1st Semester Report Cards

I watched UCLA vs. Cal (in person, then later on replay) followed by Oregon vs. Washington, Florida State vs. Notre Dame, and finally Stanford vs. ASU. This is first semester report card week, so I didn't skip through any of the pregame, halftime, or postgame commentary. (These things must be taken seriously. Frankly.)

Before we get to Pac-12 play, I wanted to mention a few results from around the nation that helped us understand where some conference races are headed.

  • Alabama 59, Texas A&M 0: I'm not surprised by the 59 (A&M's defense is spotty). I am AMAZED at the zero, however. Anyone who thought Alabama was dead in the water after giving away the game at Mississippi has been thoroughly undeceived; the Tide is as strong as ever. (A&M, not so much.) Still, I hope Bama loses at least once more this season. The last thing I want to see is a successful Lane Kiffin.
  • West Virginia 41, Baylor 27: Baylor is good, but the defense remains a problem. The Bears have now surrendered 99 points in their past two games; they are lucky to have gone 1-1 in those contests. The Big 12 is up for grabs.

  • Kansas State 31, Oklahoma 30: Oh dear. OU missed two chip-shot field goals AND had an extra point blocked, at home, vs. the Wildcats. Kudos to Kansas State for defeating the Sooners for the second straight time in Norman, but oh my, what a bad way to lose for OU.
  • 56-17: Michigan State defeated Indiana, and Ohio State defeated Rutgers -- by this identical score. Spartans and Buckeyes look like the class of the Big 10, and with so many teams at the top losing, the winner of MSU-OSU will have a good shot at making the college football playoff (assuming that team wins out).

  • TCU 42, Oklahoma State 9: Nine? TCU held OSU to three field goals?? Impressive bounce-back victory for the Frogs after the heartbreaking loss at Baylor. If you think TCU is the best team in the Big 12, you might be right.
  • Ole Miss 34, Tennessee 3: The Rebels keep on truckin'. Tennessee is not a bad team, mind you, but Ole Miss completely shut them down -- just as they have pretty much everyone this season. From my vantage point, Mississippi is the #1 team at the moment.

  • Florida State 31, Notre Dame 27: This was a wonderful, thrilling game that went right down to the wire -- twice. Facing 4th and goal from the 2 in the final minute, Notre Dame scored what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown, but an offensive pass interference penalty nullified the score. (The call was obvious and therefore not controversial, at least to me; Irish fans might see it differently.) The Golden Domers could not convert on 4th and 17, allowing the Seminoles to escape with their 23rd straight win. Thus, FSU stays alive for the playoff, while Notre Dame might actually have helped its case even in defeat (arguably, no one has a "better loss" among one-loss teams).

Enough from around the country. Returning closer to home:

Results from the Pac

BYES: Arizona, SWSU

Utah 29, Oregon State 23, 2 OT

The Utes did just enough to hold off the Beavers in Corvallis, riding Devontae Booker's 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns to a narrow victory. Utah went just 2-for-14 on third down conversions and turned it over twice, but the defense held OSU to 4-for-17 on third down conversions and forced two turnovers.

If the Utes and Beavers were playing chess, this game would have ended in a draw. Instead, Oregon State suffers its second conference loss while Utah remains squarely in the hunt for the South title. It's a good thing, too, because Utah's remaining schedule is murderous (but more on that later).

USC 56, Colorado 28

The Trojans were up 35-7 at the half, then coasted to a pleasant 28-point victory over the visiting Buffaloes. We knew Colorado was overmatched in this game (especially on defense), but I expected them to put up a somewhat better fight.

To USC's credit, they took care of business, and took advantage of CU's poor pass defense by encouraging Cody Kessler to throw for the record books. Seven touchdown passes later, he had written his name into Trojan history.

It is odd for a UCLA alum to say this, but I have something of a mini-man-crush on Cody Kessler. He has his head on straight. In every postgame interview I've watched, he answers questions calmly and humbly, never saying how great he is, but instead deflecting praise to his teammates and coaches. In actuality, he has been one of the main reasons for USC's success thus far: after seven games, he has thrown only one interception. That's pretty darn good folks. Kessler would get my vote for first team all-conference, were it not for...

Oregon 45, Washington 20

...some cool cat named Mariota.

Marcus the Magnificent put together another ho-hum (read: typically excellent) performance, going 24-of-33 for 336 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Oh and by the way, Oregon's freshman phenom, Royce Freeman, added 169 yards and four more TD's (a fifth was called back by a holding penalty).

I couldn't believe my ears when Rick Neuheisel, commentating for Pac-12 Networks, was legitimately expecting UW to win this game. I know he watched Oregon destroy UCLA at the Rose Bowl the previous week; what could he have been thinking?

This Oregon victory was a virtual carbon copy of their triumph over the Bruins. In both games, the Ducks (a) won the turnover battle 2-0; (b) cashed in short fields for quick scores; and (c) took huge leads (35-13 vs. UW, 35-10 vs. UCLA) into the fourth quarter, finally putting the game away with touchdowns to open the fourth quarter.

Washington coach Chris Petersen summed it up best: ''I could only see what you guys can see. It was too easy. They're very good at running the ball and they're one of the top teams in the country in terms of doing those things. If you can't somehow slow them down and make them a little bit one dimensional, it's going to be problems.''

Mr. Petersen, you're not alone. Now that Mariota is back to 100% and has his left tackle (Jake Fisher) healthy again, I can say with certainty that "it's going to be problems" for every team left on Oregon's schedule. The Ducks are the best team in the conference, and it isn't even close. That's no knock on Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Arizona, or Arizona State, either. It's simply an admission that the best team in the Pac-12 is Oregon. Arizona did a great job defeating them at Autzen earlier this month, but Mariota was not 100%, and Jake Fisher was out. That is what you call extenuating circumstances.

When healthy, Oregon is untouchable -- not even by Stanford.

Un-Game of the Week
Arizona State 26, Stanford 10

If you had to endure watching this game, I sympathize.

Stanford's defense is like an excellent starting pitcher who receives no run support. The defense did what it could to keep ASU in check -- only 356 yards surrendered on 80 plays -- but the offense? Good heavens.

The simple truth is that Stanford's offense is abysmal. There are no two ways about it.

The play of the game occurred late in the second quarter. Trailing 7-0, Stanford forced ASU to punt. Perhaps because he had been limited in playmaking opportunities, punt returner Ty Montgomery tried to make an over-the-shoulder catch while running backwards.

Ty Montgomery is good, but not that good. He muffed it. ASU recovered at the 12 and scored to go up 14-0 at the break. With Stanford's offense not functioning, the game was effectively over after that play.

We should bear in mind that this was the same ASU defense that gave up 545 yards to Colorado and 580 yards to UCLA. Stanford put up 288 yards. End of discussion.

Game of the Week
UCLA 36, Cal 34

I will send that in Part Two. This game requires its own story. You will be amused.

Mid-Season Report Cards

I'm going geographically this time, north to south.

Washington (5-2, 1-2): Stanford lite? The Huskies defense (save for the Eastern Washington game -- and Oregon, who is not in the same dimension) has kept them competitive all season. The offense, on the other hand...jeesh. UW's five wins have come against weak competition, so I am not at all sold on the Huskies. Beat someone of substance, and we can talk. C.

WSU (2-5, 1-3): Other than the Utah game, WSU has done exactly what all of us hoped they would: lose ingloriously. The loss to Cal, in particular, is especially galling (how can you lose when your QB passes for over 700 yards??). On the other hand, two more losses and we won't have to watch them blow a bowl game for the conference. Perhaps I should celebrate and give them a higher grade than they deserve? D. (Nah.)

Oregon (6-1, 3-1): The Arizona game now appears to have been little more than an accident resulting from a slightly injured Marcus Mariota and an offensive line that wasn't healthy enough to produce enough points to defeat the Wildcats. Oregon's rebound win over UCLA was classic Duck football, and they followed that up with the equally impressive thrashing of UW. I expect they will be here to stay for the remainder of the season -- assuming Mariota (and his line) stay healthy. Remember too: that early season Michigan State win looks excellent. If they win out, the Ducks will climb right back into the CFP. A-.

Oregon State (4-2, 1-2): You know I love me some Beavers, but this team just isn't that good. Sean Mannion has not played well against good defenses (USC, Utah) and I still have no idea what this team's identity is. Yet if OSU can split its remaining six games and finish 7-5, that would have to be considered a success, given the average talent on this team. Thus far: B-/C+.

Colorado (0-4, 2-5): I'm telling you, CU's offense is good -- good enough to move the ball on nearly anyone. Unfortunately for the Buffaloes, I'm also telling you that CU's defense is bad -- bad enough to give up 31 or more points to anyone they play (save for one home win vs. Hawaii). Although this won't be the year they break through, Colorado is improving, and has been competitive in every game this season (save for last week's loss at the Coliseum). Given what they have, that deserves some respect. B. (Remember: these grades are based on performance vis-a-vis expectation.)

Utah (5-1, 2-1): Utah was so close to an A+, but they SWSU'd themselves (against SWSU, of course) at home, so forget that. The Utes won a huge game at the Rose Bowl, executing nearly flawlessly to screw up UCLA's season, and followed that up with an escape in Corvallis; they receive huge kudos for both. The problem for Utah is their remaining schedule: USC, @ASU, Oregon, @Stanford, ASU, @Colorado. Gulp! I don't see how the Utes finish with fewer than three conference losses. Still, this grade is based on the present and not the future. Therefore: A-.

Cal (4-3, 2-3): Hmm. Cal has won three close games (two of which they could/should have lost) and has lost two close games (both of which they could/should have won). In other words, Cal could be 2-5, but on the other hand they also could be 6-1, so 4-3 sounds about right. The question: is that good? If you're Cal, the answer is a resounding YES! Cal has been competitive in all games this season save for the implosion vs. UW. Compare that to last year, and my goodness, what a difference. A. (Enjoy it while you can, Cal; you get Oregon tonight.)

Stanford (4-3, 2-2): How do you grade this team? The defense has been little short of outstanding; I'd consider giving the Stanford defense an A+ were it not for the breakdown at the end of the Notre Dame game. (Still, an A seems warranted.) But the offense has been bad, bad, bad all season: horrific game against USC, poor games against UW and Notre Dame, and a total clunker against an ASU defense that is hardly stout -- not to mention an uninspiring performance against an awful Army team. As I've mentioned earlier this season, David Shaw believes he has five NFL-caliber offensive linemen. If that's really true, then the grade for the offense is obvious: F. The average of A and F is C, but Stanford doesn't even deserve that grade as their coach lost the USC game. Sorry, Cardinal fans, but the grade your team deserves is aD+.

UCLA (5-2, 2-2): UCLA an offensive team, or a defensive team? The Bruins still haven't figured that out. UCLA has given up at least 17 points in every game, and at least 30 in four of their seven games. That won't get it done. On the flip side, the Bruins have scored 28 or more points in every game (save for the 20-17 win over Texas), and that has come against teams with good defenses. The problem for UCLA remains the same: inconsistency. Other than the win over Texas, it is difficult to point to a single game in which the Bruins have played well in all three phases. The defense was exposed against Memphis, ASU, Utah, and Oregon. On offense, Hundley has been up and down and has thrown bad interceptions in each of the last three games. Personally, I don't think he's ready for a jump to the NFL just yet. The good news is that the Bruins should be favored in each of their next three games, giving them some momentum for USC and Stanford; but for now, UCLA has underperformed, and should be graded accordingly. C+.

USC (5-2, 4-1): Whew! This team is the strangest in the conference. The Trojans absolutely blew the ASU game, but on the other hand, they were absolutely gifted the Stanford I guess that evens out? USC did not play well against Boston College, but they dominated against Arizona (for 50 minutes anyway)...I guess that evens out also? Convincing home wins against Fresno State, Oregon State, and Colorado certainly help pad the resume. Still, I'm nervous for the Trojans. I'm 100% sold on Kessler, but I'm not sold on Sarkisian (ultimately, he was responsible for the ASU loss), and when conference games get close, you need a reliable coach. If USC can navigate the upcoming game at Utah this week, they have SWSU and Cal to follow, meaning they could well be 8-2 heading into the UCLA and Notre Dame games. Lose in Salt Lake City, and the Trojans will struggle to finish 8-4. (In other words, this weekend's contest is huge.) For now: geez, I don't know. B-?

Arizona (5-1, 2-1): Arizona has outperformed by a mile, but my gut tells me they have reached their zenith and will start returning to Earth soon. The Wildcats were fortunate (to say the least) to have defeated Cal on a last-second Hail Mary. Full credit for the monumental upset of Oregon, at Oregon -- injured Mariota and Jake Fisher or no, that is a tough place to play -- but the Cats have two difficult games next at WSU and at UCLA. (Something tells me that UCLA will blow out the Wildcats at the Rose Bowl; we'll see if that's a justified premonition.) Nevertheless, this grade is for the first half of the season only, and at 5-1, with the win over Oregon, Arizona has to get an A.

Arizona State (5-1, 3-1): No, ASU, I still don't believe. Yes, you just beat Stanford -- good for that -- but Stanford was awful in that game. You were lucky, lucky, lucky to beat USC, and you get no credit for wins over Weber State and New Mexico. You were dominated in your victory at Colorado and pulverized by UCLA. We'll see how you fare in the remaining six games. For now, I suppose you get some credit for being in the thick of the South race, no matter how fraudulent your record appears. B+, but don't expect that to last long.

Up Next: The Full Plate

It's mano-a-mano as all six matchups in Week 9 feature conference tilts.

Oregon @ Cal: Unfortunately for Cal, Oregon is hitting its stride. If Mark Helfrich had no conscience and was willing to let Oregon's starters play the entire 60 minutes, the Ducks could put up 80 points. Easily.

UCLA @ Colorado: The Bruins should win, but they've been turning it over with alarming frequency recently. If CU can find an interception here and there....

Oregon State @ Stanford: Bad timing for the Beavers, as Stanford is coming off the deflating loss to ASU. I expect this game to be low scoring and spectacularly ugly, but with Stanford coming out victorious.

Arizona @ SWSU: A horrible draw for the Wildcats. SWSU will be desperate, and Arizona's defense has hardly been airtight this season. Then again, this is Washington State....

USC @ Utah: If you're only going to watch one game this weekend, this is the one to watch. On a neutral site I'd probably lean toward USC, but at Utah...oh boy, this is going to be a good one. Whoever avoids major mistakes should win. Both teams have solid defenses. I don't think Utah can play a second near-perfect game like they did against UCLA; furthermore, the Utes are facing some offensive challenges (who's the QB?). USC looked great at Arizona but has had problems closing out games. Can you tell I'm uncertain? WATCH THIS GAME!

ASU @ UW: The Fraudulent Bowl. We'll see if ASU can handle success (win vs. Stanford) or if UW can bounce back from a tough loss (vs. Oregon). I'm not sure if the battle will be strength vs. strength (ASU offense vs. UW defense) or weakness vs. weakness (UW offense vs. ASU defense). I'm actually hoping both teams lose. Somehow. No? Fine, I'll root for Washington. You can tell my heart is in it.

For reference, here are the conference standings as of Week 8:

North Conf. W-L Overall W-L
Oregon 3-1 6-1
Stanford 2-2 4-3
California 2-3 4-3
Washington 1-2 5-2
Oregon St. 1-2 4-2
Washington St. 1-3 2-5
South Conf. W-L Overall W-L
USC 4-1 5-2
Arizona St. 3-1 5-1
Arizona 2-1 5-1
Utah 2-1 5-1
UCLA 2-2 5-2
Colorado 0-4 2-5

There are two things to note. First, the South is up for grabs: USC, ASU, Arizona, and Utah have only one loss, while UCLA lurks with two. Second, the North -- yet again -- will be decided by the winner of the Stanford-Oregon game, as Cal and WSU (three losses each) are already out, while UW and Oregon State (two losses each) soon will be. I don't see how Stanford pulls a third consecutive shocker over Oregon, but that's what I thought last year, so who am I to say?

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