Best Head-to-Head Battles in CFB This Week
College football is a team game, but one made up of numerous individual efforts.
While the ultimate goal is for one team to outperform the other, at the grass-roots level the outcome is determined by players' abilities to get the better of those they're matched up against. It's 11-on-11, and each player on defense has someone on the offensive side that they are responsible for, and vice versa.
Whether it's to guard them, block them, get past them or get them on the ground, football is full of head-to-head battles. This upcoming week of the 2014 season features plenty of great individual matchups, each of which will have a big impact on the overall result of the game they're a part of.
Arizona QB Anu Solomon vs. UTSA S Triston Wade
Game info: Arizona at UTSA (Thursday, Sept. 4; 8 p.m. ET)
TV: Fox Sports 1
The first game of the Week 2 schedule features one of the hottest young players against an established veteran looking to shine on a national stage.
Anu Solomon, a redshirt freshman, made his Arizona debut in a big way on Aug. 29. He threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats' 58-13 win over UNLV and helped Arizona to a school-record 787 yards on the night. Solomon completed 25 of 44 passes, and after some early overthrows settled in and put the ball only where his receivers could catch it.
But Solomon wasn't facing a safety like Triston Wade, a senior safety who has been part of UTSA since its first year of football in 2011. Wade has nine interceptions in his career, including one in the Roadrunners' big 27-7 win Aug. 29 at Houston.
It will be Wade's job to watch what Solomon is doing, and head in the direction where the quarterback plans to throw. Solomon will be challenged to keep Wade from getting a shot at the ball, making for a great chess match.
Navy QB Keenan Reynolds vs. Temple LB Tyler Matakevich
Game info: Navy at Temple (Saturday, Sept. 6; 1 p.m. ET)
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is coming off one of the best seasons in FBS history in terms of rushing touchdowns, as in 2013 he scored 31 times on the ground as part of the Midshipmen's option run game. The junior has been starting since midway through his freshman year and has 42 career rushing scores, including one in Navy's 34-17 loss to Ohio State on Aug. 30 in Baltimore.
Temple's Tyler Matakevich is one of the most unheralded linebackers in the country, despite putting up some of the best numbers of any tacklers in FBS. Last season he had 137 takedowns, which was second-best in the country and seventh-most in school history. For his career he has 244 tackles, six of which came on Aug. 28 in the Owls' surprising 37-7 win at Vanderbilt.
The key to stopping an option rushing game is two fold, both to spot who has the ball and to make sure the lead tacklers are able to get to the ballcarrier. Matakevich will be tasked with both of those defensive duties, and Reynolds will no doubt be trying to run where Matakevich is not.
Stanford OT Andrus Peat vs. USC DE Leonard Williams
Game info: USC at Stanford (Saturday, Sept. 6; 3:30 p.m. ET)
If you're a fan of battles in the trenches, this Pac-12 Conference clash is the game for you.
Stanford's offensive line is one of the best in the country, and is anchored by 6'7", 316-pound junior tackle Andrus Peat. Peat is listed on five different preseason All-American teams, according to his online bio after a sophomore year when he helped the Cardinal average more than 207 rushing yards per game and was part of a line that allowed only 11 quarterback sacks.
Across from Peat will be one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country, USC junior Leonard Williams. At 6'5" and 300 pounds, Williams has spent time with the Trojans as both a defensive tackle and defensive end, collecting 27 tackles for loss and 14 sacks for his career. He logged his second career interception on Aug. 30 in USC's 52-13 win over Fresno State.
Both draft-eligible as juniors, Peat (16th) and Williams (third) are both listed on CBS Sports' big board for the 2015 NFL draft. Each can improve their stock drastically in this key conference tilt, especially if one is able to handle the other.
Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu vs. Michigan State WR Tony Lippett
Game info: Michigan State at Oregon (Saturday, Sept. 6; 6:30 p.m. ET)
The job of a cornerback is to cover a particular wide receiver wherever he goes on the field. The best at these position get an unofficial label added to their title, and become known as shutdown corners, often because they're responsible for guarding their opponent's best and most dangerous pass-catcher.
Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is the epitome of a shutdown corner. In three-plus seasons with the Ducks the senior has seven interceptions, one of which he returned 54 yards for a touchdown in 2013. His numbers might be better if quarterbacks didn't do their best to avoid throwing his direction.
This weekend Ekpre-Olomu is most likely to get lined up opposite Tony Lippett, a 6'3" senior for Michigan State who entered the season with 84 career receptions and four touchdowns but who had a breakout game in the Spartans' Aug. 29 blowout win over Jacksonville State. Lippett caught four passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns, hauling in TD receptions of 64 and 71 yards in the first quarter.
Ekpre-Olomu injured his ankle early in Oregon's 62-13 win over South Dakota on Aug. 30, but he told Andrew Greif of The Oregonian it was a precautionary move for him not to play the game's final three quarters. "I'm all right, I'll be fine," Ekpre-Olomu said.
Assuming the corner is at full strength, he'll be fun to watch as he tries to keep Lippett from having another big game.
East Carolina QB Shane Carden vs. South Carolina CB Brison Williams
Game info: East Carolina at South Carolina (Saturday, Sept. 6; 7 p.m. ET)
The 2014 college football season got off with a bang last week when an untested young quarterback had a huge game against a secondary that seemed up to the task. Now, that same set of defensive backs has to take on another big-time quarterback, but this one has many more games under his belt.
East Carolina senior Shane Carden has thrown for more than 7,500 yards with 59 touchdowns in his career, with last season's numbers coming to 4,139 yards and 33 TDs as the Pirates went 10-3. He began this year with a 283-yard, three-TD effort in a 52-7 win Aug. 30 at home against FCS team North Carolina Central, but now he has to face a power-conference opponent on the road.
That foe is South Carolina, which had a strong defense last season in winning 11 games but graduated numerous starters from that unit. The Gamecocks' secondary was torched for 511 yards by Texas A&M's Kenny Hill on Aug. 28, but senior cornerback Brison Williams is still a force to be reckoned with despite the team's bad game. He has three career interceptions.
Williams' first career pick came in a 2012 win over East Carolina, and after that pick ECU switched quarterbacks ... and brought in Carden. The two haven't faced off since, but now the veterans get a chance to best each other.
BYU QB Taysom Hill vs. Texas DE Cedric Reed
Game info: BYU at Texas (Saturday, Sept. 6; 7:30 p.m. ET)
TV: Fox Sports 1
Quarterbacks that are just as dangerous with their legs as with their throwing arm are a hot commodity in today's college game. They also happen to be the favorite target of defensive linemen, who love the chance to drag down a passer either in the backfield or as they try to scramble past the line of scrimmage.
BYU's Taysom Hill has developed the reputation of being one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the country the past two years. Last season he threw for 2,938 yards and ran for an additional 1,344—third-most in school history—while accounting for 29 total touchdowns. He began his junior year by throwing for 308 yards and three TDs while scoring two more times on the ground along with 97 yards in the Cougars' 35-10 win Aug. 29 at Connecticut.
Texas is under the guidance of a new head coach in 2014 in defensive guru Charlie Strong, and he inherited a strong core of veteran defenders led by Cedric Reed. The 6'5", 272-pound senior had 19 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last season, and in Texas' 2014 opener he led the team with six tackles in a dominant 38-7 win over North Texas in which the Longhorns to 15 passing yards and six sacks.
Hill's breakout game came last season against this same Texas team, but back in Provo. He ran for 259 yards and three TDs in BYU's 40-21 win over the Longhorns. Now comes the rematch, in Austin, and Reed will be one of many Longhorns looking for revenge.
Michigan WR Devin Funchess vs. Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith
Game info: Michigan at Notre Dame (Saturday, Sept. 6; 7:30 p.m. ET)
The last scheduled game in the historic Michigan-Notre Dame series will feature plenty of great storylines from the standpoint of the storied programs, but it will also include numerous great one-on-one battles down on the newly laid Field Turf at Notre Dame Stadium. The most notable features a pair of rising stars who will likely be paired up against each other a lot.
Michigan's Devin Funchess is a 6'5", 230-pound junior who last year put together the best single season for a tight end in Wolverines history with 49 catches for 748 yards and six touchdowns. But Funchess' skills are so good Michigan moved him to wide receiver this season, and he showed what he can do in that new position with seven receptions for 95 yards and three TDs in the 52-14 win over Appalachian State on Aug. 30.
Notre Dame is facing a transition year on defense in 2014 after losing several key players and its coordinator from last season's team. But the Fighting Irish have several good players remaining on defense, most notably sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith. The 6'2", 235-pound Smith had 67 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and an interception in his first season of college, and this fall is expected to be the driving force of Notre Dame's defense.
Though Funchess is now a wideout, his size makes it likely that Notre Dame will often put a linebacker on him when he's over the middle, which means Smith will be the best matchup to cover him. And when Michigan plans to run, Funchess will be brought closer to the line to block, and Smith will be among the rushers he'll be trying to keep out of the backfield.
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett vs. Virginia Tech DT Luther Maddy
Game info: Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Saturday, Sept. 6; 8 p.m. ET)
When Ohio State senior quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the year late in the preseason with a shoulder injury, the Buckeyes' offense looked like it was going to take a major hit. Then redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett helped pilot OSU to a comeback win Aug. 30 over Navy, and the hopes of a potent attack from the Buckeyes have been renewed.
Barrett completed 12 of 15 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 50 yards in the 34-17 win at Navy. Though not as mobile as Miller, Barrett managed to avoid the rush most of the time and was sacked just once.
But now he'll be facing a much more imposing defensive line in the form of Virginia Tech, which perennially features one of the country's best defenses. This season is no different, and defensive tackle Luther Maddy is one of the most important parts of the Hokies' attack.
Maddy, a 6'1", 293-pound senior, has 30 career starts and last season had 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He only had one tackle in Tech's 34-9 win Aug. 30 against William & Mary, but with a far more dangerous offense to deal with Maddy will be working overtime to get into OSU's backfield and take down Barrett.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.