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Pickin’ the PAC: USC Pins Their Hopes to a New Quarterback

Drama galore as conference play takes over the PAC

USC v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

What to make of the PAC-12 as they limp into conference play?

The national narrative goes something like this:

  1. Stanford is the “real deal”
  2. Washington has “lived up to the hype”
  3. ...and everybody else is irrelevant in the national race for the college playoffs.

I’m not so sure that we can rely on the narrative presented above. First of all, Stanford is a question mark in my mind. It isn’t clear to me Ryan Burns is the answer at QB for the Cardinal and, frankly, I don’t think that any team can run 60% of all of its passing + rushing yardage through one guy - even one as good as Christian McCaffrey - and claim to have the kind of balance that Stanford relies upon. In fact, if you take away one long play by Michael Rector, that percentage jumps to 65%. Speaking of Rector, exactly 80% of Stanford’s offense in two games has flowed through he and McCaffrey. Amazing. And concerning.

Secondly, we are nowhere close to proclaiming Washington as “having lived up to the hype.” We have pundits out there who are calling UW a playoff participant right now if the season were to end today.

What? After Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State? No thank you, sir.

The good news for UW is that they might be catching their toughest stretch of schedule at the right time. Arizona is banged up; Stanford is, well, see above; Oregon is playing short-handed. It is as much as UW could hope for as they come out of their first three weeks relatively healthy.

Of course, there are other teams still in a position to make noise on the national scene. Arizona State is 3-0, and while they’ve not been impressive, they are one team that has a reputation for evolving as the season goes on.

Likewise, Utah and UCLA have everything left to play for with one team being 3-0 and the other having an OT loss to an SEC team as their one blemish. Both have upside over what they’ve put on tape and either could make a lot of noise in the league.

While we are at it, don’t sleep on the Ducks. While they probably are not a playoff contender with a remarkably youthful O-Line and a so-so quarterback, they have more than enough talent to spoil the dreams for any other so-called contender.

Ditto that for Cal (am I right, Charlie Strong?).

So there is a lot going on here with the PAC. With that preamble out of the way, let’s get into our Week 4 picks.

Game of the Week

USC at #24 Utah (Utah -3)

The Trojans have been through a physical wringer the likes of which most teams in the nation have yet to experience. Alabama, Utah State, Stanford; now Utah. That stretch is no joke. That USC is coming out of that stretch 1-2 with Utah in front of them is not a disgrace. That USC seems to be exploding in a great ball of fire is.

There is simply no reason for it. Sure, USC is now contending with some injuries. But last I looked, Adoree’ Jackson is still playing at an elite level. Last I looked, Zach Banner was still a dominating right tackle. Last I looked JuJu Smith-Schuster is a killer WR who lines up on the same offense as RBs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis. USC is getting distracted by the terrible behaviors of second-rate players and it is completely consuming them.

Utah, on the other hand, is not distracted at all. Sure, they’ve had a few bad actors inflict some damage on the team. But in Utah’s typical under-the-radar fashion, Kyle Whittingham just handles it and puts everything back in order. They will show up on Friday as focused and as aware of their identity as they always have been: big, mean, underappreciated, and nasty.

Under normal circumstances, I would call this a classic “strength-on-strength” matchup. USC’s offensive line ought to be their strength. Utah’s defensive line, even minus star Kylie Fitts, is theirs. In games like this, I like to look for X-factors that have a chance to pop out.

For USC, I think that x-factor is their rushing attack. Max Browne’s shockingly ineffectual start has led to the insertion of freshman phenom Sam Darnold into the starting lineup and, barring injury, marks the end of the Browne era in LA. Darnold is an athletic threat. He and his tailbacks, studs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis, are good enough with their feet to beat Utah’s young backers one-on-one if the USC offensive line can neutralize Lowell Lotuleilei and Hunter Dimick (and, yes, that is a huge “if”).

Utah’s x-factor is a blast from the past. QB Troy Williams has the support of two 200-plus-pound backs, but Utah needs his arm to create a few chunk plays in order to get points on the board. He just can’t count on those lumbering backs to do that for him. He has the arm to do it. He’s also booked some significant reps in the first three games. My bet is that he is ready to be a difference-maker.

I’m going Utah here, but in a game that is much more physical and closely fought that what many might be expecting. I can see this going down to the wire, but with Troy Williams making the one or two big plays that pull it out for the home team.

The Pick: USC 24, Utah 27

The Rest of the PAC

Colorado at Oregon (no line)

The Ducks are reeling after a tough loss at Nebraska last weekend. It was a costly defeat in that Oregon lost the services of their Olympian WR Devon Allen and starting LT Terrell Crosby for the remainder of the season. Heisman candidate Royce Freeman also suffered an injury of unknown severity. Presuming all three are unavailable, the pressure will turn to QB Dakota Prukop to make more plays of his own to move sticks.

Colorado showed some defensive exposure against the #4 Michigan Wolverines last week, but still fared pretty well. They gave up just 5.6 yards per play and only 4 yards per rush. Oregon is a completely different beast, but Colorado should be encouraged that they have the strength at the point of attack to deal with Oregon’s offensive line, which now will be starting four freshmen.

Whether or not they have the back-end speed to deal with Oregon’s playmakers is a different deal. I’m not sure that they do. That LB Derek McCartney has been lost for the season is a big blow. I’ll take Oregon in a close one here, but I might be wrong.

The Pick: Colorado 31, Oregon 37

Boise State at Oregon State (Boise State -13.5)

There isn’t a lot of analysis required here. Boise State is bigger, stronger, and faster than OSU at this stage of their rebuild. With QB Darrell Garretson’s struggles last week, I’m less inclined to have faith that he will be able to work his targets and put points on the board for the Beavs. I’d like to be wrong, but I think Boise wins in a rout.

The Pick: Boise State 38, OSU 17

Stanford at UCLA (Stan -3)

This game carries much intrigue. On one hand, you have everybody’s favorite darling in Stanford. So much praise is reserved (and appropriately so) for RB Christian McCaffrey that the blemishes across the rest of the roster - the average QB play, the questionable pass rush, the inefficiency on offense - are often swept under the rug. For example, did you know that Stanford is averaging just one red zone trip per game two games into the season? That’s right. The vaunted Stanford offense has crossed the opponent’s 20-yard line just twice so far this season. Small sample size, but there are worries here.

Of course, UCLA has their own concerns. For instance, what the heck is wrong with Josh Rosen a.k.a. the third lowest-rated QB in the PAC? And what’s up with RB Soso Jamabo? Is he playing or not? Is the defense for real or is it a mirage?

No doubt that we’ll get some real answers to these questions. My heart is telling me to take UCLA just because they seem like a team closer to “exploding” (or at least regressing back up toward the mean) than Stanford. On the flipside, my head is telling me that this one could come down to the more disciplined team making a special teams play towards the end of a ballgame.

Yup, give me Stanford.

The Pick: Stanford 20, UCLA 14

Cal at ASU (ASU -4)

Ugh. What am I to do about this one? Two teams who have both shown an ability to put points on the board. Two teams that have put some pretty horrendous defensive play on tape. Two teams that have coaches with funny accents.


ASU is favored in this game. I found this odd when I read it, just because Cal seems to have more footing under them at this point. Given that this was my first gut reaction, I suppose that I’m leaning Cal here. Shocking, right?

But there is rationale here. WR Chase Hansen has been phenomenal so far and it is clear that Davis Webb intends to be a top-of-the-line QB in the PAC. ASU is really struggling with QB Manny Wilkins and a shaky offensive line. I do think that ASU’s blitzes might allow them to make an extra play or two to keep this one exciting, but Cal’s offense really nullifies many of Graham’s blitzing tendencies when taken on the grand scheme of things. I’m not sure if Webb is ready for that kind of pressure, but he’s an experienced guy. I’ll guess that he is.

The Pick: Cal 48, ASU 42