Pac-12: Utah Utes
Through six weeks of the 2014 season, every program has flashed at least one weakness or one position where depth is needed in a hurry. While the incoming batch of 2015 recruits won't help the prospects of the 2014 team, some will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact the following year, as they'll provide depth -- or perhaps jump into starting roles -- at positions of need. Here is a look through the Pac-12 at the biggest areas of need for each program, and the 2015 recruits on the way to provide help.
The wild weekend in the Pac-12 wasn't limited to the field, as the recruiting trail saw some significant action as well. Three impact commitments landed in the conference, while three more ESPN 300 prospects took official visits and several big wins by certain programs made an impact with recruits.
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Expect the unexpected*: OK, so you didn't even have to have your TV on a Pac-12 game to experience the unexpected this weekend because insanity happened everywhere. It was the first time since the inception of the Associated Press Poll that five of the top eight teams lost on the same weekend. No. 12 Mississippi State upset No. 6 Texas A&M. No. 11 Ole Miss upset No. 3 Alabama. No. 25 TCU upset No. 4 Oklahoma. Northwestern upset No. 17 Wisconsin. Utah State upset No. 18 BYU. And the Pac-12 wasn't going to be left out of all the fun. Arizona State upset No. 16 USC, Utah upset No. 8 UCLA and Arizona upset No. 2 Oregon. It was bonkers. Everything. Was. Bonkers. We knew that this was going to be a crazy season, but I don't think anyone saw this kind of a shakeup -- in the conference or across the country -- coming so soon. But it's here. Holy moly, college football craziness is here.
*Except when it comes to Stanford -- then, expect the expected: Meaning, expect a championship-caliber defense and a struggling offense -- that's exactly what we saw in the Cardinal's loss to Notre Dame. Stanford's front seven were stout and made Everett Golson's job very, very hard. They have a reputation and they protected it in South Bend. Stanford's offense, on the other hand, was held to 47 rushing yards (the first time in more than two years the Cardinal haven't accounted for 100 rushing yards in a game) and senior Kevin Hogan completed just 50 percent of his passes while throwing two interceptions and zero touchdowns in the 17-14 last-minute loss.
The state of Arizona owns the state of California in Hail Mary's: Week 4 saw Arizona take down Cal with a Hail Mary, and on Saturday night, Arizona State took down USC 38-34 with a Hail Mary. There must be something in the water (this is a joke, I know both states are in historical droughts) in the state of Arizona that's allowing its receivers to get up through piles of defensive backs and make these improbable plays.
This really is the year of the QB in the Pac-12, and yes, that includes backups: We've given a ton of coverage to the Marcus Mariotas and Brett Hundleys of the Pac-12, and they certainly deserve it. However, Week 6 saw some huge performances from some backup QBs, which just speaks to the depth at the position in the conference. Taylor Kelly's backup, junior Mike Bercovici, led his unranked Arizona State squad to an upset over No. 16 USC. Bercovici threw for five touchdowns and 510 yards (would've had more if not for a few key drops), including the 46-yard Hail Mary pass to win the game. Travis Wilson's backup, junior Kendal Thompson, led Utah to a 30-28 upset of No. 8 UCLA on the road. Thompson completed 10 of 13 passes for 95 yards and one touchdown, but where he really attacked the Bruins was on the ground. He took off 19 times for 83 yards and forced the UCLA defense to play a bit more honest.
Connor Halliday has cemented his name in the record books: In an Air Raid-versus-Air Raid matchup, Halliday broke the FBS passing record with 734 yards -- and the Cougars still lost to Cal 60-59. So, the Pac-12 Blog's verdict is still out on which is more ridiculous: the fact that Halliday still has an arm after throwing six touchdowns and 734 yards or the fact that he did that and his team still lost. But one thing is for sure: Halliday has cemented his legacy in college football with that performance. He did everything he could to get the Cougars the win.
The league's two best teams have two of the worst-performing offensive lines: For as much as we've talked about Mariota and Hundley, this weekend gave us plenty of reasons to be talking about the five players in front of those guys. In Week 4, Mariota was sacked seven times against Washington State, so I suppose the five sacks against Arizona were an improvement. But Mariota was injured in that Wazzu game. The Ducks are in a tough spot with Mariota. His offensive line isn't playing well so he needs to be more mobile, but he can't be more mobile because he's hurt. But if Mariota wants to get some empathy, he can just go to Hundley, who was sacked 10 times in the Bruins' loss to Utah. These offensive lines need to pull it together going forward.
Colorado is the worst team in the conference but not by much: Had the ball bounced the Buffs' way a bit more last weekend, maybe they would've come up with the win over Cal. And against Oregon State, the win was within reach. Colorado is making strides, and with Sefo Liufau commanding that offense the next two years, who knows what happens? Right now this is a team that's going to compete in the Pac-12, but it just isn't good enough to finish games quite yet. Until the Buffs get there, they'll be at the bottom of the pack.
PASADENA, Calif. -- The Pac-12 is down to one unbeaten team (Arizona!) after Utah upset No. 8 UCLA 30-28 at the Rose Bowl.
How the game was won: A week after wasting a big lead at home against Washington State, the Utes showed resilience on the road, fighting off UCLA comeback attempts that included two attempts -- because of a penalty -- at a game-winning field goal as time expired. UCLA missed both. While there were a lot of important moments, including a clutch go-ahead drive late in the fourth after the Bruins took the lead, the bottom line was Utah's pass rush dominating the Bruins offensive line, recording an eye-popping 10 sacks.
Game ball goes to: It appears Utah has a new starting quarterback, as Kendal Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer, replaced Travis Wilson and led the Utes to the victory. Thompson completed 10 of 13 throws for 95 yards and rushed for 83 yards on 19 carries.
Best play: Utah receiver Dres Anderson grabs a 42-yard touchdown in between two UCLA defenders in the second quarter to put the Utes up 14-0.
What it means: It means next week's anticipated UCLA-Oregon matchup will now feature two teams coming off losses instead of two teams front and center in the hunt for a berth in the College Football Playoff. It means that one of the Pac-12's preseason top-10 teams will have two losses before we reach mid-October. It means that the top-to-bottom quality and over-arching parity in the conference makes every weekend a gut check, even for the supposedly elite teams.
Playoff implication: While the widespread carnage across college football this week suggests that one loss won't destroy a team's playoff hopes, this was not a loss the Bruins expected to take: at home versus unranked Utah, a team that finished with a losing record a year ago. It's hard to imagine the Bruins can negotiate the rest of their schedule without going down a second -- or third time. Their margin for error is certainly reduced. The Oregon matchup, in fact, might be an elimination game.
What's next: UCLA plays host to Oregon on Saturday in a critical Pac-12 matchup, only now it's about two seriously wounded teams battling to remain in the national picture. Utah, a week after feeling terrible with the loss to Washington State, improves to 4-1 and 1-1 and now can be considered a player in the South Division race. The Utes have a bye to enjoy this win before visiting Oregon State on Thursday, Oct. 16.
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Stars are out at USC
The USC Trojans put more than a few eggs into Saturday night's basket, bringing committed recruits Chuma Edoga and Aca'Cedric Ware, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge in on official visits, and also loading up on unofficial visitors. With a convincing 35-10 victory, the strategy appeared to pay off.
Cedar Hill (Texas) High School was very well represented, as 2016 women's basketball prospect Joyner Holmes made the trip alongside Ware and Lodge.
Quarterback K.J. Costello, the No. 61 prospect in the 2016 ESPN 300, snapped a shot of the pregame from the sideline.
??Fight On ?? pic.twitter.com/XrSO1QmXnF— Biggie (@iman_marshall8) September 28, 2014
Utes host big weekend despite loss
Sweet Atmosphere tonight!!! Fight on?? pic.twitter.com/e6eu8Uar9R— kj costello (@kj_costello) September 28, 2014
Like USC, Utah put plenty of effort into bringing in a number of recruits this weekend. Despite the loss to Washington State, the Utes were able to feature wide receiver Kaelin Clay, a junior college receiver, which might have been the perfect recruiting pitch considering they were hosting a trio of junior college receivers in Dede Westbrook, Kyle Fulks and Kinte Hatton.
Recruits see power of Bear Raid
?????? pic.twitter.com/915sczeX2L— Kinte (@KeepLiving_5) September 27, 2014
Prospects in Berkeley were treated to an offensive explosion between Cal and Colorado, where the Golden Bears were able to put on an offensive show in front of official visitor, junior college wide receiver Isaac Whitney.
Huskies on hand
Great win from Cal and good to see my bro and bishop Odowd alum Dezhon pic.twitter.com/nlN0PXlOqk— Swaggy C (@_miloeifler) September 28, 2014
Washington hung tough with Stanford for four quarters and did so in front of several committed recruits, including wide receiver Isaiah Renfro and 2016 ESPN 300 athlete Brandon Wellington.
Renfro gave future Washington official visitors a glimpse of what they can expect upon arrival to Seattle.
Wellington, meanwhile, looked to get a hashtag going, likely on the heels of linebacker Shaq Thompson's third defensive touchdown of the season.
UW hooked your boy up pic.twitter.com/YkgcDIerkU— Isaiah Renfro (@WaveGodZay) September 26, 2014
The biggest game of the weekend in the Pac-12 -- and perhaps the country -- took place Thursday night between UCLA and Arizona State, but that won't stop the conference from putting together a truly remarkable visit weekend. There are four Pac-12 games on Saturday's docket and, though this is normally a top-three list, this week all four are deserving of mention when it comes to important weekend visitors.
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It was a strong weekend for Pac-12 recruiting, as the conference added two potential impact commitments and several programs hosted important visit weekends. While Utah and Washington emerged as obvious winners, UCLA extended an interesting 2016 offer and both California and Washington State looked to take steps forward with recruits.
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As Utah heads into conference play this week -- opening its fourth season as a Pac-12 team with a home date against Washington State -- it ranks among the nation’s best in several special teams categories. Kicker Andy Phillips, punter Tom Hackett and return man Kaelin Clay have all been outstanding through the first three games, as have the units that block and/or tackle for them.
First, the numbers:
- As a team, Utah leads the nation in net punting. Opposing teams have returned 15 punts a total of 4 yards, giving the Utes a 46.67 net average. Hackett is third nationally with an average of 48.3 yards per punt.
- In the return game, Clay is seventh in the country, averaging 23.8 yards per punt return in six attempts. Let’s not forget about his two touchdowns, either. Utah ranks second nationally in kickoff return with an average of 33.5 yards plus one touchdown (by Clay).
- And Phillips is 5-of-6 on field goal attempts with a long of 50 yards.
Now, these aren’t sexy stats. Net yards per return doesn’t get the blood pumping the way touchdown passes or sacks do. But they win football games. Consider that 19 of Utah’s 26 points in Michigan came by way of special teams -- four field goals from Phillips and Clay’s 66-yard punt return.
"All three phases started kicking in,” said Utah wide receiver Dres Anderson on Utah’s win. “Our defense was doing great all game. Kaelin did great along with the punt return team. In the third quarter, the offense got everything going, and we started getting first downs. When you start getting first downs, everything starts to roll after that."
With the Michigan win the Utes improved their nonconference record to 11-1 since joining the Pac-12. Only Arizona, Oregon and Stanford (with one nonconference game remaining this season) can claim that kind of success.
Now the Utes will look to improve their Pac-12 record -- which stands in contrast to their nonconference showing at an unimpressive 9-18 (yes, quarterback injuries, we know, we know).
After WSU, the Utes go on the road for three of their next four with trips to UCLA, Oregon State and ASU with a home date against USC tucked in between.
“I think we're winning games because everyone has each other's back and everybody knows where they need to be,” said linebacker Jared Norris. “If somebody is out of place, then you have your brother that is going to make up for you. Home or away, I don't think it will matter this season. It's all about the trust we have in each other."
If the Utes can keep up all three phases, they are going to be a tough beat -- regardless of the venue.
Time: 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks
The Buffs will look to pick up their second win of the season against a Hawaii team that nearly beat Washington and Oregon State. Hawaii has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 57 percent completion rate and has allowed only seven pass plays of 20-plus yards, but Sefo Liufau and Nelson Spruce will attempt to find their way through that defense and put up some big plays for Colorado.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT
Travis Wilson will lead his 2-0 Utes into the Big House, where a struggling Michigan team is looking for its first real statement win of the season. Michigan's defense has struggled this season so Utah receiver Dres Anderson could be a name known in the Midwest by Sunday. The Utah defense will also need to contain dual-threat quarterback Devin Gardner, who could find his stride at any time.
Georgia State at Washington
Time: 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Washington put together a pretty convincing performance in a 44-19 win over Illinois, but can the Huskies keep moving forward and sustain that momentum? Georgia State isn't exactly a powerhouse, and with No. 16 Stanford on the horizon, Washington needs to make sure it keeps taking steps forward.
California at Arizona
Time: 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Arizona is 3-0 after picking up a win over Nevada (which could look even better by the end of the season) and welcomes 2-0 Cal to the desert on Saturday. One team is going to pick up its first loss -- and a conference loss at that -- this weekend, but will it be Jared Goff, whose Cal team has averaged 43 points per game, or Anu Solomon, who has finally given the Wildcats a sense of consistency at quarterback?
No. 2 Oregon at Washington State
Time: 10:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. PT
The second-ranked Ducks travel to Pullman, Washington, where Washington State seems to have finally hit some kind of a stride in its third game -- and first win -- of the season. It's never easy to play in the Palouse, but will the Cougars defense actually be able to slow Marcus Mariota and the Ducks machine? Or could this prove to be a stumbling block on the way to the College Football Playoff for Mark Helfrich & Co.?
San Diego State at Oregon State
Time: 10:30 p.m. ET/7:30 p.m. PT
TV: FOX Sports 1
San Diego State played No. 21 North Carolina close in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but the Aztecs relinquished a two-touchdown lead in the second half. Oregon State is coming off a bye week following a "closer than the Beavers would've liked" 38-30 win in Hawaii. Sean Mannion, who has 628 passing yards through two games, will continue building chemistry with Victor Bolden, while Storm Woods and Terron Ward look to keep some of the pressure off the pass game by giving the Beavers a reliable run game.
The old saying goes that you don't really know what you have until it's gone. And for Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, that time came last season.
During the Arizona State game on Nov. 9, Wilson took a bad hit. It wasn't until the following day that Wilson started feeling sick and dizzy, displaying concussion-like symptoms. That Monday, he took a concussion test and failed, prompting a CT scan of Wilson's head the next day.
"I didn't think it was any big deal," Wilson said. "I just thought it was just a concussion and maybe I'd have to sit out a week. I didn't think it was anything more than that."
The scan revealed an enlarged intracranial artery that had calcified.
Wilson's parents flew in from San Clemente, California. But even with the family there, the doctors really weren't able to give them very much information because it wasn't available. They didn't know when the injury had occurred. There wasn't much information regarding young people with this type of injury. They didn't know if football had played a part in it. They didn't know if he'd ever be able to play again.
"It was difficult," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "But football was a distant second in our minds as far as making sure that he was going to be healthy for the duration of his life and not have something like this have an impact on his quality of life. That was the main concern."
The decision was made to have Wilson sit out for three months -- with his only activity being running and lifting -- and do another CT scan to see if anything changed when football was taken out of the equation. He would act as a glorified student-coach for the Utes, helping back up Adam Schulz.
"All I could really do was try to coach," Wilson said. "It was tough not being able to play. I felt sick to my stomach not being able to play. It didn't feel right just standing on the sidelines and not being able to do anything."
In February, the scan revealed no changes and the doctors said that Wilson could return to football with no-contact. Pending another scan in June, he'd be able to return for good.
He went through spring ball without contact, glad to be playing a non-contact form of football. And when his June results still showed no change, Wilson was able to get back into full football form.
"I was very grateful," Wilson said. "I got a second opportunity to play this game."
"When the potential was there for him to never play again, I think he realized how much he loved it," Whittingham said.
Wilson has wasted no time in making his mark with the Utes, who are 2-0 going into a huge matchup with Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Wilson has the second highest passer efficiency rating in the country this season and is averaging 11.7 yards per attempt. He's also one of five Pac-12 quarterbacks who has yet to throw an interception this season.
Though the Big House and the Wolverines offer a different test than one he has seen in his career, he knows that the Wilson that steps on the field now is far different than the one that stepped on the field before.
"I'm definitely playing more calm," Wilson said. "I'm just really happy with the overall success [of the team]. I think we'll continue to get better as well."
The plot certainly thickened in the Pac-12's South Division on Saturday, but not necessarily in a good way.
A week after posting a gritty upset at Stanford, USC was humiliated at Boston College, while UCLA cobbled together a win over Texas behind scrappy, ebullient backup QB Jerry Neuheisel. Neuheisel's services were required because Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. His status remains uncertain, though there was reasonable hope based on initial reports that his injury wasn't serious.
The UCLA-Arizona State game was one we eyeballed in the preseason as a major measuring stick in the battle for the South. A significant part of the appeal was the quarterback battle. That hasn't changed, only now the intrigue is whether it will be Neuheisel for UCLA and Mike Bercovici for Arizona State. A week ago, that quarterback news would have heavily favored the Sun Devils. While Bercovici isn't the runner Kelly is, he's got one of the best arms in the conference and is well-versed in the Sun Devils offense. He is expected to win the starting job as a fifth-year senior next fall. Neuheisel was widely viewed as a career backup with a well-known father -- former UCLA QB and coach Rick Neuheisel -- but his second-half performance against the Longhorns suggested he can be more than a rudimentary game manager.
Both teams have an off week, when they can either get healthy or retool their plans. The stakes continue to be high, perhaps more so after USC threw up on itself with a wet-noodle performance at Boston College. While a nonconference game doesn't affect the Trojans' Pac-12 standing, it certainly made them look extremely vulnerable heading into a much-needed bye week. Other than USC fans, the most miserable folks watching that game surely root for Stanford, which probably can't believe it lost to the Trojans just a week before.
What this implosion and these injuries reveal in a wider sense is vulnerability in the South. In the preseason, UCLA looked like a decisive South favorite. Then USC made a statement with a win over the Cardinal. Arizona State was lurking with a great offense and a questionable defense. At this point, however, none of these three teams is scaring anyone. And don't look now, but Arizona and Utah remain unbeaten and have shown flashes that suggest they might be factors in a divisional race that previously seemed limited to the aforementioned troika.
The Wildcats play host to California on Saturday. Lo and behold, the Bears also are unbeaten, and this game suddenly possesses some potential meaning it didn't seem to have in the preseason. If Cal gets the upset, it can fully erase last season's misery and start thinking bowl game. If Arizona gets the win, it will be 4-0 and eyeballing the Top 25 with a visit to No. 2 Oregon looming on Thursday, Oct. 2.
Arizona appears suspect on defense, but the offense, with impressive redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, a good O-line, deep corps of receivers and breakout freshman running back Nick Wilson, will make the Wildcats a threat to any foe.
Utah visits Michigan on Saturday. While the Wolverines don't look like they'll be hailing in much victory this season, a Utes win would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows. While Utah's trouble hasn't been in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, a 3-0 start would hint they are not a South afterthought, particularly if the offense continues to shine with QB Travis Wilson.
While Oregon's win over Michigan State coupled with Stanford's loss to USC only boosted the Ducks' status as North Division favorites, the South intrigue has seemingly spiderwebbed since the beginning of the season. The race appears more wide open and complicated. UCLA's visit to Arizona State remains a major measuring stick, but it's just as likely either team would sacrifice that game -- as horrible as that sounds -- to know it will get its starting quarterback back healthy for the rest of the season.