Pac-12: Washington Huskies

A slight sense of normalcy returned to the Pac-12 this past weekend, but fear not -- it's still plenty weird out West. Home teams actually posted a winning record (3-2) this past weekend, improving their season season mark to a still-dismal 6-17.

Stanford, the two-time defending champion, is staggering, so Oregon has established a grip on the Pac-12 North. Meanwhile, let's not pretend we have a bead on the minefield that is the Pac-12 South. Four teams are tied at the top in the loss column, and a fifth -- preseason favorite UCLA -- hovers right behind them with two losses. It's a mess of epic proportions.

With USC visiting Utah this weekend, we will see some moving and shaking in the South. Let the horse race continue around the second bend. Here is Week 9:

The delicious appetizer: Oregon vs. Cal (at Levi's Stadium)

A couple weeks ago, Cal enjoyed its time in sole possession of the Pac-12 North lead, but that stay was as short-lived as most expected it to be. Though Jared Goff has emerged as one of the league's elite passers (9.1 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, four interceptions), the Bears are hindered by a defense that struggles to tackle in critical situations. That was the story of their 36-34 loss to UCLA, even though a trio of Bruins' turnovers kept that game close. It's also bad news entering a matchup with an Oregon team that is beginning to fire on all cylinders. The Ducks blasted Washington 45-20 behind four touchdowns from true freshman Royce Freeman. He is a six-foot, 230-pound tank -- exactly the type of player who can turn the Bears into falling dominoes.

Goff will need to deliver an epic performance in his duel with Marcus Mariota. Combined numbers for these two: 43 touchdowns, four picks.

Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: USC at Utah

Salt Lake City hosts a de facto College Football Playoff elimination game. The Arizona State-Washington battle in Seattle might have shared this designation had the Huskies found a way to get it done at Autzen Stadium, but they were run out of the building. So USC (5-2 overall) and Utah (5-1 overall) square off in the Pac-12's marquee Week 9 game. This one is fun on many levels: The Utes are coming into their own as a rugged defense (allowing 4.7 yards per play), while the Trojans are brimming with offensive confidence following their 56-28 win against Colorado, during which Cody Kessler threw a touchdown pass on 27 percent of his attempts (his seven touchdowns broke Matt Barkley's school record).

This game also features the Pac-12's two most productive running backs: USC's Buck Allen (130 yards per game) and Utah's Devontae Booker (124 yards per game). Buckle up, Rice-Eccles Stadium will be shaking.

The proving grounds game/redemption opportunity: Oregon State at Stanford

Week 8 was bitterly disappointing for these teams. The Beavers lost 29-23 at home in double overtime to a Utah team that managed only 62 passing yards, and Stanford managed less offensive production against Arizona State than Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. Talk about a reversal of fortune: The Cardinal's 26-10 loss to the Sun Devils came on the very same field where they dominated offensively and won the Pac-12 championship last season. Judging by margin of victory, that was their worst setback since falling 53-30 to Oregon in 2011.

Unless Stanford figures it out offensively, points will likely be scarce in this game. The Cardinal's defense still leads the nation allowing only 3.8 yards per play, and it has proven to be a rough matchup for the Beavers' offense. Meanwhile, Oregon State's defense has been surprisingly efficient, surrendering 4.9 yards per play (third in the Pac-12), so it's unclear if 13.5 is the spread or the over/under in this one.

Opposing directions bowl: Arizona State at Washington

The Sun Devils delivered a fantastic all-around performance in their 26-10 pounding of Stanford, and the Huskies were on the receiving end of a 45-20 whipping in Eugene. So both clubs are trending in opposite directions here, but they are still a combined 10-3. Washington is desperate to right the ship at home, where its havoc-wreaking defense (nation-best five touchdowns) thrives. Meanwhile, Arizona State has another chance to solidify legitimacy after two straight energizing wins. A week after facing Stanford's anemic attack, the Sun Devils face a Washington offense that is ranked dead last in the Pac-12. That is medicine for a once-struggling ASU defense.

Where great offensive minds meet: Arizona at Washington State

Time to change gears: With Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach squaring off, there should be no shortage of total offense on the Palouse. The Cougars are desperate; they need to win four of their last five just to make a bowl game. Connor Halliday is already on pace to shatter the FBS single season-passing yards record, and Anu Solomon brings less gaudy numbers but a better 5-1 record into this game. Both teams are coming off bye weeks, so both offensive game plans should be beyond polished Saturday afternoon.

The afterthought: UCLA at Colorado

The Bruins overcame severe sloppiness in their 36-34 win at Cal, and Colorado never had a chance in the 56-28 loss at the Coliseum. At 0-4 in conference play, the Buffs are desperate, and it's tough to spot a win on their remaining schedule. The Bruins must iron out their galling turnover issue (quarterback Brett Hundley has been responsible for eight giveaways -- opponents have scored touchdowns off seven of them) and frequent trouble with defensive breakdowns. Folsom Field might be a good place to start that process, because a home showdown with Arizona waits UCLA after this one.
From the mud, muck and mess that was the first seven weeks of the Pac-12’s 2014 season, a smidgen of clarity started to creep through in Week 8. Like a Socratic archetype emerging from its cave, slowly, but surely, we’re starting to see the light.

By no means, however, are things back to normal -- whatever normal looks like in the Pac-12. Stanford, the two-time defending conference champion, lost to Arizona State, a team it had thoroughly dominated twice last season. And while the Cardinal still might rise from the ashes of their own blunders, for now it appears more likely than not that we’ll have a new league champion.

However, there were some things that actually made sense in Week 8, shocking as it may seem. USC dominated a weaker opponent. That made sense. Oregon continued its winning ways over Washington, extending its streak to 11 over the Huskies by 17 or more points. That made sense. Three of the five home teams won. That sort of made sense. But the road team is still 16-7 in conference play. That still makes no sense.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe Ducks reasserted themselves as the Pac-12's best hope to make the College Football Playoff.
Oregon’s performance against Washington, complete and convincing, temporarily restored the natural order of the preseason -- a simpler time when most people projected the No. 3 Ducks as a playoff team. Saturday night, Oregon sent out a 45-point message that was unmistakably crystal clear: We’re still here.

As the Pac-12 engages in its annual act of self-consumption, the doom-and-gloom prognostications that the league would be left out of the first College Football Playoff might now seem premature. No word yet on the total number of torn ACLs from knee-jerk injuries.

And as the fires burned through the night in Morgantown, West Virginia, the Big 12’s chances of a playoff berth, too, may have gone up in flames. The Pac-12 may be a bunch of cannibals, but at least the Big 12 has the decency to barbecue itself first.

Indeed, it's the Ducks who hold the Pac-12's playoff future in their delicate, webbed feet.

“We have to be nastier,” said Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, looking ahead to the coming weeks. “We have to come off the ball and finish the plays. Our playmakers, our running backs, our skill guys are going to make the defenders miss and extend the plays, so we have to keep on working on finishing.”

Finishing hasn’t been Oregon’s strong suit the past couple of seasons. Following explosive starts in 2012 and 2013, the Ducks’ national championship hopes were derailed by Stanford two years ago, and again by the Cardinal in 2013. The Arizona stumble last season didn’t help, either. We'll see if this season's comes back to bite them.

But for now the Ducks must once again pick up the proverbial postseason flag and carry it for the conference. Per ESPN Stats & Info, since its loss to Arizona earlier this month, Oregon’s projected chance of winning the Pac-12 has actually risen by more than 20 percentage points. How does that make sense? The rest of the league has been munching on itself. Every other team in the Pac-12 North has at least two conference losses, so with the way the Ducks have performed in the past two games against UCLA and Washington -- plus their remaining schedule -- FPI projects that Oregon has a 88 percent chance to win the North.

Take that with a grain of seasoning of your choice. The Pac-12 has a funny way of making statistics look silly.

If Week 8 brought us a dusting of clarity, look for more in the coming weeks, especially in the South. Four teams head into Week 9 with one conference loss, and five of the division’s six teams are ranked in the latest AP Top 25 poll. The next two weeks brings us showdowns like USC at Utah, Arizona at UCLA and Utah at Arizona State. And of course there’s still the battle for Los Angeles and the Territorial Cup looming. One way or another, for better or worse, the South will sort itself out.

And when it does, Oregon will be there waiting. At least that’s what we believe after Week 8. By the end of Week 9, we might end up right back in the mud and the muck and the mess.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
8:00
PM ET
Just a few weeks ago, it was popular to write off the Pac-12's chances of having a team in the initial College Football Playoff. What was then an overreaction is now just silly.

It's clear Oregon, as the top-ranked one-loss team outside the SEC, controls its own destiny as far as the playoff is concerned. In no way does that guarantee anything, but based on how the Ducks have played since losing at Arizona and what has happened elsewhere in college football, Oregon should feel good about where it is.

The Ducks became the Pac-12's first bowl-eligible team after beating Washington 45-20 on Saturday, but after them the conference remains a jumbled mess. Six others have at least five wins, including five teams in the South Division.

There's no sound way to logically project how this will end up -- too much parity -- but here's our weekly attempt:

College Football Playoff: Oregon
Fiesta Bowl: Arizona
Valero Alamo Bowl: Utah
National University Holiday Bowl: Arizona State
San Francisco Bowl: USC
Hyundai Sun Bowl: UCLA
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Stanford
Cactus Bowl: Washington
Heart of Dallas Bowl*: Cal
* at large

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
2:00
PM ET
Some things we learned in Week 8 of the Pac-12.

The streak continues: The Ducks beat Washington. Again. It was by more than 17 points. Again. Make it 11 in a row for Oregon over the Huskies. For obvious reasons, you tip your cap to Ducks running back Royce Freeman for his 169 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the 45-20 Oregon victory. But a little credit also goes to Marcus Mariota's wide receivers. From Darren Carrington's tip-toe catch inside the 5 to Dwayne Stanford's phenomenal touchdown, the receivers came up big for their quarterback. Oh yeah, still no interceptions. The Ducks look every bit the part of a playoff team.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
AP Photo/Ryan KangOregon's Royce Freeman had 29 carries for 169 yards and four touchdowns against Washington.
Huskies have to pick up the pieces: Washington isn't that bad. It just seems like whenever it plays Oregon, whatever can go wrong will. Whether it's a quarterback throwing his first interception of the season, a shotgun snap when said quarterback isn't ready or the opposing quarterback getting a lucky bounce off a fumble, the wheels seem to come off for the Huskies when these teams meet, and the breaks never go their way. No need to panic yet about bowl eligibility. The defense is good enough that there are at least two wins out there, and probably three or four. But having dropped two of three, the last thing the Huskies need to do is hit the panic button. They got whooped. It happens. Move on. It'll be interesting to see how Chris Petersen's team looks with ASU coming to town. Speaking of which ...

... ASU inching toward elite status: What was the big knock on Todd Graham? He still hadn't won the big one. Despite Stanford's offensive inefficiencies (add special teams to those inefficiencies after Saturday night), the Cardinal were still the two-time defending conference champs. Their 26-10 win over the Cardinal brings ASU up a notch, as it knocked off one of the league's top-tier teams. They did it convincingly and by dictating the game. Graham has already said Taylor Kelly is his guy when he's ready to play. But you can't overlook the 2-1 record Mike Bercovici has put up in relief.

Stanford loses its elite status: Elite teams don't look like Stanford did Saturday night. They don't fumble on kickoff returns and muff punts. They don't lose the turnover battle and rush for 76 yards when rushing is what they do. With two conference losses, the Cardinal aren't out of it yet. They could still run the table and get to the Pac-12 championship game. But a three-loss team, no matter how good the other three opponents or how close the losses, isn't getting into the playoffs.

Utah has their back, just not their quarterback: Devontae Booker is certainly making his case for newcomer of the year. He was one of the few offensive bright spots for the Utes, as he rushed for 229 yards and three touchdowns in their 29-23 double-overtime win at Oregon State. Now, the quarterback is once again a question, with USC coming to town next week. Travis Wilson was 5-of-10 for 45 yards. Kendal Thompson, who started and played the first half, was 4-of-8 for 17 yards and an interception. There are some decisions to make (again) this week for Kyle Whittingham and Co.

Bears down: You can make plenty of arguments about whether UCLA's Marcus Rios possessed the ball on that game-changing interception in the Bruins' 36-34 win at Cal. But you first have to question the play call on first down, and you also have to go back through the game and look at Cal's tackling, which was not good. There were plenty of other places where Cal lost that game. The questionable replay, because it came at such a critical juncture in the game, will be highly debated. But Cal knows there was a lot more to that game than just that call.

The Bruins continue to defy logic: UCLA was on the road. UCLA hadn't won in Berkeley since 1998. UCLA lost the turnover battle. Cal scored 21 points off turnovers. I'm not sure what the exact metric is, but logic says that's a game UCLA should not have won. Yet the Bruins overcame themselves and managed their first win at Cal after seven previous losses. The Bruins totaled 567 yards of offense, so moving the ball wasn't an issue. If they can cut the turnovers, there's no reason to think they still couldn't win the South.

Beavers bowl window is shrinking: We talked in the past about the Week 8 showdown with Utah being a swing game for Oregon State. At 4-2, the Beavers have six opportunities left to find two wins. None of those opportunities are particularly appealing. Cal and Washington State can put up crazy points. They are at Stanford and at Washington while getting ASU and Oregon at home. Their only saving grace is that four of the six are at Reser … but given the way the league has shaped up, that probably doesn't mean much.

Colorado regressed: Maybe it's a one-week deal. Maybe not. Either way, the 56-28 loss to USC was ugly and worthy of the Pac-12 blog's “Dude?” status. The Buffs surrendered 56 points (all from the USC offense -- no special teams or defensive touchdowns) and yielded 532 yards. That wasn't the Colorado team we've seen in previous weeks. Which leads us to …

… USC has explosive potential: Steve Sarkisian has said the past couple weeks that he wants to see his offense be more explosive. Remember Nelson Agholor? Hadn't heard his name in a while. Sure, he had 42 catches coming into this week, but he had only four receiving touchdowns and just 67.5 yards per game. He had a fairly monstrous day and caught six balls for 128 yards and three touchdowns. Of course, someone has to throw them. Agholor's day was made possible by Cody Kessler, who set a school record with seven touchdown passes.

Pac-12 morning links

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
8:00
AM ET
Happy Friday!

Leading off

Another double-overtime game. Another game that comes down to the last possession. Another home team falls. Just another night in the Pac-12.

If you stayed up for the Utah-Oregon State drama, you were rewarded with yet another fantastically entertaining game.

Here's some reaction from the action at Reser: Pick 'em

Every Friday we bring you some picks from folks who cover the conference. The Pac-12 blog, which continues to muddle its way through this torturous weekly exercise, posted its picks Thursday morning. Here's what some other folks have to say about this weekend: A happy return?

There are always questions when things don't go according to script. And more than once, the Pac-12 blog has received a letter or two about Brett Hundley's decision to return to college for another season. An unnamed NFL scout talked about that decision with Chris Foster of the L.A. Times. And Hundley called his return "a worthwhile experience."

The scout pitched the idea of Hundley coming back for one more season next year. Here's what he had to say:
He has a long way to go. He's still athletic. He's still smart. He's still a good worker. He just needs to become a better passer in the pocket, and he needs to learn that he's got to stay in there and throw the ball accurately inside the pocket ... Don't take those sacks. You never see Peyton Manning taking those kind of sacks. You can't hold onto the ball for five seconds.

Accuracy hasn't necessarily been the problem. Hundley leads all FBS quarterbacks with a 72.2 completion percentage. The sacks, however, have been. Head coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have gone out of their way to say that sacks aren't just on an offensive line. That sometimes the quarterback is at fault. Sometimes it's the receivers. And sometimes the other team just makes a play. Will be interesting to see in the coming months if Hundley even entertains the idea of coming back for one more year. However, he told the Pac-12 blog in the preseason that regardless of what happens, this was his last year at UCLA.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Oregon State's Dylan Wynn is awesome. #Damcancer indeed.

Loading

#DAMCANCER

View on Instagram

1. Given the skewed home vs. road statistic so far, which home team has the best chance to win?

  • Kyle Bonagura / @BonaguraESPN: USC over Colorado. I would use the unranked team playing on the road at a ranked team rationale, but USC showed that’s flawed thinking last week. The other option was Oregon over Washington, but despite the Ducks’ ownership of the rivalry, USC was a pretty easy choice. I’ve got road teams winning three of five this week … which, of course, would lower the road winning percentage in Pac-12 play.
  • Kevin Gemmell / @Kevin_Gemmell: I’m nervous to pick the Ducks because everything is working against them. They are the league’s highest ranked team. They are back in the playoff conversation and they haven’t lost to the Huskies in a decade. In the Pac-12 we call those insurmountable odds. But I’ll swing for fences anyway and go green.
[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota may end up being the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft, but he didn't crack ESPN's Midseason All-America Team.
2. Which Pac-12 player was most deserving of a spot on the ESPN.com Midseason All-America team, but wasn’t included?

  • Kyle Bonagura / @BonaguraESPN: Utah DE Nate Orchard, Washington OLB Hau'oli Kikaha, Colorado WR Nelson Spruce and Utah returner Kaelin Clay all have good cases, but Oregon QB Marcus Mariota is still the best player in the country. Dak Prescott is having a great season for No. 1 Mississippi State, but if he were at Oregon, he’d be the backup.
  • Kevin Gemmell / @Kevin_Gemmell: Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. No argument whatsoever with what Kyle offered. I lobbied for all five of those guys, and I also made a pitch for Utah kicker Andy Phillips. Between his leg strength, reliability and the fact that he can pull off the onside kick and make tackles, he’s a complete player – something we don’t always talk about with kickers.
3. Does Washington’s 10-game losing streak to Oregon end this weekend?

  • Kyle Bonagura / @BonaguraESPN: The losing streak reaches 11, but the streak of losing by at least 17 points ends. Washington will keep it closer this time … 14?
  • Kevin Gemmell / @Kevin_Gemmell: I’m afraid it doesn’t. I’ve really enjoyed watching Washington’s front seven perform this year. And lost among all the Shaq Thompson, Danny Shelton and Kikaha talk is that the Hudson & Hudson duo is playing pretty well also. I don’t love that Ben Riva is likely out and Josh Perkins is sitting for a half. Until Washington shows me otherwise, the Ducks have the edge. Kyle might not be wrong, though, on the 17-point streak.
4. What can we expect Thursday from Utah at the quarterback position?

  • Kyle Bonagura / @BonaguraESPN: Like most, I’m expecting Kendal Thompson to be the starter and for him to play most of, if not the entire game against Oregon State. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilson got a series or if they went back to him if Thompson struggles, but it’s hard to see how they could go back to Wilson to start this one after Thompson came off the bench and guided Utah to a win last time out against UCLA.
  • Kevin Gemmell / @Kevin_Gemmell: None of the three options would surprise me: Wilson starting, Thompson starting or a two-quarterback system. Like in baseball, sometimes a pitcher has a bad game and you yank him early. Doesn’t mean you cut him out of the rotation. My guess is we see both quarterbacks tonight and whoever has the hot hand finishes out the game.
5. Besides Oregon, is there another Pac-12 team that can make a case for the College Football Playoff halfway through the season?

  • Kyle Bonagura / @BonaguraESPN: By virtue of its win against Oregon and its identical 5-1 record, Arizona still has a case. It doesn’t have the strength of schedule right now to warrant serious playoff consideration, but, hypothetically, if Arizona won out and its lone loss came as a result of a missed field goal against USC that’s easily forgivable.
  • Kevin Gemmell / @Kevin_Gemmell: I think Stanford has the name brand and reputation -- if the Cardinal can run the table. They’ll need a little help from USC and ASU to beat Notre Dame -- which will soften the last-second road loss to the Irish in the eyes of the committee. It would make their loss to USC not seem as bad and their win (if they do win this weekend) at ASU stronger. A two-loss Stanford team that’s also a Pac-12 champion would be hard to turn away given the strength of schedule.
6. Who is a breakout player to watch for the second half?

  • Kyle Bonagura / @BonaguraESPN: Arizona State fans saw him break out in the first half, but it’s time for everyone else to take notice of safety Jordan Simone. After earning a scholarship in fall camp, Simone has proved to be one of the better safeties in the conference. His 20-tackle game against USC was one of best individual performances in a game this year.
  • Kevin Gemmell / @Kevin_Gemmell: Since Kyle went defense, I’ll go offense. A running back we’re not talking much about is Utah’s Devontae Booker. There are only five backs in the conference averaging more than 100 yards per game, and Booker is one of them. He’s only got four rushing touchdowns, but he’s averaging nearly six yards per carry and the Utes have done a nice job balancing out the offense. As the schedule stiffens, look for him to be an impact guy.
The preseason narrative in the Pac-12 was all about the quarterbacks, and with good reason. With 10 starters coming back, there was considerable hype that this might be the best collection of quarterbacks in league history.

We had no idea...

Through the first half of the season, the league’s quarterbacks have collectively exceeded expectations statistically and internally.

“Coming in I thought it was going to be the best in the country,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “Halfway through, that’s still holding true.”

First, let’s get some numbers out of the way:

  • Three FBS quarterbacks have attempted at least 100 passes without throwing an interception and they are all from the Pac-12: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (155 attempts), Washington’s Cyler Miles (129 attempts) and Utah’s Travis Wilson (101 attempts).
  • UCLA’s Brett Hundley leads FBS football with a 72.2 completion percentage.
  • Washington State’s Connor Halliday set an FBS record with 734 passing yards (and lost!)
  • Cal’s Jared Goff and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau combined for 14 passing touchdowns in a game with seven each.
  • We’ve seen six 500-yard passing performances, 12 400-yard passing performances and 26 300-yard performances.
  • Three of the six most efficient quarterbacks through the first half of the season reside in the Pac-12 -- Mariota, Hundley and Goff. Six more are in the top 50. And in ESPN’s advanced QBR metric, Mariota is No. 1 in the country with Goff and Hundley in the top 10 and USC’s Cody Kessler at No. 17.

“We have, in my opinion, without a doubt, the best group of quarterbacks in the country,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Halliday with his total offense, 460-plus a game and the efficiency of Mariota. He’s up in the 190s. And Hundley with all he brings to the table. It goes on and on. [Sean] Mannion, who we’re facing this week is a different animal. He’s more of a pocket guy. All of them are very effective and all of them present a very big challenge for you.”

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsWashington State's Connor Halliday leads the nation in passing yards (3,344) and touchdowns (28).
And that’s barely mentioning the newcomers or the backups. Miles and Arizona’s Anu Solomon are a combined 10-2 as starters with one loss each. UCLA’s backup, Jerry Neuheisel, was carried off the field in Arlington after engineering a game-winning drive against the Longhorns. ASU’s Mike Bercovici has nine touchdowns and nearly 1,100 passing yards in two games in relief of the injured Taylor Kelly. What the Utes would have given in the past for a quarterback to be interception free through the first half of the season. Now Wilson might get benched in favor of Kendal Thompson.

“It’s a grind,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. “That aspect has not been surprising at all how good and efficient they have been … the quality and depth in the conference has borne out exactly how we thought it would in the preseason.”

And that’s led to some phenomenal moments through the first seven weeks. We’ve seen Marys of the Hail, Jael and Hill variety. We’ve seen a 60-59 game. We’ve seen a 59-56 double-overtime game. We’ve seen 36 points scored in the fourth quarter.

The only logical explanation is that no one in the Pac-12 plays defense … so says the stereotype that circulates East of the Rockies. Ironic, then, that the No. 1 defense in the country belongs to Stanford and that five of 11 defenders on the ESPN.com midseason All-America team are from the Pac-12 (and the Pac-12 blog can think of one or two more names that should have been on that list, cough, Hau'oli Kikaha, cough, Nate Orchard). But we digress.

It hasn’t been perfect up and down the board. Mariota and Hundley – despite outstanding statistics – have been hampered by offensive line injuries and issues. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan – while still putting up respectable numbers, has already taken 12 sacks after being put down 14 times all last season. And the Cardinal have the worst scoring offense and red zone offense in the conference. Halliday is among the nation’s leaders in interceptions with eight (to go with his nation-leading 28 touchdowns). For all of Wilson’s grit and moxie, he’s still struggled with accuracy, completing 57.4 percent of his throws. That’s a big reason why we might see Thompson Thursday night.

Still, the sensational has far outweighed the shortcomings.

“It’s lived up to the hype,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “When you look at all the guys, everyone is playing at a high level and performing well. I think that’s why there is so much parity in the league right now because there are a lot of good quarterbacks and a lot of points getting scored. If you’ve got a good quarterback and can score some points, you’ve got a chance to be anybody. That’s been the story this year. Even the young quarterbacks, the guys who were unproven, have played well and made this a very solid league.”

For all the unpredictability and craziness that has gone on through the first seven weeks, the only constant has been stellar quarterback play. Don’t expect that to change in the second half of the year.
The introduction of Chris Petersen to the Washington-Oregon rivalry comes as quite a relief to the ink-stained wretches who write about college football. Redundancy and predictability are the sworn enemies of the scribbling class, and the Huskies-Ducks rivalry has been a model of redundancy and predictability for a decade, with the boys in green -- or, you know, whatever -- owning the purple team by at least 17 points in the last 10 matchups.

With Petersen now fronting the Huskies, that's an item of interest that a journalist can wrap a lead around. He or she doesn't have to immediately recycle the droning, "Is this the year Washington breaks through?" One can observe that Petersen not only was once a Ducks assistant -- from 1995-2000 under Mike Bellotti -- when he started a longstanding friendship with second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, but he also was 2-0 against Oregon while heading Boise State, where he was 92-12 and was universally esteemed for his Huge Football Brain.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images"I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff," Huskies coach Chris Petersen said, "but that's not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."
"Huge Football Brain"? That hints at Chip Kelly, which means Huskies fans have stopped reading and now have thrown themselves on their prayer rugs and begun wailing to the college football gods that Washington really, really would like Petersen to become Washington's version of Kelly. Or, even better, Don James, Take 2.

With Huskies fans duly distracted by their invocations, we'll note to the tittering Oregon fans that the Ducks will be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of an obscure moment in their team's history on Saturday. While video of Kenny Wheaton's pick-six interception against Washington in 1994 is as difficult to find as a white peacock, it does exist, and there's a quiet minority of Ducks fans who believe it was a meaningful moment in the transformation of the program.

Those Oregon fans obsessed with such esoterica will be glad to know the Duck will don throwback uniforms to honor the occasion, of which at least one Oregon administrative Twitter feed observed this week: "Prior to 'The Pick' Oregon all-time had a .495 Win% (359-366-34). Since that game, Oregon is .731 (177-65)."

So, yes, call us a wee bit sarcastic when we poke fun by minimizing the impact of "The Pick," unquestionably the Ur-moment in Oregon football history, a highlight that plays immediately before every Ducks home game.

And the reason it is the definitive before-after line for the program's rise to West Coast and national prominence is not only that it was the key play in a run to the program's first Rose Bowl since 1958, it was that it happened so dramatically against the Huskies, the established Northwest power that Ducks fans most hated.

Which brings us back the rivalry and the two head coaches. Both know the rivalry well. That means they will at least acknowledge its biliousness, unlike Kelly, who seemed to enjoy telling reporters how much he liked former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, knowing it would inspire forehead slaps among the Ducks faithful.

"Do I understand the rivalry as a native Oregonian? Absolutely," Helfrich said. "I know the history of that very well and what it means to our fans."

And yet, it's all about an established winning process with the Ducks, and that centers on preparing the same every week for a "nameless faceless opponent."

Echoed Petersen, "I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff, but that’s not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."

That carries over to Helfrich's and Petersen's friendship. Both insisted in the preseason it would overcome them being at professional loggerheads in the Pac-12's North Division, though they admitted this week they hadn't talked thus far this season. Both also insisted this week that it has no impact on their emotions or preparation for the game. Which, you know, is as it should be.

Petersen, while at Boise State, handed the Ducks their last nonconference loss at home in 2008, and then spoiled Kelly's head coaching debut in 2009. While that's an interesting factoid, it's also far less relevant than how well the Ducks offensive line, which recovered nicely in a win at UCLA with offensive tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, will play against the Huskies stout front-7, led by nose guard Danny Shelton, defensive endHau'oli Kikaha and linebacker Shaq Thompson.

What Oregon showed last week while redeeming itself after flubbing around in a home loss to Arizona is that when the offensive line is playing well, the offense hums along like in days of old. Petersen knows his team can't allow QB Marcus Mariota to feel comfortable.

"He might be the best player in college football, so that’s a problem right there," he said.

Another interesting factoid: Neither QB has thrown an interception this year. Because Cyler Miles isn't the playmaker that Mariota is, it's probably more critical for him to maintain his clean sheet Saturday.

So here we are, back at the redundancy: Is this the Huskies year? Maybe. Stranger things have happened this season. A lot stranger. But all the history and emotions don't hold a lot of weight with either coach. Whether the Huskies break through or the Ducks make like Spinal Tap's amplifiers and go up to 11, the coaches just view the game as X's and O's either doing what they want them to do or not.

Noted Petersen dryly, "So it doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything in the past. It comes down to playing good football."

Pac-12 morning links

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
8:00
AM ET
Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark!

Leading off

Get a good look at as many Pac-12 players as possible over the second half of the season. Because for a lot of them, this will be their last year. The league is loaded with NFL potential this season, and ESPN's Todd McShay recently updated his Top 32 players. There's a new No. 1 -- USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. But he's just one of 10 Pac-12 players who could go in the first round in the next NFL draft.

Here's what McShay has to say about Williams:
Williams moves up to the No. 1 spot in this week's rankings, as we've had more of an opportunity to watch his performance; this adjustment is mostly just an acknowledgement of what a complete game he has and how he has been playing up to that level so far this season. He possesses excellent strength and speed for his size, and has the versatility to create mismatches all along the D-line. His best projection is as a 5-technique defensive end, but he has the quickness and point-of-attack skills to perform inside as a 3-technique (especially in pass-rushing situations), and enough athleticism to occasionally line up as a traditional left defensive end. As a pass-rusher, he isn't going to gain the edge with pure speed, but he has good initial quickness and a wide array of moves. He possesses an above-average motor and plays with an edge.

The rest of the article is Insider, so you'll need to decipher a series of clues hidden within some of the greatest Renaissance works of art to get full access. But I'll give you a hint at No. 2 ... he's a quarterback and he wears green.

Who's the Q for the U?

We have football tonight when Utah travels to Oregon State. And the big storyline surrounding this game is whether it will be Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson at quarterback for the No. 20 Utes. So far, coach Kyle Whittingham has kept things close to the vest.
"It's not a huge strategic move, but why tip your hand if you don't have to, and we don't have to. It's not like the NFL where you have to declare what's going on," Whittingham said. "They've handled themselves very well in practice. You'd expect both of them to work hard like they have all year long. There is really no change in our approach in that regard."

The irony, of course, is that the Utes have wished upon many a star to have a starting quarterback make it through the season -- pretty much ever since Brian Johnson. Now they have two. Tonight's game is a 7 p.m. PT kickoff on the Pac-12 Networks.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

ASU created a stick-figure video to remind over-zealous boosters not to be over zealous.
The home field used to be a sanctuary -- a safe haven for teams looking to gain an edge on their opponents with the support of a noisy and raucous student body.

In the old days, there was a word for that: Advantage.

But the 2014 Pac-12 season has taken that advantage and blown it all to Hades. Through 18 conference games this season the road warriors hold a decisive 14-4 edge over the home team. And the audible antics of Autzen, the ringing reverb of Rice-Eccles or the tympanic torture of Husky Stadium haven't been immune.

[+] EnlargeArizona
AP Photo/Steve DykesCelebration scenes like the one Arizona held at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2 have been extremely common in the Pac-12 this season.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian’s response echoed the sentiment of nearly all of the Pac-12 coaches, who could find neither rhyme nor reason as to why the Pac-12’s home cooking this season has tasted more like week-old leftovers.

“It’s a crazy year in the Pac-12,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team once held the nation’s longest home winning streak at 17 games, only to see that snapped in Week 2 against USC . “It’s just shaping up that way. It’s hard to explain it any other way. Every week is tough. Every game is hard. It’s tough to win on the road. And then the road teams are winning in crazy fashion. Everything is up for grabs this year.”

There are two ways to look at this -- depending on how full or empty your glass is. Either the Pac-12 has the worst home conference record in college football, or the best road record. In conference-only games, the Pac-12 ranks last among all FBS conferences with its 22.2 winning percentage at home. The Big 12 (6-7) is the only other league below .500.

One fairly sound theory, presented by Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, is that with so many veteran quarterbacks, environment isn’t a factor because experience is winning out. Sounds logical -- except for the fact that his quarterback, in his second career road start, won at Autzen. Or that Mike Bercovici, Arizona State’s backup, won at The Coliseum in his first career road start.

UCLA coach Jim Mora actually tried to talk through an explanation, only to come up with nothing.

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Mora said. “I can’t put my finger on anything. I wish I could, obviously, as do I’m sure the other coaches. I’ve actually given it a lot of thought the last week or so. I can’t come up with anything quite yet. Other than maybe there’s a psychological element to when you go on the road you close ranks a little bit and that sense of mission. Maybe? Maybe that helps you a little bit? But that doesn’t seem logical to any of us who are used to the home-field advantage.

“I wish I knew.”

One word the coaches kept coming back to was “parity.” With every Pac-12 team sitting on at least one conference loss and all but Colorado with a league win, the congruity within the conference has all but eliminated the concept of home-field advantage.

While that’s fun for the fans, it creates national problems while trying to lobby for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

“I think our conference has this perception of parity equals mediocrity,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “There are a couple of conferences where parity equals strength. I think it’s the strongest it’s ever been top to bottom.”

Helfrich did offer one other explanation: “It’s a non-leap year? I have no idea.”

This might help: Through the first 18 conference games, the home team has a minus-11 turnover margin and the average margin of victory (or defeat) has been slightly more than four points. When you consider one home game was won on a Hail Mary, another was lost on a Hail Mary, and three more home games were lost on missed field goals, one or two plays could significantly swing the win/loss total.

That’s why league newcomer Chris Petersen isn’t putting too much stock into the trend -- at least not yet. Having only played two conference games, his Huskies fit the trend so far -- losing at home to Stanford and winning at California.

“I think this will play out,” he said. “If the records are that skewed by the end of the season, there’s something to it. We’re only two games into it so I don’t know. It will be interesting to see at the end [of the] season where everybody is.”

Every coach in America will say his school has the best fans in the country. Even if he doesn’t believe it, there’s probably a tiny footnote somewhere in the Mayflower Compact that requires him to say so. But that doesn’t mean their minds aren’t in overdrive trying to make sense of what has already been a season short on logic.

“It’s been the exact opposite in year’s past,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I can’t explain it other than maybe it’s the matchups ... the hardest thing to do is win on the road.”

The record suggests otherwise. And for now, most of the coaches are just chalking it up to another unexplained phenomenon in the continued zaniness that is the Pac-12.

Pac-12 morning links

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
8:00
AM ET
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings;
Coming down is the hardest thing.

Leading off

Welcome to depth chart Wednesday! There are 10 teams in action this week with the alphabetical bookends -- Arizona and Washington State -- on bye. As always, here are the depth charts for the teams in action (save UCLA, which doesn't provide a weekly depth chart).
Notes Heisman update

As we do every Wednesday, we'll check in on some Heisman updates. Dak Prescott holds a lead over Marcus Mariotta in most of the ballots that are out there -- including the ESPN.com poll.

Heismanpundit.com also updated its weekly straw poll, which consists of 10 Heisman voters. However, we're starting to see a couple new Pac-12 names on their ballots. Here are the results this week (first place votes in parentheses).

1. Dak Prescott, QB, Miss. State — 25 (7)

2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon — 21 (3)

3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin — 4

4. (tie) Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor — 2
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama — 2

6. (tie) Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss — 1
Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame — 1
Buck Allen, RB, USC — 1
Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana — 1
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington — 1
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia — 1

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

In case you missed it, the Ducks will honor "The Pick" with their unis.

 
Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson isn’t normal.

[+] EnlargeShaq Thompson
Joshua Weisberg/Icon SportswireShaq Thompson has scored four defensive touchdowns through six games for Washington.
 Not according to teammate (and adoring fan) John Ross, at least.

“There’s something wrong with that kid,” Ross said following Washington’s 31-7 win against Cal on Saturday. “Honestly, he’s my favorite college football player.”

It’s hard to argue with Ross’ analysis. How else can you explain how one player has scored four defensive touchdowns through just six games?

“I’d like to say coaching,” Washington coach Chris Petersen joked. “But he just has the football 'it factor.' That’s really it.”

There's a right-place, right-time aspect to it, but Thompson attributed it to mentality.

"We don’t ever fall on balls," he said. "We always have the mentality to scoop and score. If you can’t get it, then you fall on it."

At the midway point, Thompson has scored more defensive touchdowns than any player has in a full season over the past 10 years. And only one team in the country (Temple) has more than him this year (5). Factor in the 57-yard rushing touchdown he scored against Eastern Washington -- the Huskies’ longest rush of the year -- and Thompson’s touchdown total is more than Southern Methodist has as a team through five games. Yes, a linebacker has scored more touchdowns than an entire team.

“Film speaks for itself,” said Washington outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, who leads the nation with 10 sacks. “Every game he does something amazing … look out for the Heisman right there.”

While Thompson doesn’t have a realistic shot at winning college football’s most prestigious award, it’s not because his case doesn’t have merit. He ranks fifth in the country in forced fumbles (3), second in fumble recoveries (3) and against Illinois became just the third player in history to score on a fumble return and interception return in the same game.

Against Cal, he added a 100-yard fumble return for a touchdown after quarterback Jared Goff lost the ball stretching for the end zone on the first drive of the game. It was the fourth 100-yard play in school history and longest fumble return, but more importantly it changed the trajectory of the game.

“Probably about as big [a momentum change] as you can get,” Petersen said. “I think those kids on defense played really, really well and there wasn’t a better play than that all game. Just in terms of where it came, I think they came out and drove the ball down the field and I’m sure they were thinking, ‘Here we go again, scoring a bunch of points.’

“He seems to always make a play when we need one.”

Playing at Cal was a homecoming of sorts for Thompson, who grew up about an hour and a half from Berkeley in Sacramento and had about 20 family members in attendance -- including his brother, Syd’Quan, who played at Cal from 2005 to 2009. Thompson originally committed to Cal, but looking back, Thompson said he’s happy with how things have played out.

“I chose UW because I didn’t want to follow in my brother’s footsteps,” he said. “UW was a great place for me.”

Thompson and defensive tackle teammate Danny Shelton were both named to the ESPN.com Midseason All-America team.

Planning for success: Washington

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
9:00
AM ET
It's been exactly 4,000 days since Washington last beat Oregon.

The iPhone was still nearly four years away from its initial release on that chilly Nov. 1, 2003 night at Husky Stadium, during which Keith Gilbertson's Huskies pummeled Mike Bellotti's Ducks 42-10 in Seattle.

[+] EnlargeHau'oli Kikaha
Ted S. Warren/AP PhotoWashington will lean on Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson to force pressure on No. 9 Oregon in their Week 8 game.
The tide turned drastically after that day, and Washington has now lost 10 straight games at the hands of Oregon -- by an average margin of 24.5 points. The Ducks are three-touchdown favorites for this next meeting at Autzen Stadium, so it'll take an extraordinary Huskies' effort for the current streak to reverse course here in 2014.

Mayhem inducer: Washington's predatory front seven

The Huskies hope to apply the successful formula from last Saturday's 31-7 rout over Cal to this Eugene road trip, where victory obviously promises to be much more difficult.

Their recipe in a nutshell: Six-foot-two, 339-pound fire hydrant Danny Shelton swallows blockers and plugs holes on the inside. That allows defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to unleash defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, whose 13 tackles for loss and 10 sacks lead the Pac-12. Kikaha, along with linemate Andrew Hudson and others, delivers a vicious rush that "squeezes the pocket" and, in turn, fosters an environment for takeaways.

"We're trying to lead all of college football in forcing turnovers," linebacker Shaq Thompson said after Washington reaped the benefits of three fumbles in Berkeley.

After Cal's Jared Goff coughed up the ball on a sneak attempt at the goal line, Thompson -- a self-proclaimed "magnet" that attracts loose footballs -- spun and sprinted his way 100 yards in the other direction, scoring the game's opening touchdown and setting the tone for a one-sided affair.

"We don't ever fall on balls," Thompson smiled. "We have a scoop-and-score mentality."

The junior has now scored a staggering four defensive touchdowns in six games.

"That was the key to the game," coach Chris Petersen said. "That sparked us, and it probably rattled them a little bit."

The Huskies have done plenty of rattling: They've forced 12 fumbles -- most in the nation -- and 15 turnovers, good for the conference lead. On the flip side, their own offense is protecting the ball. Since Washington has given it away only once all season (best in the nation), they're leading all of college football in turnover margin: +2.33 per game.

Oregon: Good at avoiding havoc, especially with a healing line

Though he hasn't put up gaudy numbers, quarterback Cyler Miles is one of only three quarterbacks nationally that has attempted over 100 passes while not throwing an interception. Coincidentally, the other two passers also play in the Pac-12. Their names are Marcus Mariota and Travis Wilson.

Mariota's Ducks stand in Washington's way again this Saturday, and they'll put the Huskies' ability to wreak havoc to the test. Oregon has only coughed up the ball three times this year, putting them right behind the Huskies at No. 2 nationally in that category.

Before plastering UCLA, it appeared the Ducks might be vulnerable to Washington's rush up front. But the return of left tackle Jake Fisher from injury has altered that perception. Oregon has not allowed a single sack in three of the four games Fisher has started.

That sets up quite the challenge for Washington's ferocious and athletic defensive front seven. The Oregon line is healing, and beating it while containing Mariota to the pocket presents Washington with a massive test. While the Huskies held Cal over 43 points below their season average last week, the Ducks have proven to be much more stable with the football than the Bears. Shelton, Kikaha, Thompson and the rest of the Huskies' front will enter Autzen looking to wreak their trademarked turnover havoc, but their ability to do so is shaping up to be Washington's ultimate, expert-level test.

Of course, success never comes easily when this particular kind last stopped by 4,000 days ago, right?

Pac-12 morning links

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
8:00
AM ET
Run to the moon, "Moon won't you hide me?"
Run to the sea, "Sea won't you hide me?"
Run to the sun, "Sun won't you hide me all on that day?"

Leading off

Last week Chantel Jennings and Kyle Bonagura debated what the Pac-12's theme song should be. A pretty good effort from the whipper-snappers. But given the number of appeals to a higher power so far this season, "Livin' on a Prayer" felt more appropriate to this old fogie.

And that leads us to this week's Eliminator, where nine Pac-12 teams are still very much living on a prayer in the hopes of advancing to the first ever College Football Playoff. Two teams -- Arizona and Oregon -- are still labeled "Still in Contention" while six teams -- Arizona State, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah and Washington -- fall under the "On the Fence" side of things. Here's what our Mark Schlabach has to say about the Beavers:
After a 4-1 start, the Beavers got a much-needed bye week before hosting No. 20 Utah on Thursday night. Then they play at Stanford on Oct. 25, so we'll have a pretty good idea whether the Beavers are really in the Pac-12 race, in which 10 teams still seem to be a factor. The Oregon State defense was exposed quite a bit in a 36-31 win at Colorado on Oct. 4, so they'll have to play much better against the Utes and Cardinal.

For a league that many are already counting out of the playoff, it sure seems like there are still a lot of teams hanging around.

Midterms

Athlon Sports took a look at where things stand in the Pac-12 at the midpoint of the season. (That's a popular theme this week, and the Pac-12 blog will be addressing that later this morning).

Braden Gall recaps some of the big storylines from the first half of the season and offers some more to look at in the coming weeks. Here is his take on Oregon's offensive line in the second half of the year.
With Jake Fisher back against UCLA, the Ducks' offensive line looked as good as it has since the beginning of the season. Oregon has two huge games looming with Stanford and Washington -- two of the best defensive fronts in the nation -- and this group will have to be excellent to win those games. If this group stabilizes, Oregon could win the Pac-12 and land in the Playoffs while giving Marcus Mariota a great shot at the Heisman. If not, the Ducks could finish with three losses and another Alamo Bowl bid.
News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Taking a break from Oregon State prep.

SPONSORED HEADLINES