Six secondary standouts from football’s week that was:
1. Chauncey Gardner, S, Florida (NCAA) — It’s nothing new to hear a quarterback or running back thank his offensive line upon winning an individual award. It’s less common to hear someone from the defensive backfield thank his larger, less-heralded teammates in that situation.
After Gardner, a true freshman safety, was named MVP of the Outback Bowl on Monday, he said, “The MVP, it goes to our guys up front, the linebackers and the coaching staff because they put me in good position to make plays.”
Gardner had two interceptions in the Gators’ 30-3 win over Iowa, both INTs coming in the fourth quarter. He returned one of the picks 58 yards for a touchdown in Florida’s dominant team defensive performance.
2. Adekunle Ayinde, S, Minnesota (NCAA) — The Gophers’ defense was supposed to get lit up in the Holiday Bowl last Tuesday. Going into a matchup with the high-powered Air Raid offense led by Washington State coach Mike Leach and executed by star QB Luke Falk, Minnesota was missing two starting defensive backs and one key reserve in the secondary — three of the program’s 10 players whose suspensions stemming from a sexual assault allegation almost led the rest of the team to boycott the bowl game.
After a two-day strike, the Gophers ultimately decided to play. Unexpectedly, the defense shined in a 17-12 victory in which the Cougars were limited to 264 passing yards (a low number for them) and didn’t score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
Ayinde, one of Minnesota’s regular backups thrust into starting duty, had a fourth-quarter interception on a WSU fourth down that was originally ruled a pick-six, however upon review it was determined that he stepped out of bounds on the 30-yard line. The interception did later set up an offensive touchdown to give Minnesota a two-score lead.
3. Justin Bethel, CB, Cardinals (NFL) — The Cardinals spent most of this season searching for solid play at cornerback outside of All-Pro CB Patrick Peterson. Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler as a special-teams player, was so bad at times during his auditions that head coach Bruce Arians famously referred to him as a “failure in progress” to the media.
Bethel bounced back and finished the season strong, however, highlighted by his standout performance in Sunday’s 44-6 rout of the Rams.
Getting most of his snaps at the slot corner position — meaning he had to line up across from the explosive Tavon Austin — Bethel had a team-high seven tackles, a fumble recovery, and an interception that he returned 66 yards for a touchdown.
4. Orion Stewart, S, Baylor (NCAA) — The senior safety was all over the field in Baylor’s 31-12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl last Tuesday.
When the Broncos were threatening to score their first touchdown in the second quarter, Stewart intercepted QB Brett Rypien in the end zone. When the Bears were trying to put the game away in the fourth quarter, Stewart recovered a Boise State fumble that set up the Baylor touchdown that ended any remaining threat.
Stewart finished with five tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception.
5. Van Smith, FS, Clemson (NCAA) — The sophomore safety had six tackles and an interception that he returned 86 yards before being brought down in Clemson’s 31-0 all-around demolition of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl national championship playoff semifinal game.
6. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets (NFL) — The future Hall of Famer ended a mostly depressing season on a high note, getting an interception in New York’s 30-10 win over the Bills on Sunday.
Revis ran the INT back 51 yards before being tripped up inside Buffalo’s five-yard line. The Jets being the Jets, of course they lost yardage on their offensive drive and had to settle for a field goal. But on the ensuing kickoff the Jets scored a comical touchdown when the Bills’ kick returners forgot that they still had to get their hands on a kickoff that goes past them into the end zone.
The pick was Revis’ first and only of the season, allowing him to continue a streak of six straight years with at least one interception. Revis has had at least one INT in nine of his 10 NFL season, and he has 32 picks for his career, including the postseason.
Although he is only 31 years old, Revis’ game has regressed to the point where it’s expected that he’ll have to move to safety to keep a starting job. There has been some talk that he may not be welcomed back to the Jets, who finished a disappointing 5-11, and there has been even more talk that Revis should retire.
Revis isn’t necessarily a bad cornerback now, but he’s been burned a few too many times in some high-profile games. And unfortunately for him, leeway and patience are not part of the deal when you sign a big-money contract to play for a New York team.