Clemson Airs it Out to Win; Oklahoma Can't Stop Martinez

Clemson Tigers QB DJ Uiagalelei
Clemson Tigers QB DJ Uiagalelei
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 4 - Two of the top contenders for the fourth spot in the 2022 pecking order faced huge challenges on Saturday. For Clemson, the defense knew it would have its hands full with Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, although maybe not to the tune of six touchdown passes allowed. For Oklahoma, there was no getting off the field late when Kansas State's Adrian Martinez decided to use his legs. Only one of the two offenses was able to successfully complete enough drives with touchdowns to escape with a win, and surprisingly that was the one led by the much-maligned DJ Uiagalelei.

Elsewhere amongst top five teams, Georgia looked imperfect against Kent State, Alabama rolled Vanderbilt, and Michigan held Maryland at arm's length while holding on for a two-score win. With the conclusion of Week 4, September's slate is over, and we have reached the heart of the college football schedule. Let's dig in.

Notes:

  • All Rankings referenced are from Brian Fremeau's FEI numbers heading into the weekend.
  • EPA/play includes special teams and penalties, so combining EPA/rush and EPA/pass numbers won't give the same total as what the top line number shows.

Marquee Games

No. 5 Clemson Tigers 51, No. 30 Wake Forest Demon Deacons 45 (2OT)

Advanced Box Score: Clemson vs. Wake Forest

Even in Wake Forest's up years over the past decade, the mismatch in the trenches left the Demon Deacons unable to stay competitive with Clemson. This year, Sam Hartman and company were able to overcome those disadvantages enough to create a thriller. Hartman threw six touchdown passes, while engineering a 94th percentile performance in EPA/pass and a 99th percentile performance in explosive play rate. Clemson must be concerned about its glitchy pass defense, which also gave Wake Forest 6.4 more EPA on defensive penalties. The Clemson front was everything we expect, stuffing 25% of Wake Forest's runs and generating steady pressure against Hartman. But things were a mess on the backend, and Clemson will have to clean that up in future weeks.

Dave Clawson's team badly wanted this breakthrough victory against the Clemson team he has never beaten, but there's no shame for the Demon Deacons after this one. However, there was only one offensive component for either team that was subpar in this game. The Wake Forest rushing attack posted only a 20th percentile performance, but on the its final possession of regulation with a chance to win the game, Wake called six straight running plays to open the drive. Eventually, this put Wake in a 2nd and 13 situation, which culminated in a Hartman sack and the end of Wake's chances to win the game in regulation. The coaches have to be wrestling with the decision to largely take the ball out of the explosive Hartman's hands on this penultimate possession.

For Clemson, DJ Uiagalelei had his best game throwing the football since the much-lauded night when he filled in for Trevor Lawrence against Notre Dame in 2020. He posted 28.7 total EPA and ultimately overcame the surprising deficiencies on the other side of the ball for the Tigers. He was accurate, efficient, and decisive. There was no singular breakout in the Tiger receiving corps, but five different players had three or more catches. The performance came against SP+'s 81st ranked defense, but putting together a full game of excellent offense hasn't happened much for Clemson against anyone since 2020. This was an offensive performance to be proud of for Wake Forest, while DJ Uiagalelei should savor the excellence he displayed Saturday.

No. 14 Kansas State Wildcats 41, No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners 34

Advanced Box Score: Oklahoma vs. Kansas State

Like Clemson, Oklahoma ran into defensive trouble that persisted the whole game. In this case, though, the trouble came at the expense of the 64th-best offense in the country, per SP+, and the damage largely happened on the ground.

Before we continue too far with what this means for Oklahoma, we have to acknowledge the gutsy, thrilling performance of Wildcats quarterback Adrian Martinez. The Nebraska transfer posted a modest 0.4 EPA passing, but did his best work to the tune of 15.7 EPA rushing. Whenever Oklahoma threatened in the fourth quarter, Martinez responded with an explosive run to enable Kansas State to keep a two-score margin. Coming off a frustrating home loss to Tulane, Martinez fulfilled the promise of the Collin Klein-directed offense, as he and Deuce Vaughn shredded the Sooners defense with an 87th-percentile EPA/rush performance.

For Oklahoma, Dillon Gabriel was excellent once again, but it was the situational football that kept the Sooners from climbing all the way back in this one. Despite posting a 45% success rate overall, Oklahoma managed success on only 31% of its third downs and 38% of its red zone plays. Those marginal differences caused Oklahoma to punt on three early possessions while falling behind 14-0 and later attempt two field goals before and after the half instead of scoring touchdowns that would have given the Sooners the lead. Long-term, there are no serious concerns about the Oklahoma offense here, but the defense looks vulnerable to misdirection and athleticism from the opposing quarterback. Brent Venables has more building and teaching ahead.

No. 16 Tennessee Volunteers 38, No. 26 Florida Gators 33

Advanced Box Score: Tennesse vs. Florida

Tennessee extended its excellent start to the 2022 season with a solid win over the hated Florida Gators Saturday afternoon in Knoxville. After the Pittsburgh game, we asked whether Tennessee could find any running game to complement its explosive passing attack. Hendon Hooker decided to take all of it into his hands against the Gators, posting 8.8 EPA passing and 12.4 EPA rushing. Without leading receiver Cedric Tillman, Hooker leaned more on Bru McCoy, who had five catches on six targets for 7.6 EPA, although more than half of that came on one 70-yard play in the second quarter. Hooker continues to avoid mistakes and get his playmakers the ball with space.

For Florida, Anthony Richardson was forced to throw a career-high 44 times, and he largely met the moment. He had an extremely costly red zone fumble early in the fourth quarter but kept Florida hanging around on the back of a 99th-percentile performance in explosive play rate. Florida couldn't find much in the running game outside of Richardson, who posted 6.4 rushing EPA (excluding that fumble) to go with 34.7 passing EPA. But Florida couldn't get enough stops for Richardson to bring the Gators back. Two early SEC losses for Florida have dampened the ceiling of Billy Napier's first campaign, while Tennessee has the offense to beat everyone on its schedule except for Alabama and Georgia the rest of the way.

No. 20 Texas A&M Aggies 23, No. 32 Arkansas Razorbacks 21

Advanced Box Score: Texas A&M vs. Arkansas

Texas A&M played a tight one for the third straight week, battling back from a 14-0 deficit and clinching the win when an Arkansas field goal attempt hit the top of the upright, bounced straight up into the air, and landed harmlessly in front of the goal posts.

The game turned on a play worth as much EPA as you will ever see. In the middle of the third quarter, Arkansas led by seven and had first-and-goal from the Texas A&M 3-yard line. K.J. Jefferson took the snap for the Razorbacks and inexplicably tried to leap into a pile from several yards away, but the ball came loose. Tyreek Chappell of the Aggies picked up the ball initially and eventually handed it to Demani Richardson, who went 82 more yards for the 14-point swing. Jefferson was the most outstanding player in the game, but that one play essentially wiped out the 14.0 EPA he posted otherwise between throwing and running.

From there, Max Johnson avoided disaster, and Devon Achane did enough on the ground to salt things away for the Aggies. Against a bad Arkansas pass defense, Johnson still couldn't generate explosive passing or sustain much efficiency. But Texas A&M kept the Razorbacks from hitting many of their own explosives and got off the field when needed. Both of these teams have ongoing issues that will be challenged throughout SEC play, but this was a gutsy performance for Texas A&M to battle back and avoid a second early-season loss.

Toe Drags

No. 19 Minnesota Golden Gophers 34, No. 22 Michigan State Spartans 7

Advanced Box Score - Minnesota vs. Michigan state

Minnesota deserves some attention, scoring its fourth-straight demolition to open the season. Even without star receiver Chris Autman-Bell, Tanner Morgan led a 93rd-percentile performance through the air, and the Minnesota defense snuffed out the Spartans rushing attack. Michigan State has clearly taken a step or two back from last year, but P.J. Fleck's Golden Gophers look like the class of the Big Ten West and deserve increased recognition in the weeks to come. Four straight blowouts like this will send them rocketing up in the models this week, even if the public attention has to wait a few more weeks.

No. 25 Baylor Bears 31, No. 11 Iowa State Cyclones 24

Advanced Box Score - Baylor vs. Iowa State

Baylor has bounced back admirably from the disappointing loss in Provo two weeks ago. Against a stout Iowa State defense (26th in defensive SP+ entering this week), Blake Shapen led an excellent offensive performance, highlighted by a 60% success rate overall. That's peak efficiency, and Baylor paired that with an opportunistic defensive performance to come away with a key conference win. The Bears defense benefitted from 7.8 points of turnover luck and didn't let the Cyclones finish enough drives to grab the game back.

No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes 52, No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers 21

Advanced Box Score - Ohio State Wisconsin

C.J. Stroud was just magnificent, and the Ohio State offense has been nearly perfect since figuring things out late in the opener against Notre Dame. Removing the garbage-time stats, especially the fourth-quarter 75-yard run by Braelon Allen, tells a truer story of this game. The Buckeyes ended up with only a 21-point EPA margin in this one, but it was more than a 30-point margin early in the second half. This was pure domination on both sides of the ball when it mattered, and Ohio State is firmly in the running for the country's most dominant team through four weeks.

No. 21 USC Trojans 17, No. 50 Oregon State Beavers 14

Advanced Box Score: USC vs. Oregon State

Once again, USC wins a game in a manner that is entirely unsustainable. In a three-point win, USC generated 20.9 points more than Oregon State in turnover luck. Caleb Williams was under duress and largely ineffective, and a 31st-percentile passing performance for these Trojans is not acceptable. Lincoln Riley's team advances to 4-0, and a reeling Arizona State team awaits. The Sun Devils probably aren't competent enough to take advantage right now, but the clock is ticking on the turnover luck and close calls for USC.

Next Week's Headliners

No. 4 Michigan at No. 15 Iowa
No. 18 Kentucky at No. 13 Ole Miss
No. 27 Purdue at No. 10 Minnesota
No. 2 Alabama at No. 29 Arkansas
No. 16 Oklahoma State at No. 22 Baylor
No. 35 Wake Forest at No. 43 Florida State
No. 20 Texas A&M at No. 23 Mississippi State
No. 17 LSU at No. 31 Auburn
No. 36 NC State at No. 11 Clemson

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