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Picking the Pac-12 - Week Nine (plus TV schedule)

While Oregon is starting to separate itself in the P12N, the P12S race is still wide-open. USC travels to Utah in a key game to stay atop the standings. Arizona visit WSU and can stay in control of their destiny with a win. UCLA will attempt to keep their hopes alive as they visit Colorado, as will both OSU (at) Stanford. Oregon will try to avoid a stumble at Cal and stay in the CFP discussion.

Stephen Dunn

Friday, October 24th:

Oregon (-18) @ Cal, 7PM PT, Fox Sports 1

Washington fans are plenty familiar with what Oregon is capable of after another whuppin' last week.  With LT Jake Fisher healthy again, the Duck OL looks much better and it's resulted in a return of a dominant run-game powered by the big frosh Royce Freeman.  He's had two straight excellent games, going for a combined 290 yards on 47 carries.  His running has allowed the Ducks to be not just an explosive offense, but a methodical one as well that can grind out long, sustained drives.  QB Marcus Mariota is a legit Heisman hopeful as an outstanding run/pass threat and remains the top-ranked passer in pass efficiency rating (191.0).  The Oregon defense also had a strong showing last week, though how much of that is them improving vs. facing a struggling Husky offense is hard to say.  They are long, big & fast in the front 7 and fast & experienced in the back 4.  The question is whether they have progressed from the WSU game where the Air Raid gave them some problems - can they replicate the formula Washington used to shut down the Cal offense?  Perhaps more importantly, can the Ducks avoid looking past the Bears to their match-up with Stanford?

Cal fans have had their cardio tested this season as 5 of their 7 games have been decided by 1 score or less.  The Bears had a great chance to pull the upset on UCLA this past weekend, but an ill-advised pass by Jared Goff that was picked-off ended those hopes.  It was perhaps fitting, as the main reason Cal was competitive in the game was due to UCLA turnovers.  This is clearly an improved Cal team - Goff is maturing into a really good QB (5th nationally in pass efficiency at 167.3) with a nice stable of WR's to throw to, and the run game is good enough that it can't be ignored, though the Bears clearly miss a fully healthy Khalfani Muhammad.  HC Sonny Dykes does have to be concerned that teams are adapting to his Bear Raid however - while the team averages 6.53 ypp on the season, they were held to 4.4 and 5.0 in their last two games vs. Washington & UCLA as they've had a harder time hitting on explosive plays.  Defensively Cal is still a mess.  While they have made some small strides, they still rank 94th in the country in ypp allowed (5.99).  Their run defense - which had been decent thus far - was gashed for 237 yards by UCLA, with much of the damage coming from QB Brett Hundley.  And the pass defense ranks among the worst in the country allowing a 147.1 pass efficiency rating (106th nationally).  Cal might catch Oregon napping a bit in this one, but it's hard to see Oregon's offense not catching fire in this one.  The Bears will have to hope their offense can keep up, but I don't see it happening:  Oregon 42, Cal 21

Saturday, October 25th:

UCLA (-13.5) @ Colorado, 11AM PT, Pac 12 Networks

A season that has not gone as hoped for the pre-season darling Bruins could be even worse, but they've avoided disaster with close call wins over Virginia, Memphis, Texas and now Cal.  Despite a clear athletic advantage over the Bears and decidedly winning the yardage battle (567-366) they only just escaped with the win after a terrible choice by Cal QB Jared Goff that resulted in a pick which sealed the game and prevented the Bears from attempting a game-winning FG.  QB Brett Hundley remains the key piece of the offense as both a highly efficient passer (166.1 passer rating, 6th in the country) and dangerous as a runner (454 yards, 6.68 ypc on scrambles).  He's found help recently as RB Paul Perkins has emerged as a major threat himself with 512 yards in his last 4 games.  Pass protection remains a major concern as the Bruins rank 121st nationally in sacks allowed/game (3.57).  On defense, the Bruins have been enigmatic, relying on pick-6's and scoop-and-scores early to compensate for otherwise poor numbers, but those turnovers has slowed of late.  The pass-rush - MIA all season - finally started to show up last week vs. Cal (3 sacks, lots of pressure on Goff), but overall this a defense that on paper seems like it should be better than they've shown given their talent level.

The narrative on Colorado is pretty clear - improving, but still a ways to go.  After a string of close call games, they were blown out last week by USC, and you have to wonder if the gas tanks are starting to empty for the Buffs and if they can find an upset win somewhere along the way to avoid a winless conference record.  Even the normally dependable QB Sefo Liufau struggled last week, finding himself benched in the 2nd half after 2 picks, 3 sacks and a tough day on the road.  He's been good at taking the underneath routes open to him, but their passing game has lacked any kind of explosiveness (2,135 yards on 223 completions).  The running game has been serviceable, but as a whole the Colorado offense has had to grind out drives and while they rank 29th in ypg (466.1), they rank just 92nd in ypp (5.30).  The problems are more acute on defense where they've surrendered far too many explosive plays and find themselves ranked near the bottom nationally in every important category.  Their only real hope is that they can win the turnover battle, get some quick scores and hope they can take advantage of a porous UCLA OL to harass Hundley into mistakes.  Even with the home altitude advantage, I don't see it happening: UCLA 42, Colorado 24

Oregon State @ Stanford (-13.5), 12:30PM PT, ESPN2

It's hard to know exactly what to make of Oregon State so far this season.  They won their 3 OOC games as expected, though they struggled a bit in some of them.  They lost decisively to USC and held off Colorado despite a late charge, then took Utah to OT before losing.  They don't appear to be a great team, and they're not one of the bottom-feeders, so the question is how close to either end of the spectrum are they?  QB Sean Mannion clearly misses having a dynamic WR like Brandin Cooks; his numbers have dropped significantly this year without him.  Yes, he has some nice targets in WR Victor Bolden, TE Connor Hamlett and WR Richard Mullaney, but none of them are game-breakers the way Cooks (and Markus Wheaton) were.  He does have more support from the run game as both Terron Ward and Storm Woods have been effective, but this remains a pass-first offense.  Defensively they've put up nice numbers, ranking 28th in ypp allowed at 4.86, but neither FEI (58th) nor S&P (69th) are as bullish about this unit.  They can be had on the ground, allowing 4.53 ypc (82nd nationally), but the pass defense has been excellent (96.5 pass efficiency rating allowed, 4th nationally), though they've only faced two offenses with any passing game of note.

Stanford has clearly taken a step back; in a bigger picture sense, it's hard to know if this is a minor setback, or if this is indicative of a general slide.  In the short-term, the big issue is obvious - an anemic offense is offsetting a fantastic defense.  Part of the problem is at QB, where Kevin Hogan's limitations are becoming obvious - he's just a guy, and not someone that can elevate an offense by himself.  He has a fantastic weapon in WR Ty Montgomery, but he's too often had to settle for bubble screens and short routes and hasn't been able to consistently stretch a defense.  Which points back to the OL - they haven't been that good in pass protection (2.14 sacks/game, 72nd nationally) and they appear no better than average in run-blocking (4.27 ypc, 66th nationally).  Part of that may be a lack of a game-breaking back among the stable of Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Kelsey Young, though you could also argue they should be getting Sanders more carries (7.06 ypc).  HC David Shaw knows he needs to get things moving on this side of the ball, because the problems on offense are undermining a fantastic defense.  Stanford finally allowed more 17 points in a game last week as ASU picked up 26 on them, but it was still tough sledding.  The Cardinal D is clearly one of the top-3 defenses in the country as they lead all in allowing just 3.78 ypp, are 9th in rush defense at 2.89 ypc allowed and 10th in pass defense with a 102.6 pass efficiency allowed.  Their pass rush is still quite effective as they have 3.0 sacks/game.  But they have to work on ball-security and generating turnovers, as they are just 112th in the country in turnover margin at -0.86/game.  This looks like another slugfest as it's been typically been the last few years, and the kind of game that can give Stanford trouble.  I think their defense will harass Mannion, and vice versa with Oregon State against Hogan.  Ultimately I think the Cardinal run game finds enough success to pull out a hard-fought defensive struggle at home:  Stanford 16, Oregon State 10

Arizona (-2.5) @ WSU, 3PM PT, Pac 12 Networks

Well, Arizona is one missed FG away from being undefeated and in control of their destiny in the conference.  It was a heart-breaker at home vs. USC, but they had a bye week to lick their wounds and re-group.  This is still a very dangerous team though and fully capable of winning the conference.  As you'd expect with a RichRod team, the offense is the strength of the team.  RS-Fr QB Anu Solomon has done a very good job running the show.  The offense puts a lot on the shoulders of the QB in terms of decision-making as they heavily feature package play concepts, and Solomon has helped guide the offense to 557.0 ypg (4th nationally) on 6.34 ypp (30th).  The run game has been very good (199.5 ypg, 4.87 ypc) but that status of Sr. RB Terris Jones-Grigsby and Fr. RB Nick Wilson is up in the air.  They really need one (or preferably both) back, as their absence was greatly felt vs. the Trojans.  Defensively the Wildcats are harder to gauge; by traditional metrics like ypp they're poor (5.92, 92nd nationally), but both FEI (33rd) and S&P (55th) are quite a bit more bullish on them.  They'll need Scooby Wright to create a lot of pressure off the edge and hope their pass defense (147.4 pass efficiency allowed, 107th) holds up better than they did vs. Cal.

WSU is basically out of the conference race, but they can still go bowling with a strong finish.  The question is whether the team still has fight in it or if they are tuning out.  With a few breaks, they're 3-1 in conference, and they are a dangerous team.  But while QB Connor Halliday puts up video-game numbers in HC Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, is he an effective leader?  That offense has really clicked in Halliday's Sr. season as they rank 8th nationally in ypg (534.7) and 22nd in ypp (6.53), but it doesn't directly translate into points (35.0 ppg, 34th nationally), probably because of a -1.00 turnover margin/game (118th nationally).  Their defense has looked OK at times, but not consistently.  They'll have to hope they play more like they did vs. Oregon than vs. Cal.  WSU has the advantage of playing this one at home, but the weather forecast for Pullman doesn't look especially nasty.  I don't think the Cougars are ready to fold on the season and will give Arizona a good game, but with the Wildcats rested and coming off a bye I think they'll get the win and stay in the P12 South race:  Arizona 41, WSU 30

USC (-1) @ Utah, 7PM PT, Fox Sports 1

Another huge road game for Sark.  He got a big monkey off his back a couple weeks ago as the Trojans narrowly escaped with a critical win over Arizona - his first in the state in five tries as a HC.  Now he takes USC to Salt Lake City in a 1st place showdown with a surprisingly tough Utah squad.  The Trojan offense went from efficient to explosive vs. Colorado last week as Sark challenged QB Cody Kessler to take shots downfield, and the results were excellent as he tossed a school-record 7 TD's and gained 319 yards on just 19 completions.  If USC can keep that up in the passing game paired with one of the league's best RB's in Buck Allen (129.9 ypg, 6.06 ypc) they will be tough to stop.  The Trojan defense is an enigma - they are not the elite unit they were last year, though the advanced metrics (FEI - 36th, S&P - 37th) like them better than traditional one (5.40 ypp, 65th nationally).  They are one of the tougher teams to pass on and have been opportunistic with 9 interceptions on the year.  Their run defense however will be seriously tested by Devontae Booker and Utah.

Utah has been using a formula that has worked for Stanford and that Washington has been hoping to emulate, which is an offense keyed off a very strong run game paired with an excellent defense.  The Utes were hoping for more out of the passing game, but after a strong start to the year, Travis Wilson struggled to the point that backup Kendal Thompson took over in the win over UCLA and got the start last week vs. Oregon State before ceding the job back to Wilson who is expected to start vs. USC.  What hasn't struggled is the Utah run game (210.7 ypg) behind JC transfer RB Devontae Booker (123.7 ypg, 6.18 ypc) - they will look to exploit a shaky Trojan run defense.  The Utes have been quite sturdy on defense, particularly along the front 7 where they continue to lead the country with 5.5 sacks/game.  That sack yardage has made their run defense look even better than they really are, but they are still among the better such units out there.  They've been less effective vs. the pass, allowing a 126.1 pass efficiency rating (63rd nationally), so when they're not getting to the QB the corners can be exploited.  This is a great match-up - Utah's run defense vs. a strong Trojan run game, Utah's run game vs. a questionable USC run defense, a QB on a roll (Kessler) vs. a QB controversy (Wilson or Thompson?) and two programs atop the P12 South with 1-loss apiece.  This is a toss-up in my mind, so I'll go with Sark's track record of success vs. Utah and Kyle Whittingham, but I could see this going either way:  USC 27, Utah 24

Record Last Week:

Straight-up:  3-2

Against the spread:  2-3

Record for the Year:

Straight-up:  44-13

Against the spread:  29-20