After the biggest play of Chase Brice’s college career shifted from fourth-and-one to fourth-and-six because right guard Gage Cervenka tried to get a head start while pulling, Brice tried to settle his teammates. The redshirt freshman quarterback, who signed with Clemson in 2017 unsure if he’d ever be anything but buried on the depth chart, approached Cervenka. “You’ve got one second to get mad at yourself,” Brice recalled to reporters Saturday. “And let it go.”
Brice was Clemson’s last hope Saturday after a tumultuous week that had turned into the ultimate nightmare scenario when starter Trevor Lawrence left the game in the second quarter against Syracuse with what looked like a concussion. Lawrence, a true freshman who was the nation’s top-ranked recruit in the class of 2018, had been named the starter Monday. Previous starter Kelly Bryant announced his intent to redshirt this season and transfer Wednesday. Now Brice, who had at one point or another sat behind five different quarterbacks during his brief time at Clemson, was the last healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster. Down two with 2:50 remaining, he needed to make a throw or the Tigers’ national title hopes might have been in serious jeopardy.
After the snap, Cervenka clearly followed Brice’s instructions. He and his linemates stoned the Syracuse pass rush. “They made a perfect pocket for me,” Brice told reporters. “All I had to do was deliver a ball.” It wasn’t quite as simple as that. Syracuse had shown a six-man rush but only sent three. Showing blitz and then dropping eight is a time-tested way to make a freshman throw an interception. But Brice had paid attention in meetings all week. He knew that look usually resulted in Cover Two (two defensive backs deep) with a “robber,” a roving free safety trained to break on the ball as soon as the quarterback declares his intention to throw. If Brice could look off the safety long enough, he could drop a ball in to receiver Tee Higgins before the nearest cornerback closed the window. Brice released the ball before Higgins came out of his break. When Higgins did, all he had to do was open his hands, and the ball settled in for a 20-yard gain that kept the Tigers alive. Five plays later, Clemson tailback Travis Etienne (who finished with 203 rushing yards) scored his third touchdown of the day, and the Tigers celebrated a 27–23 win soon after.
Brice gave all the credit to his teammates and coaches. “It’s amazing what you can do,” Brice said, “when people come up to you and say they believe in you.”
Clemson players and coaches had no choice but to believe in Brice, who was only in that situation because he believed in himself. He might have been an heir apparent at Arizona State or Michigan State, but he chose instead to fight it out with the five-stars at Clemson. In the process, he became the player that every national title contender needs—the less touted quarterback who chooses a school because he likes the school and not because he expects to play right away. Sometimes, those guys end up saving seasons. Sometimes, they also become stars.
At Notre Dame, Ian Book is the quarterback the Fighting Irish took in the class of 2016 after missing on Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State’s current starter), Shea Patterson (who signed with Ole Miss but now starts at Michigan), Jacob Eason (who signed with Georgia but transferred to Washington) and Malik Henry (who signed with Florida State but is now in his second season at Independence Community College in Kansas). Book took over as the starter against Wake Forest on Sept. 22 and has brought consistency to Notre Dame’s offense. In Saturday’s 38–17 win against Stanford, Book threw for 278 yards and four touchdowns.
Perhaps the best example of this type of quarterback is the three-star recruit who signed as a grayshirt in Ohio State’s class of 2011. While five-star Braxton Miller, the other quarterback in that 2011 class, played as a true freshman, Cardale Jones went to prep school. In Jones’s first two seasons in Columbus, he was known not for his howitzer of a right arm but for one dumb tweet (that he ultimately turned into a teachable moment). Then 2014 happened. Miller tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder less than two weeks before the season opener. J.T. Barrett, the four-star recruit from the class of 2013, replaced Miller and set records, but Barrett was lost to injury in the regular-season finale against Michigan. Who was left? The Ohio kid who had always wanted to play for Ohio State, and Jones helped the Buckeyes win a national title. Had Jones been a five-star, perhaps he wouldn’t have been willing to wait. Such players are told throughout high school that they should be able to walk on campus and start. The three-stars don’t hear that when they sign with top-tier schools. The expectation is that they’ll wait, and sometimes they wind up either waiting out or beating out everyone.
When Clemson’s Brice was a junior at Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., in April 2016, he sat down with Rivals recruiting analyst Woody Wommack to discuss his commitment to the Tigers. It had taken place the previous December, one day after Hunter Johnson, the top-ranked quarterback in the 2017 class, had committed to the Tigers. Brice told Wommack he committed so early because he feared some other quarterback would take the other available quarterback slot in the class. Then he said something that helped explain why he was available Saturday after other would-be Tigers quarterbacks had left. “There’s going to be a lot of competition everywhere,” Brice told Wommack. “I always thought if somehow I got hurt or I’m no longer playing football, would I still enjoy going to a college? And I thought, yes, I’d love to go to Clemson still—even if I wasn’t playing football.”
To get in the hunt for national titles, programs need to recruit highly ranked quarterbacks. The Deshaun Watsons and the Tua Tagovailoas are the surest path to title contention. But in today’s transfer-happy climate, teams also need players like Jones and Brice to be there when the depth chart gets thin.
When Brice committed to Clemson in December 2015, Watson was finishing his sophomore season. Johnson had committed a day earlier with plans to sign in ’17. Bryant, another three-star recruit, was finishing his freshman season as Watson’s backup. Tucker Israel, another three-star recruit from Orlando, was redshirting that season. Zerrick Cooper, a four-star recruit from Jonesville, Ga., had committed in ’14 to sign in the class of ’16. Lawrence, the kind of prospect who tends to scare off other quarterback recruits, committed Dec. 15, 2016 about six weeks before Brice was set to sign. Brice was not a low-caliber recruit. He had a lot of interest from Big Ten schools, and even though he settled at three stars in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, Rivals rated him as a four-star at one point. But he signed with Clemson knowing that at some point he’d be in the same quarterback room as the top prospects in the ’17 and ’18 classes.
He just didn’t care. He liked the idea of going to college at Clemson, and it didn’t bother him that he’d face intense competition to see the field.
As coaches span the country seeking their next quarterbacks, they need to consider the value in the occasional signee who really wants to be at that school and who doesn’t care how long the odds of winning the starting job seem to be. Book was committed to Washington State before Notre Dame offered, and he felt he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Book only landed on Notre Dame’s radar because then offensive coordinator Mike Sanford—now Western Kentucky’s head coach—had offered Book while serving as the OC at Boise State. The Irish had gone after the biggest names in the 2016 class—some have lived up to the hype and some haven’t—but they may have wound up with the best fit for them. Meanwhile, Alabama would have been fine even if Jalen Hurts hadn’t decided to stay after losing the starting job to Tagovailoa. Mac Jones, a redshirt freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., passed on offers from Baylor and Oklahoma State because he didn’t mind being the other QB in Tagovailoa’s class.
With Hurts still on board for the rest of the season, the Crimson Tide probably won’t need Jones to come in and bail them out of a tight spot. But Clemson absolutely needed Brice, and depending on the severity of Lawrence’s injury, the Tigers may need Brice to keep producing. Fortunately for them, he’s still there and ready to go when they need him.
“Chase proved that he can go in there and be a heck of a player for us,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters. “In the long run, this will be a defining moment for this football team.”
A Random Ranking
My seven-year-old has been asking to play Guess Who a lot lately, and it reminded me that I have yet to rank board games. That gets rectified today.
1. Trivial Pursuit
3. Connect Four
7. Hungry Hungry Hippos
10. Mouse Trap
This week, my projected playoff matches the top four in the Top 10 I published early Sunday morning. That won’t always happen because of schedules and the mechanics of the playoff selection process, but if this actually wound up being the playoff, there would be some furious conference commissioners.
1. Alabama (5–0)
Last game: Beat Louisiana, 56–14
Next game: Saturday at Arkansas
I’m out of ways to say that Alabama buzzsawed another opponent and also will buzzsaw the team it plays this week. Sorry.
2. Ohio State (5–0)
Last game: Beat Penn State, 27–26
Next game: Saturday vs. Indiana
Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins took a huge step during Saturday’s second half, and offensive coordinator Ryan Day deserves a big assist. The Nittany Lions had Haskins rattled early, and Day helped settle him down with some high-percentage, confidence-building short passes to playmakers in space that wound up wearing out Penn State’s defense. Haskins won’t face a more intimidating environment all season.
3. Notre Dame (5–0)
Last game: Beat Stanford, 38–17
Next game: Saturday at Virginia Tech
In the second half, the Fighting Irish defense shut down a Stanford offense that can run between the tackles and get huge chunks of yardage throwing down the sideline to massive receivers and tight ends. Now that Book has the Notre Dame offense clicking, this team looks capable of winning every remaining game on its schedule. That could make things very interesting in terms of playoff selection. If Notre Dame ever makes the playoff, it would knock one Power 5 league out of the final four. If Notre Dame ever makes the playoff in the same year that a league—like, say, the SEC or Big Ten—puts two teams in the playoff, the leaders of the other leagues are really going to freak out. The good news for the other leagues is that because the teams on Notre Dame’s schedule haven’t been as good as advertised, an 11–1 record might not be good enough to make the playoff. And Notre Dame is playing one of its few remaining losable games at Lane Stadium on Saturday.
4. Georgia (5–0)
Last game: Beat Tennessee, 38–12
Next game: Saturday vs. Vanderbilt
The Bulldogs should overpower another SEC East foe this week, but things could get interesting next week when Georgia visits LSU.
Big Ugly Of The Week
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young has been getting buzz since last year as a potential top-five pick in the 2020 draft. But he faced extra pressure when presumed 2019 top-five pick Nick Bosa went down with an abdominal injury against TCU on Sept. 15. Saturday at Penn State, Young was spectacular. He made six tackles. Of those, three went for loss and two were sacks. The tackle for loss that wasn’t a sack was the play that sealed the win for the Buckeyes.
Three And Out
1. Penn State coach James Franklin got into a confrontation with a fan Saturday night when the fan criticized the Nittany Lions’ play call on fourth-and-five with 1:21 remaining. After two timeouts—one by Penn State and one by Ohio State—Penn State coaches called an inside zone. Ohio State’s Young, who you read about earlier, twisted inside on a stunt and smothered tailback Miles Sanders, effectively ending the game.
Now for an unpopular opinion: The play call wasn’t that bad. The execution, however, was horrendous. The problems began when no one blocked Ohio State defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones on the back side. Jones wasn’t the player being read on the read option. He was supposed to be blocked. But when he was allowed to run free into the backfield, it took away quarterback Trace McSorley’s option to pull the ball and escape out the back door. In this case, pretending to pass block Jones—as Penn State did to a Michigan defender last year on a wildcat play that resulted in a Saquon Barkley touchdown, would have opened a potential crease for McSorley. Still, the better option was still for McSorely to hand the ball to Sanders because Penn State had a numbers advantage on that side. But Penn State’s linemen got confused by the twist and no one stayed with Young. Continuing to run Young in the direction he wanted to go could have taken him out of the play and given Sanders a chance, but that didn’t happen.
I know what Penn State fans wanted. They wanted something like the fourth-and-two play McSorley converted late against Appalachian State.
And maybe that’s what Penn State should have done. But properly executing the play that was called against Ohio State probably would have gotten the Nittany Lions the first down they needed.
2. There’s something about Louisville and 99% win probabilities. Remember in March when Louisville’s basketball team led Virginia by four with less than a second to play and managed to lose?
Up three Saturday with two minutes remaining and the ball on the Florida State 21-yard line, Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino told the hoops team to hold his beer. Instead of running to run out the clock—or to set up a field goal that also would have forced Florida State into a more difficult predicament—Petrino called a pass on first down. It did not go well.
What happened next? This.
And that’s how Florida State made a miraculous comeback for a 28–24 win that first-year coach Willie Taggart and his staff desperately needed.
3. SI’s Ross Dellenger explains how Dan Mullen led Florida to a win in his return to Mississippi State.
What’s Eating Andy?
Please say a prayer for Tennessee State linebacker Christion Abercrombie, who underwent emergency brain surgery as a result of an injury in Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt. Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said on Sunday morning that Abercrombie remained in critical condition.
Reed suffered the injury on a routine-looking play. He took on a block and then returned to the sideline complaining of a headache. He collapsed shortly afterward. He was then rushed to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he had surgery Saturday night.
What’s Andy Eating?
Sometimes, I like to drink a beer and transcribe the quotes that help build the stories you read here. But when I’m on the road, I don’t want to buy an entire six-pack that I’m not going to be able to finish. I also may not have a fridge in my room to chill a bottle or two that I bought warm in the mix-and-match section of a grocery or liquor store. That’s why Longtable Beer Cafe was such a clutch find in the Madison, Wisc., suburb of Middleton. Part craft beer store, part restaurant/bar, it satisfied all my desires for dinner and for after dinner.
The first thing you see when you walk in is a wall of meticulously selected and chilled bottles. If you can’t find something you like, you’re trying way too hard. But first, dinner.
Longtable serves pulled pork, brisket and smoked wings, but I avoided the barbecue items on the menu because I was in Wisconsin and naturally mistrust all barbecue cooked outside the barbecue belt. I would not have made this mistake had I read up on the place before I got there. Chef Josh Chavez used to work at Chicago’s Smoque, which is one of the nation’s best barbecue joints. I realized I’d erred in ignoring the plain barbecue when I tasted the brisket in the BBQ Frites, which is a gussied-up thing to call poutine with pulled pork and brisket chunks in it.
The combo of beautifully smoked pork and brisket mixed with gravy, fries and Clock Shadow Creamery curds veers toward sensory overload, but in the best possible way. This is meant to be shared, so bring friends. And if you don’t have any friends in town, you’ll make new ones when you offer them some barbecue poutine.
But as good as that poutine is, you need to save room for sausages. I had the wild boar, which sits on a bun beneath a pile of shaved Brussels sprouts covered with bacon vinaigrette. The freshness of the sprouts blended beautifully with the savory and tart vinaigrette. These all complemented the rich, spicy boar sausage. I would have tried one of the other sausages—probably the lamb—but I had eaten too much poutine.
Full and happy, I grabbed two bottles of Boulevard Grand Cru to take back to my hotel to help pass the night of work ahead. The quotes practically typed themselves.