West Coast Offense: USC-Arizona and Homecoming Scheduling

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Few dates on the academic calendar crystallize the magic of college quite like Homecoming Week. For students, Homecoming wholly embraces the frivolity of the best four years of life. For graduates, it’s exactly as the name suggests: a return to the scene of great memories.

For football programs capping off a university’s Homecoming Week, the festivities add an extra element of pressure. John Goodman’s portrayal of Adams Atoms’ Coach Harris in Revenge of the Nerds provides a nice summary of the Homecoming Game in this easily digested YouTube embed.

Presumably, when the Nov. 4 matchup with No. 22-ranked Arizona was slotted for USC’s Homecoming, athletic brass presumed it was doing Trojans faithful a solid with a team coming off a dismal, 3-9 finish filling that date. Arizona’s play since Khalil Tate stepped in at quarterback might be the liquid heat in the Trojans’ jocks, as it were.

Now, because of the framework of Pac-12 scheduling — teams are required to finish their non-conference schedules before October, barring certain exceptions — most all Homecoming games are played against conference opponents. SEC teams often schedule Homecoming to coincide with a mid-or-late-season buy game, and while it doesn’t always go according to plan — LSU paid Troy $985,000 to ruin its Homecoming in September — it’s typically a surefire way to guarantee a happy conclusion to the week.

League games are more conducive to upsets for a variety of reasons than most non-conference pairings. Conferences also usually have at least one team that emerges unexpectedly.

Colorado was a safe bet to coincide with Homecoming games for much of the Buffs’ initial few years in the Pac-12. Then, last season, they won 10 games en route to the conference championship game.

In 2015, Arizona was coming off a divisional title and Fiesta Bowl appearance when it hosted Washington State — one season removed from finishing 3-9 — for Homecoming. The Cougars won, setting up a showdown for first place in the Pac-12 North the next week against Stanford.

The Wildcats take a turn in the designated Homecoming role this season, Saturday marking their second time as visitors for an opponent’s version of the campus tradition. Arizona beat Cal in the Golden Bears’ Homecoming game on Oct. 21, 45-44 in overtime.

While the concept of the Homecoming game might be to deliver an emphatic victory that can send the alumni away happy — and perhaps ready to crack their wallets for merch or even donations — a great matchup has its own merits. November football should be a time for conference championship-defining contests.

Playing a quality opponent with title implications at stake sounds more exciting than paying seven figures for a Sun Belt game, anyway.

Running with the Pac

The sudden emergence of Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, face of the Wildcats’ four-game winning streak, gives the Pac-12 two of the top three rushers in college football heading into the weekend. Stanford’s Bryce Love continues to set the pace at 198.14 yards per game, with Tate at 154.33.

But after both Ronald Jones II of USC and Colorado’s Phillip Lindsay put up huge numbers last week, the Pac-12 boasts five of the top 17 ball-carriers in the FBS.

Lindsay checks in eighth nationally at 139.33 yards per carry and Jones at 111. Between them is Oregon’s Royce Freeman, who will leave the program its all-time leading rusher. Freeman’s putting up 121.78 yards per game.

With Saquon Barkley setting the pace in the Heisman competition, Rashaad Penny standing out among Group of Five teams, and the bevy of talented ball-carriers in the Pac-12, 2017 has been something of a resurgent years for the running back position.

“There were some rumbles, because at the end of the year you saw them do some really special things,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said of Love and Penn State’s Barkley emerging as the top two contenders for the 2017 Heisman. “They weren’t as up front as the quarterbacks, but everyone kind of knew who they were…The quarterbacks are always more fun to talk about, but as you get into the season, you start the run the football and these guys in particular are doing special things.”

The ongoing running back revolution is perhaps best reflected in the Pac-12, where the position really is carrying the banner for the entire conference. Even the Pac-12’s most ballyhooed quarterback heading into November, Khalil Tate, has been more ball-carrier than passer.

“The quarterback play has been good; it hasn’t been stellar across the nation,” Shaw said. “A bunch of guys have played well in spurts, but the running backs have been as dynamic as consistent.”

Cory Hall’s Impressive Audition

Cory Hall was thrust into an unenviable position as interim head coach at Oregon State. While other interim coaches recently have parlayed their tenure filling in after midseason firings into full-time gigs, Hall did not inherit a team with the talent Clay Helton had at USC, or Ed Orgeron took on at LSU.

However, an Oregon State team that been losing games by four-plus touchdowns a week before Gary Andersen’s sudden departure last month has been within three points of the defending Pac-12 South champion, and a single play shy of upsetting a Top 20-ranked Stanford bunch.

The young, energetic Hall could be an excellent long-term solution for Oregon State. Corvallis is not an easy place to win; there’s a reason Mike Riley’s tenure is lone era of sustained success in modern times.

Winning at Oregon State requires a unique approach and fresh perspective. Scoring some wins with hidden gems on the recruiting trail is another necessity.

The former NFL player Hall has only been in the college coaching game since 2014, joining the Wisconsin staff as a grad assistant before a turn as Weber State’s defensive backs coach. Before heading to Wisconsin, Hall coached at prep powerhouse Clovis North in talent-rich Fresno.

The Central Valley can be an integral pipeline to Oregon State. And Hall being a relative newcomer to the college game suggests a willingness to approach strategy unconventionally. The Beavers have already adopted schematic changes in two games to make them more competitive than the six before he took over.

Oregon State closes Hall’s interim tenure with winnable games against Cal and rival Oregon. The athletic department’s decision shouldn’t be made on the basis of two outcomes, but on the big picture potential. And, in Cory Hall’s case, the potential is high.