Quarterback Michael Penix is 6-foot-3, a seemingly insignificant fact from Indiana’s roster and the universe’s cruelest twist for Penn State.
Oh sure, that might seem like a conspiratorial view of the events that led to the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions losing their season-opener 36-35 in overtime. This was just college football after all. Does the universe really care who wins a Big Ten game?
The answer is yes. Yes it does.
If Penix is a centimeter shorter, Penn State is celebrating. Instead, Penix’s stretch for the pylon to convert a two-point try by the absolute slimmest of margins created the most dramatic replay review since the Zapruder film.
And yes, if Penn State doesn’t fumble at the goal line, miss three field goals or score too quickly on its final drive, it would’ve won, but those are all peripheral moments. This was fate. A loss this painful has to be due to larger, unseen forces of nature. The football gods were feeling frisky. And, on Saturday, they reminded the nation of just how much we had been missing Big Ten football these past two months.
Really, what’s more 2020 than the Big Ten, a league that has produced fringe medical theories (Jim Harbaugh doesn’t want players eating chicken because it’s a “nervous bird”), confounding miseries (hi, sad Michigan fans) and utter feelings of helplessness (Maryland, we’re looking in your direction) on an annual basis? This year was made for the Big Ten and, in its return, it offered us a perfect 2020-type ending when nothing felt certain and anything seemed possible.
It was a historic win for Indiana, which hadn’t beaten a top-10 team since before man landed on the moon. It was an ending Penn State fans will still talk about over cheap beers 50 years from now, shaking their heads and cursing a replay official whose name they’ve never known.
It was a heck of a moment in a game that, in the grand scheme of the season, probably doesn’t really matter all that much.
After all, Alabama decimated Tennessee in Knoxville with Nick Saban running his record to 23-0 against former assistants as the dad who keeps dunking on his kids in a driveway basketball game. The Tide can win it all, to be sure, but Saturday’s events offered a red flag, as star receiver Jaylen Waddle was lost for the season with an ankle injury. It was likely the end of a collegiate career for one of the sport’s most electric players, one that could have ripple effects months from now when Alabama is actually tested by a worthy adversary.
An inexplicable season nearly took an astounding turn as Clemson struggled to put away woeful Syracuse, despite being favored by nearly seven touchdowns. Trevor Lawrence threw a pick six, the Orange converted a handful of big plays, and the Tigers were up only six midway through the third quarter. How did it happen? A shaky performance by a reconstructed offensive line and lackluster day from a receiver corps still trying to find a weapon on the outside. Clemson can win it all; but, despite a lopsided final score, Saturday served notice that there are cracks in the impenetrable facade. (Just don’t ask coach Dabo Swinney about it.)
Ohio State made its case for joining college football’s elite tier by dominating Nebraska, thanks to a near-perfect performance from quarterback Justin Fields. The Huskers, meanwhile, might be dusting off that application they started in August for readmittance into the Big 12. But a close look at the Buckeyes does offer at least one potential concern. Trey Sermon and Master Teague combined for 23 carries and just 89 yards on the ground, and the Buckeyes clearly missed J.K. Dobbins in their 2020 debut.
And then, there’s the question of who will push for the fourth playoff spot, if our favorites all hold serve.
Is it Oklahoma State? It would be a fitting tribute to this bizarre year if coach Mike Gundy made the playoff on the back of his defense, but the Pokes shut down Brock Purdy and Iowa State for a critical win that kept them undefeated.
Is it Notre Dame? Ian Book finally connected on some big plays in the passing game as the Irish embarrassed Pitt. Or was that more about an utterly inept Panthers team that added to a particularly thin resume for Notre Dame?
Maybe Michigan has finally found its QB, and Harbaugh’s crew will roll into Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 12 and pull off a historic … um, no. Even for 2020, that’s a bit wild.
But maybe all of this discussion a week into the Big Ten season, before the Pac-12 kicks off Nov. 7, is entirely premature. This is 2020, a year when the ground seems to continually shift beneath our feet and no assumption should be carved into stone.
Perhaps that’s why Indiana’s stunner means so much on this late October Saturday. It’s a reminder that the really great moments can happen any time, the margin between joy and misery is razor thin, and it’s best to enjoy the moments we have rather than worry too much about what comes next.
Justin Fields tosses a pair of touchdowns and adds another on the ground as Ohio State cruises by Nebraska.
Welcome back, Justin Fields. You’ve been missed. Slip on your Heisman Five smoking jacket and allow us to show you to the members’ lounge. There’s a complimentary plate of warm cold cuts on the table next to the memorial photo of Geno Smith’s 2012 season.
1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
It could have been a game to pad the stats, but Lawrence generously let 46-point underdog Syracuse hang around with a pick six. Perhaps we shouldn’t be talking Heisman and instead push the Clemson QB for the Nobel Peace Prize.
2. Alabama QB Mac Jones
Saturday delivered a devastating blow to Jones’ Heisman campaign. He didn’t throw for a single TD. Just awful. Oh, he did complete 25 of 31 passes and averaged 12.5 per throw. But, let’s be honest — that still counts as a bad day for a guy who has been nearly perfect so far.
3. Ohio State QB Justin Fields
How do you force your way into a Heisman conversation a full month after everyone else got started? With 20-of-21 passing for 330 yards and three touchdowns.
4. BYU QB Zach Wilson
Whether BYU has a real shot at the playoff is a big question, but Wilson’s chances of becoming a Heisman finalist look more legitimate by the week.
5. UCF QB Dillon Gabriel
His numbers are insane. Through five games, Gabriel has 2,178 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. The last quarterback to have more passing yards at this stage of a season was Patrick Mahomes in 2016. No, UCF isn’t going to push for a playoff berth, but don’t let that keep you from appreciating what Gabriel is doing every week.
The champs bounce back
LSU looks like a real football team again, and all it took was an injured QB, a revamped defense and … getting to play South Carolina.
After starting 1-2, the Tigers were dominant in a 52-24 win, playing without starting QB Myles Brennan. They started freshman T.J. Finley, who was terrific — completing 17-for-21 passes for 265 yards and accounting for three touchdowns. LSU didn’t punt.
Nearly as impressive was the defense, which had been awful in its first three games under new coordinator Bo Pelini. Head coach Ed Orgeron offered his frustrations and promised changes following a loss against Missouri, saying the scheme needed to be simplified. We’ll assume Pelini read some Marie Kondo books and eliminated any schemes that didn’t kindle joy. The result was the best performance of the season.
Does this mean there will be a QB controversy moving forward? Will we see Finley again next week against Auburn in a warm-up for Alabama? Will Pelini leave the team for his own Netflix home design special?
The answer to all of those questions is, it will be worth watching.
Cincinnati stands tall
It’s not likely a Group of 5 team will make a run at the playoff, but Saturday’s showdown between Cincinnati and SMU was at least a battle for college football’s Miss Congeniality.
The Bearcats’ offense had struggled to find big plays, but it jumped out to a 14-0 lead on a quintessential Cincinnati 12-play drive. SMU could never scratch its way back, thanks to some mind-boggling decisions in and around the red zone that included a missed field goal, a confounding bit of clock management at the end of the half, a curious choice to kick a field goal on fourth-and-2 and two turnovers on downs.
Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder threw for just 126 yards, but he made up for the lack of an aerial attack with 179 yards and three touchdowns on the ground — all of which was enough to warrant throwing up on the field in the third quarter. (It might have been the third plate of Skyline Chili before the game — cinnamon doesn’t belong in chili.)
Ridder was fine, and the Bearcats won 42-13 and moved to 4-0 for the second time in four seasons under Luke Fickell. More importantly, ninth-ranked Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s Six berth, with another huge game next week against Memphis.
They keep winning
The odds of a non-Power 5 school making the playoff have never been particularly good, but there are a few teams doing a nice job making their cases.
Coastal Carolina was without QB Grayson McCall on Saturday, but its defense was dominant in a 28-14 win against Georgia Southern. The Chanticleers are now 5-0 and made a strong case to remain within the Top 25 after cracking the poll for the first time in program history last week (at No. 25).
Using the transitive property of wins, Coastal is still in line for a Big 12 title.
With Texas Tech’s win over West Virginia, Coastal Carolina has now has transitive wins over 90% of the Big 12. Pokes remain elusive. pic.twitter.com/yUAa7Bzb7C
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) October 25, 2020
Meanwhile, Marshall also moved to 5-0, though in less impressive fashion. The Thundering Herd struggled to pull away from Florida Atlantic, but Grant Wells’ two TDs proved the difference in a 20-9 win.
And then there’s Liberty, which is now 6-0 behind QB Malik Willis, who was electric on Saturday in a 56-35 win versus Southern Miss. Willis threw for six touchdowns and ran for a seventh, collecting nearly 450 yards in the process. Hugh Freeze’s team is among the most explosive in the country, and his QB — a transfer from Auburn — makes the Flames nearly impossible to defend.
And we get to welcome Boise State back into the conversation. While the Big Ten celebrated its return, the Mountain West kicked off, too, and the Broncos looked dominant in a 42-13 win against Utah State. It is nice to have blue turf back in our lives.
Still, ESPN’s FPI gives them all less than a 0.1% chance of making the playoff, so don’t get your hopes up. Then again, try telling that to Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are likely to finish you with a Stone Cold stunner.
Big win big celebration. The boys are having fun #CHANTS pic.twitter.com/6NI2hBFO4H
— Silas Kelly (@sila_SK_elly) October 25, 2020
Anderson’s triple leads Wake Forest
After Wake Forest’s stunning upset of Virginia Tech, teammates celebrated in the locker room by throwing defensive back Nick Anderson into the air and chanting, “Scholly! Scholly!” Head coach Dave Clawson said he’ll gladly oblige the request this spring.
The walk-on true freshman got his share of playing time for the banged-up Demon Deacons on Saturday and picked off three passes.
Wake Forest true freshman walk-on safety Nick Andersen gets three interceptions to help the Demon Deacons upset Virginia Tech 23-16.
Anderson had a handful of FCS offers last year, but he wanted to play big-time football, so he rolled the dice as a preferred walk-on at Wake Forest this season.
It was a good choice.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Anderson is just the fourth player in Wake history to have three interceptions in the same game and the first ACC DB to do it since Louisville’s Gerod Holliman in 2014.
The huge win marked another turning point for the program. At No. 19, Virginia Tech was the highest-ranked opponent the Deacons have beaten since topping No. 16 Boston College in 2006 en route to an ACC title.
Out of its Rut
Don’t look now, but Rutgers is undefeated in Big Ten play.
OK, it’s one game, but let’s enjoy it while we can. We’ve spent plenty of time cracking jokes at Rutgers’ expense over the years (we’ll now turn our complete attention to Kansas), but Saturday’s 38-27 win against Michigan State warrants some real enthusiasm.
Rutgers scored more than one touchdown in a game just once in its previous 12 Big Ten games (against Ohio State, believe it or not). On Saturday, the Scarlett Knights found the end zone five times. Five! That’s just one fewer conference TDs than Rutgers managed in all of 2019.
Has head coach Greg Schiano successfully turned back the clock to 2006? We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but, considering those 21 points Rutgers scored against Ohio State last year, the trend line sure seems to be pointing to a Big Ten title.
Oh so close
Life isn’t fair, especially for QBs who deliver a perfect pass only to see a receiver flub the catch and have the ball end up in the hands of the defense. And, with that, we give you the misery of NC State freshman Ben Finley, who delivered what should’ve been the first touchdown pass of his career, if not for a rather unfortunate bounce off the hands of his receiver.
NC State’s Ben Finley throws the ball into the end zone, but it is bobbled and picked off by a diving Don Chapman in the end zone.
We’re going to dub this a six-pick, reversing the INT-turned-TD designation to account for this brutal bit of luck.
Meanwhile, North Carolina cruised to an easy win, rebounding from last week’s shocking loss against Florida State. The Tar Heels also had a pair of running backs top 100 yards for the second time in three weeks, as Javonte Williams and Michael Carter combined for 266 yards and four touchdowns.
A second one for the record books
Fields made his return Saturday in fine fashion, completing his first 11 passes and finishing 20-of-21 passing in the game. It looked an awful lot like his fellow Big Ten QB Graham Mertz, who also completed 20-of-21 for Wisconsin in a win against Illinois on Friday night.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the two are now tied for the second-best completion percentage for any qualifying QB in the Big Ten’s history, trailing only Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan (21-of-22 against Purdue last year).
But who holds the Big Ten’s all-time best completion percentage? That’s a trivia answer that will win you a drink. Tate Martell, the Ohio State QB-turned-Miami receiver-turned-transfer aficionado, who was 10-for-10 against Rutgers in 2018. Martell has had just 11 more completions since.
Under-the-radar game of the week
This man is either celebrating a ridiculous college football win or protesting the “No Shirt, No Service” policy at a South Philly 7-Eleven.
THATS MY COACH! #AxeEm pic.twitter.com/oVVaTgKa6S
— LumberjackFans (@LumberjackFans) October 24, 2020
Actually, it is Stephen F. Austin head coach Colby Carthel, whose Lumbrerjacks wrapped an overtime stunner Saturday. SFA trailed Abilene Christian 29-22 with 1:38 to play, but went 67 yards on three plays to tie the score and send the game to overtime. After Abilene settled for a field goal, Trae Self hit Chad Aune for a 16-yard winning TD. And off came the shirt.
It was Carthel’s first game back since testing positive for the coronavirus, forcing him to ask his father (and volunteer coach), Don, to stand in last Saturday.
Under-the-radar play of the week
Did you see the game that ended by the absolute slimmest of margins, sending the favorite to a loss in utterly painful fashion?
No, we’re not talking about Penn State-Indiana. What happened to Rice might be even worse.
The Owls had a shot to win late after scoring a touchdown with 34 seconds to play and connecting on a two-point try to go up 3. Instead, Middle Tennessee went 35 yards in 34 seconds and kicked a game-tying field goal to force overtime.
The Owls had another chance to win, but missed a 45-yard kick in the first OT … by the absolute slimmest of margins (Indiana’s Michael Penix aside).
Rice lines up for a game-winning field goal against Middle Tennessee in overtime, but the ball hits both uprights and the crossbar twice before bouncing out.
Another missed kick and an MTSU TD in double OT sent Rice to a 40-34 loss in its season opener. Chalk it up to MTSU’s experience. The game was also historic for featuring two teams from the same conference, where one (MTSU) had played six games and the other played none (Rice).
Best bets and bad beats
Ole Miss backers can be forgiven for throwing remotes at their televisions as officials failed to go to replay on what appeared to be a critical Auburn mistake on a late punt. With the Rebels up a point, the ball appeared to tip off the finger of Tigers return man Shaun Shivers and roll into the end zone, where it was clearly recovered by Ole Miss. Instead, the play was ruled a touchback, Auburn marched down the field, and Seth Williams scored the game-winner with 1:11 to play. Auburn won 35-28, and the replay booth owes Ole Miss bettors a few bucks.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day apologized for running up the score against Nebraska, but he should also apologize to bettors of the over. The total closed 69.5, and rather than take a knee, he had Jack Miller run for a 2-yard touchdown to bring the score to 51-17. Day said he had a young unit on the field and wanted to get them experience. It’s a reasonable explanation, but couldn’t he have gotten them a little more experience by going for two and covering the over? Instead, Ohio State kicked the PAT, putting the final total at 69 — a half-point shy of going over. On the upside, the Buckeyes covered as a 28-point favorite thanks to that TD; Ohio State is now an impressive 14-4 against the spread in season openers since 2000, the best by any team in FBS.
We’re not sure what Tom Herman had his staff read on Baylor message boards last week, but it sure wasn’t the point spread. Texas, an 11-point favorite, was up 27-9 with 9:51 to play when QB Sam Ehlinger, for inexplicable reasons, threw a pass that was picked off. It led to a Baylor TD to close the gap to — you guessed it — 11. Texas would surely find a way to score again, right? Yeah, the Longhorns had the ball at the Baylor 4 with 1:15 to go, but Herman simply ran out the clock for a push, which we believe deserves a horns down. Or, at least a horns sideways. Or maybe both horns pointing in opposite directions.