The Numerical, Week 13: Florida closes out another, Notre Dame echoing loud

Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE

The numbers that mattered in Week 13 of the college football season, from Notre Dame's echoes, to Michigan State's overachieving underachievement, to Oklahoma's first downs, to Bene Benwikere's interceptions.

2. Kickoffs returned for touchdown in a 29-second span in the fourth quarter of Utah's 42-35 win over Colorado. Few things are more fun than back-to-back return TDs. It was, after all, just about the only thing that made Super Bowl XXXV watchable.

2.9. Yards per touch in 25 touches for UCLA's Johnathan Franklin during a 35-17 Bruins loss to Stanford. The star running back gained just 65 yards in 21 carries and caught three of four passes for just seven yards against Stanford's ridiculously fierce front seven. If UCLA is to defeat the Cardinal in this Saturday's Pac-12 title game rematch, the Bruins will have to figure out how to free Franklin up a bit. That probably means rushing quarterback Brett Hundley a few more times. The redshirt freshman had eight "rushes" on Saturday, but seven were sacks. Stanford's defense is just so damn good, isn't it?

3. Passes intercepted by San Jose State's Bene Benwikere in the final 19 minutes of his Spartans' 52-43 win over Louisiana Tech. In a game that featured both a) two strong teams and b) 1,151 total yards, it was a defender who made the biggest difference in the game.

In other news, this was seriously not the year for the WAC to basically lose any semblance of television coverage. The dying conference produced three truly strong teams -- SJSU, Louisiana Tech and Utah State, who went 26-4 versus teams not named SJSU, Louisiana Tech and Utah State -- and a stellar three-way battle for the conference title. But this one is on Watch ESPN if you missed it. (For that matter, so is Utah State-Louisiana Tech.)

6. Michigan State's win total in 2012. Also: Michigan State's current S&P+ ranking. How exactly does a 6-6 team rank ahead of 118 other FBS programs, including 13 with double-digit wins? With spectacular defense, first of all. The Spartans have dominated on that side of the ball for most of the year. But they have also pulled off this odd combination with a spectacular inability to turn yards and opportunities into points. The Spartans outgained Minnesota, 421 to 96, on Saturday, and they won the turnover battle to boot. On paper, this should have been about a 42-3 win. But they won by just a 26-10 margin thanks to both a super-costly turnover (returned for a touchdown) and the inability to finish drives. They advanced inside Minnesota's 40-yard line eight times, scored just two touchdowns, turned the ball over once, and settled for five field goals (they made one). Gee, if only they had some size they could effectively utilize when they get close to the goal line...

So basically, S&P+ looks at every (non-garbage time) play of the season, takes opponent into account, and judges you. In MIchigan State, it sees a team with a great defense and a decent offense, one that should be the class of the Big Ten with an 11-1 (or so) record. It sees incorrectly, in other words, though the Spartans have certainly come close, with five of six losses by four points or less.

One final word: The two most out-of-place teams in last year's S&P+ rankings were Notre Dame (8-5 and 10th) and Texas A&M (7-6 and 16th). Those two teams are 22-2 this season. Just saying.

8. First-half punts by Rutgers in an eventual 27-6 loss to Pittsburgh. Six were after three-and-outs. The Scarlet Knights could still win the Big East and claim their first ever major bowl bid if they beat Louisville this coming weekend. And honestly, they have shown promise at times, specifically on defense. But that offense just disappears at inopportune times, and I would say "50 yards in 27 plays against Pittsburgh" qualifies as "just disappearing."

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, continued what has truly been one of the oddest seasons in memory. In Paul Chryst's first season, the Panthers lost by double digits to Youngstown State (YSU's season just ended at 7-4, with a home loss to Southern Illinois and double-digit losses to two different Dakotas, North Dakota State and South Dakota State), romped Virginia Tech, came closer than anybody else to beating 12-0 Notre Dame, and now rolled over the Big East favorites.

17. Kent State's current BCS ranking. We are seriously one more KSU win (and a little bit of help) from the Golden Flashes landing in a BCS bowl. This is incredible. Of course, it's also pointless to worry about this right now, as I'm pretty sure their upcoming MAC title game opponent, Northern Illinois, has played at a legitimate Top 20 level for most of the last two months and will win semi-comfortably. But still, as a fan of underdogs, I am salivating.

24. Points scored in the fourth quarter by Florida in a 37-26 win over Florida State in Tallahassee. The Gators have worked their way to 11-1 despite not even trying to pass the eyeball test (seriously, they almost finagled a BCS title game bid out of a season that saw them beat UL-Lafayette and Missouri by seven, Bowling Green by 13 and Jacksonville State by 23, all at home), but they looked spectacular in the final 15 minutes of this game. Florida State seized control and took a 20-13 lead into the fourth quarter, and then Florida absolutely laid the wood. For all of their issues, fourth-quarter play isn't one of them. Florida has outscored opponents by 80 total points in the first, second and third quarters combined. They have outscored opponents by 86, 115-29, in the fourth. As we say quite often: Always be closing.

Other teams tried the "surge" thing, too, but they didn't pull it off quite as well. Duke scored 21 points and gained 226 yards in the fourth quarter against Miami, but they had fallen too far behind (45-24 heading into the fourth) for it to matter and fell, 52-45. Wisconsin, meanwhile, did it right: at Penn State, the Badgers started the game on fire, gaining 127 yards and scoring twice in their first eight plays. But they averaged just 3.7 yards per play, and scored just seven points, the rest of the way.

44.

Exactly how does that happen? With the following combination: lots of possessions (the Sooners ran 103 plays and advanced inside OSU's 40 10 times), consistently iffy field position (average starting field position: their 27-yard line), and lots and lots of 10-12 yard passes. But the Sooners had to stage a comeback against Oklahoma State because a) they scored touchdowns on only four of their 10 trips into scoring position (and didn't score at all on three), and b) OSU gained 490 yards and scored six touchdowns on eight trips inside the Sooners' 40.

You do, after all, have to still score when you get into scoring position. Just ask Louisville, which advanced inside the opposition's 40 nine times and somehow scored just 20 points in a surprising overtime loss to UConn). Or Arkansas, which pierced LSU's 40 seven times and scored just one touchdown in a narrow loss. Or Iowa, which advanced inside Nebraska's 40 four times in the first half and somehow lost, 13-7. Or even Ohio State, which dominated Michigan in total yardage (396 to 279), won the turnover battle and generated double the scoring opportunities of the Wolverines but settled for four field goals and won by just five points, 26-21.

60.8. Average starting field position for Arizona State in the fourth quarter of the Sun Devils' 41-34 win over Arizona. As in, Arizona's 39-yard line. ASU overcame a 10-point deficit after three quarters by tilting the field. They drove 56 yards for a field goal, recovered a fumble at their 44 and drove for a touchdown, blocked a punt and drove eight yards for the go-ahead touchdown, then picked off a pass, returned it 66 yards to the Arizona 2, and scored two plays later. That is how you win a rivalry game on the road.

334. Receiving yards gained by Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief in the last two weeks. He caught six of 12 passes for 161 yards and two scores against LSU, then caught seven of eight for 173 and three scores (including a 77-yarder) in an Egg Bowl win over Mississippi State. Moncrief has been pretty good all year, but he has been spectacular in mid- and late-November. The Rebels will get fellow receiver Nickolas Brassell back from a year in academics-related purgatory in 2013, and wow, will that be a duo.

1,000. Reasons for you to try this cake at some point. Every reason, however, is the same: It is incredible. I still don't quite understand the point of Pinterest, but it delivered this recipe to my wife, and she made it over Thanksgiving weekend. So Pinterest is totally awesome.

8,730. Days since Notre Dame completed a 12-0 season with a 34-21 pasting of West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" was enjoying its second week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Twins was wrapping up its third week as the No. 1 movie, and Lou Holtz was completing his third season in South Bend. The Irish won the 1988 title, came ridiculously close to another title in 1989 and 1993, then vanished, slowly but completely, from the land of elite football.

Holtz left after going 23-11-1 in his final three years, and Bob Davie took over, alternating between years of promise (9-3 in 1998 and 2000) and unacceptable mediocrity (17-19 in 1997, 1999 and 2001). Tyrone Willingham took over for Davie, teased (10-3 in 2002), then faltered. Charlie Weis did the same (19-6 in 2005-06, 16-21 from 2007-09). And in Brian Kelly's first two seasons, one had to wonder if all the pieces were going to come together. The Irish went 8-5 in both 2010 and 2011. They had to work through awkward, unacceptable tragedy that first year. They were victimized by semi-hilarious turnover woes in 2011. But despite Kelly's red (purple?) faces and decent-at-best records, the components were coming together. On a play-for-play basis, Notre Dame was damn solid in 2011, and with more stability at quarterback (despite odd starter-and-closer roles for Everett Golson and 2011 starter Tommy Rees early in the year) and a little more explosiveness on defense, they are elite again in 2012. it took a while, but they're here.

And make no mistake: Notre Dame is elite. If they play Alabama in the national title game, I will absolutely pick the Tide to win. (Georgia? I'm not sure yet. I'm still not totally grasping how good the Dawgs have become in the last few weeks.) But even then, Alabama would still have to score on this SEC-caliber Irish defense. Alabama would still have to stop an offense that seems to take full advantage of every single misplay by a defender. And Alabama would still have to fight for 60 minutes against a squad that has shown absolutely no panic in clutch situations.

Notre Dame barely beat Pitt, Purdue and BYU, yes. But underestimate the Irish at your own risk. They are just a couple more breaks (in a season that seems to be shining all good fortune on the Irish) from wrapping up their 11th undefeated season in the last century of football. And ... you want to talk about joining a fraternity? How does Brian Kelly's name sound alongside those of Jesse Harper (head coach of Notre Dame's undefeated 1913 squad), Knute Rockne (1919, 1920, 1924, 1929, 1930), Frank Leahy (1947, 1949), Ara Parseghian (1973), and Lou Holtz (1988)?

In the offseason, I laughed at how guarded and wounded Notre Dame fans had become. Something tells me they are in a bit of an improved state of mind right about now.

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