Takeaways: After crushing Clemson, star Pitt QB reflects on 'beauty in the struggle'

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PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 23: Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Panthers looks over his Offensive Line during the first half against the Clemson Tigers on October 23, 2021 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Michael Longo/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
One NFL scout on Pitt QB Kenny Pickett: "He’s really helped himself. I thought he was a third-day [of the draft] guy last year. He’s really improved a lot. (Michael Longo/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The face of college football amid this most spirited Saturday stood on the field after an upset that wasn’t an upset and pined for a cold beverage. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, in so many ways, was giving us exactly what we were looking for in 2021.

We wanted to end the inevitable stormtrooper death marches to the College Football Playoff. We wanted it so much that we’re on the cusp of changing the entire format. We were so bored by the familiarity, with Nick Saban’s air quotes, Dabo Swinney’s folksiness and Ohio State’s Big Ten domination that the rules are amid transformative scrutiny.

But before the red tape of a new methodology to determine college football’s national champion got unstuck, a funny thing happened to the familiar. It got tossed in a blender with new transfer rules, the lure of name, image and likeness money, and the welcomed return of Super Seniors.

And what has resulted is the intoxicating cocktail that is the 2021 season — a sport shaken, stirred and served cold to those fan bases who’d begun to feel like CFP participation is a birthright. We may well end up with some familiar faces in the playoff, but the path there hasn’t felt this improvisational at any point in the CFP era.

Pickett emerged as the face of the chaos Saturday as he bolstered his surging Heisman campaign by aiding and abetting Pitt’s dominant 27-17 dispatching of Clemson. Pickett threw for 302 yards on 25-for-39 passing. He tossed two touchdowns and looked totally in control all day, right down to the postgame interview when he told ESPN’s Molly McGrath that he planned to celebrate with a cold one.

“We'll see,” Pickett said to Yahoo Sports after, when asked what he’ll be enjoying for his lone cold beverage. “It's definitely a beer, that's for sure.”

Pickett, 23, has been around long enough to know that specifying a beer won’t help him get an NIL deal. Alcohol deals aren’t allowed in college. But he’s certainly emerged as a pitchman for traits that get overlooked in an era of portal jumping at the first sign of adversity and fleeing to the NFL the first time a draft expert delivers a faux sixth-round grade. Raise a glass to the power of sticking around, as it’s fitting Pickett served as the toast of the sport Saturday.

Pickett has scar tissue from struggle, poise from experience and callouses from the adversity that comes with going 27-16 while starting games over five different seasons. And that has made Pitt’s 6-1 start and first-place position (3-0) in the ACC Coastal all the more rewarding.

“One hundred percent,” Pickett said when asked if his experience gives him a deeper appreciation. “Looking back on where I started and how my career went, I'm incredibly grateful for this season. I’m cherishing every moment with my teammates and family members.”

In a transient era, Pickett is the model for staying power. And it’s likely not a coincidence that many of the season’s biggest stories — and some of this week’s biggest stars — aren’t of the five-star instant variety.

As Yahoo Sports spoke to Pickett, it was the waning minutes of Oregon’s gusty win at UCLA to help preserve Oregon’s status as Pac-12 favorites. Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown is a New Jersey native like Pickett who transferred to Eugene from Boston College, sat a majority of last season and has been a fixture of the No. 10 Ducks.

“There’s beauty in the struggle,” Pickett said of the quarterbacks' journeys.

Pasadena, CA - October 23:  Quarterback Anthony Brown #13 of the Oregon Ducks runs for a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins in the fourth quarter as the Oregon Ducks defeated the UCLA Bruins 34-31 during a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, October 23, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown runs for a touchdown against UCLA in the fourth quarter on Saturday. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

And like others, their growth in college football hasn’t been linear. Look around at some of the stars and you’ll see similar journeys. Appalachian State’s Chase Brice, who led the upset of No. 14 Coastal Carolina on Wednesday, is on his third school. Wake Forest's Sam Hartman lost his starting job to Jamie Newman, and stuck around to get Wake Forest to 7-0 for the first time since 1944.

The Illinois quarterback duo that helped lead a nine-overtime upset of Penn State are Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski and Michigan transfer Brandon Peters. SMU’s Tanner Mordecai jumped down from Oklahoma and has found rousing success for the undefeated Mustangs. Heck, even Cincinnati star Desmond Ridder redshirted and evolved from a run-first quarterback to a polished passer. Flip through the box scores, there’s plenty more.

But none have strung together Pickett's statistical dominance. On Saturday, Pickett staked his claim even louder for having the best season of any quarterback — and perhaps player — in college football. He has thrown 23 touchdowns, one interception and has completed nearly 69 percent of his passes.

And he has also come full circle — backup to starter, middling production to dazzling and a late-round NFL draft pick to a player likely selected on one of the first two days of the draft. “He’s really helped himself,” said a veteran NFL scout. “I thought he was a third-day guy last year. He’s really improved a lot.”

So raise a glass to new faces, new programs and uncertainty at the top. And don’t be surprised if Pickett is being toasted as a Heisman finalist in New York come December. For now, he’s relishing every last step and sip.

“Just the bonds that I have with my teammates and friends and coaches that I’ve built over the years here,” Pickett said. “This is the last go. These kinds of games and wins, there's no better feeling than working hard for something and being able to achieve it.”

There's hope for Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei

Even though Pitt’s victory over Clemson (4-3, 3-2 ACC) wasn’t technically over a ranked team, it’s still jarring to see an ACC rival easily handle Clemson. This marks the first time that Clemson has three losses before November since 2010, Dabo Swinney’s second year as full-time head coach.

The fate of heralded sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is uncertain. He entered as a Heisman favorite and was seemingly on a high-end NFL draft trajectory. He was benched in the third quarter and is mired deep in a second-year slump.

It’s time to throw out the high school hype on Uiagalelei and deal with the reality — he’s a struggling college quarterback with a lot of raw talent who has plenty of time to string together a strong career. But it’s not going to happen on the three-and-done timetable that high school stars of his caliber are accustomed to.

He has more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4) and had another middling performance — 12-for-25 and two interceptions — that dipped his passing percentage to less than 55 percent. The loss of Travis Etienne, a porous offensive line and unreliable receivers have all factored in. But NFL scouts and opposing coaches have noticed Uiagalelei’s struggle processing reads, which is something that can improve over time.

But he looked brutal at times on Saturday, as he got benched after two interceptions, including a shovel pass that got returned 50 yards for a touchdown. He has also struggled with adversity, something he didn’t face much in his star-kissed ascent to top prospect and in his gilded starts against Notre Dame and Boston College as a freshman.

No one is doubting his raw talent, and all that can be said with certainty is that this clunky sophomore year has shown that Uiagalelei isn’t on the seamless career rocket ship trajectory as Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence. That’s no crime, as they were two of the best quarterbacks of their generations.

Uiagalelei’s talent hasn’t met his production. That’s not saying it never will, but this benching should be time for he and the Clemson coaches to reflect on what went wrong and find a path out. Because right now, there’s a glaring disconnect that won’t be fixed by trying the same things again.

Wake Forest wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson (5) runs for a touchdown past Army linebacker Malik Birchett (22) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in West Point, N.Y. Wake Forest won 70-56. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Wake Forest wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson (5) runs for a touchdown past Army linebacker Malik Birchett in the second half on Saturday in West Point, N.Y. Wake Forest won 70-56. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

ACC frontrunner Wake Forest can score 70 points in 17 minutes  

Wake Forest’s first 7-0 start since World War II came with a particularly remarkable stat. The No. 16 Demon Deacons scored the third-most points in school history, in a frenetic thumping of Army, 70-56. They scored those 70 points in just over 17 minutes, as they finished with a time of possession of 17:17.

Wake Forest had 10 offensive possessions and scored on nine of them. The defense scored another touchdown on a Traveon Redd 83-yard interception return that helped break the game open for Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons averaged 12.3 yards on 52 plays, a devastating performance orchestrated by quarterback Sam Hartman. He threw for 458 yards on 23-of-29 passing and led a punt-free day for Wake Forest. (The Demon Deacons lost the ball on downs on the only drive they didn’t score on Saturday.)

“Wow,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “That was about as clean a performance as I've ever seen. And every time we had to make a play, we made a play. Seventy points, no turnovers, 638 yards. We needed every single one of them.”

Wake Forest has established itself as the favorite in the ACC Atlantic, as it is in first place after N.C. State’s loss to Miami. Clemson has a pair of league losses, and the Demon Deacons already have division wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Florida State.

Clawson is perpetually pragmatic and measured, but it will be interesting to see where, if Wake Forest beats Duke on Saturday, the Deacons start in the College Football Playoff rankings on Nov. 2. Wake Forest started the season unranked.

Clearly it has a devastating and unique offense that’s difficult to stop. Wake Forest entered the weekend No. 12 in scoring offense and should entrench itself in the Top 10 after boosting its average to 43.1 ppg.

The Demon Deacons’ historic start and mind-bending day have announced them as a Top 15 team. How much higher they climb will depend on whether anyone can figure out how to stop them.

State of disarray

Penn State could use some Wake Forest film after engaging in a nine-overtime game with Illinois so offensively impotent that it managed to dilute any morsel of drama that should have accompanied a historic game.

No game in college football has ever gone past seven overtimes. And few would want to see another if it unfolded like the consistent misfires, as five consecutive scoreless overtime periods showed Saturday. After trading field goals in overtime and double overtime, both teams traded two-point conversions in the eighth overtime before Illinois slogged out the game-winning pass in the final overtime.

The game proves a blow to the Big Ten by killing off Penn State’s College Football Playoff chances and sucking much of the juice out of the Nittany Lions’ trip to Columbus next week. (The Buckeyes had no such offensive lag, as they won 54-7 without scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown.)

The loss drops No. 7 Penn State to 5-2 and in danger of losing three straight in Columbus next week. Penn State still has to travel to Maryland, host Michigan and visit Michigan State, which portends that a season that once percolated with possibility could spiral a bit.

Last year, Penn State lost five straight to start the year before winning its last four. This year, the early flurry of success could well be foiled by a run of futility. Penn State can’t run the ball (62 yards), couldn’t stop the run (357 yards for Illinois) and played with quarterback Sean Clifford looking far from 100 percent.

The only thing for Penn State worse than the results on this dim Saturday was how much worse it could be next weekend.

LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 23: Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams (13) leaps over the tackle attempt of Kansas Jayhawks defensive end Kyron Johnson (15) during the game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday October 23, 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, KS.  (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 23: Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams (13) leaps over the tackle attempt of Kansas Jayhawks defensive end Kyron Johnson (15) during the game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday October 23, 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, KS. (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Oklahoma looks shaky, but it's still in CFP hunt

In 2021, survival points have replaced style points.

Oklahoma barely beat Tulane and then slogged past Nebraska, West Virginia and Kansas State. It overcame a 21-point deficit to Texas to pull out a miraculous victory. A tidy dispatching of TCU and a flogging of Western Carolina have been Oklahoma’s only authoritative victories.

So should we be complimenting Oklahoma’s ability to endure? Or casting skepticism on its ability to keep up the miracles?

After sputtering past Kansas on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine Oklahoma remaining as a College Football Playoff team. As a 38-point BetMGM favorite at Kansas on Saturday, Oklahoma failed to score a first-half point and came so close to losing to Kansas that the Jayhawks athletic department started to invite people to the stadium and not charge admission to give them a chance to witness history.

With 3:23 remaining and Oklahoma leading by five, the Sooners desperately needed to convert a fourth down to seal the game. A crew of Kansas defenders appeared to wrap up tailback Kennedy Brooks behind the line of scrimmage, but freshman quarterback Caleb Williams ripped the ball away from his teammate and carried it for a first down.

The play proved a delicious collision of improv, ingenuity and instinct, as it helped seal the 35-23 OU win. But it also obscured a team that’s still scuffling for an identity and couldn’t muster a point for 37 minutes. Kansas finished the game with 412 total yards, averaged 6.3 yards per play and scored more against a shaky Sooner defense than the other three Big 12 teams the Jayhawks faced.

At this point, what the pollster and CFP committee do with Oklahoma doesn’t matter much. It’s hard to imagine the Sooners solving their offensive inconsistency and defensive impotence in a three-game finishing kick that includes a trip to Baylor, a home game with Iowa State and a game at Oklahoma State.

Iowa State back in stream 

After the most hyped offseason in school history, Iowa State quickly fell off the college football map after losses to Iowa and Baylor in September.

But as we head to the final weekend in October, Iowa State has a fairly clear path back to the Big 12 title game after outlasting Oklahoma State on Saturday, 24-21. The Cyclones have a good shot to return to the Big 12 title game, where they lost to Oklahoma last year, 27-21.

“Dream big, start small, be ridiculously faithful to what you’re trying to accomplish and control what you can control,” Campbell said after the Oklahoma State win.

Iowa State’s biggest obstacle in this game was perhaps the biggest officiating over-reach of this or any season. Cyclone receiver Xavier Hutchinson glanced over his shoulder and slowed down a touch and took two long-glider steps into the end zone at the end of a long touchdown pass. Officials flagged him for taunting, which nearly broke Twitter in the unanimity of the outrage about the call.

Hutchinson scored three plays later on a 9-yard touchdown pass that tied the game. Overcoming the baffling call appeared to energize Iowa State, who appears to be well positioned to be a factor in December after its annual September slog.

Who is better: Bama or Buckeyes? 

We started the column by celebrating the new blood in the sport this year. All the while, there’s a good debate brewing over which revived old guard team should be considered better at this juncture.

Is it 6-1 Ohio State, the No. 5 team in the country that has won three Big Ten games by an average of 45 points. No one hands out trophies for dispatching the league’s flotsam and jetsam – Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana, who didn’t take long for gravity to find again – but there’s an offensive polish and sharper defensive edge to the Buckeyes that has them flashing a much different vibe than the team that lost to Oregon and sputtered past Tulsa.

C.J. Stroud has become exponentially more comfortable than he was earlier in the year, buzzing through the Hoosiers’ defense for four touchdowns and 266 passing yards. The emergence of star freshman tailback TreVeyon Henderson – 81 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns – has given the Buckeyes an elite talent at tailback to match the sizzle they have at receiver.

Ohio State will need a better test before its defense can be declared fixed, but it’s clear that the coordinator change and influx of young players has that unit trending the right away after struggling to set edges and languishing at the line of scrimmage against Oregon.

As for No. 4 Alabama, the Tide looked languid at times against an improved Tennessee team but still managed to a 52-24 victory thanks to four fourth-quarter touchdowns. Bryce Young had 371 yards passing and was responsible for four touchdowns, and the Alabama defense settled in after yielding 14 first-quarter points.

There’s a long way to go, and the Tide still has to (likely) play Georgia in the SEC title game. But it’s very likely their resumes will be closely compared in the coming weeks. Ohio State has the better loss, with Oregon ranked No. 10. But Texas A&M could be in better position if Oregon stumbles.

There’s no clear answer now between the Tide and Buckeyes, other than both programs are improving both on the field and in their College Football Playoff argument.

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