Sports Xchange Analysis: College Football Game Scout Week 4
-- Thursday, September 20 -- Vol. XXIV -- No. 4 --
--COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAME SCOUT --
--A PUBLICATION OF THE SPORTS XCHANGE --
PENN STATE AT ILLINOIS
KICKOFF: Friday, 9 p.m. ET
SITE: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
SERIES: Penn State leads Illinois 18-5. The Nittany Lions won the last meeting, 39-0 in 2016.
RANKINGS: Penn State No. 10
KEYS TO THE GAME
Now that conference play is here, James Franklin knows his team won't likely get away with the mistakes it's made in three wins up to this point.
The No. 10 Nittany Lions' last outing -- a 63-10 beat down against Kent State -- featured too many errors for Franklin to recognize it as an ideal offensive showcase despite racking up 643 yards with eight players having a hand in at least one touchdown.
"There's a whole bunch of stuff that's on that tape that's ugly and smells bad and winning sometimes is like the deodorant that covers up the funk," Franklin said after the win. "It doesn't mean that you still can't correct the issues and the problems because they're there."
And Franklin has less time to do so with the Big Ten opener Friday night at Illinois. Thankfully, he said Penn State was able to pull most of its starters early enough in the third quarter to give them a bit of a rest before beginning a short week to prepare.
Franklin usually gives players Mondays off, but they found themselves in team meetings to start the week where they revisited their miscues from Saturday.
Those included two fumbles, a handful of dropped passes and nine penalties for 109 yards -- three of those washed out long touchdowns.
"That's something that's plagued us," Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. "Penalties taking back big plays. But in the moment, if it's a hold or something up front, it's just talking to that guy, being like, 'Hey, move on to the next one' making sure they're not letting it affect them too much."
McSorley's dual-threat abilities have masked some of the underlying issues.
He ran for three touchdowns and passed for two more against the Golden Flashes while becoming the program leader in touchdowns by a quarterback and the second Penn State signal-caller to run for 1,000 career yards.
He'd have more yards through the air if his wideouts could hold onto the ball. Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk -- three of the team's top four wideouts -- have each dropped at least two passes.
The belief should be pretty high considering the fact that their rushing attack has produced 200-plus yards in six-straight games and who their opponents will be.
The Illini haven't beaten a Big Ten opponent since Nov. 5, 2016 and are allowing on average 480 yards per game. They were just roasted for 626 in a loss last weekend to South Florida.
Despite the numbers, the Illini got the start they wanted against the Bulls.
"After watching the video, I like a lot of things that we did in the game," Illinois coach Lovie Smith told reporters on Monday. "All phases, special teams, offense, defense. But you don't like the way we finished as a team."
South Florida scored the final 18 points in the fourth quarter after trailing 19-7 through three.
Playing the second half at the same level or better than the first will be the big challenge for Illinois. It seems more daunting considering the Nittany Lions haven't allowed a second-half score since Appalachian State poured 28 on them in the fourth quarter of the season opener.
"I feel like we're getting better and better every week," Penn State linebacker Cam Brown said. "It sounds cliche, but obviously guys are getting more chemistry and starting to mesh well together. We are starting to get everything so going into week four I feel like we will be even better."
Smith said he thinks that's the case for his defense, too. While gouged, the Illinois defense has limited opposing scoring by creating seven turnovers including two interceptions per game. Linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips and corner Jartavius Martin each have two picks.
"One more takeaway would have been the difference in that game (against USF)," Smith said. "We're not there yet, but hopefully we'll get there. We will keep harping on that to get that done."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--WR KJ Hamler has emerged as one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten. The speedy receiver has been a difference-maker on offense and kick return and got to return punts for the first time against Kent State.
--OL Will Fries, Ryan Bates, Connor McGovern, Michael Menet and Steven Gonzalez. This group has matured quickly and has developed a nice chemistry that's helped churn out more than 200 rush yards over the last six games. Illinois has been muscled around up front and will have a long, tough night if they can't get off blocks.
--DE Shareef Miller gave Penn State fans a scare last week when he left the game early after hitting his head awkwardly on the ground diving to make a stop behind the line of scrimmage. But the team's most experienced pass rusher returned to post a pair of second half sacks. Illinois QB AJ Bush missed last week with a hamstring injury. Even at 100 percent, it'll be hard for him to escape from Miller's rush if the Illini can't block him.
--QB M.J. Rivers took over starting duties last week as senior AJ Bush recovers from a hamstring injury he sustained in a 34-14 win over Western Illinois two weeks ago. Rivers has completed 29 of 45 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing 20 times for 24 yards. Illinois coach Lovie Smith did not indicate whether Rivers or Bush will be the starter Friday against Penn State, but said that Bush is "getting better."
--RB Mike Epstein was used sparingly through his first two games this season as a precaution to ease him back into his workload after suffering a season-ending injury foot injury in 2017 but carried the ball 19 times for 113 yards and a touchdown in last Saturday's 25-19 loss to South Florida. Epstein has 35 carries for 251 yards and two touchdowns this season and will likely continue his role as the primary ball carrier against Penn State.
--WR Ricky Smalling has been a reliable target, catching seven passes for 110 yards this season. As the Illini continue to develop their passing game, Smalling should play a pivotal role in doing so after leading the team in receiving yards as a freshman in 2017.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC AT CENTRAL FLORIDA
KICKOFF: Friday, 7 p.m. ET
SITE: Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
SERIES: UCF leads 1-0. UCF won 33-29 in 2003.
RANKINGS: UCF No. 16
KEYS TO THE GAME
UCF got an unexpected weekend off last week its game at North Carolina was cancelled because of Hurricane Florence. The No. 16 Knights will be back in action when they host Florida Atlantic (2-1) Friday night
Kickoff at Spectrum Stadium on UCF's Orlando campus is 7 p.m. ET. ESPN will be there for the telecast.
The Knights (2-0) have not played since a 38-0 shutout of South Carolina State at home the second weekend of the season.
Last week's cancellation marked the third consecutive season that the Knights have had a game moved or cancelled because of weather, but the last two years it was threats of hurricanes to their own campus, not their opponent's.
In 2017 the September outing with Georgia Tech was cancelled because of Hurricane Irma. Two years ago the Knights had to move the Tulane game a month when Hurricane Matthew threatened the East Coast in early October.
"It's tough because of when you find out the information," said first-year UCF coach Josh Heupel, who didn't learn of the North Carolina cancellation until after practice the Tuesday before the game. "You have to fast forward and move on to the next week's prep. It gave some of the guys that maybe have had a few nicks a few more days to get healthy.
"That's the biggest advantage is that guys get a couple more days to rebound and get ready for the following week."
But he rues the missed practices.
"You make a lot of strides early in the season," he said. "So we missed an opportunity to kind of grow right there."
This will be the second time already this season the Knights will be playing on national television on a weeknight. They opened their 2018 campaign with a 56-17 trouncing of American Athletic Conference foe Connecticut on a Thursday night.
"Any time you get to play on national television it's big," quarterback McKenzie Milton said. "But I don't think we look at it as different from any other game. It's just the way we approach our work.
"We're going to get FAU's best shot, but they're going to get ours as well."
Milton had a big game in the UConn win (346 yards passing, five touchdowns) but threw three interceptions against South Carolina State. That doesn't lessen FAU coach Lane Kiffin's opinion of the junior.
"This is obviously a tough guy to contain and a tough offense," Kiffin told the Palm Beach Post. "They obviously go extremely fast, and he's a really special player. They're really good all around."
Going into the season, this was looking like a possible match to see which of the Group of 5 teams would enhance its credentials as a potential contender for a New Year's Six Bowl spot. But FAU's big loss (63-17) in its opener at Oklahoma pretty much eliminated the Conference USA favorite from that speculation.
UCF, coming off a 13-0 season in 2017, has extended the nation's longest winning streak to 15 games.
"Height, weight, speed, the players, the size of the guys, it's like playing an SEC opponent," said Kiffin, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama.
Kiffin's Owls have recovered from the debacle against the Sooners to post wins over Air Force (33-27) and FCS foe Bethune-Cookman 49-28 at home. Running back Devin Singletary, a 1,000-yard rusher the last two seasons, is off to a slow start with 210 yards in the three games, but quarterback Chris Robison, a transfer from Oklahoma, has passed for over 266 yards a game.
"They've got guys that can make plays," Heupel said. "They've got good skill guys that have great speed and a quarterback that's played extremely well. So it's a big test for us there."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Chris Robison, a transfer from Oklahoma, has gotten off to a hot start. He has completed nearly 69 percent of his passes for 799 yards, a 266.3 average per game, with four touchdown passes. His No. 1 target, WR Jovon Durante, has 23 catches for 298 yards and two scores.
--RB Devin Singletary has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons but is going to have to pick up the pace to reach the mark for a third year. The junior has rushed for 210 yards so far this season, a 70.0 average that computes to 980 yards for a 14-game season if FAU makes the C-USA title game and a bowl.
--LB Azeez Al-Shaair earned C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honors for 2017 when he was in on a remarkable 147 tackles. That followed a sophomore year in 2016 when he had 113 stops. He is second on the team now with 17 tackles in the three games.
--LB Rashaad Smith teams with Al-Shaair to give the Owls a lethal tandem at linebacker. He leads the Owls in tackles with 28 and also has a pair of interceptions, the only picks for the Owls so far this season.
--QB McKenzie Milton will be looking to bounce back after throwing a pair of interceptions in the win over South Carolina State in his last outing. Milton has passed for 589 yards in just two games in completing 63.4 percent of his pass attempts. He also has rushed for 66 yards on 10 attempts and hasn't lost yardage on a rush yet.
--WR Gabriel Davis leads a threesome of receivers with 15 receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns. He and WRs Dredrick Snelson and Tre Nixon have combined for 34 receptions for 440 yards and four touchdowns.
--LB Pat Jasinski led UCF in tackles with 105 stops last year and is off to a solid start again. He leads the Knights with 18 tackles and also has broken up a pass.
TEXAS AM AT ALABAMA
KICKOFF: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
SITE: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
SERIES: Alabama leads 2-1. Alabama won 27-19 in 2017.
RANKINGS: Texas A&M No. 22, Alabama No. 1
KEYS TO THE GAME
No more "rat poison" this time.
After rolling to five big wins to start the season last year, Alabama nearly stumbled against Texas A&M before getting a 27-19 victory, leading Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to blame "rat poison" -- his term for the praise that had been heaped upon his players -- for the struggle.
Saban has come up with a slightly different warning this time as the top-ranked Tide (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) prepares to take on No. 22 Texas A&M (2-1, 0-0 SEC) Saturday.
Kickoff on CBS is 3:39 p.m. ET at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
"It's like climbing a mountain," Saban said. "The higher you go, the more challenging it gets and the greater the focus needs to be and the more treacherous it can be. This is the best team we've played so far, so, hopefully, we'll be able to continue to improve and have the right focus.
"So, I guess in a different way, trying to be really diplomatic, I'm sort of saying the same thing."
Texas A&M is in its first season under coach Jimbo Fisher, brought from Florida State with the hope of bringing a national championship to the Aggies. But even considering the fight they gave to then-No. 2 Clemson in a 28-26 loss two weeks ago, the Aggies are in the infant stages of building a national contender.
"We're just trying to get better tomorrow," Fisher said. "That's what we need to focus on. We have to learn how to practice, learn how to prepare and get ready to play in the next game.
"It doesn't matter who you play, it's how you play. We've got to set our own standard and look in the mirror to the standards we want. If you do that, then you can worry about somebody else. Most of the time you quit worrying about them because you can take care of yourself."
This will be the first ranked foe for Alabama.
With lopsided wins against Northwestern State (59-7) and ULM (48-10), Texas A&M is fifth in the nation in total offense, averaging 596.3 yards per game..
"They've got really good players in a lot of positions on both sides of the ball and special teams," said Saban, who is looking to go 13-0 against his former assistants. "Obviously, that was pretty much the indication when they played Clemson. Probably had, arguably, a lot of opportunities to win the game and at the end it didn't really work out for them."
Aggies junior running back Trayveon Williams leads the SEC in rushing (133.0 per game) and sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond is averaging 274.0 yards a game passing with six touchdown passes.
"They've got great balance," Saban said.
The real match may be on the other side of the ball. The Aggies returned a lot of defensive starters but have a new defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, who was last at Notre Dame.
"They're really solid within their scheme, and they also have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of experience," Alabama junior left tackle Jonah Williams said. "I know they have a ton of returning starters on defense."
Linebackers Otaro Alaka (16 tackles) and Tyrel Dodson (15) and safety Donovan Wilson (15) lead the way.
"They have a bunch of different players who have a lot of experience across the board and being an SEC defense, they've played against plenty of good run offenses," Williams said. "So, I think they pose a good challenge for us. We like to take on challenges."
Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is second nationally in passer efficiency and hasn't even played a full game yet. Behind him junior quarterback Jalen Hurts also getting significant playing time.
Alabama's ability to sustain long drives may only be exceeded by the quick-strike ability of the receiving corps led by sophomore Jerry Jeudy, who has already scored six touchdowns, one more than first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley tallied for Alabama last year.
"They've opened it up more," Fisher said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Kellen Mond, a sophomore, has proven to be one of the best gunslingers in the SEC so far in 2018. Through three games, he has 824 yards passing on a 62.9 completion rate with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. "Every play matters," Mond said. "With their defense they try to force you to make mistakes. That's something we'll have to do -- minimize mistakes, minimize negative plays. I always feel confident in the offensive line, the running backs and receivers to make plays, so I feel like we're going to be fine going in there."
--RB Trayveon Williams, a junior, leads the SEC with 133 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 6 in the FBS. His 240 yards in Week 1 against Northwestern State were the second-most in school history. Williams is also the only active FBS player with 200-plus yard efforts in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
--TE Jace Sternberger is only fourth on the Aggies' roster in receiving yards with 146, has a team-high three touchdowns. He has had at least one 20-plus yard catch in each game so far. With Alabama's versatility in all facets on defense, Sternberger will be asked to be both a reliable pass-catcher as well as a stout run-blocker.
--DE Landis Durham leads Texas A&M with 3.5 tackles for a loss. His lone sack is also tied for a team-high. Getting negative plays against Bama will be a key for the Aggies, and Durham is arguably the most capable defender to break into the Alabama backfield to create those opportunities.
--QB Tua Tagovailoa has become a frontrunner for the Heisman following his hot start for No. 1 Alabama. He is second nationally with a passing ranking of 233.3, having completed 36-of-50 passes for 646 yards, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He has directed 20 drives, with 14 of them ending in touchdowns and another resulting in a field goal. He is 13-of-13 for 298 yards and six touchdowns on third-down plays.
--WR Jerry Jeudy, a sophomore, leads the SEC with six receiving touchdowns. He had three catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns last week against Ole Miss.
--LB Christian Miller, a senior, was selected the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after his performance against Ole Miss, when he posted a career-high 2.5 sacks. He finished with five tackles overall. He and the Alabama defense held the Rebels -- who had been averaging 54.5 points -- to only seven points.
GEORGIA AT MISSOURI
KICKOFF: Saturday, noon ET
SITE: Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field, Columbia, Mo.
SERIES: Georgia leads 6-1. Georgia won 53-28 in 2017.
RANKINGS: Georgia No. 2
KEYS TO THE GAME
Georgia's defense has a clear task ahead, but it may not be an easy one.
Slowing Missouri quarterback Drew Lock could be a tall order when the No. 2 Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) go for a third consecutive win over the Tigers (3-0, 0-0 SEC).
Kickoff at Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field in Columbia is noon on ESPN.
A senior, Lock is arguably the top quarterback in the SEC. He has averaged 354 yards passing while throwing 11 touchdowns through three games, and figures to give a young Bulldogs secondary what could be its toughest test this year.
He certainly has the attention of Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
"He can make every throw. He threw the ball outside of the stadium last year on us. I think the biggest thing is his maturity level, his confidence," said Smart. "He's seen the coverages. He's seen the checks. He understands where he wants to go with the ball. He's got as fast of release as I've ever seen. He can get the ball out so quick, and he does such a good job of keying your defenders and knowing where to go with the ball.
"You can tell they really work hard on it, and I think he's just more mature."
Bulldogs senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter knows all about the challenge the Tigers present. Ledbetter has been part of Georgia's last two victories over the Tigers, including a 28-27 nail-biter during their last trip to Columbia in 2016.
"They have a great football team," Ledbetter said. "They have a great passing game and a great quarterback that is seasoned. He has been there for a while. We played him last year and the year before that.
"We've had close games with them and it is just going to come down to executing. We'll have to have a lot of communication like we did in the South Carolina game. We also have to just play smart and play in the ways that benefits the defense. We don't want anybody isolated in this game. We are going to try to play as a unit."
Missouri coach Barry Odom is impressed with what he has seen from the Bulldogs.
"You can't talk about the top teams in college football without Georgia coming up in the conversation," Odom said. "You always want to find mismatches ... there's not many out there."
Georgia's defense is "almost fun to watch when you're watching the tape," Lock said.
"I haven't found the fun part yet," he said.
Missouri's defense faces some challenges of its own.
The Bulldogs are averaging 45 points in their three wins and face a Tiger team that has allowed over 300 yards passing per game.
While Georgia will certainly look to take advantage of that aspect of Missouri's defense with quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Justin Fields, don't look for the Bulldogs to suddenly forgo their running game, which is averaging 272 yards rushing.
Junior Elijah Holyfield -- the son of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield -- has been responsible for much of that damage, rushing for a career-best 100 yards last week against Middle Tennessee.
"He practices tough, physical," Smart said. "Every day for him is physical. There is not a day he goes out there and says, 'I'm taking this day off' or 'I'm not going full speed today.' He's not a guy you have to motivate.
"He loves the game. He practices hard. I think he really likes competition because when he gets thudded by a guy, he always likes to come back and get that guy back.
"You kind of see that out there in his play. He likes contact, and he's a bowling ball. He's hard to bring down. He's really tough."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Jake Fromm continued his solid play, completing 10-of-12 passes for 128 yards and three touchdowns, one