Monday Out West: Oregon introduces the Pac-12 to a remade version of the Ducks
At 3:30 p.m. local time in Miami Gardens, Florida, the Hurricanes kicked off against the fearsome Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State. MTSU, from Conference USA, was coming off of a 49-6 win over Tennessee State the week prior, and a 34-19 win over Colorado State before that. They got the tar beat out of them in Week 1 against James Madison. Vegas expected the same kind of thing to happen Saturday at the Hard Rock Stadium, listing The U as a 25.5-point favorite in a game only expected to produce some 54 total points.
Thirty minutes later, Oregon kicked off against the unbeaten Washington State Cougars in Pullman. Dan Lanning took his Ducks on the road for the first time since a Week 1 loss to Georgia that forced a mirror in front of the face of every person in the Oregon locker room and told them to dig deep or dip.
Miami fell down 17-3 in the first quarter. The defense took the field first and forced a punt, but was jolted from the sideline one play later because the quarterback everyone told me in the offseason was one of the best in the country threw an interception on the Canes’ first play from scrimmage.
The defense stuffed MTSU, yielding only 2 yards and three points after lining up on their own 13. Miami got the ball, ran for no gain, and then threw another interception. This time the Miami defense wasn’t needed, the offense not only gave the ball away but let Middle Tennessee State score immediately.
Four plays later? A Miami fumble. Seven plays, 12 yards, and three turnovers to open the game.
The U gained 47 yards in 11 plays on the next possession and settled for a field goal. The Canes turned it over on downs after 12 plays and 61 yards to follow that score up. They went three-and-out, netting a single lost yard on the next possession.
Tyler Van Dyke was benched in the third as cheers rained down from the crowd the Miami quarterback said just a few days prior needed to be better. In March, ESPN wrote that Miami had the sixth-best quarterback future in the country thanks to Van Dyke’s presumed emergence under coach Mario Cristobal and coordinator Josh Gattis. In late May, 247Sports contended that Van Dyke was the 10th-best quarterback in all of college football. Ahead of Week 1, CBS Sports wrote the Miami man was the eighth-best quarterback in the country.
Four weeks in, Van Dyke ranks 92nd in Total QBR.
(I’ve had bad predictions. This isn’t to point and laugh at the writers or the subject. I’m getting to the point.)
The quarterback has struggled to adapt to the regime change that occurred at Miami this offseason. Under Rhett Lashlee, the previous OC at The U, Van Dyke operated a spread-out, up-tempo offense and a quick-strike passing attack that sought explosives. Nearly 20% of his pass attempts a year ago traveled 20 yards downfield. This year, that number is less than 10%.
Miami fans are scratching their heads at what could have caused Van Dyke’s regression.
Jet across to the other side of the country with me for a moment.
Oregon fell down 10-3 in the first quarter to Washington State, then 17-9 at the halftime break. Wazzu quarterback Cam Ward was running circles around Oregon defenders trying to just contain him. The Oregon offense was moving the ball soundly between the 10s, and then suffocating in the red area.
Play-calling certainly could have been more inspired, but execution was lacking. Credit Wazzu for stiffening up when the field shortened.
“We want to have some of those moments back,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said after the game. “We won’t, but we can learn from them.”
The Ducks nearly doubled up the Cougars in the first half in terms of yardage — 305-163. Oregon averaged 7.8 points a play in the first half. Moving the ball wasn’t the problem. It needed to make some halftime adjustments and win some of those individual one-on-ones in the second half to escape with a win.
The third featured deep shots from Oregon’s Bo Nix to Kris Hutson for 55 yards, Terrance Ferguson for 23 yards, and then Troy Franklin for 27 yards, but the Ducks entered the fourth trailing 27-15.
As the clock ticked under 10 to play and Ward wiggled his way out of a jam on fourth-and-7, finding his tailback for 12 yards to extend a drive deep into Oregon territory, things felt like they were slipping away from the Ducks.
Back in Miami, the Canes were down 45-31, going out with a whimper on a four-play, 0-yard possession.
“It was a butt kicking. There was no fluke to this,” said MTSU coach Rick Stockstill after the game. “We were the tougher team here tonight.”
That was the kind of game that Oregon fans came to know. And Saturday in Pullman was the kind of game that Duck fans expected to see fall away from their team. Except it didn’t.
“I love our sideline,” said Lanning after the game. “I didn’t see selfishness on that sideline. I saw guys that were really excited for us to be in the situation we were, and I don’t know that any of them ever had a doubt in their mind what we could accomplish if we went executed.”
Lanning said the locker room was resolute at halftime, confident in the knowledge they were losing because of correctable mistakes.
After Washington State’s touchdown drive put it up 12, Nix drove the Ducks 75 yards in 11 plays, completing seven of his nine passes, and found the endzone in under three minutes.
The defense forced a three-and-out and gave the ball back to the offense, 2:21 to play, down by five.
Plenty of time, and Oregon ran its stuff. The drive began with an 8-yard run from Bucky Irving and then a 2-yarder from Irving to pick up that first first down. In business. Three plays later, Nix hit Franklin over the middle for the game-winner.
“We talked the entire day about continuing to stay aggressive,” said Lanning. “As I walked into the huddle, I said, ‘Guys, this is Thursday, it’s two minutes, last period of the day, exactly what we do in practice every single week,’ and then those guys went out there and executed.”
Franklin finished the game with five catches for 137 yards and the score. The connection he and Nix have developed throughout the opening salvo of the season looks to be a potentially difference-making one. The young wideout is up to 339 yards receiving on the season — more than 100 yards clear of what he had in all of 2021.
He has blossomed into a star receiver.
Nix, who, yes, had a bad interception but also completed 33 of his 43 other pass attempts for a career-high 428 yards, added three more touchdowns to his total this season. He has 1,220 total yards and 13 touchdowns in four games.
He’s on pace for a career year, and is looking better at Oregon than he maybe ever did at Auburn.
Lanning was asked during the week how he felt about offensive balance, and he essentially said it’s a nice thing to have but it’s not a tenet they’ll live by. If the defense gives them something and takes away another, they’ll adjust. He said the same thing after Saturday’s game.
“We’re going to take what is given to us, and in this situation our hand was forced a little bit,” Lanning said. “We had to be more aggressive there passing the ball at the end of the game. I think he (Nix) proved that he can go be successful doing that.”
So much of this game felt like a pleasant surprise.
Look, Oregon didn’t play well for stretches, and this still is not a complete football team. They’ve got plenty to work on. But Washington State is a very good team. Don’t forget that. And the Ducks rallied.
Win your clunkers. Win those winnable games. Great teams do so.
“We’re trying to win every single play, and some of them didn’t go our way, but at the end of the game enough plays went our way for us to get the W,” said Lanning.
A team in one corner of the country got punched in the mouth and just never recovered. The game went exactly like a bunch of others have gone for Cristobal. On the other side, Oregon may have introduced the Pac-12 to a new version of this program we haven’t quite seen yet.
In this instance, a photo is worth all the ink in Coral Gables and Eugene combined.
THIS pic tho!! 😍
📸: Eric Evans pic.twitter.com/BAIcPiKpUP
— KDuk 💛💚🏈🏀⚾️🥎🥍🥅🏒 (@KarlaGrandahl) September 25, 2022
The Pac-12 Network catches heat
One talking head made the same joke four times in the span of an hour Saturday night during USC’s game against Oregon State. First it was play-by-play via a “telegraph from Western Union.” Then it was play-by-play via “carrier pigeon.” Then it was play-by-play via “Greek messenger.” Then the game’s outcome shared via “smoke signals.”
We get it.
You don’t want to get the Pac-12 Network.
Make no mistake, a game highlighting just how real the 3-1 (then 3-0) Oregon State Beavers are this season being tucked away on the league’s own network and saddled with a 9:30 p.m. ET start time was not, in any way, shape, or form, beneficial to the Pac-12. That game should have been on national television. And anyone who actually bothered to watch Oregon State’s first three games could have told you as such.
But the Pac-12’s network partners prioritized later USC games. You can understand why they would do so.
Considering the broadcast team for Utah-ASU thought Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson was a wide receiver for half of the game Saturday night, and considering the crew didn’t bother to feature a single Pac-12 game during its picks segment on College GameDay Saturday morning, and considering and considering and considering… I’m guessing the partners aren’t watching much of the rest of the Pac-12 anyway. At least not intently.
And the folks who like to get jokes off about not being able to watch the Pac-12 Network were incessant on Saturday.
It’s getting a little overplayed.
Because while the league does have a distribution problem that is a front-and-center priority for commissioner George Kliavkoff in this next round of media rights negotiating, if you actually want the network, you can get to it.
Someone in Chicago can sign up for Sling TV and watch every Pac-12 team play on a Saturday. FuboTV affords the same. I have everything I need from a TV packaging standpoint — and I have the Pac-12 Networks on all my devices.
If you want the Pac-12 Network, get it.
If you don’t want to pay for it, that’s a you problem.
The team at the network does a good job. They promote the league. Yogi Roth is one of the best in the business — across the country — at what he does. Same goes for Ashley Adamson.
Should USC-Oregon State have been on ESPN? Probably.
(And, what do ya know, Oregon State got an ESPN slot in the next round of TV picks. Funny that.)
Was the game still accessible to you even though it was on that blasted Pac-12 Network? Yup.
This message was brought to you via raven.
The biggest losers on Saturday
Don’t write off Oregon State or Washington State. Those are darn good teams.
Start in Pullman. The Cougars have a front seven that could probably hold its own against 95% of the country. Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. were as-advertised against what was likely the best offensive line they’ll face this season. Daiyan Henley at linebacker is a name that should be in the conversation for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. The Cougars are fifth nationally in sacks (14) and leading the country in tackles for loss, with 37 in four games. They had 67 in 13 games a year ago.
Next to Corvallis. The Beavers have a darn good secondary, one that significantly stymied USC’s passing attack. The Trojans had one of the most efficient offenses led by a Heisman-contending quarterback and Oregon State made them frustrated all day long. The Beavers are currently top-20 in opposing QB rating, sitting right next to Georgia. They’ve only given up two touchdowns and picked off opponents six times.
In both instances — a 44-41 Wazzu loss to Oregon and a 17-14 Beaver loss to USC — the loser just missed. Both of these teams are going to get someone they “shouldn’t” this season.
The Road to Las Vegas (Around the Pac-12)
Utah 34, Arizona State 13
Ja’Quinden Jackson as a running back has so much intrigue.
The Utes’ regular starter, Tavion Thomas, was physically able to play but held out of the first half against Arizona State. Coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game that “sometimes things happen and you’ve got to make certain moves.” Whittingham called it “an internal thing.” (Thomas still finished as the leading rusher, 60 yards on 11 carries.)
And with Chris Curry lost for the season because of injury, Utah had to get creative with the backfield.
So it took Jackson, a quarterback battling for the No. 2 job in training camp, and moved him over to running back. He had nine carries for 31 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s a natural,” Whittingham said after the game. “He did play running back in 8th, 9th, and 10th grade full-time, so it’s not completely new to him. Maybe 10th grade is when he made the transition to quarterback, but he’s got a background as a running back. He’s explosive, a big back at 230 pounds or just shy of that. He’s fast, he’s got really good vision. He made some runs in practice — he sees these things and cuts back — that were really impressive.”
According to Whittingham, that move is permanent for the season. They’ll reassess at the end of the year. On the team’s online roster, they’ve already made the adjustment to his listed position.
Of course, this is a No. 4 tailback we’re talking about here. On the depth chart for the new week, Jackson isn’t listed. Thomas is still the No. 1, Micah Bernard his backup, and Jaylon Glover the No. 3. But Jackson certainly gives offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig a tool to use, should he want it, as Utah tries to re-configure its offense in the wake of Brant Kuithe’s season-ending injury.
The more playmakers the better, and Utah seemingly has no shortage of those in the backfield.
“We decided Ja’Quinden was worth a shot,” Whittingham said of the thought process behind the move. “The real key is he was all in, he embraced it and said, ‘Absolutely, whatever I can do to help the team.’ With that mentality and his skillset, what you saw tonight was just a taste of what I think he can bring to the table.”
Oregon 44, Washington State 41
The touchdown that looked like it could seal the deal for a Washington State win Saturday was a clever little design from Cougar offensive coordinator Eric Morris. And it wasn’t the first time Wazzu ran the play in the game.
They’ve run this a couple times today. Diabolical design from Eric Morris.
— Derek Peterson (@dr_petey) September 24, 2022
They’re in a bunch formation, motioning the tight end to the weakside pre-snap, then the entire offensive line blocks down to the right. It looks like it’s going to be a handoff for Nakia Watson before quarterback Cameron Ward just pops the ball up in front of him to Robert Ferrel coming across.
Eight Oregon defenders are just immediately out of the play. The Wazzu tight end blocks his man, the wideout to the boundary blocks his, and all Ferrel has to do is beat one guy for the end zone. The design freezes that one guy for just a fraction of a second, and from 2 yards out, that was enough.
It’s a good-looking play, and the variations Washington State can run off it are just as interesting.
UCLA 45, Colorado 17
When it comes to individual players, Laiatu Latu is the story of the season so far in the Pac-12.
He missed two years because of a neck injury that ultimately forced him to medically retire. Just to land at UCLA, cleared to play, and turn into a defensive coordinator’s dream. UCLA’s edge rusher was limited to individual drills in the spring. The Bruins couldn’t have known what to expect when he returned to the field for live games.
What it has gotten so far is one of the best havoc-creators in the conference. Latu has five sacks in four games and 5.5 tackles for loss. He nearly had an interception against Colorado. He finished that game — his first against another Pac-12 opponent since November 2019 — with three sacks, a pass breakup, and a forced fumble.
After, he met with reporters and couldn’t help but smile throughout. Coach Chip Kelly said he’s still shaking off the rust, but he’s getting better every week.
“He’s got such a work ethic,” said Kelly. “He’s starting to get a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more confident, playing with a little bit more poise. … You can see him get better and better each week and that’s the cool part of it.”
Latu said earlier this season he felt like he got his heart back. Through four weeks, he’s been the heart of UCLA’s pass-rush — 15 total quarterback pressures and the fourth-best pass-rush grade of anyone in the Pac-12.
USC 17, Oregon State 14
The questions about USC’s defense were nonstop through the first three weeks. Could they stop anyone when it mattered? Could they bow up when the turnovers dry up and punch teams off the field?
USC held Oregon State to 5.3 yards per play in the game. In their previous three games — all wins — the Beavers had averaged 7.7, 6.2, and 7.6 yards a play. USC had been trending in the wrong direction, too. After yielding just 4.5 per play to Rice in the opener, the Trojans gave up 5.5 to Stanford and then 6.8 to Fresno State.
They just keep taking the football away, and they’re doing it at opportune times. Knock the defense all you want, but the buttons being pressed by Alex Grinch are working. USC has 14 takeaways in four games. No other team in the country has more.
They’ve got active hands when the ball comes out and alert defenders who are seeking out the splash play. That gets guys in trouble (Mekhi Blackmon has hold of a receiver’s jersey as you read this) but it’s mostly leading to great things. Plus, it helps when you have a 6-foot-6 linebacker roaming the middle of the field.
So, I ask you, does USC proving it can win a game with defense this early in the campaign actually make it more of a College Football Playoff contender?
If your answer is no, that’s fine. Truth be told, I don’t know that I’d even answer the question with a yes. They’re still outside the top 70 in terms of yards per play allowed and LSU is the only team in the College Football Playoff era to win a national championship with a defense that wasn’t top-25 in that category.
That Tigers team featured one of the greatest offenses in college football history. Through the first few weeks, USC was operating at a similarly historic output on offense. Even though things have slowed in recent weeks, I’d still bet on this being a group that puts up around 40 a game for the season.
That USC can win a game against a good team when that doesn’t happen was a tremendous thing for Lincoln Riley to learn in Week 4.
Washington 40, Stanford 22
The Husky receiver room was undervalued heading into the season. That seems like a clear takeaway from the first four weeks. The top four are among the 12 highest-graded Pac-12 receivers right now.
Jalen McMillan led the team in receiving yardage Week 1, but three guys — McMillan, Rome Odunze, and Taj Davis — all topped 70 yards. McMillan went over 100 the following week, as did Giles Jackson. Against Michigan State, it was Ja’Lynn Polk exploding for 153 yards and three touchdowns. Against Stanford, it was Odunze going for 161 and a touchdown.
This offense has some major home run threats and a room stocked full of receivers who can hurt anyone at any time.
California 49, Arizona 31
I would like to see Jaydn Ott touch the ball 35 times every week. That’s obviously not going to happen. A coach doing so to a true freshman running back Ott’s size in a Power football league would be coaching malpractice. But I still want to see it. I think the Cal tailback could handle it.
He had 274 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries against Arizona. The yardage was the third-most in a single game in Cal history. He had multiple 70-yard runs.
“Every time I touch the ball, I feel like I’m going to score,” Ott said after the game. “That’s my mentality.”
Ott made everyone’s day easier. Jack Plummer settled in, as any quarterback would when afforded that kind of ground game. The offense put up 49 total points, the most in a single game since Oct. 20, 2018.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time. You’ve seen it in flashes,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “We saw it a bunch today. He’s a dynamic guy and has the ability to take it to the house from a lot of spots.”
Ott is going to keep getting better. But he’s pretty darn good right now. He scored a 99.9 run grade from Pro Football Focus. That score hadn’t been given to a running back since 2016. It makes him the highest-graded running back in the country through four weeks (91.8.).
He blocks well. He doesn’t turn it over. He shows exceptional contact balance. He already has 23 missed tackles forced — the most of any Pac-12 player. He makes guys miss in the hole.
Cal has a special, special young running back.
Offensive Player of the Week: Jaydn Ott, Cal RB
Defensive Player of the Week: Laiatu Latu, UCLA EDGE
Play of the Week: A tie between Troy Franklin’s game-winner and Cameron Ward’s flip pass
I won’t be forced to pick between the two. Franklin’s catch gets the nod on impact. It won Oregon the best game I watched all weekend, completing a 12-point fourth-quarter comeback. He wouldn’t go down. Let that be the moment everyone outside of Oregon realizes this kid is a budding star.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 24, 2022
And then Ward’s play was just awesome. Ward is fun. We like fun here.
OH MY WARD 😱
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 24, 2022
Photo of the Week: From USA TODAY Sports’ Jaime Valdez
I don’t know what’s happening here but I love it.
Game of the Week: Oregon vs. Washington State
One of the most entertaining games so far this season.
Quote of the Week: Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb
This one came much earlier in the week, when UW’s Ryan Grubb met with reporters to preview the game against Stanford:
“I felt like we potentially played a team (Michigan State) where their fridge was full. They weren’t as hungry. We’ve just got to keep the pad lock on that fridge and stay frickin’ hungry, man.”