College football Week 2 highlights: Top plays, games, takeaways

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, September 10, 2023

We've been here before. It's September, which is the time of year when we can announce, for a few days at least, that a formerly great program has risen from the ashes to reassert its dominance. In a small sample size, we see visions of better days.

Miamihas been back before. It never lasts.

Texasis back nearly every September, and that hope ends quicker than the average Matthew McConaughey nude bongo solo.

For more than a decade, the "they're back" moment has been less a proclamation than the setup to a joke, with fans all too certain the punchline will come soon enough.

But on this September Saturday, it doesn't feel like a joke.

Texas didn't simply beat Alabama34-24 in Tuscaloosa. The Longhorns threw haymakers, following each Tide touchdown with their own, getting up off the mat to stare down Nick Saban like Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania. This wasn't a fluke. Texas was the more talented team with the far better quarterback.

A year ago, Quinn Ewers starred as the frontman for Austin's top Molly Hatchet cover band (Prolly Hatchet) but was, at best, a case in mediocrity at QB. Then he got a haircut and returned to the Horns for 2023 as a genuine star. Ewers threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns, torching the Alabama secondary -- including routinely attacking All-American Kool-Aid McKinstry. Not since Hi-C released Ecto Cooler in 1989 has anyone delivered such a blow to Kool-Aid.

Just as Texas and Alabama kicked off, Miami was putting the finishing touches on its own impressive win over an SEC power. The Hurricanes spotted Texas A&M10 points to start the game, but then they turned the screws on Jimbo Fisher, with QB Tyler Van Dyke tossing five touchdown passes in a 48-33 win.

It was, at long last, proof of concept for coach Mario Cristobal's promised revival of the Canes, a defining win against a team that, just a year ago, had utterly stifled Miami's offense.

That the teams on the wrong end of these momentous wins both belonged to the mighty SEC was its own unlikely statement.

For Alabama, all the concerns about an offense without a clear identity and a defense that had softened in recent years were on display against the Longhorns.

For the Aggies, the loss to Miami was so decisive that Bobby Petrino likely offered to interview for Jimbo Fisher's job on the plane ride home.

The SEC has six nonconference losses in two weeks already, including four to the ACC. (Though, if commissioner Greg Sankey just wants to expand and add North Carolina, Florida State, Miami and, um, Wake Forest, we can chalk it all up to the grind of a tough SEC schedule.) According to ESPN Stats & Information, this marks the first season since 2002 in which Alabama, LSUand Floridahave an L by the end of Week 2.

What a brave new world this could be.

There are 12 weeks remaining, of course, and the story of a college football season never plays out just as we'd expect. September foreshadowing is as likely to be a red herring as it is honest data on a trend line.

Still, for this week at least, 2023 felt something more akin to the glory days of decades past.

Texas looks to be back.

Miami looks to be back.

It's either the start of a genuinely fun season or the sign that precedes the horsemen's arrival in the Book of Revelation.

Colorado's instant turnaround and Nebraska's never-ending rebuild

Sequels so rarely live up to the original, but Colorado's second act against Nebraskawas, if anything, a more emphatic performance for coach Deion Sanders' team.

Colorado demolished Nebraska 36-14on Saturday,as Travis Hunter again made an impact on both sides of the ball with three catches for 73 yards and four tackles, Xavier Weaver looked like an emerging superstar with 10 catches for 170 yards, and Shedeur Sanders followed up his 500-yard passing performance against TCU with another 393 yards and three touchdowns. And while Week 1's win over the Horned Frogs hardly showcased an elite defense, the Buffaloes held Nebraska to just 11 completions and had four takeaways.

But as with most genuinely good sequels, the real entertainment is less in what we learned of an already established hero but more in the complexity of the antagonist.

And in this case, Nebraska offered no complexity. The Cornhuskers' story is simple: They're bad.

Saturday's loss was the 18th in Nebraska's past 23 games. Jeff Sims, the quarterback coach Matt Rhule handpicked to lead the Huskers' resurgence, was dreadful for the second straight week, turning the ball over three times. The defense, which held up well early, fell apart down the stretch.

The only thing that looked much different from past Nebraska misery on Saturday is that the game was never actually all that close.

There are still nits to pick with the Buffaloes. In their two otherwise impressive wins, they've allowed 12 sacks and rushed for just 1.7 yards per carry. And it's certainly possible Colorado has yet to see a truly challenging opponent.

A year ago, however, the Buffs were an embarrassment, hardly capable of taking the field without tripping over their own shoelaces. Now, you have to squint to find any flaws in their game.

The problems at Nebraska are so much bigger -- bigger, perhaps, than they were even a year ago, amid embarrassing losses to Northwestern and Georgia Southern and, well, Huskers fans don't need reminders.

Two games isn't enough to judge a rebuild, of course. Rhule has a long history of winning college football games, and life gets at least marginally easier in the next couple of weeks.

But Sims is now 7-18 as a starting QB with 39 touchdowns and 37 turnovers. Is there a reason to think that résumé changes in the months to come?

Those Blackshirts on defense, once the soul of one of the great programs in the country, have been beaten down by one showing of offensive ineptitude after another.

And while the party in Boulder is just getting started, hope for Nebraska still feels like it's a long way off.

Pac-12 keeps humming

No league stays perfect forever, even if "forever" for that league is about eight more months.

So it was that the Pac-12's undefeated start to the season came to a halt in Week 2, when Arizonafell to Mississippi State31-24 in overtime.

And yet, Week 2 was another reminder that, in what sure seems like its last season of existence, the Pac-12 isn't going out without some fireworks.

Oregonovercame a 27-18 deficit and picked off its former QBTyler Shoughthree times, including a 45-yard pick six with 45 seconds left to seal a 38-30 win overTexas Tech.

Washington Stateknocked off No. 19 Wisconsin.

UCLAdominated San Diego State.

Utahescaped Baylor, Colorado was exceptional again, and the Washington Huskies are tossing touchdown passes like Oprah giving away cars.

USC's game ops even get credit for being way cooler than the officials. Listen, Stanford had no chance to win this game, and the people just wanted to listen to "Free Bird."

Michael Penix Jr. has now thrown for 400 or more yards in four of his past six games. At Rutgers, that's called "a good century."

Dante Moore looks like an emerging star at UCLA, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns against San Diego State on Saturday.

USC is already a video game on offense. This kind of stuff is just terrifying.

Even with Saturday's losses, the Pac-12 figures to have six teams ranked in the top 20, which gives the league a good case as the nation's best.

And sure, Stanford looked awful and Cal lost. But that's the ACC's problem.

Heisman Five

We're two weeks in and, honestly, the hardest part is deciding how many Colorado players to include among the Heisman favorites.

1. Colorado do-it-all star Travis Hunter

Hunter had three catches for 73 yards on offense, four tackles and a PBU on defense, and singlehandedly swayed the international markets to send corn futures plummeting. It was a thorough beating of Nebraska.

2. USC QB Caleb Williams

Williams threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns against Stanford.Oh, that was just in the first half. If he keeps doing this to teams, he's going to ruin his Heisman chances by never playing in the second half.

3. Florida State QB Jordan Travis

Travis had just two touchdowns against Southern Miss, but only one of them was to Keon Coleman, so the degree of difficulty was higher. Regardless, Florida State rolled 66-13.

4. Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders

Sanders has 903 passing yards and six passing TDs through two games. Last year, Colorado as a team had 2,075 passing yards and 10 passing TDs. That puts Sanders on pace to top the Buffs' season totals from 2022 before the end of this month.

5. Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman

Hartman's Notre Dame career so far: Three wins, 10 touchdowns, no picks, one rib necklace. Your move, Caleb Williams.

Big Ten vibe check

It was another dull week atop the Big Ten, as Michiganand Ohio Statewere favored by a combined 83 points. The results were less about wins and more about vibes.

After all, just a week ago, Ohio State's offense scuffled against Indianaand, while the Buckeyes won easily, there were some reasonable concerns. What did we learn in Week 2? Maybe not much more than we did in Week 1. It was an easy 35-7 win over Youngstown State, and Kyle McCord threw for three touchdowns, but really, Ohio State spent the bulk of the second half on cruise control.

The Buckeyes have scored 58 points so far, which is their fewest through two games since 2014.

Oh, they also won the national title in 2014. Ryan Day really is playing chess when the rest of us are playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos.

As for Michigan, the Wolverines topped UNLV35-7 in their second of three games without head coach Jim Harbaugh, who spent the afternoon running the chain gang of a high school football game and then, we assume, sifting through his collection of old Mad magazines so he could do all the fold-ins.

J.J. McCarthy tossed two touchdown passes and Michigan had 300 passing yards for the second time in its past three games -- something it had done just twice in its prior 16.

Meanwhile, the Michigan defense has allowed 10 total points so far this season, and with Bowling Greenand Rutgerson deck, that number might not move much anytime soon.

Historic win for Iowa

It wasn't easy, but anything else wouldn't have felt fitting, as Iowa's Kirk Ferentz picked up career win No. 200 with a 20-13 victory over rival Iowa State.

During the course of Ferentz's 200 wins, Iowa has scored upward of 600 total points on offense, including 13 on Saturday. The defense added a pick-six, which for reasons we cannot fathom still counts toward Brian Ferentz's quest for 25 points per game -- the number Iowa has to hit for the younger Ferentz to keep his job.

Cade McNamara, the QB brought in from Michigan to invigorate the passing game, threw for 123 yards and a pick. Iowa averaged nearly 4 yards per rush. It was truly a fireworks display.

The Hawkeyes nearly blew a 20-3 lead, which actually might have been a brilliant turn for its offensive coordinator. Overtime would've given OC Brian Ferentz a chance to pad an extra three, maybe six points to his total. Alas, it was not to be.

Instead, his quest for 300 -- 25 points over 12 games -- stands at 44. Since Oct. 1 of last year, Iowa has hit that magical 25-point mark just once.

Still, the Ferentz family has lots to celebrate after such a historic win, and we assume Kirk & Co. will all have a blast at Applebee's, while Brian naps in the backseat of the car.

Under-the-radar play of the week

The race for the best big-guy touchdown of the season is already over. Colorado Mesa's Cooper Mumford recovered a fumble on a trick play, scrambled outside, then tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Once upon a time, Luke McCaffrey was a QB prospect for Nebraska. A lot has happened since then. McCaffrey ultimately transferred to theRice Owls, lost a QB competition, and moved to wide receiver. Nebraska also gave up on playing a quarterback.

On Saturday, McCaffrey reminded the college football world that he may not have been an elite QB, but he's a heck of a player.

McCaffrey hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass with one hand, giving Rice a 21-0 lead.

Rice appeared to have the game in hand, up 28-0 at the half, but Houston had other ideas.

The Cougars roared back, scoring the final 28 points of regulation, including two touchdowns in the last four minutes, to send the game to overtime.

The two teams traded touchdowns in each of the first two frames of OT, but while Rice connected on its 2-point try, Houston failed to, giving the win to the Owls.

McCaffrey finished the game with 99 yards and two touchdown grabs, and Rice nabbed its first win in the intra-city rivalry with Houston since 2010.

Four downs

Marylandwas nearly doomed by a slow start against Charlotte,falling behind 14-0 and trailing 14-9 at the half. Could Charlotte coach Biff Poggi have caused this by, say, pulling the fire alarm in the Terps' hotel, forcing an evacuation, then changing the AM/PM setting on all their alarm clocks? Did he possibly do this while wearing a Speedo and drinking Olde English out of a foam dome helmet? No, it's not likely, but with Poggi, we're ruling nothing out. Either way, Maryland came back and won 38-20.

A year ago, North Carolinaand Appalachian Stateplayed in a shootout for the ages, with the Heels prevailing 63-61 after the two teams combined for 62 fourth-quarter points. Saturday's rematch wasn't quite as explosive, but the Heels and Mountaineers did rack up more than 1,000 total yards as UNC missed a late field goal that would've won the game, but held on to prevail in double OT.

Tulanewas without star QB Michael Pratt for its matchup with Ole Miss. Typically when things go bad in New Orleans, we recommend having a few hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and hoping it'll all work out, but the Green Wave foolishly shrugged off that option and instead sent Kai Horton out for the start instead. He held his own for a half, but things fell apart after the break, with Jaxson Dart(267 yards, 2 TDs) leading Ole Miss to a 37-20 win.

Clemsongot off to a miserable start against Charleston Southern,with a pick-six by Cade Klubnik putting the Tigers in an early 14-7 hole. Klubnik & Co. figured things out in the second half, however, and outscored the Buccaneers 42-0 to close out the game. Klubnik finished with 315 yards and four touchdowns, and afterward Dabo Swinney passed around to each media member a beautifully designed note card with the words "I told you so" in handwritten calligraphy.

A minor victory

In life, great success begins with a small step forward. Perhaps that will be true, too, for the NAIA's Texas College Steers.

In Week 1, Texas College was walloped 90-0 against Texas-Permian Basin (which, in fairness, is among Texas' finest basins).

In Week 2, a similar result seemed in the offing. At the end of the third quarter, Central Arkansas (an inherently middling Arkansas direction) led 70-0, but our beloved Steers wouldn't go down without a fight.

After a Texas College interception, Central Arkansas started a drive pinned deep in its own territory. That's when Steers legend Dylan DuBois delivered a play for the ages. On a handoff to the tailback, Dubois delivered a hit in the end zone for a safety.

And thanks to Dubois' patented last-second magic, the final score was Central Arkansas 70, Texas College 2.

Did you say 'Utes'?

No Cam Rising? No problem. Well, OK, a few problems. But Utah's offensive woes against Bayloron Saturday weren't enough to keep the Utes from moving to 2-0 on the season.

Baylor led 13-3 midway through the third quarter, but coach Kyle Whittingham pulled his starting QB, Bryson Barnes, and went with freshman Nate Johnson, who engineered a late comeback. Johnson completed 6 of 7 throws for 82 yards and added another 32 yards on the ground, including a touchdown -- one of two Utah scores in the game's final two minutes.

Still, Baylor nearly stole the win.

After Jaylon Glover scored to give Utah a 20-13 lead with 17 seconds to play, Baylor connected on a 47-yard throw to Hal Presley, setting up one final heave to the end zone with one second left on the clock.

Technically, the pass fell incomplete. But that's not how Baylor fans will remember it.

After years of enduring Pac-12 officiating, this must have felt like an early welcome into the Big 12 for the Utes. What looked like a clear defensive pass interference didn't earn a flag, and the Utes escaped 20-13.

Irish keep ACC streak alive

Notre Dameis not going to join the ACC. Oh, sure, it's technically a full voting member and spent a portion of this summer nudging the league to add Caland Stanford, ostensibly for the good of college football, but make no mistake, the Irish are only here to bring the ACC down from the inside.

On Saturday, the Irish toppled NC State 45-24, with Sam Hartman -- the ACC's all-time leading passer whom the Irish swiped from Wake Forestthis offseason -- throwing for four touchdowns.

It was the first time in 17 games NC State has allowed more than 30 points. The last QB to do it? That'd be Sam Hartman.

Notre Dame has now won 29 straight regular-season games vs. the ACC. Syracuse, which joined the ACC full time in 2013, has just 26 total wins against the conference since then.

Indeed, since the Irish joined the ACC in all sports but football -- they typically play five games per year against the conference -- in 2014, they've racked up 42 ACC wins. Only Clemson, Pittand Miamihave more. The other 11 full-time ACC members have been left in Notre Dame's dust.

If the ACC were the cast of "Succession," Notre Dame is Tom Wambsgans. He was welcomed into the family, pushed for a big merger to go through, then stole all the power for himself. (Side note: Miami is definitely Cousin Greg, right?)

This is all incredibly problematic for the ACC, but it's worth remembering that, starting next year, SMU, Stanford and Cal can also lose games to Notre Dame.

You know, for the good of the league.

Bad day in the First State

Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787. It's been mostly downhill since then, save Elena Delle Donne and a few good shows at the Bottle & Cork. But Saturday might have been the state's nadir.

The Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens visited Penn State, and it didn't go well. The Nittany Lions won 63-7.

The Delaware State Hornets visited Army, and it didn't go well either. The Black Knights won 57-0.

If you're keeping track, that means the two Division I teams from Delaware lost by a combined score of 120-7.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, however. All the big name, image and likeness money in Delaware is being funneled through its famous chicken farms right to Florida State, keying that program's return to greatness.

We knew once they started opening Wawa locations in Florida, it was only a matter of time before this happened.

Big bets and bad beats

Well, we think it's safe to say Georgiahas lost its edge. The Bulldogs allowed Ball State to drive down the field and boot a meaningless 27-yard field goal with 9 minutes, 5 seconds to play, making the score 45-3. That's how it ended, which meant UGA (-42) hit the spread right on the nose.

Wake Forest opened its win over Vanderbiltwith an interception that set the Deacons up with a first-and-goal at the 10. They settled for a field goal. Wake got the ball with seven seconds left in the first half and moved into field goal range, but it missed a 44-yarder. Vandy had four plays inside Wake's 3 but turned the ball over on downs. Wake had a first-and-goal at the Vandy 2 but fumbled. None of that made much difference in the Deacons' impressive enough 36-20 win, but all those miscues were worth noting if you bet the over, which came up a half-point shy (56.5).

Syracuseled Western Michigan45-7 at the half, having scored on its first seven drives of the game. With 52 points already on the board, it was fair to say the game was trending pretty heavily toward hitting the over of 56. So, what happened in the second half? One stinking field goal. Syracuse punted four times (and kicked the aforementioned field goal), while Western Michigan turned the ball over on downs on both of its final two drives deep into Orange territory.

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