"And now we will finally touch the bottom of this swamp."
Conference play in the Pac-12 is an annual crucible that heartlessly and systematically eliminates the pretenders from the contenders and reveals the stuff of which each team is made. Week 9 was a week where we got our first real definitive glimpse at who's really in the mix and who's not. It also argued persuasively that the biggest presumption in the pre-season may have been specious. Everybody thought the Pac-12 South was superior to the North and, in fact, superior to just about every division in college football. The gauntlet that is the Conference of Champions has proven otherwise. To put it succinctly, it got real this week.
Oregon 61, Arizona State 55- Last Thursday's affair taught us two big things. First, Oregon's not dead yet in the Pac-12. Second, Arizona State, the darling of many back in the spring and summer, has gone up in flames. Oregon fans must be frustrated that Vernon Adams, Jr. hasn't been available all year, because it's clear that even with a porous defense, the Ducks have a chance in every game he plays. Adams averaged 7.8 YPA and his four touchdowns overcame five sacks by the Sun Devils. Quarterback Mike Bercovici's heroic efforts (398 yards, 7.5 YPA, five TD's) ended tragically, with a devastating interception that ended what was shaping up to be a game-clinching drive and then the game-ending interception in triple overtime. Coach Todd Graham's defense is his baby, and it's terrifying to think of how badly they'd have been torched without the signals they were able to steal from the Ducks. Put simply, Oregon lives in the Pac-12 North, at least for another week, while the Sun Devils are spoilers at best for the final month of the year.
Utah 27, Oregon State 12- The Beavers were just what the doctor ordered for a Utah team coming off a tough loss to USC. The Utes jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead then spend the next two quarters playing down to Oregon State's level, at least on offense. Utah pledged to re-focus its attack on Devontae Booker, but it was quarterback Travis Wilson, who completed 11.8 yards per attempt on 14-17 passing, who had the biggest bounce back. Oregon State is just terrible, and they are headed for a winless season in the Pac-12. Oregon State was hapless on the ground (3.8 YPC) and through the air (5.8 YPA) and unlucky in that they forced two fumbles but were unable to recover either. Utah remains in full control of its Pac-12 South destiny but only by winning out, since they do not have the tiebreaker against USC and still have UCLA left to play.
UCLA 35, Colorado 31- What to make of these Bruins? They righted the ship by pounding Cal, then got 10 days to get ready for the worst team in the South, but the feisty Buffaloes took UCLA all the way down to the closing moments, where an untimely injury to Sefo Liufau undid the Buffaloes last chances. Ishmael Adams' 96-yard pick six proved to be a huge margin, as the game ended and began with interceptions from Colorado Liufau, who in between hit a 62-yarder to Devin Ross and completed 36 other passes. UCLA lost two fumbles and once again showered the Rose Bowl field with yellow flags to the tune of 10 penalties for 101 yards, all of which kept Colorado in a game in which Paul Perkins returned triumphantly with a 9.8 YPC average and Josh Rosen averaged a very healthy 7.8 YPA. The win meant that UCLA did its part in keeping L.A. alive in the Pac-12 South.
USC 27, Cal 21-And the Trojans responded in Strawberry Canyon by rededicating itself to the power running.of Ronald Jones II (7.8 YPC) and the efficiency of The Bakersfield Bandit (9.8 YPA) to grind down the Cal defense, and then Adoree Jackson's 46-yard Pick Six of the Golden Goff gave the Trojans a 17 point lead that the Bears valiantly tried to overcome but just couldn't. This was an elimination game that went the way of the Pac-12 South, as the Trojans now stand on the outside waiting for a Utah loss to regain control of its divisional destiny. Goff threw for a very respectable 8.8 yards per attempt, but two interceptions gave him 7 in the last three games (all Cal losses) and left the Berkeley bandwagon wobbling and careening towards the bottom of Strawberry Canyon. Cal now has three Pac-12 losses and is finito with either a loss to Oregon this week or a Stanford win over Colorado on Saturday.
Washington 49, Arizona 3- In perhaps the most shocking score of the weekend, Rich Rod's kvetching about the 8:00 PM start time proved prophetic as an injury-plagued train wreck of a season finally crashed to earth along the banks of Lake Washington. Jake Browning returned healthy and proved hellacious for the Wildcats. Browning averaged a staggering 10.7 YPA (his season average is 6.6 vs. the Pac-12 overall) while throwing for 267 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Anu Solomon had a much bigger problem with the best defense in the Pac-12. Solomon threw two picks and his sidekick J3rrard Randle threw another as the Huskies also smothered the Arizona run game. Wildcats runners went for 2.9 YPC without standout lead tailback Nick Wilson. This was a boat race that saw Washington score the game's final 49 points. Coach Chris Petersen has his team on the ascent, while Rich Rod has seen nothing go right (or Wright considering the early injury to Scooby) all year long.
Stanford 30, Washington State 28- The struggle was so real for the Cardinal and Kevin Hogan, and Washington State had Stanford all but checkmated until Coach Shaw unleashed #8 and Hogan's running (138 second-half yards) turned the game and helped Stanford escape the Cougars' Den by the skin of its teeth and remain the conference's only unbeaten team. Two identity swaps defined the game for Washington State. On the plus side, Washington State played its best defensive game of the year by far, holding Stanford's vaunted offense down for most of the game. Stanford couldn't get Christian McCaffrey ignited until the very last drive of the game. Hogan averaged 4.5 YPA on the ground, a far cry from the nearly 12 YPA he's hit in Pac-12 play this year. Unfortunately, Washington State lost its identity in the Red Zone, settling for five field goals on a night when even one more touchdown would have pulled the upset for the Cougars.
Teams That Go Kaboom! and The Big Picture
||PPD (National Rank)
Two thirds of the way through the season, we have some interesting developments. Three of the four most explosive teams this week won with Arizona State being the one losing team. Of course, they played one of the other four most explosive teams. The Ducks have been rising up this chart over the last couple weeks, and they've also gotten better at the same time. UCLA has also righted its ship the last two weeks and also climbed the charts. This chart is supposed to target offense but ultimately tells us a great deal about Pac-12 defenses as well. Washington became the next school to see a skyrocket in explosiveness thanks to a Saturday sharing a field with Arizona's defense.
Stanford truly struggled against the Cougars this week, but still remains the best offense in the conference based on points per drive. We see that the Trojans continue to be the most explosive team in the conference and they form the upper crust of the Pac-12 with Stanford and Washington State. Again, the Cougars struggled against Stanford and manage to be a top offense without really being explosive all year. Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, and Utah comprise the middle class in terms of offensive production, and you can throw Cal in at the bottom of this tier, since it's a long way down to the outhouse trio of Washington (who blew up this week), Colorado, ASU, and Oregon State. In terms of contention, it's clear that you need to be a good offense, but it's not totally clear that you have to be explosive to do it.
Stanford at Colorado 10 AM Pac-12 Networks- Coach David Shaw got what he wanted this week, only be careful what you ask for from Larry Scott. After spending virtually the entire season playing late night Saturday games, Stanford gets #BreakfastIn Boulder and a chance for AM Redemption if they can out-run Ralphie. On paper, this game shouldn't really be competitive, but Coach Mike MacIntyre has been building up the Buffaloes and they have been playing much better (on the road) in the last couple weeks. The picture is further muddled by the status of Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau. Liufau claims he's at 100% after hurting his wrist at the end of last week's game in Pasadena. Receivers Nelson Spruce and Devin Ross are the next big challenge for Stanford's young but improving secondary. Keep an eye on the weather in this one, as the rain in Pullman played a huge role in the stagnation of the Stanford offense. Right now, it's supposed to be 52 degrees, sunny with 0% precipitation. If that weather holds, expect that percentage to be Colorado's win probability as well.
Arizona State at Washington State 12:30 PM Fox Sports 1- The Heartbreak Bowl features two teams who suffered brutally heartbreaking defeats last week. Arizona State's defense is up against it with the Air Raid looking to regain its Red Zone proficiency after its frustration against Stanford last Saturday. Washington State is not out of the Pac-12 North race and has the Alamo Bowl looking very seriously at the Cougars, so the Pirate's team still has much to play for in November. This would be a huge show of resilience for Arizona State, and a loss on the Palouse may very well put the Sun Devils in free fall. Both teams love to move the ball through the air, the difference may be in the pass defense. Arizona State has the worst pass defense in conference play while Washington State under new D Coordinator Alex Grinch. That could very well be the difference in Pullman. Mike Leach amped up the intrigue on this one with his charge that ASU should be investigated for stealing signs, a charge Todd Graham openly and candidly embraces and acknowledges.
UCLA at Oregon State 1:30 PM Pac-12 Networks- Not even accounting for Corvallis Craziness creates a scenario where UCLA is in serious danger here. The Beaver offense is absolutely terrible, and UCLA has Paul Perkins back as well as the Chosen Rosen. I think the Beaver D keeps this close for a while, but unless the penalty-prone Bruins gift Oregon State with a mile of penalty yardage, this shouldn't be much to see. Flip back to the Pirate vs. Todd Graham and see if you can steal signs.
Utah at Washington 4:30 PM Fox- Keep an eye on this one, Trojan fans. Both of these teams get after it defensively, which means low scoring, which means a close game. Close games are toss-ups and if the Utes slip up here, USC gets the upper hand if they can handle their business at the Coliseum. The big question in this game is whether or not Travis Wilson can thrive in a game where he's not getting running support. If the Husky defense stops Devontae Booker (a reasonably-sized if) can Wilson throw Utah to victory? On the flip side, how does Jake Browning handle the rugged Utah defense, ranked second in yards per attempt allowed and tied for first with eight interceptions. Field-tilting turnovers can really hamstring the Husky D, but if this game is played cleanly by both, expect it to come down to the wire and expect every player to be battered and bruised afterwards.
Cal at Oregon 7:30 PM ESPN 2- It's a cut and dried Pac-12 elimination game at Autzen Asylum. The loser of this game is mathematically eliminated, while the winner clings to control of its fate for another week. Cal's cratering has coincided with Oregon's ascent, and it's hard to pick against the Ducks in Eugene, except for the fact that Oregon's lost two conference games already at home this season. Cal can't match the Utah defense that held the Ducks down, and the struggling version of Jared Goff isn't going to match Luke Falk's heroics at Autzen. In his last three games, Goff is averaging just 6.8 YPA with seven TD's matched by seven INT's over the past three games, and he's thrown for fewer and fewer yards in each subsequent game. Vernon Adams, Jr., on the other hand, has averaged 9 YPA with six TD's and only 1 INT in his last two games. Oregon's defense remains awful, and one would think Goff capable of doing what Travis Wilson, Falk, and most recently Mike Bercovici have done to the Duck secondary. Best case scenario for the Bears is a duel between quarterbacks, but that still leaves the deadly Royce Freeman for Cal to defend. Both these teams can throw, but the team that can run will win. If it's the Ducks, the game won't be close.
Arizona at USC 7:30 PM ESPN- This is the kind of game the resurgent Trojans have made a specialty of losing the past few years, because on paper it shouldn't even be close. Arizona's defense has sunk to a level that defies description, but not quantification. The Wildcats are the second worst scoring defense in Pac-12 play (40.5) and rank seventh and 10th in rush and pass defense. If USC resists the temptation to let the Bako Bandit throw the ball at the expense of Ronald Jones II running the ball behind the Trojan offensive line, this one should be over early. Of course the Trojans and the word "should" have rarely aligned in recent history, so who knows?
So November's here, and finally we have some clarity amidst the annual chaos. The Arizona schools are done, as injury and underachievement have proven to be too much for the Wildcats and Devils to overcome. The Washington schools are vastly improved, and may have helped the North retain superiority, though the two games played in the Apple State this week could go a long way to refuting or confirming that conclusion. Stanford and Utah have the only remaining paths to the college football playoff, but they both have to win out to make that a reality. Stanford wraps up the Pac-12 North with a win and an Oregon win, but by winning against Colorado they'd be insulated by a head-to-head loss against the Ducks and could still clinch by beating Cal. Utah wins by winning out, but the Utes still have to play UCLA and if they lose, USC gets control of its destiny by virtue of its head-to-head win over the Utes. The Bruins are also in control of their destiny pending a win in Corvallis this week.
The November Crucible has left five teams to sort out the Pac-12 championship and two to strive for the college football playoff. Larry Scott was right in saying the Pac-12 champion has the toughest road to the playoff, as gutless other Power 5 conferences schedule virtual byes in November to prepare for tough games and skip out on either a ninth conference game or a conference championship. As brutal as it's been, the sternest tests still remain for the Final Five, leaving little else but elation or devastation, starting right now.
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