Week 9: Southern Scramble

What a weekend it was in the Pac-12, particularly in the South Division.  The LA schools went on the road to take on the Arizona schools.  The final scores look similar, but don’t be deceived: the quality of the games was quite different.

I. South Action: Top to Bottom

Arizona 39, USC 36: You would think that after a scintillating UCLA victory, I would choose to open this blog post by commenting on the Bruins.  Yet the fact remains that as delighted as I am with the Bruin win, I am absolutely furious with USC’s loss.  To whom much is given, much is expected; but the Trojans, for the second time this season, have failed to deliver.  This particular loss is a killer.  If anything, it is even more inexplicable than the early season dud against Stanford.

If you’re a Trojan backer, you might want to skip past this rant.  If you’re a fan of the macabre, read on.

The initial drives for each team set the tone for the entire game.  Barkley opened by throwing yet another interception to kill a drive in Arizona territory.  Arizona went three-and-out, but a bonehead unsportsmanlike conduct penalty extended the drive and led to a Wildcat touchdown.  After one quarter of play, the Wildcats were up 10-0.

It did not seem to matter, however, because the Wildcat pass defense was completely unable to stop Marqise Lee, who erupted for a staggering 345 yards receiving and had broken the Pac-12 single game receiving mark by halftime.  Lee, it seemed, was single-handedly willing his team to victory.

Yet the underlying malaise and lack of focus and discipline would finally consume the Trojans.  Leading 28-13, with only six minutes to play in the third quarter, and having forced Arizona to punt on two consecutive possessions, the Trojans had the opportunity to ice the game when Robert Woods was wide open down the sideline (the Arizona defender had slipped).  Barkley had all day to throw.  Anyone who knows anything about playing quarterback knows that in such situations, all you have to do is get the ball close to the receiver — even an underthrow is acceptable, since the receiver still has time to wait for the ball.  But no: the ball was overthrown, the chance missed.

Nevertheless, with a 15-point lead and the ball and just over twenty minutes to play, USC still should have won the game.  What happened thereafter shows just how far this team is from being a champion.  In summary, the next eight possessions:

  • USC punt, Arizona TD.
  • USC fumble, Arizona TD.
  • USC turns the ball over on downs; Arizona TD (this included a conversion on 3rd and 22).
  • USC punt, Arizona TD.

With the game, the season, and any shot at the national championship on the line, USC’s offense and defense completely disappeared for 16 minutes.  Thus did a 28-13 lead turn into a 39-28 deficit in the span of just over one quarter.  Ballgame.

How did this happen?  That question is complicated — there are many reasons why — but we can start with the obvious.  USC turned the ball over five times, including two ugly interceptions.  The Trojans committed an abominable 13 penalties to continue to “lead” the nation in that category.  Late in the game, Arizona QB Matt Scott was hit in the helmet by two different defenders at almost the same time — a borderline dirty play that ended up knocking him out of the game.  As stated above, Marqise Lee had a record setting day receiving, but his effort went wasted because no one else on the team picked up the slack.

That last statement leads me to the harshest critique of the 2012 Trojans: NO LEADERSHIP.  During the 16-minute, eight-possession stretch mentioned above, there was no palpable sense of urgency from anyone (save for Marqise Lee) on the USC sideline.  Where was the team leader barking at his teammates to make a play?  Where were the coaches telling their players to wake up?  This is football!  You can’t win this game on talent alone!  You have to play the game physically, mentally, and emotionally.  There is no question that USC is talented physically, but the lack of discipline (mental) combined with the appalling lack of urgency (emotional) can lead to only one conclusion: USC has drastically underachieved.  This was the preseason #1 team, with the prohibitive Heisman favorite and the best receiving tandem in the country, not to mention several outstanding running backs.  The defense was a question mark entering the season, but in fact it is the defense that had been carrying the team in recent weeks.

I am not alone in this assessment.  You can check out CBS Sports for their mid-season discussion of the Pac-12 below.  USC is listed as the most disappointing team — and that was before their loss to Arizona:

http://www.cbssports.com/collegefootball/blog/college-football-rapidreports/20564167/pac-12-midseason-awards-all-conference-teams

Perhaps this loss could be justified if Arizona had played a perfect game.  They did not.  The Wildcats somehow committed more penalties (14 for an astounding 129 yards) than the Trojans!  They had no pass defense, dropped several passes on offense, had to settle for a field goal after having it first and goal at the 1, and nullified a 27-yard field goal at the end of the first half by getting flagged for holding and missing the 37-yarder.

In other words, USC has absolutely no excuses for this performance.  With a senior QB, experienced backs and receivers, and a solid defense, losing to Arizona in this fashion is beyond inexcusable.  It is disgraceful.

For those of you who think I’m finished, you’re wrong.  It gets worse.  USC has already played the comparatively “easy” part of its schedule, having defeated UW, Utah, Colorado, Cal, Syracuse, and Hawaii — teams that are a combined 18-42 on the year.  None of those teams have winning records.  The only teams USC has played with winning records are 6-2 Stanford and 5-3 Arizona, and they lost both of those games.  What’s next?  Try 8-0 Oregon, 5-3 ASU, 6-2 UCLA, and 8-0 Notre Dame.  USC should win at least two of those games, but so what?  8-4 for the team that was the Pac-12’s best shot to stop the SEC’s reign of dominance?  Even if USC finishes 9-3, that will be a major disappointment.  I suppose 10-2 will allow the Trojans to salvage something of this season; we’ll see if there is any maturity on this team that will allow them to galvanize their tremendous potential in the final four games.  Right now, though, the leadership on the team gets an F.

UCLA 45, Arizona State 43: now THIS was a football game.  Two young, evenly matched teams battled from the outset for the right to be the “challenger” to USC in the South division.  Things started out rough for the Bruins when Steven Manfro fumbled an ASU punt, leading to a short field and quick Sun Devil touchdown.  Having fumbled punts earlier in the season — including in the end zone against Utah — Manfro should not have been allowed to field them during this game; indeed, this error could easily have cost UCLA the game.  UCLA had to punt on its next possession and by the time five minutes had elapsed, ASU had taken a 14-0 lead.

Reason to panic?  Not if you’re Brett Hundley.  UCLA had cut the lead to 17-14 with just over a minute to play in the half.  That’s when ASU, starting from their own 4 yard line, inexplicably gambled on a pass.  Dalton Hilliard said “thank you” with his interception while Johnathan Franklin finished the sentence “very much” with his 5-yard TD on the next play to put the Bruins ahead 21-17 at the break.

The game continued back and forth, both teams playing well with minimal errors, until UCLA had taken a 42-33 lead with nine minutes to play.  ASU marched down the field on its next two possessions, first cutting the lead to six, then taking the lead, 43-42, with 93 seconds to play.

That’s when this happened:

Some things to point out from the finish to this game.

  • Arizona State called two timeouts during this drive, which is hard to explain.
  • Hundley, a redshirt freshman, executed the two-minute drill to near perfection.  Barkley, a senior, botched USC’s two-minute drill vs. Arizona, wasting precious seconds and thereby costing his team a chance for a game-tying field goal.
  • Noah, unbeknownst to me, magically teleported himself to the finish of this contest in time to congratulate Fairbairn on his winning kick.  (See him at the 2:56 mark in the video.)  For this dedication, Noah deserves to be rewarded; therefore, although I disagree on principle, I am going to vote Yes on Proposition 30 to thank him for his wizardry.

This game obviously could have gone either way, but what makes this game noteworthy is how well both teams played — few penalties, few turnovers, no mental breakdowns — a stark contrast to the poorly played USC-Arizona game.

For those of you who think I am a Bruin homer and will use these results to justify why UCLA is going to beat USC this season, think again.  USC is still the better team — on paper — and should win again — on paper.  But if USC plays as stupidly as they did last Saturday, they aren’t going to win ANY of their remaining games.  On the other hand, UCLA remains the wild card team in the division.  You never know what you’re going to get with a wild card team.  UCLA’s remaining games — vs. Arizona, at WSU, vs. USC, vs. Stanford — could go any which way.  The Bruins could end up 6-6, or they could end up 10-2.  But this team is showing improvement week to week, and by winning on the road in a difficult environment and committing very few mental mistakes, there is genuine cause for optimism in Westwood.  This victory also helps erase the memory of UCLA’s 48-12 loss at Arizona last season, a game which marked the low point of the Neuheisel era.  (If USC’s effort this week against Arizona was disgraceful, UCLA’s performance in last year’s game against the Wildcats was unconscionable.)  I do not see UCLA suffering any meltdowns with Mora as head coach.  If you’re going to beat the Bruins, you’re going to have to beat the Bruins, because they’re not going to beat themselves.  USC should take a lesson.

Oregon 70, Colorado 14: seriously, do I have to comment on this?  It was 56-0 at the half.

Utah 49, Dumb Cal 27: the Golden Bears lost the turnover battle and gave up two 100-yard kickoff returns to Reggie Dunn to lose convincingly in Salt Lake City.  To make it to a bowl game, Cal must defeat Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington.  If you can’t beat Utah, you ain’t winning those three.  Retirement beckons, Mr. Tedford.

II. Northern Exposure: Cardinal, Huskies Survive

Stanford 24, WSU 17: Stanford continues to unimpress, escaping with a 7-point victory over lowly WSU despite just 13 first downs and 256 total yards.  Stanford now has four wins by 7 points or fewer and is lucky to be 6-2.  With remaining games against Oregon, Oregon State, and UCLA, the Card will be hard pressed to get to nine wins this season.

Washington 20, Oregon State 17: yep, I saw this one coming.  Oregon State pressed hard from a 10-0 halftime deficit, but lost several key players on offense (receiver Markus Wheaton, running back Storm Woods) en route to an unfortunate loss in Seattle.  The culprit: four interceptions by QB Sean Mannion, who had just returned from minor knee surgery.  The Beavers are still a better team than Washington — the Huskies managed under 300 yards on the night, while Oregon State topped 400 — but that many mistakes on the road will cost you.

III. Power Rankings: Full Conference

I have been giving out conference power rankings by division this season, but this time I’m going to rank all teams 1-12.

  • 1. Oregon. No question about it: this team is the class of the conference.
  • 2. Oregon State, USC.  The Beavers will have to bounce back from their tough loss to regain their footing on the season.  USC keeps the top spot in the South only because no other team is clearly better. Yet.
  • 4. UCLA, ASU, Arizona, Stanford.  These teams are very different, but in head-to-head matches on neutral sites, each game would be a virtual pick ’em.  Stanford’s offense has been poor and the Cardinal are on the downturn.  ASU is close to being back.  Arizona is perhaps the best 5-3 team in the nation.  UCLA is still the wildcard, but the win at ASU is starting to make me a believer.
  • 8. Utah.  A team on its own island: better than the four teams below it, but not as good as any of the teams above.
  • 9. Washington.  Yes, they have beaten Stanford and Oregon State, so one would think they deserve to be higher, right?  Not in my book.  Both of those wins were flukey.  Maybe the Huskies should be higher than Utah, but I’m just not sold on UW this season.  I think Utah turned the corner in their win over Cal and could finish the season on a high note, much like they did last season after an 0-4 start in conference.
  • 10. WSU.  How can I put a winless conference team in 10th place?  Simple: a good outing against Stanford.  WSU also was close against Oregon, on the road, at halftime, so this team does have some talent.
  • 11. Cal.  Dead man walking.
  • 12. Colorado.  Dead man.  Not walking.

IV. Week 10 Previews

Arizona at UCLA: who would have guessed that this game would upstage Oregon vs. USC as the conference game of the week?  But it does, and if you’re only going to watch one game this weekend, this is the game to watch.  Both teams are coming off huge victories that went down to the final play.  Arizona can score with anyone and could run over UCLA if they’re hitting on all cylinders.  But the Wildcat defense hasn’t been able to stop anyone all season, so even if UCLA gives up 40 points, they could still win this game — just as they did against ASU.

So what’s the call — Bruins or Wildcats?  Honestly I have no idea.  Arizona has to play a bit more intelligently than they did against USC, because UCLA is not going to match the Wildcat penalty total.  But UCLA’s defense is going to have a tough time stopping Matt Scott and Company, the Pac-12’s leading offense.  I give no prediction for this game except to say that it is a must-see event for anyone that enjoys college football.  The stakes: momentum, a Top 25 ranking, and a share of the lead in the Pac-12 South.  Who could ask for more?

Oregon at USC: last year, USC walked into Eugene and, in spite of my prediction, walked out of there with the biggest win in the Lane Kiffin era.  That was a monumental upset for the Trojans, and it knocked Oregon out of a potential rematch with LSU in the national title game.  But that was 2011, and this year’s USC team is not playing nearly as well as last year’s team, and for that reason I am picking Oregon to win.  USC is the home team this time, but all the intangibles favor for the Ducks (revenge for Oregon, potential let down for USC after the deflating loss to Arizona).

Can USC win the game?  Of course they can — they did it last year on the road.  Do I want USC to win?  Heck no.  I was backing the Trojans to represent the conference all the way to the title game this year, but after two disastrous losses, that mantle now belongs to the Ducks.  I hope this game is over early, with Oregon winning by at least three TD’s to secure its foothold as the best team in the country not named Alabama.

Arizona State at Oregon State: a crucial bounce back game for both teams, who suffered difficult losses last weekend.  ASU needs a win to push back any negative thoughts of a repeat of last season’s disastrous collapse.  OSU needs to get back on track at home so that their season-ending contest against the Ducks really means something.  It’s strength against strength as ASU’s offense goes up against a stout Beaver defense.  If Oregon State is healthy and avoids turnovers, the Beavers should win this game in Corvallis.

Washington at Dumb Cal: Tedford’s Last Stand.  Lose this game, and Cal is guaranteed to finish below .500.  UW doesn’t strike me as anything close to impressive, though, so who knows?  Someone has to win, so take your pick…I’m guessing the final score is 13-10.

Stupid Washington State at Utah: bad timing for the Cougars, who played a good game against Stanford but will now face a rejuvenated Utah squad in Salt Lake City.  The game may not be pretty, but I expect Utah to win, and handily.

Stanford at Colorado: good timing for the Cardinal, who are not playing especially well on offense.  But anyone can play well against Colorado, and Stanford will move to 7-2 before hitting the gauntlet of Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA to close out the season.

V. Finishing Up: Around the Nation

  • Louisville moves to 8-0 after an overtime victory over Cincinnati.  No one will mistake the Cardinals for the other five remaining undefeated teams, however (except maybe Ohio State).  Charlie Strong has done a sensational job at Louisville, but they would lose a head-to-head matchup with anyone ranked in the top four.
  • South Carolina upends Tennessee 38-35 to send the Vols to their third straight 0-5 start in SEC play.  Mr. Dooley, meet Mr. Tedford.
  • Texas escapes Kansas with a 21-17 win after backup Case McCoy leads the Horns to the winning score with 12 seconds to play, barely averting disaster for Mack Brown.
  • Georgia defeats Florida 17-9 — or rather, Florida defeats Florida, 6-0.  (That’s six turnovers for the Gators.)  Goodbye undefeated season.  Florida’s offense is still a complete mess.
  • Miami of Ohio knocks Ohio from the ranks of the unbeaten, 23-20.
  • Similarly, Kent State (huh?) removes Rutgers from the list of undefeated teams, 35-23.
  • Kansas State led Texas Tech 13-10 at the half.  Final score: Wildcats 55, Red Raiders 24.  Wildcats reign supreme; Collin Klein for Heisman.
  • Ohio State moves to (ugh) 9-0 with their 35-23 win at Penn State.  Illinois certainly will not defeat the Buckeyes next week.  If Wisconsin or Michigan can’t take them out, OSU will finish 12-0 and become one of those mysterious undefeated teams that floats through history with no post season play — a dreadful thought.
  • Texas A&M annihilates Auburn — in Auburn! — 63-21 to send the Tigers to 1-7.  Can this possibly be the same team that won the national championship just two seasons ago?
  • Alabama churns out yet another ho-hum victory, this time dispatching #13 Mississippi State 38-7.  If they do the same thing at LSU on Saturday, this could be one of the great football teams of all time.  Yes, they are — or at least appear to be — that good.
  • Notre Dame surprised many people — particularly yours truly, who expected the Sooners to thrash the Irish — by executing their game plan to near perfection in defeating Oklahoma in Norman, 30-13.  The Irish outscored the Sooners 17-0 over the final 9:10 to wrap things up.  They committed no turnovers and had only one penalty.  You paying attention USC?  That’s how you play winning football.

To conclude this week’s post, after much ranting and raving on my end, I offer the sublime.

It’s North Carolina vs. North Carolina State.  Rivalry game par excellence.  30 seconds to play.  Tie score.  Watch:

You gotta love it.

Until next week,

Mr. G.

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