Last week in this space, I suggested that Michigan's harrowing, 28–24 scare against a MAC doormat, Akron, was a meaningless fluke that said nothing about the Wolverines' prospects for the rest of the season. I will stand by that. But a harrowing, 28–24 scare against a MAC doormat, immediately followed by a harrowing, 24–21 scare against an American Athletic doormat? Fool me twice, shame on me.
The big problem, as usual, is turnovers. Against Akron, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was responsible for all four of his team's giveaways, including an interception return for a touchdown that put the impossible within reach in the fourth quarter. Against Connecticut, he was responsible for three of four, including two interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown that put the Huskies up by two touchdowns in the third. (The other turnover on Saturday was a muffed punt by Da'Mario Jones that set up UConn's second touchdown "drive" from the Michigan 9-yard line.) Nationally, the only team with more giveaways through the first four weeks is Western Kentucky.
The Devin Gardner we saw against Notre Dame was a confident, competent star in the making who lived up to every expectation, save for one inexplicably reckless play under pressure – a minor, correctable kink to smooth out amid all the positives. No one after that game could have predicted the Gardner we'd see against arguably the two worst teams on the schedule would look more like the guy who temporarily lost his mind in the end zone. After scoring on seven of eleven possessions against the Irish, against the Zips and Huskies the offense has only scored on eight of twenty-five. Towson had a better night against UConn than Michigan did, in every respect.
Again, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we're talking about a team that's 4–0 with one of the most impressive victories of the season under its belt, followed by back-to-back rallies from fourth-quarter deficits. Strictly from a talent perspective, the Wolverines have an edge on everyone they play until the finale against Ohio State; that also goes for Gardner against every opposing quarterback between here and Braxton Miller. The Big Ten standings don't incorporate style points. At this rate, though, Gardner's decision-making is looking increasingly like a time bomb waiting to go off, equally feared by everyone in the stadium on both sides. The next opponent, Minnesota, just moved to 4–0 itself with one of its most validating victories in years (see below) and boasts the best turnover margin in the conference. A team with championship ambitions can only afford so many close calls.
• FLORIDA 31, TENNESSEE 17. Where does Nathan Peterman's performance rank among the worst in SEC history? I can't go back quite that far, but for some context, Peterman's pass efficiency rating against Florida was an incredible 3.8, putting it among one of the dozen or so lowest numbers by a starting FBS quarterback in the past decade. (Here's the full list of the lowest single-game efficiency ratings from 2003–12, among players who attempted at least ten passes; Peterman attempted eleven. I'm aware of a couple other recent examples – UCLA's Osaar Rashaan finished with a negative rating against Oregon in 2007, as did Oklahoma State's Alex Cate in 2009, in a Thursday-night game against Colorado – but typically when things are going that badly, the starter doesn't make it to double-digit attempts.) Keep in mind that the median efficiency rating these days is in the neighborhood of 130; anything below 100 is untenable and more likely than not to get you benched.
So a 3.8 is not even worth snapping the ball for. If Peterman had replaced his dozen pass attempts on Saturday with a dozen kneel-downs, at least the Volunteers would have been able to punt; instead, he committed three turnovers that led to Florida points before halftime. The worst part? Unlike virtually every other quarterback listed here, Peterman was not thrust into the lineup by injury or attrition: Coaches actually thought he gave Tennessee a better chance to win than the starter through the first three games, Justin Worley, and refused to concede otherwise until the damage was done.
On the other hand: While Peterman may be well on his way to retirement in the Michael Henig Home for Discarded Quarterbacks, his equally unsung counterpart, Tyler Murphy, gave the Gators at least as much to feel good about in his first significant action as they've ever seen out of Jeff Driskel. For a while, Murphy seemed determined to match Peterman gaffe for gaffe, including a botched snap under center and a shotgun snap that hit him in the face. With the game still very much in doubt, though, Florida's last offensive possession of the first half and first two possessions of the second half went like this:
• 7 plays, 40 yards, 3:03, Touchdown
• 11 plays, 79 yards, 5:09, Touchdown
• 11 plays, 84 yards, 5:26, Touchdown
Collectively, those drives covered 203 yards while draining nearly 14 minutes from the clock. Murphy personally accounted for 131 of those yards as a rusher and passer, and was responsible for moving the sticks on all five third-down conversions. Twice in that span, coaches trusted him to throw on 3rd-and-10; both times he delivered a first-down strike to his best receiver, Solomon Patton, who has done more to earn the title in the last two games than any Florida wideout in years. Even if Driskel had a chance to return this season from the broken leg he suffered in the first quarter, on the heels of his woeful afternoon at Miami and the dreadful pick-six he served up on Saturday, there wouldn't be any rush.
Now for the asterisk: At this point, who doesn't look good against Tennessee? Is there any reason to reserve judgment on this defense? Last year, Driskel turned in arguably his best performance of the season against the Volunteers, as did most other quarterbacks who had the pleasure of facing them; the Vols finished dead last in the SEC in yards and points allowed, and just missed finishing dead last in the standings. In both 2010 and 2011, early, similarly reassuring wins over Tennessee turned out to be the high points of two of the most bitterly disappointing seasons at Florida in decades. Whatever claim the new coaching staff held on "progress" had already been incinerated and scattered to the wind in a 59–14 thrashing at Oregon. The honeymoon for Butch Jones is over, and Tyler Murphy had better enjoy his in Gainesville while he still can.
• TEXAS 31, KANSAS STATE 21. The details here are irrelevant: The only real takeaway is that Texas is 1–0 in the Big 12, showed no sign of being in the tank after demoralizing losses to BYU and Ole Miss and will not be replacing Mack Brown with Nick Saban or Art Briles or anyone else in the next seven days. Given the alternative, for now everything else is sound and fury, or gravy, or what have you. We can't really even say how good this edition of Kansas State is.
What we definitely can say without getting too carried away is that sophomore tailback Johnathan Gray finally looked like the five-star talent Texas fans have been led to expect. Gray had a couple 100-yard games last year as a freshman, in road wins over Kansas and Texas Tech, and went over 90 against BYU and Ole Miss, but Saturday – with career-highs for carries (28), yards (141) and touchdowns (2) against an actual defense – was the game everyone has been waiting to see from either Gray or fellow blue-chip Malcolm Brown for the better part of two years. And not only on the stat sheet: As opposed to his usual, plodding style between the tackles, Gray showed good vision and even a little elusiveness in the open field, most notably on a couple of sharp cuts that got him into the end zone on his first touchdown run. Between that and the 63-yard touchdown bomb to Kendall Sanders in the first quarter, the offense looked exactly the way it supposed to look: 227 yards rushing, 225 passing, zero turnovers.
Even more encouraging was the run defense, which finally got a clue against the read option and stopped the bleeding by holding the Wildcats to 115 yards on the ground, most of it in the first quarter; much less encouraging was the halftime exit of starting quarterback David Ash, who took any semblance of a downfield threat with him. Initial indications were that he was being monitored for a concussion, a major concern considering he missed the Ole Miss game for the same reason and was on the fence to play in this one in the first place. If Ash is dealing with any long-term effects – "long-term" in this case meaning within the context of the rest of the season, although hopefully he's thinking much farther ahead than that – the Longhorns are looking at either a) Starting uninspiring backup Case McCoy against Oklahoma in two weeks, or b) Turning to true freshman Tyrone Swoopes, who looks the part but hasn't taken a college snap. Everyone in or near Texas remembers how ugly, start-to-finish beatings against OU cast a pall over promising starts in 2011 and 2012, setting the Horns adrift for the rest of those seasons. At the same point in 2013, they're still just trying to keep their heads above water.
• USC 17, UTAH STATE 14. A thoroughly boring game, almost literally unremarkable: Between them, the offenses were 8-of-31 on third-down conversions, launched 15 punts and combined for less than 600 total yards. (567 yards, to be exact: 285 for Utah State, 282 for USC.) There was only one turnover, and no tide-turning fakes, blocked kicks, goal-line stands or trick plays. The Trojans never led by more than seven points and never trailed. Although the Aggies evened the score twice after falling behind, they never came within 40 yards of taking the lead.
But maybe that's exactly the kind of game the Trojans need right now – anything that distances them from the Washington State debacle in week two. The offense against Utah State split the difference between the inept, lo-fi outfit that triggered outrage against the Cougars and the balanced, resurgent attack that put up 35 points on 521 total yards last week against Boston College; all we really know on that front is that Cody Kessler and Tre Madden have taken the reins at quarterback and tailback, respectively, and look like they're going to keep them as long as they're healthy. (Which probably says more about the competition at this point, or lack thereof, than it does about Kessler and Madden.) The defense, on the other hand, is absolutely reliable, currently ranking fourth nationally in total defense and third in yards per play. Next week's trip to Arizona State is a make-or-break for both teams in the Pac-12 South race, but whatever happens from here, the dye seems pretty well cast on the kind of team USC is going to be.
• LSU 35, AUBURN 21. It still feels premature, somehow, probably because all of the most defining games on the schedule – Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama, Texas A&M – are still in front of them. But it has been a very long time since LSU has boasted this many weapons on offense, since the 2007 BCS championship team, at least. Zach Mettenberger currently ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency, just ahead of Johnny Manziel. Jeremy Hill, finally back in good standing, left Auburn tacklers in a heap like the reincarnation of Cecil Collins. The backup tailbacks, Alfred Blue, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, have all had multiple 100-yard games in their careers. Odell Beckham Jr. continues to lead the SEC in all-purpose yards by a wide margin; he and Jarvis Landry, a former five-star recruit, are averaging a little over 17 yards per catch with ten touchdowns. (Both are on pace to exceed 1,200 yards for the season, which would make them the first and second 1,000-yard receivers in Les Miles' tenure.) At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Hill is the platonic ideal of an LSU tailback: If he can stay on the field, he looks like the go-to headliner the Tigers have been missing since… who? Jamarcus Russell? Josh Reed? But Miles has never leaned too heavily on any individual player on offense, and he doesn't have to start now.
If anything, LSU has more to worry about defensively for a change, after watching Tre Mason (26 carries, 132 yards), Cameron Artis-Payne (7 for 41 yards) and Nick Marshall (13 for 54) find some daylight in the second half; excluding sacks and a botched snap on a punt, Auburn finished with 237 yards on 4.7 per carry, the best rushing effort against LSU since 2010 despite a long carry of just 17 yards. On the other hand, the secondary remains on lockdown. Given the defensive issues we've already seen from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M, and the offensive issues at Florida, next week in Athens is a chance to reveal the Tigers as the most complete team in conference.
• YOU ARE OFFICIALLY TERRIBLE, PART ONE.
Not that anyone mistook San Diego State for anything else following a home loss to Eastern Illinois (not to mention a 42–7 debacle at Ohio State). At some point in the trajectory of every truly terrible team, though, there comes a point when it must graduate from the ranks of the merely bad by administering a swift, debilitating kick to its own testicles with victory in sight, and the Aztecs hit the bullseye against Oregon State.
After dominating the first three quarters, SDSU watched a comfortable, 27–14 lead in the fourth dwindle to a shaky, 30–28 margin following a pair of extended touchdown drives by the Beaver offense. Facing a 2nd-and-19 from their own 16-yard line with 2:37 to play, the Aztecs decided to play it safe with a wide receiver screen. Instead, quarterback Quinn Kaehler was late on the throw, and linebacker Steven Nelson stepped in front for an easy pick–six that moved Oregon State in front, 34–30. Kaehler put the loss on ice with another interception on the following series, dropping San Diego State to 0–3 in balls-kicking fashion.
• YOU ARE OFFICIALLY TERRIBLE, PART TWO.
Not that anyone mistook Louisiana Tech for anything else following a home loss to Tulane (not to mention a 40–14 debacle at N.C. State). But the Bulldogs unlocked a new achievement in futility against Kansas, fumbling not just once but twice with game-clinching scores within reach.
The first came early in the fourth quarter, Louisiana Tech up 10–3 following a Kansas turnover, when freshman quarterback Ryan Higgins lost the ball out of the end zone at the end of a 29-yard run to the goal line; instead of going ahead by two touchdowns against another demoralized doormat, Tech turned the ball over on a touchback, then watched the previously hapless Jayhawk offense drive 80 yards to tie the score at 10–10. Undeterred, the Bulldogs responded with their longest drive of the day, an 80-yard march to the KU 5-yard line – where, in the midst of a conservative attempt to set up a go-ahead field goal, sophomore tailback Kenneth Dixon gacked up another critical fumble with 1:33 to play. From there, Kansas' plans to run out the clock for overtime were thwarted by Louisiana Tech's overly generous run defense, which gave the Jayhawks just enough life to move into position for a game-winning, 52-yard bomb by kicker Matthew Wyman as the clock expired. It was Kansas' first win over an FBS opponent since September 2011, and it looked like it.
TIME TO RETHINK: Maryland at rock-bottom.
The story before Saturday was the Maryland offense: Coming into this season, the Terrapins hadn't cracked 500 yards of total offense in a game since 2005; in their first three games, they cleared the 500-yard barrier in all three, winning all three by double digits. But that was against Florida International, Old Dominion and UConn. Surely the annual collision with West Virginia, a name-brand rival that had beaten Maryland seven years in a row, would be a different story.
So it was: This time, the spotlight shifted to the defense, which held the Mountaineers to 175 yards – easily their lowest total under coach Dana Holgorsen – and forced as many turnovers (6) as WVU had first downs. (In the first half alone, the UMD defense scored a touchdown on an interception return and set up the offense for two more TDs inside the Mountaineers' 25-yard line.) The final score, 37–0, marked the first shutout against West Virginia since 2001, under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez, and the first time since Randy Edsall arrived from UConn that he looks like he knows exactly what he's doing.
• Baylor scored eight touchdowns in a span of 46 offensive snaps before cutting the engine against Louisiana–Monroe, building a 63–7 lead less than four minutes into the third quarter. (The defense added a score of its own on an interception return.) For the game, the Bears racked up 781 yards of total offense on 10.1 per play; for the season, they're averaging 444.3 yards per game passing and 307.0 rushing despite throttling down in the third quarter of all three games.
• San Jose State's offense averaged 9.3 yards per snap against Minnesota, four yards better than the Golden Gophers' average, and lost by 19 points. While the secondary was frequently eviscerated by Spartan QB David Fales, Minnesota also forced three SJSU turnovers, churned out 353 yards rushing on offense and finished with a 22-minute edge in time of possession to move to 4–0.
• Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith accounted for 511 total yards and five touchdowns in the Cowboys' 56–23 win over Air Force, making him the first FBS quarterback this season over 300 yards passing and 100 rushing in the same game. As a team, Wyoming scored touchdowns on seven of its first eight possessions, and Smith ranks second nationally in total offense with 403.5 yards per game.
• Florida International finished with more yardage in penalties (40) than in total offense (30) in a humiliating, 72–0 debacle at Louisville. For the game FIU averaged a half-yard per play with two first downs.
• Miami (Ohio) finished with 87 yards of total offense in a 14–0 loss at Cincinnati, leaving the RedHawks with fewer yards for the season (448) than 52 FBS teams are averaging per game. Against Cincy, they were 0-for-11 on third down conversions with eight punts, two interceptions and four turnovers on downs.
• Northern Illinois and Eastern Illinois combined for 1,179 yards of total offense, 58 first downs, 11 touchdowns and five turnovers in a come-from-behind, 43–39 win for the Huskies. NIU trailed 20–0 less than halfway through the first quarter, but dominating the final three frames behind 434 total yards from quarterback Jordan Lynch.
• Pittsburgh and Duke combined for 1,130 yards of total offense in a wild, 58–55 win for the Panthers, including four touchdown passes covering at least 60 yards – three of them coming in a span of a dozen snaps in the late first/early second quarters. Altogether, Pitt quarterback Tom Savage tied an ACC record with six TD passes, while Duke QB Brandon Connette offset his four scoring strikes with four interceptions, one of which was returned for Pitt's final touchdown.
• Georgia Tech's offense held the ball for more than 22 minutes in the second half of its 28–20 win over North Carolina, running 43 plays after the break to the Tar Heels' eighteen. Surprisingly, the Yellow Jackets were barely above 50 percent (4-for-7) on third-down conversions in that span, or for the game (9-for-16).
• Iowa scored four non-offensive touchdowns in less than 15 minutes against Western Michigan, courtesy of a back-to-back punt returns by Kevonte Martin-Manley and back-to-back interception returns by B.J. Lowery. The final score, 59–3, gave the Hawkeyes their widest margin of victory since the 2005 opener, a 56–0 win over Ball State.
• Wisconsin's top three tailbacks, Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement, combined for 375 yards and five touchdowns on 8.3 yards per carry against Purdue, almost exactly matching their season average in a 41–10 rout. Through four games, Gordon and White are both averaging well over 100 yards apiece, with Clement, a true freshman, coming in at 83.5 per game.
• One week after lighting up Texas A&M in a bona fide shootout, Alabama ran just 48 offensive plays in a sleepy, 31–6 win over Colorado State, fewest in the Nick Saban era. The Crimson Tide were just 2-for-10 on third-down conversions and finished with 81 yards rushing before sacks, marking CSU's best effort against the run since September 2009.
• DeVANTE PARKER RETURNS AMERICA TO THE MOON.
Last week, Parker achieved orbit to bring down a touchdown catch against Kentucky. Saturday, he briefly left the atmosphere again to secure another red zone fade from Teddy Bridgewater, and somehow managed to land safely in bounds for Louisville's first touchdown against Florida International. At which point the rest of the game should have been called off.
• TYLER LOCKETT • WR, Kansas State.
Lockett caught 13 passes for a school-record 237 yards against Texas, thereby accounting for more than 60 percent of K–State's offensive production for the game. (Appropriately enough, since at 5-foot-6, he's only about 60 percent of the size of some of the people attempting to cover him.) Although he didn't find the end zone himself, two of the Wildcats' three touchdowns came as a direct result big plays by their smallest player, following receptions of 47 and 22 yards in the first quarter and 31 yards in the fourth; he also came down with a 52-yard bomb in the fourth that put the offense within striking distance, only to watch quarterback Jake Waters fumble away the last chance at a comeback inside the 10-yard line. Next time earth is threatened by objects falling from space, let's just fly in Lockett to make the catch.
• LOUISIANA–LAFAYETTE'S AUDACIOUS ONSIDE KICK.
Most teams save onside kicks for when they're losing in the fourth quarter. The Ragin' Cajuns have a slightly different philosophy. After scoring to go ahead of Akron, 28–24, with a little over eight minutes to play, ULL kicker Hunter Stover caught everyone off guard – possibly even his own coaches, I'm hoping – by attempting and successfully recovering his own surprise onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. From there, the Cajuns scored again to extend the lead to 35–24, just the cushion they needed to hold on for a 35–30 win.
• PASS INTERFERENCE ON TRAE WAYNES.
Officials flagged the Spartans for four pass interference penalties against Notre Dame, including critical third-down calls that extended both of the Irish's touchdown drives in a 17–13 win. At least one of those calls – the one that negated a third-quarter interception by Darqueze Dennard – was obviously justified. The most consequential of the four, though, a flag that negated Trae Waynes' apparent interception in the end zone a few plays after the penalty on Dennard, definitely was not.
That call came on third-and-10 in a tie game, and gave Notre Dame a first-and-goal at the MSU 7-yard line; two plays later, Cam McDaniel waltzed in for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Say what you will about the moribund Michigan State offense coming up short down the stretch, but the defense did all it needed to do.
• ANYONE KICKING IN BLACKSBURG.
The Hokies' regular kicker, Cody Journell, was bad enough last week, missing two field goals and an extra point in a too-close-for-comfort, 15–10 win at East Carolina. With Journell suspended against Marshall, though, backup Ethan Keyserling turned out to be even worse, shanking a 36-yard kick at the end of the first half and not one but two critical attempts in overtime, from 50 and 32 yards, the latter to win the game. It wasn't until the third OT that the Hokie offense was able to take its fate out of the kicker's hands (er, feet?) by punching in the decisive touchdown and two-point conversion in a 29–21 escape.
Not to be outdone, Marshall's Justin Haig got in on the theme by missing from 41 yards out in regulation, and subsequently had a 39-yarder to win in overtime blocked – a fitting bookend to Virginia Tech's first touchdown of the day, off a blocked punt.
• LEAD-BLOCKING UMPIRES.
By the second quarter, Ohio State needed more help not scoring against Florida A&M, which made the umpire's unwitting assist on an 18-yard touchdown run by Jordan Hall that much more egregious.
That score put the Buckeyes up 41–0 less than four minutes into the second quarter. They went on to win 76–0.