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Ugly and sublime: With offenses struggling across CFB, sometimes all you need is a Marvin Harrison Jr.

Ugly and sublime: With offenses struggling across CFB, sometimes all you need is a Marvin Harrison Jr.

Saturday’s showdown between No. 3 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State was supposed to unveil the blueprints for how the rest of 2023 might unfold at the highest levels of college football power, to deliver a verdict on the Big Ten’s power structure, to assert proof that at least one of these teams can win it all, to affirm a narrative for Ryan Day or James Franklin … to be, in short, as meaningful a game as will be played during the regular season.

Instead, what we can take from Saturday is something we already knew: wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. might be the best player in the country.

Ohio State took the win Saturday, 20-12 over Penn State in a game that was at turns frustrating and physical, ugly and sublime. The Buckeyes are 7-0 with two wins over elite competition. The defense, which marred so much of the Buckeyes’ recent history, was an unmovable force. Day has his team poised, once more, to contend for the biggest of prizes, if only it can also escape its biggest of rivals six weeks from now.

And yet, this was hardly a ringing endorsement of Ohio State’s potential. Quarterback Kyle McCord was wildly inconsistent. The ground game was all but invisible. With WR Emeka Egbuka sidelined, there was a limited supply of real weapons for the Buckeyes. But there was Harrison, who, according to ESPN Stats & Information, had more receiving yards than the rest of the team combined and more yards after the catch than Ohio State’s ground game managed with the ball in its hands.

Franklin took the L against another blue blood. He’s 0-10 on the road against top-10 opponents now, which somehow is still not as bad as Penn State was on third down Saturday. But it was hardly a game that illustrated some weakness of coaching or talent or scheme — though there were certainly questions in each area for Penn State. The difference was that Ohio State had Harrison; the Nittany Lions did not.

It was the type of game that Lou Holtz didn’t think Ohio State could win a month ago, and now seems like it might be the only kind of game Ohio State wins.

It was a game with offenses that looked so similar to Michigan State‘s misery that the Michigan Wolverines immediately sent in a team of retired Navy SEALS to infiltrate next week’s practices.

It was the type of game during which Penn State fans had to be wildly screaming for the offense to take a shot, any shot, downfield only to ultimately sink back into their couches, clutching an 8-by-10 photo of Sean Clifford and wondering where things went so wrong.

It was a bulldozer driving into a brick wall, over and over, except for the 11 times the ball found its way into Harrison’s hands. Eleven touches, despite every man, woman and child in the stadium knowing he was the only player on the field who could turn this game. Eleven touches despite Penn State’s defense checking him, pressing him, bumping him, holding him, pushing him down and taking his lunch money. Eleven touches, all of them immensely important, and yet it was a potential 12th that changed the entire tenor of the game, when Penn State was flagged for holding Harrison on a play that might have — should have, if you ask a Penn State fan — been a scoop-and-score for the lead.

If Ohio State’s game plan was as simple as getting the ball to Harrison, Penn State’s was an abject mess — as if Jackson Pollock designed the offensive philosophy.

Witness the Lions’ first-quarter drive, when Nick Singleton ran directly into an overaggressive Ohio State pass rush on back-to-back plays, picking up 16 and 20 yards. What happens next? Drew Allar takes a straight dropback, that aggressive Ohio State pass rush is immediately in the backfield, and the drive stalls.

Witness the Lions’ second-quarter drive, when Allar found something approaching success in the passing game, connecting on consecutive throws to tight ends for gains of 11 and 34. What happens next? A double reverse that the Buckeyes sniffed out like the Wolverines had faxed them Penn State’s playbook before the game.

Witness the Lions … ah, no, there were no more Penn State offensive drives worth mentioning. In the end, Penn State was held without a touchdown for the first time in nearly a decade.

Ohio State, meanwhile, turned to Harrison, who is a superstar. For the second straight year, it turned to JT Tuimoloau down the stretch, and the defensive lineman utterly demoralized what little was left of Penn State’s offense. And the Buckeyes won.

So now the season comes down to the Michigan game once more. Of course it does. It always does.

And so for all the answers this game was supposed to offer, it left in question the one that looms largest in Columbus. Is this Ohio State team capable of beating the Wolverines?

The good news is, this team has Marvin Harrison Jr.


Bad, worse and whatever Arkansas is doing

Wake Forest and Virginia Tech played last week, but it was Week 8 that offered the best opportunities to break out the Frank Beamer meme. Even beyond Ohio State and Penn State’s top-10 rock fight that … um, highlighted? … the day, it was an ugly afternoon for offenses.

It’s common fodder for service academy showdowns to include painfully little offense, but Air Force offered the promise of a surprisingly new narrative when Dane Kinamon broke free for a 94-yard touchdown catch just 12 seconds into the second quarter.

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Dane Kinamon breaks free for 94-yard Air Force TD grab

Dane Kinamon gets behind Navy’s defense and goes the distance for a 94-yard Air Force touchdown.

Unfortunately, that’s the last offense anyone chose to play. Navy finished with 122 total yards. The two teams were 4-of-30 on third down. Several wide receivers fell asleep at midfield. Air Force won 17-6 thanks to a late pick-six. To recap, a game that came with the second-lowest Vegas point total on record for a Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy contest included a 94-yard TD and a pick-six and still went under.

In Arkansas, offensive coordinator Dan Enos has been walking around for weeks humming the opening stanza to “Sound of Silence” and dreaming up new ways to turn KJ Jefferson into George Jefferson.

Jefferson fumbled twice and threw a pick in Arkansas’ 7-3 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday. Impressively, he managed to complete 19 passes for just 97 yards. Kindergarten games of hot potato involve more downfield throwing than that. Mississippi State at least had the excuse of missing starting QB Will Rogers, who technically missed the game due to injury but would’ve been well within his rights to simply take Saturday off to go see the new Scorsese movie instead.

At ECU, the Pirates’ offense is ridden with scurvy. ECU threw 32 passes and managed just 88 yards through the air in Saturday’s 10-7 loss to a nearly-as-inept Charlotte team. We genuinely wonder if 49ers coach Biff Poggi cuts the arms off his sweatshirts or if he gets mad while watching film of his offense and then shreds his clothes like the Incredible Hulk.

In Iowa, all of that is considered the second-best appetizer for a Hawkeyes game (after the preferred pregame meal of an 86-ounce steak and a quarter keg of whole milk).


Under-the-radar play(s) of the week

Boston College and Georgia Tech defensive backs named A(h)mari took turns one-upping each other for sheer athleticism in Atlanta on Saturday.

First, BC’s Amari Jackson grabbed a one-handed pick like he was nabbing a fly out of the air with chopsticks, then returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.

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BC CB makes jaw-dropping, one-handed pick-six

Boston College’s Amari Jackson picks off Haynes King and returns it for a touchdown.

Not to be outdone, Georgia Tech’s Ahmari Harvey elevated like Michael Jordan, hung in midair like he was in “The Matrix” and pulled down an interception in the end zone, too. Three plays later, Yellow Jackets QB Haynes King scored on a 71-yard run.

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Ahmari Harvey elevates to pick off Boston College in the end zone

Ahmari Harvey intercepts Thomas Castellanos deep pass in the end zone to give Georgia Tech the ball back.

After that, however, the defenses didn’t do quite so much, as BC’s Kye Robichaux ran for 165 yards, added 54 more receiving and scored twice in the Eagles’ 38-23 win.

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David Hale

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