Thursday, October 2nd
Arizona @ Oregon (-24), 7:30PM PT, ESPN
RichRod is well into his 2nd decade of running and refining his spread-option offense, and he shows no signs of losing any effectiveness as an offensive mastermind. Despite the graduation of all-everything RB Ka'Deem Carey and being on his 3rd QB in 3 years in RS-Fr. Anu Solomon, the Wildcats rank 6th nationally at 593.8 ypg, 15th at 6.99 ypp, 23rd in rushing ypp and 16th in scoring at 42.0 ppg. Clearly he has a pretty good idea of what he's doing on offense, and it should scare Pac-12 defensive coordinators that he's doing it with the youth he has at QB, RB (Nick Wilson) and WR (5 of the top6 receivers are Sophomores). There's a "but" here though, and the but is defense. After being better than you probably think last year, they have not been that good so far this year and were particularly bad last week vs. Cal. Their pass efficiency defense ranks 107th at 147.3. On the plus side, their run defense has been decent, holding teams to 3.56 ypc (47th), and they've averaged 2.25 sacks/game (54th). As we saw a couple weeks ago, Oregon is vulnerable right now to a good pass rush, though the Wildcat DL isn't quite as beefy as the Cougs. And if they're going to pull the upset two years in a row, they'll have to do it in the unfriendly confines of Autzen Stadium.
After a close call in Pullman in week 4, the Ducks got a bye week to lick their wounds and try to come up with some solutions to what became obvious to everyone in that game - their OL has become a huge liability. OT Jake Fisher could be close to returning, and Oregon could shuffle some of their other guys around, but they know they have to shore up the pass protection and open up better running lanes or their undefeated season and #2 ranking could come crashing down quickly. What saved them vs. the Cougs was an electric performance by QB Marcus Mariota and terrific raw talent at WR; when Mariota wasn't being sacked (7 times!) he was able to find receivers running free downfield for big gains, compensating for an uncharacteristically off-day for their run game. Mariota is earning his Heisman hype as he leads the nation in passing efficiency with 74.0% completion pct, 13 TD's to 0 picks and 1,135 yards on just 71 completions. Devon Allen and Darren Carrington have joined Keanon Lowe to provide a strong trio of receivers along with RB Byron Marshall, and despite the WSU game the Oregon run game is still quite potent with Mariota, Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. What should be concerning though (besides the OL injury woes) is that the defense - typically underrated - has taken a few steps back this year. They rank just 84th in ypp allowing 5.72 and their pass efficiency defense ranks 78th at 131.82, though they fare a bit better against the run allowing just 3.86 ypp (62nd). And they are still aggressive, ranking 24th with 3.0 sacks/game. They will certainly have revenge on their minds after a humiliating loss in Tucson last year, but Arizona has the firepower to play score for score. I see a shoot-out in Eugene, and only the din of the home crowd saves them: Oregon 50, Arizona 42
Saturday, October 4th
Stanford (-2) @ Notre Dame, 12:30PM PT, NBC
Washington fans should be plenty familiar with Stanford at this point. Despite some notable losses on the defensive side of the ball (and their DC Derek Mason), they are rolling along and rank 1st nationally in scoring defense (6.5) and ypg (198.0), 2nd in ypp (3.34), 5th in pass efficiency defense, 26th in rushing ypp and 30th in sacks/game (2.75). They are as physical as ever, sure tacklers, rarely fooled and big. They are able to get a lot of pressure on the QB with a 4-man rush allowing them the luxury of running 7 defenders in coverage, and when they do blitz, they are very good at it. About the only thing they haven't excelled at on defense is generating turnovers (5 in 4 games). On the offensive side they are not quite the Stanford they used to be - their run game is good, but not as effective in years past (4.66 ypp, 48th) as they have used a RB-by-committee approach and lack a bell-cow big back that can help wear down defenses. They are actually more dangerous in the passing game, with an exceptional play-maker in WR Ty Montgomery and good complimentary pieces in TE Austin Hooper, WR Devon Cajuste and WR Michael Rector. QB Kevin Hogan currently ranks 15th in the nation in pass efficiency (167.6). They've also suffered untimely turnovers and missed field goals, the former nearly costing them against the UW and both costing them their loss vs. USC. They'll have another stiff test as they travel to South Bend, IN to take on a pretty good Notre Dame team.
Back in good graces after an academic issue last year, Irish QB Everett Golson has been terrific for Notre Dame (4-0), currently ranking 18th in pass efficiency (164.6) and remaining dangerous with his feet (4 rushing TD's). The So. duo of WR Will Fuller and Corey Robinson have provided Golson with a pair of capable targets. The run game - much like Stanford's - has not been as good as prior versions and has been split between a trio of backs, though So. Greg Bryant appears to be the most effective of the bunch. The defense for the Irish has been pretty good, but the raw talent suggests they could be even better. They rank 38th in yards/game (343.8), 49th in ypp (5.15), 47th in pass efficiency defense (118.7) and 40th in rushing ypp (3.30). But they've been opportunistic with 7 picks so far and ranking 16th in TO margin which has helped them to a #4 ranking in scoring defense (11.5). This will mark their toughest game to date as they take on one of the most physically tough teams in the country in Stanford. It's a match-up that has generally favored the Cardinal since Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, with the only Irish win in that timespan the controversial one in 2012 that helped allow them to claim a spot in the BCS title game. They've generally been close games though, and I expect another such game this weekend with turnovers (and home field) being the key: Notre Dame 23, Stanford 20
Oregon State (-6.5) @ Colorado, 1PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Reality came crashing down on Oregon State last week in the form of a 35-10 thumping at the hands of USC as the Beavers were outgained 461-181 in their first loss of the season. Injuries are becoming an issue as they were down 3 DL during the game and have lost 2 of them for the next 3+ weeks; they are also hoping to get WR Victor Bolden and OL Isaac Seumalo back. What the game vs. the Trojans revealed is that QB Sean Mannion is only as good as his pass-protection - harried all game by USC's front 7, he had a miserable day completing less than 50% of his passes and getting picked twice. While RB Storm Woods looked good, the run game was taken out of the equation when they fell behind, and while this is an area that has improved over the last two years when it badly atrophied, it's still not a strength of this offense - or at least it's still not a major part of it as they remain pass-first. It also marked the first real difficulty the defense has faced, as they rank 16th nationally with just 306.5 ypg allowed. Their pass defense has shined, allowing just an 89.22 pass efficiency rating, though their first 3 games didn't consist of particularly productive passing attacks. This could be a dangerous game for a banged-up team.
You have to give Colorado and HC Mike McIntyre some credit - despite being 2-3, they have played very hard and have not looked overwhelmed so far, which marks progress for the program as it makes that long climb up from the depths they fell to under Jon Embree. QB Sefo Liufau continues to impress - he won't wow you with any one physical trait, but he's composed and gets the job done, particularly for a 2nd year player. He's developed a tremendous rapport with WR Nelson Spruce and Spruce has delivered, ranking as one of the most prolific receivers in the country with 10 TD (1st), 11.2 rpg (1st) and 138.8 ypg (3rd). The run game hasn't been bad either between Christian Powell and Tony Jones (along with the running threat posed by Liufau), though the emphasis has been on the passing game. The Colorado offense is averaging 485.6 ypg so far, a significant improvement over 2013 (369.9). The issue has been the defense which ranks 98th nationally in allowing 5.97 ypp, with the bigger culprit being the run defense (4.95 ypp, 101st). I think Colorado may be catching the Beavers at a good time as they are beat up and on the road a 2nd week in row and having to deal with elevation as a factor: Colorado 34, Oregon State 30
Arizona St @ USC (-12), 4:30PM PT, FOX
While many folks saw the score that UCLA put up against ASU last Thursday (62-27) and will figure it was a butt-whoopin', a few things should be noted - ASU was up 17-6 early in the 2nd quarter, and was down just 17-20 and driving at the end of the 1st half when Ishmael Adams had a momentum-changing 95-yard pick-6; he stuck the dagger in even further in the 3rd quarter with a KO return TD to put the Bruins up 41-20. And Jim Mora still had QB Brett Hundley out there with less than 5 minutes to go to toss the final TD that got the Bruins to 62. It was a bad loss for ASU, but you can pin turnovers, special teams breakdowns and defense - the offense still rolled for 626 yards with backup QB Michael Bercovici in place of the injured Taylor Kelly. If he can avoid costly turnovers, it would appear that potent Sun Devil offense should continue to roll. They rank 16th in scoring at 42.0 ppg, 9th in total offense at 560.8 ypg, 12th in ypp at 7.05, 17th in rushing ypg at 262.8 and 8th in rushing ypp at 6.41. However RB D.J. Foster was shut down by the Bruins, picking up just 30 yards on his 9 carries, though that still leaves him 9th in the country in ypg (135.0). WR Jaelen Strong remains a match-up nightmare and hauled in 12 catches from Bercovici. The biggest issue for ASU so far has been their defense. They took some big hits in graduation, and so far the new guys have fallen well short of HC Todd Graham's typical defenses, ranking just 97th in total defense allowing 442.5 ypg, 108th in ypp at 6.37, 118th in pass efficiency defense at 153.7, 104th in rushing ypg at 204.0 and ypp at 5.07. About the only area where they have done well is notching TFL, ranking 36th with 6.8 per game. Otherwise, Graham's aggressive style has been burned with regularity this year - they rank 115th by FEI in "explosive drives" defense (meaning they give up a ton of big plays).
You can bet USC players remember last year's game at Tempe - after what was an otherwise elite defense was torched to the tune of 62 points, HC Lane Kiffin found himself fired on the tarmac upon returning home. While I doubt any of the players are all that sad that Kiffin was canned, you can bet they've had the Sun Devils circled on their calenders ever since. Sark's crew rebounded from an embarrassing road loss at Boston College with a beat-down of Oregon State that got both the offense and defense back on track. Sark's HUNH hasn't taken hold quite as effectively so far in LA (54th in total offense at 447.5 ypg), though it's been a boon to QB Cody Kessler who ranks 16th nationally with a 167.4 pass efficiency rating, built mostly off a 72.0% completion pct and no picks against 10 TD's. His main target has been Nelson Agholor, though he's mainly been used in the screen game; WR Darreus Rogers and TE Bryce Dixon have been the guys to stretch teams vertically. RB Buck Allen continues to be a dependable, tough runner for the Trojans and Fr. Justin Davis is coming off his best game as the primary backup. The defense took their lumps vs. Boston College as they couldn't adapt to the Eagle's zone read option attack and don't appear to be on the same elite level they were last year (71st nationally in allowing 543 ypp). They made life miserable last week for Oregon State, but both these players and their DC (Justin Wilcox) were torched by ASU last year, and the Sun Devil offense remains lethal. Where they have a chance though is turnovers - the Trojans already have 7 picks on the year, and new ASU QB Bercovici was victimized for 2 picks by the Bruins in his debut. I think USC's offense will take full advantage of a porous Sun Devil run defense and will control the game enough to keep the dangerous ASU offense from performing a repeat of last year: USC 48, Arizona State 34
Cal @ Washington St (-3), 7:30PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
The Bears seemed to be suffering a hangover from their brutal come-from-ahead "Hill Mary" loss to Arizona as they found themselves down 21-7 and 28-14 to Colorado in the 1st half of last week's game, but to their credit they fought back and won a thriller in 2OT, 59-56 (after allowing Colorado to tie the game with just 42 seconds left in regulation). Much is made of the similarities between the 'Bear Raid' of Sonny Dykes with the Air Raid of Mike Leach, and while they definitely share common roots and many similar passing concepts, there's a notable difference - Dykes takes the running game seriously. The Bears are averaging 171.8 ypg on the ground, providing a bit more balance to their 13th ranked total offense (535.5 ypg). So. QB Jared Goff continues to really impress, currently sitting at 5th overall in pass efficiency as he's put up 1,339 yards on just 79 completions, including 17 TD's. He has a bevy of capable receivers including Bryce Treggs and Trevor Davis, and the run game is powered by Daniel Lasco with support from Khalfani Muhammad. The issue - as it was last year - is poor defense: they rank 113th in total defense, giving up 478.0 ypg, though on a per-play basis they fare much better - 5.27, good for 59th nationally. Against the pass they rank 71st in pass efficiency defense, something they'll be seeing a lot of on Saturday.
WSU built off a close loss to the Ducks by knocking off Utah on the road and all of a sudden look like a legitimately dangerous team. They are still all-pass all the time - the running game is averaging a paltry 52.2 ypg - but they are really settling in to Leach's system and the talent he's accrued at WR is shining. Sr. QB Connor Halliday has toned down his gunslinger ways and is posting the best numbers of his career, ranking 35th in the country in pass efficiency at 149.7 including a career-low 2.3% interception rate. WR's Isiah Myers, Vince Mayle and River Cracraft do the bulk of the damage, but Dom Williams is the big-play guy (20.47 ypr, 6 TD's). In all the offense ranks 14th in the country at 533.0 ypg, though their scoring is just 53rd at 33.8 ppg. Defensively the Cougars are starting to round into shape - a week after dominating the Oregon OL to the tune of 7 sacks, they muted a potent Utah passing game, holding QB Travis Wilson to 47.4% completion pct and just 165 yards on 18 completions. Overall their numbers aren't great - they rank 81st in total defense allowing 408.0 ypg - which reflects the inconsistency in their play on the year (they were terrible in their opener vs. Rutgers). What's really hurt the Cougars has been turnovers - they rank 121st in the nation with a -7 tally (-1.40 per game). The oddsmakers have this one essentially even, with WSU getting 3 points for homefield advantage. I think they're closely matched, but I think Cal's ability to generate explosive plays and WSU's propensity to give them up equal a (minor) upset for Cal in Pullman in a shootout: Cal 49, WSU 45
Utah @ UCLA (-13), 7:30PM PT, ESPN
Utah fell from the ranks of the unbeatens as they let a 21-0 lead slip away and WSU edged them 28-27 in Rice-Eccles. They did it by shutting down the previously potent Ute passing attack and harassing QB Travis Wilson into a miserable game as he completed just 47.4% of his passes for 165 yards on 18 completions. This was enough to overcome a strong game by RB Devontae Booker who went for 178 yards on 24 carries. It was a setback for an offense that had been riding pretty high, but now resides right in the middle nationally, ranking 60th in total offense at 439.5 ypg. This is still a dangerous group with Booker providing a legit running threat and WR's Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott providing (respectively) the explosive and steady options for Wilson through the air. Where they are making their mark is on defense as they rank 16th nationally allowing just 4.55 ypp so far. They've been particularly stout on the ground, allowing just 2.97 ypc to rank 22nd, though a good portion of that credit goes to the pass rush which is tied for the best nationally with 4.5 sacks/game. The Utes also have done well in the turnover battle, ranking 12th at +1.25/game. Now they have to try to regroup on the road against a surging UCLA.
Any talk about how the Bruins were over rated was (mostly) muted after their beat-down of ASU in the desert last Thursday. While it was far from a perfect game for UCLA - their defense surrendered 626 yards (!) in the win - it was a great showcase of their offense and of QB Brett Hundley and the playmakers on both sides of the ball. Hundley picked up a ridiculous 355 yards through the air on just 18 completions as WR's Jordan Payton and Eldridge Massington both hauled in 80-yard TD receptions. More importantly RB Paul Perkins solidified himself as a legit running threat in the Bruin offense as he's now averaging 110.3 ypg and 5.73 ypc. As well, a shaky OL has yielded just 2 sacks the last 2 games after giving up 10 in their first 2. That will need to continue if Hundley is going to stay healthy all year. The Bruin defense has been more opportunistic than great so far, ranking 68th nationally in allowing 5.40 ypp. The pass defense sits at 73rd with a 129.4 pass efficiency allowed and the run defense ranks 59th with 3.81 ypc yielded. They are vulnerable to methodical drives (125th by FEI's ME measure). But they've maximized their turnovers, converting 3 of 4 interceptions into pick-6's and taking 1 of 3 fumble recoveries in for a score. That seems like a trend that is unsustainable. A big key in this one will be slowing down a ferocious Utah pass rush and establishing an effective run game. Utah matches up well in this game, and I think they'll give the Bruins a lot of trouble as they potentially look ahead next week to their game with Oregon. I think UCLA prevails in the end on raw talent, but the Utes will make them sweat: UCLA 27, Utah 24
Record Last Week:
Against the spread: 4-1
Record for the Year:
Against the spread: 19-15