On Friday, Notre Dame legend Paul Hornung died at 84. Hornung's legacy includes his 1956 Heisman Trophy, won under the most peculiar of circumstances. The Fighting Irish finished just 2-8 that season, but Hornung's ahead-of-its-time, multidimensional playmaking proved too valuable to overlook.
We open this week's rundown of the Pac-12 both to pay homage to one of the game's all-time greats, and to note Oregon State's Jermar Jefferson. Jefferson's Beavers are 0-2 after dropping heartbreakers to Washington State on Nov. 7, and Washington on Saturday, but the junior running back was outstanding both times out.
He went for 133 rushing yards against Washington and scored a touchdown — and may have finished with more had a dubious fourth-down call not gone against the Beavers, but more on that in a bit — to follow up his 120-yard, three-touchdown opener vs. Washington State. Jefferson now ranks seventh in the nation in yards per game, but statistics only go so far in speaking to his excellence. Actually seeing him operate reveals Jefferson to be a top-tier running back, perhaps the best in the nation, and a player worthy of Heisman consideration regardless of his team's record.
Now, I don't recommend anyone hold their breath on an earnest Jefferson Heisman campaign, even in this most unusual of seasons. Modern Heisman voters lack imagination, defaulting to the quarterback on a national championship-contending team. But as an indicator of individual value to his team, Jermar is taking on the heaviest workload seen of a player named Jefferson since the Ridgemont Wolves circa 1982.
Jefferson's productivity against a talented Washington defense came with the Huskies expecting, knowing he would carry the ball — Tristan Gebbia passed for just 85 yards — and still being unable to slow him down. Jefferson's three touchdowns against Washington State almost single-handedly bridged the gap in a Beavers comeback.
Oregon State will almost assuredly break through after two close losses, but if he continues to deliver at his current rate regardless of wins and losses, Jefferson deserves Heisman consideration.
Revenge Served Cold
After its national championship appearance to cap the 2014 season, Oregon endured a roller-coaster ride over the ensuing half-decade. No single series was more indicative of the Ducks' fall from the peak of the Pac-12 than its divisional rivalry with Washington State.
The Cougars boasted the longest winning streak against Oregon at four games, culminating in a raucous romp two years ago with "College GameDay" in Pullman for the first time. Although the Ducks snapped the streak in a thrilling, come-from-behind win last October in Autzen Stadium, they needed to return to the Palouse to fully exorcise their Washington State demons.
Running back Travis Dye told Ryan Thorburn of the Register-Guard he "remember[ed] every little detail" of the 2018 loss, including "the crowds giving us bad names and middle fingers." Perhaps those stinging memories made Oregon press on Saturday; maybe it was the bone-chilling temperatures that Washington State athletic director Pat Chun tweeted out Friday, planting the seed for some mind games.
Whatever the reason, Oregon fell behind by two touchdowns in the first half, a scene reminiscent of 2018 when a fired-up Cougars bunch stormed to a big lead from which the Ducks never recovered. The 19-7 deficit could have been worse, and the points Washington State left on the field opened the door for a quintessential Oregon onslaught.
Tyler Shough's rushing garnered plaudits in this space a week ago; at Martin Stadium, his passing powered the comeback, starting with a 51-yard deep ball to Jaylon Reed. His scoring long came on a 71-yard wheel route to Dye, whose superior acceleration freed him up to haul in a rainbow-arcing ball from Shough then breakaway to the end zone.
Ralphie on the Run
Practice caution in any snap evaluation made during the pandemic season (he writes after pushing for a Heisman candidacy two games in). That said, Colorado's 2-0 mark is worthy of some attention.
It's fair to assume few had the Buffaloes tabbed for such a start given the especially trying circumstances of their offseason. Presumably, even fewer had Colorado winning its first two behind an explosive offense that features a quarterback who spent more game time at safety and on special teams a season ago than he did behind center.
Such is the Sam Noyer story, one of the most fascinating in college football this year. Noyer's made good on an opportunity that arose during what would in theory be the most difficult of offseason transitions. Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell's hire late into the offseason would have made for a steep learning curve under normal circumstances, but the pandemic shuttering Buffs spring practice before it began added further uncertainty.
Noyer was in the transfer portal before COVID-19 shutdowns swept the nation, and prior to Dorrell's hire. The spring stoppage may well have been a boon for both Noyer and Colorado in that once he was able to return to the football field in June, Noyer did so back in Colorado black.
With 512 passing yards and three touchdowns, and another three scores and 100 yards on the ground, Noyer has emerged as one of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the Pac-12. In what's been a predictably unpredictable early start to the season, the South looks wide open. So why not a Colorado team with a converted safety at quarterback?
Everything can change from week-to-week in this truncated year, of course, which Colorado's opening-week opponent reminds us.
Jekyll and Hyde Bruins
Expectations for Chip Kelly were high upon his arrival at UCLA, the residual sentiment of a stellar tenure at Oregon. Replicating his immediate success with the Ducks was out of the question for those with realistic standards for UCLA; Kelly was being asked to rebuild in Westwood as opposed to taking over the machine predecessor Mike Bellotti helped build.
Nevertheless, enduring the program's worst start since before World War II and going a combined 7-17 over the first two years assuredly fell short of any expectations. Losing the 2020 season opener to Colorado in a game that played out much more lopsided than the final 48-42 score suggests continued that same trajectory of disappointment.
Another trend continued in 2020, however: the majority of UCLA's wins under Kelly have been surprisingly impressive.
A 34-10, Sunday blowout of a Cal team that kicked off its belated season with Pac-12 title aspirations improves Kelly to 2-1 against Justin Wilcox's Golden Bears. Wilcox has had the objectively better tenure (since Kelly returned to the college game) between the two head coaches, yet has taken two remarkably lopsided losses in the series. In both instances, the Bruins beat the Golden Bears with their own style of aggressive, swarming defense. UCLA got to Chase Garbers for five sacks on Sunday, 1.5 of which came from Osa Odighizuwa on a stellar individual day.
Add the two routs of Cal to a resume that includes the emphatic end to a three-year losing skid to rival USC, a game in which Joshua Kelley went off for a series-best performance; and last year's three-game winning streak that briefly had the Bruins in the hunt for a divisional crown. That run marked the end to a skid lasting more than a decade against Stanford; a dominant defensive showing against Colorado, which ostensibly kept the Buffs out of a bowl game; and a win over this year's preseason Pac-12 darling, Arizona State.
All three wins were by double-digit-point margins.
Oh — and then there was the historic comeback from down five touchdowns last September to beat Washington State, 67-63, in the quintessential #Pac12AfterDark moment. Really, the most inconsequential win in Kelly's tenure was a nailbiter against an Arizona team with Khalil Tate injured and Rhett Rodriguez playing quarterback two years ago.
Whether that makes Kelly's tenure more frustrating or cause for optimism depends on your perspective.
Another Year, Another Set of Ref Controversies
If there's any normalcy to be extracted from this football season, thank Pac-12 officiating crews. Some critical, late-game calls reawakened the unfortunate #Pac12Refs hashtag on social media, most notably two questionable spots of Jermar Jefferson rushes in Washington's 27-21 defeat of Oregon State.
Spectators were left vexed. So was Jefferson.
The confusion's understandable, particularly in light of Washington converting a fourth down on its game-sealing drive that appeared much closer to stalling at the line of scrimmage than either of Jefferson's third- or fourth-down carries.
The conference issued a statement declaring a lack of "irrefutable evidence" to change the spot, the universally accepted, diplomatic answer to questions about whiffed calls missed a second time upon review. Nevertheless, the camera angles on the FS1 broadcast generated a seemingly unanimous consensus on Twitter; given the divisive nature of social media, surely that has to count for something?
OK, so maybe the conference should not turn over its replay decisions to the super sleuths on social media. Still, the controversy that follows Pac-12 officiating disputes seems to generate more boisterous backlash than that of other leagues.
And while it garnered much less attention — in part because it arguably played a less pivotal role in the finish — USC's end-of-game drive to complete its second comeback win in as many weeks included this play.
An especially surprising angle to this miss is that the two teams combined for 180 yards on 18 penalties. There wasn't much flag-tucking prior to this moment.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Jermar Jefferson photo courtesy of osubeavers.com)