NCAAF Teams
David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer 33d

If Cuse downs another top-10 team, the WRs will be the reason

College Football, Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The locker room had already emptied some when Dabo Swinney entered. He'd come to congratulate Syracuse on a stunning upset of his Clemson team, but he was looking for one player in particular.

Earlier in the week, Swinney had compared Syracuse receiver Steve Ishmael to his former star Mike Williams. Both are big targets -- Williams is 6-foot-3, Ishmael 6-2 -- and both are happy to utilize their physicality. Beyond that thought, it seemed a bit dramatic to compare the Syracuse senior with the former Clemson standout who was taken seventh overall in this year's NFL draft.

And yet, on the field, Ishmael clearly looked the part. He caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, battling Clemson's Trayvon Mullen in a heated matchup throughout. Now that it was over, Swinney wanted to make sure Ishmael knew the pregame praise wasn't just lip service.

"It was amazing, man," Ishmael said. "One of the best coaches in the world coming up to me. He told me he coached a lot of receivers, and he looked at players like me and I was a real good receiver and had a chance to play at the next level, a bright future."

If Swinney's platitudes went overlooked before last week's game, they won't moving forward.

Ishmael and teammate Ervin Philips have established themselves as two of the most productive, dangerous receivers in the country, and they showcased their talent on a big stage in Syracuse's 27-24 defeat of Clemson.

For the season, Philips and Ishmael have combined for a whopping 177 targets -- more than 41 other teams have pass attempts this season. They wore out Clemson's heralded defense to the tune of 167 yards and two touchdowns. And had it not been for the immensely physical nature of the game -- flags flew on both sides, including two on Ishmael -- it might've been more.

"He's a quick jammer, so there was a lot of hand fighting going on," Ishmael said of his battles with Mullen. "I feel like it worked in his favor. But it was a great battle. I felt like it brought the best out of me and I brought the best out of him, too."

Against lesser opposition, the job is often even easier, Philips said.

More often than not, there's a point in the game -- usually late in the third quarter -- when he knows his man is done, worn down from running one route after another after another as part of Syracuse's up-tempo attack.

"You can see the switch where they start to get tired, and you can take advantage," Philips said. "You've got to be in shape to be in this type of offense. It takes a lot out of you. We preach speed."

The speed of the offense to go with the physicality of players like Ishmael makes Syracuse a nightmare for opposing DBs, and while that's not exactly new info, the success the Orange had against Clemson certainly shifted the spotlight onto Syracuse's dynamic duo.

That means Ishmael and Philips will have Miami's full attention this week. The Hurricanes haven't faced many dynamic passing games this season, but they were torched by Toledo to the tune of 344 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Corner Dee Delaney could miss Saturday's game (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App), adding another wrinkle.

And if Ishmael, Philips & Co. pull off another upset, it would be historic. It would mark just the seventh time in the AP poll era that an unranked team had knocked off top-10 opponents in consecutive weeks -- and just the second time since 1972. It would be just the third time in the past 10 years that an unranked team beat two top-10 teams in the same season.

But don't tell Ishmael the odds are long. If Swinney's visit and the win over Clemson proved anything, it's that there's little sense putting a cap on Syracuse's upside.

"What I took from it," Ishmael said, "is I can go out and compete with anybody."

Wimbush in the red zone

Notre Dame will have QB Brandon Wimbush back for this week's showdown with USC, and it's not a moment too soon.

"There are no questions about his health," coach Brian Kelly said this week, which suggests that Wimbish will be every bit the effective runner he'd been through the first five games of the season.

Here's why that matters: With Wimbush on the field, Notre Dame was one of the top red zone offenses in the country, finding the end zone on 20 of 22 red zone drives through five games. When Wimbush was out last week against North Carolina, the Irish scored a touchdown on just one of four red zone drives.

Wimbush has been solid as a passer in the red zone, but his real strength is as a runner. He's carried 15 times there -- tied with Josh Adams for most on the team -- and has accounted for half of Notre Dame's red zone rushing scores, with seven.

All of this is critical against USC, which has been one of the toughest red zone defenses in the country. The Trojans have allowed a TD on just 41 percent of red zone drives, second best in the Pac-12 and 12th nationally.

Going deep

There may not be a better deep ball passer in college football right now than Texas Tech's Nic Shimonek. On throws of 20 yards or more downfield, he's completed 8 of 12 -- a completion percentage of 66.7 percent that's by far the highest of any Power 5 passer. Of those eight completions, five have gone for touchdowns. He's yet to throw a pick on a deep ball. All of that calculates to an insane 500.3 passer efficiency on throws of 20 yards or more.

That's the best QB rating on deep balls through six games of any Power 5 QB (minnimum 10 attempts) since at least 2011. In fact, only a select group of others have even topped 450: Clemson's Tajh Boyd in 2013 (490.4), Ole Miss's Chad Kelly in 2015 (484.6), Baylor's Robert Griffin III in 2011 (480.1) and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield last year (465.1).

Prep time matters

Before Hurricane Irma brought havoc to the state of Florida last month, Miami's schedule set up nicely for its game against Georgia Tech. As every coach is happy to admit, prepping for Paul Johnson's option attack is tough, and the Hurricanes had a bye week to get ready.

Then the storm hit, the schedule shifted and the bye week went bye-bye.

To Miami's credit, it held up nicely against the Jackets and, with a dramatic final drive, managed to stay undefeated.

Next up for Georgia Tech: Wake Forest. Coming off a bye.

After that? Clemson. Coming off a bye.

Sensing a pattern here?

"If we'd not had a bye week, we'd have taken a day in camp or after a Thursday night game on it," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. "Having the bye week -- I always try to steal two or three extra practices on it, and we were able to do that because of the bye week."

Clawson said Wake is actually better prepared than most due to regular games against Army and some additional time spent on the option during the spring, but he's happy to have enjoyed an extra week of prep nevertheless.

And if it seems like something of an unfair advantage -- it is.

Since Johnson came to Georgia Tech in 2008, nearly half the Yellow Jackets' Power 5 opponents have had either extra time off before their game (including season openers and bowl games) or played a non-Power 5 opponent the previous week. And to be sure, the extra prep time matters.

Opponents that played another Power 5 opponent the week before playing Georgia Tech are just 20-34 against the Yellow Jackets since 2008, allowing 31.4 points per game and 6.25 yards per play. When a Power 5 opponent has an off week or a lower-tier opponent prior to getting Tech, they're a far more impressive 26-22, allowing just 27 points per game and 5.8 yards per play.

Four downs

  • Creating and avoiding turnovers is always the No. 1 talking point before any game, but what really matters is what you do with those turnovers. Take this week's game between Michigan State and Indiana, for example. The Spartans are even on the year in turnover margin -- 11 turnovers, 11 takeaways. That's decent, right? Well, they also rank 112th in points-off-turnover margin, with their opponents scoring 30 more points from their takeaways than Michigan State has scored off its takeaways. Indiana, on the other hand, is a woeful minus-9 in turnover margin, among the worst in the country. But the Hoosiers points-off-turnover margin is actually far better than Michigan State's -- just minus-10 on the year. Despite coughing up the ball 13 times on offense, Indiana's D has allowed those turnovers to translate into just 38 points (5 TDs, 1 FG).

  • Sure, the Big Ten looks to have several playoff-worthy contenders, but until Penn State hosts Michigan this week, they won't have exactly shown they're ready to play with the big boys. The foursome of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin have combined to play just three winning Power 5 opponents this year. They've lost two of those games (Ohio State to Oklahoma and Michigan to Michigan State). The lone win was Penn State's over Iowa.

  • Speaking of playing winning Power 5 opponents, no team has more wins in such games than Clemson (4). USC (3) is the only other team with more than two.

  • Penalties may frustrate coaches, but they don't exactly correlate to wins and losses very well. The 10 least penalized teams in the country are 30-31 this year. The 10 most penalized teams are a combined 44-17.

Coach speak

All week Adam Rittenberg has been chatting with head and assistant coaches around the country. Here is the best of those conversations.

West Virginia quarterback Will Grier told the Campus Conversation podcast this week that he has "no fear in the pocket." Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital can tell. Spavital said the best element of Grier's game this season is his ability to stay in the pocket and let passing plays develop, or take off and run when appropriate. Spavital is surprised how much presence Grier shows despite not playing in games for a season and a half. "You've got a lot of bodies flying at you," Spavital said. "To sit there and trust the protection, he's letting things develop. His biggest problem, and he's getting better at it, is he doesn't slide." Grier is tied for the national lead in passing touchdowns (21), is tied for 13th in completions of 20 yards or longer (28) and has 104 rushing yards.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall and his assistants spent 2016 learning their team. Now they're learning how to best use their personnel. One example is Brenton Nelson, the team's nickelback, who leads the Cavaliers with three interceptions to go along with 28 tackles. "His production has allowed us to build and morph to things we couldn't do a year ago," Mendenhall said, "and match schemes people use in the ACC." Nelson's emergence has helped the coaches feature standout safety Quin Blanding in different ways, pairing him with fellow All-ACC defender Micah Kiser on third down. "The statistics are manifesting," Mendenhall said. "It has greatly reduced the third-down effectiveness our opponents have had and has helped us in the red zone." Virginia is eighth in third-down defense (26.8 percent), up from 100th last year. The Cavaliers have allowed just 14 drives to reach the red zone.

Kentucky's coaches knew they had to cut turnovers after committing 28 in 2016, more than all but seven other FBS teams. It started with quarterback Stephen Johnson, whose six fumbles were more troubling than his six interceptions. "He was fumbling the ball a lot," co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. "One guy would come through and hit his arm and the ball was fumbled." Like every Kentucky offensive player, Johnson began going through a turnover "gauntlet" before each practice, where players must carry and secure footballs four times heavier than the ones used in games. Johnson's turnovers have dropped, and so have Kentucky's, during a 5-1 start. Kentucky has just three lost fumbles. "Any time you can make better decisions, take care of the football, it creates a lot more confidence, not only in him but in his teammates," Hinshaw said. "That's why his quarterback rating is good, his completion percentage so much higher. He also realizes when 'It's not my time to make a play.'"

Wisconsin's coaches have spent years trying to find the right spot for Leon Jacobs. Their efforts are finally paying off. Jacobs, who has made four position changes during his career, is thriving at outside linebacker. He leads the team in quarterback hurries (4) and ranks second in tackles for loss (6) and third in tackles (30). His interception in the red zone sealed last week's 17-9 win over Purdue and helped him earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Jacobs had a team-high nine tackles in the win. "He really cares about this team, would do anything position-wise for it," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "It's been fun to see him finding a home and continuing to get more and more confident with it. He's a senior not only playing his best football but having the most fun he's had. That's pretty fun to see and be around."

When Cal's new defensive staff took over this winter, it didn't ignore the obvious. The Bears were arguably the worst Power 5 defense in 2016, allowing 518.3 yards and 42.6 points per game and 6.71 yards per play. "The first thing we've gotta do, it's like going to an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting, is say we have a problem," defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. "Let's face it and capture what we want to be and not succumb to the 'Well, Cal's never good on defense' B.S. I really like the way our guys have worked and tried to change that paradigm." Cal knows it can't be a shutdown defense yet, so the coaches have stressed certain areas to change games. "One of the big charges when we came in here is we've got to win the turnover battle, we've got to win the explosive-play battle," DeRuyter said. "When we've done that, we've won, and when we haven't, we've lost. It's been pretty clear to our guys." Cal leads the nation with 20 takeaways, tying for second nationally with 12 interceptions. The Bears had 18 takeaways all of last season.

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