Miller: 2020 Pac-12 Football Previews, Week 3

Utah is on track to finally kick off its season against USC

Posted on November 19, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

A rash of cancellations across the country last week provided a bit of an opening for the Pac-12’s Playoff hopes. More than two million viewers watched both USC and Oregon play, providing a nice stage nationally for the Conference.

Neither the Ducks or Trojans played great, but both games were exciting and generated discussion during the build-up to this weekend.

In Week Three, USC arguably has its last chance to impress the Committee with a test against Utah. And Oregon faces a UCLA squad coming off what might be its best win of the Chip Kelly Era.

The results of those two games could further define the Pac-12’s national image. But with several other interesting matchups, there’s plenty to look forward to. And keep in mind that after this week, the midpoint of the shortened regular season will have been passed.

Below, I preview those games and every other Pac-12 contest, except for the Colorado-Arizona State and game, which was canceled before publication.

[UPDATE – 11/20: The Stanford-Washington State game has since been cancelled as well, due to COVID-19 protocols.]

As always, the picks of our senior football writers appear at the bottom of the page.

California at Oregon State

Saturday, November 21
12:30 p.m. PT, FS1

The Bears are coming off their disaster in Pasadena and the Beavs’ are still winless after a defeat in Seattle. Both teams desperately need the win.

This matchup could end up being won in the trenches, as Jermar Jefferson projects to continue his 100+ yard performances on the ground. If Cal’s defense is unable to slow him down, the senior running back could have his best game yet and lead OSU to their first win of the year.

But for Chase Garbers and California, this game feels like a tipping point. Most people thought Cal had one of the best teams in the Pac-12, yet the opening-game performance against UCLA fell far short of expectations.

Justin Wilcox’s run game was non-existent at the Rose Bowl and his defense was ineffective. That can’t be repeated in Corvallis. If it were to happen, a loss to Oregon State would, at least mentally, all but end Cal’s season in the hearts and minds of the fan base.

However, Tristan Gebbia struggled mightily against the vaunted UW secondary, providing a reason for hope in Berkeley. Assuming California’s defensive performance against UCLA was a fluke, Tim DeRuyter’s unit should get it together against Gebbia. Still, that leaves the need to contain Jefferson.

It’s sometimes unfair to put the game on one player’s shoulders, but that’s not the case with Jefferson.

UCLA at Oregon

Saturday, November 21
12:30 p.m., ESPN2

After thoroughly picking apart California, the Bruins face their biggest challenge of the year. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is playing better than he ever has, but the Duck defense is a different animal.

Even though the Oregon defense has somewhat underwhelmed to this point, their struggles shouldn’t give DTR any comfort. There’s no doubt that this matchup will be the toughest unit he has gone against this season. To pull off the upset, Thompson-Robinson may need to play flawless.

Over in Eugene, Tyler Shough and the UO offense is revved up. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are arguably the best one-two rushing combination in the Pac-12, which should give Jerry Azzinaro cause for concern. UCLA has historically struggled on defense during the Chip Kelly Era and might find itself in a shootout with the Ducks.

At the same time, this matchup presents an opportunity for Oregon to allay the concerns about its defense. But former five-star linebacker Justin Flowe is out for the season due to a torn meniscus, and Andy Avalos is still compensating for the loss of several stars due to opt-outs for the NFL Draft.

After two games against relatively bottom-tier North Division teams, UO is allowing 417 yards per game and hasn’t forced a turnover.

Plus the Ducks’ turnover ratio is currently -5 and the defense has registered just a single sack. Those types of performances may work against Stanford led by their backup quarterback and a Washington State team headed by a true freshman quarterback, but neither of them are DTR.

If Avalos is unable to contain the shifty QB, this game could be closer than expected.

Arizona at Washington

Saturday, November 21
5:00 p.m. PT, Fox

The Huskies appeared to lack offensive firepower in their opener against the Beavers, a problem that could be solved against the Wildcats.

On a rainy night, redshirt-freshman quarterback Dylan Morris didn’t do much, though he took care of the ball and ran for a touchdown. The strength of the UW offensive attack was its running backs, a three-headed monster that should be effective against the Cats.

Kevin Sumlin and the Wildcats, on the other hand, played much better than anticipated against USC. Grant Gunnell solidified his reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12, and is brimming with confidence heading into Seattle. The UA players and staff view this as a winnable game and will likely play with the attenuating confidence. Running back Gary Brightwell is a weapon, and even if he isn’t effective, Sumlin has a stable of other options.

That being said, UW’s secondary is certainly better than USC’s. The deciding factor might end up being Gunnell’s ability to pass the ball effectively, especially if the Arizona rushing attack is stymied.

But the wildcard could be how well the Dawgs play against Paul Rhoads’ defense. For the past several seasons, the Wildcats have easily given up points and were atrocious on third down. Yet, Rhoads’ new 3-4 formation appeared to work effectively against the Trojan Air-Raid, and the UW offense is arguably less potent.

If Washington overlooks this game, it could find itself on upset alert.

USC at Utah

Saturday, November 21
7:30 p.m. PT, ESPN

At this point, all that matters for Utah is making it to game day. The frustration of having two games canceled is palpable. And the players could arguably care less who is on the other side of the field. But drawing USC as the opening game is probably not what Kyle Whittingham would have preferred.

usc logoThe amount of production Utah must replace on both sides of the ball was going to be a challenge, no matter who the Utes played. Still, the Trojans have arguably the most talented roster in the South Division and will thoroughly test Whittingham’s new defense.

Might as well be dropped right onto the frying pan, right?

As for Clay Helton, his program needs a statement win. The first two games have been a let-down that is feeding the growing desire for change, but some of that noise could be temporarily abated with a big win. As most coaches know, winning solves everything. And boy, do the Trojans need a convincing one bad.

With no film to judge, a new quarterback, and essentially a brand new defense, it’s anyone’s guess how Utah plays. And based on Cal’s performance in its opener, things could get ugly.

One thing’s for certain, USC is warmed up and ready to take it to the Utes. In the end, the difference in the game could come down to the effectiveness of the Trojans’ rushing attack, especially on first down.

Washington State at Stanford


Saturday, November 21
8:00 p.m. PT, FS1

The excuses for the Cardinal’s performances in the first two games are gone. Davis Mills is back to a regular practice schedule and David Shaw has nothing left to lean on. Suffering a third-straight defeat could all but seal the fate of the season.

To avoid that potentiality, the Stanford run game has to show up. Through two games, the Tree are averaging a shocking 133.5 yards per game. Austin Jones does lead the team with three touchdowns on the ground, but he managed just nine yards against Colorado.

And though the run game must be emphasized, Mills does have two solid receivers to target. Simi Fehoko and Michael Wilson are both threats, but neither have scored a touchdown to this point. To take down the Cougs, all four of Shaw’s star offensive players may need to have strong nights.

In the Washington State camp, things appear to be more optimistic. True freshman Jayden de Laura has emerged as a leading candidate to win the Conference’s Offensive Freshman of the Year award, and the Stanford defense arguably presents the easiest challenge yet. The Hawaiian does so much with his legs, that it’s sometimes easy to forget his passing prowess.

And if Max Borghi is healthy enough to play, watch out. Deon McIntosh has more than carried the weight, but Nick Rolovich is 1-1 without his best player. Energizing the WSU offense with Borghi could be the missing piece.

Assuming the Run-and-Shoot works as expected, the performance of the Cougar defense probably decides the game.

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