‘Stay focused’: CFP games arrive with pandemic raging, again

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — They are trying to have as many fun events as they can at the Orange Bowl for Georgia and Michigan, as always taking advantage of the tropical lifestyle that the Miami area has to offer. Dinner cruises. Beach days. Water toys.

It’s just like normal.

Or, more accurately, the new normal.

College Football Playoff week is here with a pair of semifinal games on Friday: Alabama vs. Cincinnati at the Cotton Bowl followed by Georgia vs. Michigan at the Orange Bowl. For the second consecutive season, college football is going to try to get across the finish line amid a raging pandemic, with numbers soaring all over the country and some other bowl games getting canceled after teams determined they simply aren’t healthy enough to play.

“The key is just to make sure that we put every protocol in place that focuses on their health and safety,” said Jack Seiler, the president and chairman of the Orange Bowl Committee. “We’ve been able to do that. We’re just focusing on the health and safety of the players and making sure we have an incredible game on Friday night.”

The people facilitating the games in both areas – the Orange Bowl in South Florida, the Cotton Bowl in North Texas – are doing all they can to ensure the four teams are healthy and able to play. Staffs are constantly reminded about all the best practices that have become part of everyday life since March 2020, such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

The calendars for all four teams have been pared down a bit. Media sessions are virtual, and events where in pre-pandemic times there might have been some fan interaction are basically nonexistent.

“We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves we’re here for a reason,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “This is purely a business trip. We’re afforded the luxury of being in Miami in such a great hotel and have all the hospitality around us, but it doesn’t matter if we’re playing this game in Ann Arbor, Athens or Miami, we’re here for a reason, and the College Football Playoffs is that reason.”

Gattis played in the Orange Bowl for Wake Forest 15 years ago. It was a big game, but not one that was sending the winner into the national championship game so he thinks players understand why they might have to curb the fun and frolic a bit this week.

And yes, it seems that understanding does exist.

“It’s getting really crazy out here,” Georgia safety Chris Smith said, when asked about virus numbers rising just about everywhere. “They’re just reiterating the fact that you need to be safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, stuff like that, to make sure we don’t have a breakout or anything like that.”

Bowl games tend to have some sort of element of community involvement, and the Cotton Bowl is no exception. Alabama and Cincinnati were both assigned a hospital to visit in an effort to boost spirits for patients.

This week, those visits are happening virtually. Just in case.

“I think that everybody’s ability to stay focused on the task and manage their business the right way and do everything that they can from a protocol standpoint to not put themselves at risk so that they can stay safe,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Teams are also acutely aware that an outbreak right now would all but doom their title chances. If a team has an outbreak and cannot play Friday in their semifinal game, its opponent – assuming that team has enough players available – gets a bye to the national title game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. A handful of games in the NBA, NHL and NFL have been postponed in recent weeks, but the CFP schedule doesn’t allow for that.

“You’ve worked so hard to provide yourself this opportunity,” Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said, discussing his message to players right now. “The last thing we need to do is compromise that by doing something out of character.”

And no plan is perfect. No anti-virus plan is completely unbeatable. All the Crimson Tide, Bearcats, Wolverines and Bulldogs can do is make smart decisions and hope for the best.

“We’ve never lost sight of the fact that health and safety is important, and bringing people back together is important,” Seiler said. “When the lights go on Friday night, on New Year’s Eve, tens of millions of people are going to go, `Wow, that college football game was done right.”‘

No. 2 Michigan beats Purdue 43-22 for Big Ten crown

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS – Donovan Edwards ran for 185 yards and a score, J.J. McCarthy threw three touchdown passes and No. 2 Michigan beat Purdue 43-22 on Saturday night for its second straight Big Ten title and a likely No. 2 playoff seed.

College football’s winningest program has the first 13-win season in school history. Two more victories would give the Wolverines (13-0, No. 2 CFP) their first national championship since 1997.

And with injured star Blake Corum sidelined by a season-ending left knee injury, Edwards stole the show for the second straight week.

After shredding rival Ohio State for 216 yards and two scores last week, Edwards broke open this game with a 60-yard on the first play of the second half to set up one score. He added a 27-yard TD sprint on Michigan’s next series to make it 28-13.

Purdue (8-5) never recovered from Michigan’s quick, seven-play onslaught after it trailed 14-13 at halftime.

But quarterback Aidan O'Connell and receiver Charlie Jones helped the Boilermakers make it interesting for a while.

O’Connell was 32 of 47 with 366 yards and two interceptions after missing some practice time early this week to mourn the death of his oldest brother. Jones, who lost to Michigan in last year’s game while playing for Iowa, had 13 receptions for 162 yards.

It just wasn’t enough.

Michigan showed no signs of a hangover after last week’s rout over the Buckeyes, taking a 7-0 lead on its opening possession with a 25-yard TD pass from J.J. McCarthy to Colston Loveland.

Purdue answered with Devin Mockobee’s 1-yard scoring run to tie the score then took the lead on Mitchell Fineran’s 33-yard field goal.

Michigan answered by taking advantage of an offside call on fourth-and-6 by going for the first down, picking it up and eventually converting the drive into a 7-yard TD pass from McCarthy to Luke Schoonmaker. They never trailed again.

Edwards big run set up Kalel Mullings‘ 1-yard TD plunge before Edwards celebrated his own scoring run.

All Purdue could muster was three more field goals.

McCarthy was 11 of 17 with 161 yards and one interception.

Corum posted a message on Twitter on Saturday morning to say his knee surgery went well.

THE TAKEAWAY

Purdue: The Boilermakers’ magical season ended with a solid showing in the championship game where they played better than most expected. Still, they won the Big Ten’s wild, wild West, both trophy games and should be bound for a warm-weather bowl game.

Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines may have already locked up a top-two seed thanks to losses by Southern Cal and TCU. Michigan now has back-to-back conference crowns for the first time since 2003-04 though the hard part remains – ending its national title drought.

DIALING UP TRICKERY

Brohm played one season in the now defunct XFL and has acknowledged that experience helped him understand how to inject personality and creativity into play calling. It was on full display Saturday.

A surprise end around set up Purdue’s first score, a fake punt helped keep its second scoring drive alive and then Mockobee sprinted 25 yards on a fake flea-flicker in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Will find out its bowl game, destination and opponent Sunday.

Michigan: Waiting to see where its headed and who it will face in the national semifinals.

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.