10 takeaways from a survive-and-advance Saturday in college football

Ten takeaways from a survive-and-advance Saturday in college football:

1. All playoff contenders coming into the weekend remain College Football Playoff contenders coming out of the weekend. The top 10 teams in the selection committee rankings, plus undefeated No. 12 Central Florida, all won.

The closest escape was No. 6 Oklahoma by a point over unranked Oklahoma State, in a defense-optional Bedlam game in Norman. The Sooners gave up 47 points and 640 yards to the 5-5 Cowboys, but produced 48 points and 702 yards of their own. They held for the win when Mike Gundy’s Holgorsen Moment failed — opting against a tying kick, Gundy went for two but a Taylor Cornelius pass for the lead with 1:03 left was well behind an open Tylan Wallace.

Even by Oklahoma’s porous defensive standards, this was alarming — the yards allowed were the most this season, and perhaps the most allowed by the Sooners in Memorial Stadium. The points allowed were the most at home since Oklahoma State scored 48 six years ago.

But every win is a good win at this point in the season, and Oklahoma now has a walkover against Kansas separating itself from at least one and possibly two games against West Virginia for the Big 12 title. (Oklahoma State will get a second consecutive chance to gum up the league race Saturday when it hosts the Mountaineers.)

All other playoff contenders remained on track with relative ease — average winning margin for Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Michigan, Georgia, LSU, Washington State, West Virginia, Ohio State and UCF was 22.4 points. This was not a weekend with tumult at the top.

Alabama running back Josh Jacobs (8) carries the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 24-0. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Alabama running back Josh Jacobs (8) carries the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 24-0. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

2. Alabama certainly is good enough to win without officiating charity. But the Crimson Tide got it Saturday anyway.

‘Bama was the beneficiary of a pair of calls against Mississippi State that surely had political analyst and LSU fanatic James Carville spewing Southeastern Conference conspiracy theories all over again. Carville filled the air with allegations of the league pandering to Alabama last week before the Tide steamrolled the Tigers, and then came this week.

On Alabama’s first drive, running back Damien Harris appeared to fumble near midfield and Mississippi State recovered. But Harris was ruled down and the game was not halted for a review. Replays showed that the ball was loose before Harris was down. Alabama, as usual, scored shortly thereafter.

“I considered challenging it, but the information I got from guys up in the booth who saw it and had a great view of it said that the guy was down and it wasn’t going to be overturned,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said afterward. He might need to get better help in the booth.

Later in the half, with the score 21-0, the Bulldogs appeared to score on a Nick Fitzgerald pass to Kylin Hall. But receiver Deddrick Thomas was called for a block in the back at the Alabama 1-yard line to negate the score. Replay showed that it was a phantom call — Thomas didn’t make contact with the defender.

Get those two calls right and it’s arguably a 14-7 game at halftime, and Alabama plays the second half under more pressure than it has all season. Still highly likely that the Tide rolls on, but this will only intensify the grumbling about preferential treatment for the league’s flagship program.

That said, give ‘Bama credit for further evolving into a complete team. Behind Tua Tagovailoa (who again left the game with an apparent knee issue), for the first half of the season this was the No. 1 offense in America and a less-than-vintage Nick Saban defense. But now Alabama has shut out consecutive SEC opponents for the first time since 1980, and thrown nine consecutive scoreless quarters at the opposition. No weaknesses (beyond place-kicking).

3. Ohio State punts to win.

Fans hate watching their team punt after crossing midfield, but sometimes conservatism is the right thing to do. On a quintessentially glum Saturday at Michigan State, that was the smart play for Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes.

In a stultifying game that featured 17 punts, field position was what mattered most in Spartan Stadium. Urban Meyer put that job on the foot of punter Drue Chrisman and his coverage team, with remarkable results.

Leading 7-3, Ohio State’s first five possessions of the second half ended this way:

Fourth-and-4 at the Michigan State 38: Chrisman punt downed at the Spartans 5-yard line.

Fourth-and-11 at the Michigan State 33: Chrisman punt downed at the Spartans 6.

Fourth-and-2 at the Ohio State 44: Chrisman punt out of bounds at the Spartans 3.

Fourth-and-6 at the Michigan State 40: Chrisman punt downed at the Spartans 1.

Fourth-and-6 at the Michigan State 46: Chrisman punt downed at the Spartans 2.

Over and over, Chrisman lobbed precise kicks and Ohio State gunner Terry McLaurin tracked them down. By the time puntapalooza and the subsequent Michigan State possessions were over, Ohio State’s lead had increased to 16-6 without scoring an offensive point. There was an intentional Spartans safety (Mark Dantonio was not to be outdone in the Caution Department), and an unforced Michigan State fumble in the end zone that the Buckeyes fell on for a touchdown.

“We kicked it five times inside their 6-yard line,” Meyer said. “In those conditions, that was the difference.”

Dantonio helped Ohio State shut down the Michigan State offense by overplaying regular starter Brian Lewerke, despite an arm injury that greatly hindered his throwing ability. Lewerke was just 11 of 28 for 128 yards, while backup Rocky Lombardi showed some spark in an uneven performance (7 of 19 for 92 yards, but also a 49-yard run).

“I know I can’t make some throws that I want to with how my arm is right now,” Lewerke said, acknowledging that Lombardi’s arm “is a lot stronger” at the moment.

Yet Lewerke still got the majority of the snaps for the Spartans. That makes even less sense than the intentional safety.

Urban Meyer yells toward his team during a Big Ten Conference college football game between Michigan State and Ohio State on November 10, 2018, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. (Getty Images)
Urban Meyer yells toward his team during a Big Ten Conference college football game between Michigan State and Ohio State on November 10, 2018, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. (Getty Images)

4. Notre Dame’s good soldier comes through.

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush was benched after three games this season in favor of backup Ian Book. Wimbush didn’t take the Kelly Bryant route and transfer in a fit of pique; he didn’t check out mentally on the team; he kept working and was ready for his second chance when Book was ruled out against Florida State with a rib injury.

Wimbush threw three touchdown passes — two on exquisite catches by tight end Alize Mack — and produced 198 yards total offense in Notre Dame’s easy, 42-13 win over the program formerly known as Florida State. His primary job was handing off to Dexter Williams (20 rushes for 202 yards), but Wimbush led the Irish to more points than in his previous seven starts.

Unlikely as it would have sounded anytime in the last four decades, Notre Dame’s next game against Syracuse in New York figures to be significantly more difficult. The undefeated Fighting Irish would love to have Book back for that one — but if they have to go into Yankee Stadium with a backup, they might have the most experienced one in the country not named Jalen Hurts.

5. Pittsburgh has somehow become America’s running game juggernaut.

The Panthers wobbled out of September with a 2-3 record that included blowout losses to Penn State and Central Florida. They were averaging 191.6 rushing yards per game at that point.

In three October games that average leaped to 288.3. And now in November it’s a Wishbone Era Oklahoma-esque 373 per game.

Pitt dropped a 492-yard rushing bomb on Virginia Tech Saturday, pummeling a Bud Foster defense like few teams ever have in a 52-22 rout that moves the Panthers within squeezing distance of the ACC Coastal title. (They clinch it with a win at Wake Forest Saturday.) Qadree Ollison had a 97-yard run for Pitt and Darrin Hall had one for 73 yards, as quarterback Kenny Pickett only had to throw it 11 times all day.

Pitt has gone from 2-3 to 6-4 one handoff at a time.

6. Northwestern’s on-field news update was epic.

After beating Iowa 14-10 in Iowa City, coach Pat Fitzgerald called his team together and shouted the results of other pertinent Big Ten games: “Wisconsin lost! Purdue lost!” The Wildcats could do the math from there — they were Big Ten West champions for the first time.

And the jubilant celebration was on.

Somehow, a 6-4 team with a non-conference loss to Akron is going to Indy for the league championship game. It took another excellent defensive effort. It took Bennett Skowronek’s full-extension, diving touchdown catch, which will live in Northwestern lore. And it took the usual voodoo economics from America’s most statistically underwhelming winner.

Northwestern was outgained, as it has been on the season as a whole. It was even in turnover margin, continuing the season-long trend in that area. It was shut out for more than a half. It still won.

Northwestern defensive lineman Fred Wyatt celebrates after an NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Iowa City, Iowa. Northwestern won 14-10. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Northwestern defensive lineman Fred Wyatt celebrates after an NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Iowa City, Iowa. Northwestern won 14-10. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

7. UCF improved to 9-0 by beating Navy 35-24, but continues to battle a Group of Five ceiling. That bothers at least one coach in the American Athletic Conference.

SMU coach Sonny Dykes, who has faced both UCF and Michigan this season, believes the Knights deserve more respect than they’ve been given. SMU lost by nearly identical scores – 48-20 to UCF and 45-20 to Michigan. “There’s not that big of a difference, I promise you,” Dykes told colleague Pete Thamel this week. “Michigan is better up front, and I thought Central Florida had a little bit better skill. I think that’s probably not going to be popular with people in the Big Ten, but that’s my assessment.”

Dykes has been the head coach at Louisiana Tech and California and served as an assistant in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. In other words, he’s seen plenty of quality opponents. “Could [UCF] hold up physically week after week after week?” he asked. “Maybe not. I know this, they held up against Auburn.” When asked if UCF would win the Big Ten West or the Pac-12 South, he said firmly: “I don’t think there’s any doubt.”

Dykes has been disappointed by the media narrative around UCF, much of which has been driven by Fox analyst Joel Klatt. While he didn’t name Klatt, Dykes said, “For guys to go on TV and basically make fun of them is disrespectful.”

Dykes went on to question the fairness of a system where half of the teams essentially can’t compete for the national title.

“It’s interesting the way stuff is now, and the way it’s designed, where half the teams that play Division I college football really don’t have a chance to win a championship,” he said. “There’s not another sport anywhere in the world where half of the people that participate have no chance of even being involved. To me, something is wrong, just from that perspective. Otherwise, they need to split it up and do something different.”

8. The Mountain West Conference’s chain reaction was dubious at best.

Friday night on the blue turf, Boise State was trying to run out the clock on a 24-17 win over Fresno State. On a third down in the last 30 seconds, a run came close to a game-ending first down.

There was no measurement, and the officials signaled fourth down. Then there was a timeout and a measurement, and everyone watching TV saw the ball noticeably short of the first-down yardstick.

And then the official very quickly ruled first down anyway, and the game was over.

The conference produced a statement on it Saturday, claiming a “thorough and detailed review” that “included assessment of video footage and photographic evidence from all available sources, including the television feed, institutional coaches video, in-stadium video board cameras, content from the instant replay system, and extensive research of internet and social media platforms.”

This amalgamated Zapruder film exonerated the officiating crew.

“While certain camera angles make it appear the ball was short of a first down, there are no perspectives which are directly perpendicular to the line to gain and therefore no conclusive evidence that the line to gain was not in fact reached,” the MWC statement said. “It has been confirmed the spot, instant replay review and measurement processes were all executed correctly.”

Whatever you say, MWC. Nobody believes you.

Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien (4) is tripped up by a Fresno State play for a loss during an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (Drew Nash/The Times-News via AP)
Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien (4) is tripped up by a Fresno State play for a loss during an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (Drew Nash/The Times-News via AP)

9. A bizarre sequence of great interest to the betting public played out at the end of the LSU-Arkansas game.

Leading 24-17 and trying to kill the clock, Tigers running back Nick Brossette made a heady decision on his way to the end zone with less than 90 seconds to play. He slid to the turf at the Razorbacks’ 7-yard line instead of trying to score. Arkansas was out of timeouts, and a couple of LSU kneel-down plays would end the game.

But LSU did a strange thing, lining up in a normal formation and attempting to score. Brossette got a handoff and did the same thing — sliding to the turf again, this time at the Arkansas 1-yard line. The Tigers again called a play and again gave the ball to Brossette, and he was stopped for no gain. End of game.

Brossette seemed to handle the situation more intelligently than the LSU coaching staff. The only necessity was running the clock, not scoring. An LSU touchdown would have given Arkansas hope, however slim — score, recover an onside kick and score again.

Beyond that, the Tigers’ insistence on trying to score on the final two plays obviously increased the risk of a fumble in a one-score game. If Ed Orgeron needs to know what can happen while trying to score a meaningless, rub-it-in touchdown, he should consult with Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele — as head coach at Baylor in 2000, Steele ordered a running play at the goal line against UNLV and it resulted in a fumble and 99-yard return for a touchdown with no time remaining for the winning score.

Orgeron also was messing with the gamblers. The line was LSU by 13½, which made that final sequence immensely important. If Brossette scores, the Tigers cover the spread. Very interesting.

10. Three embattled coaches did nothing to help themselves this weekend.

Louisville’s Bobby Petrino is seemingly all but gone after the Cardinals gave up more than 50 points for the third straight game and fifth time this season — this time a 54-23 shellacking at Syracuse. Louisville is 2-8 and has shown every sign of quitting, cold, on the season.

North Carolina’s Larry Fedora lost to Duke and David Cutcliffe for the third straight season. The Tar Heels are 1-8 this season and 4-17 over the last two, as Fedora has broken all established records for speeding from the coaching hot list to the coaching hot seat.

And USC’s Clay Helton oversaw another dysfunctional, undisciplined performance in a come-from-ahead home loss to California, 15-14. The Trojans led 14-0 at halftime and then promptly fell apart — a safety, turnovers, terrible penalties, you name it. USC is 5-5 with two rivalry games remaining, against UCLA and Notre Dame. Winning both might give the school a shred of justification for keeping Helton, but much of the fan base has already decided he can’t do the job.

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