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Best of Rivalry Week: A Milroe miracle, a Washington walk-off and Michigan’s knockout blow

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Think back on a rainy Saturday in Tampa, Florida, way back in September, when Nick Saban had benched his starting QB, and Alabama‘s season appeared lost. We’ve all learned — many times over — not to doubt Saban, never to write off his Tide teams, but this felt different. This was Alabama at its nadir. And yet, it was also an inflection point.

Think back to a chaotic Saturday in Seattle in mid-October, when Rome Odunze delivered one final, stunning blow in a heavyweight bout between Washington and Oregon. Through the blowouts that preceded it, the Huskies had flexed their muscle, but it was in this back-and-forth slugfest they forged their identity.

This is the beauty of college football’s regular season — the way the seeds are laid in moments big and small, and sometimes hardly noticed at all, and then in this final, dizzying chapter, it all becomes clear.

On Saturday, the QB who emerged from Alabama’s listless September delivered a throw that will be remembered in the same breath with the Kick Six, an Iron Bowl miracle.

On Saturday, Kalen DeBoer, survivor of so many narrow victories in the past two months, made the most brazen decision in Apple Cup history, and the brilliant Odunze delivered magic once more.

At Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn was poised to pull off a miraculous upset and, just a week removed from a blowout loss to New Mexico State, deliver a playoff dagger to Saban’s Tide.

A muffed punt gave Alabama the ball back with less than five minutes to play and Jalen Milroe erased a sack with a 19-yard scramble, but an illegal forward pass and errant snap threatened to undo it all, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the 31. And then history. During a timeout, Auburn devised a defense where two players rushed the QB, eight guys crowded the end zone, and one guy wandered aimlessly. Milroe took the snap and, after maneuvering through a vacant pocket for long enough that every fan in the stadium had a chance to say their share of Hail Marys, heaved a bomb into the back corner of the end zone where, astonishingly, Isaiah Bond waited to make the game-winning catch.

Afterward, Milroe celebrated by shouting that he wanted the Heisman. He actually won something better — a place in Iron Bowl lore forever.

At Husky Stadium, with the clock ticking toward a seemingly inevitable overtime, Washington faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 29. Any reasonable coach would’ve played it safe and punted. But DeBoer has seen enough of this team to know it is at its best with its back against the wall, that it thrives in those places lesser men fear to tread. And so he sent QB Michael Penix Jr. to the line of scrimmage with “some options,” DeBoer said afterward.

Penix surveyed the defense, considered his options, and chose to inflict unimaginable pain on Washington State. He took the snap, flipped the ball to Odunze, and watched the best player on the field dash 23 yards for a first down. And still, it could’ve gone haywire. Needing just a field goal to win, Penix tossed two deep balls into heavy coverage, but the Cougars failed to corral either. It was either luck or destiny or both. Washington is like the bus in “Speed” — incapable of slowing down long enough to realize how dangerous its journey has been.

If there has been a reasonable criticism of the 2023 season, it was the script has included too few twists, no genuine surprises that upend everything we thought we understood as fact. On Saturday, Alabama and Washington proved the status quo can be entirely shocking, too.

Alabama is alive for a championship, just as it has been nearly every other year of Saban’s tenure. But this is not the norm. This is, perhaps, the least dynamic Alabama team in more than a decade, but it has also given Tide fans something they’ve rarely had — a chance to be the underdog, a chance be surprised, a chance to feel elated rather than relieved by something unexpected. For so long, there was no mystery in Alabama’s game plan. The Tide were simply better than everyone else. This time, Saban has provided genuine magic. It would be foolish to see his latest trick and assume he cannot make Georgia‘s playoff hopes vanish in the SEC championship game, too.

Washington’s win may not have convinced any of its doubters, but it did serve notice, once more, than the Huskies will not depart the playoff chase quietly. They are like the last car running in a demolition derby — battered and dented and smoldering, but still alive. Their past three wins have all come by a touchdown or less, as did games against Arizona, Oregon and Arizona State before that. And yet Washington understands what all great showmen must — the trick is only fun if it doesn’t look too easy.

This latest magic from Alabama and Washington was a necessary end to this regular season, one that tied up so many of the narrative threads from September and October while teasing the best of what’s still to come. The playoff, by design, elevates the stakes. But what makes this ridiculous sport so wonderful is the way the best storylines and the most heart-pounding drama blossoms organically over the course of 13 weeks, guaranteed to deliver something entirely ridiculous and unexpected.

And on some distant Saturday in March or April or June, when all that awaits is a lawn to be mowed or engine oil to be changed, when our day is measured by beach traffic or dinner reservations, and we’ll think back on all that transpired on this Saturday, this final, beautiful, delirious Saturday of college football’s 2023 regular season, and our hearts will be full.

Well, maybe not Hugh Freeze’s.


Michigan delivers a knockout with far-reaching implications

There will be so many moments from Saturday’s latest installment of The Game that warrant reflection and debate, but in a battle between teams whose seasons would be defined by the outcome, the most evocative and most significant stretch of heroics was a long slog of a drive, 12 plays and 56 yards, that ticked seven grueling minutes off the clock and ended with a field goal.

There was nothing sexy about Michigan‘s final drive. The Wolverines had danced with the devil enough by this point — gone for it on fourth down three times, had its tailback sling the deep ball, rallied behind an O-line down its best player — but this was pure, bare-knuckle toughness.

For three-and-a-half quarters, Michigan had toyed with Ohio State. The Wolverines never trailed, but neither could they pull away. They landed haymakers and jabs, but Ohio State kept getting back up off the mat. It might’ve seemed a valid question to ask whether this meant the teams were evenly matched or whether the Wolverines had simply refused to fully flex their true strength until it mattered. That drive provided an answer.

Ohio State’s frustrated fan base will cling to its share of explanations for how its once-dominant program has been so clearly superseded by its rival — Ryan Day’s incompetence, Michigan’s alleged cheating, some sort of monkey’s paw curse — but the truth comes down to this: When everything was on the line, the Wolverines were relentless, and the Buckeyes folded.

The field goal at the end of that 12-play drive gave Michigan a six-point lead, which proved enough when Rod Moore picked off Kyle McCord to seal the 30-24 win. J.J. McCarthy was fine — 148 yards and a touchdown, the third straight game Michigan has won while its QB threw for less than 150 yards — and Blake Corum once again owned short-yardage situations. The defense was stout, picking off McCord twice, but Ohio State still out-gained the Wolverines in the game. Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State’s Heisman contender, caught five balls for 118 yards and a touchdown, and yet Michigan never let him take over the game.

This was, in so many ways, death by a thousand paper cuts for Ohio State — slow, painful, torturous. All the better for Michigan fans.

This was, if not an emphatic win for the Wolverines, proof that there’s no magic formula to beat this team because, even when nothing seemed to work particularly well, everything worked well enough.

This was a game — the sixth this year — that Michigan didn’t have its head coach on the sideline, and yet Jim Harbaugh’s dominance over Ohio State has never felt more certain. Somewhere, deep within the confines of his secret headquarters at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, he must’ve been fiendishly petting a cat and laughing maniacally as he watched the final seconds tick away.

What comes next is perhaps even more interesting.

Michigan will be eager to move forward. Harbaugh’s suspension ended with Moore’s INT, and the Wolverines’ quest for a national title begins anew with the Big Ten title game.

Ohio State will wallow in this for days or months or generations. Did the officials — and the replay booth — get Roman Wilson‘s touchdown catch right or did they steal an INT from the Buckeyes that might’ve swung the game? Would things have been different if Day had played as aggressively as Sherrone Moore? The Michigan interim coach was three-for-three on fourth down tries and called a brilliant trick play for Donovan Edwards, who launched a 34-yard completion to Colston Loveland. Day, perhaps with his legacy as a head coach on the line, took few risks, punting on fourth-and-1 near midfield early in the game, then watching the clock wind down for a long (and ultimately fruitless) field goal try to end the half.

The win was certainly something short of redemption for Harbaugh, who has been suspended twice this season and still faces an ongoing NCAA investigation, but none of that matters in the eyes of Michigan fans, who’ve now won three straight vs. the Buckeyes after having dropped 15 of the prior 16. If Harbaugh had been caught using the transfer portal to run a Ponzi scheme, it wouldn’t have mattered. He’s built a monster that has eaten the hopes and dreams of those fools down south, and that is all that counts.

The loss further solidifies Day’s place in the rivalry’s land of broken toys. Day’s career is astonishing in its successes — a 56-7 record, with every loss coming against a ranked foe — but defined by three straight failures in the only game that really matters. He is college football’s Salieri, brilliant in his own right, but destined to forever be remembered as the foil to his more remarkable rival.

In each of the past two years, the elation of Michigan’s win over its bitter rival was enough to sustain the program after losses in the College Football Playoff semifinal. This year, amid so much off-field chaos surrounding Harbaugh, there must be a demand to follow The Game with something more. Michigan will be the story of the playoff this year — either as Harbaugh’s self-described redemption story, America’s team waving off all the metaphorical slings and arrows or as the villains who couldn’t finish the job, even with the deck stacked in their favor.

The past two years, Ohio State could fall back on the idea that it had lost but was, perhaps, not truly all that far behind. But if two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend, and it’s impossible not to wonder what lengths a place like Ohio State will go to in hopes of shifting that trend before next November.

But before all those scripts are written, there is this: The Game, once more, lived up to the hype. It was a perfect cap to a season in which the status quo has rarely shifted more than a few centimeters and a reminder that, for all the often ugly narrative threads sewn away from the field, the magic always comes from the work done on it.


Iowa: An appreciation

Before the season, OC Brian Ferentz was tasked with a simple enough goal: Score 25 points per game. Not even just on offense. If his defense chipped in a few touchdowns, that was fine, too. How low was this bar? Entering Saturday, 79 teams averaged 25 points or better (or 86 if we’re rounding up decimals).

But Iowa didn’t sniff that mark. After Friday’s 13-10 win over Nebraska, the Hawkeyes are averaging exactly 18 points per game — a full touchdown shy of the number that would’ve saved Ferentz’s job.

It’s been easy to joke about Iowa this season, starting with the famed Drive for 325 through this latest ridiculous stretch of games in which the Hawkeyes have won five of six despite scoring more than two touchdowns in a game just once.

The forecasters in Las Vegas have turned Iowa’s point totals into college football’s best limbo contest, including a record-low 24.5-point total against Nebraska, and Iowa has delivered the under again and again and again. In all, six of the lowest totals on record have come from Iowa games in the past two years.

Iowa’s offense is so mind-bogglingly inept, it’s impossible to write it off as mere incompetence. It must be part of a bigger plan.

And so it is that Iowa is 10-2. Iowa is but a dubious fair catch call away from being 11-1. Iowa will play for a Big Ten title and, at this point, is anyone really doubting the Hawkeyes can achieve the impossible?

There is a valuable lesson for all of us in what Iowa has achieved in the past 12 games.

While the rest of the nation scoffed, Iowa fans rejoiced, finding true joy in the most mundane moments of the game.

While bettors giggled over yet another seemingly impossible under wager, Iowa lined the pockets of everyone who believed.

While the rest of the Big Ten West — a collection of drifters, cast-offs and Nebraska — wasted weeks plotting a game plan that would result in points, Iowa set its entire focus a formula to actually win games by executing the college football equivalent of the iTunes user agreement, just waiting for an opponent to get bored with the minutia and click “Accept.” Not since Muhammad Ali has anyone executed the rope-a-dope so perfectly.

Just consider Friday’s game, where Iowa stole another victory by picking off a Chubba Purdy pass late before drilling a field goal for the win. The outcome seemingly hung in the balance for the entirety of the second half, the advantage swinging from drive to drive, and yet we all knew where this would end.

Iowa thrives on the brink of disaster.

Nebraska, on the other hand, slinks from every opportunity, a perpetual loser in a game of chicken, swerving off the road and into a ditch at the first sense of danger.

Iowa has 13 wins over the past two years in games in which its offense failed to score more than two touchdowns.

Nebraska has 30 losses since 2018 in one-possession games.

At some point, repetition can no longer be explained away by luck or coincidence. At some point, we must admit Iowa has figured out the secret to the universe, identified the glitch in the matrix, gone to a crossroad in the middle of endless corn fields and sold its soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to punt its way into a 10-win season.

Soon enough, Brian Ferentz will be gone, and the Hawkeyes will risk going from sublime to dull. Indeed, it took Iowa for us all to learn just how thin the margin between those two points can be. Perhaps the next playcaller will discover mystical offenses never before seen in Iowa City, like the RPO or tempo or the forward pass. But will he serve so perfectly as the yin to DC Phil Parker’s yang? Who is Superman without Lex Luthor?

So let us all bask in the glory of this Iowa team just a little longer. We may never see its kind again.

After all, what Iowa has given college football fans — or, perhaps, the world — in 2023 is something special: A lesson that there is more than one way to win, that joy is best found in its simplest forms and that every punt is simply another chance to believe, against all evidence and common sense, that the next drive will be better.


Rivalry week rewind

The beauty of rivalry week in college football is that every narrative built over the course of the 12 weeks that preceded it can be unraveled in 60 minutes against the most bitter of opposition.

So it was for Louisville on Saturday, as the Cardinals’ Cinderella season (and long shot playoff hopes) were dashed in a chaotic second half against a reeling Kentucky.

The Cardinals entered with a narrow path to the playoff and a berth in the ACC championship game already locked up. Kentucky arrived fresh off a disastrous loss to South Carolina and rumors swirling that Mark Stoops could be a candidate for the vacant Texas A&M job. But none of that matters in a rivalry game.

Louisville looked like it established itself early in the third quarter with a 15-play drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run that put the Cardinals up 17-7. Then the wheels came off.

Kentucky returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown then scored 10 points off back-to-back Louisville fumbles to take a 31-24 lead.

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0:46

Kentucky goes 100 yards to the house for a kick-return TD

Kentucky’s Barion Brown puts the jets on for a 100-yard kick return in the third quarter.

Louisville then turned the ball over on downs, only to have Kentucky return the favor with a Devin Leary interception that set up a game-tying touchdown.

At this point, there was probably not going to be enough bourbon left in the city for Louisville fans to process the outcome either way.

As it turned out, Ray Davis ensured the worst of outcomes for the No. 10 Cards. He opened the ensuing drive with a 15-yard run and capped it with a 37-yarder for a touchdown. Jack Plummer‘s final pass was picked off, and Kentucky topped Louisville for the fifth straight year.

If Louisville’s rivalry loss was the final dagger in its playoff dreams, Oregon and Texas managed to keep theirs alive in the final week of the regular season.

Bo Nix threw for 367 yards and took another step toward the Heisman while earning some revenge for last year’s collapse against Oregon State, as the Ducks cruised to a 31-7 win over the Beavers in the last installment of the Civil War before Oregon heads off to the Big Ten.

Texas, meanwhile, reminded Texas Tech that the Red Raiders are not actually a rival with a dominant 57-7 win Friday. Arch Manning made his debut in mop-up time, completing 2-of-5 throws. Quinn Ewers threw for 196 yards and a touchdown and, after giving way to Manning, entertained the fans by playing bass with his Spin Doctors tribute band, Spin Dentists.


Under-the-radar play of the week

Oklahoma had no problem demolishing TCU 69-45 behind 436 yards and four touchdowns from Dillon Gabriel, 12 catches from Drake Stoops and 130 yards and three scores on the ground from Gavin Sawchuk. Indeed, all went splendidly after the game started.

Before kickoff though? That was a bigger issue for the Sooners, who somehow managed to flub the entrance, trampling their head coach in the process.

Given that Venables spent 10 years running down the hill at Clemson (learning from the Usain Bolt of college football in Dabo Swinney), it’s hard to fathom how he could allow this to happen.

Of course, Venables was just as frustrated, as he explained after Friday’s win.

“I was thinking, ‘You’ve got to be f’ing kidding me. This is really happening now,'” Venables said. “I was pissed. Not at anybody. Just pissed.”

In fairness though, this is also the exact response Venables gives when he orders a Coke and the server asks if Pepsi is OK.


Bowl bound

After Eastern Michigan and Utah State locked up their sixth wins earlier in the week, Saturday’s games kicked off with 13 bowl spots still needing to be filled, lest the nation be subject to the horrors of a transitioning FBS school like James Madison or Jacksonville State playing in a postseason game.

Syracuse locked up one of those spots with an interception on fourth-and-goal from the 3 with 2 minutes to play.

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0:22

Syracuse D comes up with huge 4th-and-goal stop

Wake Forest’s Jason Simmons Jr. breaks up Michael Kern’s pass attempt to get a big fourth and goal stop at the two minute mark.

The win gets Syracuse a bowl game despite firing head coach Dino Babers after last week’s loss to Georgia Tech. It was joined by Virginia Tech, which walloped rival Virginia, in getting to 6-6, giving the ACC 11 bowl-eligible teams.

Meanwhile, Rice finished the regular season with two more wins than JT Daniels had schools played for, getting win No. 6 with a 24-21 win over FAU.

It marks the first time in a decade Rice has gotten to six wins, and we believe its postseason game will be called a Poké bowl.

No one had a wilder path to bowl eligibility Saturday than Old Dominion, which trailed Georgia State by 10 with less than 2 minutes to play. But ODU finished a long drive with a field goal to pull to within seven, and as Georgia State worked to run out the clock, a high snap resulted in a safety with 1:17 to go. Down by 5, ODU connected on a 43-yard completion, then found the end zone as time expired four plays later. Final score: ODU 25, Georgia State 24.

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0:50

Old Dominion becomes bowl-eligible after incredible comeback

Down seven and without the ball with under two minutes remaining, Old Dominion uses a safety and a TD on the final play to beat Georgia State and become bowl-eligible.

Northern Illinois, Marshall, Louisiana and UCF also locked up bowl eligibility Saturday with easy wins.



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