Pac-12 football thoughts: Don’t forget about Utah among league’s high-flying contenders

The Pac-12 opened conference play in full during Week 4, and we learned a bit more about a lot of teams thanks to multiple high-profile ranked matchups. After this weekend’s slate, there are four Pac-12 teams who are ranked in the top 10 of the latest AP poll.

So let’s get to some Pac-12 thoughts from Week 4.

1. Washington looked scary in the first half against Cal. Oregon could have named its score against Colorado. Those two programs will receive a majority of Week 4’s headlines out west for their performances.

But Utah’s defense should get a lot of time in the spotlight this week, too. Starting quarterback Cam Rising has not taken a snap this season. Neither has tight end Brant Kuithe. Micah Bernard, the Utes’ No. 2 running back, is out for the season. Their top back, Ja’Quinden Jackson, was injured on Saturday.

The Utah offense hasn’t been good, and the defense is missing several key players, yet after Saturday’s 14-7 win against UCLA, the Utes are 4-0.

Linebacker Karene Reid notched a pick six on the first play from scrimmage, and Utah manhandled what had been a good Bruins offense. The Utes are sixth nationally in scoring defense (9.8 points per game) and 23rd in yards per play allowed (4.57). And that defense deserves a lot of credit for an unbeaten start that includes a win over a top-25 Florida team, a Power 5 road win at Baylor and a victory over a UCLA team that entered the weekend in the top 25.

2. Off the two schools left standing in the conference after this summer’s realignment chaos, Oregon State received nearly all of the on-field preseason buzz, but it’s Washington State that has asserted itself as a dark horse in the Pac-12 race.

The Cougars beat the Beavers, 38-35, thanks to quarterback Cam Ward, who continued his superb start to the season by going 28 of 34 through the air for 404 yards and four touchdowns, plus another score on the ground. Receiver Josh Kelly, a Fresno State transfer, made some simply ridiculous catches and finished with eight receptions for 159 yards and three scores.

Kyle Williams, a UNLV transfer, caught seven passes for 174 yards and a touchdown as well.

Washington State’s 4-0 record and No. 16 ranking starts with Ward, who is playing lights-out (1,390 yards, 74.6 completion percentage, 16 total touchdowns, no picks) and is displaying better decision making than he did in his debut FBS season last year after transferring from Incarnate Word. But Ward has help. The Cougars are getting playmaking at receiver that they didn’t have last season, with Williams and Kelly making significant contributions. The offensive line play has improved, too. The Cougars allowed 3.54 sacks per game last season, 126th out of 131 FBS teams. They allow two per game through four weeks (64th nationally).

Washington State will return from an off week to face a tough UCLA defense at the Rose Bowl in Week 6, which should be a fun matchup to watch.


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3. Oregon State’s ground game was dominant through the first three games of the season and had a great day on Saturday (242 yards on 39 carries), but it always seemed like at some point an opponent would force Beavers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and his receivers to beat them through the air.

Uiagalelei completed 17 of his 34 passing attempts for 198 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Cougars, who did a good job forcing Oregon State off-script. That passing performance wasn’t enough to hang with Ward.

We’ll see whether the Beavers can dictate the game more effectively on Friday night in Corvallis against Utah, which isn’t playing well on offense and still might not have Rising.

4. Shoutout to Arizona redshirt freshman quarterback Noah Fifita for coming off the bench and leading the go-ahead drive for the Wildcats, who beat Stanford 21-20 on Saturday to improve to 3-1.

Jayden de Laura left the game with an injury in the third quarter, and Fifita completed all four of his pass attempts in relief for 47 yards. His first drive was a nine-play march that culminated with a 2-yard DJ Williams touchdown run, and he found Jacob Cowing and Jonah Coleman for two key completions on the final drive of the game that allowed Arizona to run out the clock.

Fifita starred at Servite High School (Anaheim, Calif.), and there wasn’t much doubt among college recruiting personnel that he could play. They were just wary of his height; the Wildcats list him at 5 foot 11. He made the plays he needed to on Saturday.

5. There might have been two — if you’re being kind — good defenses in the Pac-12 last fall, but it seems like several teams have made positive strides on that side of the ball this season.

UCLA (first), Oregon (tied-10th), and Utah (23rd) all in the top 30 in yards per play allowed among FBS defenses through four full weeks. No Pac-12 school finished in the top 30 in the category last season.

Utah (sixth), UCLA (ninth), Oregon (17th), Arizona (23rd), Washington (27th) and Oregon State (tied-30th) are all in the top 30 in scoring defense. Oregon State and Utah were the only league schools who finished in the top 30 last season.

Arizona’s improvement has been particularly impressive, considering the personnel Jedd Fisch inherited there. UCLA’s defense showed some flashes last season, especially its pass rush, but the Bruins seem more consistent under new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn.

We’ll see how many of these programs maintain these rankings once they start playing more of the league’s high-powered offenses, of which there are plenty.

6. Through four weeks, USC (55 points), Oregon (54) and Washington (49.8) are first, second and third in scoring offense. The Huskies (9.23 yards), Trojans (9.22) and Ducks (8.04) are all top six nationally in yards per play.

Right now, I’d argue that Washington has been the most impressive team in the Pac-12 to this point. But all three of these teams play each other (and defending champ Utah) between now and Nov. 11. May the best offense win.



Ohio State’s finish, Iowa’s goose egg and Cameron Ward: Week 4 Saturday Superlatives

7. On paper, the Week 5 Pac-12 slate isn’t as appealing as Week 4 was. Friday’s Utah-Oregon State game will be extremely physical, and that’s probably the best matchup of the weekend.

USC will be heavily favored against Colorado, but the Buffaloes might drag the Trojans into a shootout if USC’s sloppy defense from this past weekend shows up. At the very least, the atmosphere should be great for that game.

Washington is considerably better than Arizona, but Tucson has been a house of horrors for the Huskies over the past decade-plus. We’ll see if that holds true this Saturday.

(Photo: Chris Gardner / Getty Images)

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