- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Before the game, the story was about Clemson’s superstar quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who was sidelined by a virus and league protocols.
During the game, the story was about Clemson’s freshman quarterback, D.J. Uiagalelei, who stepped in, rallied the Tigers from a double-digit deficit for the second straight week and, in the process, threw for more yards against a Notre Dame defense than any player in the program’s storied history.
At the end of the game, the quarterback who deserved all the attention was the overlooked veteran, the guy who endured a thrashing by this same Clemson team in a playoff game two years ago, the QB who had won so much but never the big one. On Saturday, Ian Book etched his name into Irish lore with a legendary performance in a 47-40 double-overtime win that snapped a 36-game regular-season winning streak.
“Before the game, Coach [Tommy] Rees told me this would be a game you’d remember the rest of your life,” Book said. “I kept telling myself that all day, before every series.”
In the end, the numbers look like this: 310 passing yards, one touchdown — pedestrian if you only looked at the box score.
On the field, Book was a sorcerer.
Clemson’s vaunted defensive front was frustrated again and again by Book’s runs. He scrambled six times for 67 yards, including a 12-yard scamper on second-and-13 in double OT that set up the winning score.
Notre Dame’s offense had been maligned all season for its inability to inject life into a listless downfield passing attack, an offense that lacked a big-play threat. Then Book’s 53-yard completion to Avery Davis with a minute left to play and the Irish trailing by 7 became the biggest play of his career.
For two decades, the Irish have endured the slights and jokes, a team whose greatness ended with the Grunge era, a facade always waiting to be exposed by the truly elite. But on Saturday, Book willed Notre Dame to a win over the top-ranked team in the country, not through some trick play or cheap call, but by one heavyweight blow after another.
Book’s backfield mate, Kyren Williams, ran for 140 yards and three scores, and those numbers fail to do justice to how much he contributed, picking up blitzes, blocking downfield, infuriating Clemson’s battered defense with one hard run after another.
Notre Dame’s defense held star tailback Travis Etienne to just 28 yards on the ground, dominating the line of scrimmage, and chipping in with a touchdown of its own, when Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah returned an Etienne fumble 23 yards for a touchdown.
Before the game, the Irish seemed destined for a losing narrative, even if they won the game. Lawrence was sidelined, an asterisk waiting to attach itself to the final score. But how could Lawrence have done more than the freshman Uiagalelei, who threw for 439 yards and two scores? The final score had nothing to do with Lawrence’s absence and everything to do with Notre Dame’s physicality, Book’s athleticism and Williams’ brilliance.
And yet, prior to kickoff, Williams said Kelly formulated an escape plan for his team for when the fans inevitably rushed out of the stands and onto the field. It was a mark of the strangeness of 2020, preparing to avoid contact with a crowd at diminished capacity, a means of staying safe from a virus during a celebration. But the footnote is that Kelly was planning for that celebration all along.
No, Notre Dame didn’t deserve the No. 4 ranking this year. It deserves better now.
Who’s No. 4?
Clemson lost, but there’s still a good case to keep the Tigers firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. After all, they went on the road with a backup QB and a banged-up defense and still went to double OT with a terrific Notre Dame team.
But the outcome also means Clemson falls into a growing cast of teams asking for a second chance after missing its first.
Perhaps Texas A&M belongs at No. 4. The Aggies dominated South Carolina, 48-3, and have now won four straight. Kellen Mond is playing the best football of his career, and Jimbo Fisher has finally found a running game to complement his QB. One problem: A&M already lost to Alabama, so do we really need to see a rematch in the postseason?
Maybe No. 4 is Florida. The Gators upended Georgia behind 474 yards and four TDs by Kyle Trask in the World’s Most Socially Distanced Outdoor Cocktail Party on Saturday. After falling behind 14-0, Florida stormed back in a dominant second quarter in which they had as many first downs (12) as Georgia had plays, and nearly as many points (24) as Georgia had yards (25). One problem with that, though: Florida has already lost to Texas A&M.
And if that circular logic doesn’t create a headache, how about this: Clemson is likely to run into Notre Dame again in the ACC championship game, which could, of course, set up a case for a third meeting in the postseason.
Or, perhaps, it’s time to make the case for someone altogether different. BYU scorched Boise State on Friday, the seventh time in eight games the Cougars have topped 40 points. Cincinnati dominated Houston, and given the train wrecks in both the Big Ten and Big 12 standings, there’s little evidence to argue the American isn’t every bit as worthy of a playoff bid in 2020. Or how about Liberty, which knocked off its second ACC team of the year Saturday? Or perhaps Coastal Carolina warrants consideration. The Chanticleers won again with ease against South Alabama. And don’t forget Marshall. The Herd is undefeated, too.
Then again, perhaps the Pac-12 finally figured out a path to the playoff — just start two months after the rest of the country does.
If nothing else, Saturday threw another monkey wrench into what figures to be a nearly impossible task for the playoff committee this year. The members won’t simply be comparing the usual apples and oranges, but perhaps apples, oranges, elephants, a 1972 Buick Skylark and the chainsaw Oregon State celebrates with after a takeaway.
In other words, it’s the first weekend in November, and the season is just getting started.
Cheers and jeers for Week 10
Saturday’s action had plenty of highs and some woeful lows. We offer our hot takes on each side of the ledger.
Jeers to icing the kicker
We’re not always the most logical of species, us humans. There are myriad actions we continually undertake despite no evidence they are worthwhile — knocking on wood for good luck, drafting a Patriots running back for your fantasy team, casting Robert DeNiro in comedies. But perhaps nothing is more galling than icing the kicker, as Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente found out Saturday.
The Hokies appeared to have blocked a 59-yard attempt by Liberty’s Alex Barbir and returned it for a game-winning touchdown with fewer than 10 seconds to play. One problem: Fuente had called a timeout, it appeared, to ice the kicker. Instead, Liberty decided to run a play on fourth-and-6, gained 8 yards, then sent Barbir back out for a 51-yard attempt he drilled home. Flames win 38-35.
After the game, Fuente defended the call — saying both that he always calls a timeout before a kick in that situation but that the official failed to whistle the play immediately. Then he suggested he wanted different personnel on the field. But the larger point remains: When a team wants to send a college kicker onto the field for a 59-yard attempt, just let ’em go. No one will remember what you did if he drills it. Fuente’s decision, however, will be recalled over stiff drinks in Blacksburg for years to come.
Cheers to Jim Harbaugh
Just think, most years, Michigan fans have to wait all the way until an inevitable and yet still gut-wrenching loss to Ohio State before they want their coach fired. Harbaugh has conveniently cut to the chase this time around, following an embarrassing loss to Michigan State with an even more atrocious performance against Indiana in which the Wolverines rushed for just 13 yards, turned the ball over twice, and were never within 14 in the second half.
Cheers to Maryland’s official Twitter account
If 2020’s version of college football has given us nothing else, it has delivered a new and hilarious level of petty insults from official social media channels, and the Terps delivered a double dose on Saturday after annihilating Penn State in Not-so-Happy Valley.
It is the most savage takedown from someone in Maryland since Omar and Brother Mouzone got to Stringer Bell at the end of Season 3 of “The Wire.” (Oh, and spoiler alert.)
An upside-down Big Ten
This is the topsy-turvy world of the 2020 Big Ten — a conference left with no season in August, resurrected in October, and now featuring front-runners Indiana and Northwestern.
Yep, the Hoosiers are 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1988, and Northwestern is 3-0 to start a Big Ten season for the first time since 2000. It is the first time in the league’s 124-year history that both squads are 3-0 in league play together.
Of course, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Add in Penn State’s embarrassment Saturday, and we are living in a universe where Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue and Maryland are a combined 10-1, while blue-bloods Michigan, Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska are a combined 2-9.
Add in that Rutgers scored 27 points against Ohio State (more than in their last four meetings combined), and this is truly the strangest Big Ten season ever.
Cheers to padding your completion percentage
Kudos to West Virginia QB Jarret Doege, who completed 200% of his throws on this play against Texas. Doege’s pass was batted at the line of scrimmage, he caught the deflection, then dished for a first down — until the flag came in for an illegal forward pass.
Of course, we’re hoping The Rock was watching with his XFL scouts, where that play would’ve been completely legal. Doege should definitely be a first-round pick for the St. Louis Battlehawks next year.
Jeers to anyone who thinks the passing games have taken over college football
Sure, we live in a pass-happy culture these days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate some dominant ground games.
Start with North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, who had 151 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries in the Tar Heels’ dominant win over Duke on Saturday. He checked in with a receiving TD, too, just to show he could keep up with all the cool kids and their Air-Raid offenses.
Move over to Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, who has been far from an elite passer for the sixth-ranked Bearcats — he threw for just 162 yards with a TD and a pick in a win against Houston Saturday — but who needs to throw the ball when you run like him? Ridder had 103 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries in the win, and now has 323 yards and eight rushing scores in his past three games.
Then a final hat tip to Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who has been absolutely unstoppable the past two weeks. After rushing for 207 yards and four scores last week against Maryland, he followed with 224 yards on the ground and four more scores in a win over Illinois on Saturday. Ibrahim is the first back with consecutive 200-yard, four-TD games since Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs in 2013.
Saturday’s fun facts
A quick rundown of some of the wilder numbers we saw during Saturday’s games, starting with a pair of Big 12 rivals.
Oklahoma destroyed Kansas 62-9, the Sooners’ second straight game with 60 points or more. They are the first team to do that against FBS opponents since Georgia Tech in 2018 (vs. Bowling Green and Louisville), the first against conference foes since Memphis in 2017 (vs. SMU and ECU) and the first to do it in Power 5 conference games since Ohio State in 2016 (Nebraska and Maryland).
Speaking of scoring a ton of points, that used to be Mike Gundy’s reputation. This year, Oklahoma State is winning with defense, and if that seems entirely strange, it is. From Gundy’s hire in 2005 through last season, the Cowboys were just 14-35 when scoring fewer than 28 points in a game, but after Saturday’s 20-18 win over Kansas State, they’re 4-0 in such games this year.
Even when things go well for Vanderbilt, it still ends badly. The Commodores out-gained Mississippi State by a whopping 274 yards, but thanks to five turnovers, it didn’t matter. Vandy still lost 24-17. How rare is that? From 2015 through Oct. 23 of this year, teams out-gaining their opposition by that much were 394-1 (the lone loss coming from Georgia Tech against Tennessee in the 2017 opener), but it has now happened twice in the past three weeks. Penn State also lost to Indiana in its opener despite a 277-yard advantage.
With Mac Jones off and Trevor Lawrence not playing this weekend, let’s take a deep breath and start this from scratch. How do we measure a contest when one star has missed two games, another didn’t play his first game until late October, and a third won’t play a snap vs. the Power 5 this season?
1. Florida QB Kyle Trask
The loss to Texas A&M feels like a major blemish on Trask’s record, but he threw for 312 yards and four TDs in that game, so it is hardly his fault. His performance against Georgia Saturday was otherworldly, and five straight games with four TDs warrants the top spot here.
2. Alabama QB Mac Jones
It is just impossible to overstate how good Jones has been this year. On the deep ball, he has been awesome (63% completions with eight TDs on throws of 20+). Under pressure, he has been awesome (averaging nearly 10 yards per dropback). On third down, he has been awesome (nearly 12 yards per pass).
3. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Lawrence has been terrific, but Saturday marked the biggest stage for him to burnish his Heisman resume, and he was on the sideline for it, due to his COVID-19 case and the ACC’s testing guidelines. Will he get a second crack at Notre Dame in the ACC title game? It would be a shame for the virus to be the reason he didn’t earn the hardware.
4. BYU QB Zach Wilson
Wilson has been every bit as good as the rest of this list, but it is hard to know how his numbers would compare if he was playing in the ACC or SEC. But Boise State is no pushover, and Wilson still averaged 13.3 yards-per-pass. There is plenty of precedent for a QB outside the Power 5 to make it to New York, but the odds of one winning it are pretty much nil.
5. Ohio State QB Justin Fields
We would love to have Fields higher. His numbers thus far certainly warrant it. But the performance against Penn State feels a bit less remarkable given the Nittany Lions’ 0-3 start, and the fact that Fields will finish with fewer games than anyone else on this list has to count for something.
Under-the-radar game of the week
With fewer than five minutes to play, Memphis trailed South Florida 33-20, appearing on the brink of a second straight loss. Instead, Memphis engineered a seven-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, forced a three-and-out, then followed with an eight-play drive capped with 1:03 to go by a Brady White TD pass to Calvin Austin III, who celebrated like a British nobleman — with a cup of tea.
On the final two drives, White was 11-of-13 passing for 135 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 34-33 win.
This is getting to be old hat for the Tigers, who also came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter against UCF on Oct. 17. They are the first team to erase multiple 13-point fourth-quarter deficits in the same season since Buffalo did it in 2008.
Big bets and bad beats
Maryland closed as a 27.5-point underdog against Penn State, but the Terps won 35-19. How impressive is that? The upset was the third-biggest in a Big Ten game in the past 40 years, trailing only Northwestern’s win over Minnesota (-32) in 1982 and Illinois’ shocker last year against Wisconsin (-30.5), according to ESPN Stats and Information. More impressive? It is the second week in a row the Terps won outright despite being an underdog of at least 18 points. That has never happened since the FBS/FCS split in 1978.
Kansas was a 38.5-point underdogs Saturday, but no matter. Oklahoma covered easily, winning 62-9. That is par for the course. Kansas is now 0-7 against the spread in 2020, despite being a dog of at least 17 points in each of the last six. (They were favored by 4.5 in the opener but were blown out by Coastal Carolina.) But if you haven’t made enough betting against the Jayhawks this year, perhaps we could interest you in the over, too. Kansas’ terrible defense has meant that their games have gone over the number in six of seven games, and pushed in the other.
If you had the under in SMU’s game against Temple, you were feeling pretty good entering the final quarter. The total closed at 63.5, but SMU led 20-16 with just 15 minutes to go, looking like an easy cover. Not so fast. SMU clearly wasn’t comfortable with such a slim lead, and put up a whopping 27 points in the final frame, with Temple adding a touchdown of its own. So, to recap: 36 points through three quarters, 34 points in the fourth, and the over cashes in.
Speaking of hitting the over, Georgia and Florida did it by halftime. The total closed at 54.5, but with the Gators’ final touchdown before halftime, the score was 38-21, making over bettors the only folks more comfortable than Dan Mullen in the second half.
USC’s late score, on-side kick recovery, and ensuing TD all within the final three minutes of action to come back from 13 down to beat Arizona State offered a huge sigh of relief for anyone who took the Trojans’ money line (-420). If you happened to have Virginia Tech at -750, however, you could probably use a timeout from gambling.
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