by Chad Peltier
Week 4 was maybe the most anticipated week of the season so far, with big games evenly distributed from Thursday to Saturday night. Let's get right to the headliner, with Notre Dame coming to Athens to face Georgia for the second in their home-and-home series.
Georgia vs. Notre Dame was billed as the most important matchup of the early season. The general consensus going in was that Notre Dame's poor run defense might doom them from the start, since they had allowed 5.3 yards per carry against Louisville. Georgia's early offensive game plan seemed designed to exploit this perceived weakness along the perimeter, as Notre Dame quickly stuffed two passes to running back D'Andre Swift for a loss of 6 yards. Quarterback Jake Fromm attempted few downfield passes in the first half, as the conservative game plan seemed designed to target the edges of the defense near the line of scrimmage rather than risk throwing against Notre Dame's more experienced secondary. Overall it appeared as though Kirby Smart and James Coley expected to out-talent the Irish through a proto-Saban-Alabama strategy of low-risk passing, relying on the run game, and playing incredible defense. The problem is that not even a team that has 79% blue-chip recruits on its roster can expect to out-will their opponents.
If not for a growing injury list (that included both starting cornerbacks after the second drive) and a fumble on a punt return that gave Notre Dame the ball on the 8-yard line, that plan might have worked just as expected -- a small Georgia lead that slowly became insurmountable. But the Irish eventually scored on a fourth-and-1 pass that tight end Cole Kmet seemed to intercept from his teammate for the first score of the game. Kmet was one of the Irish's few effective offensive weapons on the night. The Irish had only 14 rush attempts, and they averaged -0.02 expected points added (EPA, which adjusts for down, distance, and field position) per rush. They were higher volume but less efficient through the air, averaging -0.24 EPA per pass with a 40.4% success rate on Ian Book's 47 pass attempts. In his first game back from injury this season, Kmet totaled nine catches for 108 yards. Notre Dame's offense was also surprisingly affected by the combination of the Georgia defensive line's pre-snap shifts and the deafening crowd noise, which contributed to 12 penalties for the Irish.
Georgia responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game at seven. Georgia's offense hadn't been exactly bad so far -- they had a 50% success rate and averaged 0.21 EPA -- but the punt return fumble contributed to Notre Dame having two more possessions than Georgia (which had three) in the first half. For context, a 0.21 average offensive EPA for the season would be ranked 21st overall in the country. It wasn't necessarily that Georgia's offense was bad during the first half -- the three-point first-half deficit was mostly the result of the fumble. However, Georgia's conservative game plan -- especially in terms of downfield passing -- should be a small red flag for Bulldogs fans. Even though Fromm completed 75% of his passes, his passing success rate was only 50% in the first half, and he averaged just 4.9 yards per pass. Georgia's rate of overall explosive plays (13-plus yards) jumped from 8.3% in the first half to 17.1% in the second half -- and from 16.7% of passes to 28.6%, as Georgia finally attempted riskier throws to receivers downfield. And with Notre Dame committed to stacking the box and relying on a heavier dose of one-on-one coverage on the edges, the Irish managed to stuff 24.2% of Georgia's runs on the day. If other opponents commit to taking away the run game using a similar talent level as Notre Dame's, it remains to be seen whether offensive coordinator James Coley and the coaching staff will counter with increased downfield passing. This is a key thing to watch for Georgia's season, as Fromm has shown both the willingness and accuracy needed to be effective at these downfield throws, but seems to be coached against attempting them unless absolutely necessary.
Besides questions over Georgia's conservatism, the defense came alive in the second half, forcing two interceptions and two three-and-outs on Notre Dame's first four drives of the second half. Up 20-10 with about seven minutes left, Georgia faced fourth-and-1 at the Notre Dame 26-yard line. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is as automatic as anyone in the FBS from 43 yards, and Kirby Smart elected to take the field goal rather than risk the conversion attempt. Questioned about this decision after the game, Smart replied that "we're playing good defense, we felt like they had to score two touchdowns to beat us, and that ended up being the difference in the game." However, Notre Dame was already two scores behind Georgia; if you don't pick up the first down, then a Notre Dame touchdown and a field goal would only send the game to overtime, while two touchdowns allowed makes you lose the game either way. And if you're "playing good defense," then shouldn't that lower the risk of an unsuccessful fourth-down attempt?
Regardless, Notre Dame's touchdown on their subsequent possession -- followed by a quick Georgia three-and-out -- meant that Notre Dame had two minutes to go for a go-ahead touchdown. They wouldn't make it despite getting the ball at midfield, with Georgia's pass defense coming up big. Georgia survived and advanced, with an average EPA of 0.10 compared to Notre Dame's -0.19, with a roughly 6.6% EPA success rate margin between them.
Notre Dame will still have opportunities to impress the playoff committee (starting with this week's game against Virginia), but they are likely to need chaos in the SEC or Big Ten in order to compete for a playoff spot.
Earlier in the day, Michigan faced Wisconsin in a game that many saw as somewhat of a referendum on Jim Harbaugh's Michigan career, or at least on the direction of the program. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Wisconsin played like Kirby Smart's platonic ideal, amassing an overwhelming first-half lead of 28-0 on strong rushing (48% rushing success rate, 0.3 average rushing EPA) and an efficient game manager performance from quarterback Jack Coan (13-of-16, 0.29 average passing EPA). The major difference is that Paul Chryst decided to go for it on fourth down on the first drive of the game from his own 34-yard line. The Badgers set the game's tone with that opening fourth-down conversion on a drive that ended in a touchdown, and then Jonathan Taylor took a carry 72 yards for a second touchdown on the first play of the Badgers' third possession.
Michigan's offense, on the other hand, averaged -0.38 EPA per play with a success rate of just 31.7%. Michigan had a negative EPA on both rushing and passing plays, but the run game had the most trouble, averaging an incredible -0.89 EPA per play while getting stuffed at or behind the line on 23.5% of rush attempts.
This contest had been billed as a crossroads game for the Wolverines, who have now lost their last three games against top-ten opponents by three or more scores (Ohio State, Florida, and Wisconsin, by a combined 138-68). Michigan failed to show any evolution offensively under Josh Gattis, and opponents have found numerous holes in Don Brown's normally stout defense. The concerns now are not just confined to this season itself -- which began with playoff aspirations as the Big Ten favorite for many -- but more amorphous questions about the direction of the program. Jim Harbaugh still has yet to beat Ohio State or win the Big Ten. Their 2019 recruiting class ranked eighth in the 247 Composite, but their 11th-ranked 2020 class has under a 50% blue chip ratio (although a lot can change between now and the two signing days).
For Wisconsin -- congratulations! You're in the driver's seat for another Big Ten Championship Game appearance.
There are good reasons why Pitt has earned its reputation as a ranked team-destroying Death Star. When Pitt is mediocre to bad, it is simply a chaotic neutral biding its time, charging, waiting for its next opportunity to unleash on a more or less objectively superior opponent. Central Florida just happened to be next. It wasn't because of specific matchups or a superior game plan, it's just random. So Pitt went on a 21-0 run to start the game, then was subject to a 31-0 run from the Knights, and then finally a comeback with one minute left that included Pitt's version of the Philly Special pass to quarterback Kenny Pickett on fourth-and-goal from the 2. Despite the close game that nearly slipped through Pitt's fingers, the Panthers were dominant statistically, with a 47.0% to 32.4% success advantage and a 0.3 to -0.2 advantage in average EPA per play. Pitt remains an unreliable chaos-maker in the ACC, but that loss almost surely means that a Group of Five team won't challenge for a playoff spot.
Speaking of not challenging for a playoff spot, let's take a look at the Pac-12. On Friday night, USC continued to defy expectations by beating the Utes despite losing yet another quarterback to injury. Freshman Kedon Slovis went down after throwing two passes, but veteran quarterback Matt Fink, who nearly transferred earlier in the season, threw for 351 yards in the upset win. Fink had a 54.5% success rate and averaged 0.63 EPA per pass attempt (nearly at their season high of 0.83 against Stanford) against likely the best defense they will see in the Pac-12. Michael Pittman Jr. was behind 232 of those yards, including a 77-yard touchdown. Beyond USC's unpredictable nature and seemingly interchangeable quarterbacks, it looks like USC may be the surprise favorite in the Pac-12 South. Someone has to win it!
In another pivotal divisional matchup, Auburn defeated Texas A&M 28-20, staying unbeaten while forcing the Aggies to 2-2. Auburn still has questions on offense, as Bo Nix threw for just 100 yards and averaged 4.6 sack-adjusted yards per attempt, while the run game had a 39% success rate and only a 4.9% rushing explosiveness rate. But the Auburn defense made the Aggies even worse on the ground, as they had an abysmal 22% rushing success rate and an average -0.65 EPA per rush. Kellen Mond tried to pick up the slack with 49 throws for 335 yards (with a decent .14 EPA per pass attempt), but it just wasn't enough. Seventeen of the Aggies points came in the fourth quarter with the game already more or less decided.
- UCLA and Washington State played one of the crazier games we're likely to see all season. Go watch the highlights first. Then start with the fact that Washington State's Anthony Gordon completed two-thirds of his pass attempts for 570 yards and a school-record nine touchdowns, with a 56% success rate, in a losing effort. Then, UCLA's offense, which had averaged between -0.10 and -0.28 average EPA in their other three games this season, managed a +0.23 average EPA against the Cougars. Dorian Thomson-Robinson threw for 507 yards of his own, recording a 51% passing success rate (he had ranged between 32% and 44% this season) and just one interception. UCLA completely flipped the script on what we expected out of Chip Kelly's UCLA offense, overcoming an astounding 32-point deficit in the third quarter. The Bruins had four touchdowns off of either one-play drives or kick return touchdowns in this bananas game.
- In other bananas finishes, Ole Miss-Cal went down to the very last play, with the Golden Bears prevailing in a 28-20 win. Cal scored all 28 of its points in the first three quarters and had punted on their final four drives of the game leading up to the Rebels' final possession. Starting quarterback Matt Corral had left the game with an injury, leaving freshman John Rhys-Plumlee to lead an 89-yard drive to the Cal goal line. On fourth-and-1 with time expiring, Plumlee managed to get off a final, desperate quarterback sneak that was stuffed for no gain thanks to leading tackler Evan Weaver.
- More upsets! Appalachian State took down North Carolina 34-31 despite a -0.11 margin in average EPA and nearly -10% success rate margin, and with North Carolina scoring on the very first play of the game. Turnovers largely did the Tar Heels in, as the Mountaineers returned a fumble 20 yards and intercepted freshman quarterback Sam Howell twice, with one leading to a short-field touchdown and the other stopping a promising North Carolina drive.
- Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. Jonathan Taylor racks up yards week after week to the extent that you might be tempted to dismiss his totals as that of a system running back, like a quarterback at Washington State or another Air Raid school. But Taylor demolished Michigan's defense -- which was supposed to be solid! -- and looked far better than his teammates doing it. In total Taylor had 203 yards on 23 carries, as Wisconsin averaged 0.31 EPA per rush. Taylor is 14th in EPA success rate per rush and is 28th in average rushing EPA in the country.
- Matt Fink, QB, USC. Speaking of high-EPA players, Matt Fink exploded against a tough Utah defense and is seventh in the country in average passing EPA for quarterbacks with 30 or more throws. Fink entered the transfer portal earlier in the season but was persuaded to return to the team -- and good for both him and USC that he did, considering his 351 passing yards and 62.8% EPA success rate puts him among the best quarterbacks in the country so far. Of course, it helps when you're throwing to nearly all five-star receivers!
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
- Evan Weaver, LB, California. Evan Weaver was one away from the national lead in total tackles heading in to Cal's game against Ole Miss. He increased his tackles total by over 50% with an astounding 22 tackles, including half a sack and two quarterback hurries. Weaver was everywhere for the Bears, including the game-ending tackle that kept Ole Miss out of the end zone.
- J.R. Reed, S, Georgia. Georgia played without both starting cornerbacks in their win over Notre Dame, placing even more pressure on Georgia's safeties, who had to handle the threat from tight end Cole Kmet, Ian Book scrambling outside the pocket, and 6-foot-4 receiver Chase Claypool. J.R. Reed came up huge with not only the incredible second interception, but also seven tackles (second on the team) and three passes defensed.