Scenes from a clash of college football titans

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I couldn’t sleep. The alarm shook the silence at 3:55 am, but it didn’t matter. I was already up. The day? Friday. The occasion? A top-five matchup between two of the most successful college football programs on planet Earth. I grabbed my jacket and headed for the airport. The mise en scène: Yawning Ohio State fans leaning forward with a sort of sleepy anticipation while Frank Sinatra wafted gently from a cafe. I was clearly the only Notre Dame alum in sight. A young girl wearing a dark gray Ohio State shirt several sizes too big and a pair of dove gray Vans perched beside her father and ate yogurt, wide-eyed and glued to a television screen showing a CNBC anchor talking about the president’s speech on the soul of the nation. She caught my attention. It looked like she believed.

Belief. A silly word at times when you consider the evidence. 0 games played. A new configuration of players and coaches with months of experience together — let me clarify, months conducting football experiments in a vacuum simulating what might come up if their hypotheses end up being correct. A science experiment whose outcome can make a man cry like he did when he got cut from the middle school basketball team or give a young couple a surprise a few weeks after a win. Last year this team only lost two games and rewrote the record book in their Rose Bowl victory over Utah. Quarterback C.J. Stroud finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. On paper all this translates to national championship contenders and a preseason ranking of number two in the country. I set out to investigate if that young girl of no more than 13 years was right. Was she right to believe in this team this year?

The tempest came Saturday. What was a cordial peacetime ceasefire between Ohio State and Notre Dame fans combusted. The chasm could be seen in parking lots where some brave tailgates hosted a single green shirt in a sea of lava. I found myself in a perilous position: a 17.5-point underdog on foreign soil. I journeyed far off campus to see familiar faces among the white tents of Our Lady. The refrain among the Notre Dame faithful rang out like a glorious Sunday hymnal or heavenly chorus: “I’m here for the upset.” Music to my ears. Belief, but a different type than the little girl of 13’s. This was a tired belief. The tested belief of an older generation who had their hearts broken by their favorite child too many times and argue late into the night in muffled tones whether or not they should offer one last chance one last time. Promises of change have come to nothing. The family, still wounded after 34 years of separation from the national championship trophy, finds it harder and harder to believe. Saturday the Irish were hopeful, much like the prodigal son’s father. Light rain and newborn skies painted the scene as outnumbered Notre Dame fans pushed their way into the gates of Ohio Stadium, hoping to see a glimpse of the weary trophy on the horizon line.

Then the gates opened. The field, where I stood in awe, looked every bit the belly of a raging volcano. Ohio Stadium awoke from its slumber. Eight weeks of life before dormancy — a short and explosive consciousness. I could tell the stadium wished to wake again. That’s all it ever wished for. 27 NFL teams were represented among the 106,594 in attendance. To think, less than fifty people in that mass of humanity have the ability to employ one of these NFL hopefuls in their desired profession. A funny way to interview for a job. But this isn’t just about draft position and generational wealth. This is about glory. To win glory, you must be willing to do what others would not. Facing a giant deep in the belly of a volcano qualifies. The game felt volatile, uneven ebbs and flows set to a score by a circle of Ohio State fans once anguished now rapturous. Brutus leapt over the South end zone pylon and put his arm around me. It was difficult not to be swept away in it all. I could see why that young girl in gray believed.

It dawned on me in that dreamlike state that perhaps this feeling — this je ne sais quoi — was occurring everywhere and would occur everywhere for months. There would be eruptions in every Big Ten college town this fall. Perhaps agony and rapture do not belong to Columbus alone. They might belong to all of us, like water and air and sunshine. What magic. I was terrified.

In black night, the volcano cooled and tensions simmered. Even the cicadas in Buckeye Grove failed to sing for Notre Dame as the defeated giant lumbered out of the South stadium exit. There was no pageantry in the end, only mundane sounds of engines rumbling and luggage landing underneath several large white buses. In the wake of the battle, peace resumed its reign but clearly boundaries have been redrawn. Notre Dame will no longer be ranked number 5. Compliments, goodbyes, and well wishes filled the muggy evening air as fans went to forage for food. Men in cars stuck in traffic haggled with students carrying pizza boxes and McDonald’s was completely full — even Denny’s had a 25 minute wait for a table at 12:30am. I went back to my hotel room to mourn and think. I survived a trip into the volcano and came back not unchanged. My belief tested but not destroyed. Then my mind drifted to the other top 25 teams who woke up hopeful and went to sleep discouraged. This feeling wasn’t unique to me. There are four spots in the College Football Playoff, aren’t there? Maybe, just maybe…2:00am is not the time to reason. No, 2:00am is for dreaming so off I went in search of something more in sleep. I wondered what the young girl in gray saw that I didn’t and hoped to one day believe like her again.

Big Ten Football Week 4 Storylines: Ohio State, Michigan among teams facing first conference opponents

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In two weeks, the Big Ten has gone from having five ranked teams to three: Wisconsin fell out of the rankings after Week 2 and this week, Michigan State was dropped after a poor showing at Washington (39-28 final).

The three teams that remain in the top 25, though – (3) Ohio State, (4) Michigan, and (14) Penn State – looked great in Week 3 matchups that included Michigan’s 59-0 shutout against UConn and an impressive 41-12 win for Penn State on the road at Auburn.

Fortunately for Michigan State, their loss to a possibly-better-than-we-thought Washington team wasn’t the worst showing in the conference last Saturday; that accolade goes to Nebraska, whose loss to No. 6 Oklahoma wasn’t as close as the 49-14 score makes it sound.

Week 4 features eight Big Ten teams in their first conference matchups of the season, including Michigan and Ohio State, both playing at home.

 

Maryland’s trip to the Big House should be telling for No. 4 Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines (3-0) have won their first three games by a combined score of 166-17, and yet, it’s not clear how good the team is. Its all-home schedule against Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn hasn’t put Michigan to the test so far – they’re blowing out teams that they should be blowing out, which doesn’t tell us much.

That isn’t to say Michigan is likely to lose to Maryland (3-0) on Saturday; Michigan is better on paper across the board and it’s unlikely they give this game away to the Terps, who are also undefeated (albeit less convincingly) through three non-conference games. But a team worthy of the No. 4 ranking will make a win look easy and shut down the Maryland offense (Michigan is allowing a third-best 194 yards per game), and a team not worthy of that ranking… won’t.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t give away much when asked about how Michigan has prepared for their first conference test, remarking only on the great work ethic and leadership he’s seen from his players. But he did note that they have their guard up after winning the conference last season: “There’s a big target [on our backs]. Whenever you’re a defending champion, it’s gonna be there.”

Maryland coach Mike Locksley put the Terrapins’ mental approach simply on Tuesday when he said, “We have nothing to lose.” He noted that Michigan has been more disciplined than his team through three games, citing penalty numbers: Michigan is third-best in the FBS in penalty yards given away this season (65); Maryland is third-worst (271). “We always talk about trying to close the gap on teams like that,” Locksley told reporters on Tuesday. “This affords us an opportunity to see how and where we fit.”

“[We’ll] try to play to the best of our ability and keep the game really tight and get it to the fourth quarter. And you never know what can happen.”

 

No. 3 Ohio State puts offense to first big test against Wisconsin

Third-ranked Ohio State (3-0) faces its first conference test in hosting Wisconsin (2-1), which was ranked 19th before losing in a Week 2 upset to Washington State. Ohio State opened with a big win at home against Notre Dame, a win that lost some of its luster after Notre Dame lost to Marshall in Week 2.

That said, the Buckeyes are the best offensive team in the nation through three weeks with an average 565.3 yards per game, and Wisconsin is expected to be the best defense the team has faced so far. After OSU put 77 points on Toledo in Week 3, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said, “As good as the offense might look, the offense is not good until the end of the year and you can see how tough and how consistent it is.”

“Wisconsin epitomizes Big Ten football,” OSU coach Ryan Day said on Thursday, noting the Badgers’ physical style of play and calling Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz and RB Braelon Allen “the best we’ve seen” at both positions.

The Badgers rebounded in Week 3 with a 66-7 win over New Mexico State, but that hasn’t changed their underdog status going into Saturday at The Shoe, where Wisconsin hasn’t won since 2004.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst complimented the formidable Buckeyes offense, calling C.J. Stroud “a heck of a quarterback” and remarking on the challenge his defense will face in OSU: “They do a great job of threatening and using the whole field.”

Ohio State will don blackout uniforms for the primetime matchup, which is the team’s fourth straight home game.

 

Michigan State looks for rebound against Minnesota team with momentum

Of all the Big Ten contests in Week 4, this one figures to be the most intriguing. Michigan State (2-1) is unranked for the first time this season after the Spartans struggled to compete at Washington last week, which could make the home game against Minnesota (3-0) a revenge game or a letdown spot.

Head coach Mel Tucker called the Washington result “very disappointing” after the Spartans’ secondary got chewed up by the Huskies, led by QB Michael Penix Jr. Tucker listed the major issues as poor communication and missed assignments rather than schematic problems, and said he took the failures personally: “I’m a horse—t football coach right now.”

“We’re going to be defined by how we respond,” Tucker said. “We have to raise our level of intensity in what we’re doing…You have to learn from adversity.”

Minnesota has earned three solid wins in non-conference play so far, showing balance with great numbers on both sides of the ball: the Golden Gophers are second in the FBS in offensive yards per game (554.7) and second in yards allowed per game (170.3).

“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment… They’re a dangerous football team,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said this week, specifically noting the strength of the Michigan State defensive front, which gave up only 30 rush yards to Washington last Saturday.

Minnesota will need some productivity on the ground, especially after wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 3 against Colorado, for which he underwent surgery on Wednesday. Autman-Bell was leading the Gophers with 11 receptions and 214 receiving yards.

The Gophers are averaging a second-in-FBS 312.7 rush yards per game so far, but the Spartans present the first big defensive challenge of their season.

As Michigan State adjusts its defensive approach and Minnesota tweaks its offense, this game is expected to be a close one: Minnesota is a slight road favorite entering the weekend.

 

Iowa heads to Rutgers for Defensive Clash

The Iowa Hawkeyes (2-1) and Rutgers Scarlet Knights (3-0) face off Saturday night with Rutgers at home, looking to start the season 4-0 for the first time in a decade (2012).

It won’t be an easy path for the Scarlet Knights, whose quarterback situation leaves plenty to be desired – Evan Simon and Gavin Wimsatt combined for 59 pass yards against Temple in Week 3 – and who likely won’t catch a break against an Iowa defense that’s allowed 13 points across three games this season.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said there are “several” offensive things he wants to fix, and also said injured QB Noah Vedral’s status will be a game-time decision on Saturday. The recent passing numbers for the team make a Vedral return all the more appealing to the Rutgers faithful.

Opposite Iowa’s renowned defense, Rutgers boasts strong defensive stats as well – the team is second in FBS in rush yards allowed (less than 33 per game) and Iowa has scored three of its lowly four touchdowns this season on the ground.

Iowa is coming off an easy but long 27-0 win over Nevada in Week 3: with nearly four hours of weather delays, the game lasted almost seven hours.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged the parallels between his team and Schiano’s, noting the defense but also the strong punters both teams will bring to the game.

“They don’t do dumb things,” Ferentz said of the Knights. “They make you earn anything you get.”

Looking back on a celebratory weekend as Howard bests Morehouse in HBCU NY Classic

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Howard University gained their first win of the season, a 31-0 victory over Morehouse College, at MetLife Stadium this past weekend at the HBCU NY Classic. As over 35,000 fans packed the stands, sharp sounds from Howard’s Showtime Marching Band and Morehouse’s House of Funk serenaded the crowd.

“It felt really really good to play in the NYC classic,” said Greg Coleman, a member of the Showtime Marching Band. “The crowd had a lot of energy and I’m so happy that Howard students were able to make the trip and support the band.”

RELATED: 2022 HBCU NY Classic: Morehouse and Howard’s Long-Awaited Reunion

Though the game was scoreless through the first half, fans’ enthusiasm and excitement at MetLife remained high, punctuated by Aaron Bickert scoring a field goal for Howard. Wide receiver Antoine Murray took it from there, securing a win for the Bison with 116 receiving yards and two touchdown catches. 

This year, the Howard University Student Association began bussing students to various games in hopes of improving the team’s performance. So far, they’ve traveled to Atlanta for the MEAC/SWAC challenge and managed to bring 150 students to the HBCU NYC Classic.

“During campaign season I made it a priority to go and develop a relationship with Coach [Larry] Scott,” said Jordyn Allen, Howard’s Student Body President. “I just wanted to create an experience for students that makes them want to go and support our sports teams.”

Coach Scott and Allen both rallied around the idea of creating a larger community for student athletes. 

“The whole concept is that we’re all one, one Howard and the more that we can pull together on that end of the rope the stronger we all are on and off the field,” said Scott. “In any endeavor that Howard puts its name on it should be synonymous with eliteness, with greatness across the board and the only way to do that is to make sure we’re all one.”

RELATED: Things We Learned: Notre Dame OL’s second-half surge against Cal a step forward despite ‘a long way to go’

Students and alumni bonded over fond memories and food provided at a tailgate sponsored by the Jordan Brand before kickoff, while royal court representatives from Howard and Spelman College, the sister school for Morehouse College, united on the field. 

What a great weekend to be a Bison! From meeting new friends from Spelman College and Morehouse College, to bonding with my beautiful Sister Queens, in the midst of celebrating HBCUs with Nordstrom, to winning Saturday’s game, I am so full of joy,” said Cecily Davis, the 84th Miss Howard University. 

Prior to the Inaugural HBCU NYC Classic, Nordstrom hosted a pop-up shop with the goal of creating a more equitable shelf by honoring Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The company sponsored Mister and Miss Howard University with shoes from Christian Louboutin, in addition to offering Tahir Murray, a Howard alumnus and owner of the Legacy, History, Pride Brand the opportunity to feature his merchandise. Murray also created the gameday shirts for Google, with the help of Morehouse graduate Grant Bennett

RELATED: Underclassmen Maroon Tiger Players Embrace Challenge and HBCU Culture in Howard U Showdown

Spelman, Morehouse, and Howard took over the city for an action packed weekend,” Murray said. “Working with Nordstrom and Google during the weekend of a historical HBCU football classic was nothing short of a dream come true. Both companies serve as prime examples of the endless collaborative opportunities there are to create impact through fashion. LHP is all about building products with a purpose and we are excited to continue building upon the Legacy, History, and Pride of HBCUs with the worlds’ most innovative minds.”

“Working with Tahir and his brand Legacy History Pride was a full circle moment for me,” Bennett added. “Tahir and I have been trying to collaborate on a project for a while now but we wanted to make sure it was a project that was authentic and impactful. For us to connect on curating merchandise for Google in a game featuring our alma maters was truly special.”

Author’s note: Ashleigh Fields is a well-established writer, award-winning journalist and two-time self-published author who previously served as the Editor-in-Chief for The Hilltop, Howard University’s campus newspaper. She is an avid speaker with an interest in education and public policy. You can read more of her work here.