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Observations From ANOTHER Bye Week

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Marcus Mariota and the Ducks are still the best team in the west.
Marcus Mariota and the Ducks are still the best team in the west.
Harry How

A rare (and unnecessary) second bye week for Oregon St. has led to another quiet week on the Corvallis front. Given the beautiful afternoon for football yesterday in the northwest, an October Saturday that didn't see a home game for Oregon, Oregon St., Washington, Washington St., Utah OR Colorado, 6 locations where the weather will be worse on more than one upcoming weekend, I sure wish the Beavers had been making the trip to Husky Stadium this weekend instead  of right before Thanksgiving. I've seen Husky weather at it's worst in the next to last weekend of the season more than once before, and it can be brutal.

About the only observation I can make about Oregon St. is that quarterback Sean Mannion is pretty good at coaching up the ball and water boys for his dad John's Silverton high school team, which happens to the the top ranked 5A classification team in the state, still unbeaten after getting another blowout win in their game Sean and I both attended Thursday night.

But another very entertaining weekend of Pac-12 and college football overall did again provide some insight, especially given that 3 of the 4 conference games I saw featured 5 of the 6 teams Oregon St. will face in the second half of the season, and the other one, USC at Arizona, was of great import nationally, as far as the conference goes, in addition to important national developments.

3 more undefeated ranked teams went down, leaving only 6 remaining unbeaten teams. So as we near the midway mark in the season (some teams have half their games in, but not all), in the first year of the 4 team playoff system, we already know that there will be at most 4 teams still unbeaten come the end of November (after Mississippi and Mississippi meet in what could be the biggest Egg Bowl ever), and 5 at the most after next weekend, when Notre Dame visits Florida St. For reference, last year, there were still 14 unbeaten teams at this point, and in 2012, there were 12.

The most notable takeaway from the weekend, other than the fact that Big XII officiating is capable of game outcome altering egregious mistakes that equal anything the Pac-12 can offer, is that reports of the demise of Oregon and USC were premature, inaccurate, and probably mostly wishful thinking.

The Ducks spent a long week since their upset loss to Arizona that started the most upset prone weekend in the history of college football for ranked teams getting a little healthier, and putting questions about whether their coaches could actually coach to rest, at least for a while.

Oregon will continue to be the favorite in every game they play for a while, and the main reason are they are still the fastest team in the west, which is no small accomplishment, given the amount of speed everywhere. But the Ducks still have more speed than anyone.

And UCLA has a lot of talent, but also a lot of problems on their offensive line, some of which are caused by health issues, and its hard to win consistently with offensive line problems. And the Bruin o-line just isn't as good as everyone, including Bruins Nation members, some of whom predictably are once again engaged in all-out coaching staff bashing, was led to believe. There's talent in Westwood, but it ISN"T superior to what's everywhere else.

Arizona's stay in the top 10 lasted only 1 week, after a visit from USC and multiple botched field gulls resulted in a 28-26 Trojan win, on a Saturday when once again, every road team won. Recall last weekend saw 5 road winners in 5 conference games.

Arizona is and will remain a dangerous team, capable of winning on ANY given game day, but while the Rich Rod offense is always exciting, so too is his 3-3-5 defense, a high-risk, high-reward system that produces wildly varying results depending on how the opponent chooses to approach it.

Not that having Javorius "Buck" Allen doesn't help, but the more telling takeaway from last night might be how much difference it makes when an opponent isolates and minimizes the role that Scooby Wright makes with their game plan and scheme. Though Wright still had an unpreventable sizable stat line, 12 tackles and a sack, it didn't seem like he was the difference maker he was against Oregon.

The number of times an undefeated top 10 team is an underdog at home to a 2 loss team, but last night was yet another episode of what we have discussed before, USC is just different. As Petros Papadakius likes to say, "...and that's just the way it is."

There was a lot of reaction, and over-reaction to a few games, and really a few plays last weekend. But while games and even plays can signal a change in the wind, trends established over years and even generations (see USC) usually have reasons why they are more likely to persist than "trends" that actually are a single data point.

The Trojans, though, are THE case study in how much a couple of plays can change things. 2 plays, one that shouldn't have worked, but did (the Arizona St. Hail-Mary), and one that should have worked, but didn't (Arizona's missed chip shot field goal that should have won the game) are all that separate 5-1 and 3-3 first half of the seasons for USC. Averaging that out, you get the 4-2 Trojans.

There's also been a lot of criticism of the USC coaching staff, and while its never surprising that head Coach Steve Sarkisian is at the center of some coaching controversy, it has been a bit surprising that people are talking about Trojan Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox being "in over his head". This despite sustained runs of improvement under his direction at Boise St., Tennessee, and Washington.

The reality is Wilcox is not only working with less than a full deck, or roster (there were only 3 scholarship players in the USC secondary against Arizona), in this case, he has faced 6 completely different offensive systems in USC's first 6 games, and in games where the totally different defensive situations the Trojan offense has faced in those 6 games, which has further changed the requirements Wilcox's defense are faced with.

There's been essentially nothing one can take from one game to the next under these situations, and Wilcox has faced as varied array of challenges as anyone in the country, and done so with far fewer options as a result of the short USC roster. Usually you use not only different schemes, but drastically different personnel groups and packages in today's football to counter the wide variety of schemes and personnel packages being faced. (I did note extensive use of the 3-3-5 by Wilcox last night, something I didn't notice against Oregon St., or in the run up games to that game.)

Then there are the lessons learned from the Washington teams, and to a degree California.

In today's college football, and especially under today's rules, offense is the single most important element of the game. There's really no debate. But there are other elements that still matter.

ANY system can win at least on occasion, depending on all the prevailing circumstances, but as Washington St. has demonstrated, it's really hard to win consistently without decent defense and solid special teams play. And as Washington has demonstrated, it's a lot easier to win when you get contributions from your defense and special teams.

California has also been of particular interest to Oregon St. fans, as well as the rest of the conference, since the Bear Raid started winning some games, and more worrisome to opponents, piling up the points.

One of the biggest reasons for this is improvement by Jared Goff, who has started throwing far more touchdowns than interceptions. The recent less than Golden days of the Bears have been characterized as much as anything by wildly inaccurate passing. It's nearly impossible to win in the Pac-12 with poor quarterbacking, and even more so in systems, be they the Jeff "Quarterback guru" Tedford system or the Sonny Dykes "Bear Raid." Both systems strive to also run the ball, and support their air game with defense and special teams, but how far they go ultimately rides on their passing games.

Goff is to be commended for making real strides in this area, and has been appropriately rewarded with some wins. But when faced with an actual defense, the red zone is still a problem area for the Bear Raid.

And by the way, for those who think you just can't recruit to or win big in some small towns, take note of what has happened in the state of Mississippi. No offense, but Oxford and Starkville make Corvallis look like a cross between Palo Alto and Westwood.

Play lights out defense, play really sound offense, and play great on special teams and you too can recruit well and be ranked in the top 3.

Oregon St. (and 20th ranked Utah, who happens to lead the country in quarterback sacks) get the next opportunity to take a step in that direction when the Beavers and Utes square off Thursday night at Reser, to kick off what's bound to be yet another weekend full of endless tremendous college football.

BTW, here's this week's polls:

AP Coaches Sagarin
1 Mississippi State Mississippi State Auburn
2 Florida State Florida State Ole Miss
3 Ole Miss Ole Miss Mississippi State
4 Baylor Baylor Oklahoma
5 Notre Dame Notre Dame Baylor
6 Auburn Michigan State Alabama
7 Alabama Alabama Georgia
8 Michigan State Auburn TCU
9 Oregon Oregon Texas A&M
10 Georgia Georgia Oregon
11 Oklahoma Oklahoma Florida State
12 TCU TCU LSU
13 Ohio State Ohio State Notre Dame
14 Kansas State Kansas State Michigan State
15 Oklahoma State Oklahoma State Ohio State
16 Arizona East Carolina Stanford
17 Arizona State Arizona Kansas State
18 East Carolina Arizona State Clemson
19 Nebraska Nebraska Florida
20 Utah Stanford UCLA
21 Texas A&M Texas A&M USC
22 USC Clemson Tennessee
23 Stanford Utah Utah
24 Clemson Marshall Nebraska
25 Marshall USC Arkansas

Andy_Wooldridge@yahoo.com