The Pac-12 is back, but normalcy is still a long way away
Do not confuse the last Power 5 and FBS conference's return to football with a return to normalcy.
The Pac-12 kicked off its patchwork 2020 season over the weekend, but did so in a way that offers a grim reminder that COVID-19 remains a looming threat in our society. On Saturday, while four of six scheduled Pac-12 games went on, nine states reported single-day highs for new cases via The COVID Tracking Project.
Among them were two in the Pac-12 footprint: Utah, which canceled its planned matchup with Arizona after a positive test on its roster; and Oregon, where half of Saturday's games were played. Utah's cancellation was one of two, meanwhile, both of which had championship implications. The Utes come into 2020 — eventually — as two-time defending South Division champions, while the scrapped Washington-Cal game would have pit two teams with realistic Pac-12 title aspirations head-to-head.
Postponements and cancellations have become unfortunate norms in the preceding two months, but Pac-12 opening weekend suggests it could get worse. Washington-Cal and Arizona-Utah were casualties on a weekend that also impacted the second leg of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series, Air Force-Army; a second straight Wisconsin game; and a bevy of Conference USA contests.
And that's only focusing on cancellations and postponements. Clemson played its second game without Trevor Lawrence on Saturday and couldn't make two narrow escapes in as many weeks. Stanford faced a similar situation in its opener, taking on Oregon without quarterback Davis Mills due to COVID-19 protocols.
So, even with all FBS conferences now accounted for, this isn't normalcy. From these major issues to the minor — like FOX's fake crowd, which sounds like a broken vacuum and is, at times, mixed at a higher volume than the commentary teams' microphones — this sprint to a hopeful finish is entirely abnormal. The best we can hope for is a completed season wherein all athletes, coaches, training staff, sports information directors, referees, and anyone else taking daily risks to bring us the game stay healthy and safe.
The Real McCoy
USC wide receiver Bru McCoy traversed an unusual path to his first college game. The 5-star receiver out of Mater Dei in nearby Santa Ana — a veritable farm system for USC over the years — enrolled at USC before signing day 2019; transferred to Texas; then, after a few months, transferred back to USC.
He had to spend the first year of Graham Harrell's air-raid offense watching as a redshirt, but his debut made up for lost time. McCoy was key to the Trojans' wild comeback against Arizona State, first grabbing a fourth-down touchdown on a deflected heave to cut a 13-point deficit to six; then diving over a mass of humanity to recover the ensuing onside kick.
With Tyler Vaughns, Drake London, and former Mater Dei teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown — the latter two of whom went for 100-plus yards on Saturday — McCoy adds to what might be the deepest receiving corps in the nation.
Seven Pac-12 players rushed for 100-plus yards on Saturday; two were running backs most who follow the conference would have pegged as potential rushing champions ahead of the season, Oregon's C.J. Verdell and Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson. Jefferson also was good for three touchdowns, all in the second half and integral to slicing a 21-point deficit against Washington State to three.
The other five included two quarterbacks — Arizona State's Jayden Daniels and UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson — and three running backs who flew under the radar in the preseason:
— Austin Jones shined in Stanford's loss at Oregon, gaining 100 yards and accounting for both Cardinal touchdowns. With Nathaniel Peat adding 93 yards, and the Stanford front five getting some push against perhaps the best defensive line in the Pac-12, the Cardinal appear headed back to form with the ground game after two uncharacteristically dismal seasons in that facet.
— Deon McIntosh headlined a Washington State win that dramatically underscored the program's changes in the post-Mike Leach era. Long an afterthought in the Cougars' offense, Nick Rolovich and Co. went to the ground for more yards than Washington State gained through the air. The Cougars slammed the door on Oregon State with a 44-yard Travell Harris rushing touchdown, freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura showed off an exciting, dual-threat element to this game, and McIntosh went off 147 yards — second-most in the conference on Saturday.
— Jarek Broussard stood out as the week's surprise star, going from relative obscurity to leading the Pac-12 with a whopping 187 yards and three touchdowns in Colorado's win over UCLA. His performance caught the eye of one of the Buffaloes' all-time greats at the position, Phillip Lindsay.
There’s a new #23 in town! Go Buffs!— Phillip Lindsay (@I_CU_boy) November 8, 2020
Putting on a Shough
The quarterback lineage at Oregon, from Dan Fouts to Joey Harrington to Marcus Mariota, comes with implicit pressure. For Tyler Shough, following a four-year starter and hometown hero like Justin Herbert could cast an especially long shadow. But in his first start, Shough showed out.
He went 17-of-26 for 227 passing yards with a touchdown and a highlight-reel dime to Mycah Pittman. He also rushed for another 85 yards with a score.
Oh this is an NFL throw from Tyler Shough— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 8, 2020
and an INSANE catch from Mycah Pittman pic.twitter.com/DZxioAy6kX
Shough's dual-threat playmaking opened up the kind of multifaceted run game new Ducks offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead likes to employ, and succeeded with at Fordham and Penn State. Falling victim to hyperbole on a single start is all too easy, so it's with a measured restraint I offer the comparison of Shough's long-stride rushing style to that of 2014 Heisman winner Mariota.
The parallel is made cautiously, but with his caveat in mind: Verdell and Kayvon Thibodeaux said after last December's Pac-12 Championship Game that the conference title was a building block to even loftier aspirations. Reaching such goals will require Shough to play at a level like that of Mariota.
Not-So Special Teams
The Athletic's Chris Vannini took a fascinating deep-dive into the abundance of special teams misfires that characterized the first month of this unusual college football season. Fast-forward six weeks, and the same issues surfaced in the Pac-12's opening weekend.
Arizona State's Jack Jones muffed a punt in the opening minutes of the conference's first game, setting the tone for a day that included the benching of Colorado's normally sure-footed James Stefanou, three Jet Toner field-goal misses, and punting woes for Oregon State.
The Beavers' Caleb Lightbourn had kicks of 19 and 23 yards — though the former, a result of a botched snap, could have gone considerably worse. For Colorado, Stefanou's first-half misses, including a block, prompted head coach Karl Dorrell to send in Evan Price. Price was not immune, as Quentin Lake blocked a 44-yard attempt in the fourth quarter that would have put UCLA away. The Buffaloes instead had to sweat out a six-point finish.
Stanford's Toner, one of the Pac-12's premier placekickers for a career that feels like it began when Bill Walsh was coaching the Cardinal, missed badly from a variety of distances and with different trajectories.
Special teams progression for the next month and a half will be a plot to follow. Don't be surprised if the direction of the entire season sways on a single special-teams miscue.
Are Two Heads Better?
The catastrophic final three minutes in its 28-27 loss at USC should not obfuscate how outstanding the Arizona State defense played in its first game under co-coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce.
The Sun Devils ground the USC air-raid offense to a standstill for nearly four whole quarters — and even the two decisive touchdown drives the Trojans engineered came down to fourth-down plays.
Lewis and Pierce devised a zone coverage that turned a traditionalist base defense, the 4-3, into a counter to the modern air raid. Sun Devils flew to the ball aggressively and created takeaways — and these were largely created turnovers, not byproducts of favorable bounces.
Chase Lucas, for example, refused to give up on a long Tyler Vaughns gain. He sprinted from behind to slap the ball away and cause a fumble. Merlin Robertson's red-zone interception came on a jaw-dropping dive in front of a receiver. It's a small sample size, but the new-look Arizona State is impressive and may prove to be the unorthodox Herm Edwards' most lucrative gamble.
Tabbing a longtime NFL coach and pairing him with a young, rising star is an unusual approach, but it has a high ceiling for success. All told, not a bad first game as a coordinator for Pierce, the only college football coach ever to have been an intern on "The Howard Stern Show" — though, remarkably, not the first Pac-12 coach with ties to Stern. Former Oregon head coach and Stanford assistant Willie Taggart was once a Western Kentucky quarterback, backed up by longtime Stern Show fixture K.C. Armstrong... but that's a story for another time.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Tyler Shough photo courtesy of @oregonfootball)