Pac-12: Utah Utes

#4Pac: Pick your Pac-12 South favorite

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what will be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question or one topic, or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet, and all contribute our thoughts.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're trying to make sense of the Pac-12 South as we head into the home stretch. Who's your favorite the win the division?

David Lombardi/@LombardiESPN:

SportsNation

Who is your favorite to win the Pac-12 South?

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    15%
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    25%
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Discuss (Total votes: 2,016)

As you may have noticed, "minefield" has been my description of choice for the Pac-12 South. So this is a dangerous question to answer.

Personally, I'm a "defense wins championships" guy, so I'll work with a process of elimination here: ASU hasn't yet proven they can consistently play sturdy defense (don't get too excited about shutting down Stanford's unimpressive 2014 offense), USC takes critical stretches off on that side of the ball (see their Hail Mary defense), Arizona has also been leaky, and UCLA has battled defensive discipline issues all season long.

That leaves me with Utah, a team leading the nation with 5.5 sacks per game and on pace for a record 71.5 sacks, as the only consistent defensive choice. Combine that with Devontae Booker's excellent running, and it becomes apparent that the Utes are the team with the necessary stability to be considered Pac-12 South favorites.

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings:

I see it coming down to the winner of Arizona State-Arizona. And (drum roll please) in that matchup, I'd have to go with the Wildcats. I think Rich Rodriguez has enough talent on the field and trickery in his playbook to come away with a win in that game. The game is at Arizona so that would be going against the grain of road teams winning matchups, which makes sense. Arizona's defense has been suspect at times this season, but I think that group will begin making some major strides, but at the end of the day this is going to be about what offense is going to put the most points on the board. I think we're going to see a group of young players like Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson carry the banner for the Pac-12 South. It's going to be one heck of a rematch at Levi's Stadium when the Wildcats take on Oregon. That's a game I wouldn't mind seeing again.

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell:

I mentioned this earlier in the week on our Spreecast. Utah reminds me a lot of Stanford in 2012. They are a team that isn't getting a ton of production out of the quarterback position, but they are winning on strength of a running game, good defense and efficient special teams play.

I know, I know. The upcoming schedule looks brutal. But we've seen that this year's Utes can handle the road -- something previous editions haven't been particularly good at. Booker's emergence (563 yards, five touchdowns in his last three games) has been enough to sustain an offense that has struggled in the air.

Defensively, this might be the best overall unit in the conference. Nate Orchard is a backfield menace and Gionni Paul has quietly been one of the best middle linebackers in the league. The secondary is hunting and the special teams are top notch. Tom Hackett has done an outstanding job flipping the field and anytime the Utes get in or around the 30-yard line, it's almost guaranteed points, courtesy of "Automatic" Andy Phillips.

The South is a mess right now. And you could easily make an argument for five teams to win the league. And you wouldn't be wrong about any of them. So why not Utah?

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN

The fact that you can make a legitimate case for five teams to win the South means there isn't an obvious favorite. Best tie-breaker?

Remaining schedule ... and that clearly favors USC.

At 4-1 in conference play, the Trojans are two wins up on Arizona (2-1), Utah (2-1) and UCLA (2-2) and one on Arizona State (3-1). We've already established there are no easy games in the Pac-12, so that they're already at four is significant. And with that understood, their remaining slate -- at Utah, at Washington State, home against Cal, at UCLA -- is the most manageable.

Take Utah for example. The Utes have six more conference games -- USC, at Arizona State, Oregon, at Stanford, Arizona, at Colorado -- so while there's a good chance they beat USC on Saturday, their road to the division title is significantly more difficult. The other three teams face similar futures, which leaves USC with the best shot to emerge.

Pac-12 mailbag: South rising

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Welcome to the mailbag. I pray come and crush a cup of wine. And follow me on Twitter.

Arthur in Poulsbo, Washington writes: If the Sun Devils win the rest of their games (big if), do you think the UCLA game with Bercovici's first start, will hurt their chances in getting into the playoffs?

Kevin Gemmell: I think a one-loss Pac-12 champion is a lock, whether that's ASU, Arizona, Utah or Oregon.

But since you're talking about ASU specifically, let's look at the schedule: at Washington (a team that started the year ranked), vs. Utah (a top 20 team as of this week), versus Notre Dame (a top 10 team this week), at Oregon State, versus WSU and at Arizona (a top 15 team).

Combine all of that with the fact they have already beaten two ranked teams and their lone loss was at home to No. 11 (at the time), I think the Playoff Selection Committee would look very, very favorably on the Sun Devils for going 11-1.

Here's the catch, they probably won't. And Arizona and Utah probably wouldn't go 11-1, either (they all play each other, anyway). Oregon has the "easiest" road the rest of the way, so the Ducks might end up with just one loss. But would you be shocked if they didn't? I sure wouldn't be.

A one-loss Pac-12 champion is a sure-thing. Take it to the bank. It gets dicey with a 2-loss team. But even that I think might be safe -- if the committee members truly take depth of conference and strength of schedule into account.

This is a brave and scary new world we're entering. Year 1 will go a long way toward setting some precedents.




Derek in Cedar Rapids, Iowa writes: Well, that was a brutal display by the Cardinal offense on Saturday! My question has to do with the explanation that Stanford is lacking a 220-pound back to run between the tackles, and that is the reason that the offense is so poor. Yes, Tyler Gaffney always seemed to fall forward for an extra yard last year, but how much of this has to do with an offensive line that is not (yet) living up to its recruiting rankings? If the blocking is what it needs to be, shouldn't Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and company be able to hit the hole for nice, positive gains? In other words, how much of this struggle has to do with the revamped offensive line, rather than Gaffney joining Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart in the NFL?

Gemmell: The answer to your question is yes, and yes. Yes, the Cardinal have not found a reliable back to give them, at least, 15 carries a game consistently. And yes, the offensive line has not lived up to the considerable hype it garnered when these guys were first recruited.

Does that mean they never will? Of course not. Remember, Andrus Peat is the only returning starter of the bunch. The rest of them -- while having seen a little playing time in the past -- are first-year starters.

But it's not all on the line. Because in Stanford's scheme, pass protection is a huge responsibility for the backs. And none of them have excelled in that department. For as outstanding as Gaffney and Taylor were at carrying the load, they were also very good at reading defenses and picking up blitzes. This wouldn't have happened in those days. Or this.

It is a combination of everything all snowballing into an avalanche of offensive inefficiency. You take an inexperienced line, combine it with backs who haven't done a great job in pass protection/getting extra yards and a quarterback who hasn't played particularly well, and you have the worst offense in the conference.




Mark in Phoenix writes: It was a dominating weekend for the Pac 12 South over the North. Is it too soon to remove the justifier of "so far" and declare that the Pac 12 South is better than the North?

Gemmell: By my count, the Pac-12 South is 7-4 against the North in their 11 inter-division matchups this year. Advantage, South.

Five of the six Pac-12 South teams are ranked, compared to just one team from the North. Advantage, South.

Every team but Oregon in the North has at least two conference losses, while the South has four teams with one conference loss and another with two. Advantage South.

The North has Oregon, the league's highest-ranked team at No. 6 and likely the Pac-12's best chance at making the College Football Playoff. Advantage, North.

Yes, the South is clearly the dominant division right now. That will sort itself out in the coming weeks with showdowns like USC at Utah, Arizona at UCLA and Utah at ASU. And then there are the rivalry games at the end of the year.

But outside of the SEC West, I don't think there is another division in football that is as nasty as the South.

The North has a chance to right things in the coming weeks. Arizona travels to Washington State this week and ASU heads to Washington. UCLA at Washington and Oregon at Utah in a couple of weeks will be interesting.

A rising South, in one sense, is great for the conference. The USC-Stanford rivalry is at a tipping point, as is the Arizona-Oregon matchup. There has never been a better time to be a fan of Pac-12 football. On the flip side, the power shift makes the league that much more balanced, which leads to further criticism of the league nationally.

I think back to a quote Mark Helfrich gave me a couple of weeks ago, when he said the Pac-12 has a perception that parity equals mediocrity, but in other leagues, parity equals strength.

Hopefully when the music stops and the four playoff teams are named, the Pac-12's depth will be an asset, not a deterrent.
There’s nothing quite like the first time your newborn son evacuates all over a wall at 2 a.m. This is what Andy Phillips is currently dealing with. So no, a little crowd noise at the Rose Bowl or a little rain at the Big House isn’t really going to rattle him, thank you very much.

As Utah’s kicker grows into fatherhood – his son Maximus is now seven weeks old – he’s learned to put the things that matter in life into perspective. While his football career can be high-pressure/high-stress, it's -- for lack of a better pun -- child's play compared to the responsibilities he has at home.

[+] EnlargeAndy Phillips
AP Photo/Alex GallardoNothing seems to faze Utah kicker Andy Phillips.
“I’m only seven weeks into it, but nothing fazes me,” said Phillips, 25. “Whether it’s poop all over the walls or pee everywhere or waking up at 2 a.m. to give him a bottle, there is nothing more demanding than taking care of a child. I get to football and it reminds me how blessed I am to have an opportunity to play this sport. My wife, my family are all so supportive.”

By now, most people who follow the Pac-12 have heard the tale of how Phillips, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, became Utah’s kicker despite any previous football experience. After several video exchanges with former special-teams coordinator Jay Hill (now the head coach at Weber State), Phillips was invited to camp as a walk-on. He sent videos to every school in the state, but Utah was the only program that bit. Good call, Utah.

“He’s a great weapon for us,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s a big contributor for us week in and week out. He’s not your typical kicker.”

Indeed. Phillips was skiing competitively at 5 and internationally by 12. He was racing in Europe by 15 and at 17 he was named to the U.S. team, where he spent five years.

That competitive drive is alive and well on the football field. He ranks among the nation’s best kickers in almost every category and his field-goal accuracy has earned him the nickname “Automatic Andy.” He’s 13 of 15 overall and 9 of 11 from 40-plus yards. He ranks sixth in the nation in scoring at 10.8 points per game.

But it’s more than field goals. More often than not you’ll see Phillips flying down the field trying to make the tackle on kickoffs. A lot of kickers talk that talk, but few back it up. Here’s an example of Phillips backing it up.

“I don’t like to shy away from contact,” Phillips said. “I’ve got pads and a helmet on for a reason. I might as well use them. I’m an aggressive safety. If there’s a hole that opens up, it’s my job to fill that hole. I like to get in there and knock people around a little bit.”

He also knows his limitations. Kicking was the obvious choice, having grown up with a soccer background. Yet Whittingham said if Phillips wasn’t a kicker, there are several other positions he could play, simply based on his athleticism.

“I have to temper him and tell him to stay back and be the safety guy,” Whittingham said. “He would love to go in and get in the mix.”

Phillips isn’t cocky enough to think he could just stroll in and start playing, for instance, linebacker.

“Not growing up with the sport and competing at this level, I understand there are so many instinctual things these guys learn growing up with the sport,” Phillips said. “No one can jump in and be a ski racer at 18 or 19 because there are so many things you learn growing up, you can’t learn it all in a year. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what a linebacker has to learn his whole life or what a running back has to learn.

“… With my ski racing background, I learned my whole life how to be mentally tough. How to handle pressure situations. How to adapt to uncomfortable situations. I think that gives me a huge advantage in the kicking game.”

And that athleticism allows him to do something most other kickers can’t – the one-man onside kick, which he pulled off against UCLA a couple of weeks ago. It started as an idea he and Hill came up with last year. Phillips worked on it for a week before trying it live in practice.

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“We did it 15 times and I was able to recover it all 15 times without failure,” Phillips said.

Added Whittingham: “He’s not the first guy we’ve tried it with, but he’s the best guy at it, without a doubt.”

The Utes have a critical Pac-12 South showdown this weekend with USC coming to town. Then again, from here on out they are all critical as the Utes look to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011. They move forward with the confidence knowing they’ve got one of the best kickers in the country on their side.

“If you strive to the be the best at everything you do in life, whether that’s school, golf, religion, soccer or football, all of those translate to one another,” Phillips said. “If I’m in a pressure situation in football, if that’s something I’ve faced in another aspect of my life, I’m going to be able to overcome it.”
videoAnd so goes the carousel of quarterbacks at Utah. But don't call it a two-quarterback system because that's not what this is at all.

“We’re waiting for somebody to separate themselves and really take ownership of the position,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of his Travis Wilson-Kendal Thompson conundrum.

On Monday, Whittingham announced -- after initially saying he’d keep this information closer to his vest going into this week -- that Wilson would be the starter for No. 19 Utah this weekend against No. 20 USC.

[+] Enlarge Kendal Thompson, Travis Wilson
Chantel Jennings/ESPNUtah QBs Kendal Thompson and Travis Wilson speak to reporters after Thursday's win over Oregon State. Wilson will start for the Utes against USC on Saturday.
“We have had some back-and-forth the last couple weeks and it wasn’t by design,” Whittingham said. “Bottom line: We would love for one of them to take ownership and become the guy, because I’m not a two-quarterback system fan. I haven’t seen that work well very often, if ever. So we’re trying to get that separation but they’ve got to play themselves into that separation."

Wilson led the Utes to victory in the Michigan game, but Thompson kept them in it when Wilson had to exit early in the second quarter to have an injury checked out. When Wilson struggled early against UCLA, Whittingham turned to Thompson, who led the Utes to a huge upset win over the then-No. 8 Bruins, prompting Whittingham to start him last Thursday against Oregon State. But when Thompson had a lackluster first half, Whittingham decided to give Wilson the second half. And then Wilson led the Utes to a double-overtime victory.

Follow?

It’s not “some” back-and-forth like Whittingham said. It’s a lot of back-and-forth. And for a top-20 team that’s headed into the seventh game of its season, having a problem of abundance at quarterback is basically like having no one at quarterback.

Either Wilson or Thompson needs to secure himself as the starter going forward if the Utes want to compete for the South Division title. This you-go-no-you-go shtick is only going to carry the Utes so far.

Wilson has completed 63 of 111 passes for 833 yards (7.5 yards per attempt) and seven touchdowns without an interception. Thompson has completed 28 of 47 passes for 301 yards (6.4 yards per attempt), two TDs and two picks. But with what Thompson lacks in passing he makes up for with his feet. He’s the team’s second-leading rusher behind Devontae Booker, with 51 carries for 164 yards and one touchdown.

Whittingham said that both players are handling the competition well and that he’s making sure neither player feels as though he has “too short of a leash.”

But the truth of the matter is that the leash is getting shorter for the entire team the further this competition goes into the season. They’re two different quarterbacks, both with their own pros and cons. And with Wilson getting the start against USC this weekend, he’s going to have the next shot at becoming the man for Utah.

History says it might not stick, but seeing how quickly things can change for that position at Utah, maybe Wilson will finally step forward and secure the job for good.

“It’s got to happen on the field and we have to see one of them take charge and that’s what we’re hoping happens now,” Whittingham said. “One of them needs to just go ahead and take charge and take the position and run with it.”

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

October, 21, 2014
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Even without a public commitment, the Pac-12 was full of recruiting news this weekend, as every home team hosted visitors and ESPN 300 prospects made their way to each Saturday game. Elsewhere, Arizona State extended an offer to a 2017 quarterback and Utah has a chance to make a big statement.

Week 8 was great. As always, here are your choices for the Pac-12 Blog's Play of the Week. All were impressive, but which was head and shoulders above the rest?

1. Why use two hands when you only need one?

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With Cal trailing by three, and the Bears with their second attempt at the endzone from the 7-yard line, Cal junior receiver Chris Harper caught a one-handed touchdown pass over UCLA defensive back Ishmael Adams (who's not new to the Play of the Week vote, but usually isn't the one being beat in the play). It was a nice throw from quarterback Luke Rubenzer, but Harper displayed great athleticism in going up for that ball, controlling it and bringing it down with his right hand.

2. Oregon's own [Dwayne] Stanford problem

SportsNation

Who had this week's Pac-12 Play of the Week?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,427)

Oregon sophomore receiver Dwayne Stanford elevated over both Kevin King and Sidney Jones to come down with his first touchdown against an FBS opponent in his career. It was a perfect ball from quarterback Marcus Mariota and Stanford's leap, catch and spin for the score -- which gave the Ducks a 35-6 lead -- certainly deserves a spot in this week's vote. Stanford's catch was even bigger for the Ducks as Mariota begins to look for new weapons in the receiving game with Bralon Addison still out and Keanon Lowe, his most experienced receiver who returned this season, having sat out the last two games. Stanford finished the day with five catches for 55 yards, including this little 16-yard beaut.

3. No. 7 for No. 6

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USC quarterback Cody Kessler tied the Pac-12's and stole the USC school record for touchdown passes thrown in a game … seven. Yes, this coming from a quarterback who often gets put on the backburner because there are just so many guys to talk about in this conference. Though all seven touchdown passes were impressive, we're going with his record-breaking toss for many reasons:
  • He displayed plenty of calm in the pocket while Colorado had a pretty solid pass rush going on.
  • The throw itself was put in the perfect spot so only his receiver could get it.
  • Steven Mitchell's diving catch for it was just the cherry on top.
4. Book it for Booker

Running back Devontae Booker had a huge night on Thursday for the Utes. With not much happening in the air, he got it done on the ground for Utah, rushing 32 times for 229 yards and three touchdowns. But the vote this week is for his 19-yard rushing touchdown in the second overtime to seal the win for Utah. The play itself might not have featured as many ankle breakings as others this weekend, but to thrive under that kind of pressure and get a road win in the Pac-12 (which seems pretty common these days, I know) is good enough to get on the vote. Booker -- who flew under the radar coming into this season -- is now second in the conference in rushing yards per game (123.7) and third in all-purpose yards (146.2).

5. An Oregon Grand [Byron] Marshall

Technically, Byron Marshall is a wide receiver now for the Oregon Ducks. But don't tell that to the ankles he broke on Saturday as he rushed in a 23-yard touchdown. Though it was a receiving touchdown, it was his performance after the catch that gets him on this vote. His change of speed and direction got two Husky defenders to look silly before he bulldozed his way into the endzone through three more Washington players (and an Oregon player, too). On the day, Marshall accounted for five carries for 30 yards and five catches for 48 yards.

Pac-12 morning links

October, 20, 2014
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I like it. What's not to like? Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? Good.

Leading off

The biggest news is that Stanford dropped out of the rankings after its 72-week run in the top-25. Sorry, Cardinal. But maybe a sweep of the state of Oregon over the next two weekends will get you back in. Kyle Bonagura went a bit deeper on the subject, which you can read here.

Here are the Pac-12 teams in the rankings. As always, the AP rank is first, followed by the coaches poll.
  • Oregon 6-7
  • Arizona State 14-14
  • Arizona 15-15
  • Utah 19-19
  • USC 20-21
  • UCLA 25-NR

Stanford was the only conference team to pick up any votes in the AP poll and in the USA Today coaches' poll. Washington and Stanford both received votes. Check out the complete rankings right here.

Curious how people who cover the conference teams voted? Glad you asked.
And per usual, Heather Dinich gives you a rundown of the playoff picture following last week's football action. She has interesting thoughts on Stanford. Sorry Cardinal, but Dinich says that a three-loss team -- even if it wins the Pac-12 title -- won't make the playoff. Read on here.

Some streaks extended, others stopped right in their tracks

The Oregon Ducks continued their streak over Washington, winning their 11th consecutive game in the series. This kind of dominance in the series reminded The Oregonian's Andrew Greif of the Ducks of yesteryear as it produced a strong run game, solid QB play and, again, a win over the Huskies.
But in their play, a 45-20 victory against the Huskies at Autzen Stadium, the present-day Ducks instead resembled something closer to the grind-'em-up machine of the last decade that brought this program to prominence.

So, the 1994 throwback uniforms made quite a bit of sense, Greif explains. And speaking of those Oregon uniforms, The Huffington Post decided to go through 50 Oregon uniforms that "changed the way we see college football."

And while the Ducks were having usual success in Eugene, the Bruins had unusual success in Berkeley. UCLA hadn't won there since 1998 and it squeaked out a win over the Bears, breaking that streak.

But despite a win, UCLA isn't exactly looking like the top team many expected it to be coming into this season. Everett Cook of The Los Angeles Times writes that -- among a few other things learned in the Bruins' win over the Bears -- that UCLA continues to play down to the level of its competition.

And can we speak of streaks without at least addressing the ongoing Pac-12 road team streak? Utah and UCLA won on the road but USC, Oregon and ASU got work done at home. Does this mean that the magic of the road is gone? Probably not. With some interesting matchups this weekend (Oregon at Cal, UCLA at Colorado, Arizona at Washington State, Arizona State at Washington ... just to name a few), it wouldn't be too surprising to see some road teams walk out of opposing stadiums with a win.

And some shout outs

Let's give props where props deserve to be given. There were quite a few guys who had career days over the weekend in the Pac-12. News/notes/team reports
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- By no means was Utah’s 29-23 overtime victory at Oregon State pretty. It was far from it, and not an apples-to-oranges kind of far. It was more like an apples-to-zucchini squash kind of far.

It was an ugly, gut-check, props to anyone who stayed through the first three quarters and only saw five field goals kind of ugly. It was a combined 1-of-19 on third downs at one point kind of ugly.

It was the kind of ugly that necessitates the winning team’s coach to say he thought it was "an outstanding job by our football team [of] hanging in there."

Which Utah coach Kyle Whittingham did.

[+] EnlargeDevontae Booker
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenDevontae Booker's TD run in overtime gave Utah a crucial win against Oregon State.
"Our offense did enough to get us enough points to win," Whittingham said. "Our defense did enough to keep us in the game."

They did enough. They didn’t dominate. They didn’t own the Beavers. They just won. Ugly.

And you know what? It was the kind of ugly that looks like it could be enough to take the Pac-12 South Division this season.

With everyone beating up on everyone (which displays the depth of the conference) why not Utah?

It’s not what anyone pegged for this team. The Utes were picked to finish second-to-last in the South at the beginning of the season. But in a season in which the conference has seen more than one Hail Mary decide a game and road teams go 15-4 in league play, it sort of feels like anyone -- yes, even Utah -- could sneak into that top spot if just enough goes right and not too much goes wrong.

It’s the old "C’s and D’s gets degree" frame of mind. Don’t worry about being the valedictorian, just get by.

Because that is exactly what happened on Thursday night.

The Utes -- not by design -- played two quarterbacks. Kendal Thompson, who led Utah to victory on the road against UCLA two weeks ago, completed four passes in the first half. He was sacked three times and also threw an interception. Yet, somehow the Utes were still in a 6-6 tie as they went to the locker room, thanks to their captain, kicker Andy Phillips.

Phillips, 13 of 15 this season, hit 38- and 43-yard field goals to keep Utah in what some could call a defensive battle, and others would call a matchup of stagnating offenses. Truthfully, it was probably somewhere in the middle.

But, in the first half, that was enough. Though Whittingham didn’t come to Corvallis expecting to play two quarterbacks, he decided at halftime to go back to Travis Wilson, who earned the starting job coming out of fall camp.

Wilson didn’t fare too much better in the second half. He completed five passes for 45 yards, didn’t throw a touchdown, and was sacked once. But in the second half, the run game exploded for the Utes. Devontae Booker, who rushed for 44 yards at 4.4 yards per carry in the first half, scored three touchdowns (including the winner in OT) and had 185 second-half rushing yards at 8.4 yards a pop.

Whittingham said he thinks Booker is the best running back in the conference, and Booker's 229 rushing yards Thursday -- the most by any Pac-12 back so far this season -- is a reason why.

The defense played stout, keeping Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion uncomfortable. Though Mannion completed just 56.8 percent of his passes and was sacked five times, he almost led the Beavers out of the woods. His 72-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Villamin to start the fourth quarter gave Oregon State its first lead. In overtime, with the Beavers trailing by seven, he connected on a corner fade to Villamin on fourth-and-goal.

But Whittingham wasn’t upset with the plays the Utah defense allowed.

"They're gonna give up things to that guy," Whittingham said of Mannion. "They've got guys on scholarship ... that are going to make some plays. But we made a few more than they did tonight."

Not a hundred more. Not many more. In fact, Oregon State topped Utah statistically in nearly every category that typically matters -- first downs, total offense, third-down conversions.

But the only statistic that truly matters -- which team has more points -- belonged to Utah. Because the Utes made "a few more" plays than the Beavers.

That might be what it takes to become the leader in the South Division. The conference was expected to be deep, but the cream of the crop was supposed to be a head above everyone else. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

It certainly won’t be an easy road for the Utes. Their next five opponents are ranked in the top 25. They have USC at home next weekend, then travel to Arizona State. They face Oregon at home, Stanford on the road, and close out the season against South foes Arizona and Colorado.

But if they keep doing enough on offense, enough on defense, and fielding their dangerously explosive special teams, there is a chance. It might not be an incredible chance, but it does seem silly to count them out at this point.

In the Pac-12 this season, you don’t need to be an overachieving team or have a Heisman or Biletnikoff finalist ... don’t worry about the style points.

Just survive. Just do enough.

Revisiting Pac-12's 'fearless predictions'

October, 17, 2014
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Anu Solomon, Marcus Mariota, Kevin HoganGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12 blog revisits some of its preseason "fearless predictions" to see how they stand at the midway point of the season.
At the midway point of the season, the Pac-12 bloggers decided it was a good time to revisit some of the blog's fearless predictions for 2014. How'd we do?

1. A Pac-12 team will win the national championship: We wrote that Oregon, UCLA, Stanford or USC would win the national championship, and we'd like to celebrate the fearlessness of that prediction because at this point that is its strongest quality. Each member of that foursome already has at least one loss, with Stanford, UCLA and USC having gone down twice. At No. 9, the Ducks seem like the most likely team to work its way back into College Football Playoff consideration, but that might require going undefeated the rest of the way. No easy task. The Pac-12 has proved even deeper than it appeared in the preseason, while the top doesn't appear as unassailable as it did in August. We may have swung for the fences and missed with this one. -- Ted Miller

2. A Pac-12 player will win the Heisman Trophy: The Pac-12 blog is still confident. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota presents the best candidate from the league. He's yet to throw an interception, his dual-threat numbers more than qualify him and the Ducks are still in the hunt for a conference title and College Football Playoff berth. Although he's the nation's most accurate quarterback, the window for UCLA's Brett Hundley is shrinking quickly. But with names like Buck Allen and Shaq Thompson starting to emerge, the league still has a phenomenal shot at a stiff-arm trophy. -- Kevin Gemmell

3. No Pac-12 coach will be fired at season's end: The two coaches whose seats were moderately warm going into the year, Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Cal's Sonny Dykes, both have their programs headed in the right direction. That leaves absolutely no coaches in the Pac-12 in jeopardy of losing their jobs. -- Kyle Bonagura

4. Cal and Colorado will be good enough to deliver a major upset this fall: I think we can consider Cal's win at Washington State as major enough considering the kind of offensive numbers (and special-teams touchdowns) that Jared Goff and his teammates had to put up in Pullman. To win on the road against a team whose QB threw for the FBS passing record is pretty major. However, at the midpoint of the season, we're still waiting on Colorado. The Buffs came pretty close against Cal and Oregon State, which we could've considered in this category, especially with how well Cal was playing at the time. But we're keeping this prediction with Colorado. The Buffs have six regular-season games left and four of those teams are currently in the top 25. We're not counting out a top-25 takedown by Ralphie & Co. -- Chantel Jennings

5. The USC-UCLA game will be a battle of top-10 teams: OK, maybe we shot for the moon a bit with that one. But what about top-25 teams? That's still likely. The Trojans are at No. 22 and UCLA is the first team out of the rankings at the unofficial No. 26 spot. USC has only one ranked team in its next four games leading up to the UCLA showdown. Good chance it will still be ranked. Same for UCLA, which has only No. 16 Arizona as a ranked opponent on the docket before hosting the Trojans on Nov. 22. Win out and the Bruins will be back in the top 20. -- Kevin Gemmell

6. Oregon will cover the spread against Michigan State in Week 2: Annnnnd, we got one. Boom shaka laka. -- Chantel Jennings

7. The Pac-12 will go 3-0 against Notre Dame: Well, after Stanford yanked defeat from the jaws of victory -- hey, let's rush three and not cover anybody on fourth-and-11 from our 23-yard line with time running out! -- this prediction is already doomed. The question now, with Notre Dame ranked No. 5 as it heads to No. 2 Florida State on Saturday, is whether Arizona State (Nov. 8) and USC can beat the Irish (Nov. 29). We're going to stay optimistic -- I know; so strange! -- and say yes. Biggest reason why? Stanford played Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, but the Irish have to come west to play the Sun Devils and Trojans. And now's not the time to note that home-field advantage hasn't been worth squat in the Pac-12 this season. -- Ted Miller

8. Whoever starts at quarterback for Arizona will pass for more than 3,000 yards: Freshman Anu Solomon has cemented himself as the Wildcats' starting quarterback, and our initial assessment of 3,000 yards actually looks conservative now. Through six games, Solomon has demonstrated remarkable poise in the pocket, even leading Arizona to a shocking 31-24 upset over Oregon at Autzen Stadium. He has already racked up 2,136 yards passing, 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Since the Wildcats are on target to play in a bowl game, Solomon is actually on pace to shatter that three-grand figure while throwing for 4,628 yards and 33 touchdowns. Rich Rodriguez is developing a potent attack in Tucson, and it should only improve as Solomon accrues more experience with his talented receiving corps. -- David Lombardi

9. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan will be the Pac-12's most improved player: This prediction has not come to fruition. Through the first half of the season, Hogan has actually regressed in a key statistical area, and Stanford has struggled mightily in the red zone, a place where great quarterbacks shine. Averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, Hogan's no longer as efficient as he was in 2013 (8.9 yards per attempt) despite enjoying a much more complete aerial arsenal (Stanford's tight end position is back this year). The Cardinal's running game is not as strong this year, and that's forced Hogan to shoulder a heavier load. He averaged 15 throws per game in 2012. That number bumped up to 21 in 2013, and it has shot up to 29 here in 2014. It's become clear that this larger burden has pushed Hogan further from his comfort zone.

If Stanford can re-establish its running game and return Hogan to the play-action happy spot that gives him more opportunities to make plays with his legs, we may be able to revisit this prediction at season's end. -- David Lombardi

10. Six teams will be ranked in the final top 25 at the end of the season: Six looks like a stretch at this point and it's not because the Pac-12 might have six of the country's 25 best teams. With the level of parity the conference has shown over the first half of the season, it'll be tough to differentiate from, say, the conference's No. 5 team and its No. 8 team. That dynamic will make it significantly more difficult to have more teams in the top 25 than if there were a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots. -- Kyle Bonagura
Just when you think you've got the pass-happy, high-scoring Pac-12 figured out, it goes and flips the script with a defensive struggle (a bit of an offensive struggle as well) on a Thursday night in Corvallis, Oregon. The Utah Utes won ugly, but they won 29-23. Here's how it all went down at Reser Stadium.

How the game was won: Utah's Devontae Booker scored his third rushing touchdown of the game in double overtime, capping a game that was offensively challenged for the first three quarters. Oregon State's Trevor Romaine sent the game to overtime by nailing a 49-yard field goal as regulation expired, knotting things up at 16. After the teams swapped touchdowns in the first overtime period, Romaine missed on a 37-yard attempt, opening the door for Booker's 19-yard, game-winning run.

Game balls go to: Booker and Utah kicker Andy Phillips. Booker gets the nod for 229 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Phillips was 3-of-3 with a long of 46. Credit to the Utah defense as well, which wore down as the game progressed but got to OSU quarterback Sean Mannion five times.

What it means: At 5-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play, the Utes have set themselves up nicely for both a postseason berth and a potential run at the division. They already have a tiebreaker against UCLA and four of their last six games are against South Division teams (Oregon and Stanford sandwiched in between will be tough). There's also a bit of a quarterback controversy to keep an eye on as Travis Wilson replaced Kendal Thompson in the second half. Neither were impressive. For the Beavers, they need to start thinking about where those final two wins will come from if they hope to reach a bowl game.

Playoff implication: With one loss, the Utes are still in the conversation. If they can run the table, there's no way a one-loss Pac-12 champion gets left out. Question is, can the Utes -- and their struggling passing attack -- run the table?

Best play: Booker broke off a 53-yard rush with 5:33 left in the game and the Utes trailing 13-9. Four plays later, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, he finished the drive with a touchdown to put the Utes up 16-13.

Notable: With 272 passing yards Thursday night, Mannion is at 12,012 yards for his career. He needs 316 to break Matt Barkley's career record of 12,327.

What's next: Ranked teams for both (at least ranked as of today). The Utes return home for a South Division showdown with USCUSC. Oregon State goes on the road for a North Division tilt with Stanford.

Pac-12 South recruiting roundup 

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
5:30
PM ET
At the halfway point of college football's regular season, there is still plenty to be decided both on the field and on the recruiting trail. The Pac-12 placed six programs among the top 40 recruiting classes in Wednesday's updated class rankings Insider and conference recruiting classes contain as many as 24 -- Arizona -- and as few as nine -- Stanford -- commitments. This update offers a look at where each Pac-12 South program stands with its 2015 recruiting class, including its top prospect and position of strength, as well as a look at where things are going well for each class.

Arizona

Total number of commitments: 24

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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham stuck to the coaching handbook this week and opted against publicly naming a starting quarterback headed into Thursday night’s game at Oregon State.

“It's not a huge strategic move,” he said. “But why tip your hand if you don't have to? And we don't have to.”

In theory, that would leave those outside the program -- and more importantly, in Corvallis -- to speculate: Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson?

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
AP Photo/Alex GallardoKendal Thompson has earned the start against Oregon State on Thursday.
 Except it’s hard to believe there’s much of a decision to make. Not after what happened in Utah’s past two games.

In a 28-27 loss to Washington State on Sept. 27, Wilson failed to lead the Utes into the red zone, and Whittingham later admitted that, in hindsight, Thompson “should have probably gotten a couple series.” Those comments are partially why it came as no surprise when Wilson got the hook after starting with three consecutive three-and-outs at then-No. 8 UCLA the following week. And after Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer, went on to lead Utah to a 30-28 win and into the AP Top 25 for the first time since joining the Pac-12, it’s hard to find logic that points back to Wilson.

Regardless, Oregon State coach Mike Riley said the Beavers will be prepared for either guy -- which likely would have been the case even if Whittingham went public with his decision.

“Obviously, we have to prepare for both if they’re not going to name the starter, and they certainly have two good players to pick from,” Riley said. “We played against Travis last year, and he gave us all sorts of fits and [Thompson] has come in there and done a nice job, so probably a good problem for Utah to deal with.”

In Oregon State’s 51-48 overtime win against Utah last season, Wilson completed 19 of 33 passes for 279 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions and ran for 142 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries.

Despite what Wilson did against the Beavers in that game, it’s what Thompson can do with his legs that could ultimately give him the edge. By no means did he set the world on fire against UCLA, but he carried 19 times for 83 yards to go along with a 10 for 13 passing night with 95 yards, a touchdown and no picks.

Riley is no stranger to dealing with unsettled quarterback situations. He benched returning starter Ryan Katz in favor of Sean Mannion early in the 2011 season, and after Mannion went down with an injury the next year, he split time with Cody Vaz when he returned. Then the duo waged a long quarterback competition before Mannion emerged at the end of training camp last season.

“We were into that about a year and a half ago, and it’s a little bit challenging, probably,” Riley said. “Coaches trying to decide what’s best to do and players are up in the air a little bit, but I think in the bigger picture, the competition creates the best in people most of the time and you want to find that out at that position.”

Utah has been in a similar situation to what it'll be facing Thursday, too, just not for how it relates to quarterbacks. Last fall, the Utes beat No. 5 Stanford 27-21 to move to 4-2, but five straight losses followed, taking them out of the bowl picture.

"We have had that conversation, how we didn't capitalize on a big win last year vs. Stanford," Whittingham said. "The timing of the game is almost identical -- I think Stanford was in Week 6 last year, rather than Week 5, which the UCLA game was. It's a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but we hope to have a better result throughout the second half of the season than we did last year."

Pac-12 Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
9:00
AM ET
Why Utah will win: Duh, the Utes are on the road. Is any further explanation needed? I like the confidence Utah is playing with. I like that they are a three-phase team. And I really, really like the sack-happy Utah front seven against an Oregon State offensive line that hasn't fully come together yet. The Utes have established a strong running game that will exist regardless of who is handing off the ball. OSU's offense is yet to really come together. And unless you've got a defense like Stanford's, averaging fewer than 30 points per game will eventually catch up with you. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Oregon will win: Oregon has won 10 in a row in this bitter rivalry, and each of those victories came by at least 17 points. That’s dominance. Last year, the Huskies challenged the Ducks for three quarters at home before being overwhelmed in the fourth quarter in a 45-24 Ducks win. While Washington is closing the gap, and the Chris Petersen hire adds an intriguing wrinkle to the series, the Ducks seemed to regain their footing last weekend at UCLA. They’ll particularly need that improved O-line play to neutralize Washington’s tough front seven. But don’t despair Huskies: Marcus Mariota won’t be around when the Ducks come back to Husky Stadium in 2015! -- Ted Miller

Why Stanford will win: Stanford is just a bad matchup for Arizona State. The Cardinal's physicality on defense caused problems in both games last year and there's not much reason to indicate that won't be the case again Saturday. Stanford's offense has struggled, but there were enough schematic changes against Washington State to sense improvement is coming. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why Arizona State will win: Because there’s no way that if all five of us picked all five of the same teams this week, that we’d all be perfect. My gut says one of these games doesn’t happen the way we all believe it will. The Sun Devils are the more highly ranked team and they’re playing at home which in the Pac-12 this year means they should lose, right? So, I’m going to say they’re going to win. Despite Stanford’s tough defense, I think Arizona State has enough success against them to sneak out with a win. The Pac-12 this season has made little sense and for some reason everyone thinks Stanford is going to come in and crush ASU, so I say, what the hey, let’s pick ASU because no one else did. -- Chantel Jennings

Unanimous picks

Why UCLA will win: Don't get us wrong, Cal has a very real shot to win this game. Their offense is still explosive, and UCLA's defense has not shown that it's anywhere near Washington's caliber, the Bears' last opponent. We're still waiting for evidence that Cal's defense can stop Brett Hundley & Co. -- David Lombardi

Why USC will win: It's clear that the Trojans are significantly better than Colorado, and they're at home. Despite its inconsistency this season, USC just has too much size, athleticism, and skill to reasonably think they'll lose this game. -- David Lombardi
We've reached the season's halfway point, and we may actually know less about the Pac-12 than when the year started. The road team has won 14 of 18 conference games so far this season, the South has turned into a gigantic free-for-all in which five of the six teams still harbor legitimate hopes of winning, and the North picture isn't too much clearer. Oregon and Stanford appear to again be on a decisive collision course there, but it'd be foolish to just assume that in a time when consistency does not seem to be allowed. Plus, both face tricky tests in another intriguing slate this week. So, it's time to circle the wagons and do it all over again.

The delicious appetizer: Utah at Oregon State

Just over two weeks ago, the Utes and the Beavers became afterthoughts on the same night: Kyle Whittingham's club blew a big lead at home against Washington State right before Mike Riley's men found themselves on the receiving end of a thorough whipping in the Coliseum.

Then the fickle face of the Pac-12 smiled. And suddenly, Utah and Oregon State have a prime opportunity to capitalize on chaos. The winner of Thursday night's clash in Corvallis will improve to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the conference race. With the recent extinction of unbeaten Pac-12 teams, that would equate to prime positioning in this topsy-turvy conference race. Take both of these teams seriously because they're both playing sturdy defense: The Utes (allowing 4.7 yards per play) and the Beavers (allowing 4.8 yards per play) are ranked two and three in that category behind Stanford in the Pac-12. Utah leads the Pac-12 in sacks, and that'll test Sean Mannion's release.

Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: Washington at Oregon

The 5-1 Ducks have owned the Huskies for an entire decade, and they'll need to make it 11 straight to remain at the top of the Pac-12 North. Oregon blasted UCLA's shaky defense right out of the Rose Bowl Saturday en route to a 42-10 lead and 42-30 win, but this next game promises to challenge Marcus Mariota. The 5-1 Huskies have grown up quickly on the defensive end. Just ask Cal's offense, which only mustered seven points against the Dawgs despite coming in averaging more than 50 per game.

Speaking of Mariota, he's been spectacular: 70 percent completion rate, 17 touchdowns, no interceptions. In fact, only three quarterbacks in the nation have attempted more than 100 passes this season without throwing a single interception, and all of them play in the Pac-12: Mariota, Washington's Cyler Miles, and Utah's Travis Wilson.

We'll find out if the Ducks have made true progress in fixing their offensive line woes next Saturday. Oregon hasn't allowed any sacks in three of the four games that left tackle Jake Fisher has started (he's back!), but they also haven't faced a defensive front seven of Washington's caliber. Hau'oli Kikaha (conference-leading 10 sacks) and Danny Shelton are dominant forces right now, and that's allowing Shaq Thompson to wreak havoc from the second level. Oregon will be tested Saturday, especially if Miles continues to avoid turnovers.

The proving grounds game/redemption opportunity: UCLA at Cal

Both of these teams had golden opportunities at home last Saturday, and both went up in flames early. The Bruins wilted against Oregon, while the Bears could never recover from Jared Goff's goal line fumble that Thompson returned 100 yards for Washington's first score.

So neither team was ready to take the proverbial next step, and that turns this game into a chance for atonement. It seems as if the Bruins' defense has been on a fairly steady course of regression as this season has progressed, and Sonny Dykes hopes that's the medicine for his suddenly-stalled offense. Meanwhile, Cal's defense has yet to prove that it can contain a top-shelf Pac-12 offense. We'll probably see plenty of points in Berkeley as these two clubs vie to prove they have a backbone.

Desperation Bowl: Colorado at USC

Let's make it clear that these teams are desperate in completely different ways. The Buffs are 0-3 and just clawing for a single for a Pac-12 win. The Trojans, meanwhile, sport the conference's best record (3-1). Steve Sarkisian's team, though, is starved for consistency. USC should be ecstatic that they escaped Arizona with a win -- Buck Allen (7.9 yards per carry) and Leonard Williams were fantastic. But the on-again, off-again cycle has become far too familiar in Troy, where USC has followed up massive wins with horrendous defensive no-show losses. The Trojans are heavy favorites at home against the Buffs, but a slippery roadie to Salt Lake City awaits, so they'd better find stability now.

Don't forget dessert (diamond in the rough game): Stanford at Arizona State

By the most important statistical accounts, Stanford's defense is the best in the nation (8.8 points per game, 3.6 yards per play). Meanwhile, ASU's offense isn't messing around, either (41.2 points per game, 7.2 yards per play). So this rematch of the 2013 Pac-12 Championship is setting up to be a fun Saturday nightcap. In all likelihood, though, this game will probably be decided by the performance of these teams' struggling halves: Will Stanford's adjusting offense, scoring a conference-worst 26.3 points per game, be able to consistently score against an ASU defense that's giving up a conference-worst 6.1 yards per play? The loser in the desert will face a massive uphill climb in the Pac-12 race.

Pac-12 Show (4 ET)

October, 13, 2014
Oct 13
11:53
AM ET
Pac-12 reporters Kevin Gemmell, Chantel Jennings and Ted Miller review this past weekend's games, including USC's upset of Arizona, and look ahead to Week 8. They will also answer your questions live on screen.

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