Consider the curious case of J.T. Barrett.
Three years ago, the Ohio State quarterback was forced into action as a freshman because of an injury to incumbent starter Braxton Miller. He responded with a brilliant season, accounting for at least two touchdowns in every game. Barrett got the Buckeyes to the brink of the College Football Playoff, and after he went down with an injury, sophomore Cardale Jones finished the job, winning the national championship.
Now Miller is a wide receiver on the Houston Texans, and Jones is on his second NFL team, the Los Angeles Chargers. And Barrett is still the quarterback for Ohio State, and oddly, he seems worse than the player he was as a freshman.
Against Oklahoma on Saturday night, Barrett was 19-for-35 with no touchdowns, an interception, and 66 yards rushing. He was inaccurate—even his lone big play of the night, a 31-yard completion to a wide-open Austin Mack, was overthrown. He’s a senior, but the performance would have been the second-worst game of his freshman season, ahead only of a loss to Virginia Tech, in which Barrett went 9-for-29 with three interceptions. But at least Barrett threw and ran for a TD in that game. Saturday night, Barrett failed to throw or run for a touchdown for the third time as a starter—the other two both came toward the end of last season.
Oklahoma might be a very strong team—they’ve won 12 in a row, and the Sooners missed last year’s playoff primarily because of their early-season loss to this Ohio State team—but the OU defense is not supposed to be particularly strong. Oklahoma won a lot of shootouts last year, and the program replaced retiring defensive-minded head coach Bob Stoops with young Air Raid guru Lincoln Riley. Yet the Sooners flummoxed Barrett, leaving the Buckeyes hopeless as Oklahoma ran away to a 31-16 win.
Barrett is not a bad quarterback. He holds virtually every Ohio State passing record, and has twice been named first-team All–Big Ten. Just last week against Indiana, he threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns. But he has certainly regressed since his freshman season; his completion percentage has dropped every year. He has become less accurate as a thrower and less dynamic as a runner.
Some outside factors can explain Barrett’s decline. He’s on his third offensive coordinator, as Tom Herman left for Houston after his freshman year and Ed Warinner was replaced by Kevin Wilson before this season. (That was supposed to be an upgrade.) He no longer has Ezekiel Elliott to help draw attention from the passing game, and as NFL fans now know, Elliott is quite good. During Barrett’s freshman year, his wide receiving corps included an excellent deep-ball threat in Devin Smith and a future NFL star in Michael Thomas; this year, his receivers struggle to create separation on any routes. But you’d think the regular progression of a player over four years as a starter would mitigate some of the changes.
The good news? That loss to Virginia Tech we’d mentioned? That was Ohio State’s only loss of the year, and it came in Week 2 at home, just as Saturday night’s did. The Buckeyes still can be national champions, but it will be hard. And the Buckeyes will need their seasoned senior quarterback to play like he did when he was a precocious freshman.
Play of the Week
Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech made football magic Saturday night.
3rd and 93 is laugh out loud funny pic.twitter.com/cmHThnyDPR— Marina Molnar (@mkmolnar) September 10, 2017
Facing second-and-goal from Mississippi State’s 6-yard line, Louisiana Tech botched a snap. That happens often enough. But then quarterback J’Mar Smith tried to hop on top of it to prevent a turnover and keep his team in field goal range. Instead, he flubbed it, awkwardly punching the ball into a knot of four charging Mississippi State defenders. Somehow, the defenders failed to handle the ball, booting and bobbling it farther and farther back until it reached the opposite 7-yard line, where Tech wide receiver Cee Jay Powell—a football hero, winded from his city-block-long pursuit of a doomed play—landed on top of it.
Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State share a mascot: They are both the Bulldogs. Incidentally, this is what an actual bulldog looks like trying to chase down a rolling ball:
Louisiana Tech diligently tried to move the ball on third-and-93, picking up 21 yards on a run by Boston Scott. But that only brought up fourth-and-72:
Sadly, they did not go for it.
Apparently, Mississippi State is the creator of mega-long third downs. It was the opponent for the second-longest third down anybody seems to remember, when two bad snaps to Rex Grossman brought up third-and-57 for the Florida Gators. Steve Spurrier just called for an intentional safety:
But third-and-57 is about a basketball court short of third-and-93, and getting there took two plays. The perfect storm required to create third-and-93 on just one play is remarkable. The team on offense has to start out close enough to the goal line that the ball can dribble back 90 yards without reaching the opposite end zone, where any recovery would be a safety or a touchdown. And the offensive team has to be the one that recovers, or else it’s a turnover. Third-and-93 is a football miracle the likes of which may never be seen again.
Let’s look at South Bend, Indiana, home of the Georgia Bulldogs:
THIS IS NUTS SOUTH BEND IS 700+ MILES AWAY FROM ATHENS pic.twitter.com/Yfi6xEBfF8— Jamie Han (@jamiehan) September 9, 2017
Georgia beat Notre Dame 20-19 in front of a primarily red crowd. Georgia’s quarterback didn’t even have to switch out of his regular cadence. It seems that just about all of Georgia made its way up for the showdown, with some fans apparently planning to stick around for the Atlanta Falcons’ season opener in Chicago on Sunday. (The Ringer’s Chicago bureau chief noticed.) How badly did Dawgs fans want to get to South Bend? Some turned down $3,000 in ticket vouchers from Delta to avoid being bumped to a later flight.
This was college football at its best, a 100,000-person weekend-long cultural exchange program. It allowed a bunch of Southerners to see what a Midwestern fall Saturday is like, and it allowed a bunch of Midwesterners to see Southerners tailgate. Sadly, this is something that colleges are getting away from: It is apparently significantly more lucrative to play big nonconference games at neutral NFL stadiums. The season opened last week with Alabama playing Florida State in Atlanta and Michigan playing Florida in Dallas. Notre Dame is in on it, too—the school just agreed to a home-and-home series with Wisconsin that’s actually a close-to-home-and-close-to-home, with the games being hosted at Lambeau Field and Soldier Field. Because who the hell would want to spend a Saturday in Madison or South Bend?
Even through my TV screen, the game at Notre Dame was much more vivacious than any college season opener in an NFL stadium. It is unbelievable to me that schools can’t find a way to profit off the desire of fan bases to experience a game in another team’s home stadium—remember, these Georgia fans were willing to sacrifice $3,000 on top of the ticket price, air fare, and hotel fees they’d already paid. Sure, most of that money went to secondary ticket resellers and airlines, but I still feel like a school should be able to benefit from the massive fan interest in these games compared to the tepid interest in neutral-site games.
The downside for home teams and fan bases is that you might lose a supposed home game in front of tens of thousands of fans of the opposing team. But that’s actually not so bad— trust me, I root for Northwestern.
Weekly Heisman Winner
On the flip side of Barrett’s odd descent is Baker Mayfield, the quarterback who led Oklahoma to victory Saturday night. He’s actually been playing longer than Barrett—he started his career as a Texas Tech walk-on in 2013—and he’s gotten better every year of his career. Saturday night, he went 27-for-35 with 386 yards and three touchdowns. All three touchdowns came in the second half, a spectacular display of Mayfield’s herky-jerky brilliance that downed the no. 2 team in the nation.
After the win, he grabbed Oklahoma’s flag, sprinted to Ohio State’s 50-yard line, and attempted to claim Ohio Stadium in the name of Soonerdom. He failed, because you can’t plant a flag in artificial turf, but the point was made.
You can’t stop an opposing QB from planting a flag at midfield of your stadium once they’re holding the flag. You gotta stop them during the game, and Ohio State didn’t come close. The Buckeyes are just lucky he didn’t park the Sooner Schooner in the Horseshoe, unpack all the provisions I presume are kept inside for its long wagon journeys, and have a postgame Oregon Trail tailgate.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson already has 1,000 total yards on the season, and he became the second player in FBS history with 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in back-to-back games. That would hypothetically make him the Heisman favorite … but he won the thing last year. And voters don’t like giving the trophy to the same guy twice. It’s dumb, but if he’s neck-and-neck with Mayfield (or anybody else), voters will side with the guy who hasn’t won it before.
Game of the Week
It was 1 a.m. ET, and I was disappointed in Washington State. I hadn’t decided to stay up that late just to see them play like other football teams. I wanted points and insanity. But with 10 minutes to go in regulation, Mike Leach’s Cougars, who haven’t been held to single digits since his first year on the job in 2012, trailed Boise State 31-10.
Then Washington State scored 21 unanswered points to force overtime. Normally Wazzu is all O, but the Coogs used a pick-six and a special teams turnover on a freakily bounced punt to claw back into the game. They won 47-44 in triple overtime at nearly 3 a.m. ET:
Leach expressed disappointment in the offense, which had to turn to backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski after an injury to starter Luke Falk, but they still delivered the points and insanity I ordered.
Win of the Week
Congratulations and meep meep to the UT San Antonio Roadrunners, who took down Baylor 17-10. This wasn’t some sort of fluke—UTSA outgained the Bears 375-274. Time and time again, the Roadrunners sprinted down a road ahead of Baylor, only for Baylor to find out it wasn’t a road, but a meticulously painted work of landscape art on the side of a desert rock wall. On the final play of the game, Baylor QB Anu Solomon sprinted away from UTSA defenders off the edge of a cliff, looked down, held up a sign that read Why’d I transfer to Baylor when everybody else was transferring out?, and plummeted.
It’s worth celebrating the Roadrunners, whose program was founded in 2011, who have reached new heights in two years under head coach and recruiter extraordinaire Frank Wilson. Last year they made their first bowl appearance; this was their first win over a power-conference team.
But it’s also worth pointing at Baylor, now 0-2 with losses to Liberty and UTSA. These programs are the sorts of cupcakes we recently laughed at the Bears for scheduling when they were contending for playoff berths under Art Briles. There is a football reason for this—it is hard to go from Briles’s offense to the one Matt Rhule is running in two years. But the overlying reason is the fallout from the scandal that led to Briles’s firing. In case you forgot, Briles created a culture in which his players received little to no punishment after they were alleged to have raped, sexual assaulted, and physically abused women, often taking an active role in ensuring this kind of behavior would be ignored or covered up.
It would be nice to expect those involved with football to stand up for women because women are human beings. Protecting women—protecting humans, which, as some have forgotten, is what women are—is so much more important than any football thing. But time and time again, some coaches and administrators at multiple levels have shown a willingness to sacrifice the safety and well-being of women for football purposes. Briles saw the scarred lives of alleged victims and the unsafe environment he created as acceptable costs as he led his team to unprecedented football success.
I’m not sure we’ll ever communicate the importance of treating women like people to those who have clearly chosen football over morality. The mind-set that winning games overrides everything else is so entrenched in some. Which is why I’d like to make sure everybody sees how bad Baylor football is right now. Look at these awful losses. Look at the massive public outcry that prevented Briles from getting a job in the CFL, with the outrage over his actions spilling across international boundaries. If you’re a coach and you tolerate the awful things your football players do, this can be you: Fired, disgraced, and untouchable, watching the program you loved get whooped game after game. If your football team is more important to you than people’s lives, know that ruining people’s lives can also ruin your football team.
Quote of the Week
Penn State–Pitt is a rivalry whose bitterness we sadly forgot over the 16-year hiatus in between their matchup in 2000 and Pitt’s win last year. That game was an odd blip on a Nittany Lions season that ended with nine straight regular-season wins, a Big Ten championship, and a Rose Bowl appearance. This year, no. 4 Penn State responded by whooping Pitt 33-14, and coach James Franklin said this:
James Franklin: "I know last year beating us for them was like the Super Bowl. This was just like beating Akron for us."— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) September 9, 2017
(Penn State dropped a full deck on Akron last week, beating the Zips 52 to, uh, zilch.)
Every college football team just wants to be Don Draper in this scene. You can tell how much a fan base cares about a rivalry by how much they insist they don’t. Franklin is fibbing—clearly, Penn State cares a lot about this win, and he wouldn’t have said this if the team didn’t. But in that moment, he lived out rivalry perfection.
Play Call of the Week
Army had a 21-17 lead on Buffalo with 2:28 to go, and facing fourth down, probably should have punted. But the men and women of the Army often summon immense bravery to execute risky operations to help missions succeed, and so with the game on the line, Army punter Nick Schrage ran for a first down:
This could have led to disaster. Schrage should know that all too well, as last year he ran the ball on a fourth-and-44. (He did not convert.) If he hadn’t gotten the first down here, Buffalo would’ve had a short field for a game-winning touchdown. Instead, Army sealed the win with kneeldowns. Bravo, Black Knights.