Though I took a little vacation last week, I made sure not to miss a minute of college football. And through the first four weeks of the season we’ve seen some clear themes developing. The first is that, aside from a couple of select teams, no one is safe. Already we’ve witnessed plenty of parity, and more is surely on the way. Alabama and Oregon are working hard on they apparent immunity, but beyond that pair there doesn’t seem to a single team that isn’t vulnerable.
The second theme this year is that the Big Ten has fallen on hard, hard times. Even in victory its powerhouses have looked sloppy and unimpressive. The Badgers, Buckeyes, and Wolverines all came in with hopes of finishing atop the heap (although Ohio State is under a postseason ban), yet to date all three have looked lousy. The Spartans and Cornhuskers have been only slightly better, and each has a bad loss of its own to deal with. Of these five contenders only OSU remains unbeaten, but its wins have been weak and true tests await.
Weeks 3 and 4 provided plenty of drama, a bit of clarification, and the usual mix of amazement and disappointment. Here is the best and worst of what the last couple of weeks have had to offer.
Best Win of The Week, Week 3: Stanford 21, USC 14 in Palo Alto
This could just as easily be in the “upset” section, but considering that the Cardinal have topped USC in each of the past four years, perhaps we should have expected it. Stanford didn’t play mistake-free football. Luckily neither did the Trojans. And as a result, neither side was able to pull away in this fairly sloppy affair. That probably favored the home team underdog. The two teams combined for 5 turnovers and 15 penalties, all of which contributed to a surprisingly low score. We had gotten accustomed to watching USC put up high point totals, but the defenses and Stanford’s ground game controlled the pace in this matchup.
The stat of the game is 0.9- that’s USC’s average rushing yards per attempt. To say that Stanford’s front seven stifled the run would be a gross understatement. Although Silas Redd was able to punch in a pair of one yard touchdowns, USC couldn’t establish itself on the ground. Redd, Curtis McNeal, and fullback Soma Vainuku combined for 60 yards, and much of that total was eaten away by negative plays attributed to “team” rushes. USC finished with a grand total of 26 yards via the run. That’s hardly a recipe for success. QB Matt Barkley couldn’t make up for those struggles, connecting on fewer than half his pass attempts (20/ 41) and tossing a pair of interceptions.
His counterpart Josh Nunes fared no better, hitting on only 15 of 32 throws and suffering two picks of his own. The difference was that the junior did find the endzone twice, and had tailback Stepfan Taylor backing him up. Taylor was easily the offensive MVP of the game, rushing for 153 yards and a score on 27 carries. He also finished with 5 catches for 60 yards and another TD. Behind his monster day, Stanford outgained USC 417-280, a far more lopsided result than the final score would indicate. With the win, the Cardinal reestablished themselves as a threat in the Pac 12. It appeared that the conference might be a USC versus oregon scenario, but there’s clearly at least one more major player involved now.
Honorable Mention: Florida 37, Tennessee 20 in Knoxville
The Gators didn’t look great on the road at Texas A&M, but the team made big strides in week 3, pummeling the Vols at Neyland.
Worst Win of the Week: Wisconsin 16, Utah State 14 in Madison
Wisconsin continues to be one of the season’s biggest disappointments. Remember that the Badgers needed a desperate finish to hang on in week one against FCS Northern Iowa, then lost to Oregon State in week 2. Now, one the Big Ten’s top contenders barely scrapes by Mountain West Utah State at home? You can’t make this stuff up. In fact, the Aggies could and should have won this game; their kicker missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds to preserve Wisconsin’s pathetic win.
It’s not that USU isn’t a quality opponent. It’s that Wisconsin was supposed to be one of the better teams in the nation, with a running game, offensive line, and defense equipped to handle the supposed rigors of the Big Ten. Thus far, the badgers haven’t handled anything very well. If not for Heisman hopeful Montee Ball, they might have a losing record on the year. Ball saved them in week 1 and had another outstanding performance against Utah State, rushing for 139 yards on a whopping 37 carries. That workmanlike day helped Wisconsin possess the ball for more than 33 minutes, and could have been the difference (along with the obvious missed kick) between victory and defeat.
Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien had a forgettable day under center, throwing for only 63 yards on 5 of 10 passing. O’Brien got the hook at halftime, replaced by backup Joel Stave. But that switch made no difference; the Badgers simply couldn’t find any success through the air. In the end, it was Utah State that truly beat Utah State, compiling 7 penalties for 70 yards and missing what would have been the game-winner.
If there’s one thing you learn watching years of college football it’s that the sport isn’t fair. Justice is not always served. Wisconsin certainly didn’t deserve to move to 2-1.
(Dis)Honorable Mention: Ohio State 35, California 28 in Columbus
Nearby, Wisconsin’s conference rival was looking equally shabby against an allegedly inferior opponent. It took a late interception for OSU to seal the deal at home.
Upset of the Week: Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3 in East Lansing
It’s not especially amazing that the Irish topped their rival Spartans. But the how and the where make this upset an impressive one. Notre Dame completely shut down the Michigan State offense, limiting the 6-point favorites to a field goal and 237 total yards. Moreover, the Irish defense corralled backfield powerhouse Le-Veon Bell, which is no mean feat. the big junior managed only 77 yards on 19 carries- not a bad day, but hardly what we’re used to seeing. Factoring in the team’s negative plays, MSU finished with a mere 50 yards rushing.
By making the Spartan offense one-dimensional, Notre Dame was able to dictate the flow of the game from the opening whistle. MSU had only 2 drives of more than 7 plays. The Notre Dame offense wasn’t exactly a juggernaut either, compiling only 300 yards and losing the time of possession battle. But the Irish were as good as they needed to be and then some, thanks to strong defensive play.
Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson wasn’t all that efficient, connecting on only 14 of 32 passes for 178 yards. But he did manage a pair of TDs, one through the air. The Irish rushing attack was by committee and finished with 122 total yards.
Honorable Mention: Pitt 35, Virginia Tech 17 in Pittsburgh
No team looked more lifeless over the first two weeks of the season than did the Panthers. But to their credit, they laid a whooping on the Hokies.
Blowout of the Week: Alabama 52, Arkansas 0 in Fayetteville
Fine, you’re missing your starting QB. But come on, Arkansas. This isn’t SEC football. This isn’t even Sun Belt football. What are you doing, John L. Smith?
AND THE GAME BALLS GO TO…
Strobl: Chris Thompson, RB- Florida State
There were many who believed that Wake Forest could hang with the Seminoles. In reality, Florida State demolished the Deacons witha 52-0 smackdown. One of the key elements of the victory was FSU’s sheer explosiveness, and no one exemplified that like Thompson. A year ago, Thompson suffered a broken back in the ‘Noles’ loss to Wake, and it appeared that his career might be over. Instead he battled all the way back, sealing his return with a 197-yard day on just 9 carries. In case you need help with the math, that’s an absurd 21.9 yards per carry average. 21.9. We rarely see that kind of production from wide receivers; for a running back, such numbers are unthinkable. Thompson had runs of 33, 74, and 80 yards, the latter carries winding up in the endzone for a pair of scores.
John Mitchell: Jeff Driskel, QB- Florida
Coming out of high school, Jeff Driskel was the #1 ranked QB recruit in the nation. He didn’t look like it last year, but he started to live up to his potential on Saturday night in Knoxville as things seemed to finally click for the sophomore quarterback. Driskel piloted the Gators to a 37-20 win on Rocky Top in front of a raucous crowd of Vols faithful. Driskel was calm, cool, and collected as he threw for 219 yards on 14/20 passing and 2 touchdown tosses. Drisekl added 81 rushing yards on 8 carries for good measure. Florida’s offense hasn’t been the same since Tebow left Gainesville, but it looked potent on Saturday night thanks to Driskel.
Zach Bigalke: Stepfan Taylor, RB- Stanford
Luck wasn’t on Stanford’s side this year when they faced USC? They didn’t need Luck. Showcasing the power running game that nearly won Toby Gerhart a Heisman three years ago, the Cardinal ran over and through the Trojans to become the first Stanford senior class in history to win all four of its games in the century-long rivalry. The 5’11″, 215-pound senior in the backfield was the key cog in the “upset”. Taylor alone gained 153 yards on the ground (just 36 yards less than USC allowed in their first two games combined), adding 60 more on 5 receptions and scoring two of Stanford’s three touchdowns. On a day when the Trojans couldn’t rush, it was the prowess of Taylor that made the difference on the scoreboard.
Best Win of The Week, Week 4: Kansas State24, Oklahoma 19 in Norman
Just like the Stanford win, K-State’s victory qualifies as an upset. But it was only on paper that Oklahoma was considered the better team. After all, the Sooners struggled against UTEP to open the season and haven’t looked much like their usual selves while the Wildcats have been busy mowing down the competition.
Honorable Mention: Miami 42, Georgia Tech 36 in Atlanta
Miami was staked to a comfy 19-0 lead before imploding and allowing the Yellow jackets to take command. Down 36-19, the ‘Canes rallied to score the game’s final 23 points and avoid disaster.
Worst Win of the Week: LSU 12, Auburn 10 in Auburn
Let me get this straight. LSU is supposed to be one of the top 5 teams in the country? With due respect to the Tigers, week 4 argues otherwise. LSU’s showing at Auburn was embarrassing; this wasn’t a Cam Newton-led obstacle standing in Les Miles’ way…this year’s Auburn came in at 1-2 and should have been 0-3. Would have been 0-3 if not for a couple trick plays against the Sun Belt’s Louisiana Monroe.
Against mighty LSU, the host Tigers looked not just presentable, but downright decent. At least defensively. Clearly, the offense was all but defunct. Auburn finished with a total of only183 yards. But at least the Tigers had good balance.
Kiehl Frazier was 13 of 22 for 97 yards through the air, gifting LSU with a pair of INTs. The ground game racked up 86 yards using a trio of rushers. Onterio McCalebb did punch in a 4-yard touchdown and a long run of 20 yards…but finished with just those 24 on 11 total carries. Tre Mason had a slightly better day with 54 yards on 9 carries, but was tackled in the endzone for an early safety that, ultimately, was the difference in the final score.
LSU’s offense wasn’t quite as anemic, but still failed to impress. Remember that Auburn’s D had surrendered 528 yards to Clemson, 388 to Mississippi State, and 410 to Louisiana Monroe. It’s not so much a stop unit as a slow-them-down-a-little unit. Yet LSU, a top 5 team, managed only 351 total yards.
Junior QB Zach Mettenberger was 15 of 27 passing for only 169 yards. The Bayou Bengals did manage to rush for a collective 182, led by Spencer Ware’s 90 yards. But overall, last year’s runners up looked disjointed and beatable. With 9 penalties for 80 yards and a pair of fumbles, LSU is going to have to be much, much better to compete in the SEC West.
(Dis)Honorable Mention: West Virginia 31, Maryland 21 in Morgantown
This could be Wisconsin or Ohio State yet again. Both looked lousy against what should have been overmatched opponents in UTEP and UAB, respectively. But just to mix things up, let’s focus on WVU’s lackluster effort at home.
Upset of the Week: Oregon State 27, UCLA 20 in Pasadena
When The Beavers knocked off Wisconsin earlier this year, it was a surprising and seemingly impressive victory. But as the badgers continued to limp through their schedule, we began to wonder…was Oregon State good, or was Wisconsin just that bad? After week 4, perhaps we can conclude a bit of both.
The Bruins came into the matchup on the rise, climbing the polls after a series of wins that included an upset over Nebraska. But UCLA couldn’t get its act together in from of a home crowd at the Rose Bowl. Despite being spotted a pair of turnovers, the Bruins were outgained 501 yards to 444, lost the time of possession battle by nearly 10 minutes, and were beaten far worse than the final score would suggest. While neither defense had a day to be proud of, UCLA’s showing was especially bothersome given the team’s previous success.
Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley did his part, hitting 27 of 42 passes for 378 yards and a touchdown while adding 32 more yards and another score on the ground. But he was, in essence, a one-man show. The Bruins couldn’t muster a rushing attack, and the lack of balance made it easier for Oregon State to maintain control.
The Beavers had stellar showing by QB Sean Mannion (24 of 35 for 379 yards) and receivers Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton. Cooks led the team with 175 yards on just 6 grabs while Wheaton tacked on 150 on 9 receptions. Both found the endzone on passing plays of 40+ yards.
Honorable Mention: Central Michigan 32, Iowa 31 in Iowa City
Evidently, Kirk Ferentz wasn’t satisfied leaving the poor play to the rest of the Big Ten and wanted some failure for himself.
Blowout of the Week: Oregon 49, Arizona 0 in Eugene
The Wildcats looked good in beating Oklahoma State. But then this happened.
AND THE GAME BALLS GO TO…
Strobl: Gary Nova, QB- Rutgers
I had picked Arkansas (-7) over Rutgers as my spread of the week. A Big East team going on the road against an SEC power that was once again at full strength? Seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize the depths to which Arkansas had fallen. Even with the return of QB Tyler Wilson, the Hogs were thoroughly outmatched by the Scarlet Knights. Nova manhandled the Arkansas defense, tossing 5 touchdowns. He amassed 397 yards on 25 of 35 passing- that’s 71.4%. Folks, this is Rutgers. Wow.
John Mitchell: E.J. Manuel, QB- Florida State
There were still questions about whether or not Florida State was “back” coming into Saturday’s clash with Clemson after the ‘Noles had yet to be tested after two games against FCS opponents and then Wake Forest. EJ Manuel and Florida State answered any lingering questions with an emphatic win over the Tigers at Doak Campbell on Saturday night. Florida State’s defense got the praise in the first three weeks, but it was the offense that crushed Clemson to the tune of 667 yards. Manuel shredded the Clemson secondary for 380 yards and two touchdowns on 27/35 passing. Manuel also added 102 rushing yards on 12 attempts.
Zach Bigalke: Taylor Heinicke, QB- Old Dominion
Yes, that’s right, I went to the FCS to pick this week’s game ball recipient. When you break a Division I passing record, you’ve earned your just rewards. Heinicke notched 730 passing yards, passing David Klingler’s 22-year-old record in a wild come-from-behind 64-61 victory for Old Dominion over New Hampshire. Completing 55 of his 79 pass attempts (for 9.2 yards per attempt), Heinicke reversed a 54-38 lead for the Wildcats, bringing the Monarchs back in the fourth quarter as he passed his way into the record books. He fell just shy of Sam Durley’s all-levels record of 736 yards, but set the mark for top-division college football en route to a victory.