Friday, October 10th:
WSU @ Stanford (-17), 6PM PT, ESPN
Oh WSU - just when we think we've seen every kind of gut-wrenching way to blow a game, you show us another one. Despite rolling up 59 points and 812 yards (including a new FBS record 734 yards passing by Connor Halliday) the Cougs still lost at home to Cal last week when A) a possible TD run late in the game was called short by the refs and it wasn't challenged, B) HC Mike Leach opted not to have his team center the ball for a FG try despite a TO and 19 seconds remaining and then C) the kicker missing a 19-yard FG for the win. After showing some life on defense vs. Nevada, Oregon and Utah, the WSU defense was shredded by big plays from Cal and the special teams gaffes - which included allowing 2 KO returns for TD's by Trevor Davis - ended up costing ST coach Eric Russell his job. We know what the Cougars are on offense - a highly productive passing outfit, and Sr. QB Halliday has really matured into a good fit for this offense having (mostly) tamed his gunslinger tendencies. He leads the country (by a wide margin) in passing yards (508.7 ypg), but more importantly he's doing it while ranked 16th in pass efficiency (156.7), connecting on 67.8% of his throws with just a 1.9% interception rate. The running game is a rare change-up, and the backs are averaging just 4.00 ypc. Defense is harder to gauge - at times WSU looks effective, but overall they are mediocre to bad. They're allowing 4.09 ypc on the ground (65th nationally) and a 145.2 pass efficiency rating (103rd nationally). S&P rates them 60th, but FEI has them at 109. This is a team that needs their offense to excel to overcome their defense, and that's a tough task against a defense like Stanford's.
Stanford can be forgiven if they're feeling their own heartbreak as they suffered another tough loss in South Bend when a catastrophic coverage breakdown allowed Notre Dame to score the winning TD with just over a minute to go. With 2 losses already, Cardinal chances to make the CFP this year are between slim and none. The conference is still up for grabs however, so I don't expect much of a letdown from this crew. For Stanford, it all starts on defense, and despite that blown coverage against Notre Dame they remain one of - if not the - best groups in the country. They rank 1st in scoring defense (8.6) and ypp (3.72), 2nd in total defense (232.4), 7th in pass efficiency defense (91.8) and 28th in rushing ypp (3.29). Those numbers (except the rushing) will be seriously tested this week vs. the Cougar Air Raid - the Cardinal D will need to get pressure on Halliday with their 4-man fronts and continue playing highly disciplined in the secondary. Keeping WR Vince Mayle in check will be critical. Offensively they will hope to exploit WSU's weakness vs. the pass - in WR's Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector, they have the kind of explosive athletes that can exploit the Cougs, and WR Devon Cajuste has the size to body up WSU's smaller DB's. QB Kevin Hogan - who is nursing a leg injury - will need to take better care of the ball, and the Cardinal will try once again to resuscitate a moribund running game that was stonewalled vs. the Fighting Irish, and the OL needs to do a better job of keeping Hogan upright as they allow more sacks per game (2.2 vs. 2.0) than WSU despite half the pass attempts (30.0 vs. 61.8). I see WSU playing hard and giving Stanford a real fight, but ultimately I think their D holds up reasonably well and their O does just enough to pull out the win: Stanford 30, WSU 27
Saturday, October 11th:
Oregon (-2.5) @ UCLA, 12:30PM PT, FOX
The sheen is starting to fade a bit on the Ducks as they have now dropped half of their last 6 conference games after falling for the 2nd year in a row to Arizona. Their decimated OL has surrendered 12 sacks in the last 2 games and OC Scott Frost has admitted QB Marcus Mariota is not 100%. If they don't improve soon, they may find Mariota taking a hit he can't return from. The OL woes have impacted the normally potent Duck running game too - they had just 144 yards on 41 carries vs. the Wildcats and 172 yards on 42 carries vs. WSU, or 3.81 ypc. Mariota and the Oregon passing game have become the centerpiece of the offense as he ranks 1st in the nation in pass efficiency (202.4!) on 71.4% completion pct., no picks and a terrific 15.5 ypc. WR Devon Allen has as his most dangerous target as his tremendous speed makes him a difficult match-up. Defense is another concern - the Ducks have traditionally been an underrated unit on D, but this year they are mediocre. They've allowed 5.73 ypp (79th nationally) and their pass defense - which figured to be a strength - sits at 83rd in the country with a 134.0 pass efficiency defense rating. They've been a bit better vs. the run, allowing 3.84 ypc to rank 56th. And they remain aggressive, ranking 18th with 3.2 sacks/game and 14th with 7.6 TFL/game. Against an even more porous OL for UCLA, this could be a key factor. More important though is how the team bounces back emotionally - with last weekend seeing a wave of upsets, Oregon remains a legit CFP contender, and a win in Pasadena would give them a big boost back up the rankings.
UCLA is also licking their wounds as their own CFP hopes took a hit with a tough loss at home to Utah. As bad as the Oregon OL has been at pass-protection, UCLA has been worse - they allowed 10 sacks to Utah and rank 125th in the country with an average of 4.4 allowed per game. It's been an ongoing problem for the Bruins, though you have to think that QB Brett Hundley is contributing to the problem. Despite being an excellent runner, he appears to have too much faith in his line and his ability to scramble out of pressure. And yet - like Mariota - so far it doesn't seem to have impacted his passing as he sits 5th in the nation in pass efficiency at 181.4, completing a nation-leading 72.8% of his passes with just 2 picks. It hasn't just been dinks & dunks either, as they have averaged 14.4 ypc. WR Jordan Payton is his main target, but Eldridge Massington and Thomas Duarte have generated some big plays, and both Devin Fuller and Devin Lucien have served as reliable outlet receivers. In RB Paul Perkins, the Bruins have found a reliable and dangerous runner. UCLA will still go jumbo with LB Myles Jack and DT Eddie Vanderdoes in short-yardage, and while Jack hasn't had the explosive plays he did last year, the look has generally been successful. On defense the Bruins found out what happens when they don't generate a bunch of turnovers. Utah was able to exploit them on the ground - both RB Devontae Booker and QB Kendal Thompson - and the pass defense - while not really tested by the Utes - has been mediocre (129.6 pass efficiency, 73rd nationally). And the pass rush has been almost non-existent with just 1.4 sacks/game (102nd nationally). I see this as a pretty close game between teams with similar issues; in the end, I think the Ducks exploit the leaky UCLA OL more than the other way around and Oregon makes a few more big plays: Oregon 38, UCLA 31
USC (-2.5) @ Arizona, 7:30PM PT, ESPN2
With USC's inability to defend the Hail Mary last week vs. ASU, the Trojans now find themselves at a critical juncture in Steve Sarkisian's first season; with a win, they maintain pace in the P12 South; with a loss, they fall 2 games back and the boo birds gain steam. And wouldn't you know it - their season hinges on how well they play in the Arizona desert. Husky fans are well aware of how Sark & DC Justin Wilcox have fared in that state, and it's not pretty. Sark's HUNH offense got off to a great start this year, but has since settled into being just OK as they sit at 74th overall with 5.57 ypp on the year. While RB Buck Allen has been steady and productive, the run game hasn't dominated, averaging just 3.83 ypc on the year (94th nationally). Some of that is due to a leaky OL that has surrendered 2.6 sacks/game (98th nationally). They've leaned on the steady play of QB Cody Kessler who has been efficient (153.6 passer efficiency, 24th) and safe (69.5% completion pct, 0 picks) but the passing game has lacked explosiveness (11.19 ypc), especially considering the talents of the WR corps. Defensively they have taken a definite step back from last year; after Boston College gashed them with their arc block zone-read on the ground for 452 yards, Sun Devil backup QB Mike Bercovici torched them for 510 yards through the air. Overall the Trojan D has allowed 5.95 ypp (95th nationally) with the run D the main culprit, allowing 4.92 ypc (103rd). Despite the aerial assault by ASU, the pass defense has actually been quite good, with a 114.7 pass efficiency allowed (38th nationally) including 7 picks. This despite an anemic pass rush which has picked up just 1.6 sacks/game. The defense will be tested in a big way by Arizona.
Things are humming along in Tucson as Arizona leaped into the top-10 after their 2nd consecutive win over Oregon and they find themselves the lone undefeated team in the conference. It hasn't been a cakewalk, with close calls against UTSA, Nevada and the "Hill Mary" win over Cal. But give RichRod credit - he's got this program humming along in year 3. RS-Fr QB Anu Solomon continues to impress with his poise and command of this offense. He sits at #27 nationally with a 153.1 passer efficiency rating, and while he's not blazer, he's been effective on the ground too. It certainly helps to have a terrific receiving corps led by former Texas WR Cayleb Jones - they have 4 legit threats out there, making life tough on a secondary. But the real secret to the success of the offense is the effectiveness of the running game led by RB's Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby providing terrific balance - their running was a key element in the win over the Ducks. They currently rank 19th on offense with 6.74 ypp. Their defense gets less credit, and with reason - while they were better than most think last year, they have slid back a bit and rank 88th with 5.88 ypp allowed. This has mainly been a case of the pass defense struggling (151.6 pass efficiency allowed, 117th nationally), though some of that is likely due to the quality of passing attacks they've faced. Things look better vs. the run where they rank 40th in allowing 3.55 ypc. They have also found success blitzing out of their 3-3-5 look and rank 29th with 2.8 sacks/game. I see the Wildcat defense slowing the Trojan run game enough to put pressure on Kessler, and while the Arizona pass D can be exploited, so can the USC pass-protection. Ultimately it's hard to ignore the issues Sark & Wilcox have had vs. the Arizona teams on the road, and while a loss will do much more damage to the Trojans, I think Arizona's confidence will help them emerge with a hugely important win: Arizona 37, USC 34
Record Last Week:
Against the spread: 5-1
Record for the Year:
Against the spread: 24-16