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4th Quarter Covers – Week 14
By Joe Nelson

Glancing at the scoreboard won’t tell you the whole story in most games. Here are some of the games that went down to the wire relative to the spread in the fourth quarter last week in championship weekend to close the college football regular season. Each week there are several teams that cover despite not necessarily deserving it, as well as other teams that played much better than the final score shows.

Bowling Green (-13½) 34, Northern Illinois 14: Overmatched with a quarterback that opened the season fifth on the Northern Illinois depth chart, the Huskies held their own to trail just 7-0 nearly 20 minutes into the game. Off a turnover, Bowling Green went up 14-0 and then scored again just before the half. With another touchdown early in the third quarter, the rout was on with a 28-0 lead for the Falcons. The Huskies followed with a productive drive before an interception, but on the next drive, the Huskies converted going for it on fourth-and-long from midfield and then scored on a long pass play on the next snap. A few minutes later the Huskies returned an interception 64 yards for a touchdown to cut the margin to just 14 points, even with some of the late week spreads that reached 14 for the favored Falcons.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons completed a long scoring drive to go up by 20 with the extra-point blocked, looming as a critical play for those on either side if Northern Illinois would score again. The Huskies threatened on the next possession getting inside the Bowling Green 10-yard line before ultimately failing on downs with a sack. Interceptions ended the next two drives for the Huskies, including another drive well into Bowling Green territory as the Huskies put up a good second half fight despite still falling short in the MAC Championship as well as against the spread.

Arkansas State (-24½) 55, Texas State 17: Looking to wrap up a perfect Sun Belt season, Arkansas State was off to a fast start, scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter and then getting a 99-yard interception return touchdown early in the second quarter. The Red Wolves got past the big spread that climbed as high as -25½ during the week in the third quarter with a 41-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but Texas State put together a touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter to trim the margin to just 24 points, right in the middle of the various lines that were available throughout the week. With the game in hand, Arkansas State broke a 48-yard run to add another touchdown and the Red Wolves did not let off the gas breaking a few more long runs and even completing a pass on a third down play that was called back for a penalty, eventually adding another touchdown to pad the statistics and earn the clear cover.

UL-Monroe (+2) 42, New Mexico State 35: The Aggies returned a fumble for a touchdown to take a 28-14 lead in the third quarter, but Louisiana-Monroe wound up scoring three touchdowns in just over three minutes of game clock on drives of just 11, 48, and 34 yards, taking advantage of great field position to take the lead. Late in the third quarter, New Mexico State put together a 13-play drive to tie the game as the result would be decided in the final frame. The Aggies were driving again early in the fourth quarter, but an interception was returned for touchdown to give the Warhawks a 42-35 lead and the final three drives for New Mexico State ended in a fumble and getting stopped on downs twice.

Kansas State (+6½) 24, West Virginia 23: West Virginia led by 10 at the half, but after a 77-yard pass play, Kansas State went in front in the third quarter leading 17-13 as a home underdog. West Virginia would go up by six early in the fourth quarter after a short field goal, but the ensuing kickoff was returned 97 yards for a touchdown for the Wildcats, taking a one-point lead in the process. The Kansas State defense held its ground to stop the Mountaineers on its final three possessions.

Western Kentucky (-7) 45, Southern Miss 28: The Golden Eagles had an interception return touchdown to take a 21-7 lead in the second quarter, but by halftime, the game was tied including Western Kentucky finding the end zone with just 11 seconds to go before the break. By the start of the fourth quarter, Western Kentucky had a 31-28 lead, short of the home favorite spread but the Hilltoppers added two fourth quarter touchdowns while Southern Miss had a costly interception in the final frame in the Conference USA final.

Houston (-5) 24, Temple 13: Temple had two early turnovers as Houston had a fast start with a 17-0 lead in the second quarter and into the third quarter the Cougars were up 24-3 looking to wrap up the AAC title even though Temple had moved the ball well in the game despite the low scoring output. The Owls finally converted for a touchdown late in the third quarter and after an early fourth quarter field goal, Temple was within 11, leaving room for an underdog cover with a touchdown. The Temple defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs from the Houston offense and had two great opportunities to add points, but on a critical fourth-and-short play in Houston territory, an egregious pass interference was missed. The Owls were deep in Houston territory again in the final minutes and incredibly on both third and fourth down, Houston’s center made terrible snaps to force Temple quarterback P.J. Walker to scramble and he came up just short of extending game the game. The underdog Owls did not cover despite having more yards, more first downs, and a big time of possession edge.

Stanford (-4½) 41, USC 22: USC led Stanford late in the third quarter with a 16-13 lead, but things swung sharply in the final minutes of the third quarter with Stanford connecting for a big play and eventually scoring to go up 20-16 and then getting a sack and fumble return for a touchdown in the final seconds of the third quarter to suddenly take a 27-16 lead in a game that had been very even to that point. USC would answer early in the third quarter to get back within five, missing a two-point conversion that looked critical with the line mostly at 4 or 4½ throughout the week. Stanford grinded out a long drive, but it looked likely that a field goal would be coming but the Cardinal hit a third down pass play to score the touchdown to lead 34-22. USC had to go for it on fourth down in its own territory and came up short and Stanford was oddly aggressive in the final minutes, passing the ball and going for it on fourth down, eventually scoring another touchdown with just over a minute to go to create a very misleading final score in a game where USC had five more first downs and held Stanford to just 10 completions with the big difference being Stanford converting 9 of 16 third and fourth down plays.

Alabama (-16½) 29, Florida 15: With a punt return touchdown, Florida led the SEC championship until very late in the second quarter as an Alabama touchdown just a few minutes before the break gave the Tide the lead. Alabama had to work to move the ball but wound up with 10 points in the third quarter to lead 22-7, just short of the heavy favorite spread as the defense dominated Florida’s offense. Alabama missed a field goal in the final frame, but seemed to get the late score it needed for another late cover with a big third down touchdown to put the Tide up 29-7 with just a few minutes remaining. After an exchange of punts, Florida hit three big plays in a row to find the end zone to climb within 15 and on the final Alabama drive, Derrick Henry ran five times but did not break through to the end zone for the miracle cover as he did vs. Auburn as the Gators were narrowly the winning side despite lopsided numbers in favor of Alabama.

San Diego State (-3½) 27, Air Force 24: This was a back-and-forth game for the Mountain West title with a tie score at the half and through three quarters. San Diego State scored a touchdown on a long run early in the fourth quarter to sneak by a spread that fell from as high as -7 early in the week to half that figure at just -3½ by closing. Air Force answered to tie the game at 24-24 and with just over five minutes to go the Aztecs connected for a 46-yard field goal to lead by three. Air Force reached midfield on the final drive, but San Diego State held on for the win though the Falcons took the cover narrowly.

Clemson (-6½) 45, North Carolina 37: Looking at the yardage numbers, it is hard to imagine that North Carolina was ever in this game as Clemson had 33 first downs and over 600 yards with big advantages over the Tar Heels. It was a very competitive game early with missed opportunities for the Tigers as North Carolina led 16-14 until just before the half. Clemson pulled away in the second half taking advantage of a costly interception to lead by 19 late in the third quarter and again leading by that margin early in the fourth quarter. A Tar Heels touchdown drive made it a 12-point game and it was still just a two-score game as Clemson was held to a short field goal with just over two minutes to go. The Tar Heels scored quickly to get within eight and then appeared to recover the on-side kick, but an off-sides flag was thrown and replays showed it was the wrong call. Clemson was able to get a first down as North Carolina exhausted its timeouts as the Tigers survived the late scare to finish the perfect season, getting the narrow cover as well.

Michigan State (-3) 16, Iowa 13: The spread on this game dipped to -3 or even lower at a few outlets late in the day Saturday, but most of the week the Spartans were steady at -3½ in the Big Ten championship. It would up being a classic Big Ten style of game with physical defense and it was a 6-6 game late into the third quarter. Michigan State received good field position after a punt and after a few long misses early in the game Spartans kicker Michael Geiger hit from 47 yards to put Michigan State up 9-6. Early in the fourth quarter, Iowa connected for a rare big play with an 85-yard pass play to lead 13-9. The teams traded punts from there and getting the ball back with nine minutes to go Michigan State put together the drive of the season, going 82 yards in 22 plays, surviving a few penalties and delivering in a dramatic finish.

The final minutes featured a key fourth down conversion and a great run from L.J. Scott for the touchdown, breaking the plane despite appearing to be stopped initially in what could have set up a fourth down play for the title. Iowa had used its timeouts earlier on that drive as they were left with just 27 seconds and they could not threaten to answer as Michigan State won to advance to the college football playoff but for most they did not quite cover the spread.