Pac-12 rewind: Strong top, soft middle; Oregon's rise, USC's fall

Oregon tight end Moliki Matavao, right, celebrates his touchdown against Ohio State with tight end Terrance Ferguson during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Oregon beat Ohio State 35-28.

Oregon tight end Moliki Matavao, right, celebrates his touchdown against Ohio State with tight end Terrance Ferguson during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Oregon beat Ohio State 35-28. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)



The best and worst of Week 2 in Pac-12 football …

Theme of the Week: Strong top, weak middle

The Pac-12 was one of the deepest conferences in the country in previous years but lacked an elite, playoff-caliber team — a bad mix in an era defined by CFP participation. But a switcheroo may be at hand: In Oregon and perhaps UCLA and maybe even Arizona State, the conference appears to have better quality at the top.

The middle on the other hand, looks soft. Extremely soft.

There have been too many bad losses to believe the depth this season will match what it was in 2017-19. (We can't glean much from last season.) And if that proves the case, we'll watch competing dynamics unfold: The buoyancy gained from wins over Ohio State and LSU against the damage incurred from intra-conference losses.

In other words, the Pac-12 desperately needs the Buckeyes and/or Tigers to have first-rate seasons. If those wins lose luster and the conference's top teams are beaten in round-robin play, the foundation for a playoff run could crumble.

Game of the Week: Oregon 35, Ohio State 28

An impressive win in so many ways, but we'll highlight one: The performance of the Ducks' offensive and defensive lines — the areas that have undermined Pac-12 success so often in major intersectional matchups. Oregon ran the ball consistently and stopped the run with far greater success than we anticipated given its showing on the interior against Fresno State and the absence of Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Game of the Week (non-Oregon division): TCU 34, Cal 32

We were a bit mystified by Cal's two-point attempts early, which left the Bears chasing points the rest of the game. And their defense appears to have regressed substantially. And they blew a double-digit lead for the second consecutive game. But it was an entertaining affair with four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

Close Call of the Week: Colorado

The Buffaloes were oh-so-close to toppling No. 5 Texas A&M and recording their first win over a top-five team in 14 years. They led 7-3 late in the fourth quarter but allowed a rookie quarterback to lead the Aggies 77 yards on 11 plays for the winning touchdown. Next up is Minnesota — a key game for making CU's bowl math work.

Coaches of the Week: Oregon's staff

Mario Cristobal is paid to take the heat and earn the praise, and in this case, he deserves immense praise. But the Ducks' coordinators — Joe Moorhead on offense and Tim DeRuyter on defense — out-coached their Ohio State counterparts and warrant a good chunk of credit. Oregon won the game on both sides of the ball, and the game plans were masterful.

Coach of the Week (non-Oregon division): Stanford's David Shaw

One week after a hapless showing against Kansas State — one of the worst of his tenures, really — Shaw had his team well prepared tactically and mentally as a huge underdog in a rivalry game. The switch to Tanner McKee was an obvious move, but the Cardinal was better in every respect.

Hot Seat of the Week: USC's Clay Helton

The 42-28 loss to Stanford wasn't the worst of his era, because there have been so many bad ones, but it's on the short list. The way it unfolded, with the Trojans getting out-played, out-coached and blown out, made it far more damaging to Helton's standing internally.

Holy Reversal of the Week: Utah

The Utes lost to Brigham Young for the first time since 2009. Far more concerning for their long-haul prospects was the sub-standard play up front. The Cougars rushed for 231 yards, a bad sign for a team that has UCLA, ASU and Oregon on its schedule.

Player of the Week: Oregon TB CJ Verdell

We considered Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura and Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels, but their exploits came against soft competition. Verdell rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass, and his competition was not soft. (Although Ohio State's defense is clearly not playoff-caliber.)

Stat of the Week I: Oregon

The victory in Columbus marked the Pac-12's first regular-season road win over a top-three opponent (nonconference) since Stanford stunned No. 1 Notre Dame … in 1990. It was also the Ducks' first nonconference road win over a top-five opponent.

Stat of the Week II: Pac-12

The conference is 11-11 in nonconference action, which looks bad in a vacuum and even worse on a comparative basis: The SEC is 23-3 outside of league play, while the Big Ten is 17-3.

Stat of the Week III: Washington

The Huskies are No. 128 in the country in total points scored (17), ahead of only Louisiana Monroe (10) and Navy (10). Except Louisiana Monroe has only played one game and Navy's offense is straight out of the 1950s. Then again, so is … err, never mind. On the bright side, the Huskies scored three more points against Michigan (10) than they managed against Montana — progress!

Reality Check of the Week: Arizona

The Wildcats were embarrassed by San Diego State in the hyped home opener for coach Jedd Fisch, trailing by four touchdowns at halftime before the Aztecs eased to a 38-14 win. (You ask Steve Kerr to be honorary captain and then play like that? Yikes.) Fisch is great in the community and great on social media. Now we'll find out if he can coach.

Back to Basics Move of the Week: Oregon State

The Beavers haven't won a game in which they rushed for fewer than 100 yards in seven years. They struggled on the ground at Purdue but found their game at home Saturday night as BJ Baylor rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns while doing his best Jermar Jefferson impersonation.

Bowl Math Win of the Week: Washington State

The Cougars (1-1) couldn't afford to lose another game they should win and still reach the benchmark for a bowl berth — not with BYU standing as the final nonconference opponent and a wicked Pac-12 road schedule. The victory over Portland State provides the smallest of cushions: Win five of 10 and they're in.

Game of This Week I: Arizona State at BYU

The Cougars have beaten Arizona and Utah, and a third victory would be quite damaging to the Pac-12, which needs its three remaining undefeated teams to remain perfect as long as possible. We suspect the Sun Devils have been bored by their creampuff opponents. BYU's win in the Holy War should have their attention.

Game of This Week II: Fresno State at UCLA

Everything we just said about the Pac-12 needing its undefeated teams to remain perfect as long as possible.


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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