Winners and losers: Two big-time programs stuck in big-time rut to start season

Notre Dame and USC are two of the most storied programs in college football, but both are off to disastrous starts in 2016.

Both the Irish and Trojans blew late-game leads to drop to 1-3 records through four games. Notre Dame was a three-touchdown favorite at home, but could not hold a fourth-quarter lead in a 38-35 loss to a Duke team that has double-digit losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern on its ledger. On Friday night, USC blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead on the road at Utah and allowed a game-winning, 93-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes.

It’s the first time both programs have started 1-3 since 2001. For USC, that was the first year under Pete Carroll. The school took a patient approach with Carroll and it paid off in the long run. Will it do the same with Clay Helton? Helton has looked overmatched since Pat Haden removed his interim title late last season.

With a new AD in Lynn Swann in place, Helton is likely feeling the heat. The Trojans’ offense was completely lifeless in losses to Stanford and Alabama earlier in the year, but showed substantial improvement against the Utes with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold making his first career start at quarterback. Compared to Max Browne, Darnold brings an added dimension of mobility to Helton’s offense, and also proved to be very accurate through the air.

The Trojans need to turn it around in a hurry, and will have that chance as the schedule lightens up in the next few weeks. Carroll’s 2001 Trojans won five of their last six regular season games. Will Helton’s squad be able to do the same? His job may depend on it.

Brian Kelly’s status at Notre Dame is nowhere near as tenuous as Helton’s at USC, but the Irish’s 1-3 start ties the worst he’s had during his tenure, which is now in its seventh season. The Irish have won a lot of games under Kelly, but fans are really questioning more than ever whether he’s the guy that can get the Irish back to a national title. For now, most of the scrutiny in South Bend is aimed at defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose defense has allowed an average of 41.3 points in three losses to Duke, Michigan State and Texas.

After Saturday’s loss, Kelly didn’t hint at disappointment with his assistants like he did after the MSU loss. Instead his ire was pointed toward his players.

“There’s no passion,” Kelly told reporters. “There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth. You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We’ve got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”


To make matters, Notre Dame’s loss, coupled with Michigan’s blowout win over Penn State, means the Irish no longer hold the distinction of being the winningest program in college football history. The 4-0 Wolverines now have a .7307 win percentage, while Notre Dame dropped to .7306.

Notre Dame fell to 1-3 on Saturday with a home loss to Duke. (Getty)
Notre Dame fell to 1-3 on Saturday with a home loss to Duke. (Getty)

Here are the rest of Week 4’s winners and losers:


Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse: Etta-Tawo set a school record with 270 receiving yards Syracuse’s 31-24 win at Connecticut. The previous record was 249 yards set by Scott Schwedes against Boston College in 1985. The 270 yards are the fourth-most in a game in ACC history. Etta-Tawo came into the contest as the Orange’s leading receiver. This was his second 200-yard game of the season.

Eastern Michigan: Eastern Michigan was a winner in more than one way on Friday night. On the field, the Eagles came from behind to knock off Wyoming, 27-24. The win improved the team’s record to 3-1 on the season after combining for three wins total in Chris Creighton’s first two seasons with the program.

On top of that, the school handled a student protest very well. In the days after racist graffiti was spray-painted on a campus building, a group of students were not stopped from peacefully marching onto the field right after the final whistle sounded. School president James Smith spoke with the group throughout the game and said after the game the school has “great respect for our students engaged in the constructive efforts underway to address the issues we face.”

Boise State's Jeremy McNichols is one of the more underrated backs in the country. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)
Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols is one of the more underrated backs in the country. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)

Jeremy McNichols, Boise State and James Conner, Pitt: McNichols had a career-high 208 rushing yards and four total touchdowns to extend his scoring streak to a FBS-leading 15 games. Conner’s 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter against North Carolina gave him a rushing touchdown in 12 consecutive games, which is the second-longest active streak in FBS.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State: Cook, who has struggled at times this season, made amends on Saturday with 28 carries for a career-high 267 yards and two touchdowns in the 55-35 win against South Florida. The rushing yardage was the most by a Florida State player against an FBS team. Cook also led the team in receiving with four catches for 62 yards. His output against the Bulls was more than 40 yards better than his season total in three previous games.

Ryan Switzer, North Carolina: Switzer helped jump-start the North Carolina offense in a win against Pitt with 16 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown. Both the receptions and the yards were career highs and the effort marked Switzer’s second-consecutive 100-yard effort. Switzer was the main target on three of four fourth-and-longs efforts during the Tar Heels final two scoring drives.

Overall, UNC wide receivers combined for 32 catches and 423 yards. Don’t sleep on the Heels!

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are 4-0 for the first time since 2006 when they started went on to win 11 games, the only double-digit win season in the school’s history. Could a similar season be in the cards? It won’t be easy in an ACC that has shown more parity through the first quarter of the season than it has in the past.

Kurt Benkert, Virginia: Virginia registered its first win of the Bronco Mendenhall era Saturday, and transfer quarterback Kurt Benkert set a school record in the process. In the 49-35 win over Central Michigan, Benkert set a program record with 421 passing yards. He also had five touchdowns, three of which came in the fourth quarter to put the Chippewas away.

D’Eriq King, Houston: Freshman D’Eriq King pulled off a rare feat Saturday in the Cougars’ 64-3 win over Texas State. Per ESPN Stats, King became the first FBS player since Toledo’s Eric Page in 2010 to register a passing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a kickoff return for touchdown in the same game. King caught a 48-yard TD from Greg Ward in the first quarter, tossed a 15-yard TD to Steven Dunbar early in the second and returned the opening kickoff of the second half 99 yards for a score. King, a wide receiver who was recruited as a quarterback, is the first Houston player to ever pull off that feat.


The second half was a struggle for Jim McElwain and Florida. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
The second half was a struggle for Jim McElwain and Florida. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Florida’s second-half offense: Ever heard of the prevent defense? The Gators went into the prevent offense in the second half of a 38-28 loss to Tennessee. Florida had a 21-3 lead at halftime and simply just needed to survive the second half.

It did not, as Tennessee scored 35 straight points and Florida had -9 yards of offense on five drives. Four of those drives ended in punts and another ended in an interception as Florida lost to Tennessee for the first time since 2004.

Northern Illinois: Saturday’s game against Western Illinois was supposed to bring some joy to what has otherwise been a dismal season. Instead, the 28-23 loss to an FCS team made the Huskies feel worse and put coach Rod Carey squarely on the hot seat. NIU is 0-4 to start the season for the first time since 1999 and this after an eight-win season a year ago, the first non-double-digit-win season since 2009. Quarterback Ryan Graham was benched in the fourth quarter and it was just an all-around ugly performance for the Huskies, who will have one last chance to get off the schneid against Ball State before facing western Michigan and Central Michigan in back-to-back weeks.

James Franklin: Penn State was trailing Michigan 28-0 in the third quarter when Franklin inexplicably decided to settle for a 21-yard field goal. To make matters worse, he wasted a timeout in the process. After the game, Franklin admitted he second-guessed himself. His first instinct was to send the field goal unit out, but then as the play clock ticked down he called a timeout to consult with his staff. PSU, which was getting absolutely dominated on both sides of the ball, stuck with the field goal to cut the lead to 28-3. Michigan went on to win 49-10.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin: Stop tweeting about sporting events, politicians. The Kentucky governor tweeted a congratulations to Western Kentucky for a win over Vanderbilt.

One problem, Vanderbilt won the game. The Commodores tied the game with no time left on a Ralph Webb touchdown run and won in the first overtime when Western Kentucky went for two and didn’t get it.

The game ended 31-30 and it seems that the governor sent the tweet either right before overtime started or before Vandy scored at the end of regulation.

Arkansas State: What in the world is going on in Jonesboro? Losses to Auburn and Utah State on the road are excusable and a loss to Toledo to open the season isn’t bad either even though the Red Wolves got demolished.

A loss to Central Arkansas is not good. Arkansas State fell to 0-4 with a 28-23 lost to UCA on Saturday night. And not only was it a loss, the Red Wolves blew a lead too. Arkansas State entered the fourth quarter up 23-16 and was outscored by 12 in the quarter. Brutal.

Bowling Green: The Falcons’ defense is putrid. Not only has Bowling Green given up 77 to Ohio State already this season, it gave up 77 on Saturday to Memphis. Yes, post-Paxton Lynch Memphis.

New Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks is a former Texas Tech assistant coach; perhaps he’s brought the Red Raiders’ defensive style to Bowling Green. Though if he brought the defense, the offense hasn’t followed. The most points the Falcons have scored so far this season is 27. With a bad defense and an offense that doesn’t break into the 40s, it could be a long season.

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