Welcome to Game of the Week. With our abiding interest in the intersection of culture and academe, and the fact that we do love us some football, it only seems reasonable to give you all the full and majestic force of our unadulterated reckon on the subject of college football. Once every week it shall be our privilege and our prerogative to sit back, gesture towards the expanse of athletic endeavour which has taken place over the weekend, and demand of the world: “So, how about those Tigers?”
This week two undefeated teams clash: the Buckeyes of Ohio State and the Knights of the University of Central Florida. Admittedly it’s only week two, so remaining undefeated is not the achievement it might be, but I’m very excited, if only because one team’s name sounds like an insult and the other like a deleted sequence from Monty Python and the Quest For The Holy Grail. A splendid afternoon’s football seemed indicated.
The teams had something else in common (aside from their matching seasons, which Nate Silver might have described as “both a 100% success rate, and a dismal record of winning a bare one more than they lost”), as both were playing under sanctions. Neither will be playing any bowl games unless some appeals change the look of their postseason: it must be odd as a team going into a season without even the distant prospect of a bowl win to build towards. In Ohio State’s case it’s improper benefits – I gather the story involves eight players taking a total of $14,000 in cash and some tattoos in exchange for team jerseys, jewellery and unspecified “team memorabilia”, in contravention of the regulations that college players can’t be paid, remunerated or generally make money from playing. Central Florida done some recruitment violations, with apparently link their roster to a professional sports agent – hardly the most surprising link ever drawn, particularly for anyone’s who’s played the game or read Josh Luchs’ Illegal Procedure (a work of staggering moral cowardice, that, but for reasons often unrelated to football, so that’s an argument for another day.)
We’re often told that a game consists of the rules by which it is played – so when an Olympic athlete is found to have rather more testosterone in their body than their glands can show receipts for, it’s generally treated as a technical question. Wrong to cheat, but the cheating consists of breaking relatively arbitrary rules: why are some supplements and training methods OK, but others against the regulations? For the same reason that knights in chess move two spaces directly and one to the side – it’s simply the rules of the game. When it comes to money finding its way into the pockets of college athletes, it’s not quite the same, however. These young men are the centre of two enormously profitable industries – college sports and higher education – in which many people other than them seem to be raking in the money. Not remunerating players isn’t an interesting local variant of the rules of the college game when compared to the NFL, equivalent to the number of feet you need to have in-bounds to have made a catch. It’s part of the economic and social setting of the game. Cleverer people than me keep publishing articles and books on the necessary reforms to the system, but I’d just like to draw one parallel sideways within the college system, to the way adjunct university faculty are increasingly demanding recognition and unionising. Paying or not paying student athletes is a labor issue, just as the term “student athlete” was invented in an early twentieth-century court case to prevent them from claiming certain employment benefits whilst participating in a lucrative and physically risky industry. PhD students who undertake teaching within their department, and part-time contingent lecturers, are becoming increasingly vocal after the way they underpin the entire higher education system, and I’d like to see more discussion across the sports-academics line about the common causes to be made.
Coming to the game itself, there were two strong defences on the field, so no cheap scores to be had this afternoon. Ohio State had eleven of their defensive starters returning this year, but played fourteen true freshmen against Miami last week, including some defensive linemen. To me, that says they have plenty to pick from when designing their roster. UCF couldn’t quite come up to the same standard in the D-stakes, though there was some aggressive work from C.J. Burnet out of the secondary. (And I do like the fact that they have two ex-quarterbacks playing wide receiver. (Why? Because I’m a sucker for flashy passing stunts, and Godfrey duly treated us to one, whilst also teaching me why they aren’t a good idea. Still…) UCF were a pleasure to watch most of the time, but the Buckeyes simply outclassed them, leaving Florida trailing just within striking distance for most of the game. First quarter ended 7-3, second ended 10-7, third 31-16, and the spindles stuck showing those numbers ‘til the final whistle.
Storm Johnson was impressive on his debut for UCF, with a twenty-yard run followed immediately by a forty-eight-yard one. He looked solid, with an occasional burst of flair. Braxton Miller at quarterback demanded attention. I thought initially he was too keen on keeping the ball on late downs with small yardage to go, and generally making little designed runs – the Florida defense was ready for him and it didn’t work as well as it looked like it should. Then he ran a few on earlier downs and it became clear why UCF were jumpy about him running. Ten yards here, twelve there: there is some remarkable pace on show when Miller puts his head down. And that pace also helps him when he’s scrambling outside the pocket, notably when he slung it short to Jake Stoneburner after a little dalliance to the windward of his O-line. OK, that means it’s no longer a surprise when he keeps it in situations when they need a few quick yards, but I bet the UCF defense would rather have had surprises on fourth and 2, than have to factor in another whole member of the running attack! As ESPN’s commentator declared “He is special with his feet.” True, if faintly bafflingly phrased. Blake Bortles for UCF couldn’t compete: he found some good rhythm at various points, but made some mistakes which showed he was feeling the pressure. Throwing late and longish across his body whilst dashing to the sideline is a good example, and duly earned him an interception.
After being within a score or so for much of the game, the Buckeyes pulled away the in the third quarter, and the last real moment when it looked like UCF had time to come back was about ten minutes in. It started badly, as Storm Johnson got called for a chop-block on Noah Spence at 3rd and 6 on a vital late 3rd quarter drive down the field, turning it into 3rd and 21, only for J.J. Warten to haul in a 27 yard bomb. Another run brought them to within stumble yardage of the line, but Warten found himself matched up and overmatched with big Travis Howard. (Difficult to enough to compete with a guy like Howard one on one, even more daunting to know that behind him is the depth of the Ohio State roster – how do you beat the people who aren’t even on the field…?) George O’Leary refused to go for the 3 points, and Billy Giovanetti justified this with a reception on the line.
Just when Bortles must have thought things were changing direction, the PAT was blocked by Adolphus Washington. Actually the momentum did seem to be moving towards Central Florida, with negative yardage for Miller on the first play after restart, and then a flattish pass batted away, to put him in a horizontal hole seventeen yards deep at the third down. His attempt to climb out with his right arm flagged a little, and A.J. Bouye picked off the long but underthrown pass. Do they run 46-second drills at UCF? The 21-yard sprint which resulted from the turnover suggests they might have done, and the third quarter ended 16-31.
As the fourth quarter started, Bortles seemed to have got his eye in, and unfortunately UCF got a chance to discover how you beat the men behind Travis Howard, as Howard was helped off after some heavy contact. “Seemed” was the appropriate verb, however, and the UCF quarterback gave away an interception. Braxton Miller – presumably thinking it was bad form to capitalise on an understandable mistake with which he could empathise – made an attempt to run down the clock which resulted in a relatively sensitive sack and a twenty-six yard lacuna between his O-line and the next first down. He held onto the ball, deciding to try those special feet, but Kemal Ishmael was having none of it and stopped him at the game line. From here on there were reverses and dramatic moments, but the game wasn’t in question, and no-one else troubled the scoreline. An unsurprising scoreline, perhaps, but an enjoyable game to watch.
This afternoon’s “WTF?!” (and what afternoon is complete without one…) was prompted by the ESPN announcers proudly declaring that before Urban Meyer signed the contract with Ohio State (to replace Jim Tressel after his departure in irregular circumstances) he signed a contract with his family. Items on the document are reported to include that Meyer must make an attempt to attend family events and must not be on the phone at church or during dinner. I’m not going to criticise how people find they need to arrange their personal lives, but when ESPN commentators suggests that this has “inspired” a lot of men around the country to be better fathers and husbands, it has stopped being a family arrangement and is part of the grander gendersheiße within which sports take place. Just no. You don’t get cookies for not being on the phone during family dinners, and it’s not an “inspiring” idea that the responsibility for keeping a man “up to the mark” as a “family man” lies with his family. And when sports are such a large part of our society’s culture, these attitudes don’t get a free pass because that’s the culture of the game (see also: gaming, women, recent furores.) Thanks for reading Game of the Week, and see you next time!
 Sadly we did not cover the Clemson – Virginia game last week. This is regrettable both for the state of sports journalism in the broadest sense, and the missed opportunities for crap William Blake puns and the overuse of the phrase “Easy, tiger!”