College Football Recap: Clemson Fights Back

Mitch Stringer/US Presswire

Across the college football landscape Saturday, undefeated heads were rolling. Georgia Tech lost, Illinois lost, Michigan lost, and for a while, it looked like that unlucky group would welcome a fourth member. Humility and history beckoned in College Park, as no. 8 Clemson trailed Maryland 35-17 in the third quarter. The usual spark was missing. Quarterback Tajh Boyd had a terrible first quarter, highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown, and the Tigers defense showed no signs of making a stop. In situations like these, there are two choices for the favorite: go quietly into the night, or …

DEFY THE TRAP GAME

Make no mistake — the universe wanted Clemson to lose. Breaks were going Maryland’s way. Even the timing of the game was bad — tucked away like an afterthought behind an easy win against Boston College and two weeks before the showdown with Georgia Tech. The brutal stretch had come and gone, when Clemson beat three ranked teams in consecutive games to vault itself into the top 10. The Terrapins, with a 2-3 record, shouldn’t have been a problem.

And yet they were. Every great team, with very few exceptions, has to win a trap game. When karma and fate and luck are lined up against it, it must preserve the undefeated season with a heroic effort that amounts to plain resilience. That’s exactly what Clemson did. By avoiding panic and trusting the strength of their offense, the Tigers withstood the body blows and scored 39 points in the second half to beat Maryland 56-45. Andre Ellington was one star, with 212 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Sammy Watkins was the other, scoring three touchdowns and breaking a Clemson record with 345 all-purpose yards. He put the Tigers up for good with this fourth quarter kickoff return:

Admittedly, I’m not an unbiased observer. The Tigers are one of the two most entertaining teams to watch this season (Oklahoma State is the other), and I believe college football is better the longer they remain undefeated. Saturday’s response to adversity shows that the zero in the Clemson loss column might stay a while.

Side Note: The Gatorade Bath Standard

I love coach Dabo Swinney, and I like the spirit of Clemson, but when two of his players doused him with Gatorade after the win Saturday, it offended my sensibilities. Over and over this season, we’ve seen the bar for the Gatorade bath lowered. To avoid further confusion, here’s a comprehensive list of times when it’s acceptable to break out the orange jugs:

1. National championship
2. Conference championship
3. Bowl win
4. Rivalry win
5. Coaching milestone
6. Ending a long losing streak/setting a winning streak record

That’s it. Nowhere on that list do you see “surviving a Week 7 upset scare against Maryland.” Preserve the sanctity of the Gatorade, college football! PRESERVE THE SANCTITY!

Uh Oh, These Guys Might Be Good

This goes to Michigan State, which proved in the 28-14 win over Michigan that its gaudy defensive numbers are legitimate. You only have to look at Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson’s line to see the devastation wrought by the Spartans:

9 of 24 for 123 yards (5.1 yards per pass), 1 interception, 18 rushes for 42 yards (2.3 yards per carry), 2 touchdowns (1 rushing)

The Wolverines managed just 250 yards of total offense on the day, and failed to mount many attacks, despite being gifted 124 penalty yards by Michigan State. And speaking of weak offense, I promise this is the last time I’ll ask this question all year: why won’t Robinson set his feet when he throws? Even when he’s not facing pressure, he’ll often throw off the back foot or leave his feet parallel to the end zone when he’s throwing to the sideline. For a junior, those mechanics are inexcusable. Here’s an example from the fourth quarter, when Michigan was driving in an attempt to tie the game. Granted, he was feeling pressure in this case, but part of a quarterback’s job is stepping up in the face of a rush, and not resorting to the casual back-foot flick:

Mystifying. Anyway, Michigan’s undefeated season is dead, and so, probably, are its hopes of making the conference championship. Next weekend, Michigan State hosts Wisconsin in what should be the best Big 10 game of the regular season.

Your One-Trick Pony Died Again

In hindsight, I’m annoyed that I didn’t pick the Virginia-over-Georgia Tech upset. This kind of bad loss happens at least once a year to the Yellow Jackets, and the ingredients were all there Saturday:

1. Mediocre team who are
2. Playing at home and
3. Had a bye week to prepare

That last part is crucial, and its why Tech has had such bad luck in bowl games (0-3 under current coach Paul Johnson, with an average of 8 points per game). When you can only do one thing — even if you do that one thing spectacularly well — an average team with enough time can shut it down. UVa held Tech to 272 rushing yards, and Tech’s passing game responded the way it usually does against adversity; quarterback Tevin Washington went 2 of 8 for 24 yards and two interceptions. To put it mildly, the option offense is not designed to play from behind, and Virginia’s early 14-0 lead was debilitating.

This loss helps explain my frustration with Georgia Tech. By opting for a specialized offense with very little diversity, it resign itself to never winning a national title. That being said, many teams will never win a national title. In fact, most teams won’t even win a conference title. But, in theory, at least most teams have a chance. With the option offense, Johnson deprives the school of even the most remote hope. The very nature of the option sets its own ceiling. So I ask the following question of Georgia Tech fans in all sincerity. Would you rather:

A: Stay with the option offense, be very good and occasionally win 10 games in a season, but always struggle against a team with a bye week to prepare and never win a national title, or …

B: Switch to a more standard offense, have some down years, but give yourselves the theoretical chance to win it all?

My choice would be B, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s better to have sustained excellence, even if that excellence is self-limiting.

My Vote for Coach of the Year

Goes to Luke Fickell of Ohio State. Clearly, 2011 was not an ideal year in which to be promoted to one of the most desirable jobs in college football. Fickell lost his starting quarterback, his running back, and several other key players. His program is in the shadow of NCAA violations that can’t help but hurt recruiting. Fickell’s own job security is nil. Under those conditions, look what he’s done:

1. Avoided an embarrassing home loss to Toledo to start the year 2-0.
2. Responded to a tough setback on the road at Miami with a blowout win over Colorado.
3. Lost by 3 to a Michigan State team that suddenly looks very, very good.
4. Took a 27-6 lead on the road against no. 14 Nebraska before quarterback Braxton Miller got hurt in the third quarter, went on to lose a close game.
5. Upset no. 16 Illinois on the road to improve to 4-3.

Under the circumstances, those are incredible results. Plus, he’s young, he’s good with the media, and he has a strong, positive energy. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t get a two-year contract today.

Bad Coaching Decision of the Week

Ron Zook takes the (moldy) cake here on the heels of a 17-7 loss to Ohio State that ended Illinois’ undefeated season. Late in the fourth quarter, trailing by 10, his team was on the 17-yard line facing a fourth-and-3. The Illini had a reliable kicker on the sideline in Derek Dimke, and they needed to score twice anyway. Instead, Zook chose to go for the first down. It failed, and the game was effectively over.

There are a couple ways to look at this, and in one sense it’s a relief to see a coach playing aggressively with the game on the line. But in this case, you have to give yourself a chance to recover an onside kick. With two scores needed, a touchdown and a field goal, the order didn’t matter. Sure, it’s preferable to only need a field goal on the final drive, but the really crucial thing is to have a chance at that second possession. The field goal was a no-brainer, especially because it would have stopped the clock with more than two minutes left. Zook got greedy, but the risk wasn’t worth the reward.

Heartbreak Town

Oxford, Miss. Starkville, Miss. I’m not sure what the Mississippi State Bulldogs expected going into the year, but it couldn’t have been an 0-4 SEC record after Week 7. The miserable season continued Saturday with a 14-12 loss to no. 15 South Carolina at home. After holding the SC offense in check all game long, and limiting Marcus Lattimore to 39 yards on 17 carries, the Bulldogs gave up the game-wining touchdown with just four minutes remaining. This followed a heartbreaking Week 2 loss to Auburn in which Chris Relf failed to breach the end zone on the last play of the game, and tough setbacks against LSU and Georgia. With Alabama and Arkansas remaining on the schedule, the team that was once ranked 16th in the nation will be lucky to finish 6-6.

Quick Thoughts on the Top 25 Games

1. No. 6 Oklahoma State 38, no. 22 Texas 26

We knew this result, but we didn’t know the bulk of the damage would be done by Cowboys running back Jeremy Smith, who ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries. Speed kills:

2. No. 9 Oregon 41, no. 18 Arizona State 27

We knew this result too, but Arizona State put up a pretty strong fight in the first half. When Oregon QB Darron Thomas went down with an injury, joining LaMichael James on the sidelines, it looked like an upset might be forthcoming. It wasn’t, and the marquee Pac-12 match-up still goes down on Nov. 12 when Oregon meets Stanford.

3. No. 21 Texas A&M 55, no. 20 Baylor 28

It’s unfortunate, but suspicions of Baylor’s weakness were all too true. Fortunately for Robert Griffin III’s Heisman hopes, he managed to acquit himself nicely in the loss, throwing for 430 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception.

Whoa, That Team’s Undefeated?

As promised, this week’s surprise contender is Kansas State! With a great 41-34 comeback win in Lubbock against Texas Tech, the Wildcats are now 6-0. Bill Snyder, the old curmudgeon who we last saw when Michael Bishop was leading Kansas State to an undefeated regular season, is back in the spotlight and refusing to blink. This year’s QB, Collin Klein, is also a dual threat, and he accounted for four touchdowns in Saturday’s win. Enjoy the ride, everyone, because in two weeks Snyder and his crew will host Oklahoma. Even Calvin Klein couldn’t save them then. (And I’m not sure why he’d want to.)

The Heisman Watch

Crazy Dark Horse Candidate: Sammy Watkins, Clemson. Why not? He’s top 10 in receiving yards and in receiving touchdowns, and now he’s running the ball on reverses and returning kicks for touchdowns. With the high profile he’ll get after Saturday’s game, which will only increase as Clemson stays undefeated, Watkins is my new dark horse.

Trendy Defensive Hopeful Who Will Never Win: Since Tyrann Mathieu didn’t get an interception Saturday, let’s give this one to Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, who leads the nation in sacks with ten. Also, that last name: Mercilus. Badass.

Top 5:

5. Jordan White, Western Michigan. We need a token receiver pick, and White has 19 more receptions than his nearest competition. He averages 131 receiving yards per game, and his seven touchdowns are just two behind first place.

4. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. His 46 rushing yards against Utah are a bad omen. Teams have figured out that Pitt can’t pass, and they’ll be focusing all their energies on Graham. Expect to see him missing from this list next week. For now, he still leads the nation in rushing yards with 915.

3. Trent Richardson, Alabama. He went into beast mode against Ole Miss, racking up 183 yards and four touchdowns. He’s now second in the country behind Graham in rushing yards, and his 15 touchdowns are third nationally. His profile would increase drastically with a big game against LSU.

2. Robert Griffin, III, Baylor. His nice game against A&M doesn’t quite make up for the team’s huge loss. His statistics are mind-boggling, but he’ll need to lead Baylor to a surprise win against Oklahoma or Oklahoma State to have a real shot.

1. Russell Wilson, Wisconsin. He’s back in first! Against Indiana, the Badgers brought out the full Heisman push. Wilson threw for a touchdown, ran twice for 42 yards, and even caught a touchdown pass. He’s doing all the right things, and his team is undefeated. This is Wilson’s Heisman to lose.

Wisconsin’s biggest challenge of the regular season comes next week against Michigan State. If Wilson passes that test, we might be looking at a runaway candidate. See you Thursday for the preview.


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Filed Under: Gordon's Left Foot, Baylor, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Kansas State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Texas, Texas A&M

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere