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#Nuggets: Ohio State is finally challenged, the Ducks are cooked, and let's talk about punting

NUGGETS

Ohio State is so good that only Ohio State can put Ohio State in adversity. So, you're Ryan Day. Your opponent brings the nation's best rush defense -- 2.19 yards a carry (1st), 75.9 a game (4th) -- to the Horseshoe. So how do you start the game? Thirteen straight runs, 91 yards, touchdown. In one drive, Ohio State gained 120 percent of Penn State's per game rushing defense yield. It was the football equivalent of walking into a man's home, playing catch with his kids, and drinking his beer in his recliner.

The Buckeyes entered Saturday 10-0 with all 10 wins by 24 points or more and appeared to be on their way one drive into the third quarter, when they marched 75 yards to take a 21-0 lead on the scoreboard and an even more commanding 320-64 lead in total yardage. (The lead would have been 28-0 had Justin Fields not fumbled at the Penn State 1. More on this in a bit.)

But then two things happened: Penn State's starting quarterback got hurt, and Ohio State couldn't hang on to the football.

Sean Clifford (10-of-17 for 71 yards) was injured in the middle of Penn State's first drive after falling behind 21. The Nittany Lions inserted redshirt freshman backup Will Levis, which forced Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne to parse down his playbook.... which actually worked in Penn State's favor. The Nittany Lions started zone-reading the Buckeyes to death, as Levine and running back Journey Brown carried the final 37 yards of that drive to pull within 21-7.

On the next play from scrimmage, Ohio State's JK Dobbins fumbled the ball at his own 12, and Levin's keeper two plays later turned the game on its head at 21-14.

And then Fields fumbled again at his own 35, and Ohio State's defense walked on the field when the opponent had the chance to tie or take the lead for the first time since the middle of the third quarter... of the 2018 Big Ten Championship.

Ohio State held Penn State to a field goal, punted, forced a Penn State punt, and then put the game away with a 28-yard dagger from Fields to Chris Olave with 13:18 to go. Penn State pushed deep into Buckeye territory on the ensuing possession, but Levis was intercepted at the Buckeye 20, ending the comeback effort and, essentially, the game.

It was a 28-17 Ohio State win where three Buckeye fumbles handed the Nittany Lions 10 points and cost themselves seven. Ryan Day's team will head to Ann Arbor with their third straight Big Ten East title in hand, knowing they can lose in the Big House or Indianapolis and still make the Playoff.

About James Franklin's punting decisions. Discounting the times Ohio State (literally) handed Penn State the ball, the Nittany Lions crossed Ohio State's 50 four times on Saturday. They punted on two of them.

The first came on the first drive of the game, as Franklin kicked on a 4th-and-4 from Ohio State's 42. The decision worked, at least initially, as Blake Gillikin's punt was fair caught at the Ohio State 9. (The Buckeyes then ran right now Penn State's throat, moving 91 yards on the ground to go up 7-0.)

Then, on Penn State's third possession, Franklin punted on 4th-and-7 from Ohio State's 36. This, to me, was indefensible: Franklin had already watched Ohio State go 91 yards on its first possession and then seen the Buckeyes drive right to Penn State's goal line again on their second touch (which Fields fumbled). You're playing the highest-scoring offense in the country; playing field position in hopes of winning 21-17 simply wasn't likely.

We debated this in our Slack channel. Doug, a high school head coach who has made real decisions such as these, agreed with Franklin's conservative approach, arguing that putting the game on the line -- such that you could that early in the game -- would be reckless with so much real estate still in front of you. I thought Franklin's conservative approach was reckless in and of itself, self-limiting the few scoring chances Penn State was bound to get throughout the day.

By the way, Franklin's second punt didn't work, either. The punt was downed at the 10, but Ohio State drove 49 yards before punting itself, and Penn State's next possession began at its own 20.

(Franklin wasn't alone in questionable punting decisions, either. Jimbo Fisher punted on 4th and 11 from Georgia's 43 with 4:26 left in a 19-13 game. It was the last time an Aggie touched the ball.)

Herm is having duck for Thanksgiving. Oregon had the chance to put on a show Saturday night, getting the ABC Saturday Night Football game with a chance to tee off against 5-5 Arizona State. They put on the wrong kind of show.

After taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, the Ducks simply fell asleep and did not wake up again until it was too late. Consecutive Justin Herbert interceptions, in his own territory, in the fourth quarter, turned a 13-7 deficit into 24-7, and suddenly half the fourth quarter was gone.

With its season squarely on the line, Oregon briefly played perfect football:

-- 3 plays, 75 yards, touchdown (0:59)
-- Arizona State three-and-out (1:36)
-- 3 plays, 66 yards, touchdown (0:43)

It was a rally both invigorating and infuriating. With 5:24 left, Oregon suddenly had all the momentum and plenty of time to complete the comeback. With 55 minutes gone, one had to wonder why Oregon had to fall behind by 17 to dip deep into the tank.

Oregon forced a 3rd-and-16 at the Arizona State 19 with 3:54 left when freshman Jayden Daniels went over the top for a season-shaking dagger -- an 81-yard touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk.

The Ducks scored to pull within 31-28, but it wasn't enough. Oregon never touched the ball again, and Mario Cristobal's team's Playoff hopes are officially as dead as the duck Herm will eat on Thursday.

As hard as it is to say about a hometown guy who turned down the NFL to be a senior quarterback, but Oregon could have used more out of its senior quarterback. Justin Herbert during the fourth quarter rally: 10-of-14 for 192 yards with two touchdowns Justin Herbert before the fourth quarter rally: 10-of-22 for 112 yards with two picks

And this doesn't include Oregon's Nov. 15, 2007 loss at Arizona, where the No. 2 Ducks lost their shot at the BCS title and Heisman candidate QB Dennis Dixon on the same night.

USC is now in for one of the most interesting weeks a program can have. Clay Helton and the rest of USC's coaching staff will now trade their Trojan cardinal and gold for Buffalo black and gold, as USC, with its regular season complete, now needs a Colorado win over Utah next Saturday to win the Pac-12 South. A Utah win would send the Utes to the title game and retroactively end USC's regular season.

Saturday's 52-35 Victory Bell win over UCLA was the type of game that won't move anyone out of the pro- or anti-Helton camps. Kedon Slovis set a single-game Trojans record with 515 passing yards on 37-of-47 passing with four touchdowns against zero interceptions, while USC rushed for 131 yards and three scores. Four USC receivers topped 100 yards on the day.

And yet UCLA and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had his way with the USC defense and the USC fan base, well...

Devoid of context, this was an objectively good season for USC. The Trojans jumped by three wins from a year ago, and the new offense, piloted by a true freshman who began the season third on the depth chart, improved throughout the year, and the team won five of its last six games.

But it's impossible to remove the context from the situation. Many (most?) USC fans never embraced Helton and last year's 5-7 campaign made up their minds once and for all.

Was this Helton's final game at USC? It's impossible to say, and we likely won't know for another week.

Oklahoma now has a crystal clear identity, and it's a scary one. After a 28-24 win over TCU on Saturday night, it's clear this Sooners team can not be put away and it cannot put anyone else away. Let's review OU's past four games:

-- at Kansas State (Oct. 26): OU surrenders a 41-6 run to fall behind 48-23, then scores 18 straight in a 48-41 loss.
-- vs. Iowa State (Nov. 9): OU leads 42-21 entering the fourth quarter, but has to defend a 2-point pass to secure a 42-41 win.
-- at Baylor (Nov. 16): OU trails 28-3 in the second quarter, then mounts a program-record rally to win 34-31.
-- vs. TCU (Saturday): OU leads 21-0 early in the second quarter, but intercepts a pass in Sooner territory to win 28-24.

The common denominator here is turnovers. The Sooners were minus-2 against K-State, minus-2 against Iowa State, minus-1 against Baylor and minus-2 again versus TCU, a 4-game stretch in which they've coughed up nine fumbles, Jalen Hurts has thrown four picks (including a pick-six to turn a potential 35-17 game to 28-24) and the defense has registered only three takeaways. (In fairness, they did come up with interceptions to turn away potential game-winning drives by both Baylor and TCU.)

Saturday's win clinched a trip to the Big 12 Championship -- their fourth straight, dating back to 2010, and 11th overall -- against....

Two years after going 1-11, Baylor is in the Big 12 Championship. Baylor saw its hopes of making its first College Football Playoff trip -- such that they ever existed in the first place, seeing as the Bears were 9-0 and ranked 13th, by far the lowest a 9-0 Power 5 team has ever been in the CFP's 6-year history -- dashed in a 31-3 crimson and cream avalanche last week. That was obviously disappointing, but the Bears woke up Sunday morning with this reality: they, a team that went 7-6 last year and 1-11 two years ago, could clinch a trip to their first Big 12 title game with a win on Saturday, and that win could come against Texas. That reality was still pretty good.

Baylor more or less pitched a shutout, surrendering only a 68-yard run that set up a Texas field goal on the final play of the first half and a touchdown with 00:01 left in the game, to beat the hated 'Horns 24-10.

Matt Rhule's team is now 10-1 and headed to its first Big 12 Championship -- Art Briles won Big 12 crowns in 2013 and '14, but the conference did not stage title games in those seasons -- while Texas is 6-5. I could spend a thousand words grappling with how that could be possible given the disparity of what Rhule and Herman inherited in the winter of 2016, but a simple statement of the facts is all that needs to be said.

No one feels better today than Butch Davis. Davis was Miami's coach from 1995-00, a period in which he turned The U back into The U again. As his 2000 team was turning into a juggernaut, Davis left to take over the Cleveland Browns. His former players would rule the college game, and he'd rule the NFL. That was the plan, at least. Miami did win the national championship in 2001, but Davis lasted just four seasons in Cleveland. He returned to college football at North Carolina in 2007, but NCAA sanctions chased him out of the game in 2010. He remained out until resurfacing at FIU in 2017, which led him back to a game against his old team, at the sight of the old Orange Bowl. All those old ghosts came alive on Saturday night. FIU 30, Miami 24.

Both teams are now 6-5, but they feel wildly different.

FRIESThe Super 16. The Nuggets is once again honored to vote in this year's FWAA-NFF Super 16 poll. Here's this week's ballot.

  1. Ohio State
  2. LSU
  3. Clemson
  4. Georgia
  5. Utah
  6. Minnesota
  7. Alabama
  8. Oklahoma
  9. Penn State
  10. Wisconsin
  11. Michigan
  12. Baylor
  13. Florida
  14. Notre Dame
  15. Oregon
  16. Memphis

Odds and Ends a. Minnesota and Wisconsin have played 128 times, most of any series in FBS. The ledger is tied 60-60-8. The 129th installment may be the biggest, as the winner goes to the Big Ten Championship with either the Playoff or the Rose Bowl on the line thanks to Minny's 38-22 win over Northwestern and Wisky's 45-24 dumping of Purdue. After skipping the Penn State game, GameDay will finally come to Minneapolis.

b. Navy and SMU played what amounted to an American West elimination game, as the winner was still alive to reach the title game and the loser was out. The Ponies led 21-10 at the half, but Navy struck back with a 25-7 second half to win, 35-28.

c. The second Sun Belt Championship will be the same as the first Sun Belt Championship: App State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette.

d. UAB beat Louisiana Tech 20-14, moving the Blazers to the cusp of a second straight C-USA West title, maybe. UAB, La Tech and Southern Miss are all 5-2. UAB holds the tiebreaker over Louisiana Tech (obviously), Southern Miss holds it over UAB and Louisiana Tech holds it over Southern Miss.

e. Cal snapped a 9-game losing streak to Stanford, which A) sent the Golden Bears bowling and B) kept Stanford home for the holidays for the first time since 2008.

f. 5-6 teams playing for their seasons next weekend: Boston College, North Carolina, TCU, Michigan State, Nebraska, Army, Ohio, Kent State, Colorado, Oregon State, Missouri, Mississippi State, Troy, Louisiana-Monroe

g. Rice, the nation's best 1-9 team entering Saturday, ended North Texas' bowl hopes with a 20-14 win on Senior Day. It will be the first time in four season under Seth Littrell the Mean Green have missed the postseason.

h. Cincinnati is 10-1, but it's a shaky 10-1. The Bearcats won their fourth conference game by three points or fewer, clinching the American East with a 15-13 win over Temple in which they led 13-0 entering the fourth and the crucial play came on a blocked PAT returned for two points the other way.

i. Cincinnati visits Memphis on Friday. If Memphis wins, the teams will play an immediate rematch in Memphis the following Saturday. If Cincinnati wins, the Bearcats will then host Memphis or Navy on Dec. 7.

j. They don't have near the brand name as Alabama or Oklahoma, but Utah might just be the best of all three teams vying for the No. 4 spot.

k. Boise State built a 42-7 halftime lead over Utah State and had fun doing it.

l. Tennessee is going bowling after beating Mizzou, 24-20. Jeremy Pruitt's team, which started 2-5 and lost to Georgia State in the opener, will close the year on a 5-game winning streak after playing Vanderbilt next week. m. Virginia has lost 15 straight to Virginia Tech. This year's Commonwealth Cup, in Charlottesville, may be the biggest one ever. The winner takes the ACC Coastal, plays Clemson for the conference title and likely goes to the Orange Bowl win or lose.

n. Washington State has played in two of the craziest games of the season. After turning a 49-17 lead into a 67-63 loss to UCLA back in September, the Cougars led Oregon State 35-24 entering the fourth quarter, trailed 53-42 with 4:17 to play, scored to pull within 53-48 with 2:10 left, forced a turnover on downs and then ran in from 2 yards out with two seconds left to win, 54-53. Oregon State scored 29 points in the fourth quarter and lost.

o. Washington State clinched a bowl trip, while Oregon State will have to beat a pissed off Oregon to get there.

p. Nebraska kept its season alive with a 54-7 drubbing of Maryland. That had to feel good.

r. Seven years after not having a football program, period, and in Year 1 under Will Healy, Charlotte is going bowling.

s. The Mountain West title game is set: regular Boise State versus newcomer Hawaii, who won the MW West with a 14-11 victory over San Diego State.

FRIES Oh yeah, I almost forgot the Harvard-Yale game was halted due to a climate protest.

Trailing 15-3 at the time, Yale came back to win, 50-43 in double overtime, to clinch a share of the Ivy League title.

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