Excellent once again in non-conference play, the Pac-12 concluded the bulk of those games for the 2013 season in Week 3. As an increased slate of conference games beckons, last week’s games gave most teams many reasons for confidence entering that stretch.
Stanford 34, Army 20: West Coast teams often do not travel well to the East Coast, so Stanford’s early struggles did not come as a total surprise. Still, the Cardinal should have wiped out the Black Knights more comfortably than they did in view of their significant size and talent advantages. An early fumble by Kevin Hogan combined with opportunistic play from Army’s triple-option attack to dig a small hole for Stanford. They climbed out of it but could not quite shed their overmatched opponents until late in the third quarter as uncharacteristically haphazard play continued. As the game progressed, though, the Stanford defense adjusted more smoothly to the variety of looks presented by Army’s offense, a good sign for the future.
UCLA 41, Nebraska 21: After UCLA edged a thrilling shoot-out between these teams in Pasadena last year, some observers expected Nebraska to earn its revenge on its home field. And the early stages of this game gave reason to accept that belief, the Cornhuskers quickly compiling a 21-3 lead. Instead of crumbling, though, Jim Mora’s squad battled back from that adversity and reeled off the last 38 points of the game. Player such as quarterback Brett Hundley attributed some of their early sluggishness to the team’s sorrow over the death of player Nick Pasquale. A UCLA offense that has scored 99 points in its first two games does not seem to miss Johnathan Franklin much, while its defense has stiffened since last year’s inconsistent performance. Possibly—but not probably—a Rose Bowl preview, their victory today over a ranked opponent from a major conference (the Big Ten) boosted the Pac-12’s reputation overall regarding its rivals.
USC 35, Boston College 7: If this game served as a test of Lane Kiffin’s future at USC, the embattled coach certainly passed it. Trojan fans might have varying degrees of enthusiasm about that news, but they cannot complain about the remarkable turnaround of their defense from last year’s feckless unit. USC has not allowed a single offensive touchdown in a meaningful situation through its first three games. Definitively naming Cody Kessler the starting quarterback may have boosted his confidence, while star wide receiver Marqise Lee played the larger role that he deserves. The murmurs of internal dissent emanating from USC in recent weeks may ebb if they can bring this form to conference play.
Oregon 59, Tennessee 14: The first few possessions did not bode well for the Ducks as they hosted an SEC opponent for the first time in the Kelly/Helfrich era. A rash of penalties, a jittery Marcus Mariota, and the return of ongoing kicking woes left Oregon looking much less than its No. 2 ranking. Like national No. 1 Alabama, they raced back with an avalanche of first-half points to essentially put away the Volunteers by the intermission. Off to patrol the bench by the third quarter, Mariota unleashed a series of pinpoint passes before then, while the penalties dwindled sharply as the Ducks overcame what appeared to be nerves. Concerns about the defensive line handling Tennessee’s massive offensive line evaporated when Oregon limited early-down runs. They finished their pre-conference schedule on a high note ahead of a bye week before hosting Cal, outscoring opponents 184-27 during that span. The 184 points rank as the second-most in the history of college football for a team in its first three games of a season.
Ohio State 52, California 34: Less than four minutes into the game, Ohio State had scored two touchdowns on a total of four offensive plays. Meanwhile, Cal had failed to convert consecutive short plays on second down and third down, fumbling the snap on the latter. The hilariously inept Golden Bears of last year had appeared to resurface under a glowering Sonny Dykes. Cal improved significantly from there (how could it not?) but never seriously threatened the nation’s longest winning streak. No team can expect to upset a top-five opponent when spotting them a massive early lead. They might learn a similar lesson when they travel to Oregon in two weeks.
Washington 34, Illinois 24: Keith Price continued his resurgence to 2011 form, keeping the Illinois defense off balance as he ranged outside the pocket for ambitious but accurate throws. Running back Bishop Sankey gave Washington’s offense the extra weapon that it needs to complement Price, while the defense looked nearly as stingy as it had against Boise State in the opener. Washington bounced back efficiently from that momentum-boosting win to start the season, perhaps benefiting from the bye week before its second game. Although the game stayed close well into the third quarter, they never trailed in an unspectacular but solid road win. Like UCLA’s victory over Nebraska, this game burnished the Pac-12’s reputation against the Big Ten more than Cal’s loss to Ohio State undermined it.
Oregon State 51, Utah 48 (OT): Heading into 2013, most observers felt that Oregon State could look forward to a stronger season than Utah. After two weeks, many of us felt more or less the opposite after the North Division team staggered to an FCS loss and the South Division team’s offense unexpectedly caught fire in routing a former nemesis (Utah State). So would the first instinct or the second guess prove correct? Only an overtime epic would decide the issue in favor of the former, following a career game from Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion and a spectacular dual-threat effort from Utes quarterback Travis Wilson, who ran for the last two scores. If Utah had not lost the turnover battle 3-0, though, they likely would have won in regulation. Those mistakes by a relatively young team contrasted with the poise shown by Mannion and his fellow Oregon State veterans under pressure. They needed this game after losing the season opener in the final minute. It felt appropriate for both explosive but flawed teams to leave the evening with the same solid but imperfect 2-1 record.
In a potential blow to Oregon State’s future, running back Storm Woods left the field in an ambulance midway through the fourth quarter after an injury while pass blocking for Mannion. Fortunately, initial reports from the hospital were more encouraging than the scene on the field looked.
Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30: This game looked sure to be a nail-biter from the outset, and it delivered on those expectations. The start of a grueling four-week stretch against three ranked opponents and USC tested Arizona State’s resolve in adversity. Falling behind by 11 points in the first half after a special teams miscue, they patiently chipped away at the deficit until taking the lead in the fourth quarter. Even so, the Sun Devils likely should have lost this game. Needing just a field goal to slip out of Tempe with the victory, Wisconsin drove inside the Arizona State red zone in the last 30 seconds. A very makeable 32-yard attempt on the last play of regulation loomed, and time to spare with which to make it—or so it seemed, until the Badgers bungled the kneel needed to stop the clock with no timeouts. While their opponents essentially handed the game to them, at least in the view of officials, Arizona State deserves credit for their relentlessness on both sides of the ball against a favored opponent. They should find themselves in the top 25 shortly.
Washington State 48, Southern Utah 10: A week after ambushing USC at home, Washington State dismantled an FCS opponent at home with ease. The Cougars started 2-1 for the second straight season but will hope that 2012 progresses more fruitfully than 2012 did. Early signs suggest that it will, based on the previous two games rather than the third.
Arizona 38, UTSA 13: This game marked the end of a virtual preseason for Arizona, which faced Northern Arizona and UNLV before UTSA. Far from a murderer’s row, that set of opponents offered the Wildcats an easy route halfway to bowl eligibility as new quarterback B.J. Denker transitions into the Rich Rodriguez scheme. On the other hand, this team will face a steep rise in competition against future Pac-12 opponents. Washington State at least revealed some of their potential strengths and weaknesses during the USC upset, but Arizona still offers a relatively murky picture. The first team in the South to win three games in 2013 might do well to recall the story of the tortoise and the hare.