The Pac-12 did some pretty impressive measuring-stick scheduling in 2013. Perhaps the conference's two most interesting up-and-comers, Washington and UCLA, has each been forced to run a Stanford-Oregon gauntlet in back-to-back weeks. You think you're pretty good? Prove it. Twice.
For Washington, this was a bit of a disaster. The Huskies all but beat Stanford in Palo Alto and ran out of gas after three quarters in a huge home game against Mark Helfrich's Ducks. They proved their bona fides to an extent, but went 0-2. And in the following week, they were sent to Tempe for a ritual slaughter at the hands of Arizona State.
So now it's UCLA's turn, and the timing couldn't be worse. Granted, the Pac-12's cruelty has limits -- after trips to both Stanford and Oregon, the Bruins get to host Colorado instead of facing another one of the Pac-12's eight top-21 teams -- but after a 14-point loss at Palo Alto, one that wasn't necessarily as close as the score suggests, the Bruins must head to Eugene to face the undefeated Ducks with a banged-up squad.
UCLA got away with precarious youth on the offensive line last season. Three freshmen and a sophomore started up front, and there really was no bench to speak of; but in-season injuries were limited, and UCLA managed to both win the Pac-12 South and occasionally move the ball. There were breakdowns -- quarterback Brett Hundley was sacked on 10 percent of his pass attempts, and 21 percent of all attempted runs were stopped behind the line -- but there were bright spots, too. This year, however, the front five has begun to fray. Sophomore left tackle Torian White is lost for the season. Sophomore left tackle Simon Goines got hurt last week at Stanford, as did his backup, Conor McDermott.
Even if Goines can go, this line has gotten really young, really quickly. In White's place at right tackle is a true freshman, Caleb Benenoch, a former four-star recruit. At right guard is another four-star true freshman, Alex Redmond. Sophomore Jake Brendel is the stalwart at center, and Goines is just a sophomore himself. Without Goines, the reins get passed to McDermott, a two-star redshirt freshman and former tight end recruit.
And did I mention that starting running back Jordon James has missed the last two games as well? After rushing for 424 yards and four scores versus Nevada, Nebraska, and New Mexico State, James carried 12 times for just 39 yards against Utah, got hurt, and missed the last two games. His replacements, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones, gained just 49 yards in 20 carries versus a pretty bad Cal defense, then gained 40 in nine versus Stanford.
Against Stanford, UCLA first gave up on running to the left side of the field at all, then simply gave up on running. The Bruins called just 18 rushes all game: eight in the first quarter, nine combined in the second and third, and one in the fourth. The deficit was never so large that that the Bruins were forced to go all-in on the pass; they just stopped running because they couldn't do it very well.
If you can't run, you probably can't pass either, especially against Stanford. Of 47 called pass plays against the Cardinal, Hundley was sacked four times (twice by an untouched defender) and forced to scramble nine times. He's a pretty good scrambler, mind you, and he gained 42 yards on the ground on four of these scrambles, but including bootlegs and rollouts, Hundley completed just two of nine passes for eight yards on the run.
Once the run game was confirmed to be a non-threat, Stanford was able to do whatever it wanted to Hundley in the passing game. Seven times, the Cardinal rushed just three defenders and dropped eight into coverage; Hundley completed four of six passes for 41 yards in such instances, but he was picked off twice and sacked once. And on blitzes, Hundley's auto-reads were predictable; he completed five of six passes against five pass rushers, but for just 25 yards. And again, he was constantly running for his life.
UCLA tried to use the pass as an extension of the run at times. Hundley was 11-for-11 for 59 yards on throws behind the line of scrimmage, but you have to be able to stretch the field vertically, one way or another, and UCLA couldn't. Hundley was just 2-for-8 for 42 yards on passes longer than 13 yards downfield.
Terrance Mitchell returns one of Oregon's 11 interceptions this year. Scott Olmos, USA Today.
If UCLA has any chance of knocking off Oregon, a healthy run game is a must. Both James and Goines are listed as starters on UCLA's two-deep, but it doesn't sound like either is guaranteed to play, let alone play well. Oregon's defense has been a bit sketchy at times this season, more than in years past. The Ducks still rank 17th in Def. F/+, but they have been vulnerable in pass defense, ranking 76th in Passing S&P+. Plus, the Ducks are just 121st in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). If James can help keep UCLA on schedule, Hundley could do some damage through the air.
UCLA's got itself a top-10 defense (10th in Def. F/+) and should make at least a few stops of the Ducks, but we know Oregon will score some points. The UCLA offense has to do something, too. Can it?
Elsewhere in the Pac-12
UCLA-Oregon is clearly the marquee game this week, but some other Pac-12 games carry some heft as well. (Okay, a couple really don't, but we'll take a look at them, too.)
No. 6 Stanford at No. 25 Oregon State
Against Stanford, if you can't run, you probably can't pass either. I said that above, and I believe it, but Oregon State is going to test that premise. The Beavers are attempting 50 passes per game, and as I mentioned on Monday, if they somehow reach the Pac-12 title game (which would probably require a win over Stanford), that 14th game could give quarterback Sean Mannion a chance to set the single-season passing yardage record.
Despite the dominant presence of Brandin Cooks (97 targets, 76 catches, 1,176 yards), Oregon State actually employs quite a bit of variety in its passing game. Nine players have been targeted at least once per game, seven at least three per game, and four at least five times per game. Against Washington State two weeks ago, Mannion threw 46 percent of his charted passes left of the hashmarks, 39 percent right, and 15 percent between. One third of his completions came behind the line of scrimmage, one-third came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and one-third were at least 12 yards downfield. The passing game is as balanced as you can get and uses every inch of the field in front of it (and some behind it).
Stanford's is the best pass defense the Beavers will face, but aside from perhaps Utah, Oregon State's will be the best passing game Stanford has faced. It's certainly the most dedicated, anyway. Utah's Travis Wilson averaged just 6.5 yards per pass attempt against Stanford, but the Utes were efficient enough via both ground and air to get to 21 points on an excellent defense. We'll see if Oregon State can do the same via air, ground, air, air, and air.
Utah at USC
These teams rank atop the "Better than you probably think" list, though part of that depends on the health of Utah quarterback Wilson. USC's defense is still top-10 caliber, even if the offense is still a M*A*S*H unit, and if Wilson can deliver his typical brand of high-upside, hilariously-low-downside (in the form of turnovers) ball, the Utes' trip to the Coliseum could be entertaining if nothing else. And it will probably be close: five of Utah's six FBS games have been decided by a touchdown or less (the Utes are 3-2 in such games), and four of USC's have done the same (2-2).
Technically this game could have some importance in the division race, as well, at least if UCLA's struggling offense leads to a Bruin downslide. UCLA or Arizona State could run away with the Pac-12 South, but there could also be a huge logjam at 5-4 or so. Lots to be decided here.
California at Washington
California appears to have run out of gas. After scaring Northwestern and Ohio State to some degree in September, the Golden Bears have lost their four conference games by an average score of 46-16. It's probably not a good time to make a road trip to face a good Washington team, but after last week's debacle against Arizona State, the Huskies have some "How much do you have left in the tank?" questions of their own to address.
Arizona at Colorado
Just how good is Arizona? I asked this question a few weeks ago at Football Outsiders, and I was rewarded with two straight Wildcat losses. But Rich Rodriguez's squad bounced back with an impressive home win over Utah and is holding steady at 20th in the F/+ rankings.
The Wildcats still can't pass (157 net yards in 32 attempts vs. Utah), but they can defend (13th in Def. F/+), and Ka'Deem Carey can run. After missing the season opener against Northern Arizona, Carey has averaged 161 yards per game (6.0 per carry); he carried the Wildcats past Utah, rushing 40 times for 236 yards. He should be too much for Colorado.