Pac-12 thoughts: Washington's struggles, Chip Kelly's changeup, Utah's wizardry
The Pac-12 title picture is starting to come into focus as we head into the final week of October. Washington didn’t score an offensive touchdown against Arizona State yet still managed to walk away with a win. Utah kept its hopes for a third consecutive conference title alive with a walk-off win over USC, and Oregon kept pace with the top of the league in a two-score win over Washington State.
With another week of Pac-12 play in the books, let’s get to some conference-wide thoughts.
1. Arizona State is plucky, but no one expected it to give Washington that sort of challenge. Heisman frontrunner Michael Penix Jr. threw for a season-low 275 yards and turned the ball over three times — two interceptions and a lost fumble.
With one of the most prolific offenses in the country seemingly out of commission, it was the Huskies defense that had to save the day via an 89-yard pick-six from corner Mishael Powell in the fourth quarter. Prior to that play, there was also a controversial decision by the Pac-12 refs to pick up a flag on what looked like clear pass interference deep in the red zone.
Washington gets what seemed like a blatant pass interference penalty picked up pic.twitter.com/tB257yzEOS
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) October 22, 2023
Washington owns one of the best wins of the season — the 36-33 victory against Oregon two weeks ago. But that has been sandwiched in between less-than-stellar performances against Arizona and Arizona State, both one-score wins against significant underdogs.
Stanford shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the Huskies this week, but after that Washington faces a three-game stretch against ranked teams: at USC, vs. Utah and at Oregon State.
USC has a puncher’s chance in almost every game because it has Caleb Williams, but its defense does not match up well with the Huskies. Utah’s defense gives it an opportunity to win every game, but can its offense keep up if the game turns into a shootout?
Oregon State might be the Huskies’ toughest remaining challenge. The Beavers have a great run game, and Washington’s defense ranks 73rd in yards per rush allowed (4.1).
So in a few weeks, we’ll find out if these performances were outliers that can be written off or more like signs of things to come.
2. With Washington 7-0 and ranked fifth in the country, Kalen DeBoer is probably the favorite for Pac-12 Coach of the Year right now but, man, there’s a tremendous argument for Kyle Whittingham.
The Utes are 6-1 and ranked 13th in the latest AP poll. All of this despite the fact their starting quarterback Cam Rising and arguably their best offensive weapon, tight end Brant Kuithe, haven’t taken a snap and will not play this season.
There are injuries elsewhere too. Ultra-talented linebacker Lander Barton is now out for the season after he suffered an injury against USC this past weekend. That’s a big blow for the defense, but true to form, the Utes have just rolled with the punches this season. There were also injuries at running back, leading to safety Sione Vaki getting some snaps at the position.
He rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns against Cal. This past weekend, he rushed for 68 yards and caught five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a thrilling 34-32 win over USC.
Every time his team’s back is seemingly against the wall, Whittingham continues to find a way. The Utes, who have one league loss (Week 5 against Oregon State), will certainly be up against it this week when eighth-ranked Oregon visits Salt Lake City. Their bid for a three-peat rests heavily on what happens this weekend.
3. Bo Nix takes up a lot of the oxygen in discussions about Oregon’s offense, but it was the running game that propelled the Ducks to a 38-24 victory over Washington State.
Oregon rushed for 248 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. Bucky Irving helped Oregon pull away in the second half and rushed for 129 yards and two scores — Irving has rushed for at least 120 yards in each of the past two weeks.
This angle of Bucky Irving’s ankle breaking TD run pic.twitter.com/k7VI053oXV
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) October 21, 2023
Jordan James also broke the 100-yard mark, rushing for 103 yards against Wazzu.
Oregon leads the nation in yards per rush (6.8 yards) and is tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (21). There are some pretty high-powered offenses in the Pac-12, but none can really match Oregon’s balance.
That should give the Ducks answers for whatever problems opposing defenses try to create over the final five games of the regular season.
4. In a critical three-game stretch against Utah, Washington State and Oregon State, UCLA suffered two losses, both on the road — at Utah and at OSU. The Bruins defense held up just fine over that span, but true freshman quarterback Dante Moore made critical mistakes — including throwing at least one pick-six in each of those games.
So Chip Kelly made a switch at quarterback and went back to the original starter, Ethan Garbers, in a business-like win over Stanford. Garbers completed 20-of-28 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the 42-7 triumph.
Garbers should have success against Colorado’s extremely vulnerable secondary this weekend. Following that favorable matchup, however, UCLA plays at Arizona and then hosts Arizona State in the next two games. Both of those defenses have been feisty this season.
5. Last week, I wrote that it might be wise to buy some stock in Kenny Dillingham’s staff at Arizona State. After giving Washington all it could handle on Saturday, it’s difficult not to feel more confident about that take.
The Sun Devils (1-6, 0-4 Pac-12) have been banged up at quarterback and on the offensive line this season, and their defensive personnel isn’t where it needs to be, either. Despite that, Arizona State has been extremely competitive over the past month — three one-score losses and the USC game was close in the fourth quarter.
The tough part is that all of these good efforts haven’t resulted in wins, but there are still positives to take. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward has been impressive this season, just as he was last year at Washington State. The Sun Devils rank 30th in yards per play allowed — pretty impressive considering the situation.
6. In his six full seasons as a head coach, at Oklahoma and USC, Lincoln Riley has never finished with more than two losses in the regular season.
Well, that might — actually probably will — change soon. The Trojans lost in excruciating fashion to Utah once again and are 6-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play this season. There are games against Washington, Oregon and UCLA remaining on the schedule, making a return trip to the Pac-12 title game seem unrealistic at this point.
With the way the Trojans are playing, Riley seems much closer to four losses than running the table.
7. Oregon State, Arizona, Colorado and Cal all return from an idle week with tough challenges this weekend: Colorado plays at UCLA, Cal hosts USC and Oregon State and Arizona face each other.
Arizona is getting better and better by the week, and the Beavers have responded from their loss to Washington State with three consecutive wins — two over ranked teams (Utah and UCLA).
Oregon and Utah will be the league contest garnering the most discussion and hype this weekend, but Oregon State at Arizona has the potential to be the best game of the week.
(Photo of Ethan Garbers: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)