Thoughts on Week 1 in the Pac-12
In general, the first week went smoothly enough for the Pac-12 with one glaring exception. (No, not Colorado.) The conference posted a 7-3 record overall, including a resounding win over a non-conference ranked team and a catastrophic loss to an FCS team. Here are some thoughts on how each team performed in general and what they can improve moving forward.
Utah 30, Utah State 26: With both Oregon schools, Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Arizona State on the schedule, the Utes have no room for error if they aim to reach a bowl game. Thus, their opener against an in-state rival from a lesser conference had to go in the win column. And it did, although Utah State did not make it easy on a team that it defeated last year. Rallying from a 14-3 deficit in the second quarter, the underdogs and visitors stunned Utah by scoring 20 unanswered points. The resilience that a relatively raw Utah squad showed, particularly on offense, in rallying from that deficit should encourage their fans that they can turn a new leaf after a disappointing 2012 season.
While more lead changes came later, the true turning point arrived when Utah executed a surprise onside kick to perfection in the third quarter. Their kicker also drilled a 45-yard field goal on the first attempt of his career and two more for the last six points of their nail-biting win. For a team that expects to play many close games, a solid kicker is a great sign.
Arizona 35, Northern Arizona 0: For multiple reasons, we could not quite get the measure of the Wildcats in their cupcake opener against a very poor opponent. Star running back Ka’deem Carey sat out the game with a suspension, so the Wildcats relied on their second-string rushing attack. That area functioned well enough, as did the new starting quarterback B.J. Denker, and last year’s horrid defense pitched a shutout to start 2013. In theory, all of that news should help to answer key questions from the offseason and give fans plenty of confidence moving forward. But then there is the comparison to last year’s game, when the defense also held Northern Arizona to single digits while the offense scored more than 60 points. That comparison, or contrast, suggests the regression from last year to this year that most expected for the Wildcats.
USC 30, Hawaii 13: Granted, we will not know what to expect from this team for at least a month, since they start with a virtual preseason schedule against several pedestrian opponents. But the ugly, sometimes undisciplined football that they produced in Hawaii contrasted sharply with the pristine quality of their victory over the same opponent last year, suggesting that the post-Barkley transition may need time. A team accustomed to winning games because of brilliant quarterback play won its opener in spite of underwhelming quarterback play. Lane Kiffin’s seat will not get much cooler if Cody Kessler continues to perform like the flustered novice that he is. Kessler will face defenses much more impressive than Hawaii this year, and even that non-AQ team sacked him in the end zone for a safety, harried him into poor decisions, and limited his offense to a single touchdown through three quarters.
On the bright side, USC’s defense appears to have improved vastly from last year’s debacle. They recorded seven sacks and four interceptions, one of which they returned for a touchdown. USC winning with defense? Maybe the Mayans were not so far wrong.
Oregon 66, Nicholls State 3: Nobody doubted that the Ducks would demolish the lowly Nicholls State squad that lost to Oregon State by more than 70 last fall. And they did, setting a program record with 772 yards of offense. New coach Mark Helfrich did not follow Chip Kelly’s habit of going for an early two-point conversion but instead stayed as conventional as this unconventional offense can be. De’Anthony Thomas received a large helping of carries in his first game as the regular Oregon running back. His familiar strengths and weaknesses persisted: the blinding speed and elusiveness combined with some hesitations and poor decisions on initial cuts. The offense did not always whir with its full efficiency, failing to convert a fourth down in the second quarter and keeping Marcus Mariota in the game well past halftime.
Outside the first Pac-12 ejection for targeting a defenseless player, correctly called, the defense tackled in space impressively and spurted toward the ball with keen anticipation. (Again, of course, this was Nicholls State, hardly a juggernaut.) Oregon experienced no injuries or serious issues on either side of the ball in their equivalent of a preseason game. They will need to play more crisply in key situations such as those fourth downs moving forward, and no doubt they will.
Eastern Washington 49, Oregon State 46: Each year, it seems, a heavy underdog upsets a nationally ranked or otherwise notable team. After stout defense throughout the 2012 season, Oregon State started 2013 by allowing an FCS opponent to rack up nearly 50 points and over 600 yards. Tackles were broken and assignments missed as chaos reigned up and down the field while Eastern Washington completed several long passes. Overlooked during that meltdown was the efficiency of quarterback Sean Mannion, who avoided his chronic issues with interceptions. Mannion and his accuracy became a greater factor as the game wore on, and vital to Oregon State even staying competitive.
Still, this game was a disaster for the Pac-12 as a whole, and the Beavers will need to improve their defense as they face more explosive Pac-12 offenses. Oregon State will have another similarly soft opponent next week when they host Hawaii, so time remains to shake off the rust. Nobody expected them to start the season 0-1, however, and they may need some time to regroup from such a demoralizing start when expectations had begun to climb again in Corvallis.
Auburn 31, Washington State 24: In a clash of two of the worst teams from two of college football’s strongest conferences, two offensive juggernauts traded touchdowns for much of the first half. A gutsy two-point conversion by Auburn kept them consistently a step ahead of Washington State, although the Cougars deserved credit for piling up points against an SEC defense. Two early interceptions hurt Washington State, so reliant on a one-dimensional passing attack but lacking an outstanding quarterback to run it. Both offenses slowed down in a second half without any touchdowns, while the home team made just enough key plays for the SEC to retain bragging rights for now over the Pac-12. But it was a step forward for Mike Leach’s team after the debacle in last season’s opener against BYU.
Washington 38, Boise State 6: Revenge tasted sweet for the Huskies, playing the first game in their new stadium. They had lost to Boise State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, a closely contested game decided by less than a field goal. In the rematch, Washington dominated the 19th-ranked team in the nation on both offense and defense, never allowing the visitors into the end zone. The most positive sign, other than the upset and its resounding score, came from quarterback Keith Price. After a breakthrough 2011, Price had struggled in 2012. With a solid performance from both his arm and his legs, he showed that 2013 might resemble the first year more than the second. Against a dangerous Boise State defense, he overcame an early interception to thread the needle on passes repeatedly in an explosive second half.
Some of the credit for Price’s revival should go to the improved, more physical Washington offensive line. Both the offensive and defensive lines won the battle at the line of scrimmage from a Boise State team that prides itself on winning those battles. Washington needed this victory to kick-start their season after three consecutive seven-win campaigns. Sarkisian’s reputation will rise, and the confidence of his team with it, ahead of a difficult conference schedule.
UCLA 58, Nevada 20: Many observers expected Nevada to challenge the two-time reigning South Division champions, despite UCLA’s status as clear favorites. The explosiveness of the Bruins offense did not surprise as Brett Hundley began to adjust to his expanded role after the departure of Johnathan Franklin. That star running back was not much missed as UCLA backed up its versatile offense with defense stingier than what they showed last year. Their comprehensive dominance over a respectable opponent gives them a leg up on USC in intangibles, if not in record, as the three-way race for the South starts to unfold. (Arizona State, the third contender, does not start until next weekend.)
Last year, UCLA varied sharply in quality from one week to the next, so coach Jim Mora wil try to maintain intensity more effectively this year. For one night, at least, his young players started to show their improved maturity as they reduced the mental mistakes and untimely penalties that had held them back. Even when the game was well under control on the scoreboard, they continued to compete well.
Northwestern 44, California 30: True freshman quarterback Jared Goff came into this game as a question mark for Cal, which had gambled on him despite his inexperience. After a quiet but steady first half, Goff came alive in the third quarter with the help of receiver Chris Harper. Sandwiched around a fumble by Northwestern, two long throws reversed a halftime deficit and demonstrated what the Bear Raid can do to passing defenses. But his fourth quarter was less impressive. Two critical interceptions killed promising ralllies and gave Northwestern valuable breathing room in the closing minutes.
An issue from 2012, penalties and generally sloppy play continued to dog Cal in 2013. Like Oregon, the Bears had a defender ejected under the new NCAA targeting rule. They also displayed another hallmark of past Sonny Dykes teams. The new coach in Berkeley has built teams that scored lots of points but gave up a lot of points too. That system may have worked in lesser conferences, but winning shootout after shootout is a dangerous way to live in a conference with stiffening defenses.
Colorado 41, Colorado State 27: The Buffaloes opened their season in style with an 82-yard touchdown on their second offensive play, and they closed it in style with a 75-yard touchdown to seal the game. A team that finished with one win last year while incurring a string of humiliating defeats needed to put the past behind them under new coach Mike MacIntyre, and it started with avenging one of those humiliating defeats. Colorado State had upset Colorado early in 2012, but it would repeat the feat despite some impressive big plays of its own. The Buffs still made plenty of mistakes, such as a bad snap on third down and a 74-yard punt return allowed. They will not become a South threat overnight, but at least they took a step in the right direction and soothed some of their anxious fans.