Defenders long have protected Saturday night moods in American college towns, preventing our despicable rivals from marring our dreams and entitlements. Yet of the 81 Heisman trophies, we have managed to give just one to a player primarily a defender, and that guy had to return punts and catch 11 passes to help surmount the bias.
It’s with joy, then, that we can extol from the masses of semi-anonymous defenders of Saturday one Israel Mukuamu, 6-foot-4 cornerback, South Carolina. Before the Gamecocks’ astonishing 20-17, double-overtime road upset of then-No. 3 Georgia that helped South Carolina budge to 3-3, Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm had zero interceptions and one turn of expert praise from Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly, who described Fromm’s rarefied precision in avoiding turnovers.
Now, Fromm has thrown three interceptions, all to Israel Mukuamu.
Two were not just interceptions but some of the better catches on display this entire mad autumn. Mukuamu’s 53-yard interception return just before halftime not only stemmed from Javon Kinlaw’s rush toward Fromm, and not only provided a 17-10 lead that stuck around a long time, but featured Mukuamu lurching skyward to his left to snare the ball, then staying in bounds before making his merry trip up the sideline. The second, with 9:25 left, involved an outstretched snare with a stunning turn of dexterity at keeping the ball above the grass.
The third, a reacting catch off a tip, happened in the first overtime, which was handy.
“He’s a fantastic player and uncharacteristic,” South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp told reporters about his towering cornerback, who switched from safety this past offseason and once tweeted: “6’4” playing corner? Yeah I’m about to change the game!” Further, Mukuamu credited his teammates by telling reporters that Georgia had “never played a D-line like us,” the kind of crazy-confident comment that can occur in only about 130 of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Still further, here are some biographical morsels about a defensive player: The family moved from South Carolina to Louisiana, where Mukuamu finished high school, then the three-star recruit committed to Florida State, then Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for Texas A&M, then Mukuamu headed for South Carolina. Here’s what Mukuamu, a polite man and an eager student, told South Carolina reporters in August: “I remember one time in third grade, I had a C, and my mom, actually my parents, didn’t let me play football that year.”
Sometimes, a third-grade C can wind up ruining an Athens night.
That three-touchdown-underdog South Carolina got outgained 468-297, and out-possessed 36:04-23:56, and out-snapped 95-68 proved again how turnovers do matter so much in American life and added further shock to the only occasion Saturday that altered the College Football Playoff landscape up ahead.
Elsewhere, entertaining form held. LSU and its dazzling new passing game ought to be ranked No. 1 after surpassing Florida, 42-28, on a Baton Rouge night in which the impressive teams included LSU (6-0) and Florida (6-1). LSU quarterback Joe Burrow completed 21 passes in but 24 tries, and the LSU denizens, for so long forlorn without the fun passes thrown in other towns, looked positively rapturous as star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase streamed up the right sideline on the 54-yard touchdown that closed the scoring.
Oklahoma (6-0) looked fascinating while beating Texas. Alabama (6-0) won at Texas A&M but left Coach Nick Saban prattling about the “rat poison” of complacency from the praise that comes from those who see Alabama and notice excellence. Baylor found 6-0 with a double-overtime win over Texas Tech that provided the fans’ dream of a controversial call (on an apparent Baylor fumble in the first overtime), as controversial calls alleviate the tedium of everyday conversation for weeks and months to come while providing much-craved pique. Wisconsin (6-0) continued such steely command with its 38-0 wallop of faded Michigan State, and Minnesota (6-0) continued such steady growth in its 34-7 wallop of Nebraska, so does all that mean there might come a humongous Paul Bunyan Axe game Nov. 30 in Minneapolis?
It certainly means that Wisconsin at Ohio State on Oct. 26 looks plump with pregame anticipation, and it certainly spurs a reminder, especially after a week in which Minnesota prepared for game-time cold by dousing its players with wintry water as they took the practice field.
Reminder: Many have dismissed Minnesota Coach P.J. Fleck as a flake, and if a guy who led Western Michigan to a 13-1 record and a No. 1 national ranking in turnover margin, and now has Minnesota at 6-0, is a flake, then may we all seek flake-dom.
Still, at another long day-and-night’s end, the deepest truth lurked somewhere in that presumably merry night in Columbia, the South Carolina capital. Yes, it’s eccentric that there’s a sport that draws hundreds of thousands of people to stadiums to witness conclusions that so often seem foregone. Yes, Georgia held a 51-18-2 lead in that border rivalry coming in. Yes, as Georgia has revved up under its alumnus Kirby Smart, seemingly rendering post-Spurrier South Carolina a map dot again as Georgia alumnus Muschamp started out, and the past four meetings had gone 52-20, 28-14, 24-10 and 41-17.
Yet without all those realities and all that time apparently wasted spent traveling to, parking for and watching them (except at tailgates, where time is never wasted), the upset of Saturday would not have mattered with such oomph. A country that considered the noon matchup an afterthought would not have known the pleasure of being amazed.
That’s even given that Georgia still can access the playoff, the way these national champions did: Ohio State in 2014 when it lost to Virginia Tech, Alabama in 2015 when it lost to Mississippi, Clemson in 2016 when it lost to Pittsburgh, Alabama in 2017 when it lost to Auburn. And that’s even given Saturday’s downer of an ending, when the great Georgia senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yard field goal on the last play. That led the winning coach, Muschamp, to begin his postgame comments with: “Rodrigo Blankenship is and has been an unbelievable representative of the University of Georgia and kicker, and my heart goes out to him in losing in that fashion. He’s an outstanding young man and about all the right things in college athletics.”
On so many Saturdays in college football, you wake up and you know what will happen, but then some Saturdays, it turns out you don’t. Some days, a program standing 18-51-2 against another goes and finds its nemesis at one of its historic peaks yet wins inexplicably, with three interceptions from a giant named Israel and one gracious comment from an underdog coach about a distinguished kicker.