Thursday, October 16th:
Utah (-2) @ Oregon State, 7PM PT, Fox Sports 2/Pac-12 Networks
This looms as a critical game for Utah's bowl hopes - at 4-1 they need 2 more wins, and following this game they have a brutal 5-week stretch against USC, ASU, Oregon, Stanford & Arizona before finishing with Colorado. After notching the upset over UCLA, they had last week off as a bye and presumably spent a lot of time working with new starting QB Kendal Thompson to tailor the offense to his strengths. While he doesn't have the same kind of passing touch as Travis Wilson, he's electric with his feet and gives the Utes a strong dual threat in the zone-read as defenses have to account for both him and RB Devontae Booker who has quietly emerged as one of the better backs in the conference. And with big-play receiver Dres Anderson, that passing game can't be ignored either. But defense is the bread and butter for Utah - they rank 20th in the country in ypp allowed at 4.75, and FEI ranks them 3rd overall (S&P places them 45th). It all starts up front with an aggressive scheme that has piled up an amazing 5.6 sacks/game and 10.2 TFL/game which both lead the nation. As a result of the sack yardage, Utah allows just 2.91 ypc on the ground to rank 10th. The help has been more moderate for the pass defense - when they aren't getting to the QB, they can be had, as they rank 60th in pass efficiency defense, but the overall package is difficult for any offense to deal with.
Oregon State is also coming off a bye, and like Utah they sit at 4-1 overall and 1-1 in conference play. They have yet to play Cal and WSU, so their path to bowl eligibility is a little easier than Utah's, but a win this weekend would give them some cushion. After being heavily imbalanced towards the passing game with QB Sean Mannion throwing to Markus Wheaton and then Brandin Cooks, HC Mike Riley has been able to generate a bit more success out of the running game recently. The offense still revolves around Mannion's arm, but RB's Terron Ward and Storm Woods are factors the can't be ignored. They are posting nearly identical numbers, averaging 5.81 & 5.80 ypc respectively and 68.6 & 68.4 ypg. With Cooks gone to the NFL, Mannion has spread the ball around more but between the Beavers surrendering 2.4 sacks/game (99th nationally) and the lack of a dynamic receiving threat to match the departed Wheaton & Cooks, Mannion has seen his numbers decline and he's currently just 69th in pass efficiency rating (129.7) as he has just 5 TD's to go with 4 picks, and his 118 completions have gone for only 1,304 yards (11.05 ypc). Defensively the numbers look good for the Beavers, but when you see how they've done in their two conference games it doesn't look so rosy. While they rank 28th in allowing just 331.4 ypg, they surrendered 461 to USC and 431 to Colorado while giving up 66 points. FEI and S&P aren't impressed either - they rank 69th & 78th respectively in defense by those measures. And while they rank 10th in pass efficiency defense with a 99.3 rating, both Cody Kessler (164.1) and Sifu Liufau (127.5) were able to find quite a bit of success. Oregon State also has not seen a dynamic spread option run game yet this year to match what Utah will present. I don't think this match-up is a good one for Oregon State, and I see Utah's pass rush being too much for the Beavers to handle: Utah 27, Oregon State 17
Saturday, October 18th:
UCLA (-6.5) @ Cal, 12:30PM PT, ABC/ESPN2
A week after Utah removed UCLA from the ranks of the unbeaten, Oregon shoveled dirt on the grave of their CFP hopes, humbling them 42-30 in a game that wasn't really that close. UCLA continues to be plagued by a terrible OL that can't keep a clean pocket for QB Brett Hundley (122nd nationally with 4.0 sacks/game allowed), and as terrific of an athlete as he is, he also appears to be rattled by the pressure and even contributes to it at times by holding the ball too long. He's still a very dangerous weapon and can gash a defense with his arm and his feet. Even after a rough game vs. the Ducks, he still ranks 6th in the country in pass efficiency at 170.1 and is tops with a 72.2% completion pct. With explosive targets in Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Eldridge Massington they can pick up big chunks of yardage in the air. And RB Paul Perkins is making a case as one of the best backs in the conference, averaging 121.7 ypg and 6.29 ypc. Defensively the Bruins are a puzzle - with the talent on hand you'd expect more. They are just 112th in the country with 1.2 sacks/game, and that lack of consistent pressure has let opponents post a 132.3 pass efficiency rating against them (80th nationally). It's also meant their rush defense numbers haven't been great (4.37 ypc allowed) as they haven't posted a lot of negative yardage via sacks. It seems unlikely they'll be able to replicate the formula Washington used to put the clamps on Cal's explosive offense, though they have been nearly as opportunistic with turnovers as the Huskies.
It was a humbling affair for the #Drop50 gang as they managed just 7 points vs. the Huskies, but this was a team that had been living on the edge for several weeks running. Unable to keep pressure away from QB Jared Goff and finding nothing available deep, they couldn't complete enough underneath routes or successful runs to string together drives. They will look to rebound against a UCLA team that doesn't appear to have the same capability of pressuring Goff but has been good at limiting explosive drives. Cal boasts a deep and talented receiving crew and enough of a run game behind Daniel Lasco to have to be accounted for, though the absence of Khalfani Muhammed does hurt. Injuries in fact may be the key for Cal here - if they can get DL Brennan Scarlett, S Michael Lowe and CB Stefan McClure back, their beleaguered defense might stand a chance of slowing down the Bruins just enough. Defense has been the problem for Cal again this year - while their run defense has been surprisingly effective (3.50 ypc allowed, 36th nationally) their pass defense has been shredded, allowing a 146.6 pass efficiency (108th nationally) and the pass rush has been mostly ineffective (1.7 sacks/game). FEI actually thinks they're not bad, placing them at 51st defensively, but S&P has them at 94th. I think the Cal offense bounces back, but their defense lets them down: UCLA 41, Cal 35
Colorado @ USC (-21), 3PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Progress is being made in Boulder even if the standings don't reflect it. The Buffs have lost back-to-back close calls to Cal and Oregon State and have been within 2 scores in every game so far. Most of the credit can go to the offense which has improved by more than 100 ypg and 6 ppg from last year. QB Sefo Liufau isn't going to wow you with dramatic plays, but he's steady and efficient (65.3% completion pct). His throws are typically shorter with Paul Richardson off to the NFL (1,887 yards on 188 completions) but the Buffs have been fairly successful in stringing together methodical drives (21st by FEI). The run game is improving, and while it's not something they can lean on heavily (4.17 ypc, 76th nationally), it isn't a weakness either. Gains on the defensive side have been much more modest, with ypp improving just a hair (6.06 vs. 6.08). Colorado is still having a tough time stopping the run game (5.00 ypc, 106th nationally) and their pass defense isn't much better, yielding a 135.1 pass efficiency mark (87th nationally). Until they can make some gains on this side of the ball, the offensive improvements will just mean their margin of defeat narrows.
Sark finally broke his 0-fer-Arizona with a hang-on-for-dear-life thriller in Tucson last week. While it wasn't the decisive win to help quiet his detractors, it was a crucial win that leaves the Trojans atop the P12 South standings at 3-1. In a lot of ways it was a microcosm of their season so far, with the offense looking good but still somewhat underwhelming considering the talent and the defense seriously underperforming leading to a close-call finish. RB Buck Allen has cemented himself as a workhorse back and the centerpiece of the USC offense - things drop off quickly when highly-touted RS-Fr. RB Justin Davis comes in (5.79 ypc vs. 3.82). That running threat provides opens things up for QB Cody Kessler, and while the Trojan passing game hasn't been overly explosive, they've been quite steady and productive. He ranks 27th with a 149.2 pass efficiency rating as he's hit on 69.1% of his passes with 11 TD's and just 1 pick. The coaching staff would actually like to see him be more aggressive and take more shots downfield. On defense USC has been a puzzle, as they've dropped off significantly from last year under DC Justin Wilcox. His approach focuses on slowing the passing game, and in that respect they've been fairly successful, ranking 29th in pass efficiency defense (113.3). However that's a drop from last year where they ranked 14th, and it's come at the expense of the run defense which has allowed 4.58 ypc (86th nationally), up from 3.95 (46th) last year. Still, this is a favorable match-up for the Trojans and I expect their rushing attack to control the game and the pass defense to keep the Buffaloes largely contained: USC 38, Colorado20
Stanford (-3.5) @ Arizona State, 7:30PM PT, ESPN
Six games into the season and we have a pretty good grasp of what Stanford is this year - an elite defense paired with a mediocre offense. It's a formula that can win a lot of games as that defense is capable of shutting down any team they face. But offensive inconsistency and red-zone issues also mean every team they face has a chance at keeping things close and hoping a bounce here or there can allow them to notch the upset. A highly-recruited OL has struggled somewhat to live up to their billing as they've allowed 2.2 sacks/game (76th nationally) a figure that looks worse when you consider Stanford's passing attempts per game is relatively low (30.8). And the run game hasn't been up to past standards either as they are at 4.36 ypc (63rd nationally), down from 4.97 last year. They have a nice trio of RB's in Remound Wright, Barry Sanders Jr. and Kelsey Young, but they're all smaller backs and not the wear-you-down types the Cardinal have featured since Toby Gerhardt. QB Kevin Hogan has posted decent numbers (34th in pass efficiency at 147.1) but doesn't really scare you when you watch him. It's surprising to see the uber-talented WR Ty Montgomery averaging just 9.70 ypr on his 37 catches - you'd think he'd be more of a downfield threat, but they are clearly making it an emphasis to get the ball in his hands however they can, even if it means a lot of bubble screens and dump-offs. Defense is the identity of this team as they rank 2nd in total yards (238.0 ypg) and first in scoring (10.0 ppg). They've done it against the air raid (holding WSU to 17 points) and more balanced attacks (holding USC to 13 points) - they control the line of scrimmage and their secondary is good enough to keep plays in front of them and make every tackle to limit gains. They'll get another test vs. ASU, but they had little trouble with them last year.
HC Todd Graham is being coy about whether QB Taylor Kelly will return this week or if Mike Bercovici will get another start. Bercovici is coming off a big game vs. USC, but I think the offense runs better in the hands of Kelly, especially the zone-read running game. I don't think it's a coincidence that RB D.J. Foster has found things much more difficult in the last 2 games since Kelly went down. He's still a very dangerous back (7.58 ypc, 110.6 ypg) that is also a weapon in the passing game (21 catches, 280 yards). When the Sun Devils are at their best, Foster and Kelly are providing a lethal balance to the offensive attack. With Kelly out, ASU has become very pass-heavy (partly due to game circumstances), and they are very effective in that regard with a team pass efficiency rating of 154.2 (18th nationally). Both QB's have been good at avoiding interceptions (just 2 total on 200 attempts) and have been good at finding big plays (1,702 yards on 120 completions). WR Jaelen Strong continues to show he's one of the elite receivers in the nation (8.2 rec/game, 122.8 ypg). Defense is where ASU has had a problem this year as they've been unable to adequately replace the wealth of talent they lost to graduation and the NFL. They rank 99th in the country, allowing 6.07 ypp. They have been equal opportunity givers, ranking 103rd nationally allowing 4.91 ypc on the ground and 102nd in pass efficiency defense at 142.4. What hasn't changed is they are still very aggressive, and their 7.4 TFL/game ranks 18th in the country. I expect Stanford to take advantage of their issues on defense, and while the Sun Devil offense is quite good, I see little reason to think that the Cardinal can't keep them (mostly) contained: Stanford 31, Arizona State 20
Record Last Week:
Against the spread: 3-1
Record for the Year:
Against the spread: 27-17