Utah 34, USC 32
USC quarterback Caleb Williams was coming off a disastrous game versus Notre Dame and looking for a bounce-back performance against Utah, the 14th-ranked team in the nation. In the early going, Williams got the Trojans across midfield, using his legs to take off for a plus run. Shortly later, Williams aired out a deep ball that Tahj Washington hauled in for a diving catch at the one-yard line.
The Utah defense managed a few stops and forced a turnover from a USC back, but eventually Williams got the Trojans on the move, throwing a bullet down the field for a 38-yard gain at the end of the third quarter. That produced a field goal for USC after a Williams touchdown pass was called back by a penalty. Midway through the fourth quarter down by eight, Williams got a possession started off on the wrong foot when he held the ball too long and took a sack. He made up for it with a big play to buy time and then find receiver for a first-down completion. Late in the fourth quarter, Williams used his legs to put the Trojans in the lead with 1:46 remaining. Utah rallied to get the win with a field goal on the final play of the game. Against the Utes, Williams completed 24-of-34 passes for 256 yards passing. He also rushed for a touchdown.
There is no doubt that Williams has the potential to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL. He possesses a strong arm as well as superb scrambling ability and skills to make plays happen all on his own. His ability to take a broken play and turn it into a big gain is extraordinary. However, Williams has a propensity to hold on to the ball too long – going back to previous seasons -, and that was seen in this game once again. For the pros, he definitely has to get quicker at getting the ball out. Williams puts lot of pressure on his offensive line, and in the NFL, he will end up taking a lot of hits if he doesn’t get faster at pulling the trigger.
Florida State 38, Duke 20
There was a good draft matchup in this game with Florida State defensive end Jared Verse taking on Duke left tackle Graham Barton. In the second quarter, Barton was flagged for holding after he took Verse to the ground with him. Verse bull rushed right through Barton to knock him flat on his back. Rather than give up a sack, Barton pulled down with him. The next play was similar, as Barton was knocked to the turf again.
On the next drive, Barton came back to help blast open a hole in run blocking that produced a first-down rush for the Blue Devils. Barton continued to get a push and generate movement in the ground game, including on a chunk run that set up points for Duke.
At the beginning of the third quarter, Verse shed Barton to get a tackle in the ground game. Later in the third quarter, Verse shed Barton to notch a critical pressure that helped force a fourth-down incompletion.
Overall, Barton hurt his draft stock with how he handled the Seminoles. Barton did well as a run blocker, but he had issues in pass protection, were Verse was able to bull through him and shed his blocks. Barton’s lack of length could be seen in the issues with sustaining and holding up against the bull rushes. In the ground game, Barton looked better, showing an ability create movement. Hence, this tape could fortify the view that Barton should play guard in NFL – or maybe right tackle. This performance was a net positive for Verse, who put more pressure on the quarterback than he had in other games this season.
Blue Devils quarterback Riley Leonard has been missing action due to a high-ankle sprain he suffered at the end of Duke’s narrow loss to Notre Dame. Leonard was clearly not 100 percent against Florida State, but he tried to help his team by giving it his all.
In the second quarter, Leonard made a superb pass, changing his arm angle and pushing a side-arm strike to throw his receiver open past tight coverage and move the chains. Later on the drive though, Leonard threw a poor pass into double coverage. A Seminoles cornerback undercut the route to reel that ball in for an interception. In the third quarter, Leonard was pounded by a few Florida State defensive linemen, which knocked Leonard out of the game. He turned in a gutsy performance with how he played despite his injured ankle, but he was also clearly not himself. Leonard completed 7-of-16 passes for 69 yards and an interception against Florida State.
Leonard has a quality arm with athleticism and good size in the pocket. He could stand to improve his accuracy, and it would be best if he returned to college foe next season rather than enter the 2024 NFL Draft.
Alabama 34, Tennessee 20
Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner is a speed rusher for the next level, but he has some size limitations that make him more of a mid- to late first-rounder for the 2024 NFL Draft. Against the Volunteers, Turner showed pro evaluators that he has the versatility to handle some different things. Tennessee fields a passing offense, and the Crimson Tide had Turner drop into coverage on many obvious passing third downs and spy on some plays to negate Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton from hurting them on the ground. Late in the fourth quarter, Turner ran by two defenders to start a coverage sack.
For the NFL, Turner is a lightning-fast speed rusher off the edge. He has serious first-step quickness with a burst to close. Turner is a legit threat to blow by offensive tackles and make game-changing plays as a pass rusher. While Turner (6-4, 242) is undersized, he plays physically for a leaner player and is better than against the run than one would expect. Turner should test well before the 2024 NFL Draft, and he could end up going as a top-20 pick.
Alabama right tackle J.C. Latham saw some good young talent from the Tennessee defensive line and had an impressive performance. He was rock solid in pass protection, tying up edge rushers and keeping them from putting pressure on Alabama’s quarterback. Throughout the game, Latham showed impressive strength to sustain blocks and defeat second efforts. Early in the fourth quarter, he and his guard did a masterful job of passing off a stunt and not allowing it to get anywhere near the quarterback. Latham cruised over the Tennessee defensive line, which will help his grade for the 2024 NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-6, 326-pound Latham has a good skill set and a ton of upside. He did not give up a sack in 2022 and allowed very few pressures while manning right tackle. There is no doubt that Latham is a powerful prospect with the ability to generate movement at the point of attack. He makes winning blocks look easy thanks to serious strength and an ability to sustain. However, Latham is more of a right tackle than a left tackle for the NFL due to his feet and movement skills.
Alabama cornerback Terrion Arnold has early-round potential for the 2024 NFL Draft, but he had some rough performances earlier this season, including in the loss to Texas. In the first half, Arnold struggled to prevent separation, giving up a couple completions on comeback routes. A third one should have moved the sticks again, but the pass was dropped. In the second half of the game, Arnold went out with an upper body injury.
Arnold has a good skill set, but he is inconsistent and needs refinement. Arnold has not played like a first-round pick this year, and it might be best for him to go back to Alabama for next season rather than enter the 2024 NFL Draft.
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton was impressive to open the 2023 season, but he has turned in some inconsistent performances as well. How he played against Alabama was a microcosm for this season. In the first quarter, Milton lofted in a beautiful deep ball for a touchdown pass from midfield. It was perfectly placed in the front corner of the end zone, and Milton’s receiver, Squirrel White, made a superb diving catch. On the next possession, Milton used his arm and legs to move the Volunteers inside the 10 yard-line, but on third-and-goal, Milton threw a pass with too much heat to the outside, causing the ball to fly past an open receiver. After an Alabama turnover, Milton had another goal-to-go series get squandered when he once again overthrew an open receiver on third-and-goal. Milton came back to make a money throw late in the second quarter, retreating from the rush and then lofting in a short touchdown pass to his tight end in the corner of the end zone.
In the second half, Milton struggled to extend some drives and Alabama’s offense dominated. Midway through the fourth quarter, Milton held the ball way too long and did not feel the rush bearing down on him. He was strip-sacked by linebacker Chris Braswell, and the fumble was returned for a touchdown. Against the Crimson Tide, Milton completed 28-of-41 passes for 271 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He left some points on the field with inaccurate passes and missing open receivers in the end zone.
There is no doubt that Milton has a skill set that includes a powerful arm and some ability to pick up yards on the ground. However, he needs to improve his consistency and accuracy. He also struggles to throw accurately on the run. Milton looks like a potential mid-round or third-day prospect who has backup potential for the next level.
Ohio State 20, Penn State 12
There was the potential for a great draft matchup with the top wide receiver, Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., and potentially top cornerback prospect, Penn State’s Kalen King, for the 2024 NFL Draft going head-to-head. Overall, this game went poorly for King, while Harrison showed why he is a future No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
On the opening drive, the Buckeyes moved Harrison around and King did not follow him. At the end of the first quarter, Harrison had a good-sized cushion from King to make a completion on a slant, but the pass was inaccurate and fell incomplete. In the second quarter, King was flagged for holding Harrison as he was all over the star receiver, and the penalty negated a strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown. It was a horrible and costly penalty on King’s part. A few plays later, King was all over Harrison again, drawing another penalty, but Harrison fought through the contact to make the catch and set up a first-and-goal.
Harrison got open on a slant versus King in the third quarter, and Harrison followed that up a little later versus zone coverage by taking a shallow cross across the field and up the sideline for a gain of 27 yards. To put the game away for the Buckeyes, Harrison scored by running a crossing route against zone coverage. A Penn State defender got bumped, which let Harrison get wide open, and from there, he darted into the end zone. Harrison totaled 11 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown against the Nittany Lions.
Even great players can have bad games, and Harrison had that a week ago when he dropped three passes against Purdue. However, his performance against Penn State showed that he is a legit top-five pick and an elite prospect. Harrison has mismatch size alongside the speed to get open and attack defense vertically. He has real burst out of his breaks and runs fabulous routes. Many big receivers don’t have Harrison’s agility and smooth route-running, but he is a rare specimen who obviously acquired great route-running from his Hall of Fame father. Harrison’s performance against the Nittany Lions will help him to end up as a high first-rounder next April in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Conversely, King had an ugly game that will hurt his draft grade. NFL tea, sources had previously noted that King’s tape has not been impressive this season and his play is noticeably down from what he did in 2022. King had to grab Harrison and looked panicked when trying to run with the star receiver. King gave up receptions, allowed separation, drew penalties, and looked overwhelmed. This tape will hurt King’s draft grade and his hopes of being a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Another Penn State first-round prospect whose stock could have been hurt significantly in this game was defensive end Chop Robinson. The difference is Robinson played well, but in the first half, he left the game when his leg collapsed on him while fighting off a block. Robinson was carted into the locker room, and it looked like it could be a serious knee injury. Hopefully, tests reveal that is not major issue like a torn ACL or Achilles. An injury like that either of those could push Robinson down to Day 2 if he decides to enter the 2024 NFL Draft.
There was another great matchup of future pro talent on the other side of the ball, where Penn State left tackle Olu Fashanu was taking on Ohio State pass rushers J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer. If you looked only at the stat sheet, you would think Fashanu got the better of them because neither one produced huge numbers. The game tape, however, tells a difference story with Fashanu failing to impress. He didn’t get abused or dominated, but he was fortunate he didn’t give up multiple sacks.
In the second quarter, Fashanu almost gave up a sack as he lost his balance and fell to the turf after trying to push Sawyer to the inside. That let his rusher go free and almost get a sack. In the fourth quarter, Fashanu had a good pass-protection play, stopping a rush from Tuimoloau to the inside and then spinning off to keep defensive tackle Michael Hall from getting to the quarterback. On the next play though, Tuimoloau bulled Fashanu into quarterback Drew Allar, which caused a deflected pass for a fourth-down incompletion. At the end of the fourth quarter, Tuimoloau bull rushed through Fashanu again to join a teammate for a sack.
Overall, this tape illustrates that Fashanu is a solid player but is not a top-10 talent. Many in the media have hyped them there, but multiple NFL team sources have told me they do not have Fashanu graded that high. Team sources viewed him more as a mid- to late first-rounder. They stated they felt Fashanu is similar to a Russell Okung in being an adequate offensive tackle but not an elite one. They did not see Fashanu as a prospect on the level of a Penei Sewell. Sources also opined that Fashanu is not violent, has some stiffness, and does not create a real surge or push as a blocker. Fashanu’s performance against Ohio State will help to reinforce the view of pro evaluators and serves to dispel the top-10 media hype.
Tuimoloau collected .5 sack and a pass batted against the Nittany Lions. He can be a strong and physical rusher, but he has some stiffness as a rusher and is not a pure speed demon. For the 2024 NFL Draft, Tuimoloau looks like a second-day talent.