- Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia are only the most recent teams to enjoy a bounceback game that corrects their lingering issues and positions them for playoff contention. They won't be the last. Plus, Week 9 highs and lows, pork rinds in South Bend, and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Georgia tight end Issac Nauta stood in a tunnel at TIAA Field and explained how the Bulldogs had gone from failures to contenders in a scant two weeks. Georgia had lost 36–16 at LSU, used a bye week to correct the issues that had arisen and looked as good in a 37–16 win against Florida as the Bulldogs had looked bad in the loss in Baton Rouge. “We know what we did to lose that game, and we knew that wasn’t us,” Nauta said. “You just get back to work, keep grinding and come out and put together games like this and it changes the narrative.”
What Nauta described—what Georgia played on Saturday—is a Get Right Game. For the Bulldogs, Saturday seemed like the prime spot for such a game. They have a talented but relatively young team that hadn’t been challenged much before it visited Tiger Stadium. LSU exposed some flaws, but some of those flaws were fixable. And with a bye week, Georgia had time to correct those flaws. So while quarterback Jake Fromm had struggled on third down against the Tigers, he threw three touchdown passes on third down against the Gators. He knew Florida would try to bring pressure, so he made sure he always knew who the defense would have to leave open in order to send extra heat. Georgia’s defense forced zero turnovers against LSU. It forced three against Florida.
“They had to listen for two weeks to everything that was wrong with them, everything they did wrong and everything they hadn’t done right,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “That probably was a motivating factor. At the end of the day, they get affected by what people say about them. We just went to work. We did improve in some areas, but we are most undoubtedly a work in progress.”
Shortly before Smart said that, he had done this…
Sometimes, we forget that all teams are works in progress. Nearly every team has a game where nothing goes according to plan. The best teams follow those with a Get Right Game that seems to snap everything into focus.
West Virginia played such a game Thursday against Baylor. The Mountaineers couldn’t have played any worse than they did in a 30–14 loss at Iowa State on Oct. 13. They had a few extra time to correct those mistakes before playing Baylor, and they smoked the Bears 58–14. The defense forced turnovers. The offense turned those turnovers into points. It was exactly the game West Virginia needed before a grueling November that includes games at Texas and Oklahoma State and visits from TCU and Oklahoma.
Clemson played its Get Right Game in a 63–3 win against Wake Forest. That win followed an escape at home from Syracuse that had required a beautiful fourth-down throw from a quarterback who had started spring practice fourth on the depth chart (current backup Chase Brice) to keep Clemson’s undefeated season alive. Late in the game against the Orange, the Tigers realized they could control games on the ground. They took that idea to its logical conclusion at Wake, running 40 times for 471 yards and six touchdowns. That performance allowed the Tigers to forge an identity that didn’t rely on freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence to carry the offense. In blowout wins against NC State and Florida State, a much more comfortable Lawrence has proven why Clemson coaches chose him over senior Kelly Bryant.
LSU’s Get Right Game was the win against Georgia. The Tigers were coming off a loss to Florida that had exposed issues on LSU’s offensive line. Against the Bulldogs, that line protected quarterback Joe Burrow and opened holes that allowed LSU to rush for 275 yards on 51 carries. Burrow, who had thrown his first two interceptions of the season in the loss in Gainesville, reverted to his previously protective ways.
Oklahoma had its Get Right Game at TCU. Knowing what we know now about the Horned Frogs—who just lost to Kansas—nothing about the Sooners’ 56–27 win was surprising. But after the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops following the Texas game, Oklahoma defenders needed a game to get accustomed to new coordinator Ruffin McNeill. They needed to adjust to TCU’s quarterback change and bounce back from giving up a couple of quick touchdowns. That made going forward much easier.
Other teams still need a Get Right Game.
Ohio State needs one the most after its loss at Purdue on Oct. 20. Like the Bulldogs a week earlier, the Buckeyes have spent every moment since that game hearing about how poorly they played and about the various flaws Purdue exposed. Nebraska comes to Columbus at 2–6. This feels like a perfect time for Ohio State’s offense to establish the run and for the defense to stop giving up so many plays of 30 or more yards. The Buckeyes may just need to see they can do those things to give them confidence they can do them during the stretch run. (Or, if they can’t do those things against Nebraska, perhaps other assumptions are in order.)
Texas could use a Get Right Game after its 38–35 loss at Oklahoma State. The Longhorns have lived dangerously against beatable teams, and the Cowboys made them pay Saturday by jumping out to a big lead and flipping the field late to kill the momentum of the Longhorns’ comeback. Going back to his time at Houston, Tom Herman’s teams have always played better against more respected opponents. The clunkers have come against the teams Herman’s teams should beat. West Virginia comes to Austin this week with a 6–1 record and the same chance Texas has to make the Big 12 title game. This is one the Longhorns will get up for, but West Virginia—which just played its Get Right Game—probably will be ready.
The contender I haven’t mentioned in this column is Alabama, because the Crimson Tide have been right since the season kicked off. Perhaps LSU can change that this week, but until we see Alabama play a game that’s in doubt in the second half, the Tide remain the standard. But it’s a long season. Perhaps, before all is said and done, one of these teams that has learned something and gotten right can give Alabama a game.
“Teams are getting better,” Georgia quarterback Fromm said Saturday night. “We still haven’t played our best football yet, either. We still have that in the back of our heads. When we play our best game, it’s going to be scary.”
A Random Ranking
Showtime’s Ray Donovan returned for Season Six this past weekend. So let’s rank the Donovan brothers.
While there was some movement in the bottom half of the top 10, the projected playoff teams remained the same as last week.
1. Alabama (8–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Tennessee, 58–21
Next game: Saturday at LSU
The Crimson Tide will get their biggest regular-season test this week. Since Alabama hasn’t truly been challenged yet, it will be interesting to see how this team handles any kind of adversity. (We’ve seen most of these players in a pressure-packed situation as recently as January, but we haven’t seen it with this exact roster.) This is a good LSU team, and worse LSU teams have challenged Alabama in its past few trips to Baton Rouge. But Tua Tagovailoa makes this Alabama offense more dynamic than any of the groups those LSU teams faced.
2. Notre Dame (8–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Navy, 44–22
Next game: Saturday at Northwestern
Navy isn’t as good as usual this season, and that should help the Fighting Irish going forward. A typical Navy game tends to rob defenders of their legs. But perhaps Notre Dame will be fresh heading into a matchup against up-and-down Northwestern. (If the Wildcats are up Saturday, the Irish will have to fight to stay undefeated.) I’ll be curious to see where the College Football Playoff selection committee places Notre Dame. I have them at No. 2 because I think they have the superior résumé to Clemson. But given the way Clemson has played the past two weeks, it would be understandable if the committee put the Tigers here.
3. Clemson (8–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat Florida State, 59–10
Next game: Saturday vs. Louisville
The Tigers have flipped the switch to juggernaut mode. And given that they play a Louisville team that is basically running out the string, this one could get epically ugly. Fortunately for Louisville, Bobby Petrino didn’t pull a scholarship offer from any of the Tigers’ players just before National Signing Day. Wake Forest tailback Matt Colburn did get that treatment from Petrino in 2015, and Colburn paid back Petrino on Saturday by running for 243 yards and three touchdowns in Wake’s 56–35 win.
4. Michigan (7–1)
Last week: 4
Last game: Beat Michigan State, 21–7
Next game: Saturday vs. Penn State
Because the committee is creating a real-time ranking and not a projection, it likely will have LSU in this spot. (Or possibly at No. 3.) I’m projecting that Alabama wins that game. If the Crimson Tide don’t, then LSU will be No. 1 next week. Michigan gets this spot for now because the Wolverines look like the most complete team in the Big Ten. Saturday, they’ll have the chance to exact revenge on a team that throttled them last year.
Big Ugly Of The Week
Kentucky defensive end Josh Allen has been a contender for this award just about every week, but his play in Saturday’s 15–14 win at Missouri is a big reason the Wildcats escaped Columbia with a victory. Allen racked up 11 tackles. Of those, two were sacks of Missouri quarterback Drew Lock. And just for good measure, Allen forced fumbles on both those sacks.
Three And Out
1. Arizona State coach Herm Edwards stopped on his way to the bus Saturday to congratulate USC quarterback Jack Sears—a backup who nearly threw his team to a win—on a great game in the Sun Devils’ 38–35 win.
Trojans coach Clay Helton is not getting such respectful treatment from the USC fanbase. The loss to Arizona State snapped USC’s 19-game home win streak and dropped the Trojans to 4–4 on the season and 2–3 in Pac-12 play, and Helton is taking even more heat now that a Pac-12 South title seems out of reach. Helton just got a contract extension, but the negativity surrounding the program is intense.
If fans are trying to send a message to USC athletic director Lynn Swann and the rest of the administration, they chose an effective tactic. The empty seats at the Coliseum on Saturday spoke volumes. Athletic departments tend to act when they see lost revenue on the horizon.
2. Florida State suffered its worst home loss in school history when Clemson came to Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday and shelled the Seminoles 59–10. How bad was it for Florida State? This bad.
At least he made friends.
Seminoles coach Willie Taggart was not feeling so friendly after his team got demolished. “It’s the first time since I’ve been here where I felt like we had some guys that quit on our football team,” Taggart told reporters. “That can’t be tolerated. It’s the one thing you can’t do. You quit, you don’t play. We’ve got to do a great job evaluating film and make sure we have the right guys out there battling with us.”
So what happens between now and Florida State’s visit to NC State on Saturday?
“We’re going to find the guys that quit, and we’re going to find the guys that kept playing and make sure that we keep those guys in there. So there will be some changes come next week.”
3. Congratulations to Kentucky, which will try to win its first SEC East title on Saturday. The winner of the Wildcats’ meeting with Georgia in Lexington will play in Atlanta on Dec. 1. All it took was a miracle finish at Missouri that ended with a touchdown pass on an untimed down at the end of regulation to lift the Wildcats to a 15-14 win.
And congratulations to Syracuse, which is heading to its first bowl since 2013 thanks to a 51–41 win against NC State that made the Orange 6–2.
What’s Eating Andy?
Forget Mike Gundy’s “I’m A Man” rant. This might be the Oklahoma State coach’s finest work. Side note: Coach press conference would be far more interesting if coaches dropped in more fart noises at random intervals.
What’s Andy Eating?
It does my heart good that one of the more on-trend appetizers in 2018 is something I used to buy at gas stations on road trips with my family when I was a kid. They’re usually listed as Pork Cracklins now, but we all know they’re pork rinds. My mom hated them. My dad and I loved them, and we used to get crumbs all over the floorboards.
But the pork rinds of today are of a much higher quality than the ones that came in bags that hung off plastic hooks between the potato chips and the beef jerky. These crispy pig skins aren’t loaded down with preservatives, and sometimes they’re served warm. That’s the case at the Crooked Ewe Brewery & Ale House in South Bend, Ind., where they drizzle the cracklins with a sriracha–sour cream mix that adds some heat and then promptly smooths it out. Unless you’ve got a massive group, get the half order. A pile of these beauties can be quite filling, but they’ll also leave you craving a glass of Glasgow Butcher Scotch Ale.
After the rinds, go for something green. The Crooked Ewe cooks its Brussels sprouts with pork belly. Most places add bacon, and while I’ll never turn down bacon-accented sprouts, the belly provides the same savory punch but without the same salty kick. Even though this was a vegetable cooked in pig fat—which remains the best way to cook vegetables—it tasted fresher and lighter.
Next, order the Cast Iron Ewe Burger. It features cheese curds, brisket bacon, a chunk of pork belly and something called smoked fruit leather. Basically, these are smoked fruit strips that approximate how your kids’ stretchy fruit snacks would taste if they were made of actual fruit instead of unpronounceable chemical compounds. This may sound odd on a burger, but the strips added just the right note of sweetness to a hunk of meat covered by hunks of other meat.
After all that, order another beer. Then sit at the bar, watch the St. Joseph River flow by and give thanks that the culinary world no longer looks down on the humble pork rind.