After knee injury, Georgia WR Pickens ready for Orange Bowl

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Georgia wide receiver George Pickens still has a chance to be a major contributor for the Bulldogs this season.

The junior who was expected to be third-ranked Georgia’s go-to receiver before he tore the ACL in his right knee during spring practice will be available Friday for the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl against No. 2 Michigan.

Pickens did not travel with the team to Miami on Sunday, instead arriving Monday. Georgia would not say why Pickens and quarterback JT Daniels arrived a day late, but both are expected to be ready to play.

“When I think back to the spring when he injured his knee and thinking, wow, what a disappointment for him and his development and for us,” Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Tuesday. “But he has done a fantastic job of trying to get back.

Pickens was able to play against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finally and Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. He made three catches, two against the Tide.

The 6-foot-3, 200 pounder from Hoover, Alabama, has maybe the highest ceiling of any Georgia wideout and he’s been especially good in bowl games.

Last year, he had seven catches for 135 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. He ended his freshman season with a career-high 12 catches for 175 yards in Georgia’s Sugar Bowl victory against Baylor.

It might a stretch to think Pickens can be that type of an impact player against Michigan, but for a team that has relied heavily on inexperienced receivers all season any contribution would be welcome.

“He’s been a great addition to this team, him being able to come back from that injury has been tremendous for not only for himself, but for the team, as well, and just him being out there brings a different atmosphere to the game,” fellow receiver Kearis Jackson said.

RISING STOCK

Michigan linebacker David Ojabo has had one of college football’s best breakout seasons.

The junior had played 20 snaps for the Wolverines coming into the season, but has blossomed as an edge rushing outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald‘s scheme e in 2021. Ojabo has 11 sacks, is a second-team All-American and a legitimate NFL prospect now.

“When it comes time for the draft time, draft attention, I’m going to switch the focus to that, but you see us, we’re in the playoffs. Can’t be talking about the draft or focusing on the draft,” Ojabo said.

The 6-5, 250-pound Ojabo is a latecomer to football. Born in Nigeria, he grew up in Scotland, where his parents still live. He moved to New Jersey and started playing football as a teenager.

Victor and Ngor Ojabo got to see their son play in person for the first time in November when Michigan beat Ohio State in Ann Arbor.

Ojabo said his parents are not making the trip to South Florida, but his brother will be in town.

Ojabo has a great role model in fellow Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Ojabo said he has tried to be in Hutchinson’s “hip pocket” this year, trying to approach the game with the same work ethic and commitment.

His rise has been startling to observers, but not to him.

“No, it hasn’t surprised me because at the end of the day I know the work I put in,” Ojabo said.

BEARCAT BROTHERS

Darrian Beavers has a tattoo of Cincinnati’s skyline on his left bicep, and was glad to come home to play after his final three college seasons after starting out at UConn.

Beavers, a graduate linebacker, is one of 27 players on the Bearcats roster listed as being from Cincinnati. He is among a team-high five from Colerain High School.

“Give a lot of credit to Colerain. I feel like they prepare their players well for the next level,” Beavers said Wednesday after showing off the muscular artwork. “The workouts, the intensity in practice, the competition that we play in Cincinnati, I feel like all of those factors factor in how we perform on the next level in college.”

Three of the Colerain alums play key roles on defense for the undefeated Bearcats: Beavers has 91 tackles, sophomore linebacker DeShawn Pace has 85 with a team-high four interceptions while starting only four games, and starting safety Ja’Vone Hicks has 48 tackles.

Beavers is one of five current Bearcat players from Cincinnati high schools who started their college careers at other schools.

“It’s been a blessing. I grew up here,” Beavers said. “Cincinnati’s in my blood, so I feel like the recognition that this city has gotten from this football team has been extraordinary. It has put the program on the map, it’s put the players on the map … I feel like it’s put this whole city on the map.”

BACK TO SCHOOL

Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was sidelined for a few days during the Crimson Tide’s preparation for the Cotton Bowl against No. 4 Cincinnati by COVID-19.

The 52-year-old former Houston Texans and Penn State coach arrived in Miami on Tuesday, getting back a few days earlier than originally expected after the CDC lowered the recommended isolation time for those infected by COVID-19 from 10 to five days.

O’Brien said after working remotely for much of 2020, doing it a again for a few days wasn’t so tough.

“Every meeting, every practice I was able to be involved with,” O’Brien said. “So it was really, really good back in Tuscaloosa for me, but I’m obviously excited to be here right now.”

O’Brien succeeded Joe Paterno at Penn State in 2012 and spent two seasons there before becoming an NFL head coach. He had previously worked with the New England Patriots for five years (2007-11), the final three as quarterbacks coach for Tom Brady.

The question O’Brien said he gets a lot — though not in interview sessions because neither Alabama’s Nick Saban nor New England’s Bill Belichick allow assistant coaches to regularly meet with reporters — is how do the two coaching greats and their programs compare?

“I take a lot of pride in working for two of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport,” O’Brien said. “Coach Belichick, Coach Saban, I’ve learned so much from from both of them. And there’s some fundamentals that they both believe in: Hard work, trust, loyalty. You know, smart football teams, teams that play selfless, complementary football.”

O’Brien said after he was fired by the Texans last year, ending a seven-year run in Houston, the call he got from Saban to come to Alabama was the only job offer he received.

“And I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had,” O’Brien said. “I think you can count on one hand how many people can say they worked for both guys, and I’m just extremely proud of that.”

The biggest challenge for O’Brien in coming to Alabama was learning the offense.

“When you come here, you know you’re running Alabama’s offense, you’re not bringing your offense in here, and it’s a great offense, with a great history and it was really awesome to learn it, but it was very challenging,” he said.

Watson, Troy win Sun Belt title over Coastal Carolina, 45-26

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
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TROY, Ala. – Gunnar Watson and the streaking Troy Trojans came out with a flurry of big plays and a defense that was barely budging.

Watson passed for 318 yards and three long touchdowns to lead the Trojans to a 45-26 victory – their 10th straight – over Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt Conference championship game on Saturday.

“It seemed like everything was going right for us,” Watson said.

The early domination didn’t last, but it was enough.

The Trojans (11-2) raced ahead 31-0 and with a 316-22 advantage in total yards en route to their Sun Belt-record seventh league title. Coach Jon Sumrall‘s first season began 1-2, with one loss on a Hail Mary pass, and ended with fans celebrating Troy’s first Sun Belt title since 2017 by storming the field and bringing down a goal post.

A group of students carried part of the goal post out of the stadium to the parking lot. It ended up in a nearby fountain.

“That probably will be one of the coolest memories I’ll ever have here,” Troy linebacker KJ Robertson said. “That was awesome for me. I don’t know how they’re paying for that.”

By the time three-time Sun Belt player of the year Grayson McCall got the offense going for Coastal Carolina (9-3), it was all but over. McCall started at quarterback after missing the past two games with a foot injury.

“They came out and really took it to us from the opening drive and we could not respond at all there in the first half,” said Chanticleers coach Jamey Chadwell. “I was proud of our team trying to come back in the second half. I thought we showed a lot of effort and fight.”

Watson completed 12 of 17 passes, including touchdowns of 67 yards and 36 yards to Rajae’ Johnson and a 65-yarder to Deshon Stoudemire. Watson was hit as he was throwing the 67-yarder with Johnson stretching out to grab it.

Johnson then snagged the ball one-handed to answer the Chanticleers’ second touchdown.

“I saw the replay and I was like, `Holy crap,”‘ Watson said.

DK Billingsley ran for three touchdowns, including a 33-yarder, for the Trojans.

Troy, which was coming off three straight five-win seasons, hasn’t lost since that Appalachian State Hail Mary on Sept. 17. Sumrall & Co. left the field in a much better mood this time.

“That was as good of a feeling as I’ve ever had after a game,” he said. “These kids have worked so hard and they’ve done so much and they’ve been through a lot.”

McCall overcame a rough start to complete 29 of 41 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns with a late interception. He also ran for an 8-yard touchdown.

McCall led touchdown drives heading into and coming out of halftime. He said his status was a gametime decision.

“I felt good in warmups so I told coach I was good to go,” McCall said.

The momentum didn’t last.

T.J. Jackson then had a strip sack and fumble recovery inside Coastal Carolina’s 10 to set up a touchdown.

The stats evened out but the score never got too uncomfortable for Troy. Coastal Carolina actually ended with a 432-411 edge in total yards.

Coastal Carolina has lost two straight lopsided games, including a 47-7 defeat to James Madison amid speculation about Chadwell’s future. He said he has spoken to Liberty about replacing coach Hugh Freeze but “I have not signed anything with them or anything of that nature.”

TAKEAWAY

Coastal Carolina: McCall and the offense took too long to get going for the Chanticleers to have a chance, but the defense struggled to bring down both Troy’s running backs and receivers in the first half. Still, the Chanticleers have won 31 games over the last three seasons.

Troy: Might have earned its second Top 25 ranking and first since 2016. The Trojans have their longest win streak since winning 11 in a row in 1995. Their six Sun Belt titles had been tied with Arkansas State.

SLOW DRIVE

The fumble recovery set up a drive that didn’t go far but took nearly four minutes. Troy finally scored after the eight-play, 7-yard drive was kept alive by a personal foul on a field goal.

UP NEXT

Both teams await their bowl destinations.

Finn, Stuart lead Toledo to first MAC title since 2017

Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports
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DETROIT – Dequan Finn passed for a touchdown and rushed for 86 yards on 18 carries as Toledo captured its first Mid-American Conference championship since 2017 by defeating Ohio 17-7 on Saturday afternoon.

Finn completed 16 of 25 passes for 154 yards. Jacquez Stuart rushed for 93 yards on nine carries, including a 29-yard touchdown. Micah Kelly added 53 rushing yards for the Rockets (8-5), who lost their last two conference games.

“We’ve been through a lot the whole year,” Finn said. “It’s been a rollercoaster for us. Up and down, fought through adversity and had some rough patches. But ultimately, we stayed together as one.”

Toledo is headed to a bowl game but since the MAC doesn’t have a postseason pecking order, its destination is unknown. The Arizona, Idaho Potato and Quick Lane bowls — the latter also at Detroit’s Ford Field — are the most likely possibilities.

“This is everybody’s goal,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said of the conference championship. “This is what everybody wants to do. This is where everybody says they’re going to be. It’s one thing to get there. It’s another to win it.”

Sieh Bangura rushed for 56 yards on 20 carries and the lone touchdown for the Bobcats (9-4), whose seven-game winning streak was snapped. CJ Harris completed 17 of 31 passes for 163 yards and was intercepted once.

Harris was making his second start since MAC Player of the Year Kurtis Rourke suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Ohio is 0-5 in the MAC title game.

“My heart hurts for our football team,” coach Tim Albin said. “This has been about our journey, not a destination. I boldly said on MAC (preseason) media day I thought we could make a championship run. That’s what we did and we came up short.”

The Rockets led 10-7 at halftime.

They drove 75 yards after the opening kickoff with Stuart scoring on his 29-yard run up the middle.

“Very efficient,” Candle said of first possession. “That kind of built some confidence to play efficient offense the rest of the way.”

Ohio tied it on Bangura’s 2-yard run midway through the second quarter, finishing off an 84-yard drive.

Toledo’s Thomas Cluckey kicked a 44-yard field goal with 16 seconds left in the half.

The Rockets drove to the Bobcats’ 10 midway through the third quarter but passed up a field goal attempt and turned the ball over on downs.

Finn’s 16-yard scoring pass to DeMeer Blankumsee completed a methodical 16-play, 90-yard drive that gave Toledo a 17-7 lead with 10:36 remaining.

Ohio was limited to 262 yards of total offense.

“Their front seven controlled it, particularly in the second half,” Albin said. “We had trouble running the ball in between the tackles and it made us one-dimensional.”

THE TAKEAWAY

Toledo is now 4-3 in the MAC title game, with its previous championships coming in 2001, ’04 and ’17. Ohio’s long drought without a conference championship continued. The Bobcats haven’t won a MAC championship since 1968.

UP NEXT

Both teams are headed to bowl games TBD on Sunday. Toledo is bowl eligible for the 13th straight season.