In our universe, college football continues to proceed. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 have (mostly) been able to play a few weeks now without serious incident. The Big Ten and Pac-12 now also have a plan to restart, and even the MAC and Mountain West have announced plans for shortened schedules to begin a little bit later this fall. The trajectory of the season in September has gone better than I expected.
That said, I am still continuing in my “coverage” of the original college football schedule, which takes place in a parallel universe similar to our own, but without COVID-19.
The month of September went better than expected for Coach Mel Tucker and the Michigan State Spartans. The Green and White did stumble in their lone road game at BYU, but they managed to sweep the other three games, including last week’s rout of No. 13 ranked Miami (FL.), to bring the season record to 3-1.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Ohio State and Wisconsin are off to strong, undefeated starts, while Penn State stumbled early in the season at Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines suffered back-to-back losses to Arkansas State and Wisconsin and entered Week Five at 2-2.
On the national stage, Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, and Auburn all survived September without a loss, as did the Group of Five teams Cincinnati, Air Force, and UL-Lafayette. A few other teams also managed to survive September without a blemish, including Florida State (quite the opposite of how the Seminoles’ actual season is going in our universe), Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri, Arizona State, and UCLA.
Michigan State at Iowa (-13)
As the month of October dawned in East Lansing, there was definitely a feeling of swagger in the air. Sitting at 3-1, there was a new sense of energy in the program. Next on the schedule for the Spartans was a trip to Iowa City to face the also 3-1 Hawkeyes. Iowa had dropped an early game to the Iowa State Cyclones, but had recovered with a big win over Minnesota. Last week, the Hawkeyes blew out Northern Illinois, 63-0.
MSU opened as almost a two-touchdown underdog on the road, which surprised and maybe even offended the folks in East Lansing. Prior to the game with Miami, fans were asking if Coach Mel Tucker would make a bowl game in his first campaign. This week, there was talk about how a trip to Iowa City had catalyzed Connor Cook’s Rose Bowl season in 2013. What a difference a week can make.
As the 3:30 p.m. Eastern (2:30 p.m. Central) kickoff in Iowa City approached, the skies were gray and the temperature barely reached 50 degrees. Scattered rain showers were in the forecast. The home team won the coin toss and deferred, and the all-white-clad Spartans took the ball first. Iowa native, Rocky Lombardi, went straight to work. Using a combination of big run and big pass plays, the Spartans drove into Iowa territory, but were stymied on a third-and-five play on the 12-yard-line. Matt Coghlin easily drilled the 29-yard field goal to give MSU an early 3-0 lead.
But, the Hawkeyes were quick to answer. On Iowa’s first possession, the Hawkeyes drove the ball 74 yards in 12 plays, and scored a touchdown on a post route from the 15-yard-line to take a 7-3 lead.
The Spartans responded with another encouraging drive of their own. Lombardi marched the Spartans once again into Hawkeye territory, but a false start penalty and a series of incomplete passes stalled the drive at the 33-yard-line. Once again, Coghlin was called upon, and he delivered with a 50-yard field goal to cut the score to 7-6.
At this point, midway through the first quarter, the defenses stiffened for both teams as rain began to fall. MSU forced a three-and-out, but then could not advance past the MSU 40-yard-line. Iowa then got the ball, only to have its drive stall at mid-field. In the final minutes of the first quarter, Iowa punted the ball back to MSU, pinning MSU on its own three-yard-line.
Instead of a conservative run play, Lombardi dropped back to pass on first down. But, his pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by a Hawkeye defensive lineman. The big ugly lumbered a few yard forward and then fell forward into the end zone for the defensive score to extend Iowa’s lead to 14-6.
MSU’s next possession did not go much better. An early holding penalty once again backed the Spartans up near the shadow of their own goalpost and the ensuing punt gave Iowa the ball back near midfield.
Sensing a shift in the momentum, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz went for the kill shot during a break in the rain. Iowa dialed up a play-action double move deep corner route on first down. The receiver got a step on Julian Barnett and that was all it took. The Iowa quarterback delivered a perfect pass and just like that, Iowa was up 21-6.
Then, things went from bad to worse. On MSU’s next possession, the rain began to fall once again. The Spartans attempted an option play on second-and-one from the MSU 40-yard-line. As Lombardi laid out to try to pick up the first down, the ball was jarred loose and recovered by Iowa. Five plays later, the Hawkeyes were once again in the Spartan end zone.
Neither team scored again in the remainder of the second quarter, and the Hawkeyes took the 28-6 lead into the halftime locker room. The Spartans got a bit of a break early in the third quarter, as the Hawkeyes drew a personal foul penalty on the first drive and had to punt the ball back to the Spartans. But, a holding penalty, followed by a fumble by Ant Williams gave the ball right back to Iowa, who proceeded to add a field goal to the tally.
There really isn’t much to say about the rest of the game. Coach Tucker pulled the clearly rattled Rocky Lombardi and gave Theo Day a shot. Day looked OK, but did not have much success moving the ball either. Iowa added a touchdown late in the third quarter and another one midway through the fourth quarter. The Spartan failed to score again, and the game ended as a 45-6 win for the hometown Hawkeyes. The Spartans’ record dropped to 3-2 for the season and 1-1 in conference play.
Coach Tucker was clearly disappointed but resolute in the postgame press conference. “To borrow a phrase from Coach Izzo, I think that we got a little fat and sassy after last week’s game. That’s on me. But, starting right now it’s Michigan Week. We clearly have some work to do. It’s going to be a fun week of practice.”
Other Week Five Big Ten Results
The results from the other Big Ten games in the parallel universe this week are summarized below in Table 1.
The six games involving Big Ten teams this week resulted in zero upsets. Wisconsin faced Norte Dame at Lambeau Field under cloudy skies and 45-degree weather and crushed the Irish by a score of 49-15 on the way to a perfect 5-0 record. The Illini also remained perfect on the season with a tight win at Rutgers. The Buckeyes remained undefeated by virtue of a bye week.
In other results, Minnesota easily handled Maryland, 40-9 and Northwestern shucked the Huskers, 27-20 in Evanston. But, once gain, the most notable Big Ten action took place in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines were coming off a two-straight home losses and Coach Harbaugh was promising a better effort in the week leading up to the critical Big Ten East showdown with the Nittany Lions. He didn’t get it, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
While the Wolverine defense managed to slow Penn State most of the game, Michigan’s quarterback play continued to be a problem. The Wolverines were able to drive the ball a bit in the first half, but two more crucial interceptions by Wolverine quarterback Joe Milton kept Michigan off the scoreboard in the first half. PSU took a 7-0 lead into the halftime locker room.
In the second half, Coach Harbaugh, decided to try quarterback Cade McNamara. The results were not significantly different, as McNamara added an additional two interceptions in the third quarter. By the time Harbaugh inserted Milton back into the lineup, the tired Wolverine defense had given up two additional scores. The Wolverines never did score and wound up losing to the Nittany Lions by a score of 21-0 to drop the record to 2-3.
Once again, Coach Harbaugh seems agitated in the postgame press conference. He fidgeted constantly and essentially never made eye-contact with any other the media members. When a reporter asked if Michigan was already out of the Big Ten East race, Harbaugh shot back, “We are never out of it. There is always a chance. Are you giving up on us in the first week of October? Are you a quitter? I am not a quitter. I hate quitters. What kind of question is that? Who are you? Who let you in here?”
The press conference then ended abruptly.
Other Week Five Power Five Results
Table 2 below summarizes the results from the rest of the Power Five in the parallel universe in Week Five.
In the ACC Atlantic Division, Clemson had a close call at Boston College, as did the Seminoles at North Carolina State. But, both teams won by double-digits and remain the sole unbeaten teams in the division. In the Coastal Division, both Virginia Tech and Duke remained perfect on the season with wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Miami earned its first win in conference play over Pittsburgh, and North Carolina upped its conference record to 2-0 with an upset win at Virginia.
In Big 12 action, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Kansas State all won and all four teams stayed undefeated for the season. The only upset recorded was Texas Tech’s win over West Virginia to improve the Red Raiders’ record to 4-1.
Out West, Oregon edged Washington and with the win already has a one-game lead in the Pac-12 North Division. In the South Division, Utah, UCLA, and Arizona State all won to get to 2-0 in conference play. The only upset was a minor one, as Washington State knocked off Cal, 32-12.
In the SEC, it was a pretty quiet week to open October as Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and Georgia all won and LSU had the week off. That said, Missouri suffered a mild upset at Tennessee, which resulted in a five-way tie for first place in the SEC East. Texas A&M also lost in upset fashion at Mississippi State. At 0-2 in conference play, the Aggies are likely already likely out of contention in the SEC West.
Week Five Group of Five Results
Table 3 below summarizes the results from the Group of Five in the parallel universe this week.
In the race for the Group of Five slot in the New Year’s Six, Cincinnati and Air Force both secured wins over South Florida and Navy to stay undefeated and at the head of the pack. Memphis also defeated SMU to stay within shouting distance.
As for other teams in the conversation, Old Dominion defeated UCONN to stay undefeated and Marshall and UTSA both won as well and currently sit at 4-1. In the Sunbelt, 4-0 UL-Lafayette was on a bye week. Finally, in MACtion, current favorite Ohio defeated Toledo to all make it to 4-1 overall.
Week Six Preview
In the parallel universe, based on the original schedule, it is now officially “Michigan Week.” In this specific universe, both Michigan schools had a tough Week Five, and are left with a lot of questions. MSU is 3-2 overall, but just two weeks ago had a great outing against 4-1 Miami. Meanwhile, Michigan is reeling and on a three-game losing streak. In the parallel universe, the game will be played in East Lansing and the oddsmakers pegged as MSU as an early four-point favorite.
A summary of the notable Week Six action in the parallel universe includes:
- Michigan at Michigan State (-4)
- Iowa at Ohio State (-1)
- Minnesota at Wisconsin (-17)
- Clemson at Florida State (+10)
- Iowa State at Oklahoma State (-12.5)
- Oklahoma vs. Texas (+7.5)
- Stanford at Notre Dame (-17)
- UCLA at Arizona State (-20)
- Auburn at Georgia (+24)
- LSU at Florida (+4)
Will Coach Tucker slay the Wolverines and reclaim the Paul Bunyan Trophy in his first attempt? Tune in next week to find out.