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September 14, 2009

Monday with Mike: Looking for answers

The first impression made by Oklahoma State's defense this season was a good one.

The Cowboys, who gave up at least 400 yards in eight games last season and at least 500 in four, held Georgia to 257 yards in a 24-10 season-opening victory. Some folks thought that meant the Cowboys now had a defense that their offense could be proud of.

Alas, stopping Georgia's offense proved to be fool's gold (more on the punchless Bulldogs in a minute). Saturday, the Cowboys were back to normal in a 45-35 home loss to Houston. The Cougars rang up 512 yards of offense, including 366 through the air against a secondary that went from solid to sieve-like in one week.

"They have a good quarterback [Case Keenum] that can move around and elude a lot of defensive players, and he did that a lot," Oklahoma State defensive tackle Derek Burton said.

Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young - the guy who was drawing all the praise after the Georgia win - said Houston "had a great game plan. They really did not do anything we had not seen, but they executed awfully well."

Therein lies Oklahoma State's problem: The Cowboys are not that talented on defense. As Young said, nothing Houston did surprised him. And as Burton said, he and his teammates just couldn't get to Keenum. It's going to take a while for Oklahoma State to recruit better defensive players - the kind that can slow Keenum and the bulk of the quarterbacks in the Big 12.

Lost in the hubbub of the Georgia win and the defensive shortcomings against Houston, though, is that Oklahoma State's offense has not looked all that good this season. The Cowboys managed 304 yards the first week, then 434 against Houston; they had 699 against Houston last season. Oklahoma State gained less than 400 yards just twice last season.

Part of it was that tailback Kendall Hunter was injured in the first half against Houston and finished with 29 yards on nine carries. Part of it is that quarterback Zac Robinson has not looked all that sharp. Part of it is that the offensive line is breaking in two new starters. And part of it is that star wide receiver Dez Bryant has just eight catches and there is no one stepping forward to pick up the slack. Bryant does have three touchdowns this season - two on receptions against Georgia and one on a punt return against Houston - but he's still not getting the ball enough.

All is not lost for Oklahoma State - far from it. The next two games (Rice and Grambling) will be blowouts, followed by a trip to Texas A&M, which should be a two-touchdown win. Then comes a three-game stretch that will define Oklahoma State's season: vs. Missouri, at Baylor and vs. Texas. Later in the season are a home game against Texas Tech and a trip to Oklahoma. But by the time the Texas Tech game rolls around on Nov. 14, we'll know whether this Oklahoma State team deserved the preseason hype or instead believed too much of it.

A tale of two offenses
We said we'd talk about Georgia's offense, and so we will.

If you saw the final score from the Bulldogs' game Saturday - Georgia beat South Carolina 41-37 - you probably thought to yourself, "The Bulldogs' offense just must have had a bad day against Oklahoma State. Maybe they won't miss Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno all that much."

You'd be wrong.

Georgia scored 41 points despite mustering just 308 yards of offense. After two games, the Bulldogs are averaging 282.5 yards per game, which is 101st in the nation. Averaging 282.5 yards per game last season would've meant a 114th-place finish in total offense.

Georgia's offensive game outputs this season would've been the Bulldogs' second- and third-worst outputs last season, when they gained less than 324 yards just once (252 in a seven-point win over South Carolina).

Obviously, getting a win is more important than piling up yards, but Georgia's offensive struggles bear watching. The running game has not done much at all, and fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Cox will be hard-pressed to win a game with his arm.

It's still early in the season, but the offensive struggles should be worrisome given the upcoming games. The Bulldogs play at Arkansas this Saturday, which should give the offense an opportunity to get well (the Hogs' defense is mediocre). Still, that game will be a test because of new Hogs quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Then come five games in a row against teams with, at the least, solid defenses: Arizona State, LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida. Good news for the Bulldogs is that Arizona State, Tennessee and Vandy have what look to be still-developing (or worse) offenses. But playing LSU and Florida with a popgun offense isn't a way to win.

Now let's look at an SEC offense that has been surprisingly good - Auburn's.

To say the Tigers were inept on offense last season would be kind. They were so bad that coach Tommy Tuberville was let go.

Enter Gene Chizik - or, more precisely, enter Gus Malzahn. Malzahn's spread offenses at Tulsa the past two seasons were among the best in the nation. What was overlooked a bit was that the Golden Hurricane was an excellent rushing team under Malzahn.

Malzahn has brought that mindset to Auburn, which has run for 691 yards and seven touchdowns in victories over Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State. Auburn rushed for 1,650 yards and 12 TDs last season.

It helps that the players and the entire offensive staff are on board with the offensive schemes. That wasn't the case last season, when spread proponent Tony Franklin was fired as coordinator midway through the season after running into difficulty getting the offensive-staff holdovers to accept change.

Saturday, in a rout of Mississippi State, the Tigers ran for 390 yards. For the second week in a row, Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb each rushed for more than 100 yards. The Tigers also got three 1-yard TD runs and a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Kodi Burns, who runs the Tigers' version of the "Wildcat" offense.

While Burns' three scores came on plunges, Auburn ran wild outside for much of the second half.

"They were trying to get to the edge, and it seemed like every time they tried to get to the outside, they were able to," Mississippi State linebacker Jamar Chaney said.

Running roughshod over Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State isn't the same as running roughshod over Alabama and LSU, but any kind of offense for Auburn is welcome. This is the first time the Tigers have scored 30 points in back-to-back games since the first two games of the 2006 season, and the Tigers didn't manage 400 yards of offense against anybody but Louisiana-Monroe and UT Martin last season.

A visit from West Virginia this Saturday will be the first true test, but for a team that was just 5-7 last season, a rejuvenated offense suddenly means a 7-5 mark is possible this season.

Rocky times in Colorado
Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said a few times during the offseason that 2009 wasn't a year for excuses and that the Buffs' goal was to win 10 games.

But it's hard to win 10 when you start 0-2, and that's where the Buffs are after Friday night's embarrassing 54-38 loss at Toledo. Colorado scored on the last play of the game to make the final score a bit more respectable.

What wasn't respectable was the way Colorado's defense was carved up; Toledo rolled up 624 yards of offense, and its skill-position players time and again ran past Buffaloes defenders. Granted, the Buffs were playing for the second time in five games, but the relatively quick turnaround for the Buffs doesn't erase all the defensive shortcomings. Frankly, Toledo looked to have far more speed than Colorado.

It also showed offensively. Colorado had 451 yards of offense, but just 95 came on the ground. Those 95 yards came a week after Purdue rang up 315 rushing yards on Toledo. A rebuilt offensive line was supposed to be a team strength, but that line has looked overmatched against Colorado State and Toledo - teams that never will be confused with Big 12 power programs.

At one point Friday night, touted Buffs sophomore running back Darrell Scott was run down from behind by Toledo's Beau Brudzinski after a 32-yard gain. Brudzinski is a linebacker, not a corner or a safety. In fact, Scott looked a half-step slow all night - and has for his entire CU career. Scott's signing out of Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure in February 2008 was considered a huge coup for Hawkins and Colorado, but watching Scott - a five-star prospect in high school - on Friday made you wonder what coaches saw when they scouted him at St. Bonaventure.

Colorado should get its first win this Saturday against Wyoming, but then come back-to-back road games against West Virginia and Texas, followed by a visit from Kansas. Each of those teams is better offensively than Toledo.

Hawkins is in his fourth season at Colorado and owns a 13-26 record. His best mark was 6-7 in 2007, when the season ended with an Independence Bowl loss to Alabama. The Tide obviously built on that bowl appearance; Colorado hasn't.

The Denver Post asked Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn - the guy who hired Hawkins after he fired Gary Barnett after the 2005 season - what he would say to upset CU fans.

"How many times did Texas and Oklahoma take to get the right coach? About four," Bohn answered. "But we're not about to give up on Dan Hawkins.

"I know there's anger. How are we going to respond? Are we going to start knee-jerking? If we decided it was time to go the 'Johnny Next Coach' route, what kind of message would that send?"

Hawkins' contract runs through the 2012 season - he was given an extension last season - and includes a buyout clause. CU's athletic department, as is the case with many athletic departments nationally, isn't exactly rolling in dough, which might end up saving him.

No longer winless in Seattle
Washington snapped a 15-game losing streak with a 42-23 victory over Idaho. The Huskies hadn't won since a 37-23 upset of California on Nov. 17, 2007.

Washington played surprisingly well in a first-week loss to LSU - outgaining the Tigers 478-321 - and followed that up with a solid offensive performance against the Vandals (374). But the Huskies allowed 412 yards, and that's not good.

Still, a win is a win, especially when you've been scuffling like Washington. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian got the requisite Gatorade shower after the win - though he told reporters it actually was water.

"It felt great," he said. "It's another one of those things you think about when you're becoming a head coach - that first locker-room speech, your first win and the first time you get doused with the water or Gatorade. It's one of those special moments you will always remember."

The next game has some intrigue, as USC comes calling. Sarkisian was the Trojans' offensive coordinator last season, and Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt was the Trojans' defensive coordinator last season.

USC has won seven in a row over the Huskies, including a 56-point rout last season. Interestingly, though, USC won by just three points in Seattle in 2007 and by just six in L.A. in 2006.

Grid bits
SMU held off UAB 35-33 for its first road win since Sept. 30, 2006; the Mustangs had lost 15 in a row on the road since that victory. SMU plays at Washington State this Saturday, and another victory would give them consecutive wins on the road for the first time since1992-93. The Mustangs ended the 1992 season with a victory over Arkansas in Little Rock, then won their first road game in 1993 over TCU. The last time they won consecutive road games in the same season was 1984.

Alabama has scored 74 points in its first two games, but star WR Julio Jones has just five receptions (for 55 yards) and no touchdowns. Jones is in the midst of an 11-game streak without a score. While offensive coordinator Jim McElwain deserves a lot of credit for Alabama's fast start, he must find a way to get the ball in Jones' hands more often.

Hawaii cruised past Washington State on Saturday in Seattle, then flew to Las Vegas after the game to begin preparations for this Saturday's game at UNLV. The Warriors are remaining on the mainland instead of flying home. They'll fly home after the UNLV game, then will travel to Ruston, La., for a game at Louisiana Tech on Sept. 30. Hawaii opened the season at home against Central Arkansas last week, but will go 36 days between home games. UAB, at 37 days, is the only team in the nation this season that will go longer between home games.

Remember how Ball State started 12-0 last season and actually was in the conversation as a potential BCS buster? Well, those days are long gone. The Cardinals ended up losing their final two games last season, then junior quarterback Nate Davis decided to turn pro. Coach Brady Hoke left, too, for the coaching job at San Diego State. Ball State opened last week with a 20-10 loss to North Texas, then followed that up Saturday with a 23-16 loss to FCS member New Hampshire. That means Ball State's Stan Parrish has a 30-game winless streak as a head coach. He coached the Cardinals in last season's GMAC Bowl loss (after Hoke was hired at SDSU), is 0-2 with the Cardinals this season and was winless in the other 27 - there was one tie - as Kansas State's coach from 1986-88.

New Hampshire's victory was the only one this weekend in 16 games for an FCS member over a FBS school. Four FCS schools have won games, all from the Colonial Athletic Association (Villanova over Temple, William & Mary over Virginia and Richmond over Duke last week and New Hampshire on Saturday).

I understand the idea behind calling helmet-to-helmet hits and penalizing a team 15 yards. But I've already seen enough erroneously called this season to think those calls should be reviewable. A defender hitting an offensive player with his shoulder is not the same as a helmet-to-helmet hit, but I've seen it called three times.

Last week, Iowa survived two last-second field-goal attempts to beat Northern Iowa 17-16. Saturday, Big Ten rival Michigan State couldn't do the same against Central Michigan. A week after Iowa blocked two UNI attempts in the final seven seconds, Michigan State saw a 42-yard field goal by Andrew Aguila sail through the uprights on the final play. Aguila's kick came after Michigan State was offside on his first attempt, which missed from 47 yards.

Staying with Central Michigan, Chippewas quarterback Dan LeFevour threw for 328 yards and ran for another 10 to become the MAC's career leader in total offense. He now has 12,166 yards to pass former Marshall star Byron Leftwich, who had 12,084.

USF quarterback Matt Grothe became the Big East's career leader in total offense, accounting for 261 yards in the Bulls' victory at Western Kentucky. That gives him 10,702 yards; the record of 10,529 had been held by former West Virginia standout Pat White.

Just hand Southeast Missouri State this season's award for riding high one week, then being stepped on the next. Last week, Southeast Missouri - a FCS program - opened the season with a 72-3 whipping of Quincy (Ill.), an NAIA school. But Saturday, Cincinnati whipped SEMO 70-3. It was 7-3 in the first quarter before Cincy turned it on. FCS member Stephen F. Austin blasted Texas College 92-0, falling 13 points short of tying the FCS record for points in a game; the record is held by Portland State, against Delaware State in 1980. SFA outgained Texas College, an NAIA school nicknamed the Steers (Steers. Longhorns. Get it?), 603-92. "I'm very proud of our execution and focus," SFA coach J.C. Harper said after the game.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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