The fourth weekend of college football in 2016 featured some strange events, some thrilling finishes and some of the usual suspects putting on a show.
A particularly long streak was broken, another was extended in grand fashion and a superstar put his stamp on a pivotal victory for his squad.
There is still so much more football to be played. We’re nowhere close to being in a position to pass lasting judgement on the top programs and players in college football.
But we sure did learn a thing or two during the games in Week 4.
1. Holy Hornibrook, Batman! Wisconsin’s passing game is a real threat
Wisconsin (No. 11) made a quarterback switch this week leading up to its pivotal Big Ten game against the mighty No. 8 Michigan State Spartans. Senior Bart Houston was replaced by freshman Alex Hornibrook, who made an immediate positive impact for the Badgers on Saturday.
Houston had been merely passable through three games, but he never really was a consistent threat for opposing defenses.
Looking at the final numbers — 16-of-26 for 195 yards with one touchdown and one interception — you might not surmise that Hornibrook was the key to victory for Wisconsin.
But the young passer made all the difference in the world by converting key third downs and providing the Badgers with a vertical passing game in a game in which neither team made many big plays on the ground.
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) September 24, 2016
Displaying NFL-caliber accuracy, he kept Michigan State’s powerhouse defense honest and led Wisconsin to a shocking 30-6 win on the road.
The Badgers are doing things this year they haven’t done in decades, too.
The last time Wisconsin beat multiple AP top-10 teams in the same season?
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) September 24, 2016
Up next for Hornibrook and the Badgers is the biggest test of the season — a date with Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines at The Big House.
2. Ole Miss says “I’m not dead yet!”
Starting out the season 1-2 in the SEC is almost a death knell, but don’t tell that to Chad Kelly and No. 23 Ole Miss. Not only did the Rebels win on Saturday to move back to .500 on the season, they laid some serious wood against No. 12 Georgia at home.
The final score read 45-14 in favor of Ole Miss. And the game felt even more lopsided.
The Rebels came out with a balanced attack on offense, and everything seemed to be working. Georgia’s defense had no answers. Already up 17-0 after one quarter, Kelly turned up the heat in the second with a spectacular 55-yard touchdown strike to DeMarkus Lodge that broke the dam wide open (watch here).
Ole Miss added another touchdown before the half to take a 31-0 lead into the locker room. Making matters worse for Georgia, running back Nick Chubb did not play in the second half after suffering an ankle injury.
Unlike what we witnessed against Florida State and Alabama, the Bulldogs did not have a second-half comeback in them. The game was over almost from the get-go for Georgia, which limps home to regroup, now at 3-1 on the season.
Now at 1-1 in the SEC, the Rebels still have a slim hope of New Year’s Day postseason glory, provided they go undefeated the rest of the way. Saturday’s dominance was an excellent first step towards this goal.
3. Dalvin Cook reminds us he’s all kinds of special
Dalvin Cook dominates with a career-high 267 Rush yd performance to get FSU the bounce-back victory. pic.twitter.com/vlVsVki5Pk
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 24, 2016
Florida State was railroaded by Louisville in Week 3. Dalvin Cook and Co. couldn’t keep up with the Cardinals’ high-octane offense, led by super freak Lamar Jackson.
While not on the same level, South Florida came into the game undefeated, averaging 50 points per game. It seemed inevitable that another track-meet contest would be on the table, and it was. But this time, Cook and the Seminoles were up to the task.
The Bulls got the game started with a touchdown on the opening kickoff, and FSU fans must have been thinking, “not again.”
But Cook quickly responded with a tremendous 75-yard touchdown run that set the stage for a signature performance for the running back (watch here).
Finishing with a career-high 267 rushing yards, he finished with 329 total yards (additional 62 receiving) and two touchdowns. With this showing Cook put himself back in the Heisman conversation.
He also helped put the Seminoles right back on track with a much-needed win, and they moved to 3-1 on the season.
4. Nothing wrong with Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s offense
With Louisville looming in Week 5, the No. 5-ranked Tigers needed to have a strong outing Thursday night against a tough Georgia Tech squad. And they did.
After Clemson struggled against Auburn and Troy, it was not crazy to wonder if Dabo Swinney’s program was not up to the task of matching or bettering last year’s remarkable run. After Watson and the Tigers romped over South Carolina State in Week 3, it was fair to wonder how they’d fare against more formidable competition.
Consider those questions a thing of the past. Watson led a ferocious first-half attack that saw the Tigers go up 23-0 against a very good Yellow Jackets defense. The quarterback finished with 304 yards on 32-of-48 passing with two touchdowns, and his only mistake of the night turned into a safety and two points for Clemson.
“That was a crazy scenario. I told Deshaun that’s the best interception he’ll ever throw in his life. He got two points for it,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The Tigers finished with 442 total yards in their 26-7 blowout win, converting 10-of-18 third downs in the process. It was an impressive performance against a defense that came into the game having given up just over 10 points per contest.
Watson and Co. will need to ramp things up significantly for next week’s game against the Cardinals. We can’t wait to see what happens in that one when the two top-five teams collide.
5. Notre Dame just isn’t very good
After the Fighting Irish were shocked by Texas in Week 1, fans could brush it off as a Week 1 fluke against a red-hot quarterback. When they were dominated by Michigan State last weekend, fans could justify the loss because the Spartans are just a darn good team.
But after Notre Dame was beaten by Duke Saturday at home, 38-35, there is no sugarcoating just how bad the Irish are this year.
The Duke team that just put up 38 in a win at Notre Dame scored 14 in a loss to Wake Forest and 13 in a loss to Northwestern.
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) September 24, 2016
Especially on defense, Notre Dame has been underwhelming all year long. Without a single sack in four games, it’s a toothless unit that scares absolutely no one. Through four games, the Irish are allowing 33.5 points and 454 yards per game.
DeShone Kizer has been really darn good this year, totaling 1,282 yards and 16 touchdowns. But without a true bell cow running back to control the clock and without a defense, his exploits are being wasted.
Now at 1-3, Brian Kelly’s program is reeling (but don’t blame him or his coaches, he says).
With a couple upcoming games against ranked opponents (Stanford and Miami), Notre Dame might be lucky to scramble back to .500 by the time bowl season rolls around.
6. Streaks are meant to be broken
Just beat Florida. pic.twitter.com/g97kGHz8Vr
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 24, 2016
Tennessee (No. 14) hadn’t beaten Florida (No. 19) in 11 straight previous contests before finally winning at home Saturday afternoon, 38-28. The streak had dated back to 2005 when the Gators took down the Vols by a score of 16-7 to set up a decade of dominance over their SEC rival.
Now that dubious streak is a thing of the past.
In its stead, Tennessee is working on a streak of a different color. With the win, the Volunteers now have won 10 straight games dating back to last year. Only two other programs in the nation sport longer winning streaks, Alabama (16) and San Diego State (13).
What is even more impressive than the streak-busting win on Saturday is the fact that Tennessee fell into an early 21-0 hole before finally scoring a field goal before halftime.
Then the second half kicked off, and before the Gators had a chance to catch their breath, the Vols had scored 38 unanswered points.
Joshua Dobbs was unstoppable in the second half, throwing four touchdowns (to four different receivers) and running another in for a score.
Tennessee’s wins haven’t all been pretty this year, but this one was gorgeous.
7. Leonard Fournette’s talent is being wasted on stagnant offense
First, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge Auburn’s huge win at home against LSU (No. 18). After tough losses to ranked programs Clemson and Texas A&M, it’s an important victory for Gus Malzahn and his program.
It’s also important to recognize the officiating crew for correctly ruling that LSU’s final touchdown should not actually count after time expired — something that did not happen for Oklahoma State in Week 2 against Central Michigan.
With those points out of the way, the biggest takeaway from this game is that LSU isn’t doing Leonard Fournette any favors right now.
For the second time since the beginning of the season, Fournette was seen battling pain after taking another low hit on Saturday night. He originally injured the ankle in Week 1 against Wisconsin, took Week 2 off to rest his injured ankle, played last week and then re-aggravated the injury against Auburn.
Even though Les Miles switched from Brandon Harris to Danny Etling, the offense is still one-dimensional. The simple truth is teams know Fournette is the only consistently dangerous player the Tigers have on the offensive side of the ball.
Worse still, LSU’s offensive line isn’t exactly moving the pile or opening up running lanes this year.
A player many feel can be a powerhouse at the next level, Fournette is being wasted on a mediocre offense this season. At this point, even some LSU fans are making it known that they would have no problem if Fournette sat out the rest of the season to keep himself healthy for the NFL.
It’s gotten that bad.
8. David Shaw’s strategy pays off with spectacular fourth-quarter comeback against UCLA
Stanford’s head coach had fans and analysts alike ready to pull their hair out late in the fourth quarter against UCLA Saturday night. His decision-making in the final four minutes defied all logic.
He let precious time run off the clock, down by four. He made a challenge that took away a valuable timeout. He punted on fourth-and-inches with less than five minutes left and at one point waited 20 seconds to call a timeout as the end of the game drew near.
His decision-making put the No. 7-ranked Cardinal in a position where they had no timeouts and needed 70 yards to score seven points and win the game.
Mind you, Stanford’s offense was Christian McCaffrey or nothing all night long. The passing game was dead upon arrival.
But his players pulled off a spectacular comeback, justifying Shaw’s strategy in an emphatic way.
Ryan Burns came alive in the final two minutes to lead a game-winning touchdown drive. He completed five-of-eight passes on the final offensive possession after having gone eight for 17 before it.
Capping it off, his touchdown throw to JJ Arcega-Whiteside was a thing of beauty.
What a grab! https://t.co/IHFVwZOI6C
— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) September 25, 2016
Then, as UCLA was attempting to mount a comeback of its own, the Cardinal scored again on a sack-fumble to close out the game and win 22-13.
Stanford moves to 3-0 after the thrilling victory, and a showdown against No. 9 Washington looms large for both teams.
9. Texas A&M emerging as top competitor for Alabama’s crown
The late-night romp at College Station ended up a one-sided blowout after Arkansas (No. 17) and Texas A&M (No. 10) went into halftime tied at 17-17.
It was a group effort. A hobbled Myles Garrett and fellow pass rusher Daeshon Hall made life consistently miserable for Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen. Trevor Knight and the Aggies’ offense scored 17 points off three Arkansas turnovers in the game.
During the first half, it appeared Arkansas might have the upper hand. However, Trevor Knight tied things up with a 48-yard rushing touchdown (watch here), and the game took off in Texas A&M’s favor from that point.
The pivotal point came late in the third quarter. Arkansas had engineered a 19-play drive that took nearly 10 minutes off the clock. Rather than kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, head coach Bret Bielema called an ill-advised jet sweep that was eaten up by an Aggies defense that successfully engineered two goal-line stands in the contest.
At the least, the right call would have been to pound the ball up the middle — a tactic that had been quite successful on that drive. But instead, the Razorbacks got cute, and it cost the team dearly.
After losing possession on the failed attempt to score, Arkansas watched Knight connect with receiver Josh Reynolds on a 92-yard score that constituted a potential 14-point swing (watch here).
From that point on, the game belonged to the Aggies, who ran away with it and won 45-24.
This sets up Texas A&M as the primary SEC West competitor to Alabama’s crown. The two teams will meet up in four week’s time at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22.
10. Targeting rule needs major overhaul
Saturday, football fans watched as two extremes played out revolving around the targeting rule.
On one extreme, Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith was ejected by officials on a play in which he did clash helmets with a Michigan receiver. But he was trying to intercept the ball and the contact was quite clearly incidental (watch here).
On the other extreme is the non-call during the Stanford-UCLA game when Tahaan Goodman launched into Stanford’s Francis Owusu, leading with the crown of his helmet.
Pac-12 officials declare this hit, which knocked Francis Owusu out, safe and legal pic.twitter.com/0RCD3Oom0c
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) September 25, 2016
Owusu was out cold. He was brutally victimized by a defender who appeared to be going for a knockout blow. But even after replay, the hit was deemed legal.
Watching from home, NFL Network host Rich Eisen summed up the targeting rule perfectly.
Targeting replay in NCAA is totally broken, folks. Absolutely broken.
— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) September 25, 2016
Players are getting ejected when they should not and let off the hook when they should be ejected. Nobody really knows what is and what is not targeting any more, and something must be done to fix the broken rule.