Wilner Hotline – Saturday Night Five: Along come the Cougars, OSU’s big win, USC’s takeaways, collecting wins (except in Boulder)

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1) (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …

1. WSU to the rescue

Nine months ago, Washington State planted its flag in the Husky Stadium turf after a resounding victory in the Apple Cup.

Saturday, the Cougars carried the flag for the Pac-12 in enemy territory, stunning No. 19 Wisconsin 17-14 to give the conference a desperately-needed victory over a Power Five opponent.

Because it had been a long, long time — 51 weeks, in fact.

Since Stanford’s win at Vanderbilt on the evening of Sept. 18, 2021, the conference had dropped eight consecutive games against Power Five opposition.

The losing streak included two regular-season losses to Notre Dame (by Stanford and USC), three losses in bowl games (Oregon, Utah and Arizona State), followed by three losses last week (Colorado, Utah and Oregon).

The Cougars mustered the performance after what was a substandard effort in their opener against Idaho.

Or maybe that seven-point win was intended to lull the Badgers into a false sense of security.

It sure fooled us. The Hotline was not optimistic about WSU’s prospects for staying in range of Wisconsin for 60 minutes.

And had you told us in advance that the Cougars would commit three turnovers, that they would rush for 53 yards and allow 174, that they would convert 2-of-11 third downs and that Wisconsin would possess the ball for 38 minutes, well, we’d have been confident in the dire outlook.

But WSU’s defense shut out the Badgers in the second half and created three turnovers in a momentous effort.

It was WSU’s first non-conference road win over a ranked team since 2003, and it moved the Cougars onto the postseason fast track.

With a victory next week over Colorado State, they will be halfway to bowl eligibility with nine league games to play.

And we cannot ignore the backdrop.

For two-and-a-half months, WSU and Oregon State have been afterthoughts in discussions about the Pac-12’s existential crisis.

If four schools left for the Big Ten and four left for the Big 12, the Cougars and Beavers would likely be left behind, unwanted and forced to join the Mountain West.

And here they are, both undefeated and in possession of several of the Pac-12’s most impressive victories, including the conference’ first Power Five takedown in almost a year.

2. Speaking of OSU …

Beavers coach Jonathan Smith was responsible for the gutsiest call of the week, going for a touchdown — and a victory — from the two yardline with three seconds remaining.

He could have kicked a short field goal to force overtime. And in fact, it appeared the Beavers were going to kick, until Fresno State called timeout and Smith sent the offense back on the field with Jack Colletto in the battering ram position.

Colletto scored off right tackle to seal a victory in the most engrossing game of the day.

It featured three touchdowns in the final two minutes and almost 900 yards of offense.

Our favorite moment came just before the final touchdown, when the CBS Sports Network cameras caught Smith on the sideline discussing strategy with a member of his staff.

He had a half smile, like he was trying to decide how many pizzas to order — not whether to risk defeat when overtime was available.

It has been a long time since we’ve seen a coach consistently as calm as Smith in pressure situations.

3. Look at the ledger

Through two weeks, the Pac-12 is somewhat lacking in premium wins but has managed to avoid the type of awful losses that battered the conference last season.

In fact, it’s far ahead of the 2021 victory pace in the 36 games outside of league play.

At the close of Week Two last year, the Pac-12 was 11-11 in non-conference games.

This year, it’s 16-6, and five of the six losses have been to Power Five opponents.

Every win matters when it comes to placing as many teams into the postseason as possible.

The more victories collected outside of league play, the fewer needed during the eat-your-own portion of the schedule.

The teams that are 2-0 and have a manageable third non-conference opponent (Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA) are well positioned for the postseason.

4. Our takeway on USC takeaways 

The Hotline watched in-person as USC dismantled Stanford with a major assist from … Stanford.

The Cardinal struggled in the red zone during a 41-28 loss that might be USC’s last appearance in Stanford Stadium for many years. (Or maybe they will play a conference game in the venue in the fall of 2024.)

A more efficient performance by the host might have increased the drama, but we’re skeptical that it would have changed the outcome.

Had the Cardinal scored a few more touchdowns, USC would have kept its offense at full throttle throughout the four quarters and could have slapped the Cardinal around for 60-something.

USC’s playcalling and playmaking were stupendous, as expected.

And while the defense yielded 441 yards, we’d note the Trojans forced four turnovers for the second consecutive game.

The unit doesn’t have to be granite in order for USC to win the conference and possibly compete for a playoff berth. It just has to be opportunistic.

Which got us wondering …

This is USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s second time through the conference; he was Mike Leach’s playcaller for three seasons at Washington State (2015-17).

In each of those years, the Cougars forced at least 23 turnovers and ranked in the top quartile in takeaways in the FBS.

Grinch’s units have a track record for takeaways. If the Trojans average two per game, that might be enough to properly compliment the pinball offense.

5. Heat check in Boulder

The Hotline isn’t prepared to initiate the Dorrell Watch, even after Colorado’s 41-10 loss Saturday at Air Force — the Buffaloes’ second dreadful showing of the season.

It still feels a tad early to presume Karl Dorrell’s days are numbered in just his third season.

But we could get there soon if the situation doesn’t improve.

The offensive issues that plagued CU last year have not been resolved despite staff changes and, this weekend, a quarterback change.

JT Shrout started in place of Brendon Lewis and completed just 5-of-21 passes for 51 yards — a stat line out of the 1940s.

During a horrifying stretch in the middle of the game, the Buffaloes started four consecutive possessions with the ball at midfield or in Air Force territory — and managed a single field goal.

A few more weeks like this, and we might shift our view of Dorrell’s job security.

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