Last December’s Pac-12 Championship Game went to halftime with Washington ahead of Colorado 14-7, and I was ecstatic.
It was my fourth year covering the Pac-12 Championship, and the three previous installments ended in scores of Stanford 38, Arizona State 14; Oregon 51, Arizona 14; and Stanford 41, USC 22. Each of those three contests had halftime margins of double-digits, so hey! Maybe Colorado remaining within a score at intermission was a good omen.
Washington drilled Colorado, playing without Sefo Liufau much of the second half, 41-10. The Buffs’ offensive anemia against a stellar Washington defense was their undoing, despite a valiant effort on the part of the Colorado defense.
So what’s different in 2017, with Colorado welcoming the defending Pac-12 champion Huskies to Folsom Field in Week 4?
“Washington’s better than when we saw them in the Pac-12 Championship Game,” Buffs head coach Mike MacIntyre laughed. “That’s the difference. They’re a better football team than when we played them…so I hope we’re better.”
Colorado’s off to a 3-0 start, matching that of No. 7-ranked Washington, but the Buffs have yet to see much of a test through non-conference play. They held their first two opponents, Colorado State and Texas State, without a touchdown, but struggled somewhat to put away FCS opponent Northern Colorado.
Colorado’s standing relative to a season ago may be in doubt, but MacIntyre listed off a variety of reasons he considers this Washington team better than the 2016 version.
“They’re more efficient on offense, they’ve got No. 36 [Azeem Victor] back at linebacker…and the quarterback’s arm is healthy,” MacIntyre said. Jake Browning’s shoulder was an area of concern throughout the latter portion of Washington’s run to the College Football Playoff.
Browning said at July’s Pac-12 media days that he felt 100 percent, and despite a shaky start Week 1 at Rutgers, he’s chugging along at a brisk pace through three games: 74.4 percent completions on 78 pass attempts, 798 yards, eight touchdowns against just one interception.
Browning isn’t the only quarterback playing better than at the close of the 2017 season, however. Steven Montez, who filled in for Liufau at various points in the 2016 campaign, has made his own strides as Colorado’s full-timer.
“He’s gotten better each week,” MacIntyre said. “He stayed in the pocket better the last half of this last game. He’s had a couple scramble situations that were legitimate scramble situations, that he’s made big plays. He’s seeing the coverage pre-snap better.”
Operating behind a solid, veteran offensive line; sharing a backfield with Phillip Lindsay, one of college football’s unsung stars; and throwing to one of the best wide-receiving corps in the nation don’t hurt Montez’s efforts, either.
The multidimensional Colorado offense will have to solve a Washington defense that might be the most talented in the Pac-12, between Victor, Vita Vea, Greg Gaines and Taylor Rapp. Rapp nearly outscored the Buffs on his own in December’s Pac-12 Championship Game with a pair of picks, one of which went for a touchdown and the other that set up a Huskies score.
Cal Can Earn Respect vs. USC
In Justin Wilcox’s first season as head coach, the Cal Golden Bears have wins on the road against an ACC opponent and out-slugged an SEC West foe. Still, Cal fell behind six teams among the Others Receiving Votes in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
“We’ve still got to earn respect in this league,” linebacker Devante Downs said.
What better way to earn respect than to beat the Top 5-ranked, preseason pick to win the Pac-12 championship, USC?
The Trojans survived a double-overtime scare against Texas and hobble into Berkeley with the uncertainty of injuries piling up. Defensive ends Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin both came out in the second half against the Longhorns, linebacker Uchenna Nwosu — deemed the “MVP of the defense” by head coach Clay Helton — is battling maladies, and running back Ronald Jones II is dinged up.
It’s a prime opportunity for Cal to spring an upset, as The Open Man’s Trenise Ferreira examined in her column.
And, behind Downs, already a two-time winner of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, the Golden Bears surprisingly have the defense to do the unthinkable.
Downs’ 32 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss lead Cal, and he ranks 15th nationally in tackles per game.
Defensive lineman James Looney pinpointed Downs as primed for a breakout campaign at this summer’s Pac-12 media days. Downs brushed that off with “Maybe he was being a good friend.”
Should Cal beat USC, it won’t break into the Top 25 out of friendly courtesy. The Golden Bears will have earned their respect.
Pacing The Nation
Pac-12 players lead the nation in a variety of statistical categories through three weeks. A few notables:
Colorado needs a valiant effort Saturday to slow Jake Browning and the Washington passing attack. DB Isaiah Oliver should do his part if the trend continues. Oliver’s eight successful pass break-ups through three games leads the nation.
UCLA QB Josh Rosen has thrown 13 touchdown passes, two more than the trio of his next-closest competitors: Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, and West Virginia’s Will Grier.
Rosen’s No. 1 target has been Darren Andrews, the FBS leader in touchdown receptions on the year with six.
Arizona DB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is tied with Central Michigan’s Josh Cox with the most interceptions in the FBS at three. Jackie Wallace’s 11 in 1971 is the program record. Current Wildcats assistant coach Chuck Cecil is second in UA history with nine in 1987.
Stanford RB Bryce Love‘s 12.19 yards per carry do not lead the nation. However, with 43 carries through three games, he’s posting what is far-and-away the best average for any player with significant touches. The next-most productive ball-carrier with even 30 attempts is UNLV’s Lexington Thomas, who’s averaging 3.4. yards per carry fewer than Love on five less rushes.
Each of the top two players in FBS with the most explosive plays from scrimmage — defined as those going 10 yards or more — are from the Pac-12: Oregon RB Royce Freeman and Utah WR Darren Carrington. Of course, Freeman and Carrington were previously teammates.
It’s easy to see how an offense employing both, as Oregon did in 2015, could average 43 points per game. As it stands, Freeman’s regaining his Heisman-caliber footing for the resurgent Ducks, while Carrington’s added an explosive new dimension to the Utes offense.