One Foot Inbounds
The college football weekend in review

OFI: Top Tier Survives

Dabo Swinney
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Chad Peltier

Week 5 didn't offer much in the way of fireworks. With only a few exceptions, the expected teams won, even if they didn't always look elite doing it.

Clemson's 21-20 win over North Carolina exemplifies the week in that regard. The Tar Heels scored the opening touchdown as quarterback Sam Howell threw back-to-back passes of 26 and 40 yards, and Clemson wouldn't get on the board until the second quarter. Mack Brown's North Carolina defense frustrated the Tigers all day as Clemson averaged just a 42.6% success rate, including just a 35.5% passing success rate. Part of Clemson's low scoring output was because they only managed 11 total possessions in the game -- likely an intentional strategy from North Carolina to shorten the game -- but they also had drives end in a missed field goal, a fumble, and on downs, as well as four three-and-out drives. When over a third of your drives end after three plays, it is difficult to put up big offensive numbers. A big part of the problem seemed to be Clemson's performance on passing downs, where they had just a 37.5% success rate with numerous third-and-long incompletions.

The teams remained tied at 14 until under ten minutes left in the game when Trevor Lawrence hit Tee Higgins for a 38-yard touchdown. (Despite just a 35.5% passing success rate, 19% of Lawrence's attempts went for 15 or more yards, meaning a high rate both of incompletions and explosive plays.) At that point Mack Brown's Tar Heels began something that is usually only possible for a triple-option team like Army: a nearly ten-minute scoring drive that had to be incredibly frustrating for the Tigers to watch. On that drive North Carolina converted two fourth-down attempts and got into the end zone with just over a minute left in the game. But instead of kicking the extra point, trusting his defense, and playing for overtime, Mack Brown did what nearly every North Carolina and non-Clemson fan would have hoped for -- he called for a two-point attempt. This decision received near-unanimous praise (Who would expect them to win in overtime? Despite Clemson's low success rate, North Carolina's was just 34.9%!), but the play call itself was a different story. Howell's speed option was quickly sniffed out by the Clemson defense, and that ended what would have been a cataclysmic upset.

These close conference games happen roughly once a year despite Clemson's overall dominance. Last year Syracuse got within a touchdown, and actually got the upset in 2017, while Pitt cashed out on the ACC upset roulette in 2016.

Ohio State's trip to Nebraska received top billing for the weekend, but it really did not live up to the expectations of the people responsible for deciding where to take ESPN's College GameDay (although to be fair, they didn't exactly have many alternatives this week). Nebraska's first-half drive chart sums things up fairly well: interception, punt, interception, interception, punt, punt. Every one of the punts was a three-and-out, while Ohio State scored touchdowns on all of its first-half drives except one, which ended in a field goal. Interceptions on three of your first four drives are kind of insurmountable.

The Buckeyes rolled over Nebraska because they were more efficient on offense (with a +11% success rate margin) and had a havoc-creating defense that created 11 tackles for loss and three interceptions, and because Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez just had an off night (25% passing success rate and 47 total passing yards). With that combination there's really just not a lot you can do. The Buckeyes had a 62% rushing opportunity rate (4-plus-yard runs) with 27% of runs going for 10 or more yards. The Buckeyes have looked dominant on both sides of the ball so far this season (Chase Young recorded another strip-sack, although Adrian Martinez recovered it). Every week we think they might be tested -- maybe Cincinnati! Or Indiana! Or on the road at Nebraska! -- but they have quickly demolished any thought of an upset thanks to crushing efficiency on both sides of the ball (including a +22% success rate margin for the season) and a renewed run game (they have less than an 11% stuff rate and a renewed ability to create explosive runs). That said, maybe Michigan State's defense can slow down the Justin Fields/J.K. Dobbins train next week?

Virginia had similar upset goals as Nebraska, and they got much closer than the Cornhuskers did, taking a 17-14 lead over Notre Dame into half time. Bronco Mendenhall's Cavaliers had an excellent offensive game plan ready for Notre Dame, who were fresh off their disappointing loss against Georgia. Instead of running repeatedly into a stacked box, Virginia placed their trust in quarterback Bryce Perkins, and he delivered with 334 passing yards with a 40.4% success rate, although he was also sacked eight times -- three of which also resulted in lost fumbles (and one returned for a touchdown) -- and threw two interceptions. All in all, Virginia turnovers led to 28 of Notre Dame's 35 points for the day. Notre Dame's defensive havoc was needed, as they didn't get a ton of production out of Ian Book and the passing game. Tight end Cole Kmet led the team in receiving yards for the second straight week since his return from injury and Tony Jones Jr. had a career high 131 rushing yards, but Book had just a 34.5% passing success rate and 6.6 yards per attempt.

The only real upset of the week was Arizona State crossing off the last Pac-12 team from the list of the undefeateds. Cal, with their goal-line stop of Ole Miss in Week 4, had ridden their defense to a 4-0 record so far this season. But after quarterback Chase Garbers went down with an injury in the second quarter (he started the game 9-of-12 for 117 yards), his backup Devon Modster would finish 5-of-14 for just 23 passing yards. The Golden Bears would end with just a 37.8% offensive success rate in the second half, scoring on the opening drive of the third quarter with 12 straight runs. Arizona State moved to a surprising 4-1 with just a single four-point loss to Colorado to muddle their record.

TOEDRAGS

  • In Group of 5 news, Cincinnati blasted Marshall 52-14 in what many thought could have been an upset for the Thundering Herd. The Bearcats scored the first 45 points and quarterback Desmond Ridder looked near-perfect, with he and Ben Bryant combining for a 78% passing success rate and 11 yards per attempt (sack-adjusted). The Bearcats will now face Central Florida in a game that could determine the American, at least in the East (although Temple might have something to say about that).
  • A week removed from throwing for only 100 yards against Texas A&M, Auburn's Bo Nix threw for 335 yards with a 65.4% success rate in a 56-23 win over Mississippi State. Seth Williams totaled 161 receiving yards while the defense held the Bulldogs to just a 37.5% success rate. That's an encouraging sign for the Tigers as their strength of schedule begins its steady uptick throughout the year (and they have already faced Oregon and Texas A&M!). Nix had passing success rates of 41% or lower against all but Kent State prior to his season-high against the Bulldogs. The Tigers now get Florida on the road in what should be a very interesting game.
  • Wisconsin survived Northwestern 24-15 after losing 31-17 last season, although it wasn't pretty. Jonathon Taylor was held to 119 rushing yards on 26 carries and the Badgers had a 34.3% rushing success rate overall. Northwestern, despite beginning the season 1-3, has a habit of mucking things up for talented offenses, so maybe this was just a one-game blip for the steamroller Badgers offense. Northwestern actually had a very slightly higher success rate overall than Wisconsin.
  • Washington took down the upset-minded Trojans 28-14, primarily by picking off USC quarterback Matt Fink three times in his first career start. Jacob Eason was fine, with 180 passing yards and a 42.8% passing success rate, but the Huskies mostly relied on their defense to short-circuit any explosive passing from the Trojans.
  • Alabama entered halftime up 38-10 and Ole Miss ended up losing only 59-31. I mention that mostly to just flag the fact that the Crimson Tide defense allowed a 42% rushing success rate with 14% of carries going for 10-plus yards. Obviously those aren't terrible defensive stats, especially since most of Ole Miss' production came with the game well in hand, but a quick box score overview may be a little shocking for everyone who has grown accustomed to seeing Alabama hold opponents to under 20 points for a decade.

HONOR ROLL

  • DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama. Speaking of Alabama, DeVonta Smith had a career day against the Ole Miss secondary, catching 11 passes for 274 yards, or nearly two-thirds of Tua Tagovailoa's production for the game. Nearly half of his catches went for touchdowns, as he had five (!) on the day. Smith now leads the absurd Alabama receiving corps with 537 yards on the year.
  • Chubba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State. Chubba Hubbard had an insane day against Kansas State with 25 carries for 296 yards. What was funny was that Oklahoma State's rushing success rate on the day was just 42.9%, which was in line with what Kansas State has allowed all season. But 19% of those runs were for 10-plus yards, and they included gains of 84, 53, and 44 yards.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Jeffrey Okudah, CB, Ohio State. Jeffrey Okudah set the tone early for the Buckeyes with a diving tackle on Nebraska's second play from scrimmage to stop a reception for no gain. Okudah then recorded his first interception on the very next play. A few drives later he would record his second interception of the night while lying flat on his back, ending a promising Huskers drive with a pick inside the Ohio State 20. Okudah, like many former Buckeyes blue-chip recruits, is playing up to his top-10 recruiting ranking from 2017.
  • Julian Okwara, DL, Notre Dame. Julian Okwara had three sacks against Virginia, including two forced fumbles, one of which he recovered, and one of which teammate Adetokunbo Ogundeji returned 23 yards for a touchdown.

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