by Chad Peltier
This may have been the biggest week of the season so far for refining the group of playoff contenders. Moving up: Ohio State and Notre Dame. Moving down: Stanford, Penn State, and maybe Clemson.
Ohio State had the biggest win of the week, a 27-26 thriller in Happy Valley that required another double-digit fourth-quarter comeback. Fourth-quarter comebacks and close finishes are becoming a capital-T Thing for James Franklin and Urban Meyer, as their last three meetups have been decided by a total of five points (two straight one-point Ohio State wins following Penn State's three-point upset win in 2016). According to ESPN, Ohio State had just a 3.9 percent win probability down 26-14 with eight minutes left, which is similar to the win probability that the J.T. Barrett-led Buckeyes had last season at a similar point in the game.
Up to that point in the game, the Buckeyes had looked uncharacteristically sluggish on offense, failing to adapt to Penn State's ability to blitz while also taking away the deep ball. Haskins was 0-for-7 on third-down passing attempts in the first half, while the run game averaged 3.2 yards per carry and allowed a 19 percent stuff rate.
And like the rest of the season, the defense was vulnerable to explosive plays. Ohio State has incredibly allowed two separate 93-yard plays on third-and-medium, one from TCU and then one this week to Penn State's excellent K.J. Hamler. Fourty-five percent of Penn State's total yards came on just nine plays.
Further, the defense could not figure out how to stop Trace McSorley on either designed quarterback runs or on scrambles. Ohio State's linebackers and the safety spot opposite Jordan Fuller have been the team's weaknesses all season, and while the linebackers played better overall against the Nittany Lions, Penn State's best offensive play was a called pass and McSorley scramble, as Kirk Herbstreit said during the broadcast. Eight of Penn State's 22 first downs came on McSorley runs. Thirty-nine percent of Penn State's successful plays were quarterback runs, while they only had three successful non-McSorley rushing attempts.
So with a relatively inefficient run game and little passing-downs success from Haskins, several explosive plays allowed and McSorley's running were enough to put Ohio State into a double-digit hole in the fourth quarter. But then the offense rediscovered the screen game. Backed up on their own 4-yard line in the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Ryan Day dialed up a halfback screen to J.K. Dobbins, which resulted in an immediate 35-yard gain. From there, excellent wide receiver blocking on another screen to K.J. Hill resulted in a 24-yard touchdown and the lead.
If you didn't watch live, you still have probably heard about Penn State's controversial play call on fourth-and-5 on their final, game-deciding drive. But it's worth looking at that entire drive as a microcosm of the entire game. The drive started with a 27-yard pass to tight end Pat Freirermuth (Explosive play? Check.). The second play was a Chase Young sack for -4 yards (adding to Ohio State's 11 total tackles for loss). Then on third-and-14, McSorley had a 9-yard scramble when the middle of the defense was somehow vacant (Quarterback run? Check.). So that brings us to fourth-and-5, which saw Penn State call a timeout, then Ohio State calling a timeout based on Penn State's look, then a second Penn State timeout in response. Penn State was on the Ohio State 43-yard line with a little over a minute left in the game. A successful conversion would have made it extremely likely that the Nittany Lions could have just kicked a walk-off field goal and escaped with the win. But Penn State went with a basic inside zone read that likely had a pre-snap bubble screen option. The screen and quarterback run were covered, so Miles Sanders was immediately met in the backfield by Chase Young and Jashon Cornell for a 2-yard loss. Sanders averaged 2.7 yards per carry on the day after running for 200 yards and 9.1 yards per carry last week against Illinois.
Ohio State's win gives them ESPN's best Strength of Record and nearly an equal chance of making the playoff as Alabama (75 percent), while they sit at third in S&P+. Penn State still remains in the playoff conversation, with a 16 percent chance at making the playoff according to ESPN, but it'll be a tough playoff road. They'll need to both win out and hope that Ohio State drops two games in their next seven. Michigan State and Michigan look like the most likely candidates for an upset, but next week's game against Indiana is also an upset possibility, considering the Buckeyes were blown out by Iowa following last year's comeback win over Penn State.
Staying in the Midwest, Notre Dame has now probably passed its toughest test of the season with a 38-17 win over Stanford. Virginia Tech and USC are still on the schedule, but the Fighting Irish will likely be favored in every remaining game. ESPN has Notre Dame's playoff chances at 47 percent.
The Irish simply outplayed the Cardinal, compiling an 18.9 percent success rate differential with five more scoring opportunities, and won the turnover battle. New starting quarterback Ian Book was efficient, completing 73 percent of his passes at 8.4 yards per attempt -- receiver Miles Boykin was his clear top target, with 11 catches while no one else had more than three -- and Dexter Williams averaged 7.7 yards per carry in his first game of the season.
Notre Dame has seen a big jump in offensive success rate since Book took over the quarterback spot. Michigan is by far the best defense that the Irish have seen, but they started the year with just a 33 percent success rate against the Wolverines, then followed it up with 42 and 45 percent success rate performances before Book took over from Brandon Wimbush. Against Wake Forest and now Stanford, Notre Dame has put up 58 and 48 percent success rate performances.
ESPN now gives the Pac-12 the worst odds of all Power 5 conferences to send a team to the playoff at just 16 percent, and Stanford has just a three percent chance of being the chosen team. Stanford still has to play Washington and could certainly run the table, but they're unlikely to be favored.
Clemson flirted with an upset as well, requiring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to survive Syracuse, 27-23. What's more, Clemson's go-ahead touchdown drive was a 13-play, 94-yard march led by a freshman -- and one who is not named Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence suffered concussion-like symptoms following a first-half hit and was lost for the second half of the game (co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said on Monday that the team medical staff were encouraged that it might just be a neck strain). With Kelly Bryant's transfer announcement earlier in the week, Lawrence and Chase Brice were about the extent of the quarterback options, as even wide receiver Hunter Renfrow found his way onto the depth chart.
The Clemson offense hadn't been terrible on the day, averaging a 52.4 percent success rate overall, but Syracuse had done a good job at preventing drives from ending in touchdowns. The Tigers averaged just 3.9 points per scoring opportunity, with three possessions ending in field goal attempts, and two turnovers on non-scoring opportunity drives.
Chase Brice was a composite three-star quarterback and wasn't asked to do a whole lot -- he only had 13 passing attempts -- but there wasn't a huge production drop-off when he came in, since Lawrence averaged 6.2 yards per attempt and Brice maintained a 6.4 yard per attempt average. Brice also made two sequential critical plays on Clemson's game-winning drive. The 94-yard drive was almost entirely runs -- with 12 to just a single pass attempt -- but Brice completed a fourth-and-6 attempt to Tee Higgins for 20 yards, which likely would have sealed the game if he had missed it. Brice followed up that completion with a 17-yard run to put the Tigers in the red zone, too.
Clemson's run game really came alive. Travis Etienne was the obvious star, but Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster all contributed to that monstrously efficient final drive. Ten of the 12 runs on that drive were successful, and they had a 72 percent rushing success rate overall, despite the passing game averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt.
Even though Clemson required a game-winning drive in the final minutes, their S&P+ post-game win probability was still 91.2 percent, so an upset loss would have been extremely improbable based mainly on their large success rate margin. Still, quarterback depth remains a question for the Tigers' pursuit of another playoff appearance.
- OK, so I guess we should probably talk about Kentucky. The Wildcats beat South Carolina to move to 5-0 and look like Georgia's actual top challenger in the East. Benny Snell dominates most of the conversation since he's awesome, but the run game, or offense overall, really isn't the primary reason for the Wildcats' rise -- it's the defense. Kentucky held South Carolina to a 34.8 percent offensive success rate and just 2.5 points per scoring opportunity. That follows holding Mississippi State to a 35.1 percent success rate and Florida to a 38.8 percent success rate as well. The Wildcats also held those three opponents to 3.5 points per scoring opportunity or less. Quarterback Terry Wilson's stat line of 13-of-20 for 132 passing yards (6.6 yards per attempt) and one interception probably won't cut it against Georgia, but then again, that defensive effort should keep most games close.
- For a few minutes there it looked like the Wolverines would suffer a huge upset from Northwestern, who led 17-7 at the half. The defense then blanked the Wildcats in the second half to secure the win, but Michigan's offense remains a work in progress, with four three-and-outs on just 11 possessions, which is the same number of scoring opportunities that they managed as well. They had just a +2.7 percent success rate margin over Northwestern, too. Running back Karan Higdon is second in the Big Ten in yards per game, but he averaged just 3.8 yards on his 30 carries. The Wolverines have a brutal run coming up, with Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State in a row following Maryland this coming Saturday. And that's before The Game against Ohio State.
- Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State. Dwayne Haskins gets a ton of credit for leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives, but Trace McSorley had an even better performance. The Penn State passing game has been inconsistent all season, with McSorley completing just 52.9 percent of his passes, but he still managed explosive plays through the air. McSorley averaged 17.9 yards per completion against the Buckeyes, including the 93-yarder to K.J. Hamler. He was also the team's best option running the ball, as he had a career-high 175 rushing yards on 25 carries, repeatedly scrambling for big gains if the defensive line couldn't quite get to him in the backfield.
- Travis Ettienne, RB, Clemson. There was lots of chaos for Clemson on Saturday. The Tigers inexplicably struggle with Syracuse, but the one constant was Travis Etienne, who finished with 27 carries for 203 yards (7.5 yards per carry), managing six runs of 15-plus yards and a 59 percent rushing success rate.
- Chase Young, DE, Ohio State. Ohio State might have had the best defensive line in the country with Nick Bosa healthy, but Chase Young proved that it still remains in the discussion even with his injury. Young introduced himself to a national audience with two sacks and three total tackles for loss as part of six total tackles, two passes defended (including one that ended a Penn State scoring opportunity on downs), and two other quarterback hurries.