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Pac-12 Football Breakdown: Week Four

Nov 24, 2020
As we look at Week Three of Pac-12 football in the rearview mirror, it delivered moments we never expected and moments that captured our hearts. 

As Utah began its 2020 season, Cam Rising proved to be the starter, but early in the second quarter we got to meet graduate transfer Jake Bentley. As UCLA’s season seemed to be in trouble, we were able to meet Chase Griffin and see what Chip Kelly has quietly been building in Westwood. In Corvallis, we watched a team turn the corner and win a close game and give the Beavers locker room a new level of confidence as Jonathan Smith rebuilds the Dam. Furthermore, if you love football or simply love what sports can do for humanity, you were captured by the Oregon Ducks’ reaction to Noah Sewell’s injury, as well as how the Trojans played one of their most complete games in recent history. All in all, Week Three created memories and, with a few North rivalry games upon us this week, I have to assume we will see a few more. With it being Thanksgiving week, I hope we all can take a moment to go around our proverbial ‘table,’ look the ones we love in the eye and tell them how thankful we are to have a team, however big or small it may be. And if you’re looking for a short film to watch with your family, I recommend the latest installment of ‘Dear Football,’ as we get to see the true power of family and football with David Shaw, Justin Wilcox and their fathers. 

With that said, below is my Week Four breakdown. Please know how thankful I am for all of your support for the Pac-12 Network and those that pour their hearts into celebrating this brilliant game we love.

Game-by-Game Deep Dives

Stanford @ Cal, 123rd Big Game: Friday, Nov. 27 at 1:30p PT / 2:30p MT on FOX
Stanford Cardinal

The Big Game
In case you don’t know, this is the sixth-oldest rivalry in FBS and Friday’s 123rd Big Game will mark the first to be played on a Friday in its storied history. Stanford has won nine of 10 in the series and looks to reclaim The Stanford Axe after last year’s 24-20 loss. Oh, there was that one play

Davis Mills, the reality
I still think Davis Mills is the purest passer in the Pac-12 and his extremely minimal practice time two weeks ago in preparation for the Colorado game must be noted. I expect him to play his best football over the next month. Watch his discernment, as that was on display in the second half of their Week 2 game, as 211 of his 327 passing yards came in the second half. Once he settled in, it was clear that he had the confidence to complete certain passes that a lot of QBs would not attempt. Him vs. the back end of Cal will be the key to this game on third down (Mills was 5-14 for 121 yds on third down in Stanford's last game). Furthermore, I called The Big Game the last two years and in each game, a QB has elevated to meet the moment -- I’d expect that to happen again and it may come down to which QB can hit ‘spots’ when throwing the ball vs. throwing to ‘areas.’ If I was calling this one, I’d ask our director to be sure to freeze frame each big catch to illustrate the location of the ball. For more on Davis Mills’ skill set, listen to my podcast with Ted Robinson. Last week, we brought on former Stanford QB Todd Husak, who had a 21-year-old record of yards passing in a game (450 vs. OSU in 1998) that Mills broke vs. WSU last year (504 yards). Take a listen as we break down Mills’ game and all Pac-12 news.

What to watch
For me, this comes down to OL of Stanford vs. the defensive line and linebackers of Cal. The Stanford front has an incredibly high ceiling and has been the same starting group in each of the first two games of 2020 with LT Walter Rouse, LG Barrett Miller, C Drew Dalman, RG Branson Bragg and RT Foster Sarell. Note that they used five different OL combinations last year and eight in 2018.  In total, the OL room has a combined 63 career starts. Through two games, the Cardinal has allowed just one sack. The 0.5 sacks per game allowed are tied for fifth-best in the country. What’s notable is that they have incredible youth AND impressive experience, as four true freshmen combined to start 26 total games on the line in 2019, including three true freshmen in each of the last six games of the season. Watch how they perform against an athletic and aggressive defensive front 7, specifically Kuony Deng. Also, Branson Bragg has playing time questions, so watch Jake Hornibrook elevate at the guard position.

Beyond the X’s and O’s
What Stanford is doing around equity, justice and love is a great example for all of us. Their campaign is called UNITE and the student-athletes and coaches wear that emblem on their helmets and on the sidelines, in tandem with the pregame warmup shirts supporting the fight against racism. The support that Stanford has shown its student-athletes, coaches and staff is impressive, as they use their voices and platforms to create change.

California Golden Bears

Welcome home, Bears
While there won’t be fans in the stands, the Bears will be amped to play at Memorial Stadium, as it has been 377 days since they last played at home!

Nerd out in the Red Zone
Two years ago, the Cal corners played the fade with a technique that most teams had yet to show Stanford. Stanford was able to respond with their counter to that, and this week, my eyes will be glued to Camryn Bynum vs. Simi Fehoko in the RZ, two of the best in the nation at their respective positions and leaders on their respective teams. Fehoko thus far has been targeted in the RZ two times, after being targeted eight times in the RZ with three catches (two touchdowns) last season. 

Can Garbers make three big-time throws?
I’ve often felt that in the second half of tight games, the winning team must get three big-time throws from their QB. For Cal and Chase Garbers, this game will come down to that for him. In two games this year, he has 4.1 yards per attempt in the second half. In nine games last season, he had 9.0 yards per attempt in the second half. He is typically correct with where to throw the football, but on Friday, he must hit the location. Those completions keep drives alive and in a rivalry game, momentum is magnified even more. With the emergence of Kekoa Crawford (10 rec, 141 yds, 1 TD last week at Oregon State) —  Michigan transfer who will be playing in his first Big Game after missing last year's matchup with an injury — Garbers has a clutch playmaker who can take over a game for the first time in his career.

Special Teams
This likely kept Justin Wilcox up all night as the Bears had three, huge self-inflicted errors against the Beavers. I’d imagine they play clean on special teams and this may be the area that changes the game regarding field position. Track where each team begins drives, as I’d imagine this game will have limited possessions based on each team’s offensive scheme, respectively.

OL Health
I’ll be watching the Cal OL, which was hit by a variety of issues last week, as they completed the game at Oregon State with four different linemen than those originally expected to start. Who plays this week? How do they handle Thomas Booker, a first team All-Pac-12 selection as of today in my eyes. 

The Axe
What is the stare down going to be like?!

#15 Oregon @ Oregon State: Friday, Nov. 27 at 4:30p PT / 5:30p MT on ESPN
#15 Oregon Ducks

Teams are reflections of their HCs
I expect the Ducks to run the football with a physicality we are accustomed to seeing from a Mario Cristobal team. They lost the line of scrimmage vs. UCLA and I did not anticipate that. Only averaging 2.6 per carry will not sit well with Coach Cristobal, but with that said, it must be noted how lethal their offense is. Their bounce back in the trenches is what I’ll be watching on early drives.

Their offense: it’s elite
Watching every snap on film, a few things stand out, but none more than what Oregon is doing on offense. They are putting defenders in major binds and have stressed every defense they have faced. With Tyler Shough playing point guard for Joe Moorhead, the Ducks are a CFP-caliber team if they improve as I expect them to on the offensive line. Furthermore, Shough leads the Pac-12 in TD passes (8), 30-yard (8) and 40-yard (4) completions and their offense is one of four in the Power 5 (Ohio State, Ole Miss & North Carolina) to average 275 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. The Ducks offense has earned the right to be in the same conversation as Ohio State and Alabama regarding what they are doing on offense. 

What to watch
The linebackers of Oregon vs. the run game of Jermar Jefferson who is one of eight players in FBS this season with multiple runs of 60+ yards. The OSU OL does a nice job of climbing to the second level and the LBs of Oregon must get off blocks as one miss can mean an explosive play for Jefferson. It sounds like Noah Sewell is healthy (thankfully!) and he should play a big role in the rivalry game.

Advice to future interns
We had some fun with Verone McKinely this past weekend on Pac-12 After Dark. It was noted that I offered him an internship this fall and he turned it down, but with the way he is playing, I am glad he chose more time for school and football, as this future graduate and current All-Pac-12 safety, in my eyes, is playing at a high level and is the leader of the Ducks secondary. So yes, if you had to choose between an internship with me or to complete your degree and ball out — choose the latter.

Oregon State Beavers

Turning the Corner
It’s been widely discussed on the Pac-12 Networks how close the Beavers have been to turning the corner. Their win against Cal could be the turning point that the program needed, as they finally won a close game after losing their previous four by an average of 7.8 points per game. I think gaining this type of grounded confidence is a major part of their resurgence under Jonathan Smith and close wins can change the entire personality of a team. Their early drives and how those play out will be vital in this game regarding the Beavers chances of an upset.

Tristan: so impressive with his PACE
I’ve been writing about it for weeks — PACE, which stands for Plays After Critical Errors — and Tristan Gebbia was a great example of that in the Cal game. He threw for a TD, rushed for a TD and even caught one, the 11th Pac-12 player in the last 25 years to have one of each in the same game! He had to bounce back from a disappointing game against Washington and he did exactly that. He will be challenged by the Ducks to throw receivers open and to make spot throws and I do not think the stage will be too big, as he played in this game last year. Track his ball placement, especially on third downs and in the fringe area (30-40 yard line) where he has thus far 3.8 yards per attempt on third downs this year, going 11-for-20 for 80 yards (four sacks). 

What to watch
Can OSU wideouts beat man coverage? I would expect Oregon to put their DBs on islands and force Tristan Gebbia to beat them with his ball location, anticipation and discernment. They will change the picture for him late in the snap count and see if they can confuse him. It will be on Gebbia to trust his eyes and his keys. Note that each pass protection and each pass concept has keys for the QB to look at pre and post snap. If I was calling this game, I would be tracking how many times the Ducks change the picture on the Beavs QB. 

“Try easy”
What happens in rivalry games, especially when you’ve lost more than you've won (OSU has lost three straight and 11 of the last 12), is you can overtry. The phrase I like to use with QBs and teams in this situation is to just ‘try easy,’ meaning trust the game plan, don't try to be superhuman and believe that you are enough. That will be something to watch this weekend. If I was calling this one, I’d be watching the non-verbal communications of the players in pregame and on the sideline during the game. That and, of course, a healthy dose of Jermar Jefferson yards will help the Beavers out enormously.

What to hope for
The game of football often provides us unanticipated drama, but in this one, I hope there are just two teams playing at their best. I recall calling this game last year and learning moments before the game that Jake Luton would not play. I hope we see Hamilcar Rashed Jr. play as well as Mycah Pittman for the Ducks. Both teams at pseudo full strength makes for the best type of rivalry.

San Diego State @ Colorado: Saturday, Nov. 28 at 2p PT / 3p MT on Pac-12 Network

Colorado Buffaloes

South title on the line
When Karl Dorrell was hired, very few expected his 2020 team to compete for the Pac-12 South championship. But heading into Thanksgiving weekend, that is exactly where the Buffs find themselves. Coming off a bye/cancelled game, the Buffs should be near full strength coming into Los Angeles. It’s a big stage for this program and one we should celebrate, as Coach Dorrell has his team playing complementary and extremely efficient football. Make no mistake about it: this is a championship game and I expect each snap to feel as such.

All-Pac-12 QB?
Yes, Sam Noyer, as of right now, is playing like an All-Pac-12 QB. He has great command on film of this system, specifically in the RPO (Run/Pass Option) game. When he is asked to throw the ball downfield, his confidence is evident, as he is trusting his eyes in Offensive Coordinator Darrin Chiaverini’s offense. He will have to let the game come to him while still remaining aggressive. That balance is not easy to strike, but Noyer has made it look as such through two games.

Arizona @ UCLA: Saturday, Nov. 28 at 5p PT / 6p MT on FOX
Arizona Wildcats

CBL and Grant Gunnell
It was clear that the Wildcats’ plan did not go as expected in Seattle over the weekend and for them to win this one, they must respond and I expect them to do so. With that said, I was taught this phrase years ago by an NFL strength coach: ‘CBL,’ which stands for Championship Body Language.’ We saw Grant Gunnell and Arizona frustrated throughout the majority of the UW game and their body language reflected that. Every young QB goes through a game like he did and I expect him to learn as much, or even more, about how to manage his emotions when things are not going well than he may have from the actual game.

What to watch
I’ll be glued to the offensive line of Arizona in this one. They struggled against UW, allowing five sacks (now a league-high nine this season), and they will face an athletic UCLA front led by Osa Odighizuwa who is second int he Pac-12 with 3.0 sacks this year. How they communicate up front when UCLA moves will be key to their run game, let alone pass protection.

Gary Brightwell & Ma’jon Wright need to ball out
I still think Gary Brightwell is a star in this league and beyond. He needs to have a big game against the Bruins for Arizona to get in the win column. In addition, freshman receiver Ma’jon Wright has a chance to be an All-Pac-12 player.

Can they slow down Demetric Felton?
Demetric Felton is quietly having a stellar season for the Bruins with back-to-back 100+ yard games. I’ll be curious to see what Paul Rhoads’ defense does to try and slow down this hybrid running back/wideout, as he makes positive yards every time he touches the ball. Keep an eye on freshman linebacker Derick Mourning and senior Anthony Pandy, who needs to have a big game.

UCLA Bruins

"We want to be the #1 character program in the nation”
Members of Chip Kelly’s staff told me that when he took over the Bruins program — and watching Dorian Thompson-Robinson cheer on Chase Griffin via Twitter was an excellent example — he knew that, while UCLA had not won as much as they hoped, this team was growing together. In addition, it became clear that the QB room at UCLA is very healthy, as Chase Griffin looked like a veteran at times against the Ducks, only his first career start! 

QB 1?
While we are not sure if DTR or Chase Griffin will take the first snap for UCLA, we do know that the last two games for the UCLA QBs have proven efficient and successful. In both the QB run game and the RPO game, both quarterbacks found success against Cal and Oregon. A big reason for that is the run game and the UCLA offensive line. Keep an eye on left tackle Sean Rhyan again, as he will face edge pressure from various levels in this game.

What to watch
The UCLA defensive front may have taken the biggest leap from 2019 to 2020. With Coach Johnny Nansen guiding that group, they have been extremely productive and when watching them on tape, extremely physical. Osa Odighizuwa sets the tempo, and against Oregon, was at his best with four tackles, including 1.5 sacks. This defense has held two straight opponents under 100 yards rushing (first time doing so since 2016), and against Oregon they won the line of scrimmage. If they can do that in three straight games, their defensive front will have earned the right to be called one of the more physical ones in the Pac-12.

After a first down, UCLA can be lethal
If you study Chip Kelly teams, it is clear that while he is known for his spread, up tempo attack, he thrives when his teams can run the ball. Specifically, run the ball with various personnels and formations. This offense is 17th nationally at 228.7 yards per game and once they get the first down in a series, they hit the gas and Chip can really manipulate defenses. When UCLA gets one first down on a drive, they score a touchdown 14.3% of the time this season. However, when they have two-or-more first down, that scoring rate jumps to 63.6%! 

Against Oregon, FYI
In case you missed it, UCLA averaged more rushing yards per carry (5.2 vs. 2.6), had more rushing touchdowns (3 to 1) and more rushing first downs (16 to 6) than Oregon. That says a lot regarding the physical nature of UCLA’s offensive and defensive lines, as well as Oregon’s, and should be noted.

Utah @ Washington: Saturday, Nov. 28 at 7:30p PT / 8:30p MT on ESPN
Utah Utes
A youth movement
We knew that the Utes had to replace a lot of talent, but when one looks at the numbers, it is clear that 2020 is a year where many players will gain needed experience. For instance, eight of the 22 starters last weekend on offense and defense were first-time starters, including QB Cameron Rising, So.; OL Keaton Bills, R-Fr.; OL Jaren Kump, Fr.; OL Sataoa Laumea, R-Fr.; LB Sione Fotu, Fr.; CB JaTravis Broughton, So.; CB Clark Phillips, Fr.; and S Nate Ritchie, Fr. In addition, of the 57 Utes who played against USC, 33 of them were freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Take a look at these names and remember them, as there are future stars who are not household names... yet. (Italics indicate starters)
  • Sophomores (15): CB JaTravis Broughton, OL Braeden Daniels, LB Hayden Furey, WR Cameron Gardner, P Ben Lennon, CB Aaron Lowe, OL Paul Maile, LB Andrew Mata’afa, CB Malone Mataele, OL Simi Moala, P Jadon Redding, QB Cameron Rising, WR Dominique Thompson, RB Jordan Wilmore, TE Thomas Yassmin.
  • Redshirt-Freshmen (4): RB Micah Bernard, OL Keaton Bills, OL Sataoa Laumea, WR Devaughn Vele.
  • Freshmen (14): S Jake Biggs, DE Xavier Carlton, DE Van Fillinger, LB Sione Fotu, RB Ty Jordan, OL Jaren Kump, S Kamo’i Latu, CB Faybian Marks, K Jordan Noyes, CB Clark Phillips, DT Tennessee Pututau, S Nate Ritchie, CB Caine Savage, S Zemaiah Vaughn.
A youth movement on film
Watching this game back on film proved that young offensive linemen make life challenging and that is what happened at Utah against USC’s experienced defensive front. I expect them to make major jumps heading into the UW game, as when healthy, the UW DL looked extremely impressive against Arizona last week. In short, get in the trenches this weekend and watch how the Utah OL handles the movement of the UW defensive line, as this offensive line is better than what we saw in their opener.
There was great anticipation regarding who would take Utah’s first snap on offense and RS-Sophomore Cam Rising eventually won the job, but only played for a quarter before exiting with an injury. Jake Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina will lead Utah for the remainder of the season and has proven to be able to play successful college football and will get a chance to do that again.  
DBs: they will continue to grow
We know that Utah is a DB factory for the NFL and we also know that Morgan Scalley and Sharrieff Shah are two of the top coaches in the secondary in the nation. So it’s not about if these DBs will become elite, it’s about when. With that said, I truly feel that the most underrated transition from high school to college football is defensive back. It’s not about being fast enough or even physical enough, it’s about making plays on the ball and knowing when to break on the ball. I look forward to watching Nate Ritchie and Clark Phillips this fall and this weekend. Also, it’s important to note that the Utah defense is at its best when it is working in unison and there are a lot of new faces. At one point, there were five true freshmen on the field at the same time. Bottom line: this defense will be elite, it just needs time.
What to watch:
The deployment of Utah’s tight ends. I still think that TE is the theme of Pac-12 football in 2020 that is not getting enough pub. Brant Kuithe is an All-Conference TE, and alongside Cole Fotheringham, Thomas Yassmin and transfer Dalton Kincaid, this group has depth and varying skill sets as they caught a combined six passes, with Kuithe having a team-high four on nine targets vs. USC.
Washington Huskies
Most complete game of the season
The Huskies game against Arizona this past weekend was the most complete game my eyes have seen all of 2020 in the Pac-12. Their offense remained on track with the run game and their pass game met the standard that Jimmy Lake hoped to see. Their defense played at a speed, alongside a physicality, that we have come to expect in Seattle. They will continue to get tested, but I think they will continue to build as the season progresses.

Ran the damn ball
The hat that Jimmy Lake wore last week proved what UW wanted to do and they did it again. Game 2 for UW equated to 45 carries after game one had 51 rushes for 267 yards (UW most since 2018). Expect more of that this weekend from four tailbacks — Sean McGrew, Richard Newton (Coach Aliotti loves his skill set), Kamari Pleasant and Cameron Davis — all of whom have combined for 71 carries, 404 yards and six TDs in two games. Note that they are all fresh, as none has more than 23 carries or 126 yards. 

Tight end
Trust me that the tight end position will be a major theme the rest of the season, and a big part of that is the play of Cade Otton. His performance against Arizona was dominant, just the 10th time in the last 20 years a UW tight end had at least 100 receiving yards in a game, earning him the game ball and rightfully so. 

What to watch: defensive line
This position group made a massive leap from Week 1 to Week 2 and were dominant against Arizona at the line of scrimmage. Expect more of the same, as Washington has seven sacks of opposing QBs. Sophomore OLB Zion Tupuola-Fetui ("ZTF") has notched four sacks and two forced fumbles in two games.

Functional football intelligence
The secondary of UW plays with such confidence and it's beautiful to watch the DBs understand route combinations, invite the ball to certain locations and tackle with physicality and phenomenal technique. I often hear the phrase ‘high IQ’ with athletes, but I’ve enjoyed saying ‘functional football intelligence,’ as knowing where to go is one thing, but doing it in real time is another. Elijah Molden, Trent McDuffie and the rest of the UW secondary are clinic-worthy in their ‘functional football intelligence.’