Monday Out West: The college football world is there for USC's taking
Weekly takeaways, trends and technicalities from the weekend’s Pac-12 action.
In this week’s edition of Monday Out West …
- What’s next for Dan Lanning and the Ducks?
- The Beavers win by the skin of their elongated teeth
- Can Utes play Pac-12 spoiler in Vegas?
- The Road to Las Vegas
- Gold Stars of the Week
… and more! But first:
Sorry, college football, Lincoln Riley is rebuilding nirvana
I started to wonder Saturday night, if it weren’t for the three most important letters to college football west of the Mississippi — U, S and C — would the Pac-12 be in the position it is in right now?
If, say, Oregon State was 11-1 with a 1-point loss to Utah and back-to-back wins over ranked opponents, would they be ranked 4th in the country, a spot ahead of Ohio State, which spent much of the season at No. 2, and only suffered its first loss of the season to now-No. 2 Michigan on Saturday?
USC is one of the best and biggest brands in college football, arguably only eclipsed by Notre Dame and Alabama. The Trojans have 9 national titles and represent all that is great about West coast football, the fun and the gun and the sun and the splash. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be in the Final Four based on their success this season, it’s that I just wonder if they’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt from national media who love a good story.
And the Trojans certainly are a good story. Just 4-8 a season ago, a collection of broken players wounded by the in-season firing of their head coach came together under a new head coach, fused with an unprecedented number of portal transfers and highly-rated recruits, and turned in an 11-1 regular season with one of the best offenses in the country.
What Lincoln Riley has done in short order in Los Angeles should absolutely terrify the rest of college football, kind of like USC’s foundational 2002-03 seasons set the tone for what would become one of the most successful runs in college football history. It feels like we’re at the very beginning of something special, something we don’t get to see very often.
The Trojans’ 38-27 win over the No. 15 Fighting Irish was their most balanced, thorough win of the season. USC held Notre Dame’s esteemed running game to just 90 yards on 26 carries, with Logan Diggs limited to 34 yards on 12 carries and Audric Estime adding 6 carries for 43 yards. They came into the game combining for nearly 1,500 yards.
The Fighting Irish totaled 408 yards but USC’s timely defense caused 2 takeaways while the Trojans’ stingy offense had zero turnovers. Caleb Williams, who now owns Heisman frontrunner status after CJ Stroud and the Buckeyes’ 22-point loss to the Wolverines, passed for 232 yards and a score and added 3 more touchdowns on the ground, giving him 44 total scores on the year. Running back Austin Jones had 154 yards on 25 carries, continuing his fantastic play after taking over for Travis Dye.
Even the Trojans’ special teams units performed splendidly.
It was USC’s most complete win of the season, prompting Riley to say, “We played really well on all three sides of the ball.”
Riley has taken this mish-mash of talent and coalesced it in record time. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of college football, especially if the Trojans stay humble and hungry.
“You just go to work, and you start putting it together as fast as you can and start building the culture as fast as you can,” Riley said after the game. “I can’t say, ‘Yes, I knew this was gonna happen,’ but at the same time, I don’t believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish. Especially if you get the right people in the building and everybody decides to be unselfish and work hard for each other. That’s what this group has done.
“They’re a great example of when you do that, the worst thing you could ever do is put limits on what you can accomplish. You guys know me, I stood right by what I told you our expectations were from Day 1. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that’s fine. People within the walls knew what we were about and I think had a sense of what we were building, and it’s been a fun run.”
If the run continues with a resounding win over Utah in the Pac-12 title game, USC will have its Playoff bid and college football will have its West coast darling back. And without those pesky rules that tripped up the Trojans last time.
Oregon loses the plot and a chance at the Rose Bowl
Before Oregon’s fateful failure to convert on 4th down late in a 38-35 loss to Washington in Week 11, the Ducks had been one of the best teams in the country in those crucial clutch situations.
The innovative Oregon offense had been 3-for-3 on 4th down that day before Bo Nix was sidelined, however briefly, with a lower leg injury. And they’d been 18-of-25 on the year.
But against Oregon State on Saturday, the Ducks went 0-for-4 on 4th down, including a pair of 1st-half attempts that eliminated potential field-goal points. Twice in the 4th quarter, Oregon went for it, once on 4th-and-1 at the Ducks’ 29-yard line and once on 4th-and-goal at the OSU 3-yard line.
After Dan Lanning inexplicably went for it on 4th and 1 from his own 29 (again), Oregon State has rallied from down 31-10 to up 38-34.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 26, 2022
Oregon’s punting issues contributed to Lanning’s decision-making, but ultimately field position matters, too.
“We’ll have to go back and look at the plays, but we’ve been aggressive in our nature the majority of the year and a lot of the time it’s worked for us,” Lanning said. “I think you also look back and you say, ‘OK, 4th down, you’ve had 2 punts that went completely (in) disarray. I like my chances on 4th-and-1 to try and run the ball and get it rather than line up for another punt that maybe won’t be successful.’
Beavers take beaten path to success
I love what venerated Pac-12 columnist John Canzano had to say about the way Oregon and Oregon State went down on Saturday, and really, how it’s gone down for the Beavers for years.
“The Ducks spent a pile of money, built lavish facilities, hired a line of high-dollar recruiters, worked the analytics, but got beat by the slow and steady act of Jonathan Smith and Oregon State,” Canzano wrote. The long-time Oregonian columnist has the pulse on the Beaver State like no other, and he compared the rivalry to the Tortoise and the Hare.
Well, as far as Ducks and Beavers go, score one for the methodical Beavers.
Oregon State was about the opposite of flashy against Oregon — its starting quarterback, Ben Gulbranson, completed all of 6 passes, after all — but the Beavers were opportunistic and calculating, relying on a sound running game, timely turnovers and Dan Lanning’s go-for-it nature.
BEAVERS WIN 🦫
Oregon State completes the 21-point comeback vs. Oregon. pic.twitter.com/vUPEpDGUSR
— ESPN (@espn) November 27, 2022
It’s not like this one win is going to change many minds and convince recruits to switch from Eugene to Corvallis, but a sustained run of impressive results — which Smith is building — opens a lot of eyes. It’s clear that Smith and this coaching staff turns good prospects into good college players, and that’s enough for a lot of players. It’s not always about 5-star recruits. Sometimes it’s about 2-star recruits who play themselves into 4-star talents.
“I do think this win changes things in regard to this season,” Smith told reporters after the game. “We found a way to win close games, and getting eight wins was nice. But for us to be able to finish this way at home, get to nine wins against a team that we got a bunch of respect for but we definitely wanted to beat — It means a ton.”
Not so Shaw-cking news out of Stanford
Sometimes you can see it in a coach’s eyes, and we saw it with David Shaw at Pac-12 Media Day. He almost seemed resigned to not just his fate, but college football’s, in a landscape in which the Cardinal simply cannot compete.
No matter how much Stanford relaxes its transfer rules, the school will never compete with the likes of USC and even UCLA for portal talent, much less its national competitors. Shaw resigned Saturday following the Cardinal’s 9th loss. He implied that he only came to the decision recently.
But those who’ve covered him a long time saw a missing spark that he had during the days when he really had it rolling in Palo Alto. This was a coach who helped Stanford emerge from the muck only to become one of the strongest, biggest, baddest teams in the country. For a while there, the Cardinal’s offensive lines contended with the best in the country. As of late, it became harder and harder to for Shaw to bring in the talent he once did.
And it appears much harder going forward. It’s hard to imagine this is the low point for Stanford football in this ever-changing era.
It feels like Shaw got out at just the right time, especially with what Riley is doing in USC. That model isn’t going away.
Utes, please just let us have our fun
Leave it to Friend of the Show David Woods to lay it out perfectly.
Funniest remaining outcome in the Pac-12 is the Utes beating USC in the title game on a questionable call yeah?
— David Woods (@daviddavidwoods) November 26, 2022
So, of course, this is how it has to happen.
Like Utah getting into the Pac-12 title game through some hocus-pocus, the Utes will inevitably beat USC in the conference title game, knocking the Trojans out of the CFP and rendering the league desperate and clawing. And why? Everybody now: Because the Pac-12 doesn’t deserve nice things!
If USC actually one-ups Utah this time, striking revenge for a 43-42 loss to the Utes in Week 7, we’ll know this is actually a brand new day in the Pac-12. It’ll be reminiscent of the early Pete Carroll era, when the Trojans exorcised the demons of near-misses by Oregon (2001), Washington and Oregon State (2000) and UCLA and Arizona (1998).
Kudos to the Pac-12, finally
This might be something I explore further this week, but when is the last time you could say, unequivocally, the Pac-12 is the best college football conference from top-to-bottom? Or, at least, from top-to-middle?
The Pac-12 finishes the regular season with 6 teams ranked in the top 17, 1 team at 11-1, 1 at 10-2 and 4 at 9-3. Only the SEC has 6 teams in the Top 25, and it’s truly the Top 25, from No. 1 Georgia — and No. 6 Alabama, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 11 LSU and No. 20 South Carolina — to No. 25 Mississippi State.
No other conference has more than 3 teams in the Top 25.
The league hasn’t finished the regular season with 6 Top-25 finishers since 2014, coincidentally the last time it had a national runner-up in No. 2 Oregon.
The Road to Las Vegas (Around the Pac-12)
Well, it lasted until the very end, and it went down in the weirdest way.
A confluence of events had to happen for Utah to earn a return visit to the Pac-12 title game.
As I wrote last week:
“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.”
And guess how it played out?
The Pac-12 is so weird.
Gold Stars of the Week
Welcome to the Week 13 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||12|
|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|
|Michael Wiley||Arizona||Running back||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 13 …
1. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. (3 stars)
One of the big separators distancing Michael Penix Jr. from Caleb Williams and Bo Nix for much of the season has been Penix’s limited use of his legs this year. He’d managed better than 20 yards on the ground just once this year — in a season-opening 45-20 win over Kent State — and only scored 2 rushing touchdowns in the first 11 games.
In the Apple Cup on Saturday, in addition to being on-point in the passing game, he added 2 rushing touchdowns on 2 carries, including a 30-yard score.
When added to a fantastic 25-of-43, 485-yard, 3-touchdown, 1-pick performance, that equals major honors, like the coveted top Gold Star spot.
Penix turned to his terrific top three of Rome Odunze (5 catches, 157 yards, 1 touchdown), Jalen McMillan (6, 150, 1) and Ja’Lynn Polk (4, 82, 1) against the Cougars’ veteran defensive backs.
Most impressively, Penix aired it out, connecting on passes of 74, 48, 47, 41, 30, 26, 26, 25 and 23 yards in the win.
2. Arizona RB Michael Wiley (2 stars)
Granted, the Arizona State defense is terrible, but what Michael Wiley did against the Sun Devils will be talked about in Tucson for a generation. Wiley had one of the best Territorial Cup performances in history, rushing 12 times for 214 yards and 3 scores while adding 3 receptions for 51 yards. He had runs for 72, 52, 22, 21, 13 and 12 yards and catches of 30 and 17 yards.
Wiley, whose previous career high was 122 yards on 7 carries back in 2020, steadily made his presence more known this year. He had a 21-carry, 97-yard game in a 34-28 upset win over UCLA, and he finishes the year with a serviceable 771 yards on 13 carries with 8 touchdowns. He should be one of the league’s better backs next year.
3. USC QB Caleb Williams (1 star)
Williams was clean and concise in the passing game, completing 18-of-22 attempts for 232 yards and a score, but he really made his impact with his feet, both extending plays and in terms of production.
Williams had 3 more rushing touchdowns on 9 carries, gaining 35 yards against a stout Notre Dame defense.
It was yet another Heisman-worthy performance for the front-runner.
On to my Pac-12 Weekly Awards ballot:
Defensive Line POW: Washington DL Jeremiah Martin
Martin helped hold the Cougars to just 6 points and 129 yards in the second half, finishing the game with 3 tackles, 2 quarterback sacks and a forced fumble. For the game, the Washington defense got to Cam Ward 6 times.
Defensive POW: Arizona DB Jaxen Turner
Turner pulled off the turnover trifecta, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and recovering a fumble as the Wildcats forced 5 turnovers, their single-game high for the year. Turner was 3rd on the team with 8 tackles, 5 solo.
Honorable mentions: USC DB Calen Bullock: Oregon State DB Kitan Oladipo
Freshman POW: Oregon State RB Damien Martinez
Late in the season, this became a 2-man race with Arizona linebacker Jacob Manu. And maybe this is a season award for a weekly honor, but Martinez became the first Beaver since Steven Jackson in 2003 to notch 6 consecutive 100-yard games with a 103-yard performance against Oregon.
Offensive Line POW: Arizona OG Jonah Savaiinaea
One of Arizona’s top recruits, Savaiinaea continued improving through the season and culminated with a team-high 85.1 PFF pass-blocking grade in the Wildcats’ win over Arizona State. He did not allow a hurry and did not allow a hit as the Wildcats rushed for a season-high 280 yards and a season-high 5 rushing touchdowns.
Offensive POW: Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
Penix went 25-for-43 for 484 yards, 3 TD passes and 1 interception and 34 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. He heads into the UW’s bowl game with 4,354 yards — 105 shy of Cody Pickett’s 20-year-old record.
Honorable mentions: USC QB Caleb Williams; Oregon State RB Damien Martinez; Washington RB Wayne Taulapapa.
Special Teams POW: Stanford K Joshua Karty
Karty went 2-for-2 on field goals (34 and 54 yards) against BYU, making him a clean 18-for-18 on field goals for the season, tied for the 4th-most in a single season in program history. He is the only kicker in the country to go 100 percent on field goals, and he has the longest kick in the season, last week’s 61-yarder against Cal.
Obscure stat of the week
Arizona State had 21 more 1st downs than Arizona (39-18) in the Sun Devils’ 38-35 loss to the Wildcats. When’s the last time that happened?
Conference championship matchup I’m most looking forward to
USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon vs. Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III
Two of the country’s best defensive backs will be in charge of shutting down explosive pass offenses. Blackmon ranks 6th in Pro Football Focus cornerback grading, while Phillips ranks 10th.