Four Downs on Week 0: Welcome Back

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I’ll be honest with you: I was not prepared for Week 0.

College football bloggers love to lament the offseason and the absence of gridiron action. And it may well be genuine. But from taking my four-year-old son swimming, having free time to catch up on books and movies, and with its generally laid-back aura, I love summertime.

As I walked my son through Legoland California on Friday afternoon, I thought of the many deadlines approaching for Week 1, as well as the independent projects I have worked on throughout the season, and I wonder, Am I really ready for the college football season?

It’s a wrap on Week 0, and I can confidently write I am very much ready for the 2018 season.

Since the concept first began as a showcase for the FCS in 2014, I have always appreciated Week 0 for its presentation of programs that would not otherwise share much of the national spotlight.

An appetizer to the fully loaded Week 1 also provides an effective bridge from summer mindset to football mode. The excitement of the season is now coursing through my veins. College football is back, and so is Four Downs.

FIRST DOWN: One Decision

At Colorado State, Week 0 of 2018 bore an eerie similarity to Week 11 of the 2017 season. Two Mountain West Conference games in two different campaigns played at CSU Stadium saw one team go ahead multiple scores early, blitzing a favored opponent with an early barrage, only for that opponent to rally and return fire.

Colorado State experienced both ends of the scenario. The Rams losing was the only constant.

Last November, the Rams built a 28-3 lead over Boise State in the second quarter. The Broncos chipped away, but a touchdown with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter gave the Rams a 52-38 edge. It should have been enough to win.

It wasn’t. And while myriad plays fed into Boise State’s rally (and Colorado State’s collapse), an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on what should have been third-and-long led to a Brett Rypien touchdown, which led to an onside kick that Boise State recovered before scoring the overtime-forcing touchdown.

Saturday, Hawaii rolled to 37-7 lead in the late third quarter behind the positively Colt Brennan-like play of previously unknown quarterback Cole McDonald. Plenty of miscues precede trailing by 30 points, so assigning too much importance to a single decision may miss the mark.

However, as Colorado State began a torrid 27-3 comeback that spanned a mere 13 minutes of game time, Rams head coach Mike Bobo elected to attempt a two-point conversion on the second touchdown. The failure marks the difference in Colorado State trailing 43-35 — a one-score game after Ryan Meskell’s 35-yard field goal with 44 seconds remaining — and 43-34, a two-score game.

Coaches taking a risk on two-point conversions had profound impact on the college football landscape in 2017. Eastern Michigan was stone-walled on an attempt at Army; Cal’s attempted pass for the win in overtime against Arizona was deflected. The Eagles and Golden Bears both finished 5-7, one game out of the postseason.

Utah’s Kyle Whittingham similarly rolled the dice at USC midway through the season. The Trojans won the Pac-12 South by two games, so the would-be game-winner wasn’t the difference in USC winning the conference and not. However, losses and wins can have a domino effect over the course of a season. The same concept works within the context of a game.

Going for two while trailing early is considered “chasing points.” The phrase, a cliche, might lack meaning when applied without deeper context. Like other cliches, however, there’s merit when practically applied.

Chasing points suggests an air of desperation. A two-point conversion is worth the same amount of points whenever in a game it’s attempted, but doing so at the end of a one-point game — as Eastern Michigan, Cal and Utah did unsuccessfully in 2017 — demonstrates trust in players to make a single play to win a game. Attempting a two-point conversion down 37-20 is scrounging, the football equivalent of sifting through the cash cushions for coins.

A single call hardly lost Week 0 for Colorado State, just as no one penalty cost the Rams against Boise State in November. A single decision can dramatic change the complexion of a game, however.

SECOND DOWN: Bohl’d Over

So much was made of quarterback Josh Allen’s NFL prospects a season ago, the future Buffalo Bill’s unimpressive statistical performance perhaps obfuscated that Wyoming reached eight wins for a second consecutive season. That’s a milestone not previously reached at Wyoming since the legendary 1987 and 1988 campaigns, when the Cowboys won 10 and 11 games under Paul Roach.

Draftniks made noise about Allen’s lackluster numbers being a byproduct of the players around him. And yet, the Wyoming defense carried much of the weight en route to that 8-win finish. If Week 0 at New Mexico State is any indication, the defense is again capable of lifting the Cowboys in 2018.

Too much stock should not be placed in a single, early-season win — especially not against an opponent in an obvious state of rebuild, as New Mexico State is on the offensive side. The Aggies defense played valiantly in Saturday’s nightcap, particularly tackle Roy Lopez.

The grind from spending an absurd 42 minutes on the field eventual wore on the New Mexico State defense, and the dam broke. A couple of second-half touchdowns on long runs were the direct result of the Wyoming defense thoroughly dominating the Aggies in all phases.

It was quintessential Craig Bohl football.

One of my first professional gigs covering college football was reporting on the Football Championship Subdivision for NCAA.com, just before the North Dakota State dynasty claimed its first national title under Bohl.

The 2009 and 2010 teams foreshadowed what Craig Bohl had cooking in Fargo. The Bison transitioned from the electric Pat Paschall at running back to the equally dynamic D.J. McNorton. In its first championship campaign, North Dakota State rolled with McNorton and Sam Ojuri.

Likewise, the 2010 defense held opponents to just 18 points per game. By the first title season, the Bison shaved a whole touchdown off that yield.

It’s an old-school formula, genius in its simplistic: Imposing its will on opponents from the defensive end with big, physically tenacious players (especially on the line), then breaking the opponent’s will with an unrelenting hammering of the run.

It can be effective, no matter the opponent. Even a reigning Power Five conference champion. 

Wyoming may not have a Josh Allen or Carson Wentz, but it does have the ideal Craig Bohl team. Nico Evans rushed for 190 yards against a feisty NMSU defense, showing the potential to be the next Paschal, or McNorton, or Ojuri — or, at even higher standard, Brian Hill.

With Youhanna Ghaifan and Carl Granderson up front, this might be the most talented line Bohl’s ever had in his time as a head coach. That’s a frightening prospect for Cowboys opponents. Just ask New Mexico State.

Speaking of the Aggies, the ESPN telecast made note of the weekly “auditions” New Mexico State undergoes in its new-found independence. The historically struggling program aims to prove its breakout 2017 was not an aberration, but Week 0 was a setback.

A live shot of fans leaving in the early fourth quarter with the offense sputtering and Wyoming ahead, 22-0, marks an ominous start. Still, that Memorial Stadium kicked off with a lively crowd is a testament to what Doug Martin is building. NMSU boasts an impressive defense, and the offense only has room to improve, considering the Aggies may not see a better defensive unit the rest of the season — and that includes Minnesota in just five days.

THIRD DOWN: North Carolina A&T Proves Its Place

As North Carolina A&T closed in on a perfect season ahead of last December’s Celebration Bowl, I posited the question if the Aggies could stake reasonable claim to a split national championship.

Such a finish would have been unprecedented; that the FCS has always determined a definitive champion at season’s end is such a cornerstone of its identity that Championship is right there in the Subdivision’s name. And while North Carolina A&T finished with the only unblemished record in FCS, the historic struggles of the MEAC in the Playoffs predating the Celebration Bowl suggested NCAT just wasn’t quite at the level with the title contenders of FCS.

Saturday’s Week 0 showcase pitting North Carolina A&T against Jacksonville State resoundingly countered that suggestion.

Two streaks were on the line Saturday in Jacksonville: the 12 consecutive wins North Carolina A&T rolled off through 2017 vs. Jacksonville State’s 41 straight against FCS competition in the regular season. The Gamecocks dominate the Ohio Valley Conference year-in and year-out, and as their preseason No. 6 ranking suggests, are favored to do so once again in 2018.

Jacksonville State’s a perennial national title contender, reaching the FCS Championship Game at the 2015 season’s conclusion. And North Carolina A&T beat the Gamecocks in their house.

The Aggies did not exactly dominate, despite leading for all but a few minutes of the second half. On the contrary, North Carolina A&T’s typically explosive quarterback Lamar Raynard spent the evening stymied.

A&T’s offensive struggles make the win all the more impressive, considering the Aggies responded with a dominant effort against what is typically one of the most prolific and multifaceted rushing attacks in the FCS, allowing just 80 yards on the ground.

Turnovers are one of those statistics that generate some debate. I have seen turnovers deemed luck — good fortune for defenses that gain them, bad luck for offenses that lose them. There’s something to be said for making your own luck, though, and that’s how North Carolina A&T won.

In particular, Daryl Johnson Jr’s strip to deny Jacksonville State a game-tying field goal opportunity was simply a terrific play, indicative of the play-making talent that defines North Carolina A&T.

FOURTH DOWN: Between Blowouts and Comebacks

UMass blasting Duquesne in the very first Div. I game of the 2018 season, and Rice beating Prairie View A&M on a last-second field goal for the very first comeback win of the 2018 season could not have been two any more different games. Even so, similarities exist.

UMass — which has realistic aspirations for its first bowl game in program history — entered Week 0 with a plan. Coach Mark Whipple alternated quarterbacks, went into the depth chart early, and built a big lead in order to give reserves game experience.

First-year, first-game Rice coach Mike Bloomgren also embarked on Week 0 with a plan. Surely that plan did not include a 16-0 lead evaporating, becoming a 28-19 deficit, and the Owls having to score 12 unanswered to eek out a win.

Rice’s struggles against a PVAMU team coming off a middling 6-5 campaign point to a long and trying debut season for Bloomgren. But Saturday is just one phase in a plan that transcends Week 0, and perhaps even the 2018 campaign.

Rice introduced formations and an approach reminiscent of Stanford; not surprisingly, since Bloomgren came from The Farm. His hire was one of the more inspired in the offseason coaching carousel, with Rice having an academic identity akin to that of Stanford. An on-field approach that effectively plays off that can work with the right vision.

Preceding the arrival of Jim Harbaugh — and ostensibly, David Shaw — implementing that vision was a struggle. Even the current era of Stanford football, despite a historic upset of USC, did not exactly set the Pac-10 ablaze right away, either. The 2007 season opened with a 45-17 blowout loss to a wholly mediocre UCLA bunch.

Rebuilding Rice may be a greater undertaking, but growing a winner is a long-term plan. UMass and its Quixotic pursuit of FBS membership is a fitting example.

Kicking off its FBS tenure playing home games at Gillette Stadium and joining the MAC, season after season of struggle moved UMass back to its campus stadium. The MAC opting to jettison affiliate members — ergo, UMass — forced the Minutemen into independence.

Independence can be a brutal proposition for any program not named Notre Dame. Still, with players like quarterback Andrew Ford and Saturday’s head-turning effort from Bilal Ally, the Minutemen could reach an important milestone in their grand plan with a bowl bid.