No, Northwestern’s 17-7 victory over No. 10 Wisconsin didn’t create as many splashy highlights. But it encapsulated the defense-first nature of the two best teams in the Big Ten West.
The No. 19 Wildcats (5-0) are not just assured a winning season a year after a miserable, offense-deficient 3-9 trek, but they’re also in stellar shape to reach the Big Ten title game for the second time in three years. Still to come are games against Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois. Win two, and they’ll probably match up with the Buckeyes come Dec. 19 in Indianapolis.
They’re in this spot because of turnovers. Namely, five Wisconsin turnovers, the most committed by the Badgers (2-1) since they had five against — you guessed it — Northwestern in 2015, exactly five years to the day of this victory.
The Wildcats needed a late goal-line stand to claim a 13-7 victory on a miserably cold late afternoon and early evening in that one. This time, Wisconsin came to Evanston, and the Wildcats bottled up the Badgers even as their own offense punted 10 times (seven of them via a three-and-out).
The central figures were linebackers Blake Gallagher (14 tackles) and Paddy Fisher (13 tackles), seniors who were welcome bright spots a year ago. Safety Brandon Joseph had two interceptions, the second of which set up a go-ahead touchdown just before halftime.
Neither offense did much after the sun went down. Northwestern managed a field goal in the second half, but also accounted for only 24 rushing yards for the day. Four of the Badgers’ last six drives stalled in Northwestern territory — but none closer than the Wildcat 33. They had scoring threats, just not serious ones.
That’s apt. Wisconsin led the country at the start of the day in total defense; Northwestern was 11th. The Badgers were first in scoring defense; the Wildcats were seventh. (They were giving up a combined 23 points a game, pretty much on the nose). Wisconsin was fifth against the run, Northwestern was seventh.
Considering how Northwestern and Wisconsin separated themselves from the rest of the Big Ten West, this was the perfect way for control of the division to be determined. The Wildcats and Badgers delivered exactly what was expected of them on a late November Saturday.
J.T. Daniels. Yup, the Southern California transfer is going to be able to help Georgia out, after all.
Daniels missed most of last season with a knee injury, and Coach Kirby Smart kept him on the sideline until Saturday’s 31-24 defeat of Mississippi State. But he immediately brought a potent element to the passing game, completing 28 of 38 for 401 yards and four touchdowns.
(This made it much easier to overlook how the 5-2 Bulldogs mustered just eight — eight! — rushing yards, their fewest since at least 2000, according to Sports Reference. Mississippi State, with Mike Leach on its sideline, rushed for 22 yards.)
Georgia simply couldn’t have chased its winning score in the same way earlier in the season. Daniels fired three shots into the end zone in a four-snap sequence, with Kearis Jackson hauling in the last for a 40-yard go-ahead touchdown. It’s too late for the Bulldogs to climb back in the playoff picture, but they should be more entertaining the rest of the way.
N.C. State. Credit to the Wolfpack, who have made the most of 2020, even though from the outside it seemed like they had a fairly anonymous roster coming off a 4-8 season. After a 4-1 start, N.C. State lost quarterback Devin Leary to injury and was promptly trucked by North Carolina the following week.
But the Wolfpack has demonstrated its gumption this month. First it lost a shootout to Miami, then recovered to handle Florida State. Then Saturday, Vi Jones blocked a 39-yard field goal with 1:18 to play to secure a 15-14 defeat of Liberty.
This did two things at once. First, it prompted perhaps the first “overrated” chant ever directed at the Flames (8-1), who had toppled Syracuse and Virginia Tech earlier in the season. Two, it clinched a winning regular season for N.C. State (6-3), which closes out its schedule against 1-8 Syracuse and 2-5 Georgia Tech. Win both, and Dave Doeren might be the program’s first ACC coach of the year since Dick Sheridan in 1986.
Oregon. The Ducks weren’t exactly dominant, but figured out how to survive Chip Kelly’s return to Eugene. No. 11 Oregon (3-0) took the lead for good on Jordan Happle’s interception return for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, then traded touchdowns in the second half to earn a 38-35 victory over UCLA.
Style points wouldn’t hurt Oregon, which isn’t going to get in more than seven games before the playoff selections. But the most important thing for the Ducks is keeping a zero in the loss column. They’ll get Oregon State in the rivalry formerly known as the Civil War on Friday.
Tristan Gebbia. Speaking of Oregon State, Beavers quarterback not only had a touchdown via the pass, run and reception, but all three of them put his team in the lead in a 31-27 defeat of California.
The Nebraska transfer threw for a score to make it 14-7 in the first, then scored on this gem early in the fourth quarter to give the Beavers a 24-20 edge.
Gebbia completed the triple play with a 1-yard plunge with 4:30 to go, helping the Beavers improve to 1-2 after opening with losses to Washington State and Washington.
Alabama. Dropped 63 points on a Kentucky team that, while not a juggernaut, had surrendered just 15.6 points per game over its last five contests. Not bad.
Four different running backs rumbled into the end zone and DeVonta Smith had nine catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns for the No. 1 Crimson Tide (7-0) in the 63-3 rout.
Cincinnati. Still undefeated after outlasting Central Florida 36-33, although things got a little harrowing after a fumble in the closing seconds gave the Knights at least a glimmer of hope they probably shouldn’t have had.
Still, ignoring that lapse in the last minute, the No. 7 Bearcats (8-0, 6-0 American) got four touchdowns from quarterback Desmond Ridder (two passing, two rushing) to probably place themselves at the front of the Group of Five line when the playoff committee’s rankings are first unveiled this week.
Iowa State. The Cyclones brought order to Farmageddon, throttling Kansas State 45-0 for their most lopsided victory in the long-running rivalry since 1943.
It’s not hard to pick out some impressive numbers for No. 17 Iowa State (6-2, 6-1 Big 12), which inched closer to a possible conference title game berth. The Cyclones scored on six of their first seven possessions, outgained Kansas State (4-4, 4-3) by a 539-149 margin and ripped off 7.8 yards per play. Next up for Iowa State is a trip to Texas, followed by a home game against West Virginia.
Kyle Trask. The Florida quarterback keeps improving his Heisman stock for two reasons. One, his team is actually playing games. Two, he eviscerates nearly every defense he encounters.
Trask picked apart Vanderbilt for 383 yards and three touchdowns in 26 of 35 passing as the No. 6 Gators controlled the final three quarters of a 38-17 victory. That’s actually a so-so game by Trask’s standards, which is a solid indication of just how exceptional he’s been all season.
Ohio State. The Buckeyes are halfway to the playoff after a 42-35 victory over Indiana. It was dicier than it probably needed to be — Ohio State led 35-7 early in the second half -— but Ryan Day’s team earned the result it needed.
Justin Fields didn’t help his Heisman hopes with a three-interception showing, but the Buckeyes (4-0) remained unblemished a week after their game against Maryland was canceled. From here, Ohio State needs to sweep Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan — none of whom will escape this weekend with a winning record — and then defeat the Big Ten West champ to effectively sew up a playoff berth.
Ty Fryfogle. Forget that Indiana lost at Ohio State. The Hoosiers’ passing game acquitted itself well against the Buckeyes, and Fryfogle was a big part of it.
The senior set a career high in receiving yards for the third week in a row, hauling in seven catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns. His three-week total of 25 receptions, 560 yards and six touchdowns is All-America caliber stuff.
Coastal Carolina. One of the season’s neat stories continued as the No. 15 Chanticleers ran their record to 8-0 with a 34-23 defeat of Appalachian State. Coastal Carolina can clinch the Sun Belt’s East Division with one victory in its final two conference games, including next week against Texas State.
This, though, was the major impediment in reaching the conference title game for the first time. Appalachian State (6-2, 4-1), the East’s winner the last three years, hadn’t stumbled since a September loss at undefeated Marshall and held a 23-21 lead deep into the fourth quarter.
However, Reese White gave Coastal the lead with a 3-yard scoring plunge with 2:24 to go, and D’Jordan Strong returned an interception for a touchdown to seal it with 1:20 to go to keep the Chanticleers in contention for an undefeated season.
Davis Brin. A strong candidate for third-string quarterback of the year, Brin entered in the third quarter of No. 25 Tulsa’s game against Tulane on Thursday and completed 18 of 28 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
And he did this simply to get the Golden Hurricane to overtime:
Good luck finding a team that’s had a weirder season than Tulsa (5-1, 5-0 American), which has had four postponements and four comeback victories after trailing by 10 or more points and finds itself contending for a conference title a year after finishing 4-8.
Big 12 playoff hopes. It was a great night for Oklahoma, which smothered Oklahoma State, 41-13, to win its fifth in a row overall and its sixth in a row in the Bedlam Series. Just like that, the Sooners (6-2, 5-2) are in second place in the Big 12 and will reach the conference title game (again) with victories over West Virginia and Baylor.
But for the league? Whatever slim chance of having a team in the conversation for the four-team playoff faded away when the Cowboys (5-2, 4-2) took their second loss. More accurately, they vanished when Oklahoma went up 21-0 less than nine minutes in. Oklahoma State never got closer than a 14-point margin.
No two-loss team has made the playoff, and a season when fewer games are scheduled isn’t likely to buck that trend. There will be a Big 12 champ, and it will play in a New Year’s Six bowl, but there’s little reason for playoff tea leaf readers to fret about the league over the next four weeks.
Nebraska (and its sartorial choices). One step forward, two steps back for the Cornhuskers. A week after edging another program whose greatest success was enjoyed in the final third of the 20th century (Penn State), Nebraska dropped a 41-23 decision to Illinois. The Illini (2-3) never trailed and rolled up 285 rushing yards.
The Cornhuskers (1-3) donned their all-black alternate uniforms, a homage of sorts to the program’s vaunted black shirts worn at practice by defensive starters during Nebraska’s glory days.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, it was the fourth time the Huskers have dusted off the all-black look: against UCLA in 2013, against Northwestern in 2015, against Indiana last year and then on Saturday. Nebraska is 0-4 in those games.
Penn State. Another week, another miserable loss for the Nittany Lions, who are 0-5 for the first time in program history after a 41-21 thrashing at the hands of Iowa.
The Hawkeyes turned four Penn State turnovers into 24 points, and they led by as many as 28 points while dooming Penn State to its first losing season since 2004. And after the game, Coach James Franklin said tight end Pat Freiermuth will have season-ending surgery for an injury suffered late last month against Ohio State.
There isn’t much left to say about Franklin’s team, which still has games against Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State plus a crossover foe during the Big Ten’s championship week. But there is a great what-if for the Nittany Lions: Had Penix reached just a couple inches less on a two-point try and Penn State escapes at Indiana, does this team show a little more life in November?
It’s tough to say, and not just because it’s a hypothetical. Penn State isn’t at full strength. But then again, few teams are in what’s turned out to be an especially forgettable year in Happy Valley.
Syracuse. There are teams that look like they’d like to pack it in for the year. Then there are teams for whom that might actually be the best course of action. Take the Orange, who were blanked 30-0 at Louisville on Friday to fall to 1-8.
Syracuse, beset by massive injury issues, mustered just 137 total yards (its fewest in a game since 2014). It lost a second starting quarterback to injury when JaCobian Morgan left with a head injury. Freshman Sean Tucker’s 93 rushing yards on 16 carries counts as something of an accomplishment.
But the truth is, this is a team that shouldn’t have to trudge through two more games (against N.C. State and Notre Dame). It’s a lost year within a lost year, one that makes Syracuse’s 10-win season in 2018 seems like an even more distant memory than it is. Plenty of programs have earned a mulligan in 2020, and the Orange is at or near the top of the list.
Big Ten officials. This … shouldn’t happen.
Despite the Friday night social media meltdown, the fate of a Purdue-Minnesota game is not the end of the world. But phantom calls like this — that would have put Purdue ahead in the final minute — still shouldn’t happen. Minnesota would escape moments later with a 34-31 victory and improve to 2-3, while Purdue fell to 2-2.