Monday Out West: New guard dethrones old guard in battle of star quarterbacks
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s Pac-12 action.
In this week’s edition of Monday Out West …
- USC’s depth and talent keep their Playoff hopes alive
- Chip shot through the heart
- Ducks find a way on down day
- The Road to Las Vegas
- Gold Stars of the Week
… and more! But first:
Pac-12’s new guard outduels veteran stars
If you’re a Pac-12 head coach not named Riley or Lanning, you’re sitting here after Week 12 saying to yourself, what even is the point of recruiting players to develop anymore?
When the top two quarterbacks in 2021 can be surpassed so quickly and so clearly by a pair of Johnny-come-latelies, it makes you wonder why even bother?
Cameron Rising and Dorian Thompson-Robinson were named the All-Pac-12’s 1st- and 2nd-team quarterbacks last season, the best in the conference and arguably 2 of the best in the country.
Rising was the definition of resiliency, rebounding first from a season-ending shoulder injury as a redshirt sophomore in 2020 only to lose out on the starting gig in 2021 to Charlie Brewer, then sparking the Utes to an 8-3 record once he stepped in as starting quarterback.
Thompson-Robinson, meanwhile, was on an almost linear path from frustrating futility in a mostly fruitless freshman campaign to marginal improvement as a sophomore to increased success — and back-to-back second-team accolades — as a junior and then senior. Then, given an extra year because of COVID, coming back and thriving most of all.
But on Saturday evening in successive fashion, all that planning, all that time-biding, all that development and that patience went out the window, courtesy of a pair of fly-by-night transfers who made their coaches look like savants.
First, Caleb Williams thoroughly outplayed Thompson-Robinson in USC’s 48-45 win over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl. DTR’s 3 interceptions were the difference, particularly his game-sealing pick with less than 2 minutes left and UCLA driving to tie it. Yes, the Bruins’ star quarterback had 4 passing touchdowns and 2 rushing touchdowns and generally tossed his body around the field like a rag doll, but those picks were back-breakers. Williams didn’t finish with 5 touchdowns, as he has each of the previous 4 weeks, but he did set a record for the rivalry game with 503 total yards and he set a career-high with 470 passing yards.
Caleb Williams should be firmly in the Heisman conversation. Tonight is proving that much.
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) November 20, 2022
Williams now has 33 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions, and USC’s 5 consecutive games with 40 points or more are the most since the 2003 team had 7 consecutive 40-plus point games. Williams is No. 3 in the nation in points responsible for per game (21.8), 4th in total offense (345.1), 6th in passing yards (3,480) and No. 9 in the nation in passing efficiency (167.6).
In another classic #Pac12AfterDark nail-biter, Oregon outlasted Utah, 20-17, and Rising didn’t even have 1 touchdown, much less 6 like Thompson-Robinson. But he equaled DTR’s 3 interceptions and cost his team dearly down the stretch in a 3-point loss to Oregon and Bo Nix. Nix, Rising’s foil, locked in a tight battle with Williams and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. for all-league honors, went 25-of-37 for 287 yards and a touchdown, drastically down from his season the numbers but still much more effective than Rising.
It was stark watching the 2 games, just how much better than new kids on the block were than the old reliables.
For one, they were much more reliable.
Trojans turn to Austin Jones, who turns it on
Last week, I wrote that it wasn’t the arrival of Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison — among others — that impressed me most about Lincoln Riley’s offseason recruiting haul.
It was Austin Jones, the former Stanford stud running back who eschewed the role of bell-cow back and instead bided his time behind and sometimes alongside Travis Dye. Many a running back would want to add a 1,000-yard season to their résumé, but Jones knew he was getting competition when he came to USC.
Only he waited patiently for his turn at the helm, and when Dye went down against Colorado last Friday, Jones knew he had his time in the spotlight. Against a good UCLA run defense, Jones had 120 yards on 21 carries with 2 touchdowns, constantly churning out positive yardage. Even he was able to play keep-away from the Trojans’ other talented backs, Darwin Barlow and Raleek Brown.
“We all knew he’s an experienced back, as well,” UCLA center Brett Neilon said after the game. “We all had confidence in him. We knew he was going to step up there and do his thing. Hats off to him. Maybe he didn’t get the carries he wanted early on, but he stepped up for us big time in a big-time game.”
Running back Austin Jones finds the end zone and USC adds to its lead.
What a polar opposite start to this half for the Trojans pic.twitter.com/nalv9vjGJl
— Keely Eure (@keelyismyname) November 20, 2022
To be fair, the Trojans were a lot more than Jones on Saturday.
You can’t possibly overstate the contributions of both Williams and Addison, who rediscovered their dormant connection after Addison’s long layoff. Addison had his best game of the season, catching 11 passes for 178 yards and a score and generally looking like the best player on the field — when that designation didn’t go to Williams — in his first major action since a 43-42 loss to Utah on Oct. 15.
Another coaching blunder costs a Pac-12 contender
With 1 minute, 15 seconds left in the 1st half of USC’s 3-point win over UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, Trojans defensive back Mekhi Blackmon picked off Thompson-Robinson at the UCLA 39-yard line.
The Trojans came out into a hurry-up offense, and after Williams hit Jones for a 6-yard completion to the UCLA 29-yard line, Jones gained 12 yards on 2nd-and-4. That’s when Chip Kelly called his first timeout.
Then, after Williams was unable to connect with Jordan Addison on 1st-and-10 at the UCLA 17-yard line, Kelly called another timeout. After a 1-yard completion to Addison and an incomplete pass, USC’s Denis Lynch missed an easy 33-yard field goal.
UCLA’s ensuing drive ended in disaster, though, when Shane Lee intercepted DTR yet again at midfield.
A quick 15-yard completion to Mario Williams gave the Trojans the ball at the UCLA 32-yard line, and after Kelly tried to ice Lynch this time around, the USC kicker delivered with a 49-yard field goal that ultimately provided the final margin of victory for the Trojans.
UCLA was up 21-17 at the time. They could’ve kept it simple with the ball so deep in their territory. A week after Dan Lanning cost the Ducks in a big way with his late-game decision-making, Kelly delivered a blow to the Bruins.
Ducks survive off night for offense
Oregon’s much-maligned defense, coming off a brutal emotional loss to Washington, steeled up on Saturday against the Utes. And it wasn’t just Rising’s 3 interceptions.
Utah managed just 326 yards of total offense, and the Utes’ issues in the passing game opened up a big enough window for Bo Nix and the Oregon offense to slip through.
But it wasn’t just Nix’s gimpy ankle that almost cost Oregon a chance at the Rose Bowl.
- Bucky Irving: 20 yards on 10 carries.
- Noah Whittington: 53 yards on 10 carries.
- Dont’e Thornton: 151 yards on 4 receptions, but 2 big fumbles.
Against a very good Utah defense, the Ducks managed just 16 1st downs and 346 yards of total offense, way below their season averages. Worse, they rushed for just 59 yards, with Nix, arguably the nation’s best non-service academy running quarterback this year, gaining negative-3 yards on 2 carries.
It’s clear that Nix wasn’t at his best, but those numbers are stark considering his recent run of success. His 287 passing yards weren’t bad, but he finished with under 30 yards rushing for just the 3rd time this year.
He’d better get healthy in a hurry — Oregon State’s defense is talented and will be hungry to notch a 9th win on Saturday in Corvallis.
The Road to Las Vegas (Around the Pac-12)
1. USC (clinched)
The Trojans’ 3-point win over UCLA was for a lot more than Los Angeles bragging rights. USC became the first conference team to clinch a berth in the title game, finishing their league slate with an 8-1 record. Now Lincoln Riley is looking to add a nice little feather in his cap with a win over No. 18 Notre Dame in the Trojans’ regular-season finale. An 11-win regular season debut would be quite the feat for Riley.
The Ducks’ path is pretty simple: Beat Oregon State or have Washington State beat Washington. Of course, beating Oregon State in Corvallis won’t be easy, but if Bo Nix gets right, they’ll be favored. The two great Pacific Northwest rivalries play a factor in this game, though, as the Apple Cup could determine Oregon’s fate, as well.
It’s a coin flip as to which would be a bigger upset, even if both the Beavers and Cougars are pretty good.
Step 1: Beat Washington State in the Apple Cup. Step 2: Oregon State beats Oregon. Step 3: Cal beats UCLA OR Colorado beats Utah.
Not exactly a breeze, but considering the Huskies were just 4-8 a season ago, it’s quite an accomplishment to still be in the running for a title-game berth.
The Utes’ loss to Oregon did them no favors and gave me a headache, so really we all lost.
If Utah … beats Colorado, Washington beats Washington State, Oregon State beats Oregon, and UCLA beats Cal …then Oregon, Washington and Utah are all stuck in a 3-way tie. But because Utah and Washington didn’t play and we can’t use the easiest tie-breaker, it comes down to highest-combined win percentage in conference games among conference opponents between the 3.
And guess who wins that? The Utes.
Gold Stars of the Week
Welcome to the Week 12 edition of Gold Stars, my weekly look at the Pac-12’s best individual performers. We’re folding this into Monday Out West going forward, but we’ll keep up with our 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.
|Michael Penix Jr.||Washington||Quarterback||9|
|Jacob Cowing||Arizona||Wide Receiver||3|
|Jaydn Ott||Cal||Running Back||3|
|Daiyan Henley||Washington State||Linebacker||3|
|Zach Charbonnet||UCLA||Running Back||3|
|Kitan Oladapo||Oregon State||Safety||2|
|Dalton Kincaid||Utah||Tight End||2|
|Jayden de Laura||Arizona||Quarterback||2|
|Tuli Tuipulotu||USC||Defensive Lineman||1|
|Ja'Lynn Polk||Washington||Wide Receiver||1|
|Alex Austin||Oregon State||Cornerback||1|
|Nikia Watson||Washington State||Running back||1|
|Jordan Addison||USC||Wide Receiver||1|
|Damien Martinez||Oregon State||Running back||1|
On to the Gold Stars of Week 11 …
1. USC QB Caleb Williams (3 stars)
After scoring 5 touchdowns or more in 4 straight games, Williams only had 3 on Saturday night against UCLA — 2 through the air and 1 on the ground.
But what he did have was a career-high in passing yardage and single-game rivalry record 503 total yards, topping Kedon Slovis’ 502 yards in 2019.
It wasn’t just the production, though. Williams was an emotional catalyst for the Trojans, even if his words entering the game were a bit blasé. Williams saves his swagger for the sidelines, and he was animated throughout the game, while still maintaining his composure. After, the game, he let loose and it was a sight to see. Kid really could be class president if he wanted to.
Not always beloved by scouts after even his productive performances, Williams took home a 92.3 Pro Football Focus passing grade against the Bruins, and he put on quite a show for Heisman voters who were lucky enough to see a reasonable 5 p.m. PST kickoff.
If Williams shows out against the Fighting Irish and either the Ducks, Utes or Huskies in the Pac-12 title game, he could find himself stiff-arming CJ Stroud for the trophy.
2. Oregon DB Bennett Williams (2 stars)
In the midst of a terrific season for the Oregon offense, the Ducks’ defense hasn’t gotten all too many accolades this season. Certainly, Bo Nix has landed himself on this list many more times than his defensive counterparts.
But on a night when Oregon managed just 20 points — its lowest point total since scoring a lone field goal in Week 1 against Georgia — the defense delivered in a way it hasn’t had to all too often this year.
Oregon intercepted Cameron Rising 3 times, and Williams had two of those picks. Even better, he picked a good time for them.
Williams’ first pick came directly after a fumble by Duck wideout Dont’e Thornton, stunting Utah’s momentum with a 1st-down robbery. Williams again intercepted Rising late in the 4th quarter, again coming off an Oregon turnover, this one a Clark Phillips III interception of Bo Nix.
HUGE PLAY FROM BENNETT!
Second pick of the night and the Ducks have it back with 4:15 to play!
— Oregon Football (@oregonfootball) November 20, 2022
Oh … and Williams added 14 tackles. That’s a heck of a game.
3. Oregon State RB Damien Martinez (1 star)
Pac-12 fans — and better yet, Pac-12 players and coaches — better get used to seeing Martinez’s name regularly for the next several years. The fabulous freshman inched closer to a freshman of the year award after rushing for 100 yards for the 5th straight game, this time a 22-carry, 138-yard, 2-touchdown performance in a 31-7 win over Arizona State.
It’s hard to believe Martinez saw as few as 3 carries less than 6 weeks ago. Starting on Oct. 15 against Washington State, Martinez has topped the century mark each week, with Saturday’s 138 yards going down as his 2nd-highest of the season. If he hits that 138 mark once more next week against Oregon, he’ll top 1,000 yards for the year, no small feat.
Onto my Pac-12 Weekly Awards ballot:
Defensive Line POW: USC DL Tuli Tuipulotu
Tuipulotu did not manage to sack Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but he did finish with 6 tackles with 1.5 for loss for 5 yards in USC’s narrow win over UCLA. Bigger awards are coming for Tuipulotu in the next few weeks.
Defensive POW: Oregon DB Bennett Williams
Pick your poison: 2 picks or 14 tackles. It was Williams’ 1st double-digit tackle performance as a Duck.
Honorable mentions: Cal DB Daniel Scott; USC LB Shane Lee.
Freshman POW: Oregon State RB Damien Martinez
Became the first OSU back to top 100 yards in 5 straight games since Steven Jackson in 2003 while Oregon State won in Tempe for just the second time since 1969.
Damien Martinez with his 2nd TD of the day! 💪
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) November 19, 2022
Offensive Line POW: USC OL Andrew Vorhees
The hulking and versatile lineman helped Caleb Williams post one of the best games of his career. For the year, Vorhees is PFF’s No. 6 graded guard in the nation with over 600 snaps.
Offensive POW: USC QB Caleb Williams
Williams is sure looking like a future Heisman winner, whether it happens this year or next. He took his game to another level against the Bruins, throwing for a career-high 470 yards and 2 TDs.
Honorable mentions: Arizona WR Dorian Singer; Oregon State RB Damien Martinez; Washington RB Wayne Taulapapa.
Special Teams POW: Oregon K Camden Lewis
Lewis nailed both his field goal attempts, including a 41-yarder in the fourth quarter that was ultimately the game-winner in the Ducks’ win over No. 10 Utah. He’s made 12-of-13 attempts this season, his lone miss a 54-yarder.
Obscure stat of the week
One week after Stanford had its sorriest offensive performance in years with just 9 first downs in a 42-7 loss to Utah, Colorado did the Cardinal just 1 better on Saturday in a 54-7 loss to Washington. The Buffaloes managed just 10 1st downs in the blowout loss, along with just 202 offensive yards.
Week 13 Game I’m Most Looking Forward To
USC vs. Notre Dame is shaping up to be great but the formerly named Civil War is being waged between two ranked teams for the first time in a decade.