Thanksgiving week is easily the best week for football in the United States. While some may attribute that to the Thanksgiving Day NFL action, College Football Rivalry Weekend makes it the true champion. During this weekend, the best and most historic powers in the land schedule to play their biggest rivals, resulting in epic clashes that often have huge implications on postseason play. Shield college football correspondents Will Scheuerman and Connor Hester picked out the three best games from the slate to watch and report. Here’s this weekend’s action.
#5 Washington (11-1, 8-1 PAC 12) at #23 Washington State (8-4, 7-2 PAC 12)
The Washington Huskies and the Washington State Cougars started a bitter rivalry from their first game in 1900. The first trophy for the game was the Governors Trophy (1934 – 1961), but it has since become the Apple Cup. Since the Huskies lead the all-time series 71-32-6, it’d be overstating things to say that this has been a fairly matched rivalry. But in recent years, both Washington and Wazzu have shown great improvement due to terrific recruiting. This year, the Apple Cup held national prominence as Washington came into the game ranked #5 in the country and knocking on the door of the College Football Playoffs.
This was honestly one of the games we looked forward to the most out of the entire weekend. Will was still a little bit of a Washington skeptic and really, really wanted them to lose so Wisconsin could sneak up a spot or two in the CFP rankings. However, he was dismayed to see the Huskies come out to a blazing fast start, putting up 28 points to the Cougars’ 3 in the first quarter. They played nearly perfectly and forced Washington State into critical situations where they could not convert. While Washington State looked like they had a chance to come back, they simply sputtered and self-destructed with turnovers while the Huskies’ running game methodically plowed through the Washington State defense.
Two things haunted Wazzu the entire game: Washington’s pure energy and ability as well as the Cougars’ failure to capitalize on crucial opportunities. Washington played like a team possessed for much of the game. They had a pure and indomitable energy that Washington State just lacked. They plowed through blocks to secure tackles for losses on defense and showed athletic prowess with huge running bursts and yards after the catch on offense. Washington State lacked the same bite and ferocity, perhaps deflated by their first quarter performance. The Cougars were given chance after chance to come back, with multiple short-yardage situations on 3rd and 4th downs, including one on the goal line, and short drives that sputtered out thanks to Washington, but they simply choked and couldn’t convert many of these chances. Further, they suffered from interceptions, particularly towards the end of the game, which sealed their fate.
#3 Michigan (10-2, 7-2 Big 10) at #2 Ohio State (11-1, 8-1 Big 10)
This was easily the most hyped up game of the slate, maybe even the year. This game has been marked on the calendar ever since Michigan and Ohio State were labeled as playoff contenders. On the line was a chance to sink each others’ playoff hopes and an appearance in the Big 1o Championship against Wisconsin. Michigan and Ohio State are two of the most storied programs in the country. Both are ranked in the top five for winningest college football teams in the country. The two Midwest state schools first met in 1897, and the rivalry has been renewed annually since 1918, to the point where it has been ranked by ESPN as the top rivalry game series in North America. As an example, every ‘M’ anywhere on the Ohio State campus was crossed out with a red ‘X.’ The game is often tightly contested, and even when a team is an ‘obvious’ favorite, the other seems to make it interesting.
This game, especially in the first half, was an old-school possession battle. The ball was traded back and forth as both offenses stumbled and the defenses stepped up in a big way. Both offenses looked like they had a huge case of the nerves, especially Ohio State. For much of the first half, the Bucks were pinned back deep in their own territory, causing Urban Meyer to execute a much more conservative game plan. This, coupled with a surging Michigan pass rush and lockdown pass defense, made the first half offensively frustrating for Ohio State. However, the Ohio State defense kept them in the game long enough to get their feet underneath them in the second half.
Not enough can be said of the Michigan pass rush. Throughout the game this component was especially dominant, with players like Taco Charlton exploiting rather timid Buckeyes pass protection. However, as the game went on, especially in the third and fourth quarters, the Ohio State line adapted to better block the rush and create more holes and opportunities for JT Barrett to create plays with both his arm and his legs. As the game opened up more in the second half, the game appeared to be on a collision course for overtime, which was realized when Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin put through a final field goal.
While Ohio State shredded through Michigan for the score, Michigan had a harder time putting together a scoring effort, just slipping in a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone late in the drive. Ohio State’s defense doubled down, holding Michigan to a field goal, which opened the door for the Buckeyes to take the game. Sure enough, the Bucks marched into the endzone on a handoff and secured the victory in the biggest game of the season.
Auburn (8-4, 5-3 SEC) at #1 Alabama (12-0, 9-0 SEC)
Auburn versus Alabama. Just those words bring thoughts of tough running games and prolific defenses to college football fans. The first meeting between these blood-boiling rivals was in 1893. Alabama leads the 81-game series 45–35–1. One of the greatest finishes of all time happened in the 2013 edition of the Iron Bowl. This rivalry has had a long history of national prominence, as the two teams account for 33 SEC titles – 25 for Alabama and 8 for Auburn – and both are among the winningest programs in college football history, Alabama being the seventh and Auburn the 16th.
This is a game that we both look forward to every year because it presents an opportunity to see one of the country’s premier programs (Alabama) get tested. Every year Alabama makes a deep run at the National Championship and many college football fans hope that they will lose at least once and give other teams a chance. With the common thought that stats don’t matter in rivalry games, the Alabama Crimson Tide entered the game an astounding 17.5 point favorites over their ranked arch-rival.
The Tide did not disappoint. With less than a minute to go in the first quarter, the Alabama defense has stifled a rather effective Tigers offense and held them to one yard. This is an offense that is ranked 41st in the FBS for total offensive yardage per game with 449. But this Alabama defense did not worry and just played a sound game defensively. As mentioned before, the Tigers average 449 yards per game, but were held to a measly 182 against the Tide. It is a miracle Auburn even scored.
Alabama played a perfect game, in our opinion. Nick Saban may not agree, but they put points on the scoreboard on offense and kept the other team from returning the favor. Alabama was able to methodically work its way down the field to the tune of 501 yards and 26 first downs to Auburn’s 7. The Tide won the turnovers battle 2-1 and were able to score touchdowns. Auburn kicked four field goals and lost the game because of it. Auburn’s fatal blow came on Alabama’s opening drive of the second half, as the Tide marched down the field and quarterback Jalen Hurts ran the ball in from four yards out to make it a 20-9 game. Any wind left in the Tigers’ sails at that point died in the water. You know, because the water is where tides are?