Let the attrition begin.
The PAC 12 became a veritable MASH unit on the western outpost of college football this weekend. No fewer than half of the teams in the PAC are currently playing with reserve quarterbacks. A seventh - Utah - is playing with a starter who is gutting through a leg injury that may have sidelined players of lesser constitution.
And its not just the quarterbacks. Stars and key contributors like Zack Moss, Theo Howard, JJ Taylor, Talanoa Hufanga, Britain Covey Jermar Jefferson and basically every Oregon receiver are also walking sidelines.
With injuries starting to pile up across the league, it’s not surprising that a) the conference continues to eat its own and b) the teams with the best depth are starting to separate. Washington, Oregon and Utah seem to be the teams that look most likely to separate themselves in the coming weeks with both ASU and Cal showing that they have the kind of grit that may allow them to hang around.
But check again with me next week. It might all change again.
Overreactions of the Week
The PAC 12 is out of the playoff race.
Sadly, I’m guilty of asserting this overreaction myself. And while I remain highly confident that the PAC 12 is pretty much already out of it, some factors have changed on the ground.
First, the collapse of the ACC hasn’t been a total surprise. But the fact that UNC could hang with Clemson until the last few seconds of the game, losing only after a failed two point conversion that would have upset the Tigers was a bit of a wake up call. I’m not sure if Clemson is quite as dominant this year as they were last and I’ll be curious to see if there is another upset alert out there lying in wait. A damaged Clemson could definitely shake up the Playoff landscape.
Second, I’m starting to become convinced that Notre Dame is going to lose one more. Call this a hunch based on what I’ve seen and that teams like USC, Michigan and Stanford are all still ahead.
Third, there has been a clear shift in the narrative on the PAC 12 in the national media. The idea that the PAC 12 “is deep” has definitely taken hold as evidenced by the fact that ESPN had a segment on it during GameDay two weeks ago and writers like the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman have taken up the mantle:
People who've written off the Pac-12 having a shot of getting a Playoff team have jumped the gun. Worth noting: The Pac-12 leads all P5 Conferences in non-conference games vs. other Power 5 teams (incl. BYU & ND) w/ a 7-4 record. Big12 is 6-4, SEC is 6-5, B1G is 5-5; ACC is 4-9.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) September 29, 2019
If a team like Oregon or Washington can get through the rest of the season unscathed, the opinions on the strength of schedule played may just elevate them in any tie-breaker discussion with, say, a non-Champion SEC contender.
Or it may not.
The Cougs are crumbling.
Maybe they are. But I’m not sure. We’ll talk more about their loss to Utah in the rankings below. However, I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that WSU put up only 13 points against the Utes. For one thing, the Utes are going to hold many teams to 13 points. For another, it is really hard to play in Salt Lake City. Third of all, we’ve seen WSU go through “bottoming out” moments before and still find a way to bounce back.
Mike Leach is crazy like a fox. He has his own unique way of managing the psychology of his team and I suspect he’ll be able to address the challenges of these past two weeks.
Now, if he can just do something about his defense.
The Huskies are getting too cute.
Two straight weeks with botched trick plays, a weird onside kick attempt against USC and a handful of ineffective wildcat formations have Husky fans wondering what in the name of Don James is going on with all of UW’s gadgetry.
I get it. We fans are convinced that UW is talented enough, particularly along the offensive line and at quarterback, that relying on trickery to generate big plays seems unwise.
On the other hand, I also know this: we LOVE those plays when they work.
When the Dawgs do the things that we all want them to do over the course of a game (jump out to early leads, generate turnovers, drive into the red zone, etc) then I don’t really have a problem with them taking a few kill shots. This is especially true when the coaches pick up on something that the opponent is doing that might even the odds of such a play working out.
It would be great not to just give the ball or field position away, but I’m good to go for it now and then.
The Cool Chart
The PAC 12 Power Rankings - after Week 5
12. Oregon State (1-3, 0-1)
Stanford 31, Oregon State 28
This was a heart-breaker for OSU coach Jonathan Smith. Just about everything was working for him against Stanford. QB Jake Luton was hot. WR Isaiah Hodgins was continuing what is a legit OPOY kind of season. Artavis Pierce was running great in relief of Jermar Jefferson. And the defense was playing tough against the Stanford rushing attack. When OSU capped a 10 play 77 yard drive with a game-tying TD from Pierce, there was a real sense that the Beavs might find a way to get this one to OT and win it. But a special teams breakdown allowed Conor Wedington to break off a big return on the ensuing kickoff and set Jet Toner up for the game winning 39 yarder to bury their hopes.
While this was a golden opportunity fumbled away, I do think the Beavs take a moral victory out of it. If OSU keeps playing like this, there may still be a couple of winnable games out there for them this year including this week’s trip to the Rose Bowl.
POG: WR Isaiah Hodgins (10 recs, 162 yds, 1 TD)
If he were on any other team, he’d be all over everyone’s watchlists. Hodgins is tied for seventh in the nation in receptions (33), fourth in the nation in yards per game (127.3), and tied for fourth in TD receptions (6). His hot streak continued against Stanford.
Next Up: at UCLA
11. UCLA (1-4, 1-1) ▼
UCLA 17, Arizona 20
I think we were all expecting a little more dynamism from the Bruins following the rousing comeback victory over WSU the week before. In some ways, we probably got a better view of what Chip Kelly is trying to build with his young football team. The defensive performance was the best of the year while at the same time, RB Joshua Kelley (27 carries, 127 yards, 1 TD) had his best effort of the season. Defense, rushing attack … ball control. This seems to be the focus areas of the Chipster’s UCLA blueprint.
Unfortunately, an injury to Dorian Thompson-Robinson seemed to stunt the offense just enough to let this one slip through his fingers. Austin Burton played tentative in relief and couldn’t really help move the UCLA offense forward. I was also a bit surprised at how little effort seemed to be made to incorporate Demetric Felton – the hero of last week – into the game plan. Seems like UCLA is still trying to figure things out.
POG: CB Darnay Holmes (2 tackles, 1 PBU)
The healthy presence of Holmes in the UCLA defensive backfield really changes things for the Bruins. His stats don’t really tell the story, but he was a blanket on Arizona receivers all night. Any success that the Wildcats had with the pass came to throws to running backs or away from Holmes.
Next Up: vs Oregon St
10. Stanford (2-3, 1-2) ▲
Stanford 31, Oregon State 28
The Cardinal had to sink a long-distance last second field goal in order to put away the Beavers on Saturday Night. Normally, that would be grounds for some criticism. But for a team that ended a three-game losing streak to go out on the road and win one is an important milestone. QB Davis Mills started this one in place of injured KJ Costello (thumb) and put forth a pretty efficient effort. Conor Wedington also had a good game as a receiver and a returner.
Whether or not Stanford can build on this remains to be seen. The rushing attack will certainly need to be addressed, but it won’t be easy. Washington comes to town next weekend providing David Shaw with an opportunity to get his team back in the race for the North. Or to be eliminated from it altogether.
POG: DE Thomas Booker (8 tackles, 2 sacks)
Booker is one of those young DLs that I was expecting to really make an impact this season. He’s been ok so far, but this game was the first that I feel like he was really noticeable. Getting his first to sacks of the season might trigger something of a breakout. We’ll have to see.
Next Up: vs #15 Washington
9. Arizona (3-1, 1-0)
UCLA 17, Arizona 20
The Wildcats lost both QB Khalil Tate and RB JJ Taylor to leg injuries before kickoff against UCLA. However, freshman Grant Gunnell played a composed game in relief of Tate while a bevy of Arizona rushers were able to support in him with a just-good-enough running attack that kept UCLA’s D on their heels most of the night. It was a pretty decent effort, though 20 points is probably not enough scoring to keep Arizona on the right side of the ledger most nights.
To that point, credit the Arizona defense. UCLA came into the game fresh off a 67 point outburst against WSU. Though they had a difficult time containing UCLA’s rushing attack, they contained a lot of the big plays. The Wildcat linebacking trio of Andy Pandy, Colin Schooler and Tony Fields played well with 30 combined tackles, 3 TFLs, and 1 sack combined.
POG: LB Colin Schooler (13 tckls, 2 TFLs)
Another great game from Arizona’s best player. It was interesting to see Marcel Yates feature Schooler more in pressures that what I’m used to.
Next Up: at Colorado
8. Washington State (3-2, 0-2) ▼
WSU 13, #19 Utah 38
Let’s just say, it’s never a good thing when this happens:
“They’re fat, dumb and happy and entitled.” - Mike Leach— Daren Stoltzfus (@DarenStoltzfus) September 29, 2019
The pirate went OFF last night after Wazzu’s second straight loss. pic.twitter.com/7U60AIIBFu
Coaches turning on players can sometimes be an effective call to action. At other times it can be a trigger for cataclysmic in-fighting. Time will tell for this Cougar team as the schedule doesn’t get much easier.
On the field, the shine on QB Anthony Gordon dulled a bit in what was certainly his most pedestrian effort of the season. 5.1 YPA is probably not good enough to win in any style of offense and two picks against a team as good as Utah is certainly going to bite a QB. But it wasn’t just Gordon. The receiving corps really struggled with YAC against a Utah defense that seemed more willing to play zone than they were just the week before against USC.
While I’m willing to chalk up 13 points scored to tough Utah D, that WSU defense is in full-on crisis mode. I don’t think there was a single aspect of the defense that played well against Utah. At least, if there were, I didn’t see it.
POG: RB Max Borghi (8 carries, 9 recs, 121 total yards)
Borghi was clearly a point of emphasis for the Utah D and yet he still found ways to impact the game in both the running and passing phases. He really is an impressive young player.
Next Up: BYE
7. Colorado (3-1, 1-0) ▲
Not much to report about on Colorado. I’ll give them credit for covering the spread against BYE.
Next Up: vs Arizona
6. USC (3-2, 2-1) ▼
#21 USC 14, #17 UW 28
Clay Helton was in a tough situation on Saturday. He was coming off a big win the week before but was down to his third string QB on a road trip against a Washington team that has not lost to an Air Raid offense since Chris Petersen has taken over. With that in mind, I thought USC came out with a great gameplan focused on ball control and establishing the rushing game against what he knew would be a five-man UW box for most of the game. And, for the most part, it worked. The Trojans averaged over 6 yards per rush with a great rotation between Markese Stepp, Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr. That rushing attack plus some fantastic play from their defensive front definitely gave the Trojans a chance to compete.
The problem is that Matt Fink was eventually going to have to throw the football. And the results once he did were not good.
Two trips inside the 10 yard line with zero points, three interceptions and a near-miss pick six were the most glaring issues on what was a bad day for the USC QB. He’s simply going to have to be better if USC hopes to make use of the tie-breaker that they have over Utah in the race for the South.
POG: DL Jay Tufele (4 tckls, 1 sack, 2 TFLs)
I thought the defensive line of Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu and Drake Jackson was terrific on Saturday. Tufele was quite disruptive and seemed to require a ton of extra attention from UW’s interior linemen. His penetrations were a big factor in limiting Jacob Eason from getting much going downfield.
Next Up: vs BYE
5. California (4-1, 1-1) ▼
Arizona State 24, #15 California 17
With their loss to Arizona State on Friday night, the Bears became the last team in the conference to lose a game. In fact, they seemed to take that situation worse than maybe even the fans did. Check out Evan Weaver’s rant:
My transcription of Cal LB Evan Weaver’s full “rant” (I put in quotes because Weaver didn't lose it, but was obviously pointedly angry).— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) September 28, 2019
“That's what these last three seasons have been all about: We lose a game and we fall off a cliff. We can't do that this year and we won’t.” pic.twitter.com/YdKrXTa5Hy
While it is true that the Bears were not nearly as strong defending ASU’s methodical rushing attack, I don’t think the effort was that bad. At least not to my eyeballs. Maybe Weaver was expecting more defensive output with the healthy returns of Cameron Goode and Tevin Paul. Nevertheless, that the best player on their best unit is calling out teammates for a lack of effort could speak to something happening under the covers in Berkeley and might be worth keeping an eye on.
Of more pressing concern, I would think, is the shoulder injury to Chase Garbers and the fact that backup Devon Modster looks ill-prepared to take over as the starter. His performance in relief of Garbers was not good.
POG: Cameron Goode (11 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs)
Goode unseats Weaver for POG honors. He made a lot of plays close to the line of scrimmage and did as much as anyone in terms of keeping Eno Benjamin from breaking off any big ones.
Next Up: at #13 Oregon
4. (20) Arizona State (4-1, 1-1) ▲
Arizona State 24, #15 California 17
I thought it interesting that Herm Edwards after his win over Cal complemented the fact that the Golden Bears “have an identity”. You could say the exact same thing about this Sun Devil team. And it was a combination of hard-hitting, down-hill rushing and a “not too much” gameplan for freshman QB Jayden Daniels that ultimately gave the Devils the road win on Friday night.
It is getting hard to ignore what ASU is doing. They are still a young team and will make mistakes. But they are collectively playing pretty clean football. Now that the offensive line and RB Eno Benjamin (29 carries, 100 yards, 3 TDs) are in synch, there isn’t any team left on the schedule that ASU can’t beat.
POG: Merlin Robertson (11 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL)
Robertson is one of my favorite young linebackers in the conference. He pulled his best Evan Weaver impression with a huge game against Cal.
Next Up: BYE
3. (17) Utah (4-1, 1-1) ▲
WSU 13, #19 Utah 38
The Utes bounced back after a tough loss against USC in a big way. Though Zack Moss is still out injured, Tyler Huntley showed off both his toughness and his leadership in fighting through his own leg injury. His excellence in both passing and rushing combined with a stingy Utah D that got fantastic play from its defensive secondary turned this one into a bit of a laugher.
With USC’s loss to UW, the Utes again look like the class of the South (though still technically behind the Trojans). I’m going to be watching the injury bug for them. Britain Covey had to miss this one. Star LB Francis Bernard (12 tackles) was dinged up but able to fight through. With Moss, Huntley, and Britain Covey all fighting through various ailments, the margin of error could start shrinking for Kyle Whittingham’s club.
POG: QB Tyler Huntley (21 of 30, 334 yds passing, 31 yds rushing, 4 total TDs)
With apologies to Bernard and safety Julian Blackmon, Huntley was absolutely the best player on the field for Utah against WSU. I’ve been really impressed everything he has been doing at QB this season.
Next Up: BYE
2. (15) Washington (4-1, 1-1) ▲
#21 USC 14, #17 UW 28
Usually I’m the first to strike a note of caution whenever the Huskies win a less-than-pretty game. However, not in this case. The Huskies played a tough opponent on Saturday and they accomplished most of what they wanted to in winning that game.
… jump out to a quick lead (check)
… generate turnovers (check)
… protect the ball (check – mostly)
… prevent big plays (kinda check)
… rotate young players in and bank reps across the roster (check check check)
I think it is also notable to see that the Huskies were able to generate a couple of chunk plays of their own and win the special teams battle with the kicking game. While the final score may not have reflected it, they pretty much beat USC in just about every facet of the game while accomplishing all of their goals with the roster management. And, if you don’t believe me, consider for a moment the kinds of games that we saw from guys like Trent McDuffie, Cam Williams, Asa Turner, Kyler Gordon, Richard Newton and MJ Tafisi … all young players that made real contributions.
It is pretty obvious to me that the Huskies are the deepest team in the conference. Whether or not their front line guys are catching up to the production levels of the front-liners for Oregon and Utah remains to be seen. But the Huskies are becoming battle-tested and are in a great position with home games against both those teams still in front of them.
POG: DB Trent McDuffie (9 tckls)
I think there were a few people worthy of this honor between LT Trey Adams (what a game against Drake Jackson), S Cam Williams, DB Kyler Gordon, S Myles Bryant and DB Elijah Molden. But who can deny the play of the true freshman who was manned up against USC veteran Tyler Vaughns all game long? McDuffie basically erased Vaughns and then went on to find a way to lead the team in tackles. McDuffie is already a legit star after just his second week in the starting lineup.
Next Up: at Stanford
1. (13) Oregon (3-1, 1-0)
The Ducks got a much needed week off. A visit from a really pissed off Cal team is sure to get physical.
Next Up: vs Cal