College football Week 9 highlights: Top plays, games and takeaways – ESPN

J.T. Tuimoloau ends any chance of a Penn State comeback as he leaps for the interception and returns it for a touchdown. (0:22)
The team that has looked the best through nine weeks of football is Ohio State. This is inherently a subjective statement, but there’s really no argument. The Buckeyes are 8-0 after their 44-31 win Saturday over Penn State, with all eight victories coming by double digits. The offense has topped 40 six times. The defense has held the opponent to 21 or fewer points seven times. It almost always looks easy.
But, as we’ve learned during the first eight years of the College Football Playoff, this is not a beauty contest, no matter how good Ryan Day might look in a Valentino evening gown. Even for the best of teams — the historically good ones — there’s some point in the season that’s a complete slog, a down-in-the-dirt fistfight that’s all about brute strength and sheer relentlessness.
Saturday may have been that slog for the Buckeyes, when C.J. Stroud wasn’t at his best and Penn State broke one big play after another, and the best-looking team in the sport got dragged down into the muck.
It could’ve been that, but when Ohio State kicked off its heels and got dirty, it somehow felt even more impressive.
Week 9 didn’t ultimately upend the playoff picture just days before the committee returns with its first rankings of the season. But in Ohio State’s gritty win over Penn State, Tennessee‘s laser focus on beating Kentucky and Georgia‘s latest domination of its rival in Jacksonville, it was a week in which the biggest contenders flexed their muscles just in time for the panel to retreat to a hotel conference room with stat sheets and cold coffee for the first time this season.
Tennessee could’ve easily looked ahead to next week’s matchup against Georgia, but instead the Vols put on perhaps their most complete performance of the season, with the Hendon Hooker-to-Jalin Hyatt connection humming once again and the defense forcing Will Levis into three interceptions.
Georgia wasn’t so much impressive as it was relaxed. UGA looked like a predator simply toying with its prey, dazing Florida with early haymakers, then allowing the Gators to think there may be a chance at escape before snapping the trap shut for good in the fourth quarter. Georgia is terrifying not because of how dominant it has appeared, but because it’s so good at hanging back, biding its time, never attacking until it feels threatened.
Michigan, which has turned winning ugly into an art from, played a familiar role in the first half against rival Michigan State. The Wolverines led 13-7 through two quarters, and if Michigan State had kept it that close the rest of the way, the school likely would’ve added another three years and $30 million to Mel Tucker’s contract. Instead, the Wolverines shifted into overdrive in the second half, scoring on their first four drives — and six straight at one point — to secure an easy 29-7 win. Michigan’s defense has dominated all season, and Michigan State became the fifth opponent it held to just a single touchdown.
Yet, it’s Ohio State that may have shown the most Saturday, because if the first seven weeks were about opening up the engine and seeing how fast it could go, the win at Penn State was a lower-gear, all torque and muscle. And in the end, the score still looked sexy, an eighth consecutive double-digit win to open the season.
Still, if there were questions about this Ohio State team, Saturday went a long way to answering them.
We entered the season focused on Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but it’s Marvin Harrison Jr. who has blossomed into a superstar. He caught 10 balls for 185 yards against Penn State, and every time Ohio State had a got-to-have-it play, it looked to Harrison.
We entered the season with real questions about the defense after last year’s struggles, but Jim Knowles has worked wonders with this unit. And even while Penn State put up 31 points — the most by a Buckeyes’ opponent this season — Ohio State had four takeaways and three sacks and Tommy Eichenberg was a wonder with 15 tackles and J.T. Tuimoloau served as a one-man wrecking crew, intercepting two passes, recording a strip sack and tipping a pass that was picked off, too.
It was apparent from the season’s opening notes that Ohio State was on a collision course with Michigan, eager to erase the misery of last year’s loss. But last season, Ohio State was all glitz and glamor and, underneath, had no real substance.
This is a different Buckeyes team, and Saturday proved they can roll around in the mud with anyone and come out still looking incredible.
The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released Tuesday, which means it’s time to start expressing your anger at the committee now. So, to ensure Boo Corrigan has some sleepless nights between now and Tuesday, here’s your official guide to why each undefeated or one-loss Power 5 team deserves to be in the initial top four.
Illinois (7-1)
Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, and the Illini have arguably the most impressive defense in the country, holding seven of eight opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense. Also, Bret Bielema needs to give 60 days’ notice of cancellation if he wants his deposit back on the ice fishing lodge he has booked for the entire month of January.
TCU (8-0)
The Horned Frogs have an impressive résumé. They’re one of just two teams with four or more wins vs. teams ranked at game time this season. They’ve won four true road games. They’re just the third Power 5 team in the playoff era — along with 2018 Alabama and 2020 Alabama — to score 38 points or more in each of their first eight games of the season. They’re probably the only hope for a team from Texas ever making the playoff.
Clemson (8-0)
The Tigers were off in Week 9, but their résumé stacks up with anyone. They’ve won four road games, four games against FPI top-40 teams, three games against ranked opponents, all while definitely, absolutely, no question about it, not worrying at all about their quarterback situation. Seriously, stop asking.
Ohio State (8-0)
For the traditionalists: They’ve won every game, by an average of 32 points. For the analytics folks: They lead the country in expected points added per play. For the Michigan fans: They haven’t beaten you in 1,065 days. Fortunately for Ohio State, what happened last year doesn’t matter to this year’s committee and the Buckeyes remain the most impressive-looking team in the country so far.
Georgia (8-0)
We have not actually watched any Georgia games this year. They’ve all been boring, even that kind of close one against Missouri, when the Bulldogs spent most of the first three quarters trying to figure out what was going on with Chris Pine and Harry Styles before remembering they had to win the game still. But the important thing here is that if Georgia is not in the top four, Brock Bowers will be very angry at the committee, and the committee would not like Brock Bowers when he’s angry.
Alabama (7-1)
The committee will look kindly on Alabama’s good loss. Really, nothing weighs more heavily than that. But Nick Saban would actually prefer the Tide don’t get ranked in the top four so early. That’s rat poison, man. Besides, worst comes to worst, Saban can just cash in his “make seven playoffs, get the eighth for free” card.
Oregon (7-1)
Oh, sure, Oregon lost to Georgia in Week 1, but as we all know, losses to SEC teams do not count as actual losses. They’re, at best, like one-third of a loss. Indeed, for a Pac-12 team, a loss to an SEC opponent is actually better than a win over Stanford. And it should be noted that, after getting whipped by the Dawgs in Week 1, the Ducks have scored 40 or more in every game — tied with Ohio State for the longest active streak in the country. Plus, the Pac-12 has been out of playoff contention for so long. Cut it some slack, committee. The league will be gone soon. It’s not asking for much. Just one ranking with a real playoff contender.
Tennessee (8-0)
The Vols might have the strongest case of any team in the country for the No. 1 spot. They’ve got the season’s most impressive win with their miracle vs. Alabama. They’ve throttled some good teams in LSU and Kentucky. The offense looks borderline unstoppable. Most importantly, doesn’t the committee want to rank them No. 1 just to see if fans will tear down the Sunsphere and throw it in the river?
USC (7-1)
The Trojans haven’t played anyone of note other than Utah, and they lost that game. They struggled for long stretches against Oregon State, Arizona State and Saturday against Arizona, though they ultimately prevailed in each one. Caleb Williams has been good, Travis Dye is terrific and Jordan Addison and Mario Williams make for a dynamic duo that would surely attract a big audience for the postseason. And frankly, the committee needs to tread carefully here. If USC isn’t ranked highly, Lincoln Riley is liable to set up an awfully attractive NIL deal to lure Chet Gladchuk and Jim Grobe to transfer.
Michigan (8-0)
Some committees like the bad boys, the teams that might hang 70 but that you can never really count on. But those committees are bound to end up hurt, jaded and listening to Morrissey albums. No, what a smart committee should want is a team that’s consistent. One that clocks in at 9, punches out at 5, and always has a perfectly ironed crease in its khakis. That’s the Wolverines. It’s the team the committee’s mother wants it to choose. It drives a Prius and has a great 401(k) and, if you choose to rank it in the top four, it’ll never forget the anniversary.
Ole Miss (8-1)
A three-point victory over Kentucky on Oct. 1 is the Rebels’ only win over a ranked team this season, but Alabama is on the schedule in two weeks, and it probably makes sense to go ahead and rank Ole Miss in the top five to ensure that, whatever happens in that game, it won’t look bad for the Tide.
North Carolina (7-1)
The Tar Heels played the best defense they’ve faced this season and still absolutely scorched Pitt 42-24 behind another remarkable performance by Drake Maye.
UCLA (7-1)
The Bruins dominated Stanford on Saturday, with Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet running wild in the win. UCLA has impressive wins over both Utah and Washington, and the Bruins have scored 30 in every game this season. Chip Kelly has done all the math on this, and while he’s not willing to share it publicly, trust him that UCLA is definitely a top four team. His analytics are way better than whatever the IT intern for the playoff committee could come up with.
We feel certain there have been worse days in Mike Gundy’s life. After all, he’s a man, and he’s … (checks notes …) 55! Man, where has the time gone? Anyway, certainly some worse fate has befallen Gundy in his 55 years. But it’s hard to remember a time his Cowboys were beaten as emphatically as they were Saturday against Kansas State.
K-State found the end zone on five of its first seven possessions to take a 35-0 lead at the half, then put it in cruise control for the second half to finish with a 48-0 victory.
Deuce Vaughn takes it up the gut and leaves Oklahoma State’s defense in the dust for a 62-yard touchdown.
It’s the second win this year for K-State over a team from Oklahoma ranked in the top 10.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’s the worst shutout loss by an AP top 10 team since 1966.
It’s the worst loss for the Pokes since a 58-0 shellacking to Texas Tech in 2000.
Spencer Sanders was just 13-for-26 for 147 yards and an interception in the game. Last week in this space, we referred to Sanders as either the best bad QB or worst good QB in college football. Oklahoma State fans were rightfully angry about that. So, our sincerest apologies. Let’s just agree he’s the fourth-best quarterback in the Big 12 now, and we can all move on.
With Adrian Martinez sidelined, K-State went with Will Howard, who completed 21-of-37 passes for 296 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He’s the first K-State QB with 290 yards, four passing TD and no picks in a game since Jesse Ertz in 2017.
A great Saturday of football is about Top 25 matchups with playoff implications, yes, but what truly puts the action over the top are the palette-cleansers — the epically bad football that we all need to remind us of that we haven’t wasted a day on the couch eating wings and drinking beer, because we’ve proven to be more successful than Miami‘s passing game.
And, without question, Week 9 offered us a true plethora of bad football.
Miami 14, Virginia 12 (4 OT)
The average root canal takes less than an hour, so technically speaking this was at least four times worse.
Miami, which hired Mario Cristobal to revive the glory days, went back a bit too far in the time machine and landed in an era when the forward pass was not a significant part of the game.
Now Virginia, which was among the most prolific offenses in the country a year ago, and its receivers react to passes like trick-or-treaters do candy corn (“Ah, yes, no thank you, we’ll just leave this on the ground”).
On the plus side, there were no turnovers in the Saturday game, so at least it was a crisply played disaster.
The game was tied 6-6 at the end of regulation. It was the third game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, in which neither team scored a touchdown — and the first not involving Iowa. (Brian Ferentz will be filing a suit for copyright infringement this week.)
In the end, the special teams won the day. Miami punter Lou Hedley had 308 punt yards — 36 more than Miami had offensive yards — and kicker Andres Borregales hit all four of his field goal tries. Somewhere, Frank Beamer held out a framed photo of himself celebrating a 0-0 score, nodding knowingly, and popped a bottle of champagne.
UConn 13, Boston College 3
BC had five turnovers. The two teams were a combined six-of-28 on third down and had a combined 19 tackles for loss. And shanked punts? You betcha!
Danny Longman struggles with his first punt of the day, which travels only 17 yards.
In the end, UConn earned its first win over a Power 5 opponent since 2016 (vs. Virginia, because of course). The Huskies have four wins now this season, which is particularly impressive considering they had won just four of their previous 41.
For Boston College, it might be time to consider just putting up some police tape where the offensive line should be and hope the opposition respects the “Do not cross” warnings. In any case, the loss was the first for BC against a team from New England since 1978.
Iowa 33, Northwestern 13
Iowa only punted once. So frustrating. Fans paid good money to see Tory Taylor out there. On the upside, Spencer Petras threw his third touchdown pass of the year. Without checking, we’re guessing he’s a mere two more away from the Iowa season record.
New Mexico State 23, UMass 13
The Aggies have won two in a row vs. FBS opponents for the first time since 2018. UMass losing by 10 or fewer also earns fans a free small coffee at all participating Amherst-area Dunkin’ Donuts locations.
Texas A&M lost to Ole Miss, but Jimbo Fisher may have finally found his quarterback. Making his first start, freshman Conner Weigman finished with 338 yards and four TDs with no picks. The last Fisher QB to post 300 yards and four touchdown throws in a game? Everett Golson vs. Texas State in 2015.
We wish a speedy recovery to Tennessee’s Gerald Mincey, who took the helmetless head-butt from O-lineman Jerome Carvin during a sideline celebration Saturday. Don’t worry, Mr. Mincey. It happens to someone every year.
pic.twitter.com/lmh0dw7gPa
Sam Hartman coughed up six turnovers in Wake Forest‘s 48-21 loss to Louisville on Saturday. Hartman has been exceptional in his career, but oddly, he has been good for one of these types of games nearly every season. Saturday was Hartman’s 40th career start. He has 40 career turnovers in those starts. But half of those — 20 turnovers — came in five games (Saturday vs. Louisville, last year’s ACC championship vs. Pitt, the 2020 bowl game vs. Wisconsin, 2018 vs. Syracuse and 2021 vs. NC State). In his other 35 starts, he has accounted for 93 touchdowns and 20 turnovers.
After a brutal 27-10 loss to UTEP in Week 4, Boise State fired offensive coordinator Tim Plough and saw QB Hank Bachmeier opt out. At the time, the Broncos were 2-2. Since then, however, Boise State has won four straight, including a 49-10 thrashing of Colorado State on Saturday, and is now 5-0 in Mountain West play.
Stetson Bennett threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in Georgia‘s 42-20 win over Florida in a cocktail party that felt like a Tuesday afternoon soiree with a half-bottle of Boone’s Farm, but it was yet another ho-hum win for the defending champs.
Georgia went up 21-0, Florida fought back to within eight after the Bulldogs got bored, then UGA stomped on the gas one last time to seal the deal. It was emblematic of the bulk of Georgia’s résumé thus far, in which, aside from the opener against Oregon, virtually nothing has felt particularly close or particularly dominant.
But for a program that won this game just six times from 1990 through 2016, Georgia has now won five of the past six, and Bennett has as many wins over Florida (2) as Eric Zeier, Quincy Carter, David Greene and Matt Stafford had combined in 14 career starts against the Gators.
On the other hand, every cocktail party Bennett shows up to without a bottle of Pappy in hand feels a bit like a letdown at this point.
The ACC would love to have Notre Dame join the league full time, but since 2014, when the Irish agreed to play five football games per year against the ACC in exchange for membership in all non-football sports, it was pretty clear the conference was strictly in the friend zone. Notre Dame is Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.” The ACC is Ducky — sweet, funny, and not nearly as rich as the Big Ten.
It’s one thing for Notre Dame to simply note that the ACC is nice and all, but it’s just not the Irish’s type.
It’s another thing to keep showing up for dates with the ACC and leaving the league alone, miserable and wandering a Food Lion at 1 a.m. looking for a gallon of ice cream and some cheap red wine.
The 41-24 victory Saturday over No. 16 Syracuse was the latest slap in the face in this doomed relationship, as the Irish won their 25th straight regular-season game against the ACC, dating back to 2017. In all, Notre Dame is 38-9 during this open relationship since 2014.
One-third of Notre Dame’s losses have come at the hands of Clemson, however, and the Tigers are on deck next week. Imagine if it’s the Irish that all but end the ACC’s playoff hopes for 2022 with a win.
But don’t think too much about that scenario because, surely, Notre Dame will send the league a text late one night this week with a simple “U up?” message, and against its better judgment, the ACC will reply. That’s how these relationships go, of course. And maybe if the ACC just picks up Notre Dame’s dry cleaning on the way home from work and doesn’t mind dog-sitting for a few days while Notre Dame gets away for a long weekend at USC later this year, maybe then the Irish will finally notice that, yes, they love the ACC, too.
Right up until Notre Dame hits them with an “It’s not you, ACC. It’s us. We just really cherish our independence.”
A year ago, Will Anderson Jr. and Aidan Hutchinson made a run at the Heisman. In 2020, DeVonta Smith won it. They were nice distractions from what typically is a QB-centric award. This year though? Yeah, we’re back to quarterbacks and nothing but quarterbacks. In fact, seven QBs have a real shot at this point, and trying to narrow it down is a difficult task. Bo Nix (six TDs, 471 yards) and Max Duggan (three TDs, 341 passing yards) both made serious pushes on Saturday, but neither cracked our top five, where Hendon Hooker continues to lead the way.
1. Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker
Four more touchdowns. No turnovers. Hooker just continues to dominate in Josh Heupel’s offense, and you have to wonder if Justin Fuente just sits in a dimly lit room staring at a framed photo of Hooker and thinking, “Where did we go so wrong?”
2. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud
Saturday was probably Stroud’s worst game of the year, which only underscores just how good he has been. He completed 26-of-33 passes for 354 yards and a touchdown — the first time in a year he hasn’t had multiple touchdown passes. That last game when he was held to just one TD? Also vs. Penn State.
3. Alabama QB Bryce Young
Alabama was off this week, and somehow Young still needed to go 6-7 for 53 yards plus a 20-yard scramble for a TD to lead the Tide over the open date in the final minute of action.
4. USC QB Caleb Williams
He threw for 411 yards and five touchdowns with no picks, and given how bad the USC defense struggled stopping Arizona, every bit of it was needed. Williams lacks a signature win, but his numbers across the board warrant his spot here.
5. North Carolina QB Drake Maye
Honestly, if he was playing on a team that had a bit more national buzz, he might be at the top of this list. Maye had five more touchdowns and more than 400 yards of offense in North Carolina’s 42-24 win over Pitt. He’s had multiple TD passes in each of his first eight games as a starter, and his 32 total touchdowns lead the nation.
Drake Maye throws 1-yard TD vs. Pittsburgh
This was a perfectly designed play for Marshall, in which QB Cam Fancher hits Corey Gammage in stride for a big gain, then Gammage wisely chooses to fumble another 20 yards downfield where Talik Keaton recovers and carries it on down to the 1. We’re sure they practice this all the time.
Insane fumble in the Marshall-Coastal Carolina game! It worked out well for The Thundering Herd! lol pic.twitter.com/LQhnk9pTJu
All fake field goals are wonderful and should be cherished by the masses. But some fakes attain truly epic status because they aren’t designed to simply fool the defense, but also to get the ball into the hands of the most elite athlete on the team: the kicker.
And so it was that Oklahoma ran a doozy Saturday, with holder Michael Turk flipping the ball to kicker Zach Schmit, who rumbled into the end zone like a young Jerome Bettis.
Oklahoma punter Michael Turk completes a touchdown pass to kicker Zach Schmit on Oklahoma’s beautiful fake field goal.
It was the first touchdown scored by a kicker this season and the first by a Power 5 player since 2019. The last Big 12 kicker to find the end zone was also a Sooner — Michael Hunnicutt, in 2013.
So, whatever else happens in Brent Venables’ first season at Oklahoma, he gave us this. And we should be forever grateful.
Holy Cross stayed undefeated — just barely — with a 53-52 OT win over Fordham on Saturday in a Patriot League showdown for the ages (which is to say the only Patriot League game we’ve paid attention to in a while).
Holy Cross trailed late, but Jalen Coker scored on a 15-yard TD pass with 1:24 to play to tie the game at 45. He finished the day with six catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns.
Fordham scored on its first play of OT to take a 52-45 lead, but Holy Cross fought back, scoring on a nine-yard pass to the pride of Swedesboro, New Jersey, Justin Shorter. The Crusaders opted to go for two, and Ayir Asante crossed the goal line for the 53-52 win.
Holy Cross is one of four remaining undefeated FCS teams, alongside Princeton, Jackson State and Sacramento State.
Fordham has now played four games in which the LOSING team has scored at least 45 points. The Rams have LOST two games in which they have score over 50.
Good teams win, as TCU did against West Virginia on Saturday. Championship-caliber teams win on the road, and Saturday was the Horned Frogs’ fourth such victory of the year. But the truly great teams, as we all know, cover. And TCU did that in magical fashion with a heave downfield on fourth-and-1 with 20 seconds to play, as Max Duggan hit Savion Williams for a 29-yard score, a 41-31 win and a cover. It may not matter to the playoff committee, but it matters to us.
Savion Williams hauls in a 29-yard touchdown to seal TCU’s win over West Virginia.
It’s not really the wins or the losses in betting. It’s the swings. As it was during the Ohio State-Penn State game, with the Buckeyes 15.5-point favorites and seemingly doomed to a win without a cover entering the final three minutes of play. Ohio State scored to go up 37-24, kicking off to Penn State, which figured to run down the clock in a last-gasp attempt to cut into the lead. But Sean Clifford‘s first pass of the drive was picked off by J.T. Tuimoloau, who returned it for a touchdown. Ohio State 44, Penn State 24 and a perfect backdoor cover! Only, there was still 2:22 left on the clock. Penn State drove eight plays for 75 yards and scored on a Clifford pass with 1:12 left for a touchdown that was meaningless to everyone except the poor saps who thought they’d just gotten an Ohio State cover. Betting isn’t for the faint of heart, folks.
Ole Miss appeared to have sealed the 31-21 win over Texas A&M with an interception in the end zone in the game’s final two minutes. Unfortunately for Rebels backers, the throw was called incomplete, A&M got another chance, and Weigman hit Devon Achane for a 7-yard TD. Final score: Ole Miss 31, A&M 28. The line? Ole Miss by 3.

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