Unlikely Leaders in Pac-12

Eight weeks into the college football season, the only team in the Pac-12 with one loss is, drum roll please, Washington State.

Ignored in the pre-season polls and discounted in a division that includes perennial powers Washington, Stanford and Oregon, the Cougars are suddenly on top of the world.

WSU hosted ESPN’s Game Day for the first time on Saturday and pounded Oregon, 34-20, racing to a 27-0 halftime lead and then coming through with a crucial fourth quarter touchdown to ice the game.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew II (below) outplayed his more celebrated rival, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, completing 39 of 51 passes for 323 yards and four TDs.

The Cougars, 3-1 in conference play and 6-1 overall, climbed to No. 14 in the national rankings. If they can beat Stanford this week in Palo Alto and Washington at home on Nov. 23, they’ll represent the North Division in the league championship game. (An upset loss to Colorado wouldn’t cost them the title, as they’d own head-to-head victories over the other division co-leaders).

One could argue that the Cougs actually should be undefeated. Their lone loss came against USC, 39-36, when the Trojans blocked a last-second field goal attempt. However, moments earlier, an obvious targeting call wasn’t made on a brutal hit on Minshew by USC’s Porter Gustin. That would’ve given WSU a first down inside the 10 and likely resulted in a different outcome.

Many observers, including WSU Coach Mike Leach, believe the officials were intimidated and held onto their flags because of an incident earlier in the game, when a targeting call was over-ruled by Pac-12 General Counsel Woodie Dixon. In fact, the irrepressible Leach apparently fired off some nasty emails to Dixon and Conference Commissioner Larry Scott, wondering if they had been “trying to manipulate wins and losses.” Ouch!

Utah Rising: The Pac-12 South is also in upheaval, with Utah now appearing to be the class of the division. The Utes, after early season losses to Washington and WSU, have caught fire in October and scored over 40 points in three straight wins—40-21 over Stanford, 42-10 over Arizona and 41-28 over USC on Saturday.

The keys have been the always-stout Utah defense and the improvement of quarterback Tyler Hundley.

Utah still has tough games left at home vs. Oregon and on the road against Arizona State, Colorado and resurgent UCLA, but Kyle Whittingham is one of the most under-rated coaches in the country and none of the other teams in the division are as complete.

Familiar Faces: After Ohio State’s shocking 49-20 loss to Purdue, it’s beginning to look more and more like the national championship game might well be a rematch of Alabama and Clemson, which met for the title in 2016 and 2017.

Since both games were classics, this wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Hopefully, the folks from Tuscaloosa and South Carolina would make the long, expensive trek to Santa Clara and local fans would get excited enough to help fill Levi’s Stadium.

Chryst Sighting: Former Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst, who transferred from the Farm after losing his starting job to C.J. Costello, made his first significant appearance for Tennessee Saturday in the Volunteers’ 58-21 loss to No. 1 Alabama and played well.

Chryst entered with Tennessee trailing 28-0 and directed two impressive second-quarter scoring drives. He completed nine of 15 passes for 164 yards and two TDs. On the downside, he tripped over a lineman on the first play of the third quarter and fell into his own end zone for a safety.

Winning Ugly: David Shaw's coaching philosophy has always been, "run the ball and stop the other team from running the ball." This approach has proven successful throughout Shaw's tenure at Stanford, as he's won 75% of his games and gone to a bowl every year.

Yet many Cardinal alums and die-hards are frustrated by what they perceive as an overly conservative offense and cite Shaw's stubbornness in staying with an unproductive run game this year while not taking advantage of a promising passing attack.

We addressed this issue in our last blog, and despite our strong support and admiration for David, believe he needs to throw the ball more.

Last Thursday's 20-13 win over Arizona State, while securing an important road “W”, only added fuel to the fire. After a sleep-inducing first half, which produced a 6-3 lead, Stanford opened things up in the third quarter and quickly scored two touchdowns to go up 20-6, whereupon Shaw sat on the ball in the fourth quarter and reverted to, in one stretch, nine straight running plays.

The Sun Devils closed to 20-13 and got the ball back for one final drive, advancing to the Stanford 18 before running out of time. After the game, Shaw credited his conservative approach for running down the clock and forcing ASU to use all of its timeouts.

But in reality, the Sun Devils got the ball back with over two minutes remaining. Even without a time out, that is an eternity in college football, where the clock stops on every first down. Only ASU's poor clock management in the final minute enabled Stanford to escape with the win.

You can’t argue with Shaw’s record—or the way he runs his program—but when you have the opportunity to put the game away, you should stay aggressive.

Truth be told, the Sun Devils couldn't cover Stanford's receivers. Costello completed 22 of 29 passes for 231 yards. Every time he went deep, something good happened, including a long touchdown pass to JJ Arcega-Whiteside and four pass interference penalties. If Costello had continued to throw downfield, Stanford might've won by four touchdowns.

The true test will come in the next two weeks when the Cardinal meets Washington State and Washington. Shaw’s troops will be in trouble against the Cougars’ offensive machine and the Huskies’ vaunted defense unless they throw the football early and often.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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