David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
Two drives Saturday might end up defining this season.
That sounds a bit drastic, and there will surely be ample twists and turns before we get to Selection Day for the College Football Playoff. But the fifth Saturday of the season had two playoff favorites on the ropes — one 94 yards from a win, the other 96. Both offenses had struggled for much of the day. Both needed some huge plays along the way. And yet both made it happen.
In Death Valley, Clemson’s worst nightmares were realized, Trevor Lawrence went down with a concussion, and Chase Brice was forced into action. The freshman QB — the guy no one expected to get significant reps just a week ago — engineered a drive for the ages. The Tigers ran off 13 plays, including a breathtaking 20-yard completion by Brice on fourth-and-6, and kept their playoff hopes alive with a 27-23 win over Syracuse.
In Happy Valley, Ohio State did the same. Dwayne Haskins spent the week hearing the hype about a Heisman Trophy and his chances to be a one-and-done starter before the NFL comes calling. But by the fourth quarter against Penn State, he had done next to nothing to prove all the buzz was warranted. And then the switch flipped.
Penn State downed a punt at the Ohio State 4-yard line, and on the first play, it was clear what would happen. Haskins dumped a pass to J.K. Dobbins that went for 35 yards, and the Buckeyes were off and rolling. The drive ended with a another dump off to K.J. Hill, who ran 24 yards for the end zone.
Want to find weak spots for Clemson and Ohio State? Saturday showcased a few. But those two drives said more about both teams than anything that came before it. When it mattered most, Clemson’s third-string QB made a throw that will be remembered for years. When the game was on the line, Haskins looked like a Heisman candidate. And as a Saturday that could’ve utterly upended the playoff picture came to an end, Clemson and Ohio State didn’t just survive. They proved something.
While the Tigers and Buckeyes kept preseason prognostications alive, however, it’s also worth remembering that the rest of the college football landscape has changed a good bit since we kicked off in Week 1. Was it Voltaire or Billie Joe Armstrong who said, “Wake me up when September ends?” Regardless, they were clearly talking about college football.
Just think how different life was a month ago. Nebraska and UCLA and Tennessee all had hope. Clemson had three quarterbacks, and Alabama seemed to have one too many. Elon Musk was chairman of a car company. Those were the days.
Suddenly Clemson’s QB glut is now a shortage, while Alabama has it all figured out.
Jalen Hurts took the field again in Week 5, ensuring he’ll be on the Crimson Tide roster all year, which only adds to the insanity that is this Alabama offense. Both Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa are completing better than 70 percent of their throws, with 19 touchdowns and only one interception. But of course, Nick Saban doesn’t want this to all be wine and roses, so it’s worth noting that they failed to cover their 49.5-point spread vs. Louisiana on Saturday, despite being up 49-0 at the half.
At Clemson, however, the QB situation looked dire before Brice converted a fourth-and-6 to save the season against Syracuse. But perhaps the thing we were most wrong about when it comes to the Tigers is focusing so much on the quarterbacks to begin with. This might be a running team, and we haven’t paid nearly enough attention to that. Travis Etienne ran for a career-high 203 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers simply ran the ball down Syracuse’s throat in the second half. There was no secret to the game plan, but there was also no stopping Etienne, Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster, who carried 29 times for 200 yards in the second half alone. Etienne is now averaging 8.14 yards per carry this season.
After a Week 1 win over Michigan, we weren’t talking QB drama at all for Notre Dame, but here we are, with the Irish a legitimate playoff threat, thanks in large part to Brian Kelly’s decision to install Ian Book as his QB. Brandon Wimbush‘s benching wasn’t completely out of left field — he had struggled to get the offense humming — but the results have been sensational. In his two starts — against Wake Forest and in Saturday’s win over Stanford — Book has completed 73 percent of his throws, with 683 yards and nine touchdowns. Looking ahead at Notre Dame’s schedule, where Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC all look far less intimidating than we thought last month, it might require a catastrophe for the Irish not to be knocking on the door of the playoff.
Looking back at that Notre Dame opener, however, it’s also worth reconsidering the other team on the field. Michigan fell behind early, but after halftime of that game, the Wolverines’ defense has been dominant, giving up only 53 points in its last 4½ games. The offense? Well, Saturday’s scuffling against Northwestern comes with plenty of history, but it’s fair to say this is still a work in progress.
Perhaps no September game requires a bigger reconsideration than Kentucky’s 27-16 win at Florida. At the time, it was good for a chuckle. Florida lost to Kentucky for the first time in, what was it — 83 years? Dan Mullen looked as lost as all the other Gators coaches before him, and the whole of the SEC East was simply living in the long shadow of Georgia.
A lot has changed in the three games since. Kentucky still hasn’t lost, topping Mississippi State and South Carolina. And neither has Florida, upending Tennessee and Mississippi State in the process. The Wildcats and Gators are now 9-1 combined, and they can deal a serious blow to the notion of the all-powerful SEC West with Week 6 games against Texas A&M and LSU, respectively.
Speaking of LSU, it keeps winning, but so, too, has its Week 1 opponent. It certainly seemed reasonable enough to write off Miami’s playoff hopes after that opening-week debacle against the Tigers, but the Canes now have a new QB, a big-play offense and a suddenly very winnable conference.
Then dig into the Big 12. Wasn’t Oklahoma supposed to take a step back without Baker Mayfield? Here are some interesting numbers: Mayfield had 1,709 yards and 16 touchdowns through five games last year. Kyler Murray is making his own Heisman case after another dominant performance against Baylor on Saturday, and his season totals are ahead of his former teammate’s pace, with 1,745 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Murray’s biggest test will come next week in the Red River Showdown, which is quite surprising considering where Texas stood after Week 1. Tom Herman was flubbing Steinbeck, and the Longhorns were licking their wounds after a loss to Maryland. While they haven’t exactly looked dominant since — see Saturday’s too-close-for-comfort game against Kansas State — they also haven’t lost.
Or take a look out west at Washington. The Huskies — and by extension, the Pac-12 — looked cooked after an opening-week loss to Auburn. Too many blown red zone chances made for an ugly ending, but Jake Browning broke the school’s passing record Saturday in a victory over BYU, and Washington keeps on winning.
The point is, Voltaire was right. Those big proclamations after a week or two of action didn’t last long, and perceptions shift every Saturday. We know more now. Not everything, just more. Because soon, it’ll be October, and kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. I think that was Nietzsche. Or Bono.
Week 5 hot takes
Clemson should sign Jay Cutler this week
Think about this for a second: When last season ended, the Tigers had Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson and Brice on their roster, and Lawrence had committed. Saturday, they were one injury away from Hunter Renfrow taking snaps. Lawrence is in the concussion protocol, so his availability for next week’s game against Wake Forest is up in the air, meaning Brice might have to step up again with no safety net behind him.
Holgorsen wins the Big 12 Hair Trophy
Follow the logic here: Ryan Gosling lookalike Kliff Kingsbury beat Mike Gundy and the mullet last week in a major upset. This week, Dana Holgorsen’s wildly coiffed hairdo toppled Kingsbury. So unless Lincoln Riley wants to start wearing a pompadour (yes, please!), Holgorsen wins the title.
We should’ve seen this coming
Louisville was up four and driving with less than two minutes to play. The Cardinals had a first down. And yet, instead of running out clock, kicking a field goal and winning the game, Bobby Petrino called a pass play, Jawon Pass threw it, and A.J. Westbrook picked it off. Florida State drove for the winning TD. In fairness to Petrino, however, his QB isn’t named Jawon Run.
They should’ve seen this coming, too
You’d think Temple would’ve had an idea of what was coming. After all, they’re from Philly, and the “Philly Special” Eagles trick play has gotten a little airplay there. Instead, the Owls were completely fooled when BC ran its own version of the “Philly Special,” with receiver Jeff Smith tossing a touchdown pass to QB Anthony Brown. As punishment, no whiz on Temple’s cheesesteaks this week.
WR Jeff Smith catches a pitch and then passes to a wide-open Anthony Brown for a 9-yard touchdown.
Wisconsin is not a winnable game for Nebraska
Scott Frost hit rock bottom in Week 4. But he’s an optimist, so he said this week’s matchup against Purdue was “winnable.” And he was right. If the game had ended after four minutes, Nebraska would have had win No. 1. As it turned out, the Cornhuskers played another 56 minutes, and Purdue was pretty good during that time, ensuring the Huskers set a program mark for consecutive losses, while Frost was pretty mad afterward. “I’m tired of coaching an undisciplined team,” Frost said. “I don’t want to be the only one who won’t put up with it. The team has to not put up with it.”
New coach meltdown of the week
Jimbo Fisher is nothing if not a teacher. And he knows that some kids learn visually. So when he wants to teach a lesson about controlling your emotions in a game, he really gets hands on.
Play of the week
A year ago, the sideline trash can seemed to perfectly sum up what it felt like to be a Tennessee fan. But this year, there’s a new coach, a new team and a clean slate. Of course, Tennessee is still awful, so it’s time for a new image that captures the essence of Volunteers misery. And with that, we give you this thing of beauty in Tennessee’s 38-12 loss to Georgia.
Georgia Bulldogs RB Isaac Nauta scoops up a fumble after QB Jake Fromm gets hit in the backfield and runs it 31 yards for the score.
Play of the week (Group of 5 edition)
At UNC, players get suspended for giving out shoes like this. At Boise State, John Hightower went up and came down with one football and one shoe.
It’s one thing to make the catch with one hand, but one shoe? 👟 pic.twitter.com/MWiCLK7Jbw
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 30, 2018
Under-the-radar game of the week
Hawai’i and San Jose State went five overtimes before the Spartans missed a field goal to give the Rainbow Warriors the win. Our only complaint: Why couldn’t this game have been played in Hawai’i, started at midnight and ended some time right before NFL kickoff on Sunday?
Under-the-radar win of the week
Credit Army with one of the most impressive wins of Week 5, going to 4-0 Buffalo and manhandling the Bulls’ defense. Army hung 42 on Buffalo, including five touchdown drives of 10 plays or more. Meanwhile, Buffalo managed only 13 points in the loss. How impressive are those two things? Buffalo entered the game having scored at least 30 points in seven straight and having held its past 10 opponents under 30. Both streaks were snapped by the Black Knights.