By Jon Wilner
Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments on and off the field …
1. Rising rises
We’ll start with the major result in the South, where Utah dominated Arizona State in the second half to turn a 14-point deficit into a 35-21 victory that changed the dynamic of the division race.
Quarterback Cameron Rising was sensational, the defense was terrific — Devin Lloyd seemed to be in three places at once — and Kyle Whittingham’s staff thoroughly out-coached its ASU counterparts.
The Sun Devils had no response to the onslaught, except to commit penalties: 13 of them, in fact, which brought their two-game total in the state of Utah to 29.
Utah converted 7-of-11 third-down opportunities, as Rising continually placed the ball in tight windows.
(His performance left us wondering how Utah’s season might have unfolded differently had Rising, and not Charlie Brewer, been the starter on Week One.)
Arizona State’s drives in the third and fourth quarters:
— three plays, seven yards
— 10 plays, 42 yards
— five plays, 16 yards
— 12 plays, 17 yards
Utah’s drives in the third and fourth quarters:
— nine plays, 75 yards (touchdown)
— six plays, 68 yards (touchdown)
— 11 plays, 67 yards (touchdown)
— 12 plays, 82 yards (touchdown)
We should note the emotion Utah displayed in the second half; clearly, the Utes were inspired by the memories of former teammates Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan. Don’t discount the potential for that psychic energy to last through November and power a charge to the division title.
As a result of the victory, Utah has temporary command of the division with a one-game lead in the loss column over UCLA and a two-game lead over ASU (including the head-to-head tiebreaker).
If the Utes beat the Bruins in two weeks, they will have a potentially decisive advantage on their only close pursuers, although their remaining schedule is a bit more difficult than ASU’s.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devils head home, their momentum halted and their future murky with the NCAA investigation lingering.
The division title is within reach, although they need help. But the course of the season feels vastly different now than it did a few hours ago when they were undefeated in conference play.
2. Rolovich rises
There are plenty of developments on the field for Washington State but, at this point, none off the field.
Let’s first address the former:
The Cougars rallied twice to beat Stanford, erasing deficits in each half to emerge with a 34-31 victory.
It was WSU’s fifth consecutive win in the series — think about that for a moment — and its third consecutive win this season.
At 4-3 overall, the Cougars must win two of their last five to secure a spot in the postseason.
— One of those five is Arizona, perhaps the worst team in the Power Five.
— Another is BYU, which has lost two in a row.
— A third is Washington, which is vastly more vulnerable than at any point since the Apple Cup turned lopsided in 2013.
What’s more, the Cougars are just off the pace in the North race, one game back of the Oregon schools (in the loss column) with head-to-head showdowns upcoming.
Clearly, the players haven’t let Nick Rolovich’s vaccine situation become a distraction. They’re playing hard for him. The Gatorade shower at the end of the game was proof of that.
3. Mandate matters
For all the good cheer on the sideline, the state’s vaccine mandate looms.
Rolovich said after the game that he hadn’t been informed of a judgment on his request for an exemption on religious grounds.
The deadline to comply is Monday. Any state employee who is not vaccinated, or doesn’t receive an exemption, will be terminated.
“I’m gonna come to work tomorrow … I don’t think this is in my hands,” Rolovich said after the game.
(Of course, it’s in his hands. If he gets vaccinated, he won’t be fired.)
This could play out in any number of ways in the next 48-72 hours:
— Rolovich could have his exemption request denied in the blind review process, then refuse a last chance to get vaccinated. In that case, WSU will begin the separation process and appoint an interim head coach.
— Rolovich’s request could be approved in the blind review process only to have WSU president Kirk Schulz and athletic director Pat Chun determine that, if unvaccinated, he cannot perform his job effectively and/or keep the public safe.
In other words, Rolovich would not qualify for the exemption under the accommodations language in the mandate. Dismissal would follow.
— The review process could extend beyond Monday, in which case Rolovich would be placed on unpaid leave until the school resolves his case.
We’re skeptical that Rolovich will be coaching the Cougars for next weekend’s game against Brigham Young. He has every right to not get vaccinated, and the university has every right to fire him for not getting vaccinated.
4. Ducks duck and upset
Alone among the Power Five conference, the Pac-12 has just one team — Oregon — with less than two losses.
Because the Ducks also beat Ohio State, they remain a playoff contender.
Sure, they lost at Stanford (3-4) a few weeks ago.
Sure, they struggled to beat back Cal (1-5) on Friday night.
No, they haven’t looked at all like a playoff team since Week Two, unless you’re referring to the FCS playoffs.
But guess what: It doesn’t matter how Oregon looks in October. Forget style points.
All that matters is that the Ducks keep winning, all the way through the first weekend in December. As a 12-1 Pac-12 champion with a victory at Ohio State, they would have a terrific chance to make the CFP.
But because of the loss at Stanford, they need to win out.
Oregon is the conference’s only chance to claim a playoff berth for the first time since 2016.
Everybody else has at least two losses. No two-loss team has ever made the CFP, and I guarantee the first team that makes the cut won’t come from the Pac-12.
5. Meltdown on Montlake
The losses are mounting, the fans are panicking, and time is running short for Washington.
After a 24-17 loss to UCLA in which neither the offense nor defense performed well, the Huskies are 2-4 and in serious danger of missing the postseason.
They need four wins in their final six games, which isn’t quite as daunting as it seems given the presence of Arizona and Colorado on the schedule.
Quarterback Dylan Morris is far from the only problem, but he’s hardly playing at an elite level. We wouldn’t be surprised if the Huskies make a change and insert freshman Sam Huard.
However the second half of the season unfolds, it’s clear that Washington coach Jimmy Lake cannot afford to keep his coaching staff intact for 2022. He must make changes.
(Plenty of UW fans want the changes to include Lake’s dismissal; we don’t believe that will or should happen.)
With the controversial appointment of John Donovan as the offensive coordinator and the promotion of Bob Gregory on the defensive side, Lake seemingly opted for hires that allowed him to feel comfortable and avoid threatening situations.
That’s no way to win at the highest level.
Lake needs to find the best offensive play-caller available and offer him whatever it takes — even if the candidate is a former head coach who might create a bit of tension within the staff. Tension and expertise are better than comfort and defeat.
Under Donovan, UW’s offense can best be described as 60 minutes of milquetoast interrupted by occasional moments of creativity.
While many fans overestimate the amount of talent on the roster, especially at the skill positions, there is little doubt the Huskies are too easy to defend.
Lake needs to recognize the need for a disruptor, for an ingenious play-caller — even if the new guy has a big ego and massive ambition and could force the second-year head coach out of his comfort zone.
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