College football’s opening weekend delivers mix of the familiar and the sublime

  • Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas (12) runs in for a touchdown against Penn State during the second half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Penn State won 45-38 in OT. (AP Photo/Chris Knight) Chris Knight

  • UCLA head coach Chip Kelly during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson (2) fumbles the ball against Notre Dame in the second half of an NCAA football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Notre Dame won 24-17. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya

Washington Post
Published: 9/2/2018 7:46:02 PM

ATLANTA – September came, and all the familiar phrases and peculiar terms came hurrying back: “redshirt-sophomore kicker,” “jet-sweep pass,” “go-ahead safety,” “zone run,” ‘pissed’ Nick Saban,” “severe-weather cancellation,” “Michigan’s offensive woes” and, of course, that old magical passage that goes “Appalachian State.”

The redshirt sophomore kicker stood amid 105,232 in Pennsylvania, 56 yards from the goal posts; the jet-sweep pass epitomized Maryland’s singular pluck; the go-ahead safety felled Chip Kelly, a man not prone to suffering go-ahead safeties; the zone run rallied Auburn; Saban upheld tradition and American custom by getting peeved after a 51-14 win; Scott Frost’s Nebraska record stayed at 0-0 because of lightning; Michigan couldn’t get going enough at Notre Dame; and Appalachian State reminded everyone of Appalachian State.

Even in heat that bordered upon uninhabitable, college football came back Saturday and hurriedly dished out something delirious. No. 10 Penn State saw a 31-17 lead sour to a 38-31 deficit and faced fourth and 2 with 66 seconds left, whereupon Trace McSorley reached into his big collection of guts and loosed a quick throw left to Brandon Polk for a 10-yard gain. That led to a 38-38 tie, precisely 11 years after Appalachian State won so famously at Michigan, and that led to a 5-foot-11, 180-pound redshirt sophomore kicker standing amid the masses, and that led to one of the world’s stranger phenomena.

Chandler Staton, who started off high school football in eight-man, and whose father works at the Gainesville, Ga., fire department, and who has a strong right foot – he hit a 53-yard field goal last year against Georgia Southern – verged upon a storybook when he boomed that 56-yarder with required distance.

It missed wide right, as do many such endeavors from 56 yards away, and then came the familiar sight of 100,000-odd people going berserk with relief from despair over the woes of a kicker.

It’s familiar and customary but, of course, weird.

Soon, after Penn State won 45-38 in overtime, Penn State Coach James Franklin told reporters, “I started the game at 46 years old, and I ended it at 51,” which will make one unusual editing of his bio. Appalachian State linebacker Anthony Flory told reporters, respectfully of both sides, “It’s not like they’re some big bad thing we can’t touch.” And Appalachian Coach Scott Satterfield told reporters, “Oh man, that was a tough one, guys, for the black and gold.”

A tough one for the black and gold ...

Almost an entire country can sigh.

At Michigan in 2007 and Penn State in 2018, plus at Tennessee in 2016 – always at, at, at for the lads from Boone, N.C. – we’ve all come to respect the black and gold, the respect coming even from those whose allegiance finds them yearning and even praying that a kicker’s day will meet a lousy ending.

Already in the day, Maryland had run that jet-sweep pass in a win that, given the wretched summer preceding, qualified as some kind of singular achievement: bigger than going 2-0 the last two years against Texas, bigger even than the thrilling exploits of freshman Jeshaun Jones, who took the jet sweep and threw the touchdown pass to give him touchdowns rushing, receiving and throwing.

Later on, on the pretty Rose Bowl floor, another freshman, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, playing quarterback for the quarterback whisperer Kelly at UCLA with 9:45 left in a 17-17 game, found himself back in the queasy zone near his own goal line, when he saw Cincinnati defensive tackle Cortez Broughton, capable of occluding his entire view of life for a moment. By the time he had turned a bit, and linebacker Bryan Wright had forced a fumble, and UCLA receiver Caleb Wilson had to go fall on it in the end zone, 17-17 had gone to 19-17, the way 17-17 almost never does.

The go-ahead safety epitomized the heart of the mysterious Cincinnati in its eventual 26-17 win, after which Coach Luke Fickell, formerly of Ohio State, said it might prove things to people, but: “But we had to prove it to ourselves first.” The Kelly experiment fell to 0-1, which brought reminders that his Oregon tenure also began 0-1, before he hogged most every other win in sight.

So the “zone run” gave No. 9 Auburn a straightforward, 10-yard, winning touchdown on third and 7, gave it a 21-16 win over Washington in a bout of physical, big-boy football, and offset Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn’s two cuter-than-cute tries at two-point conversions, both of which flopped, but both of which are part of what you get for your $49 million. “I’ll tell you right now we’re going to be aggressive this year,” Malzahn said good-humoredly. “That’s just how it’s going to go down.” So the “pissed” description was Saban’s description of Saban, so good at so many areas of life yet so inept at handling quarterback questions, as just after Tua Tagovailoa started and thrived ahead of Jalen Hurts in Alabama’s fearsome 51-14 win over Louisville.

What an impossible dream of a coach Saban is for Alabama fans, who long have envisioned a coach so dedicated to mastery that he gets “pissed” after 51-14 wins.

And while that and all the other old songs were playing, and the fans were singing, they played the old one for Michigan, the one where the offense can’t seem to get going just yet. The great coach, Jim Harbaugh, can’t win the great games, a fourth season beginning with a 21-3 second-quarter deficit to Notre Dame.

Michigan’s defense would get a hold of things, but its offense and its shiny new quarterback Shea Patterson got only one touchdown, late, in the 24-17 loss, and continued awaiting the moment when it would function in duress. “Just onward, just good old-fashioned resolve,” Harbaugh told reporters faced with retelling an old story.

Nobody ever minds an old story in college football, of course, and millions are thrilled to have the old stories back, even if the idea of a 180-pound kicker hitting a 56-yard game-winner amid 105,232 howling spectators would have been something new, and even if a day can turn out agonizing for the black and gold.

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