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Dr. Saturday

Superlatives: The Best Games of 2011

The best (and worst) of the season. Today: The games of the year.

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10. LSU 9, Alabama 6 (Overtime).
For all the hype surrounding the defenses, the heavyweight slugfest of the year on Nov. 5 turned out even heavier and slugger than anyone bargained for: Neither offense found the end zone, both turned in regular season lows in terms of total yards and both turned the ball over twice, after combining for a single turnover over the previous month-and-a-half. On eleven separate opportunities in opposing territory, they combined for 12 points.

After two relentless defenses, three shaky quarterbacks and a couple dozen future draft picks have canceled one another out, what are you left with? The kickers, of course. In an epic tug-of-war for field position, LSU punter Brad Wing dropped four punts inside the 'Bama 20-yard line and sent another 72 yards to get the Tigers out of their own end zone in the fourth quarter, while kicker Drew Alleman nailed all three of his field goal attempts. On the other side, Alabama's Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster missed four tries from beyond 40 yards — three from 49 or longer — after the offense had been dropped for a loss on the preceding series. In between, it was four consecutive hours of the nation's two best defenses stuffing the offenses in a sack and dumping them in the river.

buffett.jpgIn keeping with the general theme of the 2011 season, it's also the last paean to defense you're going to get. Buckle up.

9. Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38.
Most of the buzz coming out of the Rose Bowl concerned the sheer, overwhelming firepower of Oregon's offense, and it's not hard to see why: Before Jan. 2, no starter on Wisconsin's defense had been part of a unit that allowed 500 yards or 40 points in a game. Against Oregon, they were gashed for 621 and 45, respectively — a bloodletting even by Chip Kelly's standards. As a team, the Ducks averaged 9.7 yards per play and struck for nine plays covering at least 20 yards, including the longest run in Rose Bowl history.

But the afternoon was a long way from a mismatch: Rather, the first three quarters played out as an extended volley between two equally potent offenses determined to hold serve. Wisconsin mounted extended touchdown marches on three of its first four possessions, picked up a cheapie touchdown on defense and embarked on two more scoring drives on its first two possessions of the third quarter. It wasn't until late in the third quarter, down 38-35, that the Duck defense began to clamp down, beginning with a key interception by linebacker Kiko Alonso. That set up a short, go-ahead touchdown drive by the Oregon offense, followed by the defense's first three-and-out of the night and finally — on the heels of a Duck field goal — a critical fumble at the end of a long Wisconsin pass that put the Ducks' 94-year Rose Bowl drought on ice. (Although depending on who you ask, there may still be a second left on the clock.)

8. Baylor 50, TCU 48.
In retrospect, opening night in Waco played out like a "Coming Attractions" reel for Baylor's atomic offense. Excluding an abbreviated "drive" at the end of the first half, the Bears scored touchdowns on seven of their first nine possessions, five of them via the arm of Robert Griffin III, who turned the vaunted Horned Frog defense into the first of many helpless victims on his scorched-earth run to the Heisman Trophy. We were also introduced to soon-to-be All-American Kendall Wright, who was virtually uncoverable en route to 189 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches, and oversized tailback Terrance Ganaway, who was occasionally un-tacklable en route to 120 yards on the ground.

But even with a 47-23 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, the thing wasn't decided until the very end, thanks to three consecutive touchdown passes from TCU quarterback Casey Pachall and a 27-yard field goal by Ross Evans that put the Frogs up 48-47 with a little over four minutes to play. Baylor's answer: On the heels of back-to-back three-and-outs and a fumble on their previous three possessions, the Bears marched 60 yards in 11 plays to set up the go-ahead kick by Aaron Jones from 37 yards out — then made it the game-winner with an icing interception for Baylor's biggest win in nearly two decades.

7. Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31.
If the category was best finish, there would be no competition: After three stagnant quarters, Michigan threw caution to the wind in the fourth, turning a 17-point deficit into a 28-24 advantage with less than two minutes on the clock. From there, Notre Dame responded with a four-play, 46-yard drive for what looked like the winning touchdown, a 29-yard strike from Tommy Rees to a wide open Theo Riddick that pushed the score to 31-28 with 36 seconds to go. Then it got crazy.

Instead of merely covering poorly in prevent mode, Notre Dame subsequently failed to cover Wolverine receiver Jeremy Gallon at all, incredibly freeing him for a 64-yard sprint to the Irish 16-yard line with eight seconds left. On the next play, Denard Robinson delivered the dagger: A game-clinching lob to Roy Roundtree to finish a rally simulcast from a 16-year-old's X-Box.

buffett.jpg6. TCU 36, Boise State 35.
As 15½-point underdogs, the Horned Frogs came with an especially cold dose of reality for the Broncos' simmering BCS hopes. Boise's star quarterback, Kellen Moore, was outplayed by Casey Pachall, who bombed the Boise secondary for 473 yards and five touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner to Josh Boyce from 25 yards out. To that point, Boise hadn't allowed 30 points in any game; TCU scored 36. Boise was allowing barely 300 yards; TCU went for 504. Boise hadn't trailed in the second half; TCU led at halftime and rallied from a touchdown back on two separate occasions in the final 18 minutes, the second courtesy of a 73-yard drive to pull within a point on a 25-yard pass from Pachall to Brandon Carter. Josh Boyce took in the two-point conversion to push the Frogs ahead, 36-35, with a little over a minute to play.

And still the Frogs needed a last-second miss by Boise kicker Dan Goodale as time expired, the second year in a row the Broncos' BCS fate has turned on a late field goal. Had the kick sailed through, Boise might have been in New Orleans last week for its big shot against LSU in the BCS title game. Instead, the Broncos coasted into another Las Vegas Bowl as Mountain West runners-up.

5. USC 38, Oregon 35.
If the Trojans' upset on Nov. 19 wasn't quite the coup d'etat Oregon achieved when it violently overthrew the USC dynasty on the same field in 2009, it was only because NCAA sanctions made them ineligible for the crown. The loss snapped a 21-game home winning streak dating back to 2008, a 16-game home winning streak in Pac-12 games (the last eight of them by at least two touchdowns) and a 19-game winning streak in Pac-12 games, regardless of location. Thirty-five points was the fewest Oregon has scored in Eugene since early 2009, in Chip Kelly's second game there as a head coach.

Since Kelly was promoted from offensive coordinator, Autzen Stadium is where the rest of the conference went to die. USC came out not only alive, but — on the golden arm of quarterback Matt Barkley (323 yards, 4 touchdowns) and errant leg of Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado, who missed a field goal to tie as time expired, thwarting a 21-point Duck rally — looking like arguably the class of the conference for at least another year.

4. Baylor 45, Oklahoma 38.
At the exact same time Oregon's rally was coming up short, Baylor was burying the Sooners' championship hopes under a hailstorm of big plays: After a slow start, the Bears launched six touchdown drives over the final two-and-a-half quarters, all of them covering at least 70 yards, and all but one of them covering it in five plays or less. Three of their scoring drives — including the game-winner, capped by a 34-yard strike from Robert Griffin III to Terrance Williams with 28 seconds remaining — took less than a minute. Altogether, Griffin's career night left him with 562 total yards as a passer and runner and the highest pass efficiency rating (218.7) ever recorded against a Sooner defense under Bob Stoops.

That list goes on, by the way. Griffin's 478 yards passing was the most ever recorded against a Sooner defense under Bob Stoops. Baylor's 616 total yards was the most ever recorded against a Sooner defense under Bob Stoops. The only team that's scored more than 45 points against a Sooner defense under Bob Stoops was Matt Leinart-led USC in the 2005 Orange Bowl, a game that's subsequently been stricken from the books. For all the good it did, the fact that Landry Jones and the Sooner offense essentially matched the Baylor onslaught blow-for-blow might as well join it in oblivion.

3. Stanford 56, USC 48 (Triple Overtime).
The Cardinal arrived in the L.A. Coliseum on Oct. 30 riding the nation's longest win streak and sporting nary a chink in the armor: The last ten wins in that streak had all come by at least 25 points. They left L.A. nursing a few holes in the armor.

buffett.jpgMost of them came courtesy of the defense, which was pierced for 400-plus yards (373 in regulation) for the second week in a row, and for quick touchdowns on three of the Trojans' first four possessions of the second half. But Stanford's offensive line had uncharacteristic issues, too, failing to generate four yards per carry on the ground (two full yards below the Cardinal's season average after obliterating Washington for 446 yards on more than 10 per carry the previous week) and yielding two sacks on untouchable quarterback Andrew Luck, who faced more pressure from the USC front than he'd faced in the first seven games combined. The Chosen One himself was brought low in the fourth quarter, when he served up an easy pick-six for USC cornerback Nickell Robey, putting the Trojans up 34-27 with less than four minutes to play.

Stanford's response: A 10-play, 76-yard march for the tying touchdown, on which Luck hit four of six passes for 32 yards and added another 16 rushing. That was after they had responded to a 10-point deficit in the third quarter with back-to-back touchdown drives to retake the lead, and responded again with a field goal to tie before Robey's interception. Three times in the second half, USC had the Cardinal reeling for the first time all season, and all three times the Cardinal punched themselves right back into it. Eventually, when it was USC's turn to respond in the third overtime, the defense managed to punch the ball out of Curtis McNeal's hands to seal the escape — but not before the blueprint had been written for Oregon's winner-take-all upset in Palo Alto two weeks later.

2. Oklahoma State 41, Stanford 38 (Overtime).
Oklahoma State came into the Fiesta Bowl ranked 106th in total defense and 85th against the run, and lived down to both numbers: Stanford racked up 588 total yards, pounded out 240 yards rushing and held the ball for nearly 42 minutes. The Cardinal put together five sustained touchdown drives, four of them milking at least four minutes off the clock. In his final game, Andrew Luck was nearly flawless, hitting 27 of 31 passes for 348 yards (that's good for an obscene 11.2 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. Stepfan Taylor ran for a career-high 176 with two scores on the ground.

But Oklahoma State was its usual explosive self, too, awakening from bouts of hibernation long enough to deliver big plays in the second and fourth quarters — five touchdown drives covering at least 60 yards, all of them completed with a little less than two minutes off the clock, and all of them starring a big play from their uncoverable star, Justin Blackmon. Three of those scores Blackmon took in himself, first on 43 and 67-yard strikes from Brandon Weeden in the second quarter, then on a 17-yard crossing route that briefly tied the game in the fourth; the other two, he set up with big gains on must-have fourth down conversions. If they'd opened up a new round of Heisman voting on Jan. 3, Blackmon would have had a prominent place on the short list.

The only thing keeping this game from landing at No. 1 is the timid anticlimax that delivered it to Oklahoma State: At the end of a night featuring 1,000 yards of offense, at least a half-dozen soon-to-be draft picks and brilliant performances by two of the brightest stars in college football, Stanford decided to take the ball out of the hands of its $40 million-dollar quarterback and put it on the foot of its freshman kicker, who pushed two game-winning chances wide left in the fourth quarter and overtime. When his turn came in OT, Oklahoma State kicker Quinn Sharp — one of the goats of the Cowboys' only loss in the regular season — sent the clincher sailing right down the middle.

1. Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31.
Sure, you remember the Hail Mary. But if you were scoring at home over the preceding 59 minutes and 56 seconds, the slugfest between the Badgers' balanced, high-scoring offense and the Spartans' nasty, suffocating defense ended in one hard-fought, highly entertaining draw.
After a fast start by Wisconsin, Michigan State spent most of the night hounding and hitting star quarterback Russell Wilson, intercepting him twice, forcing him into a safety and holding the Badgers to a season-low 17 points after three quarters. An eight-minute, 80-yard march put the Spartans in front by two touchdowns early in the fourth, 31-17. From there, Wilson reclaimed the pedestal with a pair of long touchdown drives that tied the game at 31 with 1:39 to play. Both sides punched to the final bell, and left looking a little worse for wear but with reputations intact.

But then, yes, the final prayer belonged to Michigan State:

With four seconds on the clock and overtime eminent, MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins rolled right at midfield and heaved the ball blindly into a pack of players in the end zone, where it ricocheted off a Wisconsin defender, off a Michigan State receiver and into the waiting arms of MSU's Keith Nichol, who narrowly won a tug-of-war to get the ball across the line for the winning touchdown with time expired. Initially, Nichol was ruled down just shy of the end zone; after a brief replay, he was (correctly) awarded the score, and Michigan State — briefly — assumed the title of best team in the Big Ten.

Wisconsin paid the Spartans back in only slightly less dramatic fashion in the Big Ten Championship Game, another championship rematch that overthrew the regular season result to send the Badgers on to Pasadena. But it could never erase the drama of the final ten minutes in East Lansing.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.