Legit or Nah? Verdicts for College Football's Top Week 3 Performances
Week 3 of the 2017 college football season was replete with offensive explosions. We had our first 540-yard passer of the season, two players on the same team rushed for at least 200 yards each and five players had at least 150 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Heck, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph bolstered his Heisman case with 423 passing yards and five touchdowns in the first half against Pittsburgh—though, he won't appear elsewhere in this piece, because you don't need us to let you know that guy is legit.
In the midst of all those yards, the defenses of California and Mississippi State shut down a pair of SEC offenses.
Were these top performances legit, or not so much?
Legit doesn't mean we think the player (or unit, or team) will put up season averages on par with this incredible game. Nor does a "Nah" mean we think the entity will crash and burn. Rather, it's a question of whether we believe the player, unit or team will still be a significant national factor at the end of the year.
Taking the opponent, the circumstances and the history into consideration, we'll let you know whether these Week 3 stars are legitimate candidates for huge years.
Anthony Miller, Memphis WR
UCLA vs. Memphis was supposed to be an opportunity for Josh Rosen to cement his case as an early-season Heisman candidate. Instead, Memphis QB Riley Ferguson threw for six touchdowns and 398 yards in a 48-45 win.
A huge chunk of Ferguson's damage came via Anthony Miller. The senior wide receiver made nine catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. He had four receptions of at least 30 yards, including 41-yard and 33-yard gains on back-to-back plays near the end of the first half.
Miller was a one-man highlight reel. He had an incredible diving grab and displayed impeccable body control and field awareness on multiple occasions, hauling in off-target throws before fighting for the sticks or the goal line.
This is by far the easiest verdict to defend. Miller entered this season with 11 100-yard receiving games. The former walk-on ranked top 10 in the nation in total receptions, yards and touchdowns last season. His average line over the final seven games of 2016 was nine receptions, 142.3 yards and 1.7 touchdowns.
In other words, this performance was not a surprise. It was almost exactly the norm that we came to expect from Miller over the second half of last season.
Justin Wilcox, California
There were 21 coaching changes this offseason, and four of those coaches are 3-0. It's not the least bit surprising that Willie Taggart (Oregon) and Charlie Strong (South Florida) are doing well, and as we'll get into later on, P.J. Fleck (Minnesota) was given a cupcake schedule with which to settle into his new home.
But nobody was expecting Justin Wilcox and California to still be undefeated.
The Golden Bears trailed at halftime of all three games against North Carolina, Weber State and Ole Miss, but they have outscored the opposition 57-13 after the intermission. Of those 13 points they've allowed, seven came when an interception set up North Carolina at the California 4, and the other six came on a meaningless touchdown as time expired.
If not for those two plays, California—which allowed 42.6 points per game last season—would be pitching a second-half shutout through three games. In Saturday's 27-16 win over Ole Miss, the Golden Bears didn't give up a point in the final 43 minutes.
Like Washington last season, California is a year ahead of schedule with only a couple of seniors in the starting lineup. Heck, this entire starting offense should be back in 2018. But where Washington was a year early for a championship run, the Golden Bears are a bit early for maybe being good enough to qualify for a bowl game.
That the team has won more games in three weeks than some people thought it would win all season has been a nice early story, but things are about to get ugly. The Golden Bears play USC, Oregon, Washington and Washington State in the next four weeks, after which they will likely be sitting in the basement of the Pac-12 alongside Oregon State.
Credit to Wilcox, though, for surrounding himself with good coordinators and evidently saying all of the right things during halftime. It isn't going to last much longer, but California has been the surprise success of September.
Notre Dame's Run Game
Big team rushing performances are all the rage this year. In each of the last two seasons, there were five instances of a 500-rushing-yard outings, but not one of those games came in the first three weeks of the year. Already in 2017, we've seen it happen four times.
Notre Dame's big day might have been the most impressive of all, because it primarily came from two ball-carriers.
Running back Josh Adams had 18 carries for 229 yards, including runs that went for 36, 64 and 65 yards. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush also eclipsed 200 yards, finishing the day with 207 and four touchdowns. Like Adams, Wimbush picked up most of his yards in three big chunks, netting runs of 32, 46 and 65 yards. Backup running back Dexter Williams only got six touches, but even he averaged 8.3 yards per carry and had two touchdowns.
All told, the Fighting Irish rushed for 515 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 10.1 yards per carry.
Though last week's game against Georgia would suggest otherwise (37 carries for 55 yards), Notre Dame was built to have one of the best rushing attacks in the country. Go back just one week further to the 422-yard, five-touchdown game against Temple for proof that this stomping of Boston College was no fluke.
While the individual rushers are gifted, it all starts with the offensive line, where Notre Dame has two of the best in the business. Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson are two seniors who entered the year as first-round draft picks in various 2018 projections. The Fighting Irish have two other seniors starting at center and right guard (Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars), too, creating one of the most talented and most veteran O-lines in the country.
Brandon Dawkins, Arizona QB
Lamar Jackson. Johnny Manziel. Dak Prescott. Tajh Boyd. Trevor Knight.
Per Sports Reference, those are the only players since 2000 to win a game while rushing for at least 100 yards and three touchdowns and passing for at least three more scores.
Dawkins did so Friday night in a 63-16 beating of UTEP. The junior QB was nearly flawless, completing 18 of 21 passes for 155 yards and rushing for another 133 on 14 carries. He led the Wildcats to touchdowns on seven of 10 drives, and he even had the best punt of the night, pinning the Miners inside their own 10 on a pooch in the first quarter.
In terms of opposing QB rating, UTEP has the worst defense in the country. Facing Baker Mayfield in Week 1 has a lot to do with that, but even with a home game against Rice factored into the numbers, the Miners have allowed an 80.5 percent completion rate and eight passing touchdowns without an interception.
Prior to this game, Dawkins had a career completion percentage of 54.2 (142-of-262) in 17 games. During that time, he only threw multiple touchdowns once and only completed more than 61.3 percent of his pass attempts once.
Putting that in non-numerical terms, this performance came out of nowhere against a terrible secondary. Dawkins is a good scrambling QB who ran for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so there's a decent chance he'll repeat this rushing performance at least one more time. But as far as the passing portion of being a quarterback is concerned, this will likely be the pinnacle of his career.
Mississippi State's Defense
There were five AP voters who ranked LSU ahead of Mississippi State, in spite of the Bulldogs' 37-7 decimation of the Tigers. Clearly, those five voters were too busy with something else to watch this game or even read a recap of it before submitting their ballots, so let's spell out how emphatic this beating was.
In five consecutive drives spanning from midway through the second quarter until early in the fourth quarter, LSU did not have a single offensive play go for more than seven yards and gained a grand total of 25 yards. The Tigers achieved one first down during that stretch, and they only got that because of a defensive pass interference call on a third-down play. Heisman candidate Derrius Guice was held to 18 yards on eight touches while Mississippi State's lead ballooned from 10-7 to 37-7.
The other 50 percent of the game went a little better for the Tigers, as they finished with 270 total yards, 13 first downs and no turnovers. Make no mistake about it, though: They were manhandled by this Bulldogs defense. It's not easy to make the No. 12 team in the country look like a total fraud, but Mississippi State pulled it off.
Granted, MSU's first two opponents (Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech) weren't exactly title contenders, but this team was already dominant on defense prior to shutting down LSU.
The Bulldogs rank second in the nation in yards allowed per play at a scant 3.34, and they are top 10 in a bunch of other defensive categories, including yards per carry, points per game and third-down conversion rate.
Maybe this game was more of an indication that LSU's offense is headed for a long season than it was proof that Mississippi State has one of the best defenses. It doesn't necessarily have to be one or the other, though. We're buying the Bulldogs D for now, and we might be willing to crown it No. 1 in the country if it shuts down Georgia's potent rushing attack Saturday.
Tavares Martin Jr., Washington State WR
We could just about recycle this introductory statement on a weekly basis, but Washington State had a lot of passing yards and touchdowns in a win. Luke Falk threw for 396 yards and six touchdowns, and he had Tavares Martin Jr. on the receiving end of nearly half of that. The wide receiver made 10 catches for 194 yards and three scores.
He showed something special on several of those receptions, too. On the first touchdown, he stutter-stepped right by his defender at the line of scrimmage before making a nice over-the-shoulder grab in the end zone. On the third, he ran a crisp route to get open on a crossing pattern and simply left the defenders in his dust en route to a 57-yard score.
Coming into the season, that's how many passing yards Washington State was averaging per game since Mike Leach became the head coach in 2012. (It's at 408.3 for this season.) Texas Tech—Leach's former program—is the only school anywhere close to the Cougars in terms of total passing yards during that five-year stretch.
In most of those seasons, Washington State spread the ball around, rarely making one guy the go-to receiver. But Gabe Marks had nearly 1,200 receiving yards in 2015 and Vince Mayle ranked fifth in the nation with 1,483 receiving yards in 2014, so Leach and company aren't afraid to key in on one guy when he proves he can shoulder the load.
After a disappointing first two weeks, Martin is finally there. The junior made 64 receptions for 728 yards last season and was a major piece of a three-pronged wide-receiver assault. With both Marks and River Cracraft gone, it only made sense that Martin would become the No. 1 receiver.
Take all offensive performances against Oregon State with a grain of salt, but this wasn't some one-off outing. It was the first major step toward a 1,200-yard season.
Nic Shimonek, Texas Tech QB
In 2016, Texas Tech averaged nearly 100 more passing yards per game than any other team. Meanwhile, Arizona State gave up at least 24.2 more passing yards per game than every other team in the country. These two teams played in one of the highest scoring games of last season (68-55), and a repeat performance was to be expected.
Nic Shimonek and the Red Raiders delivered.
Texas Tech's QB completed 37 of 50 passes (74.0 percent) for 543 yards and six touchdowns in a 52-45 victory. In doing so, he became the 12th player (two guys did it twice) to throw for at least 540 yards and six scores in a single game since 2000.
For the second straight game, Shimonek did not commit a single turnover while leading this team to at least 50 points.
Two weeks ago, I was selling Shimonek's opening-week performance against Eastern Washington (26-of-30, 384 yards, 3 TD). The rationale was it was just another QB in a pass-heavy offense benefiting from facing a team that has been consistently destroyed by FBS opponents in recent years.
I even noted in the process of selling his hot start that he may well have another big day against Arizona State, given how awful its secondary has been over the last few seasons. It was going to take something special to change my mind.
Then Shimonek threw a 45-yard dart to Dylan Cantrell at the end of the first quarter. (Officially, it was a 29-yard TD pass, but he threw it from the 37 and it was caught in the back half of the end zone.) I was immediately converted.
After this team put up passing yards in bunches for more than a decade, it feels like anyone could have big numbers as the QB for the Red Raiders. However, there are only a couple of people in the country with the talent and confidence to make that particular throw to a well-covered receiver.
That had nothing to do with Texas Tech's system and everything to do with Shimonek's skill. Considering he's in a place designed for him to thrive, this guy is going to be fun to watch for the next 10 weeks.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Don't look now, but P.J. Fleck's team is undefeated once again.
He's no longer with Western Michigan, but Fleck is still winning ballgames in his new home with the Golden Gophers. Win No. 3 was a 34-3 beatdown of a Middle Tennessee team that won at Syracuse one week prior. Running backs Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary each ran for 107 yards. Smith was kept out of the end zone, but McCrary made up for that with three rushing touchdowns.
The defense was the biggest star, though. Thanks to a Jacob Huff pick-six, Minnesota's defense scored more points than it allowed. The Blue Raiders only achieved 11 first downs and did not have a single drive last more than eight plays or amass more than 43 yards.
Far be it from us to doubt the merits of a head coach who has not lost a regular-season game since Nov. 18, 2015. But, really, who has Minnesota beaten to get to 3-0?
The Golden Gophers eked out a Week 1 win over a Buffalo team that went 2-10 last year and could be on its way to another campaign with double-digit losses. The following week's 34-point road win over Oregon State isn't all that impressive when you consider the Beavers have already lost three games by a margin of at least 29 points. And in this 31-point shellacking of Middle Tennessee, three-year starter Brent Stockstill didn't take a snap at QB due to a shoulder injury, and B/R's preseason first-team All-American wide receiver Richie James barely played due to an ankle injury.
Is there a chance Minnesota will be a factor in the race for the Big Ten West title? Sure. Regardless of the caliber of opponent, it's impressive that this team won its first three games by an average score of 33-8. But let's not pretend Minnesota is guaranteed to play in a bowl game because of three wins over teams ranked Nos. 72, 101 and 111 this week by The Athletic's Chris Vannini.
The Golden Gophers have their bye this week before hosting Maryland and playing at Purdue. If they win one of those games, we'll at least give some consideration to their potential. If they win them both, we may have to print out this page to literally eat the words on it.
Clemson's Entire Offense
While Week 2 was all about Clemson's defense, Week 3 was a showcase for some incredible Tigers offense.
What was supposed to be a study in the effectiveness of Louisville's dual-threat QB turned into a breakout party for Clemson's speedy passer. Kelly Bryant threw for 316 yards and ran for 61 more (if we remove the 35 "rushing" yards lost on sacks). The junior QB accounted for three total touchdowns against the Cardinals, including a 79-yard strike to a wide-open Ray-Ray McCloud.
Clemson's running backs put on one heck of a show, too. Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice had a combined 20 carries for 237 yards and two touchdowns. All three averaged at least 9.2 yards per carry, and each one had a rush go for more than 25 yards. The most impressive was Etienne's 81-yard run, in which he broke a pair of arm tackles and took off up the sideline like the high-school sprinter that he was.
What a luxury it must be to bring that dude in at the end of a game as the fourth running back—or fifth if you include Bryant.
Part of this 47-21 rout can be attributed to Louisville's mediocre defense. The Cardinals gave up 63 points in their first two games and have now allowed a near-worst-in-the-nation 331.0 passing yards per game. Playing once again without star defensive back Jaire Alexander (knee) was a big problem.
But this is the Clemson offense that showed up in the opener against Kent State and the one we expect to see moving forward. Between the four-headed monster at running back, McCloud, Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow as receivers and a quarterback who can kill opponents with both his arm and his legs, there are just too many weapons in this offense.
As the season rolls on and the Tigers rack up 30-50 points on a weekly basis, get ready for a lot of people to point to the 14-6 Week 2 game as one of the main reasons Auburn deserves a spot in the College Football Playoff. Those Tigers will almost certainly be the only team that holds these Tigers under 300 total yards.
Cam Phillips, Virginia Tech WR
It's always a good week for passing in college football, but this was an exceptional week for individual receivers. Five different players had at least 150 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Per Sports Reference, it was the first time since Week 11 of the 2013 season that more than three players put up such a stat line in a single weekend.
Of the bunch, Cam Phillips was the most unguardable.
Virginia Tech's No. 1 receiver—and the national leader in receiving yards in 2017—made 14 catches for 189 yards and three scores in the 64-17 dismantling of East Carolina. And he did almost all of it in the span of 30 minutes. Phillips had one nine-yard catch on the opening drive before exploding for 13 receptions in the span of VT's next 58 offensive snaps.
Because the score got so out of hand, Phillips didn't even play for the final 22 minutes and 30 seconds. It's too bad. He was well on his way to becoming just the ninth player since 2000 to rack up at least 250 yards and four touchdowns in one game.
Among all returning players in the ACC, no one had more receiving yards in 2016 than Phillips' 983, and only Syracuse's Ervin Philips (90) made more receptions than his 79. In other words, we already knew Cam Phillips could make some catches.
Frankly, it shouldn't be a surprise that he's leading the nation in receiving yards, either. After the Hokies lost Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges—a duo that combined for 127 catches for 1,785 yards last year—it was obvious Phillips would see a ton of targets.
The only question was at quarterback, but freshman Josh Jackson has done a great job so far.
Through three weeks, Phillips has at least six receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown in each game. Those numbers will taper off a bit when Virginia Tech has to deal with significantly more competent secondaries in conference play, but it won't be long before he sets the Hokies' records for yards and receptions in a season, as well as yards and receptions in a career.