Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the covered wagon repair shop is open Sunday to fix the overturned Sooner Schooner (1):
OLD-SCHOOL FOOTBALL, FOR BETTER AND WORSE
It was a throwback Saturday in the sport, with three games pivoting on plays as ancient as college football itself. The plays: fourth-and-1 quarterback sneaks (2) in Michigan-Penn State, Tennessee-Alabama and Boise State-BYU. Bodies colliding, legs churning, cleats digging into the turf, a savage skirmish over a painted line on a small pocket of grass on a field 100 yards by 53 1/3. With a multitude watching and waiting on the outcome.
They were a smashmouth reminder that even as offenses trend continuously to passing and playing in space, and as technology drives decision-making, and as the sport becomes ever more sophisticated, sometimes it still comes down to rudimentary force — opposing piles of humanity fighting over inches of turf.
You watch those plays and, understanding the nature of human conflict when football was young, can see why war analogies were (unfortunately) applied to football — Pickett’s Charge, the Battle of the Marne, the desperate terrestrial struggle for ownership of the land. They are not the same, football and war, and never were. But fourth-and-1 has long been the non-deadly adaptation of trench warfare, especially before fighter jets and the rub route irrevocably changed the dynamics of both military conflict and football.
Even in 2019, fourth-and-1 still provides riveting football tension. It did Saturday night, a communal drama that played out in places as different as State College, Pennsylvania, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Provo, Utah. The plays:
Michigan had a fourth-and-goal from the Penn State 1, fourth quarter, trailing by two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter. Quarterback Shea Patterson (3) burrowed behind his center toward the goal line, with fullback Ben Mason quickly smashing his 270 pounds into Patterson from behind to propel him against the mass of Nittany Lions pushing the other way.
Patterson disappeared beneath a pile of humanity, and it took the officials a good 10-15 seconds to find him, with the ball resting on the goal line, and declare it a touchdown. The great Chris Fowler, calling the game on ABC, summed up the play this way: “That was about as primal as it gets. That was Rutgers and Princeton 150 years ago.” Penn State would hang on in the end, but that touchdown gave Michigan hope for a comeback from a 21-0 deficit.
Later, well past midnight ET, Boise State and BYU settled their game on a similar play. After the officiating crew made a mess of a first-down measurement, the Cougars had a fourth-and-inches from their own 34-yard line with two minutes remaining. Having led 28-10, they were now clinging to a 28-25 lead and trying to finish a major upset of the No. 14 Broncos.
Coach Kalani Sitake went for it instead of punting, a brassy decision, and sent defensive back Austin Kafentzis (4) in to run the sneak. The push from behind actually vaulted Kafentzis over the top of the scrum, pretty much the opposite trajectory of Patterson’s burrow into the pile, and he got the game-clinching first down. Our Yahoo Sports college football Twitter account posted the perfect snapshot of the play:
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) October 20, 2019
In between those two plays was the much less successful and much more controversial Saturday night sneak. That one was attempted by Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (5), who almost certainly changed the play call at some point before the snap — perhaps without telling anyone else — with disastrous results.
From the look of the replay, at least a couple of the Volunteers were expecting something off the left edge. Guard Trey Smith pulls to the outside that way and gets an effective block on Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings — but in the process of doing so, he gives a free rush to impact Guarantano as he’s attempting to go over the top with the ball. The fullback appears to have his arms open, either for a fake or real handoff, but he then redirects toward Guarantano when he sees it’s a sneak. The tailback, who is actually linebacker Quavaris Crouch — a 246-pound thumper who had been used in short yardage before this season, including in this game — may have been the intended ball carrier to the left.
Regardless, the only ball carrier on the play other than Guarantano turned out to be Alabama safety Trevon Diggs, who picked up the loose ball in the end zone after it was jarred free from the quarterback. He scooted around the end and went 100-plus yards for the game-sealing score. And that summed up Tennessee’s 2-5 season to date.
But then we had the other old-school moment of the weekend, and this one wasn’t as welcome. Guarantano was intercepted coming off the field by a furious head coach Jeremy Pruitt (6), who jabbed a finger at his quarterback and then reached up and gave a brief yank to Guarantano’s facemask. That’s a coaching technique best left in the past, and not just because the optics are terrible.
Here is the thing about grabbing a facemask — it is a control mechanism. There is no more effective way to physically control a football player than by the facemask, which is why the smart way to fight during a football game — if there is such a thing — is by grabbing the mask. (It’s certainly not uselessly punching someone in the helmet.)
Grabbing the facemask is, in effect, a demeaning act. It’s akin to yanking a horse around by a bridle or a dog around by a leash.
For the most part, coaches stopped behaving that way (in public) decades ago. Players don’t like it and are far less willing to tolerate it now than in the 1980s or ‘90s. (Lou Holtz and Bill Curry had memorable facemask grabs of players after they committed penalties; there were many others.) Don’t be surprised if Pruitt has to answer questions from recruits, and their parents, about that stunt.
There was an interesting and unnerving element to the flood of vitriolic support for the coach Saturday night and Sunday, aimed at those who criticized his reaction. It went beyond the predictable decrying of “America Gone Soft” and the declarations that anyone who had a problem with Pruitt never played football (patently false). It triggered a lot of coded talk about masculinity, and the continued conflating of football “toughness” with being a real man.
Here came the terminology from darker corners of American culture, aimed at Pruitt critics: “cuck,” “beta,” “incel.” The darker corners of America where men feel like they’re under siege by … something.
It’s not surprising that some people with that mentality would want to co-opt football as some sort of last bastion of male prowess. It is a sport played almost exclusively by males, and it does require toughness to play it well. But having your facemask grabbed doesn’t make a player tough, and grabbing a facemask doesn’t make a coach tough.
It’s a sign a coach is so limited that he doesn’t have a better means of getting his message across. No great communicator needs to go that route.
FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF
If today were Selection Sunday:
Top seed LSU (7) vs. fourth seed Oklahoma (8) in the Peach Bowl.
The Tigers were held to their lowest point total of the season (36) by Mississippi State Saturday, failing to score a touchdown until late in the second quarter. This mild letdown could be attributed to the game’s place on the schedule — Florida the week before, Auburn the week after. The LSU defense performed well, holding Mississippi State to seven points until a garbage touchdown with less than a minute to play. Next: Auburn Saturday.
The Sooners walloped West Virginia 52-14, reversing a trend of two straight games of diminished scoring (from 55 to 45 to 34). The much-improved Oklahoma defense allowed season lows in rushing yards (51) and total yards (242). The only downside to the weekend was Texas’ last-second escape at home against Kansas, which diminished the Sooners’ lone quality win to date. (It did the same for LSU, which beat the Longhorns in September, but the Tigers have also defeated Florida.) Next: at Kansas State Saturday.
Second seed Ohio State (9) vs. third seed Alabama (10) in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Buckeyes were authoritative yet again Friday night, demolishing Northwestern 52-3. They extended their season-long streak of leading by at least 17 points at halftime in every game, and posted their biggest victory margin over a Big Ten opponent in two years. (Three years if you don’t count Rutgers as a Big Ten opponent.) Next: Wisconsin Saturday, in a game that was downgraded by the Badgers’ stunning loss to Illinois.
The Crimson Tide beat Tennessee, as noted above, but lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for at least one game after a high ankle sprain. Alabama sent out a release Sunday saying that Tagovailoa had surgery on the ankle — a “tightrope” procedure that will add stability. It’s the same procedure he had done on his other ankle last year during the period between the SEC championship game (Dec. 1, 2018) and the Sugar Bowl (Dec. 29). For now, all that matters is getting Tagovailoa back at something approaching 100 percent by the time LSU arrives Nov. 9. Next: Arkansas Saturday, a meek opponent who should be handled easily enough by backup QB Mac Jones.
Dropped out: Wisconsin.
Also considered: Clemson, Penn State.
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