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October 23, 2006

A look back at top storylines from Week 8

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Every national title contender has at least one hiccup along the way, a game when it keeps its championship hopes alive without a championship-caliber performance.

Texas trailed Texas A&M in the second half last November before surviving for a 40-29 victory on its way to the national title.

One year earlier, Southern California staggered to a 29-24 triumph over UCLA in its regular-season finale before breezing past Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

So maybe Michigan and Louisville fans shouldn't feel too concerned about their teams' lackluster performances Saturday.

Michigan looked listless for the first 2-1/2 quarters and was tied early in the third period before recovering in time to beat Iowa 20-6. Louisville defeated Syracuse 28-13 after trailing for much of the first half.

Although the Wolverines struggled to beat an Iowa team that had lost to Big Ten doormat Indiana a week earlier, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr wasn't griping about the victory.

"It was about what we expected," Carr said. "We knew Iowa was a program based on toughness, great pride and playing the game hard. After the disappointment they had last week, we understood they were going to come to play. And they did."

Carr has no reason to complain.

His team just cleared the greatest remaining hurdle before a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown Nov. 18 at top-ranked Ohio State. Michigan leapfrogged Southern California to take over the No. 2 spot in the latest Bowl Championship Series rankings.

Michigan stays at home the next two weeks to face Northwestern (2-6) and Ball State (2-6) before traveling to Indiana (4-4). Those three programs could put together an all-star team that still wouldn't be half as talented as this Michigan squad.

Louisville has more reason to worry.

The Cardinals' closer-than-expected victory over Syracuse continued a trend that started a week earlier, when they barely escaped with a 23-17 win at home against Cincinnati.

Louisville next faces West Virginia in a Nov. 2 showdown that should determine which of these two Big East powers remains in national title contention. West Virginia has steamrolled past its first seven foes by an average margin of 28 points per game.

Michigan and Louisville certainly weren't the only favorites that struggled to pull out victories Saturday. Here's a rundown of the rest of the top 25 plotlines from this weekend's action.

2. MOUNTAINEERS MOVING UP: West Virginia breezed to a 37-11 victory over Connecticut on Friday evening, but the best news of the weekend for the Mountaineers came two nights later.

That's when the latest BCS rankings revealed that West Virginia had moved ahead of Auburn to take over the No. 4 spot. The move is significant because it decreases the likelihood that a one-loss Southeastern Conference team might finish ahead of a potentially undefeated West Virginia squad in the final BCS standings.

3. UNDERDOGS FALTER: After his team made a miraculous comeback in the final minute to beat UCLA 20-17, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said this was the type of game good teams win.

It's also the type of game bad teams lose.

UCLA deserves credit for going on the road with a backup quarterback and nearly beating Notre Dame, but the Bruins' last-minute collapse reflected a day full of heartbreak for numerous underdogs.

Mississippi State nearly beat Georgia. Duke was driving for a winning score against Miami. Washington led California for most of the day.

None of them closed the deal.

4. COMEBACK FOR THE AGES: Michigan State regained a pulse by finally locating its heart.

The program known for its late-game and late-season fades turned that reputation on its ear Saturday by rallying from a 38-3 second-half deficit to beat Northwestern. The victory allowed Michigan State to resuscitate its hopes of earning its first bowl invitation since 2003.

This comeback still might not save John L. Smith's job at the end of the season, but it might rebuild the reputation of Drew Stanton. After failing to throw a touchdown pass in three consecutive games, the embattled quarterback threw for two scores and ran for a third during the dramatic rally.

5. SEASON OF SORROW: How much more heartbreak can Northwestern endure this year?

A season of agony started this summer with the death of Wildcats coach Randy Walker, which resulted in the promotion of Pat Fitzgerald less than a month before the start of training camp.

Northwestern understandably has struggled all season, and even lost 34-17 to Division I-AA program New Hampshire. The Wildcats appeared on the verge of finally having reason to rejoice Saturday until everything fell apart in the fourth quarter.

The irony of it all is that Fitzgerald showed his team highlights of the Chicago Bears' dramatic Monday night comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals in an attempt to inspire his players. Who would have figured the Wildcats would be on the wrong end of an even more stunning comeback five days later?

6. UCLA DEFENSE PROVES ITSELF: Although UCLA failed to hang on for the victory at Notre Dame, the Bruins' defense proved it's for real.

UCLA was ranked second in the nation in total defense a couple of weeks ago, but skeptics said the Bruins benefited from a weak early season schedule. UCLA's 30-20 loss to Oregon last weekend lent credence to the notion that these were the same old Bruins who allowed 34 points a game last year.

But the Bruins rebounded at Notre Dame with the same aggressive approach they have employed all season under first-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker. UCLA sacked Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn five times and held the Fighting Irish to 41 rushing yards on 35 carries.

7. NEW LOOK IN ACC: The unpredictable conference standings (e.g. Wake Forest ahead of Florida State, Georgia Tech ahead of Miami) weren't the only reason the Atlantic Coast Conference had a different look this weekend.

Clemson wore all-purple uniforms Saturday for the first time since the 1940 Cotton Bowl. Florida State abandoned its traditional garnet-and-gold for all-black attire as a way of honoring the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Only one team looked good in its new gear.

Clemson thrashed Coastal Division leader Georgia Tech 31-7 in a potential ACC championship game preview. Florida State delivered a dud in its new duds and fell 24-19 to Boston College.

8. CLEMSON NEEDS HELP: Clemson asserted itself as the Atlantic Coast Conference's top team Saturday, but the Tigers still don't control their destiny in the Atlantic Division race.

Boston College beat Clemson in double overtime last month and can capture the division title by winning the rest of its conference games. The Eagles still must play Nov. 4 at Wake Forest, Nov. 11 against Duke, Nov. 18 against Maryland and Nov. 23 at Miami.

If the Eagles sweep those four games, Clemson could end up joining Auburn and Tennessee as one-loss teams hoping to earn BCS at-large berths despite failing to win their respective divisions.

9. WHERE'S CALVIN?: Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson caught three touchdown passes the last time he visited Clemson. He didn't come close to delivering a repeat performance in his return.

Double-teamed throughout the game, Johnson failed to catch a pass for the first time in his career. He touched the ball only once all night, when he lost 4 yards on a carry in the Yellow Jackets' first possession.

That removes one more contender for a Heisman Trophy race that's looking more and more like a landslide for Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith.

10. RUNNING WILD: Some of the nation's top running backs delivered star-making performances Saturday.

Rutgers sophomore Ray Rice rushed for 229 yards in a 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh. Clemson sophomore James Davis and true freshman C.J. Spiller combined for 332 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Tech.

But the most impressive performance of all may have come from California junior Marshawn Lynch.

Running with two sore ankles, Lynch still collected 203 all-purpose yards (150 rushing, 53 receiving) and ran for the winning touchdown in the Golden Bears' 31-24 overtime triumph over Washington.

11. FSU HITS BOTTOM: How far has Florida State fallen?

The ACC Atlantic Division cellar dwellers have lost five of their last seven regular-season conference games, not including a 27-22 ACC championship game victory over Virginia Tech last year.

Florida State didn't suffer its fifth overall ACC loss until 2002 its 11th year as a conference member.

12. SACK ATTACK: All-America candidate Dan Bazuin of Central Michigan justifiably garners the lion's share of any attention that surrounds pass rushers from non-BCS programs.

But he isn't the only prolific defensive end from a Mid-American Conference school in Michigan.

Western Michigan's Ameer Ismail tied an NCAA single-game record by delivering six sacks in a 41-27 victory over Ball State. Just for good measure, Ismail also collected 13 total tackles and returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown.

This marked the second consecutive week that Western Michigan made a name for itself. Last week, the Broncos held NCAA rushing leader Garrett Wolfe to 25 yards on 18 carries in a 16-14 triumph over Northern Illinois.

13. HOW WILL THE WOLFE SURVIVE?: Two weeks ago, Wolfe appeared on his way to breaking Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season rushing record.

Now it's not a sure thing that the Northern Illinois star will even win this year's rushing title.

One week after gaining just 25 yards on 18 carries in a loss to Western Michigan, Wolfe ran 17 times for 45 yards in a 43-21 victory over Temple. Opponents are stacking defenders near the line of scrimmage in an all-out effort to stop Wolfe.

Wolfe still tops the nation with 176.6 rushing yards per game, but his lead has shrunk the last two weeks. Rice is creeping within striking distance at 160.6 yards per game, though Rutgers' tough late-season schedule should allow Wolfe to win the title.

14. GOOD KNIGHTS: Any publicity surrounding Rutgers' surprising start has centered on Rice, but the Scarlet Knights' defense also merits plenty of praise.

Rutgers is ranked second in the nation in total defense behind only Louisiana State after knocking off Pittsburgh 20-10 and holding Tyler Palko in check. Palko, who led the nation in passing efficiency before Saturday, went 16-of-26 but also was sacked five times.

15. BOISE STATE IN BCS?: Could an undefeated Boise State team end its season by playing defending national champion Texas in the Fiesta Bowl?

The idea isn't so far-fetched.

Boise State remained 15th in the BCS standings this week after a 42-26 victory over Idaho. The Broncos earn an automatic BCS invitation if they finish in the top 12 in the BCS standings, which seems like a logical scenario as long as they remain unbeaten.

The Broncos' biggest remaining obstacles are at San Jose State (4-2) on Nov. 11 and at Nevada (4-2) on Nov. 24. Boise State's other two remaining foes Fresno State and Utah State have a combined record of 2-13.

16. FIASCO IN FRESNO: Eleven months have passed since Fresno State nearly knocked Southern California out of the national title picture. Only a huge performance from Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush allowed USC to survive with a 50-42 victory.

The Bulldogs have since lost just about all the respect they gained that evening.

Fresno State's 38-6 loss to Louisiana State on Saturday marked the Bulldogs' 10th loss in their last 11 games a skid that began with that USC game. That skid includes a 13-12 setback at Utah State, which hasn't won any other games all year.

17. ROSS IS BOSS: If Texas goes on to win the Big 12 championship, Aaron Ross ought to receive a free dinner from each of his teammates.

Ross knocked the ball loose from Nebraska wide receiver Terrance Nunn in the last two minutes to allow Texas to rally for a 22-20 victory Saturday, but this wasn't the first time the star cornerback carried the Longhorns to victory.

Two weeks earlier, the Thorpe Award candidate returned a fumble for a touchdown and intercepted two passes in a 28-10 triumph over Oklahoma that helped Texas seize control of the South Division.

18. UNLIKELY KICKING HEROES: This season of Cinderella stories at the kicking position continued Saturday.

Texas walk-on Ryan Bailey made his first career field-goal attempt one to remember by nailing a game-winning 22-yarder with 23 seconds left in a 22-20 victory over Nebraska. Bailey entered the game only because regular kicker Greg Johnson's leg had tightened up on him.

Later, Boston College's Steve Aponavicius improved to 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts by making a 26-yarder at Florida State. Aponavicius hadn't played in an organized football game before earning the Eagles' starting job a week ago.

19. DYNAMIC DUO: One of the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference boasts perhaps the best pair of linebackers in the nation.

Ole Miss senior Patrick Willis already has developed a reputation as a leading Butkus Award candidate. Now teammate Rory Johnson is making a name for himself.

The junior-college transfer collected 16 tackles, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries against Vanderbilt in his first career start. Johnson has followed that up with 14 tackles in a loss to Georgia and 11 more in a loss to Arkansas.

It's scary to think about how bad the nation's 83rd-ranked scoring defense might be without these two guys.

20. REALITY SETS IN: The bloom is off the rose for a couple of quarterbacks who had hot starts.

North Carolina State defeated Boston College and Florida State in its first two games with Daniel Evans as the starter, but the Wolfpack have since fallen to Wake Forest and Maryland. Evans has thrown three interceptions and no touchdowns during the two-game skid.

Oregon's Dennis Dixon played extremely well for the first half of the season, but he has been picked off five times in the Ducks' two losses. He was benched in favor of Brady Leaf after throwing a pair of interceptions in a 34-23 setback at Washington State.

21. BUSY DAY: He may not match Adrian Peterson's production, but Oklahoma's Allen Patrick proved Saturday he's willing to accept the All-American's workload.

Patrick ran 35 times for 110 yards in his first game as a fill-in starter for Peterson, who is expected to miss at least the rest of the regular season with a broken collarbone. Not even Peterson had carried the ball that many times in a game this year.

Although Patrick barely averaged three yards per carry in the 24-3 victory over Colorado, his durability should help prevent Oklahoma from having to alter its ball-control strategy the rest of the year.

22. COWBOYS UP: File this under things you don't expect to see. A team from the Mountain West Conference a league usually known for its offense leads the nation in pass defense.

Wyoming holds that honor by allowing just 120.6 passing yards per game. It has allowed just four touchdown passes all year. The Cowboys (4-4) intercepted Caleb Hanie twice Saturday on their way to a 24-0 shutout of Colorado State that gave them three consecutive victories.

23. WAC THROWDOWN: A game featuring the nation's two most prolific passing offenses promised plenty of fireworks, and the Hawaii-New Mexico State game didn't disappoint.

Colton Brennan threw for five touchdowns and 330 yards and Hawaii never punted during its 49-30 victory over New Mexico State. The Warriors withstood a three-touchdown, 323-yard performance from New Mexico State quarterback Chase Holbrook, who leads the nation in total offense.

Brennan is second in the nation in total offense and leads all quarterbacks in passing efficiency. Brennan has earned the latter honor by avoiding the mistakes that typically haunt quarterbacks who throw the ball almost 40 times a game.

24. COOPER'S COMEBACK: Miami engaged in one of the most brutal brawls in recent memory last weekend. The Hurricanes spent the next several days being ridiculed about the light punishments they gave to the players involved in the fight.

Then they went out and created one of the biggest feel-good stories of the week.

Miami squeaked past Duke 20-15 only after Willie Cooper intercepted a pass into the end zone on the game's final play. That's the same Willie Cooper was shot in the buttocks during the offseason.

Cooper recovered from that incident, but he spent most of the season on the sideline before all those suspensions gave him an expanded role. He ended up saving the season for the Hurricanes, who could move into the ACC Coastal Division lead with a win at Georgia Tech next weekend.

25. THURSDAY NIGHT THRILLS: Virginia's 23-0 victory over North Carolina may have been the worst Thursday night programming since "Inside Schwartz," "Cursed" and all those other lousy sitcoms NBC used to air right after "Friends."

ESPN is about to make amends for that horrible matchup. The next three Thursday nights should provide must-see TV.

Clemson goes on the road this Thursday to face a Virginia Tech team trying to salvage its season. The Big East race will begin to sort itself out the next two Thursdays when Louisville plays host to West Virginia on Nov. 2 before traveling to Rutgers on Nov. 9.

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