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Pac-12 Football Breakdown: Week Six

Dec 9, 2020
 
As we enter Week 6, no one in the North or South has clinched, but it’s also fair to say that amid the changes that COVID-19 has forced upon us that no one has flinched. From Stanford moving locations to teams coming together to compete at a high level after having games cancelled, I’ve learned many lessons to carry over to real life from these football programs. I hope you enjoy the latest installment of ‘Dear Football,’ as it has been inspired by all 12 teams’ respective stories all year. 
 
Regarding the Pac-12 Championship games, there are MANY scenarios. But if we get all six games in again this weekend, it will come down to USC, Colorado, Washington and Oregon as the four teams who are alive for a title game berth.  With that said, this week's notes are crystal clear: what to watch and who to watch, all detailed below.
 
And FYI: Signing Day is next week, so to the coaches managing a program, COVID-19 and recruiting - you're getting a standing ovation from me. And to the fans who love recruiting like we do, we have you covered next Wednesday, December 16th, on Pac-12 Networks and Sirius XM, as we have a three-hour morning show dedicated to this memorable day.
 

Game-by-Game Deep Dives

Arizona State @ Arizona, Friday, Dec. 11 at 4 p.m. PT / 5 p.m. MT on ESPN
Arizona State Sun Devils
 
What to Watch: Pregame
Having called this rivalry game, it was always vital for me to get to the field for pregame to just gauge the vibe of the field. Who was too hyped? Who was too emotional? Who had a focus that was noticeable? All of those elements are critical in rivalry games, especially since this game is one where both teams are seeking their first wins of 2020. 
 
What to Watch: ASU Front 7
My eyes will be on the front 7 of ASU, as they have proven to disrupt opponents’ run game, and they will be facing Gary Brightwell, who I’ve loved watching compete since he arrived at Arizona. Tyler Johnson had one of the best games of his career with 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks against UCLA, which was capped off by Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week honors.
 
Who to Watch: WRs and Maturity
I really enjoyed watching this young group play last weekend, as they really evolved from game one against USC. Having Frank Darby will be big again this week to coach the young receivers regarding composure in the Territorial Cup. I was also extremely impressed with LV Bunkley-Shelton and Johnny Wilson regarding their play against UCLA, both when the ball was coming their way and when they were blocking downfield.
 
Who to Watch: RB & OL
The backs of ASU have been impressive and it must be noted that their offensive line has played well in the run game. Grad transfers Henry Hattis (Stanford) and Kellen Diesch (Texas A&M), along with Dohnovan West on the offensive line, are having impressive years (or games, as the Sun Devils have only played two).
 
Arizona Wildcats
 
What to Watch: Handling the Blitz
We wrote last week that how Arizona handles Colorado's blitz pressure would be key and it will be the thing to track in this game. If I was broadcasting this game, I would track the number of blitzes by ASU and when they bring five defenders, especially if Will Plummer remains the starter, as they will want to change the defensive picture for him all game. 
 
What to Watch: Red Zone Offense 
How does Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone use Gary Brightwell or Michael Wiley in the Red Zone? I think Brightwell is one of the most talented backs in this league and Wiley is coming off of a career-high 126 yards on just nine carries. Be sure to watch them out of the backfield as they both went over 100 yards on Saturday while also combining for 7 receptions against the Buffs.. 
 
Who to Watch: RBs vs. LBs
Speaking of Brightwell and Wiley, those two vs. the LBs of ASU will be the match-up to watch. Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler are premier players in the Pac-12 and pass pro will be a joy to watch if you are a football nerd on third down. The Wildcats were just 3-14 on 3rd down last week and their 29.5% conversions on 3rd down, lowest in the Pac-12 this season.
 
Who to Watch: Roy Lopez
Roy Lopez on the DL. Every time I watch him, I come away thinking that he is playing at an all-conference level. He is also the top-graded interior defensive lineman in the Pac-12, according to Pro Football Focus, with 16 tackles, including three stops for losses (one sack). Lopez needs to disrupt Jayden Daniels, especially on early downs to force ASU into second and third and long situations. If ASU is playing with short downs and distances, it will be a big Sun Devil advantage.
 
Utah @ #21 Colorado, Saturday, Dec. 12 at 9 a.m. PT / 10 a.m. MT on FOX
Utah Utes
 
What to Watch: Utah Run Game
Running back Ty Jordan was the first Utah freshman to run for over 100 yards since 1995 and leads Utah in all purpose yards with 370 on the season. His ability to be patient and get to the second level is impressive. Facing the Buffs front 7 will be a challenge for him and this offensive line. With both fronts peaking, this should be an incredible physical matchup.
 
Who to Watch: Bentley vs. Blitz
If there is one constant to Colorado's defense, it is that they love to blitz, so expect that in this game. Thus, Jake Bentley dealing with pressure and changing plays at the line of scrimmage will be critical on natural pressure downs. If I was calling this, I’d track how Utah deals with Colorado's blitzing scheme and the result after each blitz. Important to note that in last weeks game, Jake Bentley was able to not turn the ball over after throwing 2 INT in each of the first 2 games.
 
Who to Watch: Devin Lloyd at LB
Devin Lloyd is playing at an all-conference level for the Utes with 29 tackles (nearly 10 per game), five TFLs and one sack. He will be key against Sam Noyer and the QB run game component that Noyer brings to the field, as he is tied for 2nd in the Pac-12 among all players with 5 rush TD. I’ve always felt that QBs who lack experience can be lulled to sleep by the linebacker who is to the QB’s left, as it’s hard to see them in coverage at times. Watch this and how Noyer reads zone defense in the passing game as well.
 
Who to Watch: Covey & Kuithe
Britain Covey returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown and took a reception to the house for the first time since October, 2018. He is finding his groove and will be a challenge in the slot for Colorado. Brant Kuithe, one of the top tight ends in the Pac-12, had a career-high eight receptions for 76 yards against Oregon State. Keep an eye on him between the hashes on third down.
 
Colorado Buffaloes
 
What to Watch: CU Handling Pressure
The only thing Colorado can control is itself and if the Buffs win, they become the biggest UCLA fans outside of Westwood. I’ll be watching how they handle the pressure of being in a championship environment. as it is a first for everyone on this team other than Derrion Rakestraw, Sam Noyer and  Akil Jones as they redshirted in 2016 on a South title team. How they manage that natural pressure will be key to watch during the first two drives. 
 
What to Watch: WRs vs. Man Coverage
I’ve often talked about the Buffaloes wide receiver group and this is a big test for them. They will likely see man coverage and will be counted on to win those one-on-one match-ups. Can Sam Noyer make spot throws? Can the Buffs separate? I think they can but it is a match-up to watch.
 
Who to Watch: Record-Setting Broussard
Jarek Broussard is in pole position for Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and if he can run like he did last week against the Utes, he would lock it up in my eyes and become a dark horse Heisman candidate in 2021. It won’t be easy with possible injuries to the Buffs offensive line. Chance Lytle is out (we wish him the absolute best in his recovery!) and LG/center Kary Kutsch is out. They may get center Colby Pursell back, which will be huge, as well as Kanan Ray who may start at left guard.
 
Who to Watch: Lang & Johnson
Terrance Lang and Mustafa Johnson continue to show up on film each week. If they can get after Jake Bentley and slow down Ty Jordan, the Buffs have a chance to remain undefeated. Hopefully both are healthy, as the Buffs will need their best effort.
 
Cal @ Washington State, Saturday, Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. PT / 2 p.m. MT on FOX
California Golden Bears
 
What to Watch: Cal Secondary vs. Run N’ Shoot
The Cal defense is gaining confidence and they should feel as good as they have felt all season heading to Pullman. They will get tested by Nick Rolovich’s scheme and I’d imagine they alter coverages all game long. While watching: keep an eye on how often they play with one deep safety and how often they play with two. Changing the picture on Jayden de Laura will be key.
 
What to Watch: Cal Run Game
This is a team that is built on the run game under first year offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and I would expect the Bears to run it early and often. Their goal should be to stretch the field with play action passes and run the ball in the fourth quarter against the Cougs. Note that Cal was held to 88 rush yards and 1.9 yards per carry last week vs Oregon after running for 241 yards the week before against Stanford.
 
Who to Watch: Kuony Deng 
Deng is one of the most talented players in the Pac-12 at linebacker and his massive wingspan can surprise QBs. WSU uses RPO (Run/Pass/Option) elements in their passing game and tries to find throwing lanes. Deng’s eye discipline and reaction to the run fake will be key in disrupting any throws by de Laura.
 
Who to Watch: Camryn Bynum
I don’t often watch film of a corner and simply state, ‘he’s a technician.’ But that is exactly what Byrum is and it should come as no surprise, as he has proven to be one of the top DBs in the Pac-12 year after year. I look forward to watching him vs. Renard Bell and other WSU wideouts, as he will get tested. If you can and the TV cameras capture it, watch him at the line of scrimmage, as his patience is extremely impressive.
 
Washington State Cougars
 
What to Watch: Bounce Back
This game is all about the Cougs bouncing back, as Coach Rolovich said after the USC game, ‘the offense never got in rhythm.’ This system is based on execution and these players will definitely have to follow through. They have an elite QB in Jayden de Laura who struggled vs USC with 0 TDs and 2 interceptions before coming out of the game-- expect him to get early completions to find his rhythm.
 
What to Watch: WSU Defensive Front 
The defensive line of WSU has been a positive surprise this year and held USC to only five yards rushing. Their effort each snap is at the level it should be and what I’ve noticed is that they are rarely out of position. If this defense can get a few early stops and the offense can score, the momentum will be in the Cougs’ direction.
 
Who to Watch: Jayden de Laura
Jayden de Laura is a star. He is also a freshman and freshman QBs have challenging games, so expect him to have evolved a great deal. He is learning from one of the best QB coaches in the country in Craig Stutzmann, so expect his game and body language to elevate from last weekend.
 
What to Watch: Don’t let USC beat you twice
The Cougars need to not allow USC to beat them twice. In a tough game in Los Angeles that did not go as planned for WSU, the staff and players must move on instead of dwelling on what could have been. Keep an eye on the WSU sideline early in the game, as their body language will be something to track. Knowing Coach Rolo for the past 12 years gives me confidence that WSU will prepare and not allow the Trojans to beat them in back-to-back weeks.
 
#15 USC @ UCLA, Saturday, Dec. 12 at 4:30 p.m. PT / 5:30 p.m. MT on ABC
USC Trojans
 
What to Watch: USC Handling a Title Run
In the 90th edition of the nation's most famous crosstown rivalry, USC heads to UCLA. The biggest topic entering this game to me will be how USC handles the pressure of the CFP rankings - the perception that they ‘look the part’ - and compete against a talented UCLA team in a rivalry game that will guarantee them the South title. I think Clay Helton competes to guide his team with a singular focus, which is to control what they actually can and play a complete game against a crosstown rival. USC has enough veterans, so I do not think that the Trojans will struggle with the hype of the game, but note the pregame warm up and the first two drives of the game as being indicators for how the Trojans are managing the pressure around a huge game for the program.
 
What to Watch: USC’s Offensive Line 
It was noted that they struggled running the ball statistically against Washington State, with only five rushing yards, and the UCLA defensive front is among the best in the Pac-12. It should also be noted that USC’s offensive line was dealing with Covid-19 among that position group. Expect this to be a physical game at the line of scrimmage, with USC and NFL scouts watching Alijah Vera-Tucker vs. Caleb Johnson and Osa Odighizuwa, who rank 2nd and T-3rd in the Pac-12 in sacks with 8.5 combined. Also, note that USC looks at the quick passing game as an extension of their run game.
 
Who to Watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown 
Coming off the best game of his career with four touchdowns in the first quarter (FYI: St. Brown is just the 2nd player in FBS history to have 4 TDs in one quarter) against WSU, he is a true game changer. When he and Drake London align on the same side, it could pose problems for the Bruins. In addition, Kedon Slovis threw for a school single-game record 515 yards in last year's match-up, with four Trojans each having 100-plus receiving yards for the first time in school history.
 
Who to Watch: Talanoa Hufanga. 
This elite safety stepped in to play linebacker against WSU and has continued to play at an All-American level with an interception in three straight games. He is the heartbeat of this USC defense and needs to play well against Greg Dulcich and the weapons of UCLA.
 
A Fun Family Matchup: The Vaughns
USC 5th year senior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns may line up against his brother, Jonathan, a freshman defensive back at UCLA.
 
UCLA Bruins
 
What to Watch: Front 7
This is a huge opportunity for UCLA, as they can quell the CFP argument of USC and shift the power back to Westwood. Key for the Bruins is their defense in this game and this side of the ball has made the largest jump of any uint this season from 2019. Key in on the front 7 getting after Kedon Slovis and being aggressive against the USC offensive line and running backs.
 
Who to Watch: Dorian Thompson-Robinson
DTR and the QB run game against USC’s aggressive defense will be a critical component to this game. It will beg the often-asked question of what to do on defense against a QB who has the ability to make plays with his legs. Some vote to bring pressure and others drop players into zone coverage and ‘spy’ the quarterback. I expect USC to do a little of both, constantly trying to change the picture for the offensive line and DTR. 
 
Who to Watch: Caleb Johnson
He is playing out of his mind and led UCLA last week with a career-best 10 tackles in their win over ASU. He added 2.5 tackles for loss with two sacks. On film, he has an incredible knack when pressuring QBs and anticipating running backs in pass protection. Keep an eye on him all game long as he has become a game wrecker for offenses.
 
Who to Watch: Demetric Felton vs. USC LBs
Felton has quickly become the most explosive player in the Pac-12, as Chip Kelly has used him in a variety of ways. Felton against USC linebackers will be a match-up to watch, specifically when he lines up across from Hufanga. I expect the Bruins to feed him the ball early and often in this game.
 
Who to Watch: Qwuantrezz Knight 
He has elevated this Bruins defense and when talking to UCLA players, they bring up his ‘juice’ almost immediately. The UCLA secondary will get challenged and they will need his steady hand and confidence all game against the Air Raid of USC. If I were broadcasting this game, I would have a camera following him on the sideline in between drives. Along with fellow veteran Quintin Lake, this duo has seen a lot of football and I expect them to have big games
 
 
Stanford @ Oregon State, Saturday Dec. 12 at 7 PT / 8 MT on ESPNU
Stanford Cardinal
 
What to Watch: Stanford’s Offensive Line is Back
The Tunnel Workers Union is back, so expect a large dose of the run game again. It won’t be easy, as Oregon State’s linebackers are extremely active and physical, so expect a good match-up here. Watch left tackle Walter Rouse move; also, the command of Drew Dalman is evident when watching the Cardinal back on film. In short, this team is playing with as much confidence as any team in the North and when a confident team is running the ball, it’s a dangerous element. And FYI, against Washington, seven offensive linemen played at least 20 snaps. 
 
What to Watch: Third Down Offense
Watching the Cardinal over the last two weeks on third down has been impressive, as they have converted 18-30 third downs after converting just 9-29 in the first 2 games. But against UW, it was a work of art. Davis Mills was able to get his offense out of bad plays and into good ones, as Stanford was 10-13. His discernment on those third downs, especially in the final drive of the game, was clinic-worthy. Watch this critical down all game long.
 
Who to Watch: Davis Mills
It’s easy to always name the QB as the player to watch, but Davis Mills played out of his mind against Washington. He completed throws that many QBs would not even attempt and his ball placement was truly elite. He has the ability to be a top 10 draft pick in my eyes and this game, against an aggressive and improved defense, will be key for him. Watch him at the line of scrimmage, watch him throw on rhythm and watch him anticipate,as we may not get many more chances. FYI, he has yet to throw an interception this year.
 
Who to Watch: Thomas Booker
You have to go back to 1979 and Gordon Banks to find a Stanford player who blocked a placekick in back-to-back games, but that is what Thomas Booker has done in his last two weeks. In addition, he’s had an impact on opposing offensive lines. With Tristan Gebbia out and Chance Nolan the starter, the Beavs will continue to run the ball behind their impressive offensive line. This match-up is one to watch.
 
Oregon State Beavers
 
What to Watch: Oregon State Program
There are numerous elements to break down in this game, but one that must be noted is how impressive the rebuild under Jonathan Smith has been. While losing last week without their starting QB and their best player in Jermar Jefferson, this team could have shut it down when the score was 31-10, but they didn’t. That is culture, plain and simple. This program is trending up and they have a chance to finish with a winning record over these last two games. Every opponent should be on notice, in my eyes, as the film proves that this is a talented and well-coached program.
 
What to Watch: OSU Offensive Line
This is one of the better position groups in the Pac-12 and Jim Michalczik is a huge reason why. With Stanford being impacted by injuries to their front 7, this is where the game can be won for the Beavs. With Jermar Jefferson returning to practice and being cleared to play, the Beavs have the best back in the Pac-12 with fresh legs. Also, a good run game will allow Chance Nolan to settle into his second start.
 
Who to Watch: Nahshon Wright vs. Simi Fehoko
Wright stands 6’4’’ and is long, confident and extremely talented. Fehoko also stands 6’4’’ and at 227 lbs brings a physicality rarely discussed. I’ll be glued to this match-up, as both of these players are gifted at using their bodies to position themselves when the ball is in the air. Expect this to be one of the best match-ups of the weekend.
 
ICYMI: Avery Roberts
The Oregon State linebacker had 21 tackles against Utah, the most by an FBS player this season. He now has four straight games with at least 10 tackles, the first time a Beaver player has done that since 1995. Add in the talent of Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and Omar Speights and this LB trio should meet the challenge of Stanford’s lineman in the run game, especially when they pull their respective guards. I’ll be keyed in on that from the first snap.
 
2020 Pac-12 Football Breakdown Archives