College football Week 4 highlights: Top plays, games, takeaways

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, September 24, 2023

The first three weeks of the season came with some genuine drama, some true upsets and roughly a billion stories about Coach Prime, but it was all little more than an appetizer to Week 4 -- a Bloomin' Onion to Saturday's 64-ounce sirloin.

This was a day with six matchups between ranked teams.

This was a day in which Deion Sanders would finally be tested, Florida Statecould assert its place atop the ACC, and Alabama's masked defensive coordinator would finally be revealed.

This was the day a nation watched New Mexicoand UMass go to overtime.

Before Saturday, the narratives were paper thin, the contenders vast, the signature wins rare.

Week 4 gave us big-boy football.

Ohio Statetoppled Notre Dameby about an inch and a half with one second left on the clock.

Florida State survived a heavyweight battle in overtime.

Penn Statedelivered a statement that it was a true contender in the Big Ten, and James Franklin was officially removed from Brian Ferentz's Christmas card list.

Washington Statewon the battle of the last two remaining Pac-12 teams, which we're pretty sure earns it a trophy of some sort. It might just be the old Civil ConFLiCt trophy with a Beaver duct-taped to the top, but a trophy nonetheless.

Nick Saban proved once again that Lane Kiffin might win every news conference, but he's got no hope of toppling Alabama on the field.

Saturday gave us Dan Lanning's takedown of Coach Prime, a shootout in Baton Rouge, a near-perfect performance from Spencer Rattler, a left-handed touchdown pass from Drake Maye, and Curt Cignetti asking the officials to hilariously record his voicemail greeting (or at least that's what we choose to believe he was doing).

In South Bend, Sam Hartman and a methodical ground game had Ohio State on the ropes and Notre Dame oh-so close to a signature win. It was not to be. Kyle McCord led a 15-play drive, hit Emeka Egbuka for a 21-yard pickup to the 1 on third-and-19, then helped push Chip Trayanum just barely over the goal line with a second left to play. If the Big Ten has given us myriad 17-14 games over the years that felt like watching paint dry, Ohio State's win was more akin to a Godzilla-versus-Mothra showdown of titans, in which every inch of real estate earned felt momentous.

In Clemson, the Tigers looked as dynamic and intimidating as they have in three years, and it still wasn't enough to upend ascendant Florida State. Jordan Travis and Kalen DeLoach, two players who arrived under Willie Taggart's doomed tenure, rallied the Seminoles to a come-from-behind win in overtime.

In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide's offensive woes continued, but Saban proved he -- or someone -- still knows how to design a defense. After Kiffin promoted the conspiracy theory that Saban had secretly changed defensive playcallers a week ago (and also helped fake the moon landing, we assume), the Tide held Ole Missto just 3-of-14 on third down, 301 total yards, and 10 points.

On the Palouse, Washington State fended off a late push by Oregon Stateto survive 38-35. It marked yet another in a long run of Oregon State hoping for a last-minute reprieve, only to face certain relegation to the Mountain West. It also served as a reminder that Cougars QB Cameron Ward is one of the nation's best. He threw for 404 yards (averaged 11.9 per pass on 34 attempts) and four touchdowns in the win.

Around the country, 12 teams that entered Week 4 undefeated left with a loss.

In other words, Saturday's games had genuine resonance -- a moment when heavyweights traded blows, Cinderellas became pumpkins, Ryan Day gave the most incoherent speech about Ohio since Howard Dean, and a band member wielded a trident.

There is so much more to the story of the 2023 season still to be written, but Saturday felt like the moment when the main characters were fully fleshed out, the plot began in earnest, and stakes were made clear.

FSU, Clemson go the extra mile

The story began with a man on the beach, just hoping to enjoy his last few weeks before starting a new job. It was a story Dabo Swinney, quite presciently, predicted would either be "great or terrible."

Indeed, there are great man-on-beach stories, such as "Weekend at Bernie's," and there are terrible ones, like "Weekend at Bernie's 2."

Alas, Saturday was the latter forClemson.

The Tigers, in need of help in the kicking game, brought in Jonathan Weitz on Monday to take over the starting job. Weitz had been Clemson's backup for four years, but he'd assumed his college career was done after the 2022 season ended, he left for a study abroad in Paris -- "He spent the spring looking at the Eiffel Tower," said Swinney, who we assume also believes everyone in St. Louis lives under the arch -- then moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was taking online classes.

But Clemson needed a kicker, Swinney placed a call, and Weitz arrived Monday to join the team. Due to NCAA acclimation period rules, Saturday was his first day in pads.

The story began like a Shakespeare play, with Weitz drilling his first kick to give Clemson an early 3-0 lead, but it ended in tragedy, with Weitz missing a chip shot from 29 yards out with 1 minute, 45 seconds to play.

(Note: We haven't read a lot of Shakespeare. We're assuming they all have happy endings.)

The miss left the game tied, and in overtime, Florida Stateprevailed 31-24 thanks to the second touchdown of the day from receiver Keon Coleman. It will certainly not be lost on frustrated Clemson fans that it was one of FSU's transfers who proved to be the difference. Swinney has notoriously shied away from the portal. The beach, of course, is another story.

"I wish I'd been perfect today," Weitz said afterward. "But that's my story right now."

It's hard to imagine that anyone at Clemson envisioned the story of the Tigers' 2023 campaign to look like this either.

After a shocking loss to Duke in the opener, Clemson is 0-2 in ACC play for the first time since 2010, Swinney's second full season on the job. The Tigers have won at least 10 games every year since.

It was, for so long, a game that seemed destined to end with a win, with Swinney delivering another memorable-if-goofy quip ("BYOK, bring your own kicker"), with the coach lording it over the collected doubters that, once again, he was right, and they were wrong.

And then the kick went wide left, FSU scored in the first frame of OT, quarterbackCade Klubnik checked into a poorly timed screen pass on third-and-1, and Clemson's hopes for another ACC title were all but extinguished.

Jordan Travis, playing with a wounded left arm, gutted out 289 yards and three touchdowns on a day when the running game offered just 22 yards for the Seminoles. Two years ago, he'd nearly quit football. Saturday, he presided over Florida State's biggest win since at least 2016.

Kalen DeLoach, a holdover recruit from the Willie Taggart era, delivered the fumble return that kept FSU alive. It was almost enough to make FSU fans forget the turnover backpack.

All 289 yards of passing offense for the Seminoles came via transfers. It was a treatise on how to win in this new age of college football.

For the Seminoles, Saturday's game was a statement. Their time is now.

For Clemson, the ending was less definitive.

Florida State is now firmly in command atop the ACC. Clemson's title hopes are all but done. And yet, afterward, Klubnik quite reasonably said he hoped the fans saw how good the Tigers played.

Perhaps that's the takeaway here. Florida State had its own long walk through the wilderness, but a steady accumulation of talent has the Seminoles on the mountaintop.

Clemson might not be in its own wilderness, but it's certainly stuck in I-85 traffic, at least.

There was a time, not that long ago, that Swinney could pluck a kicker off the beach, throw a jersey on him and turn him loose, knowing -- at Clemson -- there was a steady supply of magic in the air.

The story ended differently Saturday, as it has all too frequently of late.

The magic belongs in Tallahassee now.

Ducks dump Deion

There are things most college football coaches think but would never say. Things like, "It'd be better to just pay the players" or "NIL is a sham" or "I'm honestly not sure which state Ball State is in."

On Saturday, however, Oregonhead coach Dan Lanning gave voice to all those coaches too uneasy to speak their own minds on Coach Prime.

"The Cinderella story's over, men," Lanning said in a fiery pregame speech. "They're fighting for clicks; we're fighting for wins."

In fairness to Colorado, everyone knows that clicks are a terrible metric, and the Buffs are actually fighting for engagement and advertiser click-throughs, but that's splitting hairs.

The important takeaway is Lanning and the Ducks put their money where their mouths were, walloping Colorado 42-6, an abrupt ending to the season's biggest storyline.

Bo Nix accounted for four touchdowns, and Oregon's defense was dominant. Many of the cracks in the 3-0 faade finally played havoc with the Buffaloes, with the ground game managing next to nothing, the O-line struggling badly, and the suspect secondary getting burned early and often. In the end, the Colorado die-hards, many of whom have lived and died with this team for upward of four weeks now, were given a cold dose of reality.

More than the on-field issues, however, Lanning's speech underscored the frustration so many coaches have trying to compete with Deion Sanders, whose big personality and unconventional approach to program building threaten to upend the status quo. In other words, fans love Colorado for the same reason coaches hate the Buffs.

Don't expect Saturday's struggles to completely end the Cinderella story, however. Colorado has USC next week, a chance to jump-start the bandwagon. But the Buffs have already exceeded most reasonable expectations, and the buzz around Coach Prime isn't new and won't dissolve with a loss or two.

Considering each offseason in college football is as much about brand building and balance sheets, playing for clicks certainly seems like an entirely reasonable way to ultimately land more wins, too.

Did you say 'Utes'?

The most overlooked team in the country through four weeks? That might be Utah.

The Utes are 4-0. They've beaten two ranked opponents. And they've done it without their starting QB.

Utah's offense was far from electric in a 14-7 win over UCLA, but Nate Johnson -- starting for the injured Cameron Rising -- did enough to win, while the defense was absolutely dominant, including holding the Bruins to 3-of-17 on third-down tries.

The lack of offensive fireworks is probably one reason the Utes have largely been overlooked. In a Pac-12 defined by QB play, Utah has now won games while scoring 24, 20 and 14 and has a total of three touchdown passes in four games -- something Caleb Williams or Michael Penix Jr.manage before halftime most weeks.

But credit Kyle Whittingham, who is 23-6 in the past two calendar years. That's a better record than Clemson, Notre Dame or Oregon and trails only Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama in that span.

Ugly win for the Gators

Floridawelcomed Biff Poggi and Charlotteto The Swamp in Week 4, and we can only assume the 49ers head coach felt right at home in jean shorts and a sleeveless sweatshirt. Indeed, he probably spent Friday night jamming with a Tom Petty cover band, spearfishing for mermaids and wrestling a 19-foot python to a draw.

On the field, Charlotte looked pretty comfortable, too, largely stifling Florida's offense that didn't find the end zone after an early first-quarter score.

Instead, the highlight for the Gators was Ricky Pearsall's utterly ridiculous one-handed grab.

Pearsall finished with six catches for 104 yards, but the bulk of the offense came from kicker Trey Smack, who booted five field goals in the game. Ironically, "Trey Smack" is also the pseudonym Poggi uses when checking into hotels so he can't be tracked by the Yakuza.

Rock, chalk, unranked Jayhawks

A blind résumé comparison through Week 3 ...

Team A: 3-0, +11 points-per-game margin, a win over a bad Mountain West team and a win over a solid but underwhelming Power 5 opponent. It played an undefeated opponent in Week 4.

Team B: 3-0, +16.3 points-per-game margin, a win over a bad Mountain West team and a win over a solid but underwhelming Power 5 opponent. It played an undefeated opponent in Week 4.

Team A, you might have guessed, is Colorado. The Buffaloes were the toast of college football and entered Week 4 ranked 19th nationally.

Team B, you might not have guessed, is Kansas, a team largely ignored thus far despite playing extremely well.

So what happened in Week 4?

Colorado was blown out by undefeated Oregon.

Kansas easily beat previously undefeated BYUbehind three TD throws from Jalon Daniels.

On offense, Kansas has topped 30 points in five straight games dating to last season. The Jayhawks' D held BYU to 9 -- 9! -- total rush yards and had three takeaways in the triumph.

In other words: Rank the Jayhawks!

Heisman Five

Week 4 marks our first Colorado-free Heisman Five. The Buffs will be missed, but we also assume Deion Sanders will take offense to this and earn his revenge at a date to be determined.

1. WashingtonQB Michael Penix Jr.

The level of competition has not been elite thus far, but a quick recap of what Penix and the Huskies have done ...

Week 1: 28-12 Washington with four Penix TD passes

Week 2: 22-3 Washington with two Penix TD passes

Week 3: 35-0 Washington with four Penix TD passes

Week 4: 45-12 Washington with three Penix TD passes

Oh, we're sorry. That's what Penix and the Huskies have done this season ... in the first half!

2. USCQB Caleb Williams

Arizona State made things interesting, and it was far from a world-beater performance for USC; but ultimately, Williams still emerged with two passing TDs, two rushing scores and more than 300 yards of offense. Next week, he gets his real challenge though: Stealing the show from Coach Prime.

3. OregonQB Bo Nix

Nix had four total touchdowns in a dominant win over Colorado and, as we all know, when you defeat Coach Prime, you absorb his powers. That's just science.

4. Florida StateQB Jordan Travis

Travis said after the game he felt disrespected because Clemson played so much man defense against him and his cadre of top-tier wide receivers. Dabo Swinney insisted that wasn't true. He just was too afraid of Travis' legs to worry about his arm. And that, in a nutshell, is why the Seminoles are so dangerous.

5. North CarolinaQB Drake Maye

OK, his numbers might not exactly be Heisman-worthy at this point, but you throw a touchdown left-handed, you make the list.

Under-the-radar play of the week

Louisville's 4-0 start under Jeff Brohm is so exciting, it has the Cardinals players doing cartwheels.

Or something like that.

On what appeared to be a trick play, Louisville's Willie Tyler -- a 6-foot-7, 320-pound offensive lineman -- lined up in the slot and attempted to distract Boston Collegeby waving his arms and then doing a cartwheel.

It didn't exactly work, as Jack Plummer and the rest of the offense flubbed away their part of the ruse, but points to Tyler for some serious skill.

Having said that, it was hardly an effective distraction. Everyone knows if you want to distract someone from Boston, you just yell, "Brady sucks!" and then let them throw empty Sam Adams cans at each other for the next 45 minutes.

Under-the-radar game of the week

If you enjoyed Miami vs. Miami in Week 1, then Week 4 had just the matchup for you.

In Houston (a city named for Sam Houston) on Saturday, Houston(a school named after the city named for Sam Houston) faced off against ... Sam Houston(a school named for Sam Houston but not the city of Houston because it's actually located Huntsville, Texas, which, of course, is named for famed frontiersman Tiberius K. Huntsville).

Certainly it seemed like Houston was the better team, but then, Sam Houston had 100% of the Sam in this one. It would be like a mid-'90s battle of the bands between The Verve and The Verve Pipe. Sure, "Bittersweet Symphony" was a banger, but how do you account for the pipe?

As it turned out, Houston (the team) was entirely too much for Sam Houston (the team, not the man), winning 38-7 behind 105 yards and three rushing TDs from Parker Jenkins. Also, believe it or not, Sam Houston (the man) was actually born in Virginia.

There will be a quiz on all this later.

Harbaugh's return

Michigan's long wait for the return of its head coach came to an end Saturday. Yes, Jim Harbaugh had to pack up his model trains, put away the ham radio and sign out of Netflix with four seasons of "The Big Bang Theory" left to watch and get back to the business of embarrassing Rutgers.

In his absence, Michigan won all three games -- all vs. lesser competition, all in convincing, if not entirely satisfying, fashion.

So, what happened with Harbaugh back on the sideline? A win against lesser competition in convincing, if not entirely satisfying, fashion -- this time 31-7.

Rutgersscored first on a 69-yard touchdown pass from Gavin Wimsatt to Christian Dremel, and Michigan's offense largely puttered through the first half, leading just 14-7 at the break.

But like Harbaugh's three-week relaxation retreat, the fun had to come to an end eventually, with the Wolverines' D netting a pick-six and running backBlake Corum finishing the job. J.J. McCarthy averaged better than 10 yards per throw, Corum scored twice, and the defense held Rutgers to 3-of-13 on third and fourth down. It was, like each of the Wolverines' games so far, fine. And given that Michigan's next five games are also against lesser competition, fine is likely more than enough to keep it chugging along.

Oh, sorry for the chugging reference. We know Harbaugh misses his trains.

Paint the town Orange

Garrett Shrader threw for a touchdown and ran for one -- his sixth straight multi-TD game -- while the Syracusedefense frustrated Army's option en route to a 29-16 win.

Syracuse is now 4-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in 63 years. Back then, Syracuse traveled to road games via the Erie Canal, and Varsity Pizza had just been promoted from the freshman pizza team to JV.

Up next for the Orange is Clemson, a team they had on the ropes a year ago with a 7-0 start to the season in their sights. In that game, however, the Tigers marched back from a 21-7 deficit and won 27-21 after holding the Orange scoreless in the second half, and Syracuse dropped six of its final seven games.

Johnson emerges for A&M

Fun fact: Max Johnson is still playing college football.

Yes, he somehow feels older than his Super Bowl champion dad, Brad, but that's only because time moves differently at Texas A&Mthanks to Jimbo Fisher's offense breaking the space-time continuum.

Nevertheless, it's good for the Aggies that Johnson is still around because they desperately needed someone who could sling it against Auburn on Saturday.

After two early field goal drives, A&M's offense went three-and-out on three straight drives to end the half. Starting QB Conner Weigman went down with an injury, and offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino was already getting his agent to send over his CV to apply for Fisher's job. (We're kidding, of course. Fisher dodges job-security concerns better than he dodges Auburn defenders.)

Instead, Johnson came on and tossed touchdown passes on consecutive drives to open the second half, and a 67-yard scoop-and-score put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter. The Aggies won 27-10.

On the flip side, Auburn's passing game was a complete mess. Payton Thorne, Robby Ashford and Holden Geriner all took snaps and finished a combined 9-of-23 passing for just 56 yards, with Auburn's lone TD coming via the defense. And that performance might have reminded Petrino that he still has an application on file with Auburn's human resources department.

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