College Football Week Nine: What We've Learned

Joe GSenior Writer IOctober 25, 2008

"I find a lot of the things they do amusing. They need to check themselves sometimes. Let's just remember that pride comes before the fall." -Mark Dantonio, Michigan State head coach, after losing to the University of Michigan during the 2007 season.

Regular readers of this column will know what the lead story is going to be this week even before they read it. There have been plenty of articles on Bleacher Report in the last few days filled with smack talk ahead of the rivalry match between Michigan and Michigan State. Each side got their punches in, but we had to wait until Saturday to find out who would hold the Paul Bunyan Trophy until next year.

Since I've spent my entire week with an almost singular focus on that rivalry, this week's column will have a definite Big Ten tone to it.

Reports of Michigan State's demise were greatly exaggerated

Just for the record, I'm trying my hardest to be objective in this section. Trying.

After the Ohio State debacle last week, I heard plenty of people, fans and media alike, claiming that Michigan State was headed for another late-season letdown. The Spartans were expected to collapse like a flan in a cupboard and coast to another disappointing finish. Those people would be wrong.

Can we all please realize that Mark Dantonio is a good coach? John L. Smith is gone, and he took the late-season disappointments with him. They say a team is a reflection of their coach, and Mark Dantonio has instilled a sense of mental toughness in his Spartans that wasn't their under John L.'s reign of terror.

The Michigan game was definitely a trap game. A 6-2 Spartans team with a lot of confidence was going into Ann Arbor to face a bad Michigan team a week after being blown out by Ohio State. Add in the rivalry factor, and it wouldn't have mattered if Michigan State was 8-0 and on top of the BCS standings. This was still going to be a tough game for the Spartans.

It was a trap game, and it was also a program game. Lose and MSU would have likely developed a futility complex to rival that of the Chicago Cubs. Win and MSU gains the confidence to compete in the Big Ten every season. It doesn't matter that this is a down year for Michigan, you still need to beat your rivals to be considered a successful program.

MSU walked out of Ann Arbor with a big win, thanks to some key plays. On offense, Brian Hoyer had a big day thanks to a new play in which Blair White runs to an area that isn't anywhere near a defender, makes a catch, and runs 50-60 yards. Javon Ringer was also held in check for the first 28 minutes of play until the Michigan defensive line began to get tired. Ringer broke a 64-yard touchdown towards the end of the first half and routinely picked up between seven and ten yards on his carries late in the game.

Ringer didn't run himself back into the Heisman discussion, but he has to be the front-runner for the Doak Walker award after a performance like that.

This victory serves two purposes for the Spartans. First and most importantly, it sets the tone for the rest of their season. Remember, in Dantonio's first season MSU had a small losing streak going before they were able to win their last two games and make it to a bowl. By immediately bouncing back after a tough loss, MSU puts themselves on track for what will likely be a 9-3 finish. In case there's any doubt, I predicted this immediately after the Ohio State game.

As much as Michigan fans will probably debate this, the win revitalizes a major rivalry. There was plenty of trash-talking on both sides, MSU won in Ann Arbor for the first time since Julius Caesar was in power and Michigan fans in A-squared were pissed. They don't like being beaten at home. Look for another fiery encounter next season, I guarantee it.

More about Michigan State vs. Michigan: Replay officials need to know the rulebook

I had ongoing discussions with B/R writer Ryan Jelley throughout the week about our hopes for the game. Ryan (a Michigan fan) and I agreed that we hoped at the very least the game would stay free of controversy. This would ensure that no matter the result, fans could go home absolutely positive that the better team won.

This game was not free of controversy, but I think we can all be sure that the better team this season went home with the victory.

Allow me to explain. The first half featured three replay reviews. Review number one came on a Sam McGuffie fumble. The officials on the field ruled that it was indeed a fumble and replay did not conclusively show that McGuffie had a knee down before the ball popped loose. Replay also didn't conclusively support the fumble call, either. Based on replay rules, the fumble had to stand.

Review number two came on a Brian Hoyer fumble. This is where the replay officials started to go downhill. Hoyer was shoved down by two UM linemen, broke his fall with the ball in his hand, and it popped loose (read: the ground caused the fumble.) Most of us are aware that the ground can cause a fumble if the player does not go down because of contact. Things get a little hazier if the player is forced down by contact, but the ground causes a fumble before the player's knee hits. Hoyer was confused, I was confused, and the announcers were confused. The call on the field was a fumble, and it stood.

The third and by far most questionable review came shortly after the Hoyer fumble. Steven Threet threw to Brandon Minor towards the goal line. Minor made a very athletic play to make the catch, but came down out of bounds. The official on the goal line immediately signaled for an incomplete pass. But, Minor had knicked the pylon on his way out of bounds. The play was reviewed and incorrectly ruled a touchdown.

Why was this the incorrect call? Chris Spielman brought out his NCAA rulebook at halftime and checked. If a player makes a catch in the air while his momentum is carrying him out of bounds, he must come down in bounds to score. If the pylon is hit in the process, the player must still land in bounds because the pylon is not an extension of the playing field.

Here's the rule, word for word from the NCAA rulebook. "A player or an airborne player who touches a pylon is out of bounds." Referee Dave Witvoet recited this word for word after the game, but since the call was being reviewed it was out of his hands. A pity that the power was taken away from somebody who clearly understood what was going on.

We see plenty of players diving out of bounds but still catching the pylon and scoring touchdowns, but that's an entirely different scenario. Those players have already established that they are in bounds because they have either caught the ball or received a hand-off in the field of play. The pylon is supposed to aid the referees in that situation, to see if a diving player has broken the plane of the goal line.

The replay officials screwed up. Had Minor gotten one foot down and then clipped the pylon on his way out of bounds, a touchdown would have been the correct call. But touching the pylon while making a diving catch is not enough to establish that a receiver is in bounds. The NCAA needs to make sure that its replay officials are aware of this so it does not happen again.

The controversy didn't end up affecting the result of the game but for a while it looked like it might. Referees are human but their calls should not bring the results of games into question.

Pittsburgh replaces Wisconsin as the team that is hardest for me to understand

Wisconsin was finally able to do what they were supposed to be doing all season, win a conference game. The Badgers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) were able to beat Illinois 27-17 at Camp Randall. This should mean that Wisconsin fans can hope to salvage a bowl out of season that began with lofty expectations and a No. 13 ranking.

The Badgers finish their season against Cal Poly so are looking at a minimum five win season. They go on the road to face a revitalized Michigan State team next week, a team that beat them by 35 points the last time the Badgers visited East Lansing. They follow with games against a plucky Indiana team and a surprising Minnesota team. They won't be favored against MSU or Minnesota, and will have to hope to steal a win in Bloomington to make it to the Motor City Bowl.

Pittsburgh has easily been as confusing as Wisconsin has been bad.

Pitt started the season at No. 25 and were a trendy pick as a Big East and BCS darkhorse. Their opener against Bowling Green showed us all why games are not played on paper as Pitt fell to a weak MAC school.

The Panthers then fought their way back into the top 25 with good wins against Iowa and South Florida.

Enter Rutgers, who at 2-5 before kickoff was one of the worst teams in the Big East this season. Pitt somehow gave up an amazing 54 points to a team that had scored a total of 39 points in its last three games. This will surely drop Pitt out of the top 25 and make voters reluctant to put them back for the remainder of the season.

The voters should be reluctant, too. Pitt has talent on their roster including a great running back in LeSean McCoy. They're too good to be losing to a couple of teams that sit at a combined 6-10 right now. Pitt probably needs a strong finish to the season as well as a bowl victory to keep Dave Wannstedt off the hot seat.

Some brief thoughts on stories just making the cut

Hey Kansas, you're supposed to schedule easier teams on homecoming. Think Texas Tech might have taken a little offense to being your homecoming opponent? I do. They beat you by six touchdowns and probably knocked you out of the top 25 for good.

Georgia is quietly playing themselves back into the national title picture. If they beat Florida next week they should find themselves in the SEC title game, potentially looking at a rematch with Alabama. Win that and they'd be a very attractive one-loss team. Of course if Texas and Penn State win out, it won't matter what Georgia does in the SEC title game.

Texas is good, but they might not be the best team in their own state. I can't wait to find out next week.

These are the games in the Big 12 we still have to look forward to: (1) Texas vs. (8) Texas Tech, (6) Oklahoma State vs. (8) Texas Tech, (8) Texas Tech vs. (4) Oklahoma, (4) Oklahoma vs. (6) Oklahoma State. What does this all mean? If Texas, Texas Tech or Oklahoma State win out, they'll be in the BCS title game. It's hard to imagine anybody running through this gauntlet undefeated though.

The myth of Ty Willingham has to officially be retired. Look, I'm not one to blame Notre Dame's woes on Willingham but he's having a miserable tenure at Washington. The man has realized that he's a millionaire regardless of the product he puts on the field and has started phoning it in. The Huskies aren't playing with any pride at all any more.

If Penn State wins its remaining three games, and ‘Bama and Texas run the table as well, we’ll have a huge BCS controversy on our hands, one that probably dwarfs the 2004 snafu with Auburn, Oklahoma and USC. Personally, I think a title game between ‘Bama and Penn State would be awesome.


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