they've had to abandon the running game. But if the Irish don't start establishing a ground attack soon, their offense will never find the rhythm it established last season.

4. FRIEND IN HIGH PLACES: Stanback put together arguably the best performance of his career with help from a famous alum.

Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Washington star Warren Moon watched Saturday's game from the sideline. When the Huskies fell behind early, Moon offered some advice to Stanback.

"He asked me if I was mad or if I was OK," Stanback told HuskyDigest.com. "I told him I was fine, but he knew I wasn't. He's been in this position, you know, and he was telling me to complete the easy ones. You complete the easy ones, and you get back into rhythm. Then you can start completing the rest of them."

5. CAL CRUSHES CARPENTER: This weekend represented the first major test for Arizona State since Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter made the controversial decision to select Rudy Carpenter as his starting quarterback two days after giving the job to Sam Keller.

And it didn't quite work out the way the Sun Devils hoped.

Carpenter went 16-of-36 with four interceptions and only two touchdown passes as Arizona State lost 49-21 to California. The best quarterback on the field was Cal's Nate Longshore, who threw for 270 yards and four touchdowns.

The good news for Carpenter is he won't have to wait long to prove he hasn't lost his touch since leading the nation in passing efficiency a year ago. Arizona State has another major challenge next weekend against Oregon.

6. RICE STEAMING AGAIN: Apparently the return of Syvelle Newton to quarterback was all South Carolina wide receiver Sidney Rice needed to regain his freshman-year form.

Rice caught a school-record five touchdown passes Saturday in a 45-6 triumph over Florida Atlantic, giving him 16 receptions for 312 yards and five touchdowns in the two games since Newton moved to quarterback. Rice had caught just five passes for 44 yards in the two games beforehand.

Newton actually played wide receiver not quarterback during Rice's sensational freshman season. But they have developed an immediate rapport since Newton regained the starting quarterback job he'd held in 2004.

7. TOP RECEIVERS SHINE: Rice's five-touchdown effort headlined a big week for the nation's top wide receivers.

Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, Michigan's Mario Manningham, Hawaii's Davone Bess and Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight each caught at least two touchdown passes. California's DeSean Jackson caught one touchdown pass and also scored on an 80-yard punt return.

8. TOP QUARTERBACKS STRUGGLE: The success of the wideouts was notable because it came during a week when many of the nation's best quarterbacks slumped.

Stanton, Olson, Carpenter, Ohio State's Troy Smith, Michigan's Chad Henne and West Virginia's Pat White combined to throw 16 interceptions and only nine touchdown passes. Boston College's Matt Ryan completed only 52 percent of his passes while suffering his first loss as a starter.

9. HEISMAN GLANCE: Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson may have emerged as the Heisman Trophy front-runner after rushing for 128 yards and three touchdowns on a day when Ohio State's Smith struggled. Other top contenders include Quinn, Florida quarterback Chris Leak and West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton.

Peterson and Smith eventually may turn this into a two-man race, but at least one dark-horse candidate could throw his hat in the ring next weekend.

No wide receiver in the modern era has won the Heisman without also returning kicks, but Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson has emerged as the nation's top wideout this season while playing in an offense without a great passer.

If Johnson catches two touchdown passes in an upset victory over Virginia Tech next weekend, his name at least has to enter the conversation.

10. BIG WIN FOR AMATO: Raise your hand if you predicted that Wake Forest and North Carolina State would be tied for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division at this point in the season.

Didn't think so.

North Carolina State found itself in this unfamiliar position because the Wolfpack followed back-to-back non-conference losses to Akron and Southern Mississippi with a 17-15 upset of Boston College.

It remains to be seen whether that upset will help Chuck Amato save his job, but the beleaguered coach deserves credit for making a quarterback switch that worked. In his first career start, Daniel Evans led the winning drive and threw a 34-yard touchdown catch to John Dunlap with 8.5 seconds remaining.

11. HOT SEAT UPDATE: Now that Amato has helped himself with a big win over Boston College, North Carolina's John Bunting may occupy the hottest seat in college football.

Bunting's career record at North Carolina dropped to 25-39 with a 52-7 loss to Clemson. The Tar Heels' only victory this season came when they needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Division I-AA program Furman 45-42.

That Michigan State collapse Saturday night also did nothing to help the job security of Smith, who already was under pressure after last season's meltdown.

12. UNDEFEATED DEACONS: Wake Forest's Jim Grobe merits some early consideration for Coach of the Year honors. The Demon Deacons are off to their first 4-0 start in 19 years despite losing their starting quarterback (Benjamin Mauk) and tailback (Micah Andrews) to injuries.

This team looks suspiciously like this year's version of Vanderbilt, which won its first four games last year before losing six of its last seven.

Then again, this isn't exactly the 2005 version of the ACC. This conference is weak enough that Wake Forest should squeak out enough victories to earn their first bowl invitation since 2002.

13. SCHAEFFER'S STRUGGLES: Mississippi quarterback Brent Schaeffer has completed 47 percent of his passes with six interceptions and only three touchdown passes during the Rebels' three-game losing streak.

This wasn't what Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron had in mind when he handed the starting job to Schaeffer before the junior-college transfer arrived on campus.

14. NO ORDINARY JOE: Joe Cox isn't the Georgia freshman quarterback who has received the bulk of the attention, but he just might be the guy who determines the Bulldogs' fortunes.

Cox replaced heralded true freshman quarterback Matt Stafford and threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes as Georgia rallied to a 14-13 victory over Colorado. Georgia looked like an entirely different team once Cox took the field.

Georgia coach Mark Richt said afterward that he hadn't decided who would start next week against Ole Miss, but it's tough to imagine him choosing anyone other than Cox.

15. VULNERABLE BULLDOGS: Although Georgia remained undefeated with the dramatic comeback victory, the Bulldogs certainly showed some signs of weakness.

The Bulldogs gained just two yards per carry against a winless Colorado team, which makes you wonder how they will run the ball against Auburn or Florida.

Georgia also struggled to contain mobile Colorado quarterback Bernard Jackson. The Bulldogs will try to have better luck stopping a running quarterback next week when they face Mississippi's Schaeffer.

16. HIGH-POWERED OFFENSES STRUGGLE: Ohio State, Southern California and West Virginia entered the weekend with arguably the most explosive offenses in the nation, but all three teams struggled to move the ball Saturday.

Penn State proved that Ohio State's offense looks very ordinary when Smith isn't on his game. East Carolina discovered the secret to slowing down West Virginia is to hold Slaton in check and force Pat White to throw the ball.

Southern California had reason for optimism despite struggling to move the ball in a 20-3 victory over Arizona. The Trojans may have finally ended their tailback carousel with the emergence of Emmanuel Moody, who rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown.

17. WOLVERINES' DEFENSE DOES IT AGAIN: The matchup between the Big Ten's leading rusher and the nation's top-ranked rushing defense had a decisive winner.

Michigan held Wisconsin's P.J. Hill to 54 yards on 20 carries in a 27-13 victory over the Badgers. Hill did most of his damage in the passing game, as the redshirt freshman collected five receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown.

Even though Hill gained less than three yards per carry, that's a moral victory of sorts against a Michigan defense that has given up just 74 rushing yards on 91 attempts this season.

18. TIFFIN'S TROUBLES: One of the most heartwarming stories of September turned into the most heartbreaking when Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin missed three field goals and an extra point in the Tide's 24-23 double overtime loss to Arkansas.

Two weeks earlier, the freshman walk-on had made the game-winning kick in a victory over Vanderbilt.

Alabama coach Mike Shula left himself open to second-guessing by sticking with Tiffin even though Jamie Christensen the Tide's kicker last year had recovered from the groin injury that has sidelined him this season.

Shula said afterward he would have turned to Christensen if the Tide needed to kick a field goal in double overtime. The Tide instead scored a touchdown, and Tiffin missed the ensuing extra-point attempt.

19. FSU SHOWS SIGNS OF LIFE: A healthy dose of Rice was the perfect tonic for Florida State's moribund offense.

Antone Smith rushed for 137 yards and Lorenzo Booker gained 115 yards for a team that had combined for only 148 rushing yards in its first three games. After catching just four passes for 38 yards in his first three games, Greg Carr had five receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the Seminoles' 55-7 triumph.

Now let's see if the Seminoles can continue moving the ball this way against a decent defense.

20. TROY TROUNCED: Troy led Florida State in the fourth quarter and was tied with Georgia Tech at the end of the third period before dropping both games.

The Sun Belt team's third chance against a big-time program wasn't exactly the charm. Nebraska scored two touchdowns in each quarter and gained 597 total yards on its way to a 56-0 victory over the Trojans.

Nebraska recorded its first shutout since 2003, but the real story was a Cornhusker offense that looked nothing like the unit that played so conservatively in a loss to Southern California a week earlier. Nebraska had nine plays that gained at least 20 yards.

21. MORELLI'S MISERY: Penn State's effort against Ohio State this weekend made the Nittany Lions look like the best .500 team in the nation. Penn State has as much talent as every team it plays the rest of the year except for Michigan, which must travel to Beaver Stadium.

But the Nittany Lions will lose at least two or three more times if quarterback Anthony Morelli doesn't improve. Morelli has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns this season and had two picks returned for scores in the final minutes of a 28-6 loss to Ohio State.

The Nittany Lions have an excellent defense and a standout running back in Tony Hunt. They're a solid quarterback away from becoming a very dangerous team.

22. KOLB COMES UP BIG: Kevin Kolb leads all active Division I-A players in career completions, passing yards and total offense. Until this season, however, Kolb had never regained the form of his outstanding freshman year.

Kolb apparently has recaptured the magic.

The senior quarterback went 22-of-29 for 320 yards and four touchdowns as Houston defeated Oklahoma State 34-25 in a battle of unbeaten teams.

Houston goes to Miami next weekend, and it will be interesting to see if Kolb learned anything from the success that Louisville's Brian Brohm and Hunter Cantwell enjoyed against the highly regarded Hurricane defense earlier this season.

23. LOOK WHO'S RANKED: Rutgers' hot start has put the Scarlet Knights in the Associated Press rankings for the first time since 1976. Rutgers was ranked 23rd in the AP and coaches' polls that came out Sunday.

Don't be surprise if the Scarlet Knights stay in the rankings all season. Sophomore sensation Ray Rice scored three touchdowns in a 56-7 thrashing of Howard and now is the nation's fourth-leading rusher behind only Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, Peterson and Boise State's Ian Johnson.

24. ON THE BALL: New Hampshire wide receiver David Ball tied Jerry Rice's Division I-AA record with his 50th career touchdown catch in a 56-14 demolition of Dartmouth.

Division I-A programs have found Ball equally difficult to cover. Ball caught eight passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns two weeks ago in New Hampshire's 34-17 triumph over Northwestern.

25. PLAYER OF THE WEEK: This honor has to go to Northern Colorado punter Rafael Mendoza, who returned to action less than two weeks after he was stabbed - allegedly by his backup in an attempt for playing time.

Mendoza delivered one 58-yard punt and averaged 39.8 yards on each of his four attempts in a 42-28 loss to Western Illinois despite having a wound 3 to 5 inches deep in his kicking leg.

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