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Mailbag: “California Shootout” Edition

Answering your questions coming off an all-offense epic against USC and facing down a defensive stalwart in Utah

Washington v USC Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Last week I said over/under 100, got close, my question is about USC defensive line, how can USC recruit so poorly that we just run roughshod over them? Does Lincoln Riley only focus on skill players while recruiting? -KPreston

Back before the season I put together my talent rankings for the entire conference. USC finished essentially 1b barely behind Oregon but I also did rankings at each position and on each side of the ball. I actually had the Trojans as the #1 most talented interior defensive line in the conference as shocking as that looks now. Georgia transfer Bear Alexander finished as one of the elite players in the conference at that spot and he was USC’s highest graded defensive player by PFF against UW with 6 tackles and none missed. I recently put him as a 1st team all-conference player when I went through the exercise yesterday.

Former Kansas State transfer Tyrone Taleni was my next highest rated Trojan iDL but he put up a statistical goose egg across 35 snaps versus Washington. Purdue transfer Jack Sullivan and Arizona transfer Kyon Barrs were both P5 starters at their previous stops but combined for just 26 snaps against Washington as neither has lived up to their billing.

The big problem of course for USC is that all of those players are transfers. The Trojans have ZERO four or five-star recruits on their DL that they recruited out of high school. Their highest 247 Sports composite rating among any of them is a 0.8734 where anything above 0.89 is four-star status. Basically, their D-line recruiting has been closer to what you’d expect from Arizona State than USC. They tried to supplement via the portal the last 2 years but needed to hit on more than just Alexander.

Is the running game going to be effective towards the end of this season like last year? Or, was the USC game simply a fluke against a bad rushing defense? -kdawgSW

We’re a little ahead of schedule for a run game resurgence based on last year. Wayne Taulapapa had 8 carries for 27 yards (but 2 TDs) in week 10 against Oregon State. He really turned it on in the final 2 weeks and the bowl game going over 100 yards on fewer than 15 carries in all of them. Two of those games though were against Colorado and Washington State. The last, against Texas, was certainly impressive but also came in Michael Penix Jr.’s worst game of the season. The Longhorns were very clearly focused on shutting down UW’s passing attack.

It seems less likely that we see Dillon Johnson go on a mad tear like that this season. Utah and Oregon State are two of the better defenses in the conference coming up next. And prior to Saturday, DJ’s best game was against Oregon but we’ll see if he can do it in a potential rematch with the Ducks more prepared for him.

I’d be willing to bet that we don’t see another performance close to what he did on Saturday and that it was primarily due to USC’s terrible run defense. It’s also clear though that Johnson is much healthier than he was at the start of the season and I would expect him to average over 5 yards per carry the rest of the way and pick up maybe 1-1.5 touchdowns per game. Still good but not in the neighborhood of what he did this past week.

Should there be some slack given the defense since this was one of the most prolific offense in the nation and Caleb Williams can make anyone look silly? -Dawgmanic

Is the UW defense actually underrated? It looked like the Trojans were pummeling the Huskies but, aside from the TD from the blocked punt, the defense “held” SC to 35 points and Oregon to 33 points which is not a terrible result given the offensive prowess of both teams. They do bend but when it’s crunch time they’re not breaking. -Gu1996

There are stats you could find that would make the Husky defense look good (but not great) and there are stats you can find that make them look horrific. When it comes to the USC game in particular there’s not much of an argument that we played well except to factor in Williams’ usual greatness. USC had a 63% success rate (99th percentile), a 75% red zone success rate (93rd percentile), a 13% explosive play rate (91st percentile), and gained 75% of their available yards.

Need some additional context on those numbers? That was USC’s highest success rate of the season and their second best explosive play rate, red zone success rate, and available yards percentage. The only game that’s comparable to what USC was able to do on offense was their win over 2-7 Nevada. Even if the Trojans have the best offense in the country, which some metrics say is the case, that was still a beatdown.

That makes it two straight weeks where a team has had one of their best offensive performances of the season against the Huskies. The season-long opponent-adjusted advanced stats metrics still view Washington as having a slightly above average defense. It’s clearly trending in the wrong direction and we’ll see if they can get back into form against a banged up Utah offense this weekend.

USC Trojans lay the Washington Huskies Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On the block punt play, why did UW have only two blockers and not three blocks in front of the kicker? -acwai

Because someone messed up.

Where do you rank week 11 Utah among our opponents thus far? -Elder Smith

It was very reasonable to qualify week 11 Utah because this is a drastically different team than the one that started the season. The Utes never ended up getting back QB Cam Rising or TE Brant Kuithe from injury. The offense has gone back and forth between Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson and currently is led by Barnes with some running packages for Johnson. The running back position lost several bodies and starter Ja’Quinden Jackson left last Saturday’s game having reaggravated an injury. If he can’t go this weekend then it will be converted safety Sione Vaki getting the vast majority of the carries. Tight end Thomas Yassmin is out for the season as was projected starting slot receiver Mycah Pittman.

The defense only has 7 players that have appeared in all 9 games for Utah. Star linebacker Lander Barton is out for the year as is edge rusher Logan Fano who had 4 sacks in 5 games. They are definitely the better side of the ball for the Utes but not at 100% either.

I think that it’s a toss-up between Utah and USC for who has been the second hardest game behind Oregon. The Utes and Trojans are polar opposite teams given their relative strengths which is why they ended up playing to a near stalemate in Los Angeles. I’m personally more worried about Utah as a team because I think they have a defense that could consistently pressure Michael Penix Jr. Plus Kyle Whittingham is a better coach than Lincoln Riley (especially when Riley employs Alex Grinch. The game being in Seattle though makes me feel a lot more comfortable and so I rank it as the 2nd hardest game so far even if Utah may be better than USC.

Unless Oregon State looks awful this weekend I’ll slot that one in ahead of either Utah or USC however.

If UW wins this weekend vs Utah, are there any scenarios possible where UW doesn’t make it to the p12 championship? The three way tiebreakers hurt my brain last year, but would be nice to know if we can lock up our spot in p12 championship 100% this weekend. -BigJohnsonEnergy

I want to start out by clarifying that me choosing to answer this question is not a sign of complacency. It’s merely intended to clarify the stakes for the Utah game.

In order for there to be even a chance that the Huskies miss the Pac-12 CCG given a win against Utah it means they have to lose at Oregon State and in the Apple Cup. (Which, sidebar, would be one hell of a dose of karma if our only two conference losses were to the two teams being left behind.) Win 2 of the remaining 3 no matter the order and we are in to the title game.

In this scenario the Huskies are 7-2 in conference. There are only 4 other schools capable of getting to 7-2 at that point: Oregon, USC, Arizona, and Oregon State. The Ducks still have to play both USC and Oregon State. If they win both of those games then it means they would finish 8-1 and we could only tie with Arizona who we beat head to head and therefore would advance. If the only thing you’re concerned with is making the conference championship game then you want Oregon to keep winning.

A more complicated scenario would be if Oregon State wins out. In that case Oregon also has a 2nd loss and depending on how Arizona finishes we could have either a 3-way or 4-way tie. Let’s start with the 3-way tie (Arizona loses presumably to Utah here). UW, UO, and OSU all would’ve played one another so the first tiebreaker is Head-to-Head among the group. In this scenario OSU is 2-0, UW is 1-1 and UO is 0-2. The Beavers and Washington would advance while the Ducks get left home. If your primary goal is to see Oregon suffer then you want the Beavers to win out including against UW (but if you would rather see Oregon miss the CCG than see a 12-0 Husky team you need to get your priorities straightened out.)

What happens though if Arizona also wins out? The Wildcats and Ducks didn’t play so we have to use record against common opponents. All four of those schools played: Stanford, Washington State, and Utah. They all beat Stanford, in this scenario they all beat Utah, but UW and the Beavers would have lost to Washington State. That means Arizona and Oregon get to advance by virtue of going 3-0 against that grouping.

We haven’t talked about the Oregon collapse scenario where they lose to USC this weekend. Obviously, Washington wins a head-to-head tiebreaker with USC by virtue of last weekend’s win. It could be a 3-way tiebreaker in a few different ways. If Oregon loses to USC but beats Oregon State then you could have UW/USC/Oregon where Washington and USC prevail. If Oregon also loses to Oregon State you could have UW/USC/OSU which comes down to common opponents since USC and OSU didn’t play this year. In this case USC stays home by virtue of their loss to Utah.

There’s also once again the 4-way tie possibility of UW/USC/Arizona and then OSU instead of Oregon should the Ducks lose to the Beavers as well. That leaves Stanford and Utah as the only two common opponents. They all beat Stanford while USC is the only to lose to Utah in this scenario. We go to the next step which is combined record against the cluster of 4 teams at the top. USC is 1-1, UW is 2-1, OSU is 1-1, and Arizona is 1-2. Washington advances.

So no, mathematically the Huskies don’t clinch with a win against Utah. But the only scenario I can find where they don’t make it in that case is to have Oregon State win out, Arizona win out, and Oregon beat USC and Arizona State (plus of course UW loses their last 2 games). Any other result flips and the Dawgs are in. Though if we’re even discussing the possibility of UW missing the CCG it means that any chance at the CFP is already gone.