- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
The team that has looked the best through nine weeks of football is Ohio State. This is inherently a subjective statement, but there’s really no argument. The Buckeyes are 8-0 after Saturday’s 44-31 win over Penn State, with all eight victories coming by double digits. The offense has topped 40 six times. The defense has held the opponent to 21 or less seven times. It almost always looks easy.
But, as we’ve learned during the first eight years of the College Football Playoff, this is not a beauty contest, no matter how good Ryan Day might look in a Valentino evening gown. Even for the best of teams — the historically good ones — there’s some point in the season that’s a complete slog, a down-in-the-dirt fistfight that’s all about brute strength and sheer relentlessness.
Saturday may have been that slog for the Buckeyes, when C.J. Stroud wasn’t at his best and Penn State broke one big play after another, and the best-looking team in the sport got dragged down into the muck.
It could’ve been that, but when Ohio State kicked off its heels and got dirty, it somehow felt even more impressive.
It was a game where Ohio State missed a field goal and flubbed a shot at another late in the first half.
It was a game where Day’s team might’ve delivered a knock-out punch early, but saw Penn State get off the mat and deliver a flurry of jabs that left the Buckeyes truly rattled for the first time this season.
It was a game where Stroud looked out of sorts at times, where Emeka Egbuka had some drops, where one big run salvaged TreVeyon Henderson from a day of utter frustration.
And in the end, the score still looked sexy, an eighth consecutive double-digit win to open the season.
The other teams to do that in the playoff era: Alabama (from 2018-20) and 2019 Ohio State. That’s it. That’s the whole list.
And, yet, while all four of those teams made the playoff, it’s notable that only those 2020 Crimson Tide won it all, thanks in part to the 2019 LSU Tigers, who might be the best team to ever suit up for a season. It’s a reminder that, no matter how impressive a team is through eight games, there are still seven more to go to win it all.
Still, if there were questions about this Ohio State team, Saturday went a long way to answering them.
We entered the season focused on Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but it’s actually Marvin Harrison Jr. who has blossomed into a superstar. He caught 10 balls for 185 yards against Penn State, and every time Ohio State had a got-to-have-it play, it looked to Harrison.
We entered the season with real questions about the defense after last season’s struggles, but Jim Knowles has worked wonders with this unit. And even while Penn State put up a 31 points — the most by a Buckeyes’ opponent this season — Ohio State still had four takeaways and three sacks and Tommy Eichenberg was a wonder with 15 tackles and J.T. Tuimoloau served as a one-man wrecking crew, intercepting two passes, recording a strip sack and tipping a pass that was picked off, too.
It was apparent from the season’s opening notes that Ohio State was on a collision course with Michigan, eager to erase the misery of last year’s loss. But last year, Ohio State was all glitz and glamor and, underneath, had no real substance.
This is a different Buckeyes team, and Saturday proved they can roll around in the mud with anyone and come out still looking incredible.
Notre Dame dumps ACC again
The ACC would love to have Notre Dame join the league full time, but since 2014, when the Irish agreed to play five football games per year against the ACC in exchange for membership in all non-football sports, it was pretty clear the conference was strictly in the friend zone. Notre Dame is Molly Ringwold in “Pretty in Pink.” The ACC is Ducky — sweet, funny, and not nearly as rich as the Big Ten.
It’s one thing for Notre Dame to simply note that the ACC is nice and all, but it’s just not the Irish’s type.
It’s another thing to keep showing up for dates with the ACC and leaving the league alone, miserable and wandering a Food Lion at 1 a.m. looking for a gallon of ice cream and some cheap red wine.
Saturday’s 41-24 win over No. 16 Syracuse was the latest slap in the face in this doomed relationship, as the Irish won their 25th straight regular-season game against the ACC, dating back to 2017. In all, Notre Dame is 38-9 since consummating this open relationship in 2014.
One-third of Notre Dame’s losses have come at the hands of Clemson, however, and the Tigers are on deck next week. Imagine if it’s the Irish that all but end the ACC’s playoff hopes for 2022 with a win.
But don’t think too much about that scenario because, surely, Notre Dame will send the league a text late one night this week with a simple, “U up?” message, and against its better judgment, the ACC will reply. That’s how these relationships go, of course. And maybe if the ACC just picks up Notre Dame’s dry cleaning on the way home from work and doesn’t mind dog-sitting for a few days while Notre Dame gets away for a long weekend at USC later this year, maybe then the Irish will finally notice that, yes, they love the ACC, too.
Right up until Notre Dame hits them with a, “it’s not you, ACC. It’s us. We just really cherish our independence.”
Under-the-radar play of the week
All fake field goals are wonderful and should be cherished by the masses. But some fakes attain truly epic status because they aren’t designed to simply fool the defense, but also to get the ball into the hands of the most elite athlete on the team: The kicker.
And so it was that Oklahoma ran a doozy on Saturday, with holder Michael Turk flipping the ball to kicker Zach Schmit, who rumbled into the end zone like a young Jerome Bettis.
It was the first touchdown scored by a kicker this season and the first by a Power 5 player since 2019. The last Big 12 kicker to find the end zone was also a Sooner — Michael Hunnicutt, in 2013.
So, whatever else happens in Brent Venables’ first season at Oklahoma, he gave us this. And we should be forever grateful.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Holy Cross stayed undefeated — just barely — with a 53-52 OT win over Fordham on Saturday in a Patriot League showdown for the ages (which is to say the only Patriot League game we’ve paid attention to in a while).
Holy Cross trailed late, but Jalen Coker scored on a 15-yard TD pass with 1:24 to play to tie the game at 45. He finished the day with six catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns.
Fordham scored on its first play of OT to take a 52-45 lead, but Holy Cross fought back, scoring on a nine-yard pass to the pride of Swedesboro, New Jersey, Justin Shorter. The Crusaders opted to go for two, and Ayir Asante crossed the goal line for the 53-52 win.
Holy Cross is now one of four remaining undefeated FCS teams, alongside Princeton, Jackson State and Sacramento State.
Big bets and bad beats
Good teams win, as TCU did against West Virginia on Saturday. Championship-caliber teams win on the road, and Saturday was the Horned Frogs fourth of the year. But the truly great teams, as we all know, cover. And TCU did that in magical fashion with a heave downfield on fourth-and-1 with 20 seconds to play, with Max Duggan hitting Savion Williams for a 29-yard score, a 41-31 win, and a cover. It may not matter to the playoff committee, but it matters to us.
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