by Jon Wilner
Reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …
1. How ’bout those Beavers
It took less than four hours for Oregon State to end 61 years of futility.
Actually, it took about 45 minutes of game time.
Because by the end of the third quarter, the Beavers were in complete command and headed to their first win over USC in the L.A. Coliseum since 1960.
Not only was the losing streak older than Jonathan Smith by 18 years, it was darn near older than Mike Riley.
What struck us most about the 45-27 victory was the way OSU pulverized the Trojans with the formula USC once used so successfully:
— The Beavers owned the trenches and controlled the game with a rushing attack that churned for 322 yards.
They gained exactly the yardage it needed even when everybody in the Coliseum knew a run was coming.
It was, essentially, Student Body Wherever We Choose.
— Their tailback, B.J. Baylor, played the role of the great USC tailbacks of decades gone by — except that he was a three-star recruit with limited Power Five offers.
— Their playmaking and playcalling were so thoroughly dominant that the Beavers committed two turnovers and 14 penalties (for 154 yards) and still won handily.
— They were more physical; they made every play when a play needed to be made; they were … inevitable.
And now they’re one of the favorites to win the Pac-12.
That’s right: As of this moment, the Beavers (3-1/1-0) cannot be counted out of the conference race.
Oregon remains the favorite, with UCLA close behind, Arizona State lurking and a few others not dead yet.
But we won’t dare ignore Oregon State, not with that offensive line and that running game. And not with quarterback Chance Nolan as the puppet master.
That said, we’re left to wonder how the season might have a slightly different hue if the Beavers had picked Nolan to start the opener at Purdue.
It’s not hard to envision Nolan producing a victory in West Lafayette and the Beavers closing out September with a 4-0 record, ranked in the top 20, one of the hottest stories of the young season.
2. Survival, squared
Two Pac-12 preseason favorites, Washington and Utah, were mighty close to becoming mid-season afterthoughts but escaped with victories by doing what they traditionally do best.
Utah’s defense played like it was 2019 all over again and shut down Washington State in the second half. But the Utes trailed late in the fourth quarter because of two fumbles in the red zone, an errant short field goal and a general aversion to playing Utah’s brand of offense.
Once the Utes committed to their ground game, and tailback TJ Pledger specifically, they put the game away and improved to 2-2 overall.
It was exactly the same thing in Seattle, only different. The Huskies squandered a 24-10 lead in the second half when they reverted to we shall call their ‘Montana mode’ offense.
Cal tied the game with three minutes left, but the Huskies won in overtime when their defense (of course) forced a fumble.
Like Utah, the Huskies are now 2-2 and 1-0 in conference play. Which means they’re in the race, at least for the moment.
We aren’t convinced either team is good enough offensively to contend into November.
3. Not your grandfather’s UCLA
Okay, we’re exaggerating — but not by much.
This is the toughest, grittiest, most resilient UCLA team in eons. Certainly since the Bob Toledo editions that produced back-to-back 10-win seasons in the late 1990s but possibly since back in the glory days of the Terry Donahue era.
We knew the Bruins possessed a first-class running game. But the 35-24 victory at Stanford on Saturday afternoon showed us something more.
It showed quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson playing the role Fresno State’s Jake Haener played a week earlier in the Rose Bowl:
Battered, hobbling, in obvious pain, and needing treatment on the sideline, Thompson-Robinson nevertheless directed a 13-play, fourth-quarter touchdown drive that secured the victory.
It was exactly the kind of drive we saw so often from Stanford during its decade-plus of dominance in the series. The Cardinal knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop UCLA, which rushed for 204 yards and converted 53% of its third downs.
And for readers who haven’t picked up on our theme of the night, we’ll make it clear: Both UCLA and Oregon State rode their offensive lines to road wins over opponents that have generally tormented them for years.
The conference title will be won up front. And to be honest, we’re not yet sure which teams have the advantage.
4. Oregon wins, and wins
The Pac-12’s best hope for the College Football Playoff could not have asked for a better result from the other coast.
Clemson’s stunning loss to N.C. State knocked a perennial playoff team out of the race and effectively flattened the ACC’s chances of sending a team to the CFP.
The Tigers have two losses (Georgia and N.C. State), while the remaining unbeaten or one-loss teams from the ACC are as follows: Wake Forest, N.C. State, Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Duke and Pittsburgh.
None of them are good enough to finish 13-0 and none of them are getting in with one loss. Certainly, they would never squeeze out Oregon if the Ducks were to finish 13-0 or 12-1 and win the Pac-12 title.
What’s more, Oklahoma — the only Big 12 team that could snare a bid away from one-loss Oregon — looked rickety in a narrow victory over West Virginia.
Yes, Notre Dame was impressive; Alabama and Georgia won easily; and the Big Ten still has five unbeaten teams.
But clearly, there is room for newcomers on the top tier of the playoff rankings.
Especially newcomers who have a Power Five championship and a victory at Ohio State on their resume.
5. No. 2s to the rescue
Despite throwing five interceptions — five! — Arizona quarterback Jordan McCloud is expected to start the next game (against UCLA).
Why? Because McCloud remains the team’s best option, which underscores one of the major issues in Tucson but also highlights an emerging trend across the conference.
For at least five teams, a quarterback who didn’t start the season opener provides the best chance for success.
— McCloud, a transfer from USF who joined the program over the summer, was No. 3 on the depth chart behind Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer.
— USC freshman Jaxson Dart, while currently injured, should start over Kedon Slovis once he’s healthy.
— Oregon State’s season has gone next-level since the switch to Nolan from Sam Noyer, who transferred in from Colorado.
— Stanford started Jack West in the opener but quickly realized Tanner McKee was a vastly better option.
— And Utah has hitched its fate to Cam Rising, who sat on the bench for three games behind transfer Charlie Brewer.
(There might be a sixth instance, but Washington State’s quarterback situation is unsettled because of injuries.)
All of which highlights the difficult nature of managing the quarterback room in the era of the transfer portal and the risk that comes with relying on newcomers to direct an unfamiliar offense.
The top six or eight quarterbacks in the conference at the moment are in their second season (if not third or fourth) in the system.
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