There have been Saturdays with more drama. Look no further than last week’s Clemson-Notre Dame thriller.
There have been Saturdays with bigger games. This week lacked a single matchup between top-25 teams, with four of the top five squads sitting out. With 15 games postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was far from an ideal Saturday of football.
No, this was not a marquee Saturday in college football. But in a year in which it seemed at times we might not see any college football at all, Week 11 was perhaps the most emblematic of this wild lap around the sun we call 2020. Just think about all that Saturday provided.
Stanford played its home opener in front of trees, begging this question: If the Cardinal came back from down 19 in the fourth quarter and only trees were there to hear it, would it really make a sound?
Arizona played its first game of the season, just 15 days shy of a full year since it ended last season and, as it turned out, the Wildcats also finished just 25 seconds shy of a win.
Because the New Mexico governor won’t allow football games on its home turf, the University of New Mexico moved its games to Las Vegas, giving the Lobos a home game against Nevada — in the state of Nevada. (Nevada won.)
If you happened to be tuned in as the noon ET kickoffs drew to a close, you weren’t lamenting the week’s uninspired schedule. You were flipping from Miami’s final stand against Virginia Tech (which ended with the Canes winning 25-24 despite being down more than a dozen players) over to Nebraska’s final stand against Penn State. You could flip over to see North Carolina turn a 21-point deficit into a 14-point lead as Sam Howell threw for 550 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns against Wake Forest. You could have seen Illinois get its first win in dramatic fashion on a field goal with four seconds to play against Rutgers or Kentucky hold off Vanderbilt in its emotional first game after the death of offensive line coach John Schlarman.
Love the historical context of a big college football game? After a week of talk about Boston College‘s stunning upset in 1993 that cost Lou Holtz a national title, Notre Dame exorcised that demon without even getting any pea soup on its jerseys. And in the process, Brian Kelly won his 100th game with the Fighting Irish, tying Holtz for second all time.
Heck, even the run-up to Saturday gave us our share of highlights. Cincinnati ran up the score on Friday night, leading to an epic postgame summit between head coaches. Boise State blocked three kicks in a win on Thursday. On Wednesday, Western Michigan pulled off one of the greatest comeback stories in recent memory, getting hosed on a fourth-down conversion, scoring a quick TD, missing a PAT, recovering an onside kick, then scoring again on a faked spike.
After Western Michigan recovers its own onside kick, Kaleb Eleby fakes the spike and finds a wide-open Jaylen Hall in the end zone.
It sounds like something Yogi Berra might’ve said, but never has a week with so many bad games resulted in so many good games.
Sure, the schedule has been wonky this season, stars have opted out and this week saw a new and concerning round of the coronavirus spread within programs.
In August, we weren’t sure there’d be a season. After the latest virus concerns, there’s no guarantee we’ll get to the end of this one.
But in the meantime, there are days like Saturday — when there is no reason to believe anything good will come from it, when the whole process of playing games feels daunting — that give us the one thing college football has always promised us: a small glimpse of something we didn’t know we needed, when we least expected to get it.
Just think how close we all came to not seeing the Big Ten this year. Back in August, we worried we had seen the last of Justin Fields, wouldn’t be able to celebrate Greg Schiano’s return to Rutgers and wouldn’t see Jim Harbaugh wearing blue pants.
Thank goodness the league came to its senses, because this Big Ten season is downright bananas.
We’ve got Indiana at 4-0 and headed into a top-10 showdown with Ohio State after thumping Michigan State 24-0. The Hoosiers have now beaten the Spartans, Michigan and Penn State in the same season for the first time ever. But that’s not what is really surprising in Bloomington. Would you believe that, since 2009, Indiana football has as many 4-0 starts in Big Ten play as Indiana basketball? Somewhere Bobby Knight is throwing a chair in disbelief.
Indiana dominates Michigan State behind two touchdowns from Ty Fryfogle to make the Hoosiers 4-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1987.
Then there’s Northwestern, whose offense is — well, there are 11 guys and a football. But that defense is something else. Purdue was a woeful 4-of-17 on third-down tries and finished with just 2 yards rushing on Saturday in its loss to the Wildcats.
That the Hoosiers and Wildcats could play for a Big Ten title is stunning enough, but the other side of the standings is equally mind-boggling.
And then there’s Michigan. The good news is, after Graham Mertz was nearly perfect in Wisconsin’s opener, he looked entirely pedestrian against the Wolverines’ defense. The bad news is, Michigan needed to use a quarterback too. Wisconsin won easily in another brutal performance from Harbaugh’s team, and while the next three games — Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland — are all entirely winnable (even for Michigan), it’s hard to see how the unrest in Ann Arbor is quieted short of a miracle against Ohio State. On the upside, the New York Jets might be hiring soon.
In an era when no decent QB sits on the bench for long without transferring, we’re bound to see plenty of showdowns between former teammates. But Saturday gave us three high-profile matchups with their own unique drama.
In Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Boston College QB Phil Jurkovec was hoping to finish an Instagram beef on the field. After Jurkovec transferred from Notre Dame in January, Irish starter Ian Book posted a message on his Instagram page reading: “Circle got smaller.” Jurkovec responded this week, posting a highlight video on his account scored to Mac Miller’s “Brand Name,” a song that includes the lyrics, “Everything we think we love, it ain’t nothin’ but a brand name.” Was it a veiled shot at his old team? Doesn’t matter, as Notre Dame continued to shed the brand-name image to prove it’s the real deal in 2020.
Jurkovec finished with more than 300 yards, and he did give the Irish a bit of an early scare. But in the end, it was clear why Brian Kelly stuck with Book, who we’re hoping now posts a “you hate to see it” meme, because nothing is more fun than petty social media beef between starting QBs.
In Gainesville, Florida, former Gators QB Feleipe Franks returned to The Swamp as Arkansas’ starting QB. Franks quieted the crowd with a quick TD pass on his first drive, but the rest of the game didn’t go quite so well, with Florida cruising to a 63-35 win.
Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks makes his presence felt in his return to the Swamp with a 47-yard touchdown to Mike Woods.
Then there’s Florida State, which traveled to NC State with a skeleton roster, missing starting QB Jordan Travis (injured) and former starter James Blackman, who announced his transfer earlier in the week. That left FSU with freshman Chubba Purdy to make the start — the fourth different starting QB of the season for the Seminoles. They are the first team since Kent State in 2016 to start four QBs in their first eight games, and no ACC team has done that since at least 2004, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
So, what’s the salt in the wound for FSU (because, for the Seminoles, there’s always salt for their wounds)? The QB on the other side was Bailey Hockman, a 2017 FSU signee who transferred to NC State and looked sharp on Saturday. Hockman threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in a 38-22 Wolfpack win. FSU hasn’t had a QB with four TDs in a conference game since 2018. On the upside for the Seminoles, basketball season is around the corner.
Four of our five contenders didn’t play Saturday, which means there is little room for reshuffling here. But perhaps Dillon Gabriel, Sam Howell, Desmond Ridder or D’Eriq King made up enough ground to edge into the conversation before the trophy is awarded Jan. 5.
Kyle Trask is going off for Florida, tossing five touchdowns in the first half against Arkansas.
Trask threw for four or more touchdowns in each of his first five games this season, and if you were wondering if he could make it to six, you had to wait through only 26 minutes of action to find the answer. Trask actually finished with five touchdown throws in the first half. Trask is the first QB with four TD passes in each of his first six games since Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell in 2007.
Florida’s backup QB is campaigning for Trask too.
We don’t want to knock Jones, but it is hard to argue that he isn’t doing this with the best set of skill players in the country. Jones has 1,056 passing yards after the catch this year, which is more than Tennessee or Kentucky have overall.
After two weeks in quarantine, Lawrence returned to the practice field for Clemson this week. He’ll be back on the field this Saturday against Florida State’s woeful defense looking to burnish his stats, still within striking distance of winning the hardware.
The Cougars were off this week, but let’s take a quick look at Wilson’s deep-ball throws this year. On passes of 20 or more yards downfield, he is completing 71.4% for 27 yards per pass with seven TDs and no picks. That’s not too shabby.
The numbers are great, and Fields certainly belongs in the conversation as one of the best players in college football. But after Saturday’s cancellation, it’s fair to wonder: Will he play enough games to really make a run at the Heisman? He probably can’t afford another cancellation.
Under-the-radar play of the week
There were plenty of big plays in North Carolina’s 59-53 win over Wake Forest on Saturday. Sam Howell rewrote the Tar Heels’ record book with seven touchdowns and 550 passing yards, and the two teams combined for the most first-half yards of any game so far this season. Overall, the two QBs — Howell and Wake’s Sam Hartman — combined for 1,002 yards and 12 touchdowns. It was a rollicking affair that included 19 plays of 20 yards or more.
But for all the fun, there was one play likely to cause quite a bit of consternation in the Brown household.
Younger brother Khafre Brown hauled in what appeared to be a 75-yard touchdown pass from Howell in the third quarter, only there was a flag on the play. Turns out that, at the 10-yard line, older brother Dyami Brown hit a defender in the back. The touchdown was wiped off the board.
That is bad form, but it gets worse.
Five plays after Khafre’s TD was wiped out, Howell hit Dyami for a touchdown instead.
That’s a cold-blooded big bro move, and it is sure to create a nice conversation piece over Thanksgiving dinner this year — unless, of course, Khafre is forced to sit at the kids table.
Under-the-radar game of the week
The coronavirus pandemic canceled the entirety of the Division III schedule this year — except for one game, the annual Secretaries’ Cup between the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marines, who faced off Saturday. The rivalry game — which, as our pals at Reddit noted, used to be called the “Secretary’s Cup,” until a reorganization meant the two branches reported to different secretaries — has been played every year since 1981, and the virus wasn’t going to stop it from happening in 2020.
Despite a stellar game from Coast Guard linebacker Eugene Bizer (20 tackles), the Merchant Marines’ offense was too much, as both QB Ian Blankenship and RB Ceaser Gonzalez rushed for more than 100 yards in a 24-14 win, keeping the Secretaries’ Cup on the New York end of Long Island Sound for the fifth time in the past six years and ostensibly giving the Merchant Marines the Division III championship for the fall.
— USMMA Athletics (@USMMA_Athletics) November 14, 2020
Best bets and bad beats
You know 2020 is a wild year when Rutgers — yes, Rutgers! — is favored to win a Big Ten game. But that is what happened Saturday, as the Scarlet Knights kicked off against Illinois as a 6.5-point favorite, the first time they were favored in a conference game since 2015. That was two coaching staffs ago. It was just the fourth time since joining the Big Ten in 2014 that Rutgers was favored to win. So, what happened? Illinois not only covered the spread but won outright, 23-20. At least some things in 2020 still feel normal.
It was an emotional roller-coaster ride in Chapel Hill on Saturday. North Carolina was a 13.5-point favorite against Wake Forest, but as the Tar Heels have done so often this year, they struggled badly on defense and fell behind big — trailing the Demon Deacons by 21 in the third quarter. It is the third time this season that has happened, including a 31-7 deficit to open the second half against Florida State and a 41-20 deficit against Virginia. The Heels nearly pulled off a come-from-behind win in both of those, but this time, they actually finished the job. In fact, they should have still covered. UNC scored with 2:39 to play to go up 14, and Heels backers were celebrating an unexpected cover. Ah, but in a game that included 1,348 yards, they clearly left too much time on the clock. Wake QB Sam Hartman converted a third-and-18, then completed five more passes in a row as the Deacons marched down the field and scored with just 57 seconds to play, securing the blown lead/backdoor cover.
Utah State wasn’t going to win its first game after firing Gary Andersen, but the Aggies could have at least helped out bettors with the over. Trailing 35-16, Utah State was set up with a first-and-goal at the Fresno State 2 with 2:21 to play. Even a field goal would have pushed the total over the closing number of 51.5. Instead, an illegal formation, two incompletions and two sacks added up to zero points, and the under held by a half-point.