Oct. 29, 2007
In Ohio State's 37-17 victory over Penn State at not-so-Happy Valley, it was more of the same from the likes of QB Todd Boeckman, RB Chris "Beanie" Wells and WRs Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. But the position that often gets overlooked with this year's team is tight end. Both junior Rory Nicol (6-4, 250) and sophomore Jake Ballard (6-6, 255) grabbed my attention against Penn State with their blocking prowess, particularly in the passing game. (Nicol also had a team-high six receptions.) Ballard also gives the Buckeyes more of a vertical threat at the position. He's averaging 12.7 yards per catch compared to Nicol at 5.9 yards per grab.
The fast-rising Robiskie (6-2½, 195) set the tone early against the Nittany Lions, displaying excellent natural pass receiving skills to go along with terrific body control. Over the first two months of the season no player at wide receiver has seen his stock improve as much as Robiskie. The more I watch him, the more I really like his chances for future success in the NFL.
After making a name for himself the past two seasons at left tackle with the Oregon Ducks, junior Max Unger switched to center this season. Against USC, he faced his toughest test of the year in DT Sedrick Ellis. I watched this matchup closely for the first three quarters and came away very impressed with Unger. His footwork and hand placement enable him to do a very good job in pass protection, and he's capable of making some nice second-level blocks in the running game. His performance in the trenches resulted in successful days by QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart.
On defense for Oregon, the most noteworthy effort came from senior free safety Matthew Harper (5-11, 183). The son of former Nebraska All-American and San Francisco 49er Willie Harper, Matthew had two interceptions, including one that sealed the victory for the Ducks. Not a permanent fixture in the lineup until this season, Harper covers ground quickly and shows impressive ball skills.
Staying in the Pac-10, the undefeated Arizona State Sun Devils have given up more than 20 points just once this season, thanks in large part to the play of underrated senior OLB Robert James. Standing just 5-foot-11, 228 pounds, James covers a lot of ground, is a sure tackler and has excelled in pass coverage. That was the case in the Sun Devils' come-from-behind victory over California when James intercepted his fourth pass of the season. For the year, James leads the Sun Devil with 69 tackles (including 8½ stops behind the line of scrimmage) and has 2½ sacks.
Arkansas improved to 5-3 with a 58-10 thrashing of winless Florida International, and in the process, saw senior WR Marcus Monk contribute for the first time this season. Monk, who sustained a knee injury in August, hauled in a pair of receptions, one of which was a 13-yard touchdown. Monk (6-5, 220) will need to continue to make contributions in the coming weeks as the Razorbacks close out the regular season with challenging games against South Carolina, at Tennessee, Mississippi State and at LSU.
A consistent and valuable member of the Razorbacks' offense all year has been versatile fullback Peyton Hillis. He proved his worth once again, leading the Razorbacks with six receptions for 77 yards. Whether it's running with the football, catching it, blocking or even returning punts, Hillis qualifies as one of the most impressive jack-of-all-trade players in college football. For the year, Hillis is averaging nearly five yards a carry, while hauling in 32 receptions for an 11.7-yard average and three touchdowns.
The Tulane Green Wave lost a tough one in the closing seconds against Memphis (28-27), but their record-setting senior RB Matt Forté put on quite a display. Productive and durable, Forté (6-1, 223) carried the ball 44 times for 278 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. Forté now has carried the ball more than 30 times for at least 200 yards in four straight games. If you believe the competition over the past four weeks (Memphis, SMU, UAB, Army) made that possible, think again. Forté averaged 4.6 yards per carry in a loss to LSU on Sept. 29. In eight games, Forté has 1,539 rushing yards -- more than double his total from 2006.
Conference USA not only has the leading rusher in the nation in Forte, but it has the second-leading rusher in Central Florida's Kevin Smith (6-0, 210). The junior has gotten somewhat lost in the mix because the 2009 class is loaded at running back with Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, Stewart from Oregon, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall and Rutgers' Ray Rice. Smith became the school's all-time leading rusher over the weekend, amassing 175 yards on 43 carries in a 34-17 win at Southern Mississippi. Not the type who is going to wow you with dazzling moves, Smith gets your attention with the way he's able to consistently pick up sizable chunks of yardage after initial contact, and always seems to fall forward for an extra yard or two at the end of a run. While he has enough quickness to bounce the play outside when called for, Smith's bread and butter is running tough between the tackles.
Some observers may have been surprised by Delaware's 59-52 victory over Navy, but in reality, this qualified as anything but a shocker. The Midshipmen were completely overwhelmed by the Blue Hens' senior QB Joe Flacco, and they also failed to contain Delaware's talented senior RB Omar Cuff. Flacco clearly is the best QB Navy will face this season, and he had absolutely no trouble carving up the Middies' deep patrol. A pro-style signal-caller, Flacco (6-6, 235) completed 30 of 41 passes for 434 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. On a number of occasions he had all day to throw, but Flacco's accuracy, arm strength and decision-making grabbed the attention of NFL scouts who were in attendance and he is a very intriguing prospect. Keep in mind, Flacco began his college career at Pittsburgh, where he was recruited by former coach Walt Harris, and worked as the backup to Tyler Palko. Flacco has completed 72.8 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. I know we're still early in the draft process, but I view Flacco as a potential third-round draft choice.
As for Cuff, we're talking about more of a late-round possibility, but he has demonstrated the skills to push his way onto an NFL roster. Against Navy, he finished with 141 yards rushing on 28 carries, scored four touchdowns and also had five receptions. Cuff (5-9, 195) is quick to the hole, runs with a purpose, shows home run-hitting speed and can catch the ball out of the backfield. (He has 100 receptions since his sophomore season.) After being hampered by an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for four games last season, Cuff has remained at full strength this year, accounting for more 1,000 yards rushing in eight games. He's averaging 5.1 yards per carry and has a total of 28 touchdowns (24 rushing, four receiving).