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Pac-12 Football Breakdown: Week Three

Nov 18, 2020
 
As we enter Week 3, there are so many uncertainties, but the one thing we can all agree upon is that ‘fluid’ remains the word of the year in college football. With that said, there have been so many unexpected surprises (Sam Noyer) to unexpected endings (USC back-to-back weeks) to unexpected start times (Sunday at 9am!), so wherever you may be this weekend, I hope you get to enjoy watching Pac-12 football. While I’ll be watching various elements of each game, one thing that stood out in the first two weeks was that the team that has had more rushing yards in the nine conference games is 8-1. The only loss was ASU at USC, so while we love our QBs, remember that a physical run game is what has led to victory thus far.
 
To kick off this week's Notebook, please enjoy the latest installment of ‘Dear Football,’ a new Pac-12 Networks short documentary series. For complete breakdowns of what I’ll be watching in this weekend's games, read on.

Game-by-Game Deep Dives

California @ Oregon State: 12:30 p.m. PT / 1:30 p.m. MT on FS1

California Golden Bears
 
A full week
No coach in the history of football wants to or is even willing to make excuses. But for the Cal Bears, and what they had to endure regarding their defensive front and the lack of practice among the entire team, is an excuse I’m willing to give a Pac-12 North dark horse. With that said, they now have a full week of practice, and I’d imagine practice was as energetic as it had been in a while in Berkeley. I’ve been to over a dozen practices since Coach Wilcox arrived and they all have a ton of juice. This team should be angry, frustrated and desperately seeking to play a game, as they want to get the UCLA game out of their minds.
 
What I’ll be watching
How does the front 7 of Cal adjust to the shifts and motions of Oregon State? Even more importantly, once they do align, do they fit the proper gaps? If I was calling this game, I’d ask our director to have a camera dedicated to Kuony Deng, as I still think he is a special talent and, against Jermar Jefferson, he will be active all game.
 
Playmakers must show up
My biggest curiosity entering the season was around Cal’s offense and their skill players. Against the Beavs, they must be able to stretch the field in Bill Musgrave’s offense, as I’ll expect the Beavs to stack the line of scrimmage and ask Cal to beat them in the passing game as they only had 1 play over 13 yards in last week's game.
 
Oregon State Beavers
 
Jermar Jefferson is Real
You’ll read that and say, ‘of course he is--he’s been a star since he arrived in Corvallis.’ But after watching him on film this past week, it is clear that he is doing so much more than just running the ball. He’s a complete back. From pass protection, setting up his blocks, taking his time to hit the hole, to even how he’s absorbing hits this third year back, Jermar Jefferson is proving to be a top 2 back in the Pac-12 right now. 
 
P.A.C.E
I spoke about this in last week’s Football Breakdown and I will continue to harp on it. Plays After Critical Errors is the most vital stat for a QB, and for Tristan Gebbia, he hasn't played his best football. Jonathan Smith isn’t wavering on his starter and he shouldn't. Gebbbia has the tools to be a winning QB and while I expect him to be challenged against the Cal defense, I also expect him to play the best game of his young career. 
 
“Lose big, lose small, win small, win big”
Since Jonathan Smith was hired, I’ve been touting this quote, which I think originally came from the great Bobby Bowden. There is legit depth to that quote, as it is so challenging to change the psyche of an entire team that had been accustomed to losing close, hard fought games (three of the last four losses decided by 10 points or fewer). And that is the mindset in which the Beavers find themselves. They have to find a way to trust that they can pull out a close game and that the plays that allow a team to do that are not only in the fourth quarter. It’s a first down in the second quarter, the willingness to not jump off-sides on a critical third down in the third quarter, and so on. Coach Carroll used to tell me at USC that the great teams ‘know’ they can win and the rest of the teams typically ‘hope’ they can win. OSU needs to make that turn and I expect them to do so under Coach Smith.
 
UCLA @ #11 Oregon: 12:30 p.m. PT / 1:30 p.m. MT on ESPN2

UCLA Bruins
 
QB1
It’s easy to criticize Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s game, but I’d like to do the opposite. In my time as an evaluator of the QB position, there are certain non-negotiables you come to identify. Toward the top is his awareness regarding situational football. This past week against Cal, a defense that I expect to be one of the better ones in the nation, he knew when to get rid of the ball, when to tuck it and run, when to take a chance and most importantly, when not to. And what’s most impressive to me is that he is still dramatically inexperienced playing the position. He wasn’t a starter until his senior year in high school and his experience in certain game situations was minimal. For the Bruins to upset the Pac-12 favorite, he must understand situational football.
 
Trust me
Watch safety Qwuantrezz Knight. His game is infectious and his instinct is obvious. Against the RPO game of Oregon with all of the tight end movement, his eye discipline must be at a premium in this game. 
 
This is easily my favorite quote of the year by Chip Kelly, and if I was calling this game, I’d be sure to build it into our open. With that said, I spent a lot of last weekend watching sophomore Sean Rhyan, the Bruins star left tackle who has started every game since he arrived. His athleticism is truly impressive and it will be tested against the premier pass rusher in this conference, let alone the nation, in Kayvon Thibodeaux who is looking for his first sack of the season.
 
Oregon Ducks
 
Since signing day, I’ve raved about this young QB, and after watching him in two games, it was clear to the rest of the nation -- when a game gets challenging, he doesn't flinch. Turnovers on three straight possessions in the first half would have doomed most young QBs on the road, but the Ducks starter signal caller seemed incredibly poised. And FYI: this past Saturday, he became the first Ducks quarterback to throw for 200+ yards and rush for 80+ yards in back-to-back games since Marcus Mariota did so during his Heisman campaign in 2014.
 
Keep an eye on Devon Williams
Devon Williams at wideout. With Mycah Pitman likely unavailable, keep an eye on the USC transfer in this game. Why? He has the ability to dominate. I can recall watching him in training camp last year and he would take over practice at times. If he finds a rhythm, he is one of those players who could prove challenging to stop. If I was calling this one, I’d circle him most times he would be on the field.
 
What to watch
The way that OC Joe Moorhead is using TE (DJ Johnson) and the running back room is impressive. The team had 269 rush yards vs WSU with 173 of that coming from the RBs (Verdell: 118, Dye: 54, Habibi-Likio: 1-yd TD). Against WSU they had 8 runs of 10+ yards, 5 of them by RBs. I’d expect them to run the football, play with multiple tempos and try to get the UCLA LBs to hesitate in the RPO game.
 
Noah Sewell
That’s it. Just watch #1, as he will be tested by Chip Kelly’s scheme and Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s ability, but he has impressed me in dramatic ways since he arrived in Eugene. And he was awarded the team’s defensive player of the game last week, along with getting his 1st career sack.
 
Arizona @ Washington: 5:00 p.m. PT / 6:00 p.m MT on FOX

Arizona Wildcats
 
Grant Gunnell vs. UW DBs
In only his fourth career start, Grant Gunnell proved that his ceiling is tremendously high under Kevin Sumlin and I expect him to improve each time out. PACE (Plays After Critical Errors) showed up for him against USC after an opening drive interception. He did not harbor that play and was able to deliver like the player Wildcat fans hoped to see when he signed two years ago, as he led Arizona to a go-ahead score with 1:35 remaining. UW will be his biggest test and anticipation will be the name of the game. Does he anticipate where the ball should go and can he let it rip? Or will he hesitate against the best secondary in the Pac-12? 
 
Paul Rhoads impact
Two things were clear watching the Arizona defense last week: 1) Paul Rhoads has a hat that I’d guarantee was the first one he wore upon arrival and 2) his defense is playing for him. So much was made about the Wildcats losing impact players to the portal, but Coach Rhoads got his entire defense to play with an effort and discipline that almost pulled off an upset. They had 8 TFLs last week, the most by Arizona since November 2018, which is notable. I’ve always felt that in Power 5 college football, defense is 70% effort and 30% talent, and the energy that side of the ball played with seemed to be infectious. They will need to do the same this week against a UW team that is determined to run the football compared to USC and the Air Raid scheme last weekend.
 
What to watch
Gary Brightwell is one of the most talented backs in the Pac-12 and him vs. the LBs of UW will be a match-up I am going to be watching. How UW defends him out of the backfield will also be noteworthy as this game unfolds, particularly on third down, as he had a 15-yard reception on 3&15 vs USC in the 2nd quarter and for Arizona to win, he must have an impact.

 
Washington Huskies
 
Run the damn ball
The hat that Jimmy Lake wore this week is one I need and is clearly a mantra for UW, as they ran it 51 times for 267 yards (UW most since 2018) against OSU and only attempted 24 passes in Coach Lake’s debut as head coach. It was clear that they have a philosophy and it is going to be a physical one with a fullback.
 
Dylan Morris: my eval
Having met Dylan in high school at the Elite 11, it was clear that he had the talent and, more importantly, the confidence, to be a big time college QB. What I loved about him in his opener was that he never ‘tried too hard.’ Rather, as I love to say, he ‘tried easy,’ and let the game come to him. In addition, when his wideouts dropped what could have been big plays, he moved onto the next snap, which is not nearly as easy as it looks.
 
What to watch 
If I was calling this game, I’d be watching how UW attacked the middle of the field, especially in their play action game between the hashes. Arizona was down a few safeties at the end of the USC game. If that is the case this weekend, expect Dylan Morris and UW to use the play action game to their advantage and attack the middle of the field. And if you want to be a complete football nerd, watch Cade Otten run block.  On the other side of the ball, the UW secondary and how they identify route combinations is as good as there is on the West Coast. Take a few moments in the game to watch how they move in unison.
 
Get to know Trent McDuffie
He’s one of the most explosive and natural athletes in the nation. He has the ability to swing momentum with his return ability and if Arizona kicks it to him, be sure to watch it.
 
#20 USC @ Utah: 7:30 p.m. PT / 8:30 p.m. MT on ESPN 

USC Trojans
 
South at stake
Make no mistake about it, while this game may have lost some hype due to Utah being the last FBS team to kick off the season, I expect it to be every bit of a championship-level vibe on the field. Utah has won the last two South titles and USC is in pole position right now in the South to win their 3rd division title in 6 years. With that said, USC will be facing an opponent playing its first game of the season for the third week in a row and I think that is a huge element of this game. Why? Most coaches make play calls based on tendencies (specifically defense), and for USC, there are zero tendencies for Utah based on 2020, so they will have to balance preparing for what Utah has done in the past and who Utah proves to be this year with so many new faces. So yes, halftime, let alone early drive adjustments, will be worth watching.
 
Grit and willingness to compete
Grit is defined as having passion and perseverance, and in two games, USC has proven to have both. Leading them is QB Kedon Slovis, who in his career has thrown for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the fourth quarter. Last week, he was 13-15 in the fourth quarter, including hitting his last 12 attempts on USC’s final two scoring drives. What I love about him and this team is that, when their backs are against the wall, they haven’t laid down. I expect USC to play its most efficient game of the season this weekend.
 
What to watch
Utah DL vs. USC OL. Utah has set the bar on the defensive front in the Pac-12 over the last few seasons and I expect these two position groups to be the best battle of the game. Also, on the other side of the ball, keep an eye on Drake Jackson, a player on the short list for the 2020 Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award for me. Him vs. Nick Ford will be a battle I’ll be locked in on.
 
Weather a factor?
I do not expect it to be a major factor for USC, but it should be noted that the weather is expected to be cold in Salt Lake City Saturday night, as the 830pm local time kickoff is the latest for USC in 65 years, and when you take the fans out of that atmosphere, USC must enter Rice-Eccles Stadium with great focus.
 
Utah Utes
 
The Whittingham factor:
Coach Whittingham enters his 16th season at Utah, which has represented the South in the Pac-12 title the last two years. All the evidence you need about the impact he’s had on the program is in the announcement a few weeks ago of his extension through 2027. While they have lost the most players to the NFL over the last four years compared to anyone in the conference (21), the culture remains. As Coach Whittingham famously said on The Drive, ‘you’re either in, or in the way.’ Expect this team to be highly talented, though inexperienced on defense, and to be one of the most physical teams in the nation again due to the environment that their head coach has curated. And FYI, Saturday is his birthday.
 
Who is the QB?
While ‘Or’ is playing a critical role in Utah’s depth chart, whoever takes the first snap under center will have every tool around him to be successful. Add in the play action game, offensive philosophy of Andy Ludwig and competitive culture of the program, and I’m not worried about the starter being successful. The only question that remains is: who runs out with the first team offense?
 
What does the QB need to do?
In this system, there must be mastery of situational football, as Utah’s defense will keep games close. Keep an eye on third down and red zone play calls as the game goes on and their starting QB settles in.
 
TE U?
Utah has two of the most explosive and diverse TEs in the nation with Cole Fotheringham and preseason All-Pac-12 pick Brant Kuithe. In my experience, defending 12 personnel (2 TE on the field at the same time) is the most challenging for defensive coordinators, especially when they run routes like these two do. If you like to watch a game with a notepad, track how many offensive snaps Utah has with these two tight ends on the field at the same time. USD transfer Dalton Kincaid is now eligible and has garnered rave reviews in training camp. In case you were wondering, he had 68 receptions for 1,209 yds and 19 TDs over the last two years. Looking for a comparison? Imagine Stanford’s TEs in years past and how they utilized them in the red zone - I expect Kinkaid to have a similar role.
 
Get to know Captain Devin Lloyd:
This linebacker was thrust into the spotlight last year and delivered. His athleticism and range as a LB is uncanny and is a candidate for the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12. Most important will be how he leads and communicates with his defensive front and those behind him, as he is now the face of Utah’s defense. 
 
Overhaul at DB:
From the most experienced secondary in the conference to the least experienced in the conference is the DB room at Utah. But the staff knew what was coming and recruited to replace NFL players, led by freshman Clark Phillips and sophomore JaTravis Broughton. These two players have ceilings that are just as high as those that departed last year. Expect them to get tested often.
 
2020 Pac-12 Football Breakdown Archives