West Coast Offense: It’s Not All Bryce Love in the Pac-12

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Bryce Love is following the same path from the Bay Area to New York that previous Stanford running backs Toby Gerhart and Christian McCaffrey traversed. Love’s 303-yard rushing performance against Arizona State propelled him into the forefront of early-season Heisman conversation, and puts him on a pace to break Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing record.

At 216.7 yards per game, on a staggering 11.1 yards per carry, Bryce Love is putting together one of the most impressive individual seasons in college football history. Pretty impressive for a guy who, coming into the 2017 campaign, lived in the shadow of his predecessor McCaffrey.

Bryce Love has now, in turn, cast his own long shadow over the rest of the Pac-12. It’s not unlike Reggie Bush in his 2005 Heisman* season — a season that, before 2017, was arguably the best ever for running backs in the Conference of Champions.

“We played against Royce Freeman,” Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said of the Oregon running back whose 10 rushing touchdowns lead the nation: “Then we come back this week and get this guy [Love]. There’s no rest for the weary.”

Yes, game-planning to stop the run in the Pac-12 this season is indeed a proposition that deprives coaches of sleep. Including Bryce Love, five of the nation’s top 35 rushers are Pac-12 running backs: Freeman, USC’s Ronald Jones II, Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay and Washington’s Myles Gaskin.

It’s the most impressive and deepest collection of star running backs in 12 years, dating back to an autumn in which Bush won the Heisman; Jerome Harrison rushed for 1,900 yards at Washington State; LenDale White scored 24 touchdowns; Maurice Jones-Drew did a little bit of everything; Marshawn Lynch went Beast Mode; and Justin Forsett broke off 7.6 yards per carry.

The similarities are fascinating.

Alongside Bush, USC rolled with White. When they’re both in the lineup healthy — which hasn’t happened in a few weeks — the duo of Jones II and Stephen Carr is the best the Trojans have had since Bush and White. USC didn’t have a monopoly on multi-man backfields, however: Cal featured a duo of Forsett and Lynch in 2005.

This year, another standout twosome shines in the North, as Freeman shares the rock with Kani Benoit. Benoit — whose 8.5 yards per carry rank No. 16 in the nation — is coming off a 138-yard, two-touchdown performance against Cal. He’s the Ducks’ No. 2 back, yet has three multiple-touchdown games on the season.

When Oregon head coach Willie Taggart said Benoit “could go somewhere else and be the starter,” he’s not exaggerating. Depending on the severity of Freeman’s shoulder injury sustained last week against Cal, Benoit could get the start this week vs. Washington State.

And if he doesn’t start now, Benoit might need only wait until he gets to the NFL.

Benoit is a rising NFL prospect, one of several among this Pac-12 running back class. He has company in such peers as Phillip Lindsay, a playmaker Buffs head coach Mike MacIntyre has repeatedly referred to as a “complete back.”

“He’s got to keep getting bigger stronger as he gets older, which he’s done every year. He catches well, he runs well, he protects the ball well, he blocks well,” MacIntyre said. “When you get to the NFL, you’ve got to keep progressing. He’s got to understand the offense he’ll get into…You’ve always got areas you can improve incrementally, but I wouldn’t say there’s any area he’s deficient in.”

Lindsay’s complete game is evident in his statistics: 565 yards in five games (13th-most in the nation), five rushing touchdowns and another 111 yards with a score receiving.

The ongoing running back revolution is booming out West. Even for a team like Washington State, headed up by a coach known for innovating an almost pass-exclusive offense, has taken part.

Cougars running back Jamal Morrow averaged a staggering 15.2 yards per carry in Washington State’s 30-27 upset of USC last Friday. His 23-yard touchdown on a shovel pass from quarterback Luke Falk gave the Cougars a critical, 27-20 lead in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a stud,” Falk said of Morrow. “Jamal’s a clutch guy. Every kind of crunch-time situation, he’s making a big play.

“Jamal’s one of the best football players I ever played with,” Falk added.

And while Bryce Love has raced into Heisman consideration, don’t sleep on Washington’s Myles Gaskin. His workload’s been relatively light — not surprising, given the Huskies haven’t been challenged yet this season.

But at 7.1 yards per carry with six touchdowns, Gaskin’s profile should rise as Washington gets into the meat of its Pac-12 schedule.

Chris Petersen SLAMS Late Kickoffs (But Not Really)

Chris Petersen’s name bounced around the echo chamber over the weekend when the Washington head coach offered a thought on late kickoff times. When asked about it again on Tuesday, Petersen responded:

“Someone asked the question and they blew it out of proportion, like they do with everything,” Petersen said. “It’s not like all of a sudden this came to a big head, and it’s like, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s typical media, they don’t have anything else to write about, so they’re making headlines.”

The attack on media as a nebulous, singular entity is misplaced; at least, to an extent. I have lamented the proliferation of aggregation in this space before; and indeed, in Googling for Petersen’s original quote, it was somewhat of a hassle finding an original source.

But at the same time, others around the Pac-12 in recent years have not been as ambiguous with their thoughts regarding late kickoffs so as to leave room for embellishment. Former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes went in on the conference and TV networks for his team’s scheduling a season ago. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez has frequently addressed the situation in the past.

Christian McCaffrey even tweeted reference to it while showing support for Bryce Love’s Heisman candidacy today.

It seems as though much emanating from the West is left to hearsay, and that’s a good recipe for Purple Monkey Dishwasher.

Rutgers’ Championship Role

Last season’s Pac-12 North championship came down to the Apple Cup rivalry, pitting Washington against Washington State. With its win over USC, the Cougars took an important step toward once again playing for the division on the final weekend of the regular season against their in-state foes and the defending Pac-12 champions.

What’s fascinating is the role Rutgers has played in the renewed significance of the Apple Cup.

Washington blew out the Scarlet Knights at home en route to the College Football Playoff a season ago, and after a sluggish start in Piscataway to kick off this campaign, the Huskies rolled to another lopsided win over Rutgers again.

Undefeated and sitting at No. 6 in the AP Top 25, Washington again looks like the team to beat in the conference. They have company in Rutgers being a stepping stone — and in Washington State’s case, the Scarlet Knights may have played a pivotal role in the very look and feel of the current Cougar program.

Washington State’s contending for the Pac-12 North each of the past two seasons. This year’s undefeated start and No. 11 ranking is a high-water mark. But a little more than two years ago, the Cougs were reeling.

They snapped a decade-long postseason drought in 2013, only to lose the New Mexico Bowl in gut-wrenching fashion and finish below .500. That carried over into 2014, with Washington State fighting just to avoid the basement in the Pac-12 North.

A loss to FCS Portland State in the 2015 season opener pushed Washington State under Mike Leach to a make-or-break moment before facing Rutgers on the road.

“We were in a crunch-time situation, guys made some gutsy plays and really helped us propel our season forward at that point,” Falk said. “Who knows what happens to our season if we lose to Rutgers?”

Giving Back

Before he arrived in Tempe to quarterback the Arizona State Sun Devils, Manny Wilkins grew up in the Bay Area community of Novato. Wilkins did not forget his roots, as evidenced with ASU’s visit to Stanford this past weekend.

Wilkins used ticket allotments for dozens of Novato school children to attend, and met with the kids on their day out.