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On polls, playoffs and piling it on

Let's talk college football, about the polls and the Penn State-Nebraska ranking debate, and which university has the surest available path to the No. 1 balloting that really counts, after the bowl orgy of New Year's.

But first, how about a little post-piling-it-up-on-Navy character examination of Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

How could he?

This isn't Dec. 7, 1941, but Holtz's concluding Saturday offensive in a 58-21 bombing of the Midshipmen will nonetheless be widely characterized as a sneak attack.

Make that sneaky.

I'm seldom all ears when critics whine about football coaches "running it up." When third-stringers bust their jocks to balloon a 57-7 rout into 64-7, it hardly ever enrages me.

Steve Spurrier, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne and all the hot-coaching crowd are nagged far too much about fattening the kitty in lieu of asking hungry, well-practiced subs to take dives simply to hold down the score.

Holtz's deal was different.

Lou had Navy waxed. Notre Dame ahead 51-21 with 1:45 left against what is probably America's 104th best college football team. Holtz's guys go into punt formation from the Navy 39. But then the Irish fake it. Sailor boys were shoved back to their 10.

Lou wasn't through.

Third-teamer Gus Ornstein was Notre Dame's mop-up quarterback. After the ersatz punt, he began "taking a knee." Down once. Down twice. Hey, maybe Holtz wasn't so bloodthirsty after all. So hungry for more points. So desperate to impress a critical world after N.D. flops against Michigan, Boston College and Brigham Young.

But noooooooooo!

On fourth down, Holtz calls a pass play. Ornstein threw a fourth-and-15 pass to tight end Leon Wallace. Touchdown! Holtz got a 58-21 final. He must be so proud. Lou said the fake punt was "to give Florida State something to think about." But did anybody look up at the Notre Dame library wall? Was Touchdown Jesus covering his eyes?

Holtz said of the tight-end TD pass, "It lets people know we have it." He means FSU. Lou, it may let people know far more. Maybe next year, to allow Navy a chance of returning disfavors, Notre Dame should permit the Middies to use 11 players plus a battleship.

Notre Dame plays FSU in Orlando a week from Saturday. Maybe the fake punt and tight-end throw will work again. Maybe even to upset the 'Noles. It still doesn't make Holtz right, to pull stuff against Navy.

But there was an inexplicable Middie twist. Three times during that final Notre Dame drive, beginning just before the fake punt, Navy called timeouts. Holtz might've figured, "They're asking for it, so let 'em have it!"

It may be minimally debatable for a runaway winner to, let's say, line up in a four-wide-receiver formation near game's end, throwing for the end zone despite a huge lead. But is it morally acceptable to fake a punt in the 59th minute, then fake clock-killing QB moves, before quick-drawing to put one more bullet in a dead Navy football body?

Wonder if Holtz considered going for a two-point conversion after the controversial touchdown? I mean, so FSU would know Notre Dame has such a tactic.

Back to my original topic, about the national championship pursuit. Penn State won by 49, Nebraska by 17, Auburn by 17, Florida by 38, Miami by 21 and FSU by 39, but none resorted to fake-punt, sneak-attack finishes to enhance their bulges.

If Nebraska goes all the way, including an Orange Bowl beating of a formidable FSU or Miami, the Huskers will be national champs. Deservedly so. But what about Penn State? Can the Nittany Lions go 12-0, climaxed by a Rose Bowl win over the Oregon Ducks or some other Pac-10 quacker, and still not wind up No.

1?

Sadly, it's true.

NCAA dinosaurs persist in blockading a legitimate national championship "tournament." Fault-filled polls will indefinitely decide No. 1. Maybe it'll be good if Nebraska (12-0) or Penn State (12-0) gets shortchanged. Maybe it will awaken dinosaurs. Maybe it will cause the sport's major money source, TV networks, to demand a real playoff.

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