Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton begins each game plan by studying the opposing offense’s explosive plays.
“It took a little bit more time this week,” Hazelton told ESPN.
Hazelton’s defense on Saturday faces an Ohio State offense that leads the nation in yards per play (8.03), scoring (46.3 points per game) and total yards (550.4 yards per game). The Buckeyes have 93 plays of 20 yards or longer, including 13 or more by four different players — wide receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Garrett Wilson and Emeka Egbuka, and running back TreVeyon Henderson. They come off arguably their best offensive performance of the season, tallying 59 points, 624 yards and eight touchdowns on their first 10 possessions against Purdue, the only team to beat No. 7 Michigan State.
The Michigan State-Ohio State showdown essentially comes down to whether the Spartans can limit the opposition enough to allow their own offense, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III, to deliver.
Hazelton’s plan focuses first on Ohio State’s ground game, which has gashed defenses with stretch runs. The next step is preventing over-the-top passes, without devoting too many resources to one Buckeyes receiver.
“You don’t want to get the safeties too close in there,” Hazelton said. “So, how are you going to play single-high [safety]? How do you want to play your corners? What can you do to stop the run? If we can do it with less guys in the box, we’ll try to do that and stay with the shell. So, one is stop the run. Two is creating your umbrella over the top, and when can you bail? When can you play looser?
“Three is, you’ve got to do a great job, once they do throw the ball underneath, of working your leverage and rallying and tackling, so you can limit those in front of you.”
MSU’s injury situation on defense is worth monitoring, as starting linebacker Quavaris Crouch and reserve cornerback Chuck Brantley missed last week’s game against Maryland. Hazelton said the secondary is “getting healthier,” noting cornerback Marqui Lowery’s increased contributions against Maryland. Hazelton will lean on senior safety Xavier Henderson, who leads MSU in total tackles (82) and tackles for loss (10) while ranking third in sacks behind ends Jacub Panasiuk and Jeff Pietrowski.
“We have some checks off of some different formations where you say, ‘X, you’ve got to get us in the right thing,'” Hazelton said of Henderson. “He’s one of our smartest guys. He’s done that all year long and been able to make our defense right more than it’s not.”
MSU’s defense wasn’t right against Purdue, allowing season highs in points (40) and passing yards (536). Hazelton said the loss forced players to focus more on details.
Takeaways remain an emphasis for the Spartans, who have at least one in each of the past nine games. Eight different players have interceptions, and nine have forced fumbles, led by Pietrowski with three.
“Our guys play with tremendous effort,” Hazelton said. “Sometimes they come in bunches. Some guys get picks and some guys knock the ball out, but it rotates around the team, which is good.” — Adam Rittenberg
No. 10 Wake Forest at Clemson (noon ET, ESPN/ESPN app): Brent Venables kept getting some version of the same question this week as he talked about Clemson’s do-or-die game against Wake Forest.
Under typical circumstances, it’s Clemson’s offense that strikes fear into opponents’ hearts. This year, it’s Wake Forest’s. So, everyone looked to Venables, the Tigers’ defensive mastermind, for an explanation of how the Demon Deacons completely flipped the script.
Venables’ answer was succinct. If this is a surprise to anyone, he said, they haven’t been paying attention.
“They’ve been really good,” Venables said. “Sam Hartman’s been really good. He’s developed and matured and has moxie and instincts, and he’s making a lot of good decisions. But it’s more of the same. It’s what Sam’s been.”
Venables isn’t just putting some shine on an opponent before a big game. Indeed, the Wake Forest offense has evolved from a talent-deprived mess in the early years of Dave Clawson’s tenure to an up-tempo assault. Since the start of the 2017 season, Wake is 36-22 overall (the second-best mark in the ACC, behind Clemson), averages 35.7 points per game (again, second to Clemson) and runs 78.2 plays per game — the most of any team in the country. So far this season, Wake has scored at least 35 points in every game, the only FBS team to do so.
So yeah, Wake’s offensive fireworks didn’t just come out of nowhere.
But if the Deacons are an unstoppable force in 2021, Venables’ defense is still something like an immovable object. The Tigers lead the ACC in expected points added on defense — nearly twice the total for second-place Pitt. They’ve allowed just 58 explosive plays all season, tops in the ACC. In regulation, Clemson has allowed just 0.87 points per drive in 2021. Only Georgia is better. And while the Deacons boast that run of 10 straight games scoring 35, Clemson hasn’t allowed more than 27 all year (and that came in double overtime).
“They’re still really good on defense,” Clawson said. “They’re the No. 1 defense in the ACC, and they’re going to be a great challenge. They’re still Clemson, still dudes, still Brent Venables and great pass-rushers and great tacklers and great in coverage.”
Of course, Wake has two possible trump cards. The first is Clemson’s offense. The Tigers haven’t scored more than 30 points on offense against a Power 5 opponent yet this year. With wide receiver Justyn Ross out, coach Dabo Swinney has lamented that the Tigers won’t have a single senior starter on offense against the Deacons. It’s also true that Wake has surrendered 97 points in its past two games, but Clemson’s offensive miscues have often been self-inflicted.
The other bonus for Wake could be its tempo. The high-speed attack can mirror what Ohio State and several other teams have used to rattle Clemson’s D in recent years. Still, it has hardly flustered the Tigers in previous showdowns with Wake. Since Venables arrived in 2012, Wake has never scored more than 20 against Clemson.
Hartman has this year’s offense playing at a higher level, however, and Clawson believes in his guy. The key might be avoiding any major miscues. Hartman has five picks in his past two games — both shootouts. On Hartman’s final drive, however, he converted a third-and-seven, third-and-nine and a third-and-13 before running back Justice Ellison scored the deciding TD.
Clawson blamed some of the early struggles to too much energy in a big game, and he was pleased that his QB found his footing late.
“The challenge is always adversity and prosperity,” Clawson said. “We handled the adversity well after losing to North Carolina. Now, we have to handle the prosperity of beating NC State. When you look at Clemson and what they’ve meant to the league, if that doesn’t get your attention, we don’t have a chance anyway.”
Clawson said he’d be surprised if Saturday’s game is another 45-42 affair, but Wake Forest certainly has played its share of those games this year.
But as Venables suggested, this one might not be so different from past showdowns as everyone thinks. — David Hale
SMU at No. 5 Cincinnati (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app): The most pressing question facing Cincinnati is not about its 10 wins or its No. 5 College Football Playoff ranking; it’s why, oh why, are the Bearcats not piling up the “style points?” In four straight games now, the Bearcats have had to scratch and claw (pun intended) for wins against teams that are not exactly at the top of their conference.
With a matchup against SMU, they have the ability to change that narrative — with a dominant win over one of the best teams in the conference. A win also would get Cincinnati to 11-0 for the second time in school history.
But whether a dominant win over another good team is enough to change the minds of the people on the CFP selection committee is another matter entirely. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell is well aware of the perceived lack of style points but isn’t exactly buying the criticism.
“You’ve got to give other teams credit too,” Fickell said. “At some point in time, I think old-school ways of the Jim Kelly era where all of a sudden, you’re up by three touchdowns and the coach says, ‘Hey, let’s get out of this thing and run the football,’ that’s not the way of the world today. Guys get down three, four touchdowns and they’re slinging it and firing away. I think we understand that, and we know that we’ve got to do a better job at still staying sound in what we do. I think that’s always kind of been a little bit of our Achilles’ heel defensively is you get frustrated when big things happen, and when you do that, then it compounds. I think there’s little things we can do a lot better job of closing out.”
Focusing too much on the end result takes away from what has been accomplished up until this point. Cincinnati did not just start 10-0 in a vacuum. The four-year seniors have a chance to win more games than any other group in school history. Headed into the game, the four-year seniors are 41-6, tied for the most during a four-year stretch in school history (2006-09).
Quarterback Desmond Ridder, a fifth-year senior, is 24-0 all time at Nippert Stadium and will be honored along with the other seniors on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a very special moment, coming out here for our last guaranteed opportunity to play on Nippert,” Ridder said. “I could try to tell you the order of what my emotions are going to be like, but I don’t think I’ll really know until I walk out onto that field when I hear my name called.” — Andrea Adelson
No. 3 Oregon at No. 23 Utah (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Both Oregon and Utah head into Saturday’s game with a chance to lock up their respective divisions in what will likely be a preview of the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 3.
For Oregon, the stakes are much higher, as it remains on course to return to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014, when the format debuted. Considering the Ducks are already ranked ahead of Cincinnati and have a more difficult schedule ahead, it’s hard to create a logical scenario in which the Ducks are left out of the four-team field if they win out. From that standpoint, this is essentially a playoff game for Oregon, as a loss would undoubtedly drop it from contention.
Oregon’s situation leaves Utah in a unique position: The Utes might have a better shot at playing in the Rose Bowl if they lose this game. Here’s why: As previously stated, if Oregon wins out, it will go to the playoff, meaning the Pac-12’s slot for the Rose Bowl would then likely go to the next highest-ranked team from the Pac-12 … Utah (probably). If the Ducks lose to Utah this week, though, then win the rematch in the Pac-12 title game, they would be the team headed to Pasadena. Obviously, Utah would prefer to just win the rest of its games, earn the conference title and take that route to Pasadena, but a loss wouldn’t be so bad.
Through seven conference games, Oregon (6-1) and Utah (6-1) have put up similar statistics. Utah (38.4 points per game) is slightly outscoring Oregon (34.2) and has given up just five fewer points (162 to 167). Both teams are outgunning their opponents by 99.0 yards per game (693 yards total) and are nearly even in turnover margin (Utah +3; Oregon +2).
They have the two most efficient scoring offenses in the conference (Utah at 3.33 points per drive; Oregon at 2.91). Utah has a slight edge on defense too, allowing just 1.96 points per drive to Oregon’s 2.04, and has committed just 4.29 penalties per game to Oregon’s 7.86. — Kyle Bonagura
No. 9 Oklahoma State at Texas Tech (8 p.m. ET, Fox): All of a sudden, the Oklahoma State Cowboys have a big, wide path to a Big 12 title sitting there waiting for them.
First up: a Texas Tech team coming off a 41-38 win over Iowa State under interim coach Sonny Cumbie, getting Tech bowl eligible despite firing coach Matt Wells three weeks ago and with the Red Raiders’ third-string quarterback seeing his first extensive playing time.
With the Cowboys coming off their most complete game of the season in a 63-17 shellacking of TCU, coach Mike Gundy seems to be comfortable with where Oklahoma State is headed.
“Yeah, I mean, we just — we have a pretty good idea of who we are now in all three phases,” Gundy said on Monday. “So, don’t try to do something that we’re not capable of, but also make sure that we’re stressing the important areas for us to continue to get better each game. I mean, you know, a sign of a good football team and a sign of a well-coached football team if a team that gets better each week, and I feel like we’ve improved each week. I’m happy with that part of our program this year, and so we just need to continue in that path.”
Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders threw three interceptions against Baylor, but he had just three picks in the other eight games this season. He has steadily improved and has completed 68% of his passes in the past two games, against West Virginia and TCU.
“Quarterbacks have to learn that we don’t have to have a positive play every time we call a play,” Gundy said. “So, he’s getting a better feel for that, in my opinion, as this year has progressed, but we’re also protecting better. We’ve protected him better in the last four weeks than we have in the first four weeks. That’s why he’s playing better.”
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Cowboys a 78% chance to beat Texas Tech. The Cowboys have a lot on the line: According to ESPN’s Allstate Playoff Predictor, they have a 32% chance to make the playoff, seventh highest among all teams. Oklahoma State has an 88% chance to make the playoff if the Cowboys win out. That march could start this week, as a win combined with either an Oklahoma win over Iowa State or a Baylor loss at Kansas State would clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game for Oklahoma State. — Dave Wilson