Saturday, November 22nd:
Washington State @ Arizona State (-16), 10AM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Despite losing their NCAA leading passer in Sr. Connor Halliday, the Cougars followed that up with a mildly surprising win over Oregon State a couple weeks ago - that had to have been a nice confidence-booster for the WSU offense and for new QB Luke Falk. They were able to then follow that up with their 2nd bye on the season and spend more time getting Falk practice reps and get him and the rest of the receiving corps locked-in. He played quite well against the Beavers, and they possess an above-average pass defense, so that bodes well for him going forward. A big part of that success was targeting stud WR Vince Mayle who piled up 143 yards and a TD on 6 catches. As always the WSU run game is no more than a rare counter-punch. The bigger issue will be the Cougar defense which has settled near the bottom of the conference and ranks just 97th (FEI) & 88th (S&P) by the advanced metrics. If they can't slow down ASU's prolific offense that will put tremendous pressure on Falk to score every drive - not an easy task on the road.
ASU appeared to fall victim to a trap-game mentality. After a crucial win over Utah two weeks ago, they had a massive let-down last week against Oregon State and lost control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 South as well as any shot at making the inaugural CFP. Now they have to re-focus and win their next two games while hoping USC knocks off UCLA. Taylor Kelly remains at QB for the Sun Devils, but he hasn't quite looked like himself since returning from injury. While the ASU run game has improved with his return, he himself is not the same running threat, and his passing has been a little more iffy than we're used to seeing. He still has one of the best receivers in a conference packed with great ones in Jaelen Strong and dangerous runners in D.J. Foster and Demario Richard. Against a shaky WSU defense, this unit should have no trouble scoring. The big challenge will be whether the Sun Devil defense can handle the Air Raid of the Cougars. The advanced metrics love this group (#28 FEI, #30 S&P) despite pedestrian traditional numbers. One thing we can be sure of is they'll bring the heat all game long, and this may be an area where new WSU QB Falk is vulnerable. I expect ASU to bounce back in a big way and win this one going away: Arizona State 48, WSU 27
Arizona @ Utah (-4), 12:30PM PT, ESPN
While their season has to be considered a success already with 8 wins, it hasn't come easy for Arizona as five of those wins have come by one score or less (as well as a painful loss to USC). They remain in the hunt for the Pac-12 South but need a lot of help. They'll also need to get the offense back on track - a potent unit for most of the season, they have been held in check in 2 of their last 3 games as RS-Fr QB Anu Solomon has struggled with his accuracy and decision-making. Getting the run game back on track would be a big help. Their defense has been overshadowed by their offense, but they are better (#29 FEI, #47 S&P) than the raw numbers would suggest (445.2 ypg allowed, 102nd nationally). Stud LB Scooby Wright is the key with his ability to rush the QB and make plays in the backfield.
Utah is coming off a hard-fought slugfest in Palo Alto where they knocked off Stanford in 2OT. It was a throw-back game with both defenses shining and both offenses struggling. Stud RB Devontae Booker was limited by the stingy Cardinal defense to 58 yards on 17 carries, putting much of the pressure on QB Travis Wilson to find a way to move the team. He was efficient, completing 21 of 28 passes but for just 177 yards while being sacked 5 times. This is nothing new, as the offense has had a rough go for most of the year. For the most part they've been able to lean on Booker and the run game, but that's been a struggle of late as opponents don't fear the Ute passing game and have loaded the box on them. What's really carried Utah this year has been an aggressive and physical defense that continues to lead the nation in sacks (and by a significant margin) at 4.7/game. That pass rush has served them well vs. the pass, and if they have a weakness, they are perhaps a little less stout vs. the run (but still quite good). This game will be a good test of Bruce Feldman's theory on the "Stanford effect", i.e. teams getting so beat up playing the Cardinal that they play poorly the following week. This is generally a pretty close match-up, so normally I'd favor the home team, as well as the team with the better defense when playing in kind of lousy weather. But I think Utah may indeed suffer some let-down after that tough game last week: Arizona 24, Utah 20
Stanford (-5.5) @ California, 1PM PT, Fox Sports 1
The other side of that 2OT slugfest last week, the Cardinal missed an opportunity to gain bowl eligibility and are looking at the possibility of finishing with a below .500 conference mark. Whether this disappointment of a season marks a temporary setback or is a sign of a longer-term trend is TBD. On offense, QB Kevin Hogan is being exposed as decent game-manager, but not a guy that can put a team on his back. In many ways he's a more celebrated version of Cyler Miles - a guy with a wonky throwing motion that can make some plays with his feet and can do some things in the passing game if everything else is clicking, but is not really going to scare a defense. He doesn't fumble as much as Miles, but he's thrown a lot more picks (7 vs. 2). If he had a more consistent run game to support him, this might not be an issue, but Stanford has remained in a committee approach with none of the candidates really staking a claim to own the starting role, though you have to be impressed by true frosh Christian McCaffrey. What has kept the Cardinal from completely cratering is their elite defense. While they no longer rate as the top defense in the country, they are the best in the conference and flirt with top-10 status (#13 FEI, #10 S&P) and are equally proficient vs. the run and the pass. The one thing they have not done though is generate turnovers - with 9 takeaways so far, they rank 122nd in the country.
The good news last week for Cal is after spotting USC a 31-2 lead, they were able to finish the game on a 28-7 run to make the final score respectable and put a scare into the Trojans. The bad news is they spotted USC a 31-2 lead in the first half. We have a pretty good handle on the Bears this year - the offense is pretty good, the defense is still quite bad (though a bit less bad vs. the run). They have shown definite progress in year 2 of the Sonny Dykes era, but are still in the bottom tier of the conference. But they also have a shot at bowl eligibility - if not this week in the Big Game, then maybe next week BYU. Unlike the Cougars, the Bear version of the Air Raid mixes in a healthy dose of running plays, and in RB Daniel Lasco they have a good one. But this offense is still pass-focused, and the pressure will be on So. QB Jared Goff to find holes in an excellent Stanford defense. The Cal defense has not yielded less than 31 points to an FBS opponent this year since their first game, but the lethargic Cardinal offense gives them a chance to break that string. They have shown some ability vs. the run which should serve them well in this one, but their ineptitude vs. the pass and proclivity to give up big plays suggests that the Hogan to Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector connections could produce some fireworks. While Stanford may be feeling some after-effects from their tilt with the Utes, I think their defense bottles up the Cal offense and the Bear defense gives up too many big plays: Stanford 31, Cal 17
Colorado @ Oregon (-32.5), 1:30PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Progress is being made in Boulder even if the Buffaloes are looking at a real chance at a winless conference mark. While Colorado has been out-manned most of the year, they have continued to play hard and have kept most of their games respectable. But they are clearly limited from a talent standpoint. At QB, So. Sefo Liufau is coming off a concussion and a tough game 2 weeks ago vs. Arizona. He's cleared to play, but he's also struggled as he now sits at 14 interceptions on the year. The Buff offense has had some success with sustained drives, mixing runs and short passes (in particular to WR Nelson Spruce who leads the nation in receptions/game). What they don't have are game-breakers to bust big plays. And on the defensive side of things, the Buffs have really struggled to defend the run and have been really vulnerable to big plays - against Oregon, this does not bode well.
With the North wrapped up already, the Ducks are focused on closing strong and keeping a seat at the CFP table where they currently rank #2 and solidly entrenched as a playoff pick. They also hope to stay healthy. The good news is they get Andre Yruretagoyena back at RT. The not great news is C Hroniss Grasu is likely out. The bad news is TE Pharoah Brown is done for the year with a gruesome leg injury. This is a game where the Ducks should roll - handing the ball off to Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner should be all that's needed so they shouldn't require Heisman candidate QB Marcus Mariota to put himself at risk. Defensively, Oregon has had some issues this year despite having a crew as physically talented as any they've fielded. Despite the presence of CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and his outsized hype, the Duck pass defense has been mediocre, so Colorado might find some success here. But short of a massive let-down by Oregon, this is a game that the Ducks should win with ease: Oregon 52, Colorado 27
USC @ UCLA (-4), 5PM PT, ABC
Thanks to ASU's surprising stumble last week the Trojans remain in the hunt in the South, but they'll need the Sun Devils to stumble again. First though, they have to take care of their cross-town rivals. It's been a bit of a rocky first year for Steve Sarkisian in his return to USC as the Trojans have suffered losses both shocking (Boston College) and head-shaking (ASU, Utah). While they remain among the most talented teams in the country, they are also still dealing with the effects of sanctions and have typically been suiting up just 50-something scholarship players most weeks which has had an obvious impact on their depth and ability to withstand injuries. The offense has really found a groove with WR Nelson Agholor staking a claim as one of the elite receivers in the country and QB Cody Kessler quietly having an excellent season. With stud RB Buck Allen, they have a potent triumvirate to lead the way. Defense is where things have been a bit more rocky - while they have played well for the most part, they are not the elite group they were last year, and as is typical for acoached unit, they are better vs. the pass.
UCLA is the team in the South that controls their own destiny, but they have to knock-off USC and Stanford to clinch another trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game. They come into this one well-rested having just completed their 2nd bye week and with extra time to gameplan and practice for the Trojans. UCLA's offense has been very good - they've overcome some major pass-protection issues early in the season as QB Brett Hundley has become more aggressive in breaking the pocket and using his legs to pick up big yardage, and with the emergence of RB Paul Perkins as one of the best in the conference the Bruins can do some damage on the ground. Hundley is more than willing to dink & dunk in the passing game if the defense plays it safe, but also has playmakers in WRs Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Eldridge Massington. On defense the talented Bruins have been up and down, relying early on this season on turnovers, but they showed up big-time in shutting down Arizona a few weeks back. They'll get a big test vs. a potent USC offense. I think the extra week will be the difference here: UCLA 37, USC 34
Record Last Week:
Against the spread: 2-2
Record for the Year:
Against the spread: 42-28