Posted on December 17, 2020
After a regular season that almost didn’t happen, it’s no surprise the bonus week includes two cancellations and a title matchup determined as much by the pandemic as by what happened on the field.
But there will be more than an arranged championship on the line when the two winningest Pac-12 programs over the past two decades renew their rivalry: USC and Oregon regularly compete for the top recruits in Southern California, and a head-to-head matchup can leave lasting impressions.
Once a champion is crowned on Friday, the remaining games will likely end the seasons of the six teams involved—regardless of their records—with the Trojans, Ducks, Huskies, and Buff expected to fill the four bowl games still available to the Conference.
Colorado, the lone healthy Pac-12 team unable to play, drew the short straw when Washington had to withdraw from the title game due to COVID-19 protocols, leaving the Buffs to sit the week out as an alternate.
I preview all of the currently scheduled games below, and the picks of our senior football writers appear at the bottom of the page.
Oregon at USC
Friday, December 18th
5:00 pm PT, Fox
The season has come down to this: The Ducks versus the Trojans. USC against Oregon.
The fact that these two schools will battle for the Pac-12 Championship was predictable at the start of the season, but the way each team made it to this point was anything but. The Trojans have played the role of Houdini with several last-minute comebacks, while the Ducks have stumbled through the season and arrive in L.A. as the technical alternate team from the North.
But none of that matters on a Friday night in Southern California. The COVID tests, missed games, and underwhelming performances can all be thrown out the window. On Friday night, it’s anyone’s championship.
The Oregon defense will likely copy Marvin Lewis’ blueprint to stopping the Air Raid, which was so elegantly put on display in Week One. Graham Harrell’s ability, or willingness, to show something different could be the curveball no one sees coming. In that sense, the USC run game is the X-Factor.
If the Trojans eclipse their 109.2 yards per game average, Kedon Slovis and the USC wide receivers destined for the NFL could have a field day.
And don’t forget about the USC defense.
Safety Talanoa Hufanga has four interceptions on the season and Todd Orlando’s unit has eight total picks through five games. First-year starter Tyler Shough must take care of the ball—otherwise, it might be a long day in SoCal.
Washington State at Utah
Saturday, December 19th
10:30 am PT, FS1
The Utes are riding the wave from their biggest win of the season and take on Nick Rolovich’s Run-and-Shoot with bowl eligibility on the line.
Kyle Whittingham’s rushing attack carried the day in Boulder, while his defense stifled the CU ground game. This early morning matchup in Salt Lake City has a similar feel to last week’s showdown, but this time Utah is dealing with a team that has played just three games all year.
The extra motivation Washington State has to take the field, after getting half its season cut short, is dangerous. Jayden de Laura still hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to prove his performance in Los Angeles was a fluke, but the capable freshman should finally get his moment.
Though the Cougs don’t have as much game experience as they would have hoped for, a strong start isn’t out of the question. Rolovich knows the poor opening against the Trojans doomed their chances, and the focus is likely on flipping the script in Salt Lake City.
Generating a turnover or two in the first 15 minutes, or at least one by halftime, may be just enough to keep WSU in this one. And it’s not as if the Cougs haven’t faced the quality of players Utah puts on the field, having taken on Oregon and USC already. Plus, Rolovich’s offensive system has proven to be potent with de Laura and Deon McIntosh gashing defenses on the ground.
But containing Utah’s Ty Jordan projects to be the key. The freshman running back was the difference against Colorado, and will likely play just as important of a role on Saturday.
Stanford at UCLA
Saturday, December 19th
4:00 pm PT, ESPN
After the Cardinal announced they would not accept a bowl invitation, this matchup took on a new dimension. For all intents and purposes, this is Stanford’s bowl game.
And what better place to cap off the season than the Rose Bowl.
Riding a three-game winning streak, the Tree stride into Pasadena brimming with momentum. Through four games, Davis Mills has yet to throw an interception, but has passed for over a 1,000 yards and four touchdowns. At the same time, sophomore running back Austin Jones has come alive in December, posting back-to-back 100+ yard performances and 349 yards on the ground during the steak.
David Shaw has turned things around.
Contrasted are the Bruins who, although arguably exceeding expectations in 2020, are coming off a last-minute collapse against rival USC. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is having the best season of his career, yet his interception against the Trojans sparked the comeback, and he still hasn’t reached his potential.
But Chip Kelly’s offense and Jerry Azzinaro’s defense have both turned the corner this year, while Demetric Felton has emerged as one of the best running backs in the Pac-12. Regaining the mojo of the first three quarters against USC will be key, and if the Bruins are able to do so, they might find themselves ending Stanford’s winning streak.
With strong quarterbacks and running backs on both sidelines, this game could produce a duel that generates plenty of fireworks.
Arizona State at Oregon State
Saturday, December 19th
7:30 pm PT, ESPN
Herm Edwards and his players are fresh off a historic beat down of Arizona in Tucson, but the Sun Devils must walk away from Reser Stadium victorious to become bowl eligible.
The confidence gained from the 70-7 victory over their rival figures to carry over against the Beavers, though Oregon State is a significant step up from the depleted Wildcats. Jermar Jefferson is averaging a head-turning 151 yards per game with 6.9 yards per carry to go along with seven touchdowns.
Even though the junior running back is coming off his worst performance of the season, Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce will have their hands full. Scheming up ways to slow down Jefferson is arguably the way to beat the Beavs, but Chance Nolan has shown enough improvement over two games to garner respect from the ASU secondary.
It’s not a simple matter of stacking the box against Jefferson, because Nolan has the ability to throw the ball effectively and scramble. The junior college transfer’s 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio must be respected.
At the same time, the Oregon State defense has yet to hold an opponent below 27 points and has given up 30 or more in half its games. Jayden Daniels, Chip Trayanum, and Rachaad White shouldn’t have many issues putting points on the board with an effective rushing attack. And the Beavers can’t bite on RPO’s or Daniels will embarrass them over the top.
It’s going to be a challenge for OSU to pull out the win, but Jonathan Smith and his players will leave it all on the field in the last game of their season.
Picks from our SportsPac12 Senior Football Writers
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Dane Miller’s Week 4 Pac-12 Hoops Players of Week VotesOur senior men's basketball writer gives us his weekly men's hoops selections with explanations - December 4, 2023
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