Pac-12: California Golden Bears

When they met a year ago, Cal and Stanford stood at polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Golden Bears were mired in a season of 1-11 despair. They didn't beat a single FBS team throughout their entire 2013 journey.

The Cardinal, meanwhile, were again shooting toward the Pac-12 pinnacle. Arizona upset Oregon on the day David Shaw's team walloped Cal 63-13. The 50-point obliteration represented the largest margin in Big Game history. It catapulted Stanford into the Pac-12 championship game and eventually the Rose Bowl.

A lot can change in less than a calendar year.

Cal and Stanford are ready to renew hostilities for the 117th time, and though the Cardinal are still the favorite Saturday, their 5-5 record suddenly stands in a dead heat with the Bears.

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AP Photo/Tony AvelarPlayers celebrate with The Stanford Axe in 2013 after beating Cal for the fourth consecutive year.
In the 362 days since one of the biggest mismatches in their rivalry's history, Cal and Stanford have zoomed in opposite directions. Sonny Dykes' program has made significant strides under sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, while Shaw's fragile post-Andrew Luck success has vanished on the offensive end. The Bears still struggle mightily on defense (last in the Pac-12) while the Cardinal still excel on that side of the ball (best in the Pac-12), but both teams' overall complexions have driven them to the same late November spot: a .500 record.

Objectives moving forward

The next goal for Cal involves clinching bowl eligibility, and the Bears can kill two birds with one stone by winning Saturday, as that would also restore some balance to a Northern California war that Stanford has commanded this decade. This much has been documented: The Cal offense built around Goff and Daniel Lasco is good. But the Bears must show meaningful improvement defensively to get this job done, as they made Stanford's mercurial offense (8.6 yards per play) look like the 1994 San Francisco 49ers last season. Cal has given up 39.7 points and 518 yards per game this season, last in the Pac-12. But the Cardinal's offense has regressed significantly this season, and Dykes seems confident that his defense has improved enough to meet the challenge this time.

"We're a better football team, and we're certainly better defensively," he said. "The numbers haven't necessarily been where we want or need them to be, but we're a lot better than we were. ... Last year we had to commit extra guys to the box and we were susceptible to a lot of big plays. We're constructed differently now. Our ability to hold up against the run will give us a better opportunity this year."

While Stanford is reeling, they're also viewing this game through a lens of opportunity --with a seasoning of desperation. Nose tackle David Parry acknowledged the Cardinal's season -- one that started with College Football Playoff aspirations -- would be a failure without at least one win in the final two games. Receiver Jeff Trojan was more forgiving -- "It's tough to say anything is a failure when you've grown with so many people in the program," he said -- but the senior recognized that a chance to play for the prized Big Game trophy overlapped with Stanford's desire to salvage this forgettable season.

Perhaps Trojan's comments before last year's contest, which also came after a brutal loss, best illustrate the Cardinal's approach heading to Memorial Stadium.

"We aren't very fond of [Cal]," he said. "They stole our Axe and I don't like them for that."

So, because bitterness remains because of an 1899 theft that has been part of rivalry lore in three separate centuries now, it's safe to say that Stanford -- the wounded bully -- relishes a 2014 opportunity to show its cross-Bay nemesis that it's still in charge.

With Goff on an upward trajectory as he approaches his junior season, Cal is expected to continue its charge upward -- especially if defensive challenges are at least partially answered. For Stanford, then, there's a real sense of urgency to circle the wagons and make a rigid stand now, when talent and depth advantages both still favor them. The Cardinal have their own explosive offensive stockpile maturing for next year and beyond -- perhaps along the lines of Christian McCaffrey -- and setting the table for the upcoming wave is of utmost importance.

The winner of this contest earns bowl eligibility, and the extra preparation time associated with that is a big first step in the foundation of the future. Regardless of any potential bowl destinations, this is the type of game that can set a tone for the long offseason of work ahead for both programs. They're on opposite trajectories now, and this Saturday's clash can either hasten or alter the directions of both shifts.

Cal and Stanford have reached the tipping point, and there's more than an Axe at stake.

Pac-12 Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
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Why Stanford will win: Stanford winning the Big Game would be a sure-thing if I had predicted Cal to win -- as Bears fans know, my pick is like getting handed a condemning black spot from a pirate, a la "Treasure Island." But there is something to be said for the physicality of Stanford's defense being able to contain Cal's offense, as Washington's front seven did. I also suspect Stanford will get Good Kevin Hogan in this game, which should be enough to get the Cardinal bowl eligible in an otherwise disappointing season. -- Ted Miller

Why Cal will win: I like this matchup: A great offense against a great defense, and a "meh" offense against a "meh" defense. Yay, Pac-12 football! But I think Jared Goff is going to come up huge for the Bears. I'm giving the nod to the team that has more positive vibes, rather than the one dealing with disappointment. That's what I've learned from the West Coast. -- Chantel Jennings

Why USC will win: It just wouldn't feel right if the Pac-12 South finished without another change of course. Look for Cody Kessler to turn in another big game and the Trojans to avoid a three-game losing streak to UCLA -- something that has happened just three times in the series' history. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why UCLA will win: With Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor exploding on a regular basis, USC may have more top-level flash (don’t tell that to Brett Hundley, though), but UCLA has the depth advantage in this game. The Trojans’ late-game struggles have to be cause for some concern here, especially since the Bruins have been playing their best football as of late. -- David Lombardi

Why Oregon State will win: The Beavers are riding high and bowl eligibility is on the line in Sean Mannion's senior year. Last week, the Beavers played for pride. This week, it'll be to give their leader one extra game in an OSU uniform. They clicked last week and I think that will continue. I think the Beavers are going to leave Seattle with a win and extend their season one more game. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Washington will win: In losing Terron Ward, the Beavers lose a running back, a leader and a special teams contributor. That’s a big deduction this late in the season for a team not overflowing with playmakers. Combine that with a talented Washington front seven and the Huskies feel right in this one at home. Now, if Cyler Miles can just hold on to the dang ball. -- Kevin Gemmell

Unanimous picks

Why Utah will win: Home-field advantage might not mean as much as it used to in the Pac-12 this season, but I think the crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium fuels Utah's nation-leading pass rush. It will be enough to push the Utes to victory over an Arizona offense that’s still young at key positions. -- David Lombardi

Why Oregon will win: When the best team in the conference plays the worst team in the conference, it's easy to pick the winner (even in the Pac-12). It's only a question of how much the Ducks will win by. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why Arizona State will win: The Sun Devils are going to be eager to bounce back from their loss in Corvallis and pick up win No. 9 against Washington State. Look for a better performance from Taylor Kelly and D.J. Foster, who rushed for just 51 yards against the Beavers. -- Chantel Jennings

Tale of the tape: Stanford vs. Cal 

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Heading into the season, the Pac-12 rivalry game likely to be separated by the most distance in the standings was the Big Game. With Stanford looking to challenge for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff and Cal looking to escape the conference cellar, the fact that these two teams are playing for bowl eligibility this weekend is somewhat surreal. It's a similar story on the recruiting trail as well, as these two programs have the fewest number of verbal commitments in the conference, as Cal holds 12 commitments and Stanford just 10 -- though Stanford holds the edge in ESPN 300 prospects at three to one.

The recruiting rivalry between these two programs is interesting in that they aren't separated by much distance, but don't overlap in their chase for the same prospect as often as you might expect. Stanford -- arguably the most national recruiting program in the country -- has commitments from players from 10 states, while eight of Cal's dozen commits hail from its home state and there might not be a true recruiting battle between these two for any prospect in this class.

Instant impact recruit
The 2014 Pac-12 season is like great cinema. Last week, I drew comparisons to "Gladiator," and how could I not? The league does host games in the Coliseum and folks are, in fact, entertained.

That parallel might have been too simplistic.

Just a few days ago, we seemed destined for a clear-cut final battle between Oregon and Arizona State. But as we've hit the home stretch, it's apparent this Pac-12 story contains more twists and turns than Lombard Street. It's time to shift cinematic comparisons. "Fight Club," "Shutter Island," "Memento," "The Empire Strikes Back" -- pick your favorite startling ending. Because it appears Tyler Durden may be orchestrating how this sucker wraps up, particularly in the Pac-12 South. The next stunner has yet to be revealed, but it's again time to make sense of it all heading into next Saturday:

Breakfast with the Pac-12: Washington State at Arizona State

Brace yourselves... for a Pac-12 kickoff at 10 a.m. PT. The Sun Devils will go from one end of the extreme (7:45 p.m. PT kick in their 35-27 loss at Oregon State last week) to the other, although it should be noted that this one starts at 11 a.m. local time in Tempe. Still, that's an early chance for ASU to right the ship after this past weekend's disaster in Corvallis. The Sun Devils had been consistently improving their run defense on a weekly basis until the Beavers' Storm Woods and Terron Ward both lit them up with 100-yard performances. As a result, Arizona State's defense is still a volatile question mark, and this week's get-back-on-track test comes against young Washington State gunslinger Luke Falk.

A tasty lunch: Arizona at Utah

Delicious indeed. The Wildcats needed a minor miracle (see an unnecessary Washington fumble and kick-icing backfire) to pull out a 27-26 win over the Huskies this past week, and they're still very much alive in the Pac-12 South race because of it. Arizona needs to win out while hoping for a USC loss this Saturday and a UCLA loss the week after that, which would lead to an Arizona rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. This weekend is a sweet matchup against Utah, which again played excellent defense in its 20-17 double-overtime win at Stanford. The Utes may also still have a chance at the South crown in a hypothetical five-way tie that's too confusing for my brain to process, so I'll let Kyle Bonagura break down that situation. Long story short: This will be a huge game in the electric Rice-Eccles Stadium environment.

Diamond-in-the-rough game: Stanford at Cal

The Cardinal have tumbled from the nation's elite to a team fighting to attain bowl eligibility, while the Bears have risen from complete inferiority to meet Stanford in the same place. The paths of these two rivals intersect at 5-5, just one win shy of that six-win postseason plateau. So, yes, a surface-level examination says this is solely a Big Game between a pair of .500 football teams. But the most dazzling explosions are often produced by entities coming from polar opposite directions, careening toward one another at blazing speeds. Can Cal end its Axe-less drought (since 2009) or will Stanford prolong its dominance of this Bay Area battle? The matchup of the Cardinal's conference-worst offense (23.9 points per game) and the Bears' conference-worst defense (39.7 points per game) will likely determine the answer to that question.

Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: USC at UCLA

This gem needs no more hype. It is the traditional rivalry of Los Angeles, and it comes with an enormous amount at stake beyond that. The Bruins again control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South race, and talk of a College Football Playoff berth for them has resurfaced. The Trojans aren't in a horrible position, either, although they'll need some things that are out of their control to go their way to end up at Levi's Stadium for the Pac-12 title game. This pairing of UCLA (which seems to be playing its best ball at just the right time) and an explosive USC attack (see Nelson Agholor's second consecutive 200-yard receiving performance in the Trojans' 38-30 win over Cal) sets the table for a beauty in Arroyo Seco. The Bruins' Brett Hundley may get most of the hype, but remember that USC's Cody Kessler is the nation's only quarterback to have attempted more than 300 passes with fewer than four interceptions.

Desperation bowl: Oregon State at Washington

Yes, the Beavers are coming off a potentially season-saving upset win over ASU, but they're still one win shy of bowl eligibility. With the Ducks looming in the season finale, this chance in Seattle is their best shot to earn a postseason berth. So this is a must-win without technically being a must-win for them, if you catch my drift. The Huskies, meanwhile, are thirsty to erase the putrid taste of their 27-26 loss at Arizona. It appeared as if Chris Petersen's team had finally put together a complete performance, but the Huskies passed on a late chance to kneel out most of the clock and fumbled away the game instead. This is Pac-12 Hail Mary territory, so maybe there are even tougher ways to lose than that, but the point remains: Both teams are starved for one more win.

A time to take care of business: Colorado at Oregon

The Ducks are massive favorites over the Buffs at Autzen Stadium. Oregon has already clinched the Pac-12 North and is on track for a College Football Playoff berth as long as the Ducks do what's expected of them: Beat inferior opponents in the final two weeks of the regular season. Of course, a tougher Pac-12 championship game looms after that, but that's a worry for another time. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich must first use this stretch as an opportunity for his wounded team to heal and, of course, win. Colorado, meanwhile, is scrapping for just one Pac-12 win this season. The Buffs have this opportunity against the Ducks and one versus Utah remaining. Both are daunting.
We're in the final stretch, folks. Buckle up. #Pac12AfterDark only gets crazier from here. But take a look back at Week 12 and some of the best plays from the weekend.

1. Arizona's Casey Skow-run

With Arizona trailing Washington, 17-7, Rich Rodriguez decided to go for a little bit of trickery on what would've been a 28-yard field goal. Instead, it was an 18-yard touchdown run from the kicker. Casey Skowron only needed four yards to pick up the first down for the Wildcats but the right side was wide open as it seemed Washington wasn't really expecting that kind of trickery so early on in the game. But, Rodriguez went for it and it paid off in a big, big way.

2. Casey Skowro-demption

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OK, enough with that silliness but the kid made the list twice (which is a first for the Pac-12 Play of the Week), so we figured we'd have to be all cheesy with him ... especially after the hate he received following his missed go-ahead field goal against USC in mid-October. But against Washington, even after his fake field goal heroics, Skowron proved to be even more of a BMOC when nailed the 47-yard game winner. And this was after Chris Petersen tried to ice him on his first attempt (which Skowron missed, wide right). But when the teams retook the field, there was still ice, only this time it was in Skowron's veins as he hit the game winning kick and gave the Wildcats their eighth win of the season (their fifth in league play).

3. The doctor is in … the endzone

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Reser Stadium has been home to some big top-10 upsets over the past 15 years and on Saturday, the Beavers added to that list when they took down No. 6 Arizona State, 35-27. There were quite a few big plays from running backs Terron Ward and Storm Woods, but the play of the game goes to senior linebacker Michael Doctor, who picked off ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly with 1:38 remaining in the game. Doctor returned the interception 35 yards, giving the Beavers their final eight-point margin of victory. Oregon State outscored the Sun Devils 21-3 in the second half, but it was this huge play -- from a guy who missed almost all of last season -- that makes the list.

4. Two passes for the price of one

It wasn't just the Wildcats that had a bit of trickery in the playbook on Saturday in the UW-Arizona match up. The Huskies came out with a double-pass touchdown to get Washington on the board in the first quarter. After the Wildcats took a 7-0 lead the Huskies came right back. They went 39 yards in five plays, but capped it with a Cyler Miles to Marvin Hall to Joshua Perkins 36-yard touchdown reception.

5. That'll do George, that'll do

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Receiver George Farmer is known as the fastest player on the USC roster. And want to know who reallllly knows that now? Cal cornerback Darius White and safety Stefan McClure. Why? Because Farmer outran them to the back of the endzone to haul in a 32-yard reception from USC quarterback Cody Kessler. The score gave the Trojans a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter. The touchdown catch was Farmer's second touchdown reception of his career (his first was in the Trojans loss at Boston College) and comes after a career riddled with all sorts of injuries -- in his four years at USC he has only recorded statistics in 13 of 35 games (not including the 14 games he missed last season due to his medical redshirt).
From hero to liar to forgotten man: that's Josh Shaw's life from August until now.

The USC cornerback and team captain only has himself to blame for his predicament. He was the one who made up a feel-good story to explain his injured ankles. He was the one who initially hid it from his parents. He was the one who lied to Steve Sarkisian's face when the USC coach asked if he was telling the truth.

Shaw paid the price, suffering physical pain but much more mental anguish as he watched USC play its first 10 games, including Thursday night's home win against Cal. Three months later, it's fair to ask: Does he deserve a second chance? More on that in a bit.

The forgotten man is finally speaking about what happened, telling the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke that he "hit the bottom" after details of The Lie came to light. Shaw explained that after an altercation with his longtime girlfriend, Angela Chilton, which he insists never became physical, he panicked when he saw police pull up to his building, thinking that she had called them.
"If she did say anything, I'm a black man with dreadlocks, and with everything going on in the country at the time, all that stuff in St. Louis [Ferguson, Mo.] … in my mind, I'm going to leap from the balcony so authorities did not see me."

That's how Shaw hurt himself (though not as bad as he initially thought). But he needed to come up with a better explanation for the injuries than the truth. So he made up the story about rescuing his 7-year-old nephew from drowning.

Shaw tells Plaschke that he thought the lie would hold up and, more important, could live only inside Heritage Hall. When USC's sports information department decided, understandably, to put out a news item explaining the reason for Shaw's injury, it once again gave Shaw the chance to recant. He didn't.

You know the rest: story went viral, Shaw lied to Sarkisian, questions remained from school officials and, eventually, Shaw came clean.
"It gets harder and harder to keep up with lie after lie after lie … the timeline wasn't right ... everything was off ... but I was still lying," Shaw said. "I thought I was in way too deep."

Shaw has stayed away from team activities ever since, even though Sarkisian said in September that he would be welcomed back to the team (Shaw appeared on Thursday's game program, which was printed before the season). He is medically cleared but remains sidelined as school and police investigate the situation. After a police report is filed, USC will conduct its own investigation.

USC has three games left, including the regular-season finale against Notre Dame at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Time is running out, but should Shaw be allowed to suit up one more time for the Trojans?

Yes. But only if what he said about The Lie -- namely that he never became violent with Chilton -- is proven true. The two "adamantly deny" that the argument became physical still live together in the apartment where the incident occurred.

Shaw sounds like a good guy who did a bad, stupid thing by repeatedly lying, and has suffered for it. But he had a strong track record before the incident. He appears remorseful in Plaschke's piece.

There are far worse characters in college football than Josh Shaw, ones who continue to play every Saturday. Second chances are rewarded to athletes who commit more egregious offenses.

So if things check out with the investigations, Shaw should return to the field before the season is done.

Florida State the new Quarterback U?

Whatever you think of Jameis Winston, the Florida State quarterback will leave a production void when he leaves Tallahassee, likely after this season. But the Seminoles are well prepared for life after Jameis. They received a verbal commitment Thursday from quarterback recruit Malik Henry, the top prospect in the 2016 class. Florida State already has commitments from two ESPN 300 quarterbacks in the 2015 class, Deondre Francois and De'Andre Johnson. Like Winston, Henry also intends to play baseball at Florida State and said he's fine with the inevitable comparisons to Winston.

Florida State has a storied tradition at several position groups, but the Seminoles are building quite the pipeline under center through recruiting.

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Pac-12 morning links

November, 14, 2014
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

#Pac12AfterDark almost made an appearance last night ... almost. While the California Golden Bears were able to mount a late semi-comeback against the Trojans, it wasn't enough as USC prevailed 38-30 behind a big night from quarterback Cody Kessler and wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

Kessler tossed four touchdowns and an interception on 31-of-42 passing for 370 yards. Agholor hauled in 16 balls for 214 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first USC player to ever record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games.

Cal made a late charge with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Quarterback Jared Goff was 29-of-46 for 279 yards with three scores. A failed onside kick attempt after Cal cut it to one possession turned out to be the difference.

You might have noticed more than a few flags on the field during the course of the game. USC coach Steve Sarkisian addressed that ... sort of ...



Here are a few recaps from the game: Getting picky

The Pac-12 blog is off to a good start with its picks this week. All five of us picked the Trojans to win at home. In fact, the only game we differ on is the Stanford-Utah game, with unanimous picks across the board for the other games. As we do every Friday, here are some picks from national writers and folks who cover the conference: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

If you were at the game last night and wondering why Josh Shaw was on the cover of the gameday guide, here's why.

If you're in LA on Sunday and looking to kill time, hang out with Brett Hundley for a good cause.
The USC Trojans led the California Golden Bears wire to wire in a 38-30 win, building a 31-9 halftime lead and never looking back. But it was, after all, #Pac12AfterDark, and the Bears made a game of it, coming up short on a late onside kick. Here’s how things went down at the Coliseum.

How the game was won: USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor woke up this morning and remembered he was playing Cal. You might remember him returning a pair of punts for touchdowns against the Bears in 2013. He had another huge game Thursday night, but ultimately, it came down to USC recovering an onside kick and running out the clock after Cal made it a one-possession game with 1:36 to play.

Game ball goes to: The aforementioned Agholor. He caught eight balls for 120 yards and a touchdown. Oh, that was just the first quarter! He finished with 16 catches for 216 yards and a pair of touchdowns while becoming the first USC receiver to ever record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. Of course, you can’t mention a big receiving night without tipping your cap to the QB. Cody Kessler threw four touchdowns and an interception on 31-of-42 passing for 371 yards.

What it means: The Trojans keep pace with Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona in the Pac-12 title race -- though the Trojans need a little help. Click here to see all of the South Division scenarios. Cal, which has lost four of its last five, needs to find a win against either Stanford or BYU if it wants to get the postseason.

Best play: While the night belonged to Agholor from a receiving perspective, here's a pretty good pitch and catch from Kessler to George Farmer on a 32-yard strike to put USC ahead 14-0.

video What's next: Rivalry games for both. The Trojans will be at the Rose Bowl to face UCLA on Nov. 22 in an elimination game in the Pac-12 South. The winner still has a shot at the division; the loser is out. For the Bears, they host Stanford in the Big Game with the winner possibly locking up bowl eligibility (pending the outcome of Stanford-Utah this weekend). It's been a few years since that game has had that much significance.

#Pac12AfterDark is amazing theater

November, 12, 2014
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#Pac12AfterDark means different things to different people. It’s a warm kiss goodnight, or a swift kick to the shin (among other places). It’s the perfect Christmas present, or a stocking soaked with lighter fluid, burned to ashes, put in a blender and then burned again. Still for others, it’s simply mainlining Red Bull to stay awake to watch their favorite team.

But everyone can agree on this: #Pac12AfterDark means chaos.

The popular hashtag has become as much a staple on Saturday nights as SNL. And sometimes on Thursday and Friday nights, too.

It represents the far-out finishes, the freakish fumbles, the mind-melting marys and the prayers -- some answered, some not -- of the teams that clash under the lights. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Other times, it’s simply a beautiful disaster.

#Pac12AfterDark has provided college football fans – even those brave enough to endure the 11 p.m. ET kickoffs -- with some of the most exciting and dramatic moments of the 2014 season.

Here now are some of the top #Pac12AfterDark moments of the season.

The most recent -- and clearly most bizarre -- was Kaelin Clay’s unforced fumble at the 1-yard line last week against Oregon. We all know the story by now. Instead of going up 14-0, Joe Walker returned the fumble 100 yards to tie the game at 7-7. That one play perfectly encapsulated everything that #Pac12AfterDark is all about.



Arizona State is sixth in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings. But the Sun Devils wouldn’t be there had it not been for the “Jael Mary,” a 46-yard touchdown pass from Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong as time expired to give ASU a 38-34 win over USC at the Coliseum. The Sun Devils trailed 34-25 with 3:02 left. Then the chaos really started.

Perhaps the origins of #Pac12AfterDark can be traced to a 10 p.m. ET start on Sept. 20, when Arizona scored 36 – 36! – points in the fourth quarter to erase a 15-point deficit and top the visiting Cal Bears 49-45 on the #HillMary. Anu Solomon aired out a 47-yard bomb to Austin Hill, who came down with it as the clock ran out. But #Pac12AfterDark can be fickle. A couple of weeks later, trailing 28-13 going into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats battled all the way back against the Trojans, recovered an onside kick, but lost 28-26 when Casey Skowron missed a 36-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.

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As we just learned from the Wildcats, #Pac12AfterDark can taketh away, but can also giveth. A couple of weeks after suffering the excruciating loss to the Wildcats, Cal found itself in a shootout against the Cougs in Pullman. That was a 10:30 ET kickoff, by the way. Connor Halliday threw for a record 734 yards and six touchdowns. And with 3:18 left in the game, trailing 60-59 (yeah, it’s the Pac-12), he drove his team down to the Cal 4-yard line. After failing to find the end zone twice (though replay might tell a different story on Gerard Wicks’ run, #Pac12officials), Quentin Breshears missed a 19-yard field goal with 15 seconds left that would have given the Cougs a 62-60 win.

Another late kick, another game involving USC. It started with Utah’s Davion Orphey returning a backwards pass 53 yards for a touchdown (a pass that everyone but Orphey and the officials, yay #Pac12officials, thought was a forward pass). There was Adoree’ Jackson’s 100-yard kick return and his strip of Tim Patrick at the goal line. Plenty of weird. But the dramatic crescendo was Travis Wilson connecting with Clay on a 1-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left to lock up a 24-21 win.

And so we come full circle from Clay to Clay. One week #Pac12AfterDark is your best friend. The next, your arch rival. It cannot, will not be contained. If you’re kicking off in the Pac-12 after the sun goes down, all you can do is hope the drama is minimal.

But no promises.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

November, 11, 2014
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There wasn't much movement on the Pac-12 recruiting scorecard this weekend, but Utah was able to bounce back from a tough loss to Oregon by scoring a commitment, and Arizona State might have set the stage for one of the conference's stronger runs toward signing day with a big win against Notre Dame. Elsewhere, Stanford is looking to gain some recruiting momentum after some time without a commitment, and several Pac-12 targets are headed out of the area this weekend.


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We finally have doses of clarity in the both the Pac-12 North and South races. It's time to take inventory after a weekend of progress. The homestretch is upon us.

Game with biggest College Football Playoff implications: Notre Dame at Arizona State

Both the Irish and the Sun Devils weigh into this battle with identical 7-1 records and opportunities to make headway in the national rankings. Although this contest won't affect ASU's standing in the Pac-12 race, they're feeling good about themselves on that front after winning Saturday's overtime arm-wrestling match over Utah 19-16. They grabbed control of the South with that victory, and the story to watch behind that surge has been the Sun Devils' defensive improvement: They have posted progressively better efficiency statistics in every single game since the disastrous 62-27 drubbing at the hands of UCLA on Sept. 25. The Sun Devils allowed an atrocious 10.0 yards per play that night, but check out their game-by-game trend of betterment since then: 5.2, 4.7, 4.0, 3.3.

Each week seems to present a more difficult challenge for ASU's defense, and the next step involves corralling Notre Dame's balanced offense, which also features a mobile quarterback in Everett Golson.

Desperation Bowl: Washington State at Oregon State

Neither team is in a pretty situation. This initially looked like it was going to be a matchup of the Pac-12's two record-setting quarterbacks: The Beavers' Sean Mannion passed Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards last week, and Washington State's Connor Halliday was on track to smash the NCAA single season record in the same department. But then Halliday suffered a gruesome broken fibula in the Cougars' 44-17 loss to USC. A week after getting plastered at Stanford, the Beavers dropped a 45-31 home decision to Cal. So this matchup has lost a huge amount of luster. Washington State (2-7) has been eliminated from postseason contention, while Oregon State (4-4) must piece together two wins in its final four games just to make a bowl.

Diamond in the rough game: UCLA at Washington

While the stock of Saturday's game in Corvallis took a plunge, this Seattle showdown saw its value increase last weekend. UCLA made a firm defensive statement in its 17-7 win over Arizona, while Washington righted the ship with a 38-23 win at Colorado. Both of these teams have traversed stretches of significant struggle this season (Washington on offense, UCLA on defense), but they're both entering the stretch run with a chance to wrap up solid seasons. They're only a game behind ASU and they hold the tiebreaker over the Sun Devils, so the Bruins are still very much in the Pac-12 hunt. The 6-3 Huskies, meanwhile, still have a shot at a 10-win regular season. The matchup between mobile quarterback Brett Hundley and Hau'oli Kikaha, the nation's leading sack master (15.5 already), will go a long way in determining if that can happen. Meanwhile, Shaq Thompson will play both linebacker and running back for a Washington team that's looking for an offensive resurgence.

Chance to get back on track: Colorado at Arizona

The Wildcats dropped multiple opportunities in their disappointing loss at the Rose Bowl, but their Pac-12 South chances are still far from over. At 6-2, they'll need UCLA and USC both to drop another game, but the Wildcats still have their shot at division-leading Arizona State. The homestretch for Rich Rodriguez begins with a chance to regain confidence in Tucson. Colorado, meanwhile, has shown definite signs of life this year, but they're desperate to scratch out at least one Pac-12 win on the season. Their final three games -- this one, at Oregon, and versus Utah -- are all daunting.

One more Arizona note: Let's again appreciate what linebacker Scooby Wright III is doing. He's leading the Pac-12 with 12.1 tackles per game, and he's also in the top three nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss. In fact, the nation's top three sack masters all come from the Pac-12: Kikaha (15.5 sacks), Utah's Nate Orchard (12.0), and Wright (11.0).

The main Pac-12 event: Oregon at Utah

If the conference regular season ended today, rapidly improving Arizona State would be Oregon's opponent at Levi's Stadium. But don't forget that Utah gave the Sun Devils all they could handle on the road. And although the Ducks all but locked up the Pac-12 North crown with their 45-16 statement over Stanford, the Utes have a chance to play major spoiler to Oregon's College Football Playoff hopes. Rice-Eccles Stadium can serve as a tremendously difficult environment for visiting teams, and Utah's aggressive defense is still playing with a lot of confidence. Oregon, meanwhile, is on an absolute offensive rampage, so something will have to give under #SackLackCity's bright lights Saturday. This looks to be the Ducks' toughest remaining test before they head to Santa Clara, which seems all but assured at this point.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
Nov 2
9:00
AM ET
A look at the Pac-12's top players in Week 10.

Shaq Thompson, RB, Washington: The Huskies need offense more than they need defense, and Thompson is the defintion of firepower. As a linebacker, he has scored a nation-high four defensive touchdowns this season. As a running back in Washington's 38-23 win over Colorado, Thompson was also a monster: 15 carries, 175 yards, and a touchdown. That's a sweet 11.7 yards a pop to go with over 200 all-purpose yards.

Cody Kessler, QB, USC: This was smooth sailing for the Trojans. Kessler utilized his arsenal of weapons, completing 21 passes to six different receivers in USC's 44-17 win over Washington State. The quarterback's final line was gaudy: 21-for-32, 400 yards, five touchdowns. That's a gaudy 12.5 yards per attempt. Kessler is (rather quietly) assembling a very productive season for Steve Sarkisian's team.

Nelson Agholor, WR, USC: This receiver's performance was anything but quiet on Saturday: 8 catches, 220 yards, and an 87-yard touchdown reception. The Trojans are a force to be reckoned with in space, and Agholor is the veteran leader of the team's deep playmaking corps.

Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: An eye-opening career is over in Pullman after Halliday broke his fibula in gruesome fashion. The senior was on pace to break the NCAA single-season passing record. That obviously won't happen anymore, but Halliday deserves a helmet sticker on his unfortunate final day in a Wazzu uniform.

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon: A year after Stanford bulldozed Oregon with the power run, the Ducks gave the Cardinal a taste of their own medicine -- and they did it behind another muscle-flexing performance from this true freshman. Freeman popped pads against Stanford's top-ranked defense to the tune of 98 yards on 19 carries, while Thomas Tyner provided some tough running of his own (10 carries, 63 yards). The Ducks exposed the Cardinal 45-16.

Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State: He only caught five balls for 77 yards on Saturday, but it seems like every single one of Strong's grabs came in clutch situations. The guy is aptly named, he soars over defensive backs, and has hands of glue. The Sun Devils feed off their reliable target, who combined with running back Demario Richard (14 carries, 116 yards) to deliver for the offense in ASU's 19-16 overtime win over Utah.

UCLA defense: The Bruins had not been very good defensively in the weeks leading up to this matchup against Arizona's potent attack, so their stifling performance garnered some attention Saturday. UCLA allowed the Wildcats only 3.2 yards per play and flustered quarterback Anu Solomon into an 18-for-48 performance (it must be noted that Arizona also dropped numerous passes). This was a welcome resurgence for the Baby Blue, which won 17-7.

Scooby Wright III, LB, Arizona: He continues to be a machine. Wright's stat line: 19 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. No forced fumbles this time, but he's already registered three of those this season.

Happy Halloween in the Pac-12

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
11:00
AM ET
Happy Halloween, Pac-12.

This holiday seems perfect for a conference that has had so many tricks and treats already this year.

So, to celebrate, we've looked around the conference and picked out some possible costumes for teams, coaches and players.

For example, this year Arizona is going as Stanford (Oregon's apparent Kyrptonite). Stanford is going as Utah circa 2013 (three losses by Week 7). Utah is going as Oregon (injury bug strikes). And Oregon is going as a flamingo. Because really, a duck going as a bird is just some irony I'd love to see.

Oh, and also, Washington State is going as a pirate. Just because. Here are some other options for teams:

[+] EnlargeGoff
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJared Goff and the Golden Bears have been surprisingly improved this season.
Freddy Krueger (team not to sleep on): Cal. We all knew they'd be better than last season, but who could have predicted that they would be a possible bowl team with four games to go? At Week 5 in the season they were just a Hail Mary away from being undefeated. Jared Goff is one of the most improved players in the nation and he's leading a team that has Sonny Dykes in some coach of the year discussions. Cal has lost three games in a row, but they managed to put up 41 points against Oregon and almost beat UCLA at home. Oregon State? USC? Stanford? You've been warned. This team is not one you can sleep on. The 2013 team? Maybe. But this 2014 version is so different.

Boo (boo): Oregon's offensive line. Remember when this was going to be Oregon's best position group this season? Since then, the Ducks lost starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who had come into the season with 26 starts under his belt. Then the coaching staff moved right tackle Jake Fisher to fill Johnstone's spot and back up Andre Yruretagoyena into the right tackle spot. Then Yruretagoyena got hurt. Then they moved true freshman Tyrell Crosby into right tackle. Then Fisher got hurt and Crosby moved over to left tackle and former walk on Matt Pierson moved to right tackle. Follow? Don't blame you if you don't. Oregon's one loss came with huge inexperience on both sides of the line. If the Ducks were 100 percent healthy that game, do the Wildcats still win? Who knows. But the game itself probably would've looked quite a bit different.

Graveyard: Colorado. Sorry Buffs, but you're winless in the conference. You've been snake bitten, we'll give you that. Double overtime losses to UCLA and Cal? That's just rough. But the good thing about a graveyard on Halloween is that corpses come back to life and with four more games, there's always a chance.

Trick: Washington State. The Cougars were supposed to be one of the most improved teams in the league this season. With third year coach Mike Leach at the helm and Connor Halliday finally coming into his own, they were supposed to be a darkhorse in the north. Well, the trick is on us. Wazzu sits at 2-6 overall after most of us anticipated the inverse at this point in the season.

Treat: The Arizona schools. ASU and Arizona were picked to finish third and fourth in the Pac-12 South, respectively. Instead, they're leading their division with huge wins over the teams that were supposed to be dominating everyone. And you know what makes these teams even more treat-like? In the conference of quarterbacks these two programs have given us some of the most interesting quarterback storylines of the season. No one was talking about Anu Solomon last July. Now? Now, he has 2,430 yards and 20 passing touchdowns. And Arizona State has provided plenty of spice too. When Taylor Kelly went down Mike Bercovici kept that team relevant and led the Sun Devils to a huge upset over USC. What a treat for those teams and anyone who watched.

Pac-12 costume ideas:

For the Pac-12 refs, we have a few different options considering the amount of hate you've gotten from some fans this season. It was hard to find other people and things that are as notorious as you, but here's a possible list:

1. LeBron James circa 2010, and the entire West Coast can be the city of Cleveland.
2. Justin Bieber, and the entire West Coast can be the entire West Coast.
3. Brussel sprouts.
4. The song "Call Me Maybe."
5. The Internet guy who shows up two hours late.

Or, just go as a zebra. You already have the outfit.

  • Washington State QB Connor Halliday: Mighty Mouse. His extreme strength is displayed by the fact that his arms are still attached to his body after three years in Leach's offense.
  • UCLA coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich: Those people who fight at a nice restaurant.
  • USC RB Buck Allen: A wrecking ball.
  • UCLA QB Jerry Neuheisel, ASU QB Mike Bercovici: Ronnie Bass from "Remember the Titans." Like Bass, Neuheisel and Bercovici came in for their injured starting quarterback and led their teams to victory.
  • Utah's special teams: The exceptional middle child. The oldest child is always the most mature and doted upon -- that's your defense typically. The youngest kid is always so cute and everyone pays the most attention to it -- that's your offense. Then there's the middle kid who is usually forgotten. That's the special teams. But every so often there's a middle kid that's a piano prodigy or knows how to code at 7 years old or wins every spelling bee. Yep, Utah's special teams win every spelling bee. … For those who are curious, some notable and accomplished middle children: Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates.
  • Washington's Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson: The Three Musketeers. "Never fear quarrels, but seek hazardous adventures," Alexander Dumas wrote. I'd say that sums it up. Though none of these players are very quarrelsome, they certainly seek (and excel in) hazardous adventures.
  • Oregon State WR Victor Bolden: Jay Leno. You gotta feel for a guy who's expected to come into Brandin Cooks' spot. Kinda like Jay Leno coming in to Johnny Carson's role at "The Tonight Show."
Week 9 featured the first completely full Pac-12 slate in quite some time, and Week 10 boasts the same loaded docket of action. In fact, at least on paper, Week 10 is our best Saturday yet: Stanford-Oregon, Arizona-UCLA, and Utah-Arizona State all come on the same day. Whereas the past weekend brought a (small) dose of clarity, this next one should help sort out the league race to a greater extent. In fact, if UCLA finds a way to beat Arizona at the Rose Bowl, both the Pac-12 North and the South will have clear-cut leaders by the end of Saturday. But that's a huge "if" -- and that'd be a lot to ask out of the inherently Wild West. So don't worry about that yet. Just sit back and enjoy next Saturday's six-course meal. Here's the menu.

The bread basket: Washington at Colorado

Mike MacIntyre is still looking for that critical, confidence-building upset win in conference play. Victory against heavily-favored UCLA this past Saturday would have been a true milestone for his team, but the Buffs fell 40-37 in double overtime. Still, there were moral victories in Boulder: Colorado out-gained the Bruins in regulation, stayed close despite losing the turnover battle, and erased 17-0 and 31-14 deficits to force the extra frame. The Buffs just ran out of gas near the finish line. But they may be smelling blood with their next chance, as wounded Washington is coming to altitude. The Huskies have dipped below five yards per play offensively on the season (worst in the Pac-12) after a 24-10 home loss to Arizona State. If Colorado is going to win a conference game in 2014, this looks like their best chance.

The appetizer: USC at Washington State

There's been a close-but-no-cigar vibe at both schools this season, so perhaps it's fitting that both the Trojans and Cougars enter this game coming off losses. But while USC's 24-21 setback at Utah came in the final seconds, Washington State never had a realistic shot of winning in its 59-37 home loss to Arizona. Though Connor Halliday passed for 489 more yards (yes, that continues his NCAA record pace), the Cougars couldn't find their offensive footing until the second quarter, and they already trailed 31-0 at that point. So, Mike Leach's 2-6 club now must win out to just to reach bowl eligibility. Maybe their pass rush will find some room to work against a Trojan offensive line that'll be without starting left tackle Chad Wheeler (torn ACL), but it's really hard to see this Wazzu defense dealing with USC's bevy of athletes over 60 full minutes.

Entree no. 1: Stanford at Oregon

A week ago, the Big One had lost much of its luster. That's what happens when one of its participants can't score. But Stanford's radical offensive adjustments (gasp, no huddle!) made for a dominant 38-14 win over Oregon State, and that re-infused the Pac-12's great war of the past half decade with some real buzz. The Ducks, meanwhile, did what we expected them to do in their 59-41 Levi's Stadium waltz over Cal. We'll keep a close eye on the status of Stanford defensive tackle David Parry (leg) this week, as he may be the determining factor when it comes to the extent of Oregon's rushing success. That variable plays right into the main event, a showdown between nation's best defense (Stanford's at 3.7 yards per play) and its best quarterback (look at that 24:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio for Marcus Mariota). Don't forget the flip side: The Cardinal's attempt to sustain offensive success may be the hinge point here.

Entree no. 2: Arizona at UCLA

It's tempting to write the Bruins off following yet another uninspiring performance. Brett Hundley's unit stalled with big leads in Boulder, and the defense surrendered 500 total yards to Colorado. But UCLA has found a way to survive and advance the past two weeks, so they're still very much in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title -- at least mathematically. There's no margin for error, though, and Arizona will test the numerous cracks in the Bruins' armor to no end. Aside from being unstoppable offensively in the Palouse, the Wildcats continued to receive critical defensive contributions from Scooby Wright III. He forced a remarkable three fumbles in that game (five now this season, no Arizona player has forced more since 1973), and we can see more of the same Saturday against turnover-prone UCLA. Wright (78 tackles) trails only the Bruins' Eric Kendricks (93 stops) in the Pac-12 tackle category, so the two conference leaders square off at the Rose Bowl.

A cold beverage on the side: Cal at Oregon State

This game may slip by the wayside while the other three with Pac-12 title implications rage on, but there's a high chance of solid entertainment value here. The Beavers' Sean Mannion needs just 194 passing yards to break Matt Barkley's career Pac-12 record, so he'll almost certainly eclipse that against Cal's porous defense at home. The Bears, meanwhile, continue to impress with their explosive capabilities on offense. Jared Goff is only a sophomore, but he's already looking like a player who can break Mannion's future passing record just two years from now. Oregon State's defense may have lost much of its early season confidence in this past weekend's thrashing at Stanford, and that's never good news before a gunslinger like Goff comes to visit.

Delicious dessert: Utah at Arizona State

It's nearly impossible to pick one Pac-12 game this weekend that has the biggest College Football Playoff implications, but this sucker holds that distinction, simply because it's the only contest in which both teams still have a realistic shot of qualifying amidst the madness at season's end. A week after Utah pushed USC aside, this a pivotal battle for South supremacy. The Utes are on cloud nine after their defining win, one that earned them bowl eligibility while simultaneously answering the massive question at quarterback (when push came to shove, Travis Wilson was the determinant). But the road only becomes more treacherous for Utah (Oregon and Stanford loom after this), and ASU is an opponent that's truly coming into its own. It's tough to judge the Sun Devils' offensive progress since Taylor Kelly was shaking off rust in Seattle's howling winds, but it's clear that Todd Graham's squad is building considerable confidence -- particularly on the defensive side of the ball. ASU must show their best performance against the run of the season to win on Saturday, because Utah's Devontae Booker has been consistently productive, even when the Utes have struggled to pass.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 9

October, 26, 2014
Oct 26
2:00
PM ET

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