by Chad Peltier
Week 3 was expected to be the eye of the storm, at least in terms of big games. Week 2 had Texas-LSU and Texas A&M-Clemson, while Week 4 has Notre Dame-Georgia, Michigan-Wisconsin, and Auburn-Texas A&M. There weren't any titanic matchups in Week 3, to the point that ESPN's College GameDay went to Ames for Iowa-Iowa State.
But as is typical for weeks that seem low key, weirdness lurked just under the surface. Week 3 can roughly be divided between games that made you think, "you know, maybe they're actually just not that good?" and games with teams that really could have used a win -- and got one! None of these were cataclysmic upsets, but given the lineup this week, these results are both interesting and potentially indicative of the direction these teams are trending.
Let's start with the group of teams where it may be time to adjust your reference points down. Penn State beat Pitt 17-10 in a game that was mostly remembered for Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi's conservatism at the Penn State 1-yard line. With a first-and-goal at the Penn State 1, down 17-10 with roughly five minutes to play, Pitt ran three unsuccessful plays to bring up fourth-and-1. Narduzzi decided to kick a field goal, trusting both his defense to get a quick stop and his offense to score a touchdown in the remaining few minutes.
The 19-yard field goal was missed, but that's not really the point. As ESPN's David Hale noted, since the start of 2018, teams are successful on 70% of fourth-and-1 tries from the 1-yard line. What's more shocking is trusting your offense to get itself another scoring opportunity after averaging just a 30% success rate during the game. Quarterback Kenny Pickett passed for 372 yards on 51 attempts, which seems good, but still translates to just a 33% passing success rate. The Panthers couldn't move the ball on the ground at all -- Pitt had the second-worst rushing success rate in the FBS this week at 22.7%, behind only Syracuse (who had to face Clemson) -- and without any semblance of balance, the offense couldn't sustain drives. So not only was it a conservative call, but it was also blind faith in an offense that hadn't sustained many long drives during the game. If you generously (for Pitt) assume that Pitt's chances of converting that fourth-and-1 weren't close to 70%, but instead maybe … 25%, that is still higher than the likelihood of Pitt creating a scoring opportunity (45.5%) and then scoring a touchdown (20%, for a combined rate of roughly 9%).
But I'd actually like to spend some time talking about Penn State. After demolishing FCS Idaho 79-7 in Week 1 and then beating Buffalo 45-13 last week, Penn State only had a 36% success rate against Pitt, their first Power 5 opponent. Sean Clifford completed under 50% of his passes and the offense only created scoring opportunities on 30% of their drives. That's pretty underwhelming. It may not hurt the Nittany Lions until they get to mid-October, when they have a stretch of Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State.
Staying in the Big Ten, we saw the purest distillation of both Herm Edwards and Mark Dantonio in the Sun Devils' 10-7 win over the Spartans. Dantonio probably dreams about games like this: no touchdowns for 50 minutes, where the Spartans can run on two-thirds of their standard-down plays (defined as first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer). Reducing possessions and playing great defense can help narrow the margin between teams of differing talent levels, but unfortunately for the Spartans, a penalty for 12 men on the field during the final, tying 42-yard field goal doomed the follow-up try from 47 yards.
A final Big Ten (but not Midwestern) team for our first section: Maryland's run as the kings of offense came to an end with Temple's 20-17 upset win over the Terrapins. Mike Locksley's Terps had combined for 142 points in their first two games against Howard and Syracuse, but Temple's defense completely shut down Maryland in the first half. On the day Maryland had seven three-and-out drives. Down 20-15 with under eight minutes left, Maryland's final three drives ended with a combined -2 yards! While Josh Jackson seems like a solid quarterback and Anthony McFarland Jr. remains electric, maybe we ranked Maryland (at 21 last week) a little too soon.
At 2-1 after somewhat shocking wins over South Carolina and Miami, North Carolina is already overperforming under Mack Brown. Sure, those games were decided by a combined seven points, but wins are wins, especially when the Tar Heels finished 88th last season in SP+. But Wake Forest ran out to a 21-0 lead at the half, and even North Carolina's 15-point fourth quarter wasn't enough to get back in the game. Wake Forest looks surprisingly competent themselves, sitting at 3-0 thanks to a nine-catch, 169-yard receiving game from Sage Surratt.
Speaking of teams who were outperforming expectations, USC couldn't overcome a three-interception performance from freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis in their loss to 2-1 BYU. Besides the interceptions, Slovis performed well with a 54.3% passing success rate, and the Trojans had a +5.1% success rate margin over BYU, but the Trojans couldn't quite overcome their turnovers against the Cougars. The Trojans now enter their first brutal stretch of the season against Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame.
Finally, this group ends with Kansas State's win over the disappointing Mississippi State Bulldogs. Nearly everyone expected Kansas State to be one of the Big 12's bottom-feeders in Chris Klieman's first season, but they are now 3-0 with their huge win over the Bulldogs. There wasn't much offense in this one, as the teams averaged 40% and 38% success rates. Tommy Stevens' two interceptions along with Malik Knowles' kickoff return touchdown for Kansas State probably made the difference in the game. With their gutting NFL departures, last year was kind of "The Year" for Mississippi State, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised. But nevertheless, F/+ loved the Bulldogs in the preseason projections, rating them seventh overall and projected to go 10-2.
Alright, now let's get to the next group -- teams that maybe haven't been doing so great this season and weren't really projected to either, but still got the win in Week 3. Neal Brown's West Virginia is first, with a 44-27 win over North Carolina State. This was kind of shocking, as the Mountaineers' roster wasn't in awesome shape this season, and they were expected to be close to a ground-up rebuild. So a solid out-of-conference Power-5 win is an excellent start for West Virginia. Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall led the way with a 46.3% success rate and 24.3% of his passes going for 13-plus yards.
Arizona's win over Texas Tech fits this category as well. The Wildcats seemed to not know their identity through the first two weeks of 2019 (and really all of 2018). I won't pretend Kevin Sumlin's Wildcats have it all figured out now -- or that he's off the hot seat yet -- but this is still a big out-of-conference Power 5 win. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of Khalil Tate's 129 rushing yards came on a single run, but the Wildcats still averaged a 47.4% rushing success rate while running on an astounding 88% of standard downs.
It's a good year for re-run coaches, with Les Miles' Kansas picking up their second win, this time over Boston College, by doubling the Eagles' score! There wasn't a huge success rate margin in Kansas' favor -- just +3.8% -- but the Jayhawks created scoring opportunities on two-thirds of their drives thanks to both Pooka Williams Jr. and Khalil Herbert running for over 120 yards (with Herbert getting an 82-yarder).
- Wondering where Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma, LSU, and Clemson are this week? Well, they outscored their opponents by a combined 307-67, so that's about all you need to know there. Ohio State's 51-10 demolition of Indiana -- which some called a potential trap game -- was probably the most impressive of the bunch, and enough to move the Buckeyes to second in the SP+ rankings this week.
- The marquee matchup of the week, Iowa-Iowa State (also known as El Assico), ended 18-17 in Iowa's favor despite nearly a +5% success rate margin for the Hawkeyes. But despite the vast difference in success rate, the Cyclones were shut down on one red zone trip -- the Hawkeyes averaged a 42.8% success rate in the red zone compared to Iowa State's 25% -- which led to the difference in the game.
- Florida got by Kentucky 29-21, resuming their win streak thanks to a big fourth-quarter comeback where the Gators scored 19 unanswered points. But the Gators lost quarterback Feleipe Franks for the year with an ankle injury after he had gone 12-of-17 for 174 yards. His replacement, Kyle Trask, was just a three-star recruit but went 9-of-13 for 126 yards as the two quarterback combined for a 61.3% passing success rate. Kentucky completely took away the Gators' run game (26.9% rushing success!) but Trask and Franks took advantage of holes in the Kentucky secondary.
- Dillon Gabriel, QB, Central Florida. Has Central Florida found their quarterback? Dillon Gabriel got the start and ran away with a 63% passing success rate for 347 passing yards and 40% of his dropbacks ending in a 13-plus-yard reception. Gabriel improved on Marcus Mariota's and Tua Tagovailoa's high school records in Hawaii, and considered the Trojans and Georgia before opting for Central Florida late in his recruitment. Meanwhile, this is the second straight week that Stanford has been torched by a freshman quarterback (insert gritting teeth emoji).
- J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State. Ohio State demolished Indiana, and the defense's ability to create havoc was probably the main takeaway. But the other story was J.K. Dobbins' resurgence after a sophomore slump in 2018. Dobbins ran for 193 yards on 22 carries, for a 59.1% rushing success rate. After Ohio State was stuffed on 18% of runs last year, Dobbins is averaging just a 9.7% stuff rate in 2019.
- Ifeanyi Maijeh, DT, Temple. Maryland's offense came to a halt against Temple, and Ifeanyi Maijeh was a big reason why, with two sacks and another tackle for loss. Nearly 31% of Maryland's runs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage against Temple.