Monday Out West: 8 is enough after another big weekend for Pac-12
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the Week 2 of Pac-12 action.
In this week’s edition of Monday Out West …
- Wazzu wins one for the Dickert
- Oregon and Utah avoid disaster
- Caleb Williams flirts with perfection
- Bruins turn up the heat
- The Road to Las Vegas
- Gold Stars of the Week
- My Pac-12 POW ballot
… and more! But first:
Crazy 8: Pac-12 ties record for ranked squads
It is the irony of all ironies. The Pac-12 is undoubtedly the best conference in college football, while simultaneously crumbling at the same time.
But you know what? If the Pac-12 is going to go down, it might as well go down swinging.
With a pair of Pac-12 contenders escaping from the brink of certain doom and an upstart squad pulling off a big upset, the conference placed 8 teams in Sunday’s Associated Press Top 25 rankings, with newcomers UCLA (No. 24) and Washington State (No. 23) joining No. 5 USC, No. 8 Washington, No. 12 Utah, No. 13 Oregon, No. 16 Oregon State and No. 18 Colorado.
This, of course, is a record for the conference, tying the record that SEC has set 21 times and no other conference once. That’s what happens when you start the season 18-0 and have almost a half-dozen Heisman candidates.
Whichever team emerges from what is certain to be a brutal gauntlet deserves a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Cougars drown Wisky once more
Last year, Washington State’s win at Wisconsin was the high point of the season.
Now after pulling off a 2nd straight victory over the No. 19 Badgers — this time a 31-22 win on WSU’s home turf — the Cougars are hoping it is just the start of something special for the program and the university.
“This is a crux point for Washington State and Washington State football,” coach Jake Dickert said after the game. “We’re carrying the flag for all the transition, and this is a pivotal moment for where we want to go. Wherever we end up, we’ve got to commit to being great. And I think that’s what this statement means is that we are here. We’re fighting, and even as college football is changing, we’re still getting pretty good results.”
It would be one thing if Washington State lucked out a win, but this time the Cougs left no doubt. Last year, Wazzu escaped with a 17-14 win. This year, quarterback Cameron Ward continued his fine start with 212 yards, 2 scores and no picks and another 43 rushing yards, while the defense forced 3 fumbles and allowed just 90 rushing yards.
Standing on the field after the game, Dickert made it clear he felt the Cougars deserved a spot in the Power 5, and Saturday was just another example of that.
Overall, it was a big-time all-around performance by a team scratching and clawing for relevancy.
Ducks, Utes pull off Playoff-preserving comebacks
On the one hand, you’ve got an Oregon team led by a veteran star quarterback who was more than ready to throw his team on his shoulders. On the other, you’ve got an untested backup to the backup dying to take the reins when the situation demanded versatility.
In both cases, though, the field generals — wily, ol’ Bo Nix and speedy youngster Nate Johnson — led their respective teams to triumph.
For Nix, it was nothing new. He’s been in pressure situations before, beginning with his very first college game with Auburn in 2019. Once more he was cooler than a frozen cucumber on Saturday, leading the Ducks back from a 2-score deficit in the 4th quarter.
“We have an unbelievable quarterback on our team that is an unbelievable leader and unbelievable human,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said after the game. “And he’s a friggin’ ballplayer. Go pull up that film on Bo Nix and tell me he can’t win games.”
Utah quarterback Nate Johnson doesn’t have a ton of tape, meanwhile, but what he has is pretty darn good.
Johnson reentered a tight matchup with Baylor with 10 minutes left, down a touchdown. To that point he’d only attempted 2 passes, with Bryson Barnes playing the majority of the game and struggling and Cam Rising still sidelined.
Johnson played the duration, leading the Utes to a pair of touchdown drives to close out the game, including the game-winner.
“We’ve got confidence in Nate, and it’s just a situation where who gives you the best chance to win and what role can each of them play in the situation we’re in right now,” Whittingham said after the game. “But Nate took a big step forward, and he’s going to be a better quarterback because of this performance. We’re excited about his future here.”
Back to the present. As promising as Johnson’s future may be, the Utes hope to get Rising back soon.
“Cam is doing really well. It’s just a matter of having complete confidence in the knee, and the medical staff saying we’re going to turn him loose,” Whittingham said after the game.
Caleb Williams is unreal
We’re getting close to video game levels with Williams here. Forget Patrick Mahomes — we’re talking Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, Peyton Manning in Madden ’05.
Even if Williams sounded like he was ready for Mortal Kombat following USC’s 56-10 win over a Stanford on Saturday.
After completing 19-of-21 passes for 281 yards and 3 scores against the Cardinal, Williams’ told reporters, “I’m going out there trying to kill. That’s what we’re trying to do: We’re trying to make everybody feel our pain and play on our own terms.”
— JustBombsProductions (@JBP_Official) September 10, 2023
Williams has been almost flawless this year, completing 55-of-70 pass attempts (78.6%) a quarter of the way through the season. This won’t hold up — it can’t possibly hold up — but he currently sports an absolutely other-worldly 240.3 passer efficiency rating.
That is almost 20 points higher than the 2nd-best QB in the country.
It’s clear Williams is relishing in the pain.
Can the Bruins keep this defense going?
The dawn of a new day in Westwood, or maybe it’s a new night, because the UCLA defense is playing lights out.
Long the weak link for the Bruins, they’ve become ferocious up front and opportunistic all over, reminiscent of USC last year without digging such big holes.
Coming off a thorough 35-10 win at San Diego State and through 2 weeks, the Bruins lead the league in fewest points allowed (11.5), sacks (8.0) and interceptions (5).
“It’s been amazing; we’ve definitely seen this since spring,” UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo said following the win. “It’s nothing unexpected. Everyone is playing fast. We have a great coordinator and great coaches just telling us to do us.”
It’s not just Laiatu Latu, either. Darius Muasau is a star, the Murphy Bros are wreaking havoc and even former walk-on Alex Johnson had a pair of picks.
“It was awesome. It was a dream come true,” Johnson said after his big game. “The whole game was just a great testament to this team, how far we’ve come and how much more we have to go.”
When’s the last time you saw that in Westwood?
The Road to Las Vegas (Around the Pac-12)
USC 56, Stanford 10
The Trojans might just be so good they cost Caleb Williams the Heisman. Williams played just the 1st half against the Cardinal in their final Pac-12 matchup. But what a half it was, as USC went up 49-3 at the half, one of its best halves in history. Before he exited, Williams finished 19-of-21 passing for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Washington 43, Tulsa 10
The one thing keeping Washington from immortality last year was a pass defense that appeared resolved to let Michael Penix Jr. and the UDub offense turn things into a fireworks display.
But after intercepting Boise State QB Taylen Green twice in a season-opening rout of the Mountain West-contending Broncos, the Huskies really shut down and overmatched Tulsa passing game on Saturday. The Golden Hurricane managed 150 passing yards on 32 attempts, with freshman starter Cardell Williams completing just 6-of-14 passes for 65 yards.
Utah 20, Baylor 13
Nate Johnson made a case to be Utah’s starting quarterback on Saturday against Weber State, even if Cam Rising is inching closer to full health. Bryson Barnes made an equally compelling pitch as to why he should be not the Utes’ primary pitchman.
Truth be told, Johnson should be the guy even if Rising is available. Why risk even a single thing against the minor blip that is Weber State. Johnson’s play down the stretch is the main reason the Utes were able to come back against the Bears, and he should be rewarded.
Oregon 38, Texas Tech 30
When it mattered most on Saturday for the Ducks, Bo Nix showed up. Down 27-18 late in the 3rd quarter, Nix went to work, completing 15-of-19 passes for 113 yards and adding 3 rushes for 19 yards down the stretch.
Nix outdueled former Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough, who had a productive game with 282 passing yards and 3 scores as well as 101 rushing yards and a score but was doomed by 3 interceptions.
Oregon State 55, UC Davis 7
The Beavers predictably stepped all over UC Davis on Saturday, so much so that DJ Uiagalelei exited after attempting just 13 passes as Oregon State went up 38-0 before halftime.
But it had to please Jonathan Smith to see Aiden Chiles continue to develop as the Beavers *other* QB of the future. Chiles went 9-of-13 for 74 yards and a score and added 4 carries for 42 yards and a rushing touchdown.
Washington State 31, Wisconsin 22
After stalling out in a season-opening win at Colorado State, the Washington State pass rush handed it to Badgers QB Tanner Mordecai, and it was Ron Stone Jr. who emerged, unlike fellow dominant defensive end Brennan Jackson. While Jackson remains sackless, Stone had 2 takedowns of Mordecai.
To be fair, Jackson had 5 tackles and a scoop-and-score.
Colorado 36, Nebraska 14
A ton of ink has been spilled on Shedeur Sanders and the Colorado offense, but Buffaloes’ defense was swarming against a Nebraska offense that was more than willing to give the Buffaloes a boost.
Even before Huskers QB Jeff Sims made it his mission to give Matt Rhule a headache, the Buffs were aggressive and got to the ball quickly. One key stat: Nebraska converted just 4-of-15 tries on 3rd and 4th down. If Colorado can avoid the infirmary, this will be a decent unit.
Mississippi State 31, Arizona 24 (OT)
You’ve got to give credit to Jedd Fisch and the Wildcats, who refused to fold despite turnovers in their first 4 (four!) drives. Quarterback Jayden de Laura credited Fisch for keeping him engaged after throwing 3 early picks. In the past, he said, he would’ve gone into a funk.
Credit, too, to Arizona’s defense, which held relatively tough despite being dealt 2-7 off suit 4 times in a row. Arizona limited MSU to 14 points off those 4 turnovers. That the Cats were in the game was a testament to the spiritual growth under Fisch, as well as the emphasis of righting the defensive ship.
UCLA 35, San Diego State 10
It has been awhile since UCLA looked as good as it did against the Aztecs on Saturday. Even last year, in a good season, the Bruins were not as complete as they were on the road in snapdragon stadium. And it was a bit of a coming out party for freshman 5-star quarterback Dante Moore, who passed for almost 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in the big win.
But it was UCLA’s defense that truly emerged. It is clear the unit has made big strides in terms of talent and scheme, as UCLA was quick and aggressive under D’Anton Lynn.
Auburn 14, Cal 10
Just when you thought Jake Spavital had completely remade the Cal offense, the Bears stubbed their toes near Toomer’s corner. The Bears desperately missed J. Michael Sturdivant, who had another nice day for UCLA, where he landed through the portal. Cal totaled just 273 yards of offense, spoiling a fine defensive effort that allowed just 230 yards.
Sam Jackson V really struggled, barely topping 50% completions with a pair of picks.
Oklahoma State 27, Arizona State 15
At what point do we start worrying about the Sun Devils’ ground game? Through 2 games, ASU is averaging 3.6 yards per carry and has a long rush of 17 yards. It’s not easy to establish a rhythm when the offense is a work-in-progress under true freshman starting quarterback Jaden Rashada.
That was going to be the question once Kenny Dillingham went with the freshman over (slightly more) experienced senior Trenton Bourguet. Rashada may have a better arm, but does he operate the offense better? Verdict is still out.
Gold Stars of the Week
Welcome to the Week 2 edition of Gold Stars, my weekly look at the Pac-12’s best individual performers. We’ll keep a running track of the Gold Stars of the Week, all leading up to the Gold Stars of the Year column in December. It’s exactly like the Heisman Trophy, only there’s no ceremony, no trophy, and no one puts this on their résumé. As a note: 1st-place finishers get 3 gold stars, 2nd-place get 2 and 3rd-place gets 1.
Also, I’m on the voting committee for Pac-12 weekly awards, and I’ll include my ballot below Gold Stars.
Here were Week 1’s winners:
- 3 Stars: Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders
- 2 Stars: Colorado WR/DB Travis Hunter
- 1 Star: Cal RB Jaydn Ott (1 star)
On to the Gold Stars of Week 2 …
1. USC QB Caleb Williams (3 stars)
Williams failed to connect on only 2-of-21 pass attempts, hitting the other 19 in a near-perfect performance. He hit his first 6, missed 2 straight, then hit 13 in a row. But these were not dinks and dunks. Williams passed for 281 yards, averaging 13.4 yards per attempt. In a half. Too good.
2. Washington State edge Ron Stone Jr. (2 stars)
Stone was a force for the Cougars against the Badgers, leading a defensive effort that included 3 forced fumbles and just 90 rushing yards allowed. Stone’s 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles proved the difference.
3. Oregon QB Bo Nix (1 star)
Nix wasn’t perfect all the way through, but he rose to the occasion late. If he were any less accurate — or any less fleet-footed — the Ducks would’ve certainly been doomed against Texas Tech. His maturation in both facets of the game won it for Oregon.
Onto my Pac-12 Weekly Awards ballot:
Defensive Line POW: Washington State edge Ron Stone Jr.
Stone had his first 2 sacks of the year in the Cougars’ 2nd straight win over Wisconsin, which put them in the Top 25 at No. 23.
Defensive POW: Oregon LB Jeffrey Bassa
Bassa’s 9 tackles alone would be good enough for consideration, but his interception touchdown return was special.
Honorable mentions: UCLA edge Laiatu Latu, Colorado DB Travis Hunter, Utah S Cole Bishop
Freshman POW: UCLA QB Dante Moore
Tempting to give Zachariah Branch his first nod after he was skipped in Week 0 because there are no awards, but Moore gets it for almost going for 300 yards and 3 scores in his first career start.
Notes about Dante Moore, per UCLA media relations:
🏈81-yd TD to Josiah Norwood is longest completion by UCLA true frosh QB
🏈Other true frosh QBs w 3 TDs in gm: Cade McNown & Josh Rosen (3x)
🏈First UCLA QB to make first career start on road and win since Brett Hundley (2012) https://t.co/ksmD5u9x3o
— Tracy McDannald 📎 (@Tracy_McDannald) September 10, 2023
Offensive Line POW: UCLA OL Garrett DiGiorgio
DiGiorgio helped the Bruins dominate the Aztecs at the line of scrimmage. UCLA averaged 6.5 yard per rush as T.J. Harden and Carson Steele both played well.
Offensive POW: Oregon QB Bo Nix
Nix’s late-game heroics were enough to give him the hardware over Shedeur Sanders, Williams and even Ward.
Honorable mentions: Williams, Sanders, Washington QB Michael Penix Jr., Washington State QB Cameron Ward, Arizona WR Tetairoa McMillan
Special Teams POW: USC returner Zachariah Branch
Just 2 weeks after housing his first kickoff return touchdown in his college football debut, Branch returned a Stanford punt 75 yards for a score.
ZACHARIAH BRANCH DID IT AGAIN🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 10, 2023
Obscure stat of the week
It’s not so obscure, and you saw it already, but it’s worth repeating: The Pac-12 has 8 teams in the Top 25 for the first time.
Week 3 Game I’m Most Looking Forward To
No. 8 Washington at Michigan State, 2 pm, Sept. 16, Peacock