We made it through another week, despite some more cancellations, and the 2020 college football postseason has never felt so close or so real. Week 12 featured a slew of de facto elimination games for both the playoff and conference championships: Wisconsin and Northwestern playing for the Big Ten West, Ohio State and Indiana playing for the Big Ten East, a couple of Group of 5 contenders fending off tough tests, and Oklahoma battling Oklahoma State for a spot in the Big 12's championship game.
No. 2 Ohio State 42, No. 22 Indiana 35
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields had the worst game of his career on Saturday, and the scary thing is it wasn't that bad. Sure, Fields threw three interceptions, and he only completed 60% of his passes, but the Buckeyes' passing success rate was 54% and even accounting for the interceptions their passing EPA/play was just -0.078, barely negative. The value Fields added was so strong that even three drive-killing picks barely brought him into the negatives on the game. Fields averaged 16.7 yards per completion, finding Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave for 15 of his 18 completions, 270 yards, and two touchdowns (both to Wilson). All told, 83% of Fields' completions and 90% of his yards were concentrated in just two players. That's nothing new, though: prior to this game, Wilson and Olave had 52 of Ohio State's 78 targets on the season (67%) and 58% of total receiving yards. Ohio State leaned on their big receivers to outmatch Indiana on the edge, and it largely worked. The crux of the offense for Ohio State amidst Fields' struggles was the run game. Because Ohio State so effectively stretched Indiana out, Master Teague III was able to rush for 6.5 yards per carry (5.1 per carry if you censor his long run of 41 yards). Fifteen of Ohio State's 33 first downs came on the rush, and the Buckeyes averaged +0.306 EPA/rush.
The Buckeyes jumped out to a 28-7 lead at the half, scoring four touchdowns on eight drives, despite throwing two interceptions. Indiana looked lost, failing to hold serve: in eight drives, Indiana punted five times and turned the ball over (on downs or otherwise) twice. It looked to be an absolute blowout at the half: Ohio State outgaining Indiana 9.68 to 5.18 yards per play (387 yards on 40 plays to 192 yards on 33 plays), but the seeds of a comeback were planted: on two of Indiana's last three drives, they moved the ball 84 and 68 yards, scoring a touchdown and fumbling at the Ohio State 14. They averaged 12.1 yards per play on those two drives, even as the gap stayed at 21 points.
Indiana coach Tom Allen got mad at halftime, and his Hoosiers followed suit. Building on that end-of-half upswing, the Hoosiers outscored Ohio State 28-14 in the second half, holding the Buckeyes to just six offensive points on seven second-half drives. The Hoosiers outgained the Buckeyes 8.11 to 3.86 yards per play (284 on 35 plays to 143 yards on 37 plays). Indiana's big-play offense gave the Buckeyes secondary fits, as Indiana had touchdown drives with plays of 63, 25, and 56 yards by Ty Fryfogle. Ohio State simply didn't have an answer to the Michael Penix and Fryfogle connection. Penix only completed 53% of his passes on the day, but he amassed 491 yards and five touchdowns, averaging a +0.144 EPA/pass on the day.
There is now some troubling film out on the Ohio State pass defense, but the Buckeyes will have three weeks of mild contests and the Big Ten Championship Game to iron out their issues before they see elite receiver talent such as Fryfogle and Whop Phylor again. Indiana still has a game with Wisconsin in their sights, but second place in the Big Ten West looks to be theirs as the Hoosiers have built on a promising 2019.
No. 28 Northwestern 17, No. 3 Wisconsin 7
There exist in the universe multiple phenomena man cannot explain: the Jevons paradox, the Fermi paradox, Schrödinger's cat, Northwestern football. The Wildcats absolutely refuse to play offense -- after finishing 120th in success rate in 2019, Northwestern ranks 101st in that category in 2020. Three of their five wins (yes, Northwestern is 5-0 and undefeated) have come by one score, and Wildcats opponents have committed 15 turnovers this season. The recipe for Northwestern was nothing different against Wisconsin. The Badgers committed five turnovers and eight penalties for 70 yards as the Wildcats stalled out Graham Mertz and the Wisconsin offense. Mertz completed 56% of his passes, averaging 10.0 yards per completion, but threw for three interceptions on the day and lost a fumble. Wisconsin averaged a 34% success rate and gained only 27% of available yards on the day. Northwestern held the Badgers to just 18% on third downs (3-of-16) and -0.617 EPA/pass.
The Northwestern offense took advantage of a short field on a long punt return to score a touchdown (46 yards) and then drove for 72 yards to score before the end of the first half. Outside of those two drives, Northwestern punted or turned the ball over 13 times, averaging just 253 yards on 66 plays (3.83 yards per play). The Wildcats had a 5% success rate rushing the ball, 25% overall, and averaged -0.249 EPA/play in the passing game. This game was a complete offensive disaster, and it was exactly the game Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats wanted to play. The Wildcats now sit in first place in the Big Ten West and seem to be favored for an undefeated regular season: Michigan State, Minnesota, and Illinois are all that's left on their schedule. They'll continue plodding along, playing their peculiar brand of nonsense football, and then we'll get to see how well that holds up against Ohio State.
No. 11 Oklahoma 41, No. 17 Oklahoma State 13
Bedlam was a tale in three acts. First, Oklahoma climbed out to a 21-0 run; Oklahoma State then righted the ship and went on a 13-6 stretch; and finally Oklahoma pulled away, closing the game out on a 14-0 run. The Sooners outgained the Cowboys 8.57 to 3.79 yards per play, averaging a passing EPA/play of +0.682. All three of the Cowboys' scoring drives involved 15-yard, drive-extending penalties by the Sooners; Oklahoma State averaged a 26% success rate, -0.478 EPA/pass, and -0.024 EPA/rush. Spencer Rattler completed 70% of his passes, needing only 24 attempts to gain 301 yards and four touchdowns on the day. Running back Rhomondre Stevenson kept the game out of reach, running for 5.4 yards per carry.
To be frank, the game never felt as close as the score. Oklahoma State oscillated between quarterbacks due to a Spencer Sanders injury, and running backs Chuba Hubbard and LD Brown were held to just 73 yards on 18 carries, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry outside of a Hubbard 29-yard run. Oklahoma State's defense, an experienced unit highly touted coming into the season, couldn't keep up with Rattler and Lincoln Riley, and the Cowboys lost in Bedlam for the 17th time in 21 matchups.
Oklahoma has found its next gear after a rocky start and seems poised to climb back into the Big 12 Championship Game with West Virginia and Baylor left on the schedule. Oklahoma State's path to a rematch is still in play, but much more tenuous -- having two losses and losing tiebreakers to both Oklahoma and Texas mean they'll need some upsets along the way. The conference is, for yet another year, Oklahoma's to lose.
No. 10 Cincinnati 36, No. 19 UCF 33
No. 37 Coastal Carolina 34, No. 32 Appalachian State 23
In the Group of 5, undefeated teams Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina found themselves in similar spots on Saturday: sitting at the top of the standings, but facing a team that had run the conference for the last few years. In many ways, both Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina's seasons felt like they came with a qualifier: "It's not real until you beat [UCF for Cincinnati and App State for Coastal]." Well, this weekend, both teams' seasons became real.
Desmond Ridder completed only 65% of his passes on Saturday, and running back Gerrid Doaks averaged only 3.5 yards per rush, but the Bearcats found the timely success they needed to win in Orlando. Cincinnati was successful on 41% of plays and gained 58% of available yards -- they started, on average, at their own 34-yard line, and thanks to a late UCF turnover had a touchdown drive of 16 yards in the second half that turned out to be decisive. The Bearcats' defense held UCF to a 37% success rate overall and only five explosive plays on the day. UCF converted on 58% of third-down attempts but couldn't find the end zone consistently: they punted or turned the ball over on nine of their 11 drives Saturday, and Cincinnati's frustrating defense vaulted the Bearcats to 8-0 and justified their top-10 ranking. Cincinnati's tests are not over, though, as they still have a matchup with AP top-25 Tulsa on the schedule this season.
Coastal Carolina and quarterback Grayson McCall found themselves down two points with the ball and 6:35 left on the clock. After picking off App State's Zach Thomas, the Chanticleers had the ball at the App State 26, needing a field goal and some luck to keep their unbeaten streak alive. A couple of McCall completions and an App State facemask penalty gave Coastal first-and-goal, and they capitalized. The very next drive, Coastal picked off Thomas again, the third time that day, and Coastal Carolina moved to 8-0 on the season, first in the Sun Belt, and destined for a rematch with Louisiana in the championship game. The Chanticleers were successful on 47% of plays, averaging +0.161 EPA/rush with their ruthless option attack, and they converted 64% of third downs to keep drives alive. The defense allowed App State plenty of success (50% success rate), but the turnovers prevented those from becoming points, and Coastal came out on top.
These players added the most value to their teams in Week 12:
- Dustin Crum, Kent State QB: 40.1 Total EPA
The Mid-American Conference dominates the leaderboard this week. Crum and the Golden Flashes were tied with Akron as late as 10 minutes left in the second quarter before popping off 55 points, including a 34-7 second-half performance. Crum completed 88% of his passes and accounted for 452 total yards and five touchdowns in the win.
- Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan QB: +28.9 Total EPA
Eleby's Broncos won a 52-44 shootout against Central Michigan. The quarterback accounted for six touchdowns on the day, five through the air, and averaged 31.8 yards per completion, needing just 12 completions to get to 382 total yards on the day. That might be the textbook definition of explosive.
- Jarret Patterson, Buffalo RB: +20.0 Total EPA
Patterson helped keep Buffalo atop the MAC standings in a 42-17 blowout of Bowling Green this past week. Patterson averaged 9.7 yards on 31 carries, including a 67-yard chunk play, totaling four touchdowns and 301 yards on the day. Buffalo averaged +0.565 EPA/rush.
- Kyle Trask, Florida QB: +20 Total EPA
Florida's Trask continued his Heisman Trophy audition against Vanderbilt Saturday. He completed 74% of his passes, connecting with nine total receivers on the day, six of whom had at least two targets. Trask passed for 383 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-17 win.
- Eric Gray, Tennessee RB: +15.9 Total EPA
Finally, Tennessee's Eric Gray had a big day despite the Volunteers' 30-17 loss to Auburn. Gray caught three passes for 49 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry, adding a touchdown on the ground. He accounted for 222 of Tennessee's 464 yards (47.8%).
Note: All rankings refer to F+, a combination of Brian Fremeau's drive-based FEI ratings with Bill Connelly's play-level SP+ ratings. Advanced Stats and leaderboards can be found at cfb-graphs.com. Follow Parker on Twitter: @statsowar.