If in your minds eye you see this season as a bridge, the middle third is where our heroes first meet the trolls. These trolls do not represent the most difficult part of the season (that's the, I dunno, dragons? at the end) but they are not as easy as the dwarfs from the preseason and random giant Blue menace in game 3. After Marshall, we go @UNC (who knows what they will be like this season thanks to the NCAA), @Cinci (which has tons of offensive talent back but may be getting Butch'd), Rutgers at home (the closest thing to a written-in-pen Big East win we'll have) and Syracuse at home (potentially huge season-defining toss-up). Will these trolls turn us into stone? Or wait, do trolls turn people into stone? Or do they turn into stone? I'll try to summon my inner 2003 LOTR fan and sort it all out.....after the jump.
Greg Schiano and his assistant coaches
Game 5 (4-0, 0-0) - Louisville @ North Carolina
A consolation game since Georgia chickened out and scheduled Boise St. instead, this game got weird when Butch Davis got fired. I really cannot name a single person on this team, and I feel like I follow college football relatively close. The only names I know were ones who came up in the negative stories in the last year or two, and you could tell me all of those guys got 2 game suspensions, got kicked off the team, or all play for Arizona State now and I'd have to believe you. I am that trusting.
One thing UNC has thanks to years of apparently cheating is talent. Whether that team rallies behind their new coach or the scrutiny and distractions of the NCAA and their coach getting fired right before the season started remains to be seen, and the simulated season computer thinks it will be the former. Or doesn't take it into account, because UNC gets on the board first with a 40 yard field goal a few minutes into the game. They tack on a TD at the end of the 1st quarter to take a 10-0 lead on a 6 yard run from AJ Blue, who is listed as a QB but seems to be playing tailback in this game.
Vic Anderson answers back in the second quarter with an 8 yard pass from Will Stein (love the screen call inside the 10) and we go into halftime only down a field goal. UNC extends the lead late in the 3rd quarter with a 5 yard TD run that for some reason they go for 2 on (maybe as payback for 2004?) and get another TD to start the fourth quarter on an 83 yard TD pass (likely picking on a freshman cornerback). All we can manage is another field goal to get within 2 scores, but a TD run in the last 30 seconds makes up the final margin of victory as the Heels win 32-10.
The stats aren't that far apart, except for 3rd down conversions. UNC outgains us on the ground (183-138) and in the air (212-136) but converts twice as many third downs in the same number of attempts (6-15 v. 3-15). Stein has a rough day throwing the ball going 12-31 with an INT. Turnovers were actually even - our defense picked them off twice, but they returned the favor with an INT and one fumble recovery. UNC got a lot more first downs - 21 - 14, and that and the 3rd down conversion stat means that likely we just couldn't put many drives together.
Stein played the whole game (hard to simulate a rotating QB, another reason among the many that this exercise is mostly futile) and Vic took the lion's (er, Tiger's) share of the carries with 16 for only 70 yards. Lamb had another nice day going 6-32 but Stein also ran the ball 10 times for 34 yards. That can't be good.
Bellamy had another productive game, but he and Vic accounted for 8 of the 12 catches and 103 of the 136 yards, with only Michalee Harris catching 1 ball for 2 yards among the heretofore stellar receiving corps.
The defense did what it could, but it's going to be hard for us to win giving up 32 points. They just couldn't get off the field and let UNC move the ball pretty well. DanBrown had 11 tackles and Heyman 10 to lead the way. Hakeem Smith had both INTs and Brown and BJ Butler added 2 sacks.
Overall, UNC has more experienced talent than we do, and by that point in the season maybe the hangover from this summer's drama will have worn off. Mike's hangover from his birthday celebration (guess my Facebook invite got sent to my spam filter?) will have not worn off by then, and he will likely turn back to drinking after a rough loss to UNC, a team that will end the season 7-5 (3-5 in ACC play) so it's not like they are awesome.
Ugh. I hate trolls. Ok computer, whatever.
Onto Big East play.
CardsFan922 IRL Prediction: I'm going to cop out and say that I have no idea, mainly because of UNC. If Butch were still coaching, with the talent they have, I would have to say we'd be big underdogs. But I could see them imploding this year because of the scrutiny and whole "no coach" thing. We'll see. Maybe these IRL predictions are also a waste of everyone's time.
Game 6 (4-1, 0-0) - Louisville @ Cinci
There will be no Burns Island talk this season, mainly because he has graduated. But hopefully our corners can at least credibly claim isthmus status by the time we have to drive up 71 and cross over that POS bridge with all those crappy drivers and make our way through an otherwise hollowed out war-zone of a town....sorry, I got a little carried away. Cinci isn't such a bad town. They have an IKEA now.
Anyway, led by arguably the best QB in the Big East (non-Holgorsen division) in Zach Collaros, one of the best RBs in Isiah Pead and a talented receiving corps, the Bearcats jump out to an early 14-0 lead behind a 64 yard TD pass (freshman corners!) and a 1 yard TD pass (not sure whose fault) from Collaros. Things look bleak after last week's tough loss, but Vic Anderson does what seniors do when their teams need it and returns the ensuing kick-off 99 yards for a TD to get us on the board and stop the bleeding. Momentum continues with a Philpot field goal to cut the lead to 14-10, but the Nastycats get 3 more points to go into the locker rooms up 17-10. We get another field goal to keep the game close in the 3rd quarter, but Cinci gets a 3 yard TD run from their backup RB to take a 24-13 lead. Corvin Lamb continues his impressive freshman season by getting a 7 yard TD, and Charlie Strong correctly and successfully goes for 2 to get us within 3 points. But we can go no farther, and Philpott's 50+ yard field go goes wide late in the game, giving Cincinnati the 24-21 win. A heartbreaker, made worse by how Cinci would finish - 10-2 (5-2) after a late upset by unranked Syracuse.
The offense holds its own on the ground, only getting outrushed by 1 yard, but like last year, they do a number on us through the air - 212 yards on 19-39 passing and 2 TDs. 3rd downs are again a problem - 5-15 for us and 9-18 for them. We also failed on all three of our 4th down attempts and get a couple less first downs (17 v. 23) for the game.
Stein had another rough outing - 9 for 25 for only 117 yards (no INTs though), an unhealthy and unbelievable 36% completion rate. Jeremy Wright doesn't get many touches (none, in fact) although not sure if that would change the outcome. Vic does ok - 21 carries for 112 yards, but Stein had 11 carries for 19 yards. If Stein is really running it double-digit times a game and only completing 35% of his passes, well, I just don't believe that will happen. Those are Fromanesque numbers, and we all know how we feel about Adam Froman around here: we wish him the best of luck and hope he makes it as a pro, that's how we feel.
Andrell Smith has his second straight no-completions game as Josh Bellamy carries the load with 5 catches for 87 yards. Harris gets on the board with 2 catches for 22 yards, but not much else (Copeland and Anderson catch a pass each) from the Corps.
Dexter Heyman continues his strong season (although lots of tackles usually means that you are letting the other team stay on the field for awhile, so that's a somewhat misleading statistic) with 9 tackles, including 3 for a loss and a half-sack. Anthony F'in McClung torches our guys for 8 receptions and 138 yards, including the long TD, earning him player of the game honors.
Overall, another frustrating and disappointing loss where we had a chance, but were outplayed. F--k you, computer, you are not the boss of me.
CardsFan922 IRL Prediction: Not what the computer says. I'll leave it at that.
Game 7 (4-2, 0-1) - Rutgers @ Louisville
After two rough road losses, the Cards come home to face Rutgers. I always enjoy beating Rutgers, for an obvious reason (yup, I hate Pauly D, you correctly guessed the reason), and they generally are the only team in the Big East that is being talked about for the bottom spot...other than us, so, ya.
I'm sure Schiano's "I should have taken the Miami job!" conversations in his head and with his wife and whoever else will listen are really interesting these days. Regardless, he should have taken it. Speaking of which, remember when RichRod turned down Alabama? Classic. That's why you can't really blame a coach for cashing out and taking a bigger/better job when the iron's hot and all that. You think RichRod has his agent call up the Alabama AD and tell him that he'd be willing to listen when Saban goes back to the pros? Does the AD laugh on the phone or act all polite and then just bust a gut when they hang up? I'm going to guess the former.
Anyway, Rutgers sucks is my point, and this decline couldn't have happened to a suckier guy. The crowd lusts for hard hitting and scoring, and gets both early. Josh Chichester catches his patent pending fade for a 9 yard TD on the first drive, and after a Rutgers fumble, Vic takes a flare out of the back field 32 yards to the house for a 14-0 lead. The rout continues as Chichester gets another one, this time 26 yards from Stein. The Cards lead 21-0 after less than 10 minutes of gametime.
Unlike the last time these two teams met, Rutgers doesn't just give up after that. The Scarlet Knights get on the board with a 1 yard TD run and then close the gap further with a 76-yard TD pass (theme...developing....here) in the 2nd quarter. The halftime score is 21-14 and fans are justifiably nervous.
Those nerves turn to outright panic! as Rutgers ties it up with 5 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter on a 9 yard TD run. Vic Anderson continues his impressive senior campaign with a 5 yard TD run to quell the dissenters, and Strong opts to go for 2 points because HE SAID SO, THAT'S WHY. Might as well. And they get it! Cards lead 29-21.
We extend the lead in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard TD pass to Meagher, and a late Rutgers TD run leads to a failed onside kick. Cards survive, 36-29. Too close considering Rutgers ends the season 0-7 in Big East play and 3-9 overall.
Games with lots of offense sometimes are more exciting and less tense than defensive standoffs where just one broken play can end the game, so the crowd was likely much less tense than it would seem from the above description as the teams combine for more than 1,100 total yards when you add in special teams. The Cards got 460 of those yards on offense and another 97 on kick and punt returns. Stein had his best game of the season - 16-30 with 4 TDs (but one INT) while the defense was torched for 205 yards in the air and 195 on the ground. Rutgers actually outgained us on the ground 195-177, but when you have Slingin' Will Stein back there, you can ease away from the run a bit.
Hey, Jeremy Wright is back! 11 carries for 56 yards in his first game action for awhile. Vic had 113 yards on 18 carries, a decent 6.2 avg, and his only catch was the 32-yard TD. Chi-daddy (weird) caught 8 balls for 151 yards, Andrell Smith got his number called again twice for 36, but Bellamy was shut down with 1 catch for only 9 yards.
Dexter Heyman and Anthony Conner led the team with 9 tackles each, and Dan Brown forced the fumble (recovered by Shenard Holton) that led to the second score. Philpott missed his only field goal chance from anywhere between 40 and 49 yards, it doesn't say exactly. If this ruins the whole thing for you, I don't know what to say except I'm sorry.
A win is a win. Losing at Cinci and beating Rutgers at home seems like the most likely outcome from those two games and doesn't give any insight as to how good this team can be. A winnable game against a good team at home looms as a pivotal spot in the season. The Giant Orange Troll at the midpoint, so to speak.
Game 8 (5-2, 1-1) - Syracuse @ Louisville
The Syracuse-Louisville rivalry, if you can call it that anymore, is interesting. They marked the beginning of the end of the Kragthorpe era (some would say that was the MTSU game, but we were still a blown assignment away from beating the best UK team of my lifetime on the road the next game. Losing to UK then losing to Syracuse as 37.5 point favorites was too big of a hole for him to climb out of. All due respect to his health situation...) but since then we have actually beat them twice in a row - the only Big East 2-game winning streak over any team since 2006-2007. So sad. And obviously the basketball games where we have beaten them 129 straight games or something.
So it was a little frustrating last year when Syracuse was the darling comeback-from-terrible-coaching of the media, then we go beat them at home, and no one seems to care. They had an overall better year last year, beating two teams we couldn't and beating them on the road. But still, seems like there is not that much difference between us and them, and we beat them last year on the road. And 10-9! Who can forget one of the most epic college football games of all time!
Anyway, both IRL and in fake life (virtual life? nerd life?) when the Cuse comes to town in October, there will likely be a lot on the line. If we only win 3 out of our 5 non-conference games, we still need 3 Big East wins to get back to a bowl. That means Rutgers, @UConn and Cuse are our three best chances. The other four games would be upsets if we won them and are considerably tougher. How will the virtual Cards handle this pressure?
They start out well - after a couple 3-and-outs by both teams, Vic Anderson strikes first with a 6 yard TD run halfway through the 1st quarter. We hold them to a mere field goal after a redzone trip in the 2nd quarter, then reel off 14 straight points on Micahelee Harris's first touchdown catch of the season (the o/u on this IRL is the 4th quarter of the Marshall game) and Will's 5-yard scamper into the endzone with just 3 minutes to go in the first half. A 21-3 halftime lead has the crowd cautiously optimistic they can right the ship.
But just thinking about "righting the ship" causes us to slip up. An early Syracuse TD in the second half still is worrisome, but they go for 2 (?) and miss, so the lead stands at 21-9 through the start of the 4th. For those of you who are squeamish, I would advise you to look away. Because this gets gruesome. Their QB Nassib runs it in from 3 yards out to cut the lead to 21-16. Stein throws an INT a few drives later and Syracuse capitalizes with a 20 yard TD pass and 2 point conversion to take a 24-21 lead with 3:31 left to go in the game. A field goal with 24 seconds left seals the deal for the Orange, and they crush our dreams (virtual and real, frankly) 27-21. That sucked.
Statistically speaking, the score shouldn't have even been that close. Syracuse had 24 first downs to our 15 and 425 total yards to our 256. The key stat: the red zone. Syracuse got inside our 20 5 times, scoring 2 TDs and 2 field goals. We also got in 5 times and came away with 3 TDs, but had two completely empty trips. A TD on one of those or two field goals and it's a whole different outcome. The turnovers were likely in this area, although it says we failed on a 4th down so maybe we went for it late inside the 20 down 6? That would make sense conceptually. Again, this is just for fun and cannot answer the most basic questions about what actually virtually happened, okay?
And this has turned out to not be that fun. But do not fear, for the stats show how unreal this thing is - Bridgewater got no snaps whatsoever. Too, Jeremy Wright only got 2 carries for 12 yards, and we all know IRL Wright will get lots more. Vic wasn't bad (17 for 106) but still, those two will split a lot of carries. Will ran it 9 times, and I really don't see him running the option much this year. Or the WildSunny (Sunny Side Wild?) (WildWill?) for that matter. Another bad game for Bellamy - just 2 catches for 18 yards, and again Chichester led the way with 4 receptions for 42 yards.
The defense, and especially the secondary, is the story again. The computer really thinks we are going to suck. And maybe there's a lesson here - these guys are just freshmen. No matter how talented, if we are starting 2 freshman corners and seeing significant playing time from a freshman safety (Pryor - who may start if Facebook is to believed. But I say this to you, Facebook: if Calvin Pryor was named the starter, Calvin Pryor would have been named the starter), it is reasonable that we will give up a long pass TD to decent opponents once a game, like we have been in the game. And to give up lots of yards in the air, like we have been in the game.
So we limp past the trolls in the middle third of the bridge having lost 2 of 3 in heartbreaking fashion and barely beating the worst team in the conference in between. The last third of the schedule is brutal (by Big East standards): @WVU (best team in conference in a place we never win), Pitt at home (most talent in the conference and maybe a good coach actually now) and @USF (third best team in conference at a place we never win) with a must-win road game @UConn (screw those guys, seriously Kemba Walker got so many calls in the BET it is unreal and no I'm not over it and if you say you are, then you are lying to yourself and to all of us, and we don't appreciate lies around here). That's a tough road for any team, much less a young one that is licking its wounds from losing two winnable games in its last three.
Take heart, though, Cards fans. No matter how the virtual season turns out (spoiler alert: not well) the future is bright. Virtually speaking, the 2011 team is young and if I were to sim it out through the end of the 2012 season, I'm sure we would have a winning record that year. But I'm not going to do that because it would be a waste of time, and there's nothing to be gained from it.
The future is also bright because NONE OF THIS IS REAL and just a few days in the future, we will get to see how bad the folks at EA have underestimated our players, especially our freshman. But it always helps to remember that now matter how good we think we can be, this season is still a bridge year. Those can work out (and yes, I'm going to watch the 2010-11 VillenHD highlight video as soon as I'm done with this post), but they can also be fraught with peril and dragons and Orange trolls and broken coverages game after game.
F--k you computer. Charlie Strong does not live his life by your 1s and 0s.