Four Downs on Week 2: Long Live Pac-12 After Dark

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A tremendous Week 2 slate, featuring more marquee dates than opening weekend, did not disappoint. And just like in Week 1, Week 2 provided further reminder that you never tune out a Pac-12 game until the clock hits zeroes; especially if it’s into the night.

First Down: #Pac12AfterDark Is Alive and Well

On my drive home from the Coliseum, where USC exorcised some demons with an impressive, 42-24 defeat of Stanford, I switched from my stream of TuneIn radio broadcasts to a podcast once Arizona’s comeback bid against Houston fell short.

I’d written off Washington State in its game against Boise State, having seen the Broncos lead swell to three touchdowns on a defensive score just before I exited the Coliseum press box.

You’d think that covering the Pac-12 as I have, I would know better. Just a week prior, I was in the Rose Bowl press box for UCLA’s rally from down two full touchdowns more than Washington State trailed on Saturday night.

It wasn’t until the late fourth quarter when my intuition told me to turn on TuneIn. On one hand, I should have known better from the start. On the other? Better late than never.

The suddenly inspired play of Washington State’s defense in the fourth quarter and overtimes, and the clutch performance of Tyler Hilinski filling in for Luke Falk, made for yet another perfect late-night offering from the West Coast.

Given the natural order of Pac-12 After Dark, one has to assume the only reason Willie Taggart didn’t fall victim to its magic was that Oregon finished its 42-35 win over Nebraska with the sun still out.

Nevertheless, the Huskers coming back from a 42-14 deficit and had possession down just a score in the final minutes as the Oregon offense went ice cold. The Ducks went scoreless in the third and fourth quarters, and many of the lingering defensive concerns that predated even the dismal 2016 season became more evident.

Still, Oregon’s initial lead was the source of innumerable #FirstQuarterTweets. THE DUCKS ARE BACK, BABY!

Uh, yeah; so that second half forced some quiet shifts in focus. But not everywhere!

Despite Stanford’s loss on Saturday at USC, and Washington having yet faced a serious test, I feel strongly that Oregon is no better than third in the Pac-12 North — and Washington State proved in another classic edition of Pac-12 After Dark, the Cougars aren’t ready to acquiesce the winning ways they’ve established over the last two seasons.

Of course, Week 2’s edition of Pac-12 After Dark also suggests never feel too confident in any outcomes out West.

Second Down: Is Brent Venables the Best Assistant in College Football?

Clemson lost defensive standouts Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson and B.J. Goodson from the 2015 national championship runner-up lineup; the Tigers came roaring back in 2016 and won the national championship.

Gone from last season’s title team are Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson. And yet, two weeks into 2017, the Tigers have allowed nine points, including rendering the Auburn offense completely impotent in a 14-6 win Week 2.

Now, it’s possible Auburn’s offensive woes dating back to the end of Nick Marshall’s time at quarterback are simply continuing. Maybe Jarrett Stidham isn’t the answer, and Kamryn Pettway’s injury is more significant than anyone is suggesting, and Chip Lindsey isn’t the answer at offensive coordinator.

In a vacuum, Clemson’s defensive deconstruction of Auburn warrants restrain. But Brent Venables’ work as Clemson coordinator isn’t limited to the vacuum of an impressive, albeit singular win.

Venables was hired in 2012 to rebuild a defense that gave up an Orange Bowl record 70 points to West Virginia. His handiwork made an impact in short order, and by 2013, Clemson boasted one of the most physically dominant defenses in college football.

Clemson’s maintained a standard of excellence under Venables to a degree that stars like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Lawson, Boulware and so on can cycle out, but the Tigers persist.

Third Down: A Penny Earned

Last season as he pursued NCAA records, San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey generated some Heisman buzz. Quietly, Rashaad Penny put up monster numbers sharing carries with college football’s all-time career rushing king: 1,018 yards on just 136 carries with 11 touchdowns.

Penny’s the No. 1 option now at State, and through two games, he seems well suited to the No. 1 role. He flirted with 200 yards in the season-opening rout of a Dan Hawkins-coached UC Davis bunch — a perfect moment for Hawkins to inform his Aggies that it ain’t intramurals.

Penny went over 200 yards in his follow-up at Arizona State, leading the Aztecs to a signature win in Pac-12 Country.

He’ll see a much stiffer challenge from the Stanford defense in Week 3, a rare home date against a Power Five opponent for the Aztecs. In certain ways, this is arguably State’s most important regular-season game since hosting Miami in 1992. And, like that contest, it could harbor Heisman implications.

Yes, it’s only September, but should Penny against dominate — this time against a quality opponent — he’ll interject himself into the discussion in much the same way Marshall Faulk did 25 years ago, and Pumphrey did a season ago.

Oh, and that’s a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff time. Pac-12 After Dark, anyone?

Fourth Down: Strong Style and Stranger Things in Big Ten West

The fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana — location of the terrific Netflix original series, Stranger Things — sits in the nonfictional regional footprint of the Big Ten West. It’s only appropriate the division bring some stranger things to the 2017 college football season.

After it beat two-time Conference USA champion Western Kentucky on Saturday to improve to 2-0 in head coach Lovie Smith’s second season, why not Illinois?

I can practically hear the scoffs and see the eye-rolls, but hear me out. Wisconsin is injury-plagued early into the season; Nebraska has serious defensive deficiencies evident against both Arkansas State and Oregon; Northwestern eeked out a win over Nevada and was drilled by Duke; Minnesota looked impressive Week 2, and I’m higher on Iowa than just about anyone.

Nevertheless, this is the 10-year anniversary of Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall powering Illinois to a most improbable Rose Bowl berth in the strangest of seasons.

Look: Even after offering all this qualifiers, I can’t even convince myself Illinois might compete in the Big Ten West, let alone argue the idea to my audience. How Colin Cowherd presents absurd talking points every single weekday is almost impressive, but I digress.

However, if there is one item in the Illini’s favor, it’s that they picked up a tacit, and indeed strange, endorsement from the King of Strong Style himself, Shinsuke Nakamura. Credit belongs to @adamstar83:

Nakamura is a former IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental, NXT, and — if there’s any justice in the wrestling world — future WWE World Heavyweight Champion. The man knows something about winning title, so perhaps his expertise can rub off on the Illini.

If Illinois were to score the upset-of-upsets and win the Big Ten West, linebacker Tre Watson has full permission to march into Lucas Oil Stadium like this:

The road between Champagne and Indianapolis presumably traverses Hawkins, so if the Illini fail to deliver the proverbial Kinsasha to their Big Ten West brethren, perhaps Eleven can join the Illinois defense to slay the conference’s monsters.