College football Week 7 highlights: Top plays, games, takeaways

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, October 15, 2023

The term "instant classic" gets thrown around too much these days. Sure, we're occasionally gifted moments we instantly recognize as something truly life-altering as they're happening -- like every cutaway to Taylor Swift during an NFL broadcast -- but most "instant classics" are just run-of-the-mill entertainment -- consumed, enjoyed and forgotten.

Washington and Oregon's showdown Saturday though? That's one to remember.

The Huskies won -- or, at least, they survived36-33. The Ducks lost -- or, at least, they ran out of time.

Michael Penix Jr. delivered a touchdown throw to Rome Odunze with 1:38 to play to secure the victory and ensconce himself at the front of the Heisman race.

Bo Nix delivered one of the truly great second-half performances by a QB who ultimately lost, completing 20-of-24 passes for 221 yards, but couldn't connect on two fourth-down tries deep in Huskies territory.

The game featured six lead changes, 19 of 21 drives offered the offense a chance to take a lead, and Oregon's fate was only sealed by a missed kick that would have sent the game to overtime.

In 10 months, these two teams will move to the Big Ten and, by rule, stop being fun and start focusing on punts. Thank the football gods we still got Saturday.

There will be so many decisions left to critique. Oregon coach Dan Lanning chose to go for it on fourth down deep in Washington territory twice, and failed both times. He went for it on fourth again with a chance to salt away the game just past midfield. That failed, too, and set up the Huskies' winning score.

There will be so many what-ifs. Would Penix have shredded the Oregon secondary to the tune of 302 yards and four TDs, including that winner, had the Ducks not seen both starting corners injured on the same play? Or perhaps it might've been more had Jalen McMillan not been sidelined early for the Huskies.

There will be moments when Lanning wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders why he was so cocky on those fourth-down calls, but never took a shot at the end zone on that final, fateful drive.

There will be replays of the game when future generations sit back in awe at Bucky Irving's tenacity and Kalen DeBoer's offensive genius and Odunze's ridiculous athleticism -- and they'll ask themselves, what the heck is the deal with Oregon's uniforms? Was that a cookies-and-cream aesthetic or did the equipment guy accidentally throw a Bic pen in with the wash? Anyway, Irving and DeBoer and Odunze are all good.

There will be so many more twists and turns in the story because this was but a chapter for two heavyweights, with each still facing a chorus of ranked foes before a possible rematch in the Pac-12 championship game.

And that would be the perfect send-off for this weird, beautiful, ridiculous conference. For all the slings and arrows and Larry Scotts the Pac-12 has endured for much of the playoff era, its final season looks to be one for the ages, and Oregon and Washington certainly delivered the goods Saturday. It's a rivalry that has fought its way to the top of college football -- 13 lead changes, 38 drives with the score within one possession in the past two games -- and it's a matchup between two Heisman-caliber QBs and two playoff-caliber teams that truly belong in the spotlight.

Will a Big Ten contender be challenged?

Michigan won in a rout Saturday.

We could've typed that sentence in any of the past seven weeks, and we probably will write it again in the next few. Heck, we could've scribbled it onto a note card back in July, sealed it in an envelope and locked it inside an uncrackable safe, then opened it again Saturday afternoon to exactly zero fanfare at our prophetic brilliance. The Wolverines' dominance is the least surprising development of the season.

There's a good case to be made that Michigan is the country's best team. The problem with that argument is the lack of anything approaching definitive evidence, thanks to a schedule that has essentially cast the Wolverines as Andy Reid in a 1970s punt, pass and kick competition.

Saturday's blowout came against Indiana, but that doesn't matter. It looked the same against ECU and UNLV, Nebraska and Minnesota. The best team Michigan has played thus far might be Rutgers. The biggest challenge the Wolverines have faced so far might've been tying their shoes.

It's not Michigan's fault, of course, that two-thirds of the Big Ten is made up of teams that should be wearing red Starfleet uniforms -- just cannon fodder for the big stars.

And it's only partially Michigan's fault the nonconference slate is so bad. Who could've foreseen Bowling Green failing to provide a true test? (Don't answer that.)

It's not even really Michigan's fault that its wins vs. such overmatched competition have been so dull. It's partially slow starts, partially boredom, and for the first three Saturdays of the season, partially because their head coach was suspended and used that time to put the finishing touches on his YA novel about a magical pair of time-traveling khakis sewn with enchanted threads by L.L. Bean himself.

The real story of Michigan's season requires a deeper dive into the text. J.J. McCarthy has genuinely blossomed into an all-around star at quarterback. He entered Saturday leading the nation in Total QBR, and added to his tally against Indiana, throwing for three touchdowns and averaging 13 yards per pass. The ground game remains strong with Blake Corum treating end zones like Kevin Hart treats movies -- he's in all of them. The defense hasn't allowed multiple touchdowns in a game yet. The analytics all suggest Michigan's dominance is noteworthy, with most metrics suggesting the Wolverines have been the year's most impressive team -- that is, if watching LeBron dunk on a team full of second-graders is impressive.

The narrative isn't markedly different for Michigan's archrival Ohio State, either. Ohio State thumped Purdue on Saturday 41-7. Yes, the Buckeyes have a win over Notre Dame -- on the road, in ugly, low-scoring fashion -- but the list of teams who've done that over the past two years includes other luminaries like ... Marshall and Stanford. The Buckeyes have a playmaker in receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., but the rest of the offense has been like the latter seasons of "The Walking Dead" -- occasionally fun, but mostly we're just watching out of obligation.

And honestly, that all sounds a lot like Penn State, which hosted UMass for homecoming on Saturday, in a game in which the Minutemen were cast in the roll of unsuspecting insect flying leisurely across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Sure, the Nittany Lions held Iowa without a touchdown earlier this season, but it's also worth recalling that Iowa had given up offense in September as part of an intermittent fasting routine. Meanwhile, Penn State's vaunted tailbacks have been far from electric so far this year, and reporters are openly wondering why James Franklin doesn't let his QB just chuck it deep on every play.

The Ohio State-Penn State dilemma at least will be settled next week when the two face off in Columbus. After that, we'll know for certain who Michigan's true competition for a Big Ten title and a playoff berth might be.

But it'll still be another month before we see Michigan play anyone likely to provide much of a test.

So, unless you've got yourself a magical pair of time-traveling khakis, the real answers on Michigan's ceiling will have to wait a while longer.

Jordan Travis appreciation section

Florida State demolished Syracuse on Saturday, 41-3, to remain undefeated. There's not much to unpack here -- FSU is good, Syracuse not so much -- so let's instead make this a Jordan Travis appreciation moment.

Travis arrived at Florida State in 2019 and was effectively told by the coaching staff that he wasn't a QB. When Mike Norvell took over as head coach, Travis offered to switch positions. Even as he led FSU to within a few points of bowl eligibility at the end of 2021, the general consensus was Travis was a heck of a runner, but not much of a passer.

How silly that all sounds now.

Against Syracuse, Travis threw for 284 yards and a touchdown (he also ran for two short scores), despite playing without one of his top receivers, Johnny Wilson. But over the past calendar year, the numbers are downright eye-popping: 65% completions, 3,035 yards, 26 touchdown passes, three picks and a 12-0 record.

The lesson here: Willie Taggart's idea for turnover backpacks wasn't the worst decision he made at Florida State.

The other, more important lesson: Never doubt Jordan Travis.

JMU still unbeaten

Jordan McCloud threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-13 win over Georgia Southern, giving James Madison its most emphatic victory since establishing the precedent of judicial review -- or at least thumping Bucknell in Week 1.

JMU is now 6-0 on the season and 14-3 since moving up from FCS in 2022.

The Dukes' defense has been terrific, and McCloud has emerged as one of the top transfer QBs of 2023 after spending the first five years of his career at Arizona and USF.

JMU's reward for all of this success? It won't be a Sun Belt title game appearance or a bowl game -- both of which are off limits because the Dukes are still in Year 2 of their transition to FBS.

It's a stupid rule, of course, but the NCAA has always been a bunch of Federalists.

Colorado collapses in non-Prime time

Credit where it's due: Deion Sanders saw it all coming.

"Who makes these 8 o'clock games?" Sanders asked last week. "Dumbest thing ever. Stupidest thing ever invented in life. Who wants to stay up until 8 o'clock for a darn game?"

First, we must argue with Prime's take that it's the "stupidest thing ever invented" when we've got emotional support goldfish in Tallahassee.

Second, boy, was Prime right about everything else. By halftime Friday night, the Buffaloes had all popped a melatonin gummy, changed into their official Coach Prime pajamas (complete with cowboy hat and sunglasses-shaped eye mask) and focused on getting a good night's rest.

Unfortunately for Colorado, Stanford's team is used to pulling all-nighters for their advanced theoretical physics exams, so the Cardinal kept on playing in the second half, erasing a 29-0 Buffs lead and winning 46-43 in double overtime.

Shedeur Sanders threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, including two to a reemergent Travis Hunter, but his INT in the second OT frame proved to be the final dagger in Colorado's hopes.

Was it embarrassing for Prime? Sure. Was it an indication that, perhaps, Colorado is a fun -- but not exactly good -- football team? You betcha.

Under-the-radar game of the week

The lame kids who all just pretend to love horrific offenses and ugly games were all over Iowa-Wisconsin on Saturday, but the real fans of the genre -- the hipsters who were into Sickos Football before it was cool -- know the real story of Week 7 was the showdown between Navy and Charlotte.

On one side was Navy's option -- of which very few of those options involve scoring points.

On the other side was the struggling 49ers -- an offense so inept, points are tougher to find than sleeves on Biff Poggi's sweatshirts.

Saturday's game had everything: Stalled drives, ugly turnovers and more punts than Brian Ferentz's end-of-season highlight film.

The two teams combined to complete 17 of 43 throws.

Fifteen drives lasted three plays or less.

Charlotte racked up 396 yards on punts -- which was still 113 less than Navy.

Navy scored on a 69-yard pass and a 62-yard run. Those two plays accounted for 25% of the total offensive yardage in the game. (Oh, and that 62-yard touchdown capped a one-play, 57-yard drive because of both a penalty and also that these offenses were moving so slowly the earth began to rotate backwards underneath them).

So, next time your Iowa friends talk about how much they love punting, ask them if they've checked out the new Riley Riethman mixtape. The cool kids know what's up.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Wake Forest's Demond Claiborne took a kickoff 96 yards for the score late in the second quarter against Virginia Tech on Saturday.

What makes this kick return so special? Well, for one, it came in the middle of 17 points scored in a 24-second span in the game -- Virginia Tech field goal, Claiborne return and a Jaylin Lane 75-yard TD catch on the next scrimmage play -- which is notable in a game between two teams that gave us the greatest Twitter meme of all time.

The other point that makes Claiborne's score notable is it might be the only way Wake Forest is scoring any time soon. The Deacons have now lost three straight games in which they've scored a total of 34 points. Wake has had 35 offensive drives in that stretch -- 13 of which ended in punts and nine in turnovers. So, yeah, special teams will need to be pretty good.

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