June 21, 2024

Michigan played its fourth game of the season without head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh began serving his second suspension of the season after the Big Ten imposed a three-game ban for breaking sportsmanship rules against on-site scouting of opponents’ signs. And the Wolverines played, for the first time this season, against an opponent that actually seemed as if it might have a shot to win.

All of this constituted potentially seismic shifts in the Big Ten’s power structure, and yet, when the dust settled on Michigan’s 24-15 win, we were left with the same story we’ve seen all season.

Michigan won, and although the game was ostensibly close for much of the way, the Wolverines were never in real danger.

Penn State lost, and James Franklin is now 4-16 against Michigan and Ohio State in his career in Happy Valley.

Harbaugh’s future remains in doubt, but his impact was felt all the same, as Michigan’s players spent Friday on social media promising to send a message and spent Saturday on the field at Beaver Stadium emphatically punishing Penn State for perceived crimes against them levied by — well, as their beanies and T-shirts indicated, everybody.

(If you’re keeping track, it’s Michigan vs. Everybody and Ohio State vs. the world. We’re not entirely sure either side wants to take on the SEC, though.)

The Wolverines were relentless on offense, running the ball again and again and again — at one point on 20 straight snaps — against an exhausted Penn State defense. They moved the ball a few yards at a time, methodically demoralizing the Nittany Lions, death by a thousand paper cuts, until Blake Corum sniffed the end zone and ended the misery.

Penn State was listless on offense, ignoring, once again, any thought of a downfield passing game and leaving Drew Allar to dance around the backfield, looking off one target after another before checking down for another lost cause. If Michigan overwhelmed Penn State 3 yards at a time, the Nittany Lions demoralized their own fans by moving the ball three inches at a time.

Even if Michigan had all of Penn State’s signs, a CliffsNotes version of the Lions’ playbook and James Franklin’s ATM pin code, none of it would’ve been necessary.

So after a season in which Michigan’s first nine games were little more than batting practice before Saturday’s showdown with Penn State, this should feel like something significant, an official announcement that, in spite of any schedule-based skepticism, Michigan is a championship contender.

But no. The story is about Harbaugh, a story written in court filings and message board furor and breaking news alerts.

It was a story told through Sherrone Moore, working as interim coach Saturday, sobbing (and dropping a few curse words) in his postgame interview. It was, depending on your perspective, an emotional catharsis or yet another moment of Michigan victimizing itself.

It’s a story that will be shrouded in mystery, such as where Harbaugh will spend game days from now through the showdown against Ohio State. We assume he spent Saturday in his underground lair, perfecting the space laser he’s designing to blow up the moon, but really, anything is possible.

It’s a story that will be adjudicated — by the Big Ten, by fans, by media, by courts, by Connor Stalions’ vacuum company investors — with only a passing nod to due process, objective truth or reasoned context.

After all, it’s OK to discern the opponent’s signs from TV copy, or the all-22, or to call up former graduate assistants to dish on their old team, but it’s not OK to buy a ticket, sit in the stands and watch. Whether that makes sense might be a worthy question, but the only issue at hand is whether Michigan broke a rule — a literal written rule and, perhaps, the unwritten rule in which gamesmanship is OK unless it’s overly convoluted, entirely stupid and executed by a guy with a hilarious name. (Of note: Our solution is a college football “Purge Day,” in which all cheating is legal for one Saturday a year.)

How the scandal ends is, at this point, more interesting than how Michigan’s season ends, and that’s a shame.

Because J.J. McCarthy remains a Heisman Trophy candidate, but one whose success comes with an asterisk due to this scandal.

And Corum, as he announced after Saturday’s game, returned to the field to do something special, but any accomplishment will come with a, “yeah, but …” from fans outside Ann Arbor.

And Michigan proved against Penn State that neither the weak schedule nor the Mr. Bean-level spying were the underpinnings of its success. But that’s the story that will be remembered from the 2023 season, no matter where things go from here.

The Wolverines can keep winning, and the scandal will likely follow them as far as they’re able to go.


Milroe scores six

Since being benched in Week 3, Jalen Milroe has completely rewritten his — and Alabama‘s — season.

In Saturday’s dominant 49-21 win over Kentucky, Milroe threw for 234 yards, ran for 36 more and found the end zone six times — three through the air and three on the ground.

play

2:17

Jalen Milroe makes Alabama history with 6-TD performance

Jalen Milroe becomes the first Alabama player to pass for three touchdowns and rush for three touchdowns in a dominant performance vs. Kentucky.

Milroe’s line over the past six weeks: 67% completions, nearly 11 yards per attempt and 21 touchdowns accounted for.

What’s been most impressive about Milroe’s evolution is how he and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have slowly added more and more into the repertoire. The bulk of Milroe’s early success came on the deep ball (he entered Saturday with 22 completions on throws of 20 yards or more, disproving Penn State’s theory that the field is actually just 6 yards long), but he has added in more and more of the ground game in recent weeks, making life near impossible for opposing defenses.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Milroe is just the third SEC QB with back-to-back games with three rushing touchdowns in the past 20 years. The other two? Cam Newton and Jayden Daniels. Not bad company.

While Milroe has garnered the headlines for Alabama, it’s also worth noting the Tide’s defense has blossomed, too.

After hearing its share of criticism in 2022, the Crimson Tide’s D carried the team in the early going and has only gotten better since. On Saturday, the Tide pressured Kentucky QB Devin Leary on 41% of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which resulted in just five completions, three sacks and an interception.

The win officially punched Alabama’s ticket to the SEC championship game, and if you’re on the playoff committee, you’re praying Nick Saban doesn’t make your life impossible by actually winning it.


Under-the-radar play of the week

The official scale of highlight plays goes from 0 (Mark Sanchez’s butt fumble) to 10 (Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed stretch), and on Saturday, Clemson‘s Tyler Brown delivered something awfully close to a perfect 10.

play

0:32

Clemson’s Tyler Brown goes full OBJ on this TD catch

Check out how Tyler Brown’s one-handed touchdown catch compares with Odell Beckham Jr.’s.

The Clemson freshman did his best OBJ impression to haul in a touchdown grab from Cade Klubnik, as the Tigers pummeled Georgia Tech 42-21 in what might’ve been their most complete game of the season.

Klubnik threw for a career-high four touchdowns. Will Shipley returned from a concussion to post 107 yards and a score. And Dabo Swinney led a raid of a local QT, where he now controls the region’s supply of grab-and-go pizzas.

But no moment from Saturday’s win was bigger than Brown’s grab, which felt like both the Tigers’ top highlight of the season and also a fresh reminder that, yes, this team still has some ridiculous talent. The win also ensured Clemson will be bowl eligible this season, and moves the Tigers to 2-0 since Swinney ripped into a caller on his radio show.

Of note: It’s time for James Franklin to start planting some callers to his radio show each week.


Kansas‘ offense slumps

A quick headline suggestion designed to appeal to the young demographic: Without its Bean, Kansas has no magic.

OK, we’re being told we went too young on that one. Apologies.

Down to its third QB, Kansas ran out of anything approaching offensive firepower in a 16-13 loss to Texas Tech on Saturday.

The Jayhawks entered play ranked No. 16 by the College Football Playoff committee, their best ranking in any poll since 2009, but it was short lived.

Jason Bean, who’d been playing in place of injured Jalon Daniels, was banged up at the end of the first quarter. He returned to play briefly in the second, but it was clear he couldn’t go. Cole Ballard went the rest of the way and completed just 9-of-20 throws for 124 yards and a pick.


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