Instant reaction to Pac-12 on-field developments …
1. Seen this show before
USC survived its biggest test of the season thus far, outlasting Colorado 48-41 in rowdy Folsom Field and with the massive ‘Big Noon’ audience watching on Fox.
Then again, that’s not saying much.
We’re fast approaching the midway point of the season, yet the best team the Trojans have faced thus far, Colorado, lost to Oregon 42-6.
The second-best team they have faced, Stanford, lost to Oregon 42-6.
The third-best team they have faced, Arizona State, lost to Fresno State 29-0.
But despite the weak competition, USC has been anything but dominant in recent weeks. The Trojans struggled to put away ASU, a 34-point underdog with a backup quarterback, then nearly blew a massive lead in Boulder as the defense wilted in the second half.
Which brings us to the central point of this item: USC’s defense looks no better than last year’s version.
Yes, the Trojans have more quality linemen. In 2022, they were essentially a one-man show up front with the magnificent Tuli Tuipulotu. This season, Bear Alexander, Solomon Byrd, Stanley Ta’ufo’ou and De’jon Benton provide more options for collapsing the pocket and plugging running lanes.
There are talented veterans at every level of the defense, in fact.
But USC (5-0) suffers too many blown assignments and missed tackles. Too often, the whole is less than the parts.
And that matters because the Trojans have yet to face a top-tier offensive line.
San Jose State and Nevada? Please.
Stanford and Arizona State? Nope.
Colorado’s line is deeply flawed, as well. We saw CU’s turnstile on display last week when Oregon held the Buffaloes to six points and 199 total yards.
Against USC, however, the Buffs scored 41 and gained 564.
But the elite lines are coming. Goodness, are they coming.
The Trojans host Arizona next week, then enter the meat of their schedule with Notre Dame, Utah, Washington and Oregon jammed into a five-week gauntlet.
And the defense won’t have any breaks to heal and recalibrate: USC had a bye in Week 3 and now plays straight through until late November.
The next respite comes the week before the Pac-12 championship game, which would be an enormous advantage if the Trojans qualify.
But unless the defense turns into a better version of itself — a better version of the unit we have seen stumble and stammer through 19 games of the Lincoln Riley era — the outlook is murky.
It’s not early, folks. It’s October. And USC’s defense is behind schedule.
2. Comfy confines in Corvallis
We have seen enough of Oregon State (4-1) to declare with utter and complete confidence that it will take an immense effort for anyone to beat the Beavers in Reser Stadium.
Their defense is a tad wobbly on the road — as we saw in a 38-35 loss at Washington State — but at home, it appears quite stout.
The Beavers have allowed just 23 points in three games in their renovated home. Combine the physical, aggressive, confident defense with the relentless rushing attack, and OSU poses a daunting challenge for any visitor.
That includes Washington on the penultimate weekend of the regular season.
But OSU’s fate in the conference race hinges on road success against teams in the bottom half of the standings.
Win in Berkeley, Tucson and Boulder, and the Beavers should be smack in the middle of the chaos come the middle of November.
3. Desert escape
The only Saturday night game was one of the best matchups of the weekend as Arizona made Washington’s offense look mortal.
The Huskies scored 31 points and gained 474 yards, which are respectable totals on the road until you consider they were averaging 50 points and 593 yards through the first four games.
After leading by multiple scores, UW needed to recover an onside kick and convert a first down to seal the victory.
The close finish provided valuable experience for the showdown against Oregon in two weeks and for UW’s grueling stretch run, which features USC, Utah, Oregon State and Washington State.
Then again, Arizona’s defensive tactics, which limited Michael Penix’s downfield strikes, could provide a blueprint for upcoming opponents.
4. Berkeley breakthrough
Cal registered a huge victory on Saturday with their bowl math at stake.
The 24-21 escape against Arizona State, which featured a stellar performance by tailback Jaydn Ott (165 yards), offers the Bears a fighting chance to reach the postseason.
They are 3-2 and must win three of their final seven. Those seven include Stanford, of course, but also Utah, USC, Oregon, Washington State, UCLA and Oregon State.
Put another way: The Bears must handle the Cardinal and win two of the six games in which they will be the underdog.
It’s a long climb, for sure. But it would have been impossible without the victory Saturday.
5. October outlook
One month down, two months remaining, and the Pac-12 has seven teams in pursuit of a berth in the College Football Playoff.
By that, we mean there are seven teams capable of finishing 13-0 or 12-1. Remember, no two-loss team has ever made the playoff, and we’re skeptical the Pac-12 will be the conference to change the paradigm.
So with that lofty bar established, USC, Washington, Oregon, WSU, Utah, OSU and UCLA are technically alive in the CFP hunt.
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How does that total compare?
The number of Power Five teams with fewer than two losses, by conference:
Big Ten: seven
Big 12: six
And don’t forget about Notre Dame.
The Irish escaped at Duke on Saturday thanks to a 30-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining. They have one loss, to Ohio State (on the final play of the game). If the Irish finish 11-1, they probably will gobble one of the four CFP berths.
In this matter, the Pac-12 controls its fate: If the Trojans win in South Bend in two weeks, the Irish become irrelevant in the playoff race. It’s a huge game for USC and the conference.
The Trojans’ defense had better make the trip.
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