The 2020 college football season is one where the unprecedented has become the precedent, chaos has become an expectation and the surreal a weekly reality.
So it should be no surprise that upsets, bizarre results and stupefying finishes have become part of the 2020 backdrop, much like empty stadiums and coaches wearing masks.
But even in a season where nuttiness has arrived on demand, Kansas State’s upset win stood out. The Wildcats bused five hours from Manhattan, Kansas, to Norman, Oklahoma, on Sunday to try and better handle contact tracing restriction. They were without four key players on defense and eight players overall on their two-deep depth chart.
So basically, Kansas State went against the most consistent offensive force in recent college football history with a makeshift secondary and somehow managed to win, 38-35, on the road.
And they did it behind a superhuman effort from a precocious 5-foot-5 tailback, Deuce Vaughn, who accounted for 174 yards and myriad game-shifting plays. That included a 77-yard catch early in the third quarter to provide hope when Kansas State trailed 21-7. He later ran for a 38-yard touchdown that tied the game at 35.
That set up the day’s final points, a 50-yard field goal by cannon-legged Blake Lynch with 4:32 remaining. The final hero was Kansas State senior defensive back Jahron McPherson, who clinched the game in the final minute with an interception of Spencer Rattler. It was the fourth Oklahoma turnover of the day.
The sound you may have heard from Big 12 headquarters was commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who is normally defiantly monotone, cursing. The league’s playoff chances have revolved around Oklahoma in the CFP era, as the Sooners have been the league’s only entrant. OU has reached the playoff three consecutive years and four of the past five. OU’s shocking home loss to a watered-down Kansas State team combined with Texas’ shaky overtime win this week and Oklahoma State sputtering last week against Tulsa leaves the Big 12 lacking high-end candidates. (We’ll see how Baylor looks next week at West Virginia before we start judging the Bears.)
Declaring the Sooners out of the playoff – as Urban Meyer did on Fox – seems premature. There are too many COVID-related issues. But the Big 12’s out-of-conference samples are putrid, including Kansas State losing to Arkansas State. It’s hard to value a league that’s been chum for the Sun Belt. (Texas Tech outlasting Houston Baptist didn’t help matters, either.)
While it’s too early to read OU’s last rites, it’s fair to say that the entire Big 12 should be in the fetal position. What we’ve learned so far about the Big 12 is that conference play doesn’t mean much, as the out-of-conference samples could end up being used for fertilizer. The league’s standard bearer has been sub-standard. And that’s a perception the Big 12 is going to have difficulty overcoming.
How Kansas State made it happen
The six-bus caravan that took the Kansas State football team on a five-hour drive from Manhattan to Norman on Friday symbolized the long odds facing the Kansas State football team. In an effort to better socially distance, the Wildcat buses had just 24 riders to space out.
Second-year Kansas State coach Chris Klieman knew at that point Kansas State would be undermanned on Saturday. The Wildcats entered the game against Oklahoma down eight members of their two-deep, including three key pieces in the secondary, because of COVID-19 and contact tracing.
“We told the guys, we have five hours on this bus,” Klieman said by phone late Saturday. “We need to make sure we’re not just relaxing and hanging out and watching movies. Keep reviewing our notes and game plans and tips and reminders.”
Instead of watching a movie, the Wildcats' drive to Norman to upset the No. 3 Sooners looked like an audition for one. Undermanned against one of the country’s most explosive teams and down 35-14 late in the third quarter, Kansas State ran off 24 straight points to win the game.
“Mayhem,” Klieman said of the locker room after the game. “Guys were so excited. It was really cool to be a part of celebrating a huge road win against a great traditional football program. The guys laid it all on the line.”
In particular, the secondary took some impromptu refashioning. Redshirt sophomore Ekow Boye-Doe “had not played any corner for us,” Klieman said, and he played “really well” against OU.
JUCO transfer Justin Gardner went from playing some corner to a vital starter who registered an interception. Junior Ross Elder went from a full-timer on special teams last year to a valuable secondary contributor on Saturday. Senior Jahron McPherson went from free safety to strong safety and sealed the game with an interception. He also forced a fumble, one of OU's four turnovers.
With a rejiggered secondary playing against OU’s offense, the world was expecting a blowout. Instead, Klieman said: “We kept finding a way.”
He lauded senior quarterback Skylar Thompson’s gutsy performance, which included 334 passing yards, three rushing TDs and another passing.
“I’m so glad you asked about him, he was a warrior today,” Klieman said. “He was banged up again and he kept battling and playing. They brought heat an awful lot and he kept delivering the ball on the money.
“He just hung in there. I love the kid. I’m so happy for him. It seems like he’s always having to prove himself to people. He doesn’t have to prove himself to me. I know what kind of competitor he is and what kind of leader he is. He’s the kind of guy you want leading your football team.”
First to 3-0
If you had to pick an unlikely candidate to become the first college football team to start the 2020 season 3-0, it would have been UTSA. The Roadrunners went 4-8 last season, fired coach Frank Wilson and hired a first-time college head coach, Jeff Traylor, who was a high school coach in Texas until 2014.
After outlasting Middle Tennessee on Friday night, UTSA improved to 3-0. “We could be 0-3 just as easily as 3-0,” Traylor said on Saturday.
And that’s a compliment to his team finding creative ways to win.
UTSA has won thanks to a pair of quarterbacks (Frank Harris and Josh Adkins), a freshman star on defense (Jamal Ligon) and a kicker (Hunter Duplessis) who has the longest streak of made field goals in FBS football (16).
“I’m just really happy for all of them,” Traylor said. “They’ve sacrificed so much. It’s not easy taking those tests three times a week. They are staying socially distant and wearing masks. They’ve stayed in their own bubble. For them to be 3-0 is a tremendous achievement.”
UTSA has shined in front of big audiences, as its wins over Texas State (2 OT), Stephen F. Austin and Middle Tennessee have all been nationally televised. UTSA’s flirtation with perfection has some stiff obstacles. They travel to UAB and then BYU before hosting Army.
But it’s been impressive how quickly the Roadrunners have taken off in Traylor’s first season. It’s a foundation that can be built upon.
“I would say just an unselfish love for each other and kids who play with perfect effort,” Traylor said when asked what makes his team special.
Pirate ruins Coach O’s victory parade
Mississippi State’s 623-yard offensive passing explosion dominated the headlines in college football on Saturday. But what the Bulldogs did on defense Saturday may actually have more reverberations around the sport.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett debuted the 3-3-5 defense at MSU that he learned under Rocky Long at San Diego State. And while giving up 34 points won’t get Arnett a parade thrown in Starkville, MSU’s unique defense stymied the LSU offense to start the game and set the tone for the win.
In LSU’s first four drives, they punted four times and gained just 26 total yards. On the day, MSU allowed three defensive touchdowns as LSU’s fourth score was an interception return. While Leach’s Air Raid offense has been celebrated for its difficulty to replicate, there are only three programs running the 3-3-5 – New Mexico, Syracuse and Mississippi State.
In Albuquerque on Saturday, New Mexico coach Danny Gonzales and his mentor and now defensive coordinator, Rocky Long, retreated to Long’s house to watch Arnett’s debut. Long is the godfather of the modern 3-3-5, and he left his job as the head coach at SDSU to run it for Gonzales, his former player and assistant who is in his first year as a head coach. Arnett played and coached under both, and they were like proud papas watching their defenses in the SEC.
“It creates a lot of indecision,” Gonzales said. “You get these RPO teams that run against a 5-man box and throw against a six-man box. We’re a 5.5-man box.”
Gonzales said teams struggle with lining up blocks pre-snap because all the looks are so different. The magic of the 3-3-5 is that they can get into any formation a normal defense plays, but they do it from untraditional looks that make it difficult to account for.
“Just the nuances for the offensive line,” said Urban Meyer, who faced the defense when in the Mountain West at Utah. “Anytime you can confuse the offensive line, it’s a good thing. Offensive lines want double-teams. In the 3-3-5 there aren’t any.”
Both Mississippi State’s Arnett and Syracuse DC Tony White came from Long’s tree. Syracuse coach Dino Babers is a big enough believer in the system after visiting for years with the SDSU staff that he hired Arnett this offseason. A few weeks later, Leach lured him away. So Babers hired White from Arizona State, the next branch off the tree. “To watch those guys grow has been really awesome,” Gonzales said.
So far, teams have struggled early against the defense. Syracuse held UNC to one score on its first eight drives, Pitt to two touchdowns on its first eight drives and Georgia Tech scoreless on its first five possessions.
“People aren’t used to seeing it and have a hard time preparing,” Gonzales said. “A lot of people have said it’s like facing the wishbone, it’s not something you do every week. The look you get in practice is not the same as the game. It’s not something that you are used to.”
The 3-3-5 does have some SEC roots, as long-time Mississippi State coordinator Joe Lee Dunn ran it in Starkville and other SEC locales in the 1990s and 2000s. Is there a trend forming? It’s hard to say because so few run it. (Gonzales said the next coach in the pipeline may be UNM defensive GA Jake Rothschiller.)
“You have to have a coach that leaves you alone,” Gonzales said with a laugh. “Zach and Tony are in a perfect position. Dino and Coach Leach are perfect examples of that.”
Working from home
Mike Norvell endured an excruciating Saturday at home in the Tallahassee area while his team played Miami. Norvell couldn’t travel with the team after testing positive for COVID-19.
He did stay connected, even if he wasn’t there in person. Norvell walked through his day with Yahoo Sports on Saturday afternoon, after the team buses had left the hotel for Hard Rock Stadium.
Norvell said he met with his staff on Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m. as he normally would. “I was up on a projector,” Norvell said. “Just like I’d have been at the head of the table.”
After team breakfast, Norvell said he took part in special teams, defensive and offensive meetings. He Zoomed into the offensive walkthrough for 45 minutes. He then spoke with the offensive coordinator and play-caller for the game, Kenny Dillingham, and interim coach Chris Thomsen. He basically was as engaged as he would be on a normal gameday. “Other than the pre-game meal,” he said.
Norvell was planning to watch the game from his house. He said he couldn’t watch with his family, as he’s had to stay socially distant from his wife, Maria, and daughter, Mila. “That’s one of the hardest things about this whole deal. Mila is 6, and her understanding of everything [is limited]. There’s air hugs, but that’s probably the thing that’s most difficult. I feel fine, I’ve had very mild symptoms. It’s just one of those things.”
Norvell was able to stay in close touch virtually for the entire week of practice. He said he felt like he maximized what he could do without being there. “I got to a point throughout this week that helped me with my overall peace and sanity,” Norvell said. “There’s nothing we can do to control the situation, so we have to make it the best situation it can possibly be.”
Norvell said if everything goes well and he's cleared medically he can be back to work in person on Tuesday.
All NFL eyes on Trey Lance
The center of the NFL scouting universe next Saturday will be Fargo, North Dakota. North Dakota State has won eight of the past nine FCS national titles, an amazing run that includes 11 players on opening day NFL rosters in 2020.
There are already 23 NFL scouts credentialed to be on hand in Fargo for North Dakota State’s game with Central Arkansas. It’s the only game that NDSU will be playing this fall, and the NFL is presuming the only chance to see redshirt sophomore quarterback Trey Lance.
While Lance bristles at the notion of it being a showcase game for him, he’s certainly responsible for much of the NFL attention. Lance led NDSU to a 16-0 record last season and threw 28 touchdowns and no interceptions while leading NDSU to the national title.
It’s the most scouts ever for an NDSU home game, and the only comparable game was a Week 0 game at Montana during Carson Wentz’s senior year. The NFL personnel will have plenty of other players to scout, as both Central Arkansas DB Robert Rochell and NDSU OT Dillon Radunz also project as potential picks in the first three rounds.
NDSU wisely scheduled the game this fall as a way to have spring practice. They tried to schedule numerous FBS schools to replace a scheduled game at Oregon this September, but couldn’t find any takers. So they will play a lone game against Central Arkansas, which Entz points out will showcase more than Lance.
“If we’re going to have spring ball in the fall, let’s have something at the end of it,” Entz told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “Let’s put the carrot out there. Let’s have a reason to practice. Let’s try and hype it up a little bit. It never had anything to do with one individual, there’s multiple players on the NFL radar.”
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