Every Thursday during the football season, our SportsPac12 writers bring you previews and predictions for each of the Conference football games. Ten Pac-12 teams square off in the first full week of Conference-only play.
Arizona State (3-1, 0-1) at #15 Cal (4-0, 1-0)
Friday, September 27
7:30 p.m., PT, ESPN
Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, CA
Straight-Up: Cal in a Close Win
Against the Spread: Arizona State (+3.5)
by Kamron Azemika
What the Sun Devils Must Do to Win
Arizona State must avoid falling behind early, as it did against Colorado. That means minimizing three-and-outs, and disrupting time-consuming Cal possessions. ASU’s interior linemen need to control the line of scrimmage, with the back two levels making Chase Garbers uncomfortable. The ASU offensive line is young and inexperienced, so Jayden Daniels may pay a price if he’s forced to take on Cal’s elite secondary. On defense, ASU leads the Conference with nine forced fumbles and needs to create turnovers, in addition to rediscovering the intensity that allowed the unit to give up just three touchdowns in its first three games.
What the Golden Bears Must Do to Win
Cal needs to neutralize Arizona State’s defense, which has given up a scant 13.75 points per game this year. Specifically, the Bears must find a way to deal with the Sun Devils’ size in the interior of the defensive line, anchored by 6-foot-4, 313-pound D.J. Davidson. If Christopher Brown is good to go, Justin Wilcox may opt to deploy a power running game. Either that or recapture the lightning in a bottle performance by Chase Garbers against Ole Miss. On defense, the Bears need lockdown ASU wideout Brandon Aiyuk, pressure Daniels and contain running back Eno Benjamin, who has the potential to change the game, if he gets untracked.
What Happens on the Field
Arizona State should struggle more offensively than Cal, which could be decisive in a defensive contest that figures to be low-scoring. But ASU’s 3-3-5 defense is likely to cause problems for Garbers as well. Moving the chains will be a tall task for both sides on Friday. In fact, both punters could end up putting together highlight reels in this battle for field position. Turnovers could decide it, with neither team having much margin for error. But Cal’s defense will do what they’ve done all year, closing out the game late. As Evan Weaver would say, Bears in 4.
Notes: Cal narrowly leads the all-time series 17-16, losing the last iteration 51-41 in a 2016 shootout in Tempe. This will be the first time Justin Wilcox and Herm Edwards have met as head coaches. Herm Edwards played for Cal prior to transferring to San Diego State, and still holds the Cal record for most interceptions in a game. Daniels threw for a career-high 345 yards against Colorado, the third most passing yards by a Sun Devil freshman quarterback. ASU Brandon Aiyuk’s 424 yards receiving ranks second in the Pac-12. Cal ILB Evan Weaver leads the nation in total tackles with 63.
#21 USC (3-1, 2-0) at #17 Washington (3-1, 0-1)
Saturday, September 28
12:30 p.m. PT, FOX
Husky Stadium, Seattle, WA
Straight-Up: Washington in a Comfortable Win
Against the Spread: Washington (-8)
By Nicholas Bartlett
What the Trojans Must Do to Win
Despite the passing success the Trojans enjoyed in defeating Utah, they must run the ball effectively against the Huskies. Washington’s secondary will offer better resistance than the Utes, enabling them to bring more pressure on USC quarterback Matt Fink. The junior signal caller’s poise and mobility will be tested. USC can negate some of the pressure by getting running back Vavae Malepeai going early to draw the attention of Husky defenders away from USC’s dangerous wideouts. On defense, the Trojans must pressure UW quarterback Jacob Eason. If he has a clean pocket, big plays are sure to follow.
What the Huskies Must Do to Win
As always, the Huskies need to limit the Trojan trio of receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns. The group is bound to make its share of plays, but Washington can’t let them run wild the way they did against Utah. The Dawgs secondary is one of the most disciplined units in the country, and this could be their hardest matchup of the season. Myles Bryant is the leader of the group and will have an opportunity to shine. On offense, Eason needs to protect the ball in the face of an aggressive pass rush and quick defensive backs. The junior signal caller has a rocket arm, and can make all the throws, but he must continue to make good decisions as well.
What Happens on the Field
The Huskies have been waiting for a chance to improve their resume after its conference-opening loss to California, and now they have it. Washington will capitalize, with Eason putting on a show in Montlake. Wideouts Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia, and Chico McClatcher, are a dangerous trio in their own right, and USC’s secondary won’t be able to contain them. The Huskies will stymy the USC run game at the line of scrimmage, forcing Graham Harrell to return to his Air-Raid roots, and gain yards in bunches. UW’s secondary will take advantage, however, forcing multiple turnovers. The Dawgs win by 10 points or more.
Notes: USC leads the all-time series 51-29 and won the last matchup 26-13 in 2016. Eason connected with seven different receivers against Utah, and has thrown for 1,063 yards and ten touchdowns on the season. Malepeai has run for 311 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Hunter Bryant leads UW in receiving this year with 285 yards. Safety Talanoa Hufanga leads USC in tackling with 42 total. Huskies running back Richard Newton has run for 242 yards and five touchdowns this season. Pittman posted career-highs with 10 receptions and 232 yards against Utah. He has had six or more receptions in eight of his last nine games.
Stanford (0-2, 1-3) at Oregon State (1-2, 0-0)
Saturday, September 28
4:00 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network
Reser Stadium, Corvallis, OR
Straight-Up Pick: OSU in a Close Win
Against the Spread: Stanford (-5.5)
By Nicholas Bartlett
What the Cardinal Must Do to Win
Stanford certainly didn’t expect to be 1-3 at this point, but has a chance to turn their season around against the perennially beatable Beavers. Senior signal caller K.J. Costello must perform up to his abilities against an Oregon State team that is hungry for a program-defining victory. Costello should be able to light up the Beavs secondary with his receivers winning one-on-one battles, reversing the trend of the previous weeks. On defense, Stanford must return to its stingy standard of the past few years, thwarting OSU’s run game, and getting to Beaver quarterback Jake Luton. In short, the Cardinal must return to their ugly, smash-mouth style of play and dominate up front.
What the Beavers Must Do to Win
OSU needs to take advantage of a Cardinal team in the midst of an identity crisis, striking early and often against a vulnerable defense. Luton, an experienced signal caller with the ability to make big plays, is the key. The senior must consistently mount drives that breathe confidence into his teammates, while disheartening the Stanford defense. This could involve targeting multiple receivers to keep the Cardinal off-balance, though Luton will want to avoid throwing the ball near All-America Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo. On defense, the Beavs need to stay in their lanes, execute their assignments, avoid giving up explosion plays, and minimize penalties.
What Happens on the Field
OSU is going to will their way to a victory. The Beavers won’t get a better opportunity to redefine themselves, and figure to play like a team possessed. Luton will throw for 300 yards, connecting with wideout Isaiah Hodgins when freed from Adebo. OSU running back Jermar Jefferson will exploit holes in Stanford’s depleted line and rip off some big gains. Costello will have a good day, but it won’t be enough, as the Cardinal defense will not be able to contain Oregon State’s explosive offense. Both teams desperately need a victory, but the Beavers will be smiling after what could be one of the closest and most contested battles of the season.
Notes: Stanford leads the all-time series 57-25-3 with a current win streak of nine games. Two of the last three contests at Reser Stadium between the teams has been decided by 10 points or less. Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett has run for 321 yards and one touchdown. Hodgins ranks eighth nationally and first in the Pac-12 Conference with 115.7 receiving yards per game. Costello has thrown for 471 yards and two touchdowns this season. Defensive Back Shawn Wilson leads OSU in tackles with 22 total. Stanford kicker Jet Toner has connected on seven of seven field goal attempts.
Washington State (3-1, 0-1) at #19 Utah (3-1, 0-1)
Saturday, September 21
7:00 p.m. PT, FS1
Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT
Straight-Up: Utah in a Close Win
Against the Spread: Utah (-8)
By Jace McKinney
What the Cougars Must Do to Win
First and foremost, Washington State needs to forget about last week’s tough loss, and move on. The Cougs will have their hands full with a stout Utah defense that has the ability to pressure and get to WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon. He and the other Cougar playmakers must take care of the ball. Wazzu also needs to shore up its defense, and avoid giving up too many long plays in a contest that could hinge on a single score. That means getting pressure on Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley, playing better run defense, and generating turnovers. Gordon could pick apart the Utah secondary worse than USC did, but as the Bruins made abundantly clear, the WSU offense can’t be expected to carry the entire load.
What the Utes Must Do to Win
Like Wazzu, Utah must rebound from last week’s tough loss at USC, especially after losing leading rusher Zack Moss. Previous WSU opponents have had plenty of success running the ball, and backup Devin Brumfield should continue that trend. The Utes must also get consistent production from Huntley, and avoid turnovers. On defense, Utah needs to pressure Gordon, forcing him into ill-advised throws, and strip the ball from WSU playmakers in the manner of UCLA. Most of all, Utah cannot afford to let the Cougs get in a rhythm in the passing game, and should seek to slow the tempo, limiting Washington State possessions.
What Happens on the Field
While both teams need to bounce back, Utah has the advantage of being at home, and that should make the difference. The game will be close at the beginning, with the Utes taking a lead the Cougars won’t be able to overcome. Utah will shorten the game with time-consuming long drives, and stop just enough Cougar drives to maintain their advantage. Ultimately, Utah’s physical prowess will create too many problems for the Cougars, who will struggle to protect Gordon, and won’t be able to run the ball effectively.
Notes: Washington State won the last matchup, which came down to the last few minutes. WSU’s 720 yards of total offense in its 67-63 loss to UCLA was the second-most in program history. Gordon’s 570 yards passing was third-most in WSU and Pac-12 history, making him the first Cougar QB to start a season with four straight 400-yard games. Utah ranks second in the FBS in rushing defense, holding opponents to 2.2 yards per carry, and leads the nation in passing efficiency defense. Gordon leads the country in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Opponents have averaged just 4.55 plays and 1.0 point per possession against Utah in the second half.
UCLA (1-3, 1-0) at Arizona (2-1, 0-0)
Saturday, September 14
7:30 p.m. PT, ESPN
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, AZ
Against the Spread: Pick ‘Em
By Andrew Corbett and Dane Miller
What the Bruins Must Do to Win
The Bruins need to maintain the momentum from their record-setting comeback win over WSU, while also starting faster than they did in Pullman. Dorian Thompson-Robinson must continue his loose and comfortable passing, while avoiding interceptions and scrambling when needed. UCLA will likely seek to exploit the struggling Wildcat rush defense by featuring running backs Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton. On Defense, the Bruin linebackers need to limit the rushing of speedy Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate by tackling in space and containing the edge to avoid a repeat of his 2017 performance. Limiting the Arizona rushing game could allow UCLA to sack Tate and rattle his confidence.
What the Wildcats Must Do to Win
Arizona needs to run the ball effectively and control the time of possession, limiting UCLA’s scoring opportunities. That should enable Arizona wideouts Tayvian Cunningham and Stanley Berryhill III to exploit a struggling Bruin secondary. Tate operates more efficiently within a balanced attack, and may not be able to get it done with his arm alone. On defense, Arizona needs to limit the rushing of Kelley and Felton, pressuring Thompson-Robinson into adding to the five picks he’s already thrown this season. As well as he played in the second half against WSU, the Wildcats should try to make him beat them with his arm.
What Happens on the Field
Both teams have struggled on defense. Both have shown the ability to be explosive on offense. Something has to give. Or does it? Expect a high-scoring shootout that comes down to the wire, with the winning team making the fewest mistakes, establishing the run, and/or picking apart the other team’s vulnerable secondary. This much—if nothing else—seems certain: The contest will uphold the “Pac-12 After Dark” hashtag, with the outcome hinging on a wild comeback attempt on the final possession. Definitely worth staying up for, and nearly impossible to predict.
Notes: UCLA leads the all time series 25-16-2, winning 31-30 last year in Pasadena. The Bruins enjoy a 14-4-2 advantage in Tucson. Arizona ranks fifth in the country in yards rushing per game at 307.7, are third in total offense per game at 586, and first in interceptions with eight. Tate now has 2,110 career rushing yards making him the first Arizona quarterback to gain 2,000 yards on the ground. Thompson-Robinson set a UCLA record for total offense with his 564 yards against WSU. His 94-yard pass play to Felton was the second-longest in Bruin history. Arizona OC Noel Mazzone held the same position at UCLA from 2012-2016.
*This story was originally published at sportspac12.com. Syndicated with permission.