The Week 4 matchups may have lacked the sizzle of past weeks on paper but provided plenty of drama on the field.
#12 NOTRE DAME vs. #18 WISCONSIN
With Wisconsin having just taken a slim 13-10 lead early in the 4th quarter with a field goal, Notre Dame RB Chris Tyree returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. On the next drive, Irish DT Jayson Ademilola forced a fumble, which the Notre Dame offense turned into a touchdown and a 24-13 lead. Then, the Irish defense intercepted Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz on three straight drives, with the last two interceptions resulting in pick-sixes by LBs Jack Kiser and Drew White. Notre Dame would score 31 unanswered points to close out the game and win 41-13, giving head coach Brian Kelly his school-record 106th victory.
Though Notre Dame won this game on the strength of its defense and special teams, what is more important in the long run is that for really the only time this season other than the 3rd quarter against Florida State, the Irish played complementary football – this was a true team win. Both offensive touchdowns came after the defense had forced a turnover, and arguably the biggest play of the game – Tyree’s kickoff return – came after the defense had struggled in the 3rd quarter and allowed Wisconsin to score on two drives to take the lead.
The biggest indicator of the defense’s dominance is that the Badgers were only 1-15 on 3rd down conversions (and 0-1 on 4th down).
Notre Dame will look to build off the momentum from the victory over Wisconsin next weekend when they take on #7 Cincinnati in South Bend.
#7 TEXAS A&M vs. #16 ARKANSAS
The Aggie boosters who paid top dollar to bring head coach Jimbo Fisher to College Station certainly did not have a loss to an upstart Arkansas team in mind when looking at the 2021 schedule. This year was supposed to be “Beat ‘Bama or Bust” for Texas A&M, but after Saturday’s 20-10 loss to Arkansas in a game the Razorbacks controlled the entire way, the Aggies are now staring down the rest of an SEC West schedule with a loss already in hand.
Arkansas added another chapter to what is already the biggest surprise of the 2021 season, and after already having also beaten Texas in Week 2, can now claim superiority over the Lone Star State. Head coach Sam Pittman – despite having been viewed by many as a reach when hired before the 2020 season after the Chad Morris debacle – is proving the doubters wrong each week. This Hogs team is tough, disciplined, and plays hard.
Heading into the game, the focus was on the Texas A&M defense, which was considered by many to be the top defense in the SEC. However, though the Aggies entered Saturday’s matchup as the top-ranked pass defense in the SEC (and the country), they only ranked 12th in the SEC against the run – and that is what Arkansas exploited. The Hogs only threw in 19 times (with 9 completions) against 49 rushes, and used A&M’s focus on stopping the run to hit two big pass plays in the first half en route to racing out to a 17-0 lead.
#9 CLEMSON at NC STATE
NC State stunned Clemson 27-21 in a wild, double-overtime game that all but ended Clemson’s playoff hopes for the 2021 season. Despite missing three field goals and committing 11 penalties, the Wolfpack outlasted Clemson to truly earn the victory, rather than this being a case where the Tigers gave the game away. QB Devin Leary threw for 4 TDs, WR Emeka Emezie hauled in 14 catches, and NC State went 11-21 on 3rd down, possessed the ball for 41:48, and outgained Clemson 386-214. Looking at those stats, it is surprising the game even went to overtime.
Something just seems off at Clemson this season, and despite being ranked #3 in the preseason, the Tigers now sit at 2-2, and were a goal-line stand away from potentially losing to Georgia Tech in Week 3. The root of the offensive problems lies with a mediocre offensive line which failed to get a push in the run game and allowed QB DJ Uiagalelei to be harassed all afternoon (2 sacks, 7 hurries). Clemson threw for only 111 yards (4.3 passing YPA) and rushed for only 103, with 37 coming on a single play.
Most concerning for Clemson, which still can regroup and win the ACC, is that the injuries are starting to pile up, with LB James Skalski and DL Bryan Breese the latest casualties. The Tigers are having to rely on their defense much more than expected, and the offense’s inability to sustain drives will result in the defense continuing to get worn down, especially in games when it is on the field for over 40 minutes. The Tigers better fix things fast too, as undefeated Boston College visits next weekend.
- I appreciate how Notre Dame and the national media recognized Saturday’s win as Brian Kelly’s 106th victory at the school, which moved him past legendary coach Knute Rockne as the school’s all-time leader in wins. The only reason this statement is even controversial is that the NCAA forced Notre Dame to vacate 21 wins from 2012-2013 in an absolutely absurd decision. I would encourage everyone to read Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins’ letter pushing back against the NCAA decision.
What is most absurd about the NCAA’s ruling is that there was no precedent for student-to-student cheating, which occurred at ND, ever resulting in vacating wins. In fact, the only reason that Notre Dame had to vacate the wins was that the violation of the university’s Honor Code led to the GPAs of the student athletes being recalculated, making them retroactively ineligible. Jenkins correctly points out that if the only reason that wins were vacated was because the players were made retroactively ineligible due to the application of the Honor Code, what is the incentive for schools to have a strong honor code and recalculate GPAs for students found cheating?
- Though it will take some time to truly understand the impact of the new Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rules on college football, I believe that this will be a positive change for the sport and promote more parity. The thing that most people miss when discussing NIL rulings is that even though a few college stars have the national and/or online appeal to make millions of dollars in endorsement deals (like Alabama QB Bryce Young), the vast majority of these endorsement deals are going to be with local businesses like car dealerships and restaurants.
With that in mind, where can a high-ranked recruit maximize his earnings? While the blue bloods will still pull their fair share of top players, high-ranked recruits are now able to factor economics into their college choices and can choose between being “just another 4-star” at a blue blood or being “the man” at a school with less tradition. Let’s put it this way – there’s restaurants and car dealerships in Pullman, West Lafayette, and Stillwater too – and likely more available endorsement opportunities than in Tuscaloosa or Athens.
Even if the traditional powers lose just 1 recruit per cycle to a less prestigious program that they otherwise would have landed, that will slowly start to shift the balance of power and lead to more parity in the sport.
- I don’t understand why perennially struggling programs in Power 5 conferences like Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Kansas, among others, do not think more creatively when hiring coaches. If I were the athletic director at one of these schools and had a head coaching vacancy, the first name on my list would be Army head coach Jeff Monken. Army won again on Saturday to move to 4-0, and Monken obviously knows how to build a winning culture. Why wouldn’t a team who struggles to recruit and struggles to compete against the top teams in its conference give running the option a shot? On Saturday, Vanderbilt lost 62-0 to Georgia and gained 77 total yards – would running the triple-option really lead to a worse outcome? In addition to running a unique offense, this also offers these programs the chance to recruit great athletes who are “tweeners” – you can now take that 5’9” RB who has great speed or that 250-pound, hard-nosed offensive lineman with great technique. These teams won’t win a title, but they will certainly be more competitive.
- Everyone should take note of the name Jake Haener now, as the Fresno State QB led another gutsy comeback on Friday night against UNLV. In 5 games this season (the Bulldogs played in Week 0), Haener has thrown for over 1800 yards and 15 TDs. He led comeback victories against UCLA – while playing with an injured hip – and UNLV, and has led the Bulldogs to a #18 ranking with the only loss coming by a touchdown to Oregon in Eugene in a game where he completed 30 passes and threw for 298 yards. If Fresno State keeps winning, Haener will get an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
- Much like “Moving Day” at the Masters, Week 5 will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Here are some key storylines to watch:
- Can Cincinnati take a major step toward becoming the first Group of 5 team to make the CFP with a win over Notre Dame?
- Does the magic from Arkansas’ 4-0 start run out against Georgia?
- Can Michigan find success running the football against Wisconsin, which boasts the #1 rush defense in the nation?
- We know Ole Miss can score points, but can the Rebels play enough defense to slow down Alabama?
- Does Iowa’s defense travel outside of the state? The Hawkeyes play Friday night on the road at Maryland, who is off to an undefeated start and is 2nd in the Big Ten in total offense.
BIGGEST WINNERS OF THE WEEKEND
- The Pac 12 and Big 12: In all likelihood, Clemson’s second loss this weekend eliminated the ACC from playoff contention, as Wake Forest and Boston College are the only two remaining undefeated teams in the conference. With the SEC on track to get two teams in the field, eliminating one conference from contention – along with their top contenders Oregon and Oklahoma pulling out wins in tougher-than-expected games to stay undefeated – is huge for the two conferences considered the weakest of the Power 5.
- Arkansas: The Razorbacks physically dominated Texas A&M the entire game and beat their long-time rival for the first time since A&M joined the SEC back in 2012. Arkansas controls its own destiny in the SEC West and College Football Playoff, but enters a brutal three-game stretch next weekend against #2 Georgia on the road. After the trip to Athens, the Hogs travel to #12 Ole Miss before hosting #22 Auburn.
- Notre Dame: The Irish scored touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams in a 31-point 4th quarter outburst to take down #18 Wisconsin and move to 4-0. Even though this Notre Dame team continues to be limited by poor offensive line play, the Irish are still undefeated and control their own destiny for the College Football Playoff. If Notre Dame can beat #7 Cincinnati on Saturday, the Irish will be favored in all remaining games.
- Baylor: The Bears thrust themselves directly into the Big 12 title conversation with a 31-29 win over Iowa State to move to 4-0. Baylor has the #2 scoring offense and #1 scoring defense in the Big 12, and if the Bears can win at Oklahoma State this weekend, they get West Virginia, Texas, and Oklahoma at home in Waco (in addition to BYU in a non-conference game).
BIGGEST LOSERS OF THE WEEKEND
- The ACC: As discussed earlier, Clemson’s second loss essentially closed the door on the ACC’s CFP participation in 2021. However, in addition to Clemson, North Carolina and Miami were ranked in the top-15 in the preseason but have also been among the most disappointing teams in the nation. On Saturday, the Tar Heels lost 45-22 to Georgia Tech, a team which lost to Northern Illinois to open the season.
- Paul Chryst: Chryst’s decision to go with QB Graham Mertz over QB Jack Coan, resulting in Coan’s transfer to Notre Dame, will continue to be second-guessed in Madison for a long time after Wisconsin’s 41-13 loss to the Irish. Even though Coan did not play his best game and ended up being knocked out of the game in the 3rd quarter, Mertz was terrible, completing just 18-41 passes and turning the ball over 5 times. Wisconsin has not beaten a ranked opponent with Mertz at QB, and in losses to Penn State and Notre Dame this year, has turned the ball over 8 times.
- USC: The Trojans fired head coach Clay Helton following a listless loss to Stanford in the Coliseum and rebounded to beat Washington State, but were embarrassed on Saturday at home against Oregon State. QB Kedon Slovis returned from injury but threw 3 interceptions, and the USC defense surrendered 322 yards rushing to Oregon State. Most concerning? Despite the Beavers running the ball 51 times, USC did not have a single tackle for loss.
- Michigan: Though the Wolverines managed to pull out a 20-13 victory against an inspired Rutgers team to remain undefeated, the way the game played out raised major questions about whether Michigan’s dominant start was a mirage. The Wolverines entered Saturday’s matchup averaging over 350 rushing YPG but ran for only 112 yards on 2.9 YPC against Rutgers. Additionally, QB Cade McNamara again struggled to throw the ball, completing only 9-16 passes for 163 yards. Without the Scarlet Knights turning it over on downs 3 times in Michigan territory and missing a field goal, this could have been a different outcome. Michigan’s reliance on the run game will be put to the test next weekend in a matchup against Wisconsin, who boasts the #1 rush defense in the country at 23 YPG.
BEST GAMES OF WEEK 5
- #5 Iowa at Maryland, Friday 8 PM ET, FS1
- #8 Arkansas at #2 Georgia, 12 PM, ESPN
- #14 Michigan at Wisconsin, 12 PM, FOX
- #7 Cincinnati at #9 Notre Dame, 2:30 PM ET, NBC
- #12 Ole Miss at #1 Alabama, 3:30 PM ET, CBS
- #21 Baylor at #19 Oklahoma State, 7 PM ET, ESPN2
- Boston College at #25 Clemson, 7:30 PM ET, ACCN
- #22 Auburn at LSU, 9 PM ET, ESPN
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