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College football takeaways: Two feel-good moments save bleak weekend

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It’s easy to view this college football season as a prolonged battle of attrition. For the second consecutive week, we saw 18 games canceled or postponed from the weekend’s schedule. For the season, that number of disrupted games has hit 100.

We entered this week with the focus on what wouldn’t be there — Alabama coach Nick Saban missing from the sidelines at the Iron Bowl, Ohio State disappearing from the schedule and games called off everywhere from Tallahassee to Boise. “Every game now is just like a bowl game,” grumbled a veteran assistant coach on Saturday night. “It comes down to who wants to be there and who doesn’t.”

But just when the dread, cynicism and weariness that have accompanied this COVID-19-addled season appear to overtake the sport, a magical afternoon like Saturday emerges and reminds us all why we’ve slogged this far in the first place.

There was Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller, capturing the country’s attention more than any other story in the sport this season. Her initial kickoff marked the day’s high point and one of the season’s seminal moments, as she became the first woman to play in a major conference football game. She deftly executed a squib kick against Missouri and performed well enough that she’s likely to return.

Fuller’s moment immediately went viral, transcending college football as everyone from David Price to Russell Wilson chimed in on social media. The #PlayLikeAGirl hashtag trended for much of the day on Twitter, one of the many signs of just how much Fuller’s moment reverberated beyond the sport.

Vanderbilt place kicker Sarah Fuller warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Vanderbilt place kicker Sarah Fuller warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

It also marked the definitive highlight of Vanderbilt’s season, as the 41-0 loss at Missouri dropped the Commodores to 0-8 on the year. But Fuller’s message rose far above the game’s result. She seemed to have a sense of the importance of the moment, using her platform to encourage young women to chase their athletic dreams. “I just want to say that literally you can do anything you set your mind to,” she said.

And that could well include a return engagement. Fuller’s appearance on the Vanderbilt roster came thanks to a confluence of COVID-19-related issues on the Vanderbilt roster, which left them without a kicker. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said the team would “love to have her” back. So would the rest of the country.

The same time that Fuller captured the country’s attention, Buffalo tailback Jaret Patterson was stalking his own piece of college football history.

You know it’s a transformative moment when a player scores eight touchdowns and rushes for 409 yards and the entire country is focused on what he didn’t do. Patterson’s eight touchdowns tied the record of Howard Griffith, the former Illinois running back. He came up short of Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine’s 427 yards against Kansas.

In the waning minutes of Buffalo’s 70-41 win over Kent State, the Bulls had a final chance to have Patterson score. But coach Lance Leipold told Yahoo Sports that he didn’t realize that Patterson had eight touchdowns and could have broken the record. He subbed him out and the Bulls scored on the next play.

Leipold said he texted Patterson to apologize on Saturday evening, telling him if he’d known he was on the cusp of history he’d have left him in the game. Patterson, a senior tailback from the DMV, carried no animosity. “Coach, no worries,” Leipold said he texted back. Patterson was only worried about the next game. “Let’s get on to Ohio.”

Leipold admitted that part of his distraction came from Kent State, which has one of the country’s most explosive offenses. Last season, Buffalo squandered a 27-6 fourth-quarter lead at Kent State, losing 30-27 on the game’s final play.

Patterson’s giant day brought a searing spotlight to a game with massive implications in the MAC, as both Buffalo and Kent State entered undefeated and the winner would leave with the inside track on a spot in the MAC title game.

So when Buffalo got the ball back with 4:57 left, Patterson already had eight touchdowns and carried the ball five times to push the Bulls down to the Kent State 15. That’s when he got subbed out for Kevin Marks Jr., who scored the game’s final touchdown with 1:16 remaining.

Patterson didn’t flinch. “That’s what makes him so special,” Leipold told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “He gets it. He gets that it’s about team wins and the offensive line. He gets the big picture. Where others may sit there and worry about some of that kind of stuff, he wants to make sure the team stays in the forefront.”

It’s fitting to Patterson’s career narrative of unselfishness that he didn’t mind missing out on breaking the record. He and his twin brother, James, both grayshirted before coming to Buffalo. (They both grew up with Chase Young in the Maryland area, but they stuck around at St. Vincent Pallotti High School after Young transferred to DeMatha Catholic.)

Each has emerged as a stalwart for the Bulls, as James is the team’s leading tackler and Jaret has asserted himself a Heisman candidate. His 409-yard game came a week after he gained 301 against Bowling Green.

“Those are two of the most special young men in college athletics today,” Leipold said. “You don’t get guys like all the time who put others and the team before themselves.”

And thanks to Fuller and the Pattersons, the serendipity of their rousing achievements reminds us of the things we've gained amid the uncertainty of what's been lost.

Buffalo's Jaret Patterson (41) runs with the ball for a touchdown during a game against Kent State on Nov. 28, 2020. (Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Buffalo's Jaret Patterson (41) runs with the ball for a touchdown during a game against Kent State on Nov. 28, 2020. (Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Welcome to Club 8, Jaret Patterson

Since September of 1990, Illinois tailback Howard Griffith has been the lone patron of Club 8. That’s when that Griffith broke the NCAA record with eight rushing touchdowns against Southern Illinois. He’s held the rushing mark alone for all that time.

These days, Griffith is better known for his role on the Big Ten Network. And his record has stood long enough that Griffith now has a son, Houston, who is a junior playing in the secondary at Notre Dame.

So as Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson started rushing toward history today, Griffith was flooded with memories, texts and tweets. A record from 30 years ago brought smack talk in the BTN studios, as long-time host Dave Revsine tracked the game on his computer and simultaneously chided Griffith in person and on social media. Fellow analysts Gerry DiNardo and Joshua Perry chimed in as well.

In a phone interview late Saturday, Griffith offered his sincere and hearty congratulations to Patterson. And he offered a glimpse of the perks of holding such a unique record. Every few years, when someone like San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk or Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage would come close, it would allow Griffith to bring back the memories all over again. (Ballage actually scored eight touchdowns in a game in 2016 against Texas Tech, but one was a receiving touchdown.)

“You know what, it’s actually kind of cool,” Griffith said. “[Over the years], someone gets close and all of a sudden, things you did 30 years ago seem to become relevant again. It’s fun from that perspective. And, people giving you grief about it.”

Revsine kept up a running Twitter gag, encouraging Buffalo coach Lance Leipold to pull Patterson to preserve his friend’s record and give more carries to backup Kevin Marks Jr.

Griffith recalled back in 1990 that reporters tracked down the former record holder from 1951, Ole Miss’ Arnold “Showboat” Boykin, for a story. That day, Griffith also broke Jim Brown’s record of 43 points in a game and recalled Brown being interviewed.

Thirty years later, Griffith found himself doing the same.

“God, I’m old!” Griffith said with a laugh. “It’s been like 30 years. I’m old!”

Oregon State wins in a snap

Credit one of this weekend’s highest-ranked teams falling, at least in part, to an injured quarterback’s decision to tumble to the turf.

Lost in the cacophony of the waning minutes of Oregon State’s 41-38 upset of No. 15 Oregon was the decision by injured Beaver quarterback Tristan Gebbia to fall to the turf after injuring his hamstring with less than 40 seconds remaining. As he was limping off the field, after what appeared to be a dirty play, Gebbia emerged from the pile clearly in pain. He fell down and favored his left hamstring badly enough that his trip to the sideline began with him crawling there.

He eventually got up and hopped on one leg past the hashmarks to the numbers, but then followed coach Jonathan Smith’s instructions to tumble about 10 yards from the sideline. Trainers looked at him, and his injury was serious enough that he needed to be replaced and is questionable for next week’s game against Utah.

By falling, it allowed reserve quarterback Chance Nolan, who’d yet to take a snap for Oregon State, to practice about 10 exchanges with a center on the sideline. That gave the Beaver staff the confidence to call a quarterback sneak from under center, which ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore specifically warned them not to do for risk of fumble.

“He’s gotten reps under center,” Smith said. “But we don’t practice QB sneak live very often. [The extra snaps] made me feel better.”

Smith added a line that likely seared into the heart of college football fans sick of watching quarterbacks line up seven yards behind the center when down-and-distance only requires inches to gain. “I didn’t want to go in the gun when you are on the [one-inch] line,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. Hail to common sense.

Nolan bulldozed into the end zone after a clean exchange. And Oregon State got a signature moment after star tailback Jermar Jefferson ran for 226 yards to put them on the cusp of victory. “Our back is pretty good,” Smith said with a chuckle. “He’s gotten a lot faster.”

Jefferson’s dominating performance and Gebbia’s 263 passing yards before his savvy drop led to just the second Oregon State victory over Oregon since 2007. It also puts the Beavers (2-2) in the conversation for the program’s first bowl game since 2013. It was so long ago that Smith, a proud alum, couldn’t remember the year off the top of his head.

Smith said that late Friday, a bunch of Beaver fans drove by the facility for the 2020 version of a celebration — persistent and jubilant horn honking. They are the sounds of perhaps a new level of competitiveness in one of the sport’s great rivalries, one that can be linked to the collision of some savvy coaching and common sense.

Alabama QB Mac Jones throws a pass against Auburn on Nov. 28, 2020. (UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama QB Mac Jones throws a pass against Auburn on Nov. 28, 2020. (UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Auburn’s Iron Bowl blues

A few quick takeaways from a listless Iron Bowl, the type of such sheer Alabama domination that Nick Saban’s devilish grin could be felt at Bryant-Denny Stadium, even if he was home watching on CBS.

Auburn’s offensive impotence in its 42-13 loss won’t go unnoticed by the perpetually impatient crew of boosters who have long puppeteered the athletic department there. And while this performance won’t get Gus Malzahn fired, a 5-3 record could easily dip to 5-4 next week. And that’s when the trouble could begin.

There’s nothing special about this Auburn program in 2020. Bo Nix hasn’t developed distinctly in his sophomore year. Once known to be stretching the bounds of offensive creativity under Gus Malzahn, Auburn has become, well, boring. It is constantly measuring itself against Alabama, and not scoring a touchdown until garbage time and not being in the game at halftime aren’t good comparative metrics.

A blowout loss to Texas A&M would increase the drumbeat for the school to figure out a way to pay Malzahn’s $21 million buyout and hire Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The prospect of Tennessee or South Carolina beating them to Freeze could be a powerful motivator for the Auburn brass.

‘Bama back at it again

That memory of giving up 48 points to Ole Miss appears to be a distant one.

Alabama (8-0) has turned into the relentless machine we’ve become so accustomed to under Saban. Even without him on the sideline. Since trailing Georgia at the half, Alabama has gone on a remarkable streak of devastation, outscoring opponents 215-33.

That noise you hear is LSU fans ducking for cover as that game got rescheduled for Saturday, and this is an LSU defense that gave up 45 points to Missouri, 44 to Mississippi State and 48 to Auburn.

One of the things that struck the ‘Bama staff and administration this week about Saban was how locked in he was despite working remotely. Through Zoom, he was a constant presence, right down to the suit he wore on CBS in the pre-game interview.

Some on the outside could theorize that a season like this could drive Saban, who is 69, into retirement. Those on the inside have seen him as engaged, focused and relentless as ever. No one sees any hint of Saban slowing down.

And right now, there are few teams in college football who look equipped to slow down the Crimson Tide.

How good is Texas A&M?

One season after getting blasted at LSU by 43 points, Texas A&M made tidy work of the Tigers on Saturday night.

Texas A&M’s 20-7 victory was pedestrian in tone, as the Aggies scored just one offensive touchdown and Kellen Mond completed just 11 of 34 passes. This LSU defense, as the SEC has shown us with alarming frequency this season, isn’t reminding anyone of the ‘85 Chicago Bears.

A&M survived thanks to an inspired effort by defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s crew, which scored on a pick-six and held LSU to 2-of-16 on third down and an average of 1.6 yards per rush.

The Aggies were No. 5 in the initial College Football Playoff poll. And what’s striking about A&M’s shot to crack the top four is the lack of opportunity it has the rest of the way.

Texas A&M is 6-1, and has soon-to-be-unranked Auburn and Tennessee remaining on its schedule. The Aggies’ postponed game with Ole Miss hasn’t been rescheduled, but the possibility remains that game could be made up.

In other words, there’s little chance for Texas A&M to make a definitive statement for a spot in that top four. A&M’s home win over Florida is elite and their road blowout to Alabama, 52-24, is certainly a decent loss.

But otherwise, A&M’s schedule lacks opportunity. And to impress the committee, they need to look sharper than they did against LSU.

Trevor Lawrence is back with a vengeance

Need a reminder of how devastating Trevor Lawrence is?

You may, as he hadn’t played since Clemson sputtered through a victory over Syracuse on Oct. 24 because of both his own COVID-19 issues and those of Clemson opponents.

In his first game in more than a month, Lawrence unleashed a kaleidoscope of reminders that he’s the most talented player in college football.

This clip from the second quarter stood out more than most, as Lawrence unleashed the pass on his own 17-yard line and it dropped into the hip pocket of receiver Cornell Powell on the Pitt 25-yard line. That pass doubled as a 58-yard laser than only a handful of NFL quarterbacks could throw.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi summed it up this way to reporters after the game: “I’ve never seen a guy throw the ball that far.”

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Welcome back, Trevor. At his presumed final home game, he made sure his 403 yards and two touchdowns reminded everyone what they’ve been missing the last month.

There appears to be no rust as he prepares for the finishing kick.

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