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College football winners and losers: Once again, No. 5 Washington finds a way

Michael Penix Jr. wasn’t afforded the chance to take many arrows out of his quiver in the second half Saturday.

The quarterback of No. 5 Washington made his last opportunity count, and in doing so ensured the Huskies remained undefeated and would play in the Pac-12 title game.

With 1:58 to go, Penix zipped a third-down pass to Rome Odunze for 19 yards to seal the Huskies’ 22-20 victory at No. 11 Oregon State, overcoming a cold, soggy night and a methodical, patient opponent to remain firmly in the playoff picture.

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It wasn’t the first time the Penix-to-Odunze connection was crisp in Corvallis. The two connected on a pair of touchdown passes in the first half as Washington (11-0, 8-0 Pac-12) built a 22-10 lead.

Oregon State (8-3, 5-3) figured out the best way to slow the Huskies down was to keep them off the field.

The Beavers bled nearly 10 minutes of clock in the third quarter on a 16-play touchdown drive capped by Damien Martinez’s second touchdown run of the night. And a 10-play, 50-yard fourth-quarter drive covered 4 minutes, 42 seconds and netted a field goal to bring Oregon State within two.

Meanwhile, Washington ran six plays in the third quarter and was forced to punt after a couple first downs when it got the ball back after the Beavers closed within 22-20. But as they have done repeatedly during Pac-12 play — against Oregon in a classic, against Arizona State in a battle for survival on an off night, against Southern California in a back-and-forth game devoid of defense — the Huskies won the one or two moments that mattered most.

Forcing the Beavers into a fourth-down incompletion near midfield with 2:08 to go ended another lengthy possession that was closing in on six minutes. Penix’s throw to Odunze, after which he turned to his signature pantomime of shooting an arrow to savor the moment, clinched the outcome. After taking a knee three times, Penix and the Huskies made their escape.

(One wonders what a Seattle athlete of a slightly earlier era, former Mariners closer Fernando Rodney, would think of their shared celebration).

Oregon State’s ever-so-slim playoff hopes are done with the loss, as are its hopes of claiming a Pac-12 title in the face of 10 schools defecting to other leagues next season and leaving the Beavers and Washington State with a pile of money but an uncertain future.

It wasn’t as if the Beavers could have hoped to contain Penix much better in the final 30 minutes. Washington managed only 69 yards and three first downs in the second half. But its lefty quarterback had a chance to shoot his shot, and he took full advantage of it.

Navy honors its seniors, then pitches a shutout against East Carolina

Two more victories — over Washington State in the annual showdown for the Apple Cup, and against either Oregon or Arizona in the Pac-12 title game — will provide the Huskies their greatest shot yet: A playoff berth to cap an already memorable season.

Here are the weekend’s biggest winners and losers:

The Dukes’ hopes of an undefeated season were dashed with a 26-23 overtime loss to Appalachian State. It took Elijah Sarratt to catch an 11-yard touchdown pass then haul in a two-point conversion with 57 seconds left just to get James Madison (10-1, 6-1 Sun Belt) to overtime.

But after the Dukes opened the extra period with a field goal, Appalachian State (7-4, 5-2) needed just four plays to seal the victory. Joey Aguilar’s short pass to Kaedin Robinson resulted in an eight-yard touchdown as the Mountaineers remained in the Sun Belt title hunt.

Much has been made of James Madison’s attempts to get the NCAA to waive its two-year waiting period for bowl eligibility, something that also prevents the Dukes from playing for a conference title, per league rules.

The Dukes may get a postseason nod anyway — there appears to be a decent chance there won’t be enough six-win teams to fill all the bowl spots — but at least now there won’t be a serious gripe about being excluded from the New Year’s Six structure. That’s no solace for James Madison as it deals with its first loss of the season. It is, though, one fewer problem the NCAA will be blamed for in perpetuity.

Game of the day: Here comes Georgia, and here come thoughts of a certain word

The Cardinals (10-1, 7-1 ACC) are off to a conference championship game for the first time after fending off Miami on Saturday, 38-31. Jack Plummer threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns as Louisville locked up a Dec. 2 date with Florida State in Charlotte.

That by itself makes this season a triumph for first-year coach Jeff Brohm, who took over a team picked to finish eighth in the league. But there are still things on the table for Louisville if enough chaos is generated elsewhere.

A one-loss power conference champion is far from a sure thing to land a playoff berth, particularly in a year such as this when there have been relatively few major surprises. Yet it’s still a possibility, at least if Louisville can upend Kentucky next week and Florida State the week after to get to 12-1.

The Wildcats have won five in a row, their longest winning streak since 2014. And for the second time this month, they have overwhelmed a ranked opponent at home, blistering injury-plagued Utah, 42-18.

How quickly did Arizona ensure it would remain in contention for a spot in the Pac-12 title game into the final week of the season? Put it this way: At the end of the game’s sixth possession (three per team), the Wildcats already led 28-0.

Arizona (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) had three crisp touchdown drives and a short blocked punt return to ambush the Utes (7-4, 4-4), who joined Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA (which fell, 27-10, in Tucson two weeks ago) as ranked foes the Wildcats have downed this season.

A 10-win season for Jedd Fisch’s team would have seemed out of reach at the start of the season and unlikely even after Arizona played Washington and Southern California tough in back-to-back weeks early in league play. But now? The Wildcats get 3-8 Arizona State in the Territorial Cup, still have a bowl game and could even play for a conference title next month if things break right. For the season and for the week, there are few more obvious winners than Arizona.

It’s fashionable for the truly jaded to pooh-pooh the value of reaching a bowl game, especially when a power conference team does so. There are 133 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and 82 bowl slots. As achievements go, it often isn’t the highest hurdle to clear.

Then there are teams such as the Wildcats, who didn’t win a game in North America last season, fired longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald over the summer and could have easily gone through the motions during a season in purgatory under an interim coach.

Instead, Northwestern earned its sixth victory with a week to spare, knocking off Purdue, 23-15. The triumph comes just days after the Wildcats removed the interim tag from David Braun’s title after he held things together this fall.

Coupled with last week’s 24-10 victory at Wisconsin, Northwestern has won back-to-back games for the first time this season. The Wildcats will aim for their first three-game winning streak since 2020 when they close out the regular season next Saturday at Illinois.

All sizzle and no steak. All hat and no cattle. Select the idiom of your choice concerning the failure to live up to overwhelming hype. That sums up the past two months for the Buffaloes, who are assured a losing season after a 56-14 thumping at Washington State on Friday.

It’s a long way from a 3-0 start that was magnified by a famous first-year coach (Deion Sanders), a novel method of roster construction (almost complete turnover with the help of a massive influx of transfers) and far too much credulous coverage suggesting the sport was being transformed in real time.

Instead, Colorado (4-7, 1-7 Pac-12) was done in because it couldn’t hide its defensive deficiencies even when it was winning. It could only mask its limited offensive line for so long. It never had much high-end depth, and it couldn’t withstand the injuries that occur during a routine season.

And the ability to generate attention made the Buffaloes something they hadn’t been at any point in the past two decades: A target, a foe that opponents were only too happy to get up to play (a trend that became evident when Oregon clobbered Colorado, 42-6, on Sept. 23).

That started a tailspin of seven losses in eight games, and all of it was on display Friday. Washington State (5-6, 2-6 Pac-12) rolled up a 42-7 halftime lead with the help of touchdowns on a fumble return and a kickoff. It also steamrolled the Buffaloes’ hapless defensive line on a short touchdown run late in the half. Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders was forced out of the game because of injury.

The entire second half was a victory lap for the Cougars in their home finale.

As for Colorado, it took the long way around to a familiar spot: The Pac-12’s cellar. Sanders didn’t reinvent the college football wheel in his first year, though he shouldn’t have been expected to do so. And until and unless the Buffaloes fix the basics — play on the lines and depth chief among them — the sport won’t be revolutionized in Boulder next year, either.

The Bulldogs surrendered 75 yards on the first play from scrimmage … and then barely 200 (202, to be precise) the rest of the way in a 38-10 drubbing of Tennessee.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say it was never in doubt. But it didn’t take long for the Bulldogs (11-0, 8-0 SEC) to polish off their 27th consecutive SEC regular season victory and 28th triumph in a row overall.

For Georgia, it was business as usual. For the purposes of figuring out playoff possibilities, a largely stress-free day for the Bulldogs’ offense (which amassed at least 50 yards in each of its six scoring drives) meant the two-time national champions moved even closer to locking up yet another trip to the national semifinals.

The Hawkeyes are off to the Big Ten title game for the second time in three seasons, clinching the final edition of the league’s West Division with a 15-13 defeat of Illinois.

It was a fine display of Iowa football bingo. Of course the Hawkeyes (9-2, 6-2) recorded a safety. Of course they kept Illinois to fewer than 300 yards. Of course they punted eight times (including six Tory Taylor boomers of more than 50 yards).

And of course Iowa locked up a trip to Indianapolis to face the Michigan-Ohio State winner by scoring a grand sum of 108 points in its six conference victories to date (and 10 in its two losses).

One thing the Ducks have going for them: They have not allowed anyone they were supposed to clobber in Pac-12 play to come remotely close to threatening them.

Stanford on the road? A 42-6 rout.

Cal at home? A 63-19 demolition.

And for those who would like to retroactively include Colorado in this bunch? A memorable 42-6 shellacking.

The trend continued with a 49-13 clubbing of Arizona State in Tempe as Bo Nix threw for 404 yards and six touchdowns. The Ducks (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) won’t face a truly overmatched opponent again this season. But they put on a master class this season on handling business efficiently against the Pac-12’s second division.

The Red Wolves were already on their way to their sixth victory of the season and a likely bowl trip, holding a comfortable 32-point edge on Texas State in the third quarter.

Then Trevian Thomas returned a fumble 91 yards for a touchdown. And Ja’Quez Cross brought back a kickoff 93 yards for a score on the final play of the period. And Melique Straker hauled an interception 87 yards to the house. And Dane Motley picked off a pass at midfield and returned it for a touchdown.

It was four touchdowns in a span of 10:18 of game time — and not once did Arkansas State’s offense come onto the field.

The Red Wolves (6-5, 4-3 Sun Belt) would go on to win, 77-31, tying for the third-most points in program history thanks to one of the wilder sequences of the season at any level.

This isn’t what Hugh Freeze is getting paid so much to deliver.

It had actually been an almost delightfully nondescript first season for Freeze at Auburn. The Tigers had beaten five sub-.500 teams and a 6-5 Football Championship Subdivision program (Samford) to secure bowl eligibility. They lost by a touchdown to both Georgia and Mississippi. They’d only been demolished once, by LSU.

For a program coming off a string of three forgettable seasons — 6-5 in 2020, then 6-7 and 5-7 — and a pair of coaching changes in that span, a nice, stable year could have been viewed as a solid enough foundation, even if it didn’t come close to achieving any national prominence.

(One could argue a nice, stable season that didn’t attract much national attention would be a good thing for a first-year coach at a program that is rarely placid).

How much that math changes with a 31-10 loss to New Mexico State remains to be seen. But it wasn’t a remotely fluky loss. The Aggies (9-3) outgained Auburn 414-213, controlled the ball for nearly 39 minutes, didn’t commit a turnover and never trailed. All five of their scoring drives lasted at least six plays; the first four all took at least 10 plays and drained at least five minutes off the clock.

Alabama looms in the Iron Bowl next week. And for the first time in his tenure, Freeze will head into a game coming off a loss few could write off as simply contending with a more talented team further along in its program development. Thus, it’s time to dust off one of the most dangerous sentences in college football: It’s sure to be an interesting week on the Plains.

Navy’s defense (winner)

The Midshipmen recorded their monthly shutout, silencing East Carolina, 10-0, to improve to 5-5. Navy beat Wagner, 24-0, in its home opener Sept. 9, then won, 14-0, at Charlotte last month.

It’s the first time since 1978 that Navy has recorded at least three shutouts in a season.

American Athletic Conference math (winner)

Three of the league’s 14 teams will head into next weekend with an undefeated league record. Texas San Antonio got to 7-0 in the conference with a 49-21 rout of South Florida on Friday. Tulane followed Saturday afternoon by easing past Florida Atlantic, 24-8. And SMU held off Memphis, 38-34, on the road to make it a perfect trio.

Best of all for the conference, Tulane plays host to UTSA on Friday. The winner heads to the league title game, and so will SMU if it defeats Navy on Saturday.

And if SMU loses? According to the AAC, “a composite average of selected computer rankings (Anderson & Hester, Billingsley, Colley and Wolfe) will be used to determine the championship game participant.”

And everyone thought computers determining who plays for a championship was a thing of the past.

Southern California (loser)

Truly, the less said about the Trojans at this point, the better. The 38-20 thumping they absorbed against UCLA — at home, no less — was an apt way to conclude a regular season that began swirling down the drain a little more than a month ago.

Southern Cal (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) didn’t just waste what will almost certainly be the final season of Caleb Williams’s college career. It was a bunch opponents would gleefully try to knock out, knowing there was a chance to finish it off fairly quickly (as Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA all did) because of a defense that offered only moderate resistance on a good day.

The Trojans lost five of their last six, falling first from national title contention, then the Pac-12 title picture and finally from relevance this season. Saturday’s loss was almost an afterthought outside of Los Angeles (and certainly not to UCLA), and it further highlights how much work Lincoln Riley has in front of him this offseason.

There’s a defensive coordinator to hire, a new quarterback to find and plenty more on the to-do list. But nothing is more important to USC’s chances of actually landing a playoff berth and contending in the coast-to-coast Big Ten in the future than establishing a consistent, productive identity that doesn’t fall apart at the first hint of trouble.

The Seminoles’ 58-13 rout of North Alabama ended on something of a light note. The Lions called timeout with nine seconds remaining and lined up for a field goal. Florida State blocked it and Quindarrius Jones scooped it up and ran 50 yards unimpeded for the ultimate garbage touchdown.

If only the rest of the night had generated such laughs.

Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis suffered a severe leg injury late in the first quarter, and while Seminoles Coach Mike Norvell didn’t have an update on Travis’s status after the game, it didn’t look good.

The Seminoles (11-0) will probably go with Tate Rodemaker next week against Florida. Then comes an ACC championship game against Louisville. Win both, and it would be hard to keep Florida State out of the playoff as an undefeated power conference champion.

But the Seminoles’ ceiling is lower without its sixth-year senior at quarterback. How much lower is uncertain, but Florida State will find out soon.


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