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NC State pulled off one of the many upsets in the ACC this weekend.
Optimists attribute it to parity. Realists attribute it to mediocrity. Members of those two groups can argue about the cause all they want, but they can’t disagree about the effect: The ACC is absolutely unpredictable.
In six games involving ACC teams over the weekend, four underdogs emerged victorious. NC State was playing at home in its Thursday night victory Florida State, so that upset was mild. But injury-ravaged Boston College — five-game losing streak and all — knocked off Clemson. And Virginia, mired in a nine-game losing streak in conference play, toppled Miami. Then Duke, which had dropped six consecutive games and looked terrible doing it, won at Navy.
Even the games that ended with the favored team winning unfolded in unusual fashion. North Carolina needed to rally from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat William & Mary, an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision. Maryland won what was supposed to be a close game against Wake Forest by 48 points.
“In the ACC, week in and week out, anybody can beat anyone,” Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith said.
That statement is no revelation, of course. After all, this is a conference that hasn’t had a single team go undefeated in league play since it split into divisions in 2005. This is a conference in which the league champion has had at least two league losses in three of the last five seasons. This is a conference in which 10 of the 12 teams posted league records of 4–4 or better in 2008, although no team did better than 5–3. And this is a conference in which a team picked to finish in last place, Wake Forest in 2006, won the league championship that year.
The biggest winner this past weekend in the ACC didn’t even play a game. With Miami’s loss, Virginia Tech increased its lead in the Coastal Division to two games in the loss column. That means the Hokies (6–2, 4–0 ACC), who are on a roll with a six-game winning streak, can slip up once and still win the division outright.
That should be of some comfort to Virginia Tech fans, because in the ACC, it’s usually a matter of when rather than if with regard to upsets.
NC State 28, Florida State 24 (Thurs.)
Boston College 16, Clemson 10
Virginia 24, Miami 19
Maryland 62, Wake Forest 14
Duke 34, Navy 31
North Carolina 21, William & Mary 17
O’Brien plays to win, gets rewarded
NC State coach Tom O’Brien made a decision that could end up making his team’s season. Trailing Florida State 24–21 and facing fourth and goal from inside the 1, O’Brien originally sent out his field-goal unit to go for the tie. But then he called a timeout, thought better of it and decided to go for the touchdown. Quarterback Russell Wilson found tight end George Bryan in the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score with 2:40 remaining.
The result of O’Brien’s decision was that Florida State needed a touchdown, not a field goal, on its ensuing possession. The Seminoles drove the ball to the NC State 4, where Christian Ponder lost a fumble when tailback Ty Jones bumped into him after a play-action fake.
The victory put the Wolfpack (6–2, 3–1) in control of their own destiny in the Atlantic Division. N.C. State finishes with three of its final four games on the road, including trips to division rivals Clemson and Maryland.
Harris injury hurts Hurricanes
The biggest surprise — if there is such a thing in the ACC — of the weekend came with Miami’s loss at Virginia. The Hurricanes (5–3, 3–2) got off to a slow start in the game, and then they lost their starting quarterback when Jacory Harris took a vicious (but clean) hit to chest from defensive lineman John-Kevin Dolce.
Harris suffered a concussion on the play, presumably when his head hit the ground from the force of the hit, and is questionable for this week’s game against Maryland.
“Our medical team has done a great job of evaluating and making sure that Jacory is OK,” Miami coach Randy Shannon said. “The process of when he will play is up to our medical staff. He will not play until our medical staff sees that he is ready to go.”
Harris threw the first of five Miami interceptions on the play he suffered the injury, and he didn’t return to the game. His absence left the Hurricanes in a bind because backup quarterback Alonzo Highsmith had a hand injury that prevented him from playing. That forced Spencer Whipple, son of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, into action. Whipple completed two passes to his own receivers and two passes to the Cavaliers out of his six attempts as Miami went into halftime trailing 14–0.
When the Hurricanes came out in the third quarter, they did so with their fourth quarterback. True freshman Stephen Morris, who had not played all season and planned to redshirt, played the rest of the game.
Morris completed 9-of-22 passes for 162 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. His 60-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin with 4:39 remaining brought the Hurricanes within one score of the lead after they trailed 24–0 early in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been working him a little bit, and you have to give a young man the opportunity,” Shannon said. “I had confidence in him, and he responded late in the game.”
Morris might get more opportunities to respond. If Harris is unable to play against the Terrapins, Shannon already has announced that Morris will start the game.
Cavaliers enjoy different experience
Two weeks before, Virginia coach Mike London required his players to remain on the field at Scott Stadium as North Carolina celebrated its first victory at Virginia since 1981. London, trying to set a tone in his first season at the helm, wanted the Cavaliers to remember how it felt to get beat 44–10 in their homecoming game.
On Saturday, London required his players to remain on the field at Scott Stadium once again. This time, he wanted them to remember how it felt to get a big win in front of the home crowd.
“After we got beat by North Carolina, I wanted them to feel what that feels like,” London said. “It's the same thing with students and people standing around. I want them to feel what that feels like.
“I don’t know how many other opportunities we are going to have to feel that before the season ends, but you have to start somewhere and you have to start a mindset of ‘this is what's going to happen around here for a long time.’ Being out there and sharing the moment with them and the students was a signature moment for them.”
Terps make statement
If a question still remains as to whether Maryland is for real as a contender in the Atlantic Division, at least we know how Wake Forest would answer it. The Demon Deacons (2–6, 1–4) offered little resistance as the Terrapins got a career-high four touchdown passes from quarterback Danny O’Brien en route to tying a school record for points in a conference game.
Maryland (6–2, 3–1), which limped to a 2–10 record last season, became bowl-eligible for the seventh time in 10 seasons under Ralph Friedgen.
“It’s a huge confidence booster for the team — everybody is a lot more positive,” safety Kenny Tate said. “This year we are looking forward to playing in a bowl game and possibly an ACC championship.”
The Terrapins have plenty of work to do to reach that second goal, with games against Miami, Virginia, Florida State and NC State remaining on the schedule. Those four teams have a combined record of 21–11. The five Football Bowl Subdivision teams Maryland has beaten this season have a combined record of 18–29.
Duke’s Renfree razor sharp
Sean Renfree started the game with a completion. Then another. Then another. By the time the ball finally hit the ground once, Duke’s quarterback had tied a school record by completing his first 16 passes.
But Renfree didn’t stop there against Navy. He finished the day 28-of-30 for 314 yards and a touchdown, establishing a single-game school record with his 93.3-percent completion rate. Renfree’s accuracy helped the Blue Devils (2–6, 0–4) keep Navy’s clock-eating offense on the sideline, enabling them to enjoy an advantage of nearly 14 minutes in time of possession.
Renfree even added 28 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against the Midshipmen, helping the Blue Devils take a 24–0 lead into halftime and a 31–7 lead into the fourth quarter. Perhaps most importantly, he didn’t commit a turnover after throwing 14 interceptions and losing two fumbles during Duke’s six-game losing streak.
“It feels good to get a win,” Renfree said. “We had a rough couple of weeks, but it feels great to get in a groove offensively and score some points again.”
Tigers suffer two big losses
Clemson managed just 262 total yards and no offensive touchdowns against a Boston College defense that was missing three starters because of injuries: defensive end Alex Albright, safety Wes Davis and cornerback DeLeon Gause. Now the Tigers (4–4, 2–3) will have to try to score without their top weapon: tailback Andre Ellington.
Ellington, who rushed for a career-high 166 yards last week against Georgia Tech, managed just 42 yards on 14 carries against the Eagles. He spent Clemson’s final three possessions on the sideline with what he thought was a minor case of turf toe, but he was diagnosed Sunday with a strained ligament in his foot. Ellington will miss at least the next two games, important matchups against Atlantic Division front runners NC State and Florida State.
That’s bad news for a Clemson team that entered last weekend thinking it could rally to make a run for the division title. Now the Tigers will have to hustle just to become bowl eligible.
Don’t we know you?
Despite being listed as probable on the injury report, UNC linebacker Quan Sturdivant missed his fifth consecutive game because of a pulled hamstring. But the Tar Heels (5–3, 2–2), who were going against a former teammate in William & Mary quarterback Mike Paulus, did welcome back one player to the defensive starting lineup. Starting cornerback Kendric Burney, sidelined for the first seven games of the season as a result of the NCAA and university investigations into UNC’s program, made a team-high seven tackles in his season debut.
Paulus, meanwhile, completed 24-of-35 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Paulus was a headliner in UNC coach Butch Davis’ first recruiting class in 2007, but he played sparingly before transferring to William & Mary for this season.
“It was fun to see Mike out there,” UNC safety Deunta Williams said. “You know, I’m happy for him that he gets a chance to play, and he played good against us.”
• Boston College tailback Montel Harris entered the weekend as the ACC’s leading rusher, and he helped his cause with 142 yards on 36 carries against Clemson. Harris, who tied a school record with the 18th 100-yard rushing game of his career, also had a 36-yard touchdown catch. Backup Sterlin Phifer left the team last week, so true freshman Andre Williams (five carries for 24 yards) picked up work on the few occasions in which Harris needed a break.
• Clemson could end up with a new kicker this week. Chandler Catanzaro was 1-for-3 on field-goal attempts against Boston College, missing from 44 yards and 36 yards, and is just 7-for-12 this season. Coach Dabo Swinney is going to let Richard Jackson, who made 20-of-31 field-goal attempts for the Tigers last season, compete for the starting job in practice.
• Maryland limited Wake Forest to a net total of minus-3 yards rushing on 21 attempts, causing an opponent to finish with a negative rushing total for the first time since a 47–14 win over Troy in 2001.
• An afterthought for his first three seasons at North Carolina, senior tailback Johnny White delivered another breakout performance against William & Mary. White registered career-high totals with 29 carries and 164 rushing yards, and his 67-yard touchdown run with 5:27 remaining proved to be the game winner.
• NC State tailback Dean Haynes left the game against Florida State with a concussion and didn’t return. If Haynes is unable to play this week at Clemson, look for James Washington see more action. Washington has been playing primarily on third down in place of Haynes and true freshman Mustafa Greene, who alternate series as the Wolfpack’s featured back.
• Virginia, which beat a ranked team for the first time since Oct. 25, 2008, tied a school record with five interceptions against Miami. The Cavaliers, who last intercepted five passes in a game in 1994, had intercepted just five passes all season before Saturday.
• Wake Forest has lost six consecutive games for the first time in 10 seasons under Jim Grobe. The Demon Deacons’ margin of defeat against Maryland was their worst since a 55–7 defeat at Clemson on Sept. 16, 2000.