Pac-12 South at the halfway point: What the heck is going on here?

Oct 15, 2015, 9:50 AM
Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) runs with the football during the first half of an NCAA coll...
Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) runs with the football during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
(AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

We’re heading into Week 7 in the Pac-12 this week, and even though half the season is in the rear view, there is still plenty of uncertainty in the conference race.

That’s putting it mildly.

Did anybody expect the Utah Utes to be undefeated and ranked fourth in the nation? Did anyone expect the USC Trojans to be on their fourth head coach (including two interim stints) since the beginning of the 2013 season? Did anyone expect Myles Jack to be done at UCLA and headed to the NFL despite a severe knee injury?

No, no and no.

Here’s a quick look back on the first half of the Pac-12 South season and a peek into what’s still to come.

Pac-12 South

utahhelmet#4 Utah Utes (5-0 overall, 2-0 Pac-12)

What’s been good?: Everything, really.

Considering the talent lost from last season’s team (especially on defense), what the Utes have done in the season’s first half is astounding. They started the season off with a win over Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team (which hasn’t lost since and has given up 31 points total). Did they get the Wolverines at a good time? Undoubtedly, but the Utes have followed that up by hanging 62 points on Oregon in Eugene and outlasting a game and previously unbeaten Cal squad.

What’s been bad?: It’s nitpicking (they’re undefeated) but the lack of a go-to wide receiver could be a concern in the second half. So far, Utah wideouts are averaging only 8.9 yards on 54 catches.

First-half MVP: Devontae Booker, RB – Booker has been the centerpiece of the Utes’ offense and hasn’t disappointed. He’s Utah’s leading rusher and receiver and has contributed 43 percent of the team’s total offense.

Most impressive win: Oregon is a shell of its former self, but to humiliate the Ducks like Utah did in a 62-20 win at Autzen was eye-opening.

Worst loss: N/A

What’s ahead: Utah hosts Arizona State Saturday to begin a very tough stretch of contests. The Utes also still have to travel to USC, Washington and Arizona and host UCLA on Nov. 21.

Synopsis: Can the Utes keep it up? Based solely on statistics, you’d say no. Utah ranks 10th in the conference in total offense and only sixth in total defense. After leading the country in quarterback sacks a year ago, they’ve got only 11 this season — good for sixth in the Pac-12.

If it’s possible to ooze with intangibles though, Utah does. Travis Wilson will never wow you with his statistics, but he’s arguably one of the most important players in the nation in terms of team success. Booker is the definition of a work horse — he’s averaging 28 carries and nearly four catches per game.

But the offensive blueprint has worked. Utah controls the clock and doesn’t kill itself with turnovers or penalties. This team is for real.

asuhelmet2Arizona State Sun Devils (4-2, 2-1)

What’s been good?: The defense. Outside of a few plays in the Texas A&M loss and the entire USC game, the unit has been steady and at times spectacular. They lead the conference in sacks with 19 and are fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense. Offensively, running back Demario Richard has been terrific. The sophomore leads the team with 769 all-purpose yards — an average of 128.2 per game.

What’s been bad?: For much of the season, it’s been the way ASU has started games. In their first four contests, the Sun Devils had a total of seven first-quarter points. In their last two, however, they’ve hit for 26 points, including a 17-point outburst vs. Colorado. Head coach Todd Graham has pointed out just how good his teams have been playing with a lead (27-1 under his watch while leading at halftime), so this will be a point of emphasis for the rest of the year.

First-half MVP: There are a lot of candidates, but I’m going with SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso. The redshirt junior has been all over the field — he’s amassed 50 total tackles and a team-leading 10.5 tackles for loss.

Most impressive win: Without a doubt, beating then-7th-ranked UCLA 38-23. The Sun Devils used a dominating defensive performance for much of that road triumph in Pasadena.

Worst loss: The Sun Devils looked like they were sleepwalking through much of the 42-14 whooping a dysfunctional USC team laid on them in Tempe.

What’s Ahead: Outside of the Utah game Saturday, it’s a pretty manageable schedule for the Sun Devils, who get Oregon, Washington and Arizona at home and travel to Washington State and Cal to end the season Nov. 28.

Synopsis: The Sun Devils have already pulled their seemingly annual “rise from the dead” routine. After getting trounced by USC at home, Graham’s team has responded with back-to-back wins over UCLA and Colorado while seemingly getting their offense on track. The Devils have averaged 478.5 yards and 43 points per game over their last two heading into Saturday’s road tilt in Salt Lake City.

uclahelmetUCLA Bruins (4-1, 1-1)

What’s been good?: The biggest question mark entering the season was how the Bruins would operate offensively without three-year starter Brett Hundley, who bolted for the NFL. It’s not a question anymore. True freshman Josh Rosen has lived up to his billing for the most part. He has looked like a freshman at times, but even then, he’s been able to rebound. After a dreadful first half against BYU in which he threw three interceptions, Rosen rallied UCLA for a 24-23 win.

What’s been bad?: Injuries. The Bruins have been racked by the injury bug, especially on defense. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback Fabian Moreau are all out for the season.

First-half MVP: Is there a more underrated star in the nation than running back Paul Perkins? The Chandler High grad is the picture of consistency. Perkins is fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 115.4 yards per game.

Most impressive win: The Bruins marched into Tucson for a prime-time ABC matchup and obliterated the Arizona Wildcats 56-30, putting up 42 points in the first half. Rosen was nearly flawless and Perkins found the end zone three times in the win, which pushed UCLA up to No.7 in the rankings.

Worst loss: The very next week, UCLA was manhandled by a desperate Arizona State team at the Rose Bowl, 38-23.

What’s ahead: Thursday night’s game at Stanford is do-or-die for the Bruins. They can’t afford a second conference loss this early in the season. UCLA also has only three home games (Cal, Colorado, Washington State) while playing four more times on the road (Stanford, Oregon State, Utah, USC).

Synopsis: The Bruins have had a week to clear their minds after the ASU loss, and their focus will be tested in their next two games. Rosen should only get more comfortable with each passing game, and since he already looks seasoned, that could be scary for the opposition come November.

arizonahelmetArizona Wildcats (4-2, 1-2)

What’s been good: The running game. The Wildcats average 298.5 yards on the ground per game, good for seventh in the nation. It hasn’t been all Nick Wilson, either. Yes, the sophomore is averaging 113.8 yards per game and already has eight touchdowns, but backups Jared Baker and Orlando Bradford have helped out too, while backup quarterback Jerrard Randall (453 yards) gave the ‘Cats a different look while Anu Solomon was out with a concussion.

What’s been bad: Defense. A dominant performance last week against Oregon State can’t erase the porous nature of the Arizona unit in the first half of the season. The Wildcats rank 92nd in the nation, allowing 419.2 yards per game. They gave up 111 points in back-to-back losses to UCLA and Stanford. Scooby Wright, the nation’s top linebacker a year ago, has been limited by injuries. Getting him back at some point will help.

First-half MVP: Wilson. Running out of a read-zone attack, Wilson has routinely gashed defenses, averaging almost six yards per carry.

Best win: Last week’s 44-7 win over Oregon State was the ‘Cats’ most complete effort of the season. Anu Solomon returned from injury and UA rolled up 368 yards on the ground. Arizona also allowed only 249 yards to the Beavers in the contest.

Worst loss: Going with the Stanford game. The Cardinal embarrassed the Wildcats 55-17, and led 27-3 at halftime. Stanford held the ball for over 37 minutes, had 570 yards and their quarterbacks, Kevin Hogan and Keller Chryst, combined to complete 21-of-23 passes.

What’s ahead: The 12 games in 12 weeks grind continues with a road game at Colorado in Week 7 for Rich Rodriguez’s team. The next three are very winnable, as the Boulder road trip is followed by a home game against Wazzu and a road trip to Washington. The last three could be rough — at USC, home against Utah and at arch-rival ASU.

Synopsis: The Wildcats look like a seven- or eight-win team, but if they can get their defense up to snuff and incorporate their incredibly deep and talented receving corps more (Cayleb Jones … one TD?), they might be able to steal one or two more on the way to another bowl appearance.

uschelmetUSC Trojans (3-2, 1-2)

What’s been good?: Not much. Yes, Cody Kessler has been outstanding as advertised. But the negative vibe around the program is all anybody’s been talking about since the Trojans stunk up the joint in a home loss to Washington.

What’s been bad?: No mystery here — the coaching circus continues in L.A. Steve Sarkisian is out after a season-and-a-half. Not saying he didn’t deserve his fate — you can’t show up to work drunk — but this fiasco has been mismanaged from the start by the USC administration. AD Pat Haden made an underwhelming hire, did shoddy background checking and didn’t demand Sarkisian head to rehab after his first public drunken appearance.

First-half MVP: Kessler. He’s completed almost 70 percent of his passes and thrown for 15 touchdowns against just three picks.

Most impressive win: USC dismantled Arizona State 42-14 in Tempe — weird, considering reports that their head coach may have been intoxicated on the sideline during the game. Kessler threw five touchdown passes and USC led 35-0 at the half.

Worst loss: Dropping an ugly 17-12 decision to Washington. The Trojans were coming off a bye week, and had a national television audience tuned in. But the guy they passed on (Chris Petersen) engineered a win for the school their now-deposed head coach came from? That’s a lot of layers of hurt.

What’s ahead: A fresh start, maybe? Schedule-wise, the next three games are rough. A road game in South Bend against Notre Dame Saturday, followed by a home game against Utah and a trip to Berkeley to take on resurgent Cal. The last four are no picnic either — vs. Arizona, at Colorado, at Oregon and home against UCLA.

Synopsis: The upperclassmen on this team sadly are used to coaching turmoil in the middle of a season. Ed Orgeron took over for Lane Kiffin in 2013 and the Trojans responded admirably, winning six of their last eight. Can they repeat that feat for Clay Helton? That remains to be seen, but the schedule isn’t favorable.

coloradohelmetColorado Buffaloes (3-3, 0-2)

What’s been good?: A three-game winning streak, the first for CU since 2008. Yes, those wins came against UMass, Colorado State and Nicholls State, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

What’s been bad?: The defense in conference games. Oregon put up 537 yards and 41 points in the Pac-12 opener and ASU followed that up with a 491-yard, 48-point outburst the next week.

First-half MVP: Going with RB Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay was third on the depth chart at the beginning of the season, but an injury to Michael Adkins opened up some reps that he’s taken advantage of. The sophomore has 323 yards rushing, is averaging over five yards per pop and has scored a team-leading five touchdowns.

Most impressive win: The Buffs have put up 48 points in two wins (UMASS, Nicholls State), but their best win came against in-state rival Colorado State. The Rams dominated time of possession and put up 500 yards, but CU showed resiliency, winning 27-24 in overtime on a Diego Gonzalez field goal.

Worst loss: The season-opener in Hawaii was a late-game fiasco featuring terrible clock management on the last possession. It all added up to a 28-20 loss to a team that has been shut out three times and only won once since — and that came against an FCS opponent.

What’s ahead: It’s a tough schedule for the Buffs, but really, isn’t it always? Both of their most-winnable games are on the road — at Oregon State on Oct. 24 and at Washington State on Nov. 21. Colorado hasn’t won a conference road game since 2012 (35-34 at Wazzu).

Synopsis: Colorado is slowly getting better, that’s the good news. The bad news is, so is the rest of the conference. Somewhat mystifying is the difficulty in getting receiver Nelson Spruce the ball. Through six games in 2014, the school’s all-time leading receiver had 62 catches for 732 yards and 10 touchdowns. This season, his line is 37-440-1.

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Pac-12 South at the halfway point: What the heck is going on here?