By REED NELSON
Pac-12 football games are to the gambling man what firecrackers are to a casual afternoon barbecue. They should send everyone ducking for cover, but they don’t. Instead we sit around and laugh at the casualties, hoping that next time we won’t be among them.
I got hit with the firecracker this week, starting out 1-5 against the line. My lone victory? Sacramento State over Colorado. I don’t know what that says about me, but I don’t intend to investigate any further. I saved face a little bit by taking Fresno State and the 35 points, started mounting a comeback with the UCLA win and the Washington loss (I was 4-5 at this point) and the play of Arizona State bode well for me.
Then RichRod happened, annihilated what little prospect I had of salvaging a winning week and I was forced to accept the inevitable: When betting on a conference that has lost two (TWO!) games to Sacramento State in the last two seasons but has also produced a near-National Champion in the same time period, there are no gimme putts.
The trial by fire veered toward salvation, but ultimately my vehicle’s GPS seemed to favor the brimstone that was fated to me. 5-7 in week one, nowhere to go but up, down or nowhere (Wins highlighted in bold).
Utah St. 27, Utah 20 — This one was personal. As a former Ute, Friday night’s game was like torture-by-laxative following an enchilada feast. Utah State hadn’t beat Utah since 1998, and by 2009, the “rivalry” became so anemic (Utah was 21-4 in the previous 25 seasons, winners of 12 straight) that school officials waved off the “Battle of the Brothers” for the foreseeable future. That sentiment changed with the injection of head coach Gary Anderson and QB Chuckie Keeton into the Logan faithful, and the rivalry was renewed this season. But no one could have anticipated how renewed it really was. Utah came out flat, then stayed flat (the parking lot of the Pac-12 last week, if you will), Utah State turned an opening possession blocked-punt into six quick points, supposed “stud” Jordan Wynn removed himself from the game with a left-shoulder injury (a relief for anyone watching the sputtering offense) and Utah State’s read-option attack kept Utah’s defense on the field just long enough to wear them out. To win, Utah State needed to play there best game and they needed Utah to shart in their sleek Under Armour uniforms, which is exactly what happened. Atkins & Co. played incredibly efficient football on the offensive side, and Utah never could get their feet under them. Backup QB’s Jon Hays and Travis Wilson did their best to jolt Utah back to life, but Utah State scored first in OT, and Utah, rather than march the 25 much-needed yards against a WAC opponent, decided to abandon any semblance of their prepared gameplan and switched instead to the insomnia-inducing “Go Fish” system that was popularized by the 2008 Detroit Lions. My Pick: Utah. Ouch.
California 50, Southern Utah 31 — Cal got a win at their swanky new stadium, but giving up 31 to Southern Utah couldn’t have been the way that Jeff Tedford wanted to prep for this week’s game at Ohio State. Granted, this was a 50-24 game without the wild, one-handed, back of the endzone Hail Mary that Southern Utah miraculously executed (Seriously. Someone bigger than us wants Tedford out of a job. And its not Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t think.), but Cal needed a bigger confidence boost than a 19-point home win over a team that hails from Cedar City. I called the 50, but made the mistake of trusting Tedford to cover the 29. My Pick: Cal. Win, no cover.
Sacramento State 30, Colorado 28 — Email uncovered from a staffer in the Athletic Department at the University of Colorado: “To: Jon Embree…Jon — We appreciate all the hard work you are doing. That being said, losing at Sacramento State is not the kind of attention we need right now. People might notice that we aren’t actually using real people in our football games. I know, I know, coaching a group of padded, Nike-clad scarecrows isn’t what we discussed when you signed on here in Boulder, but you’ve got to make due. We never wanted to play football after Rashaan and Kordell (<3 <3) left. We wanted to take our ball and go the fuck home, but “they” wouldn’t let us. Now we have a lucrative television deal in a highly-visible conference, and the money is rolling in, but we don’t have a team. Of course, we don’t care about a bowl game, but we can’t risk the potential backlash that will be thrust upon us if our little secret gets found out. The hush money is in an off-shore account, the memo says “Scarecrow Assembly Grant.” Don’t ask questions, don’t speak to anyone. If you need it, we can assemble one that looks like you to take your place on the sidelines. It must be embarrassing. All the best, The Gip.” My pick: Sacramento State and the points.
Washington State 24, Eastern Washington 20 — Mike Leach has issues, and this time they have nothing to with the son of an ESPN anchor. The Cougars were awful in their opening-week loss to BYU, and they followed it up this week by engaging Eastern Washington in a nail-biter. Yes, Washington State won over their in-state foe, but a Pac-12 team should beat a Big Sky team. And they should do so by more than four points. Margin of victory isn’t on Leach’s list of concern (although it is always on mine) but total offense is. While at Texas Tech the Air Raid attack was unstoppable, producing record-setting passers year-after-year. Hell, Graham Harrell threw for over 12,000 yards while playing under Leach. Jeff Tuel is no Graham Harrell. While the senior was efficient (20-26, two touchdowns), he wasn’t exactly a force of offense. He threw for just 171 yards and was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter. Yes, WSU won, but EWU out-passed them 379 to 247 and out-gained them 469 to 355. Wins do happen like that, but not against quality Pac-12 opponents. Or maybe I’m just bitter that I took Washington State. My Pick: Washington State. Win, no cover.
#2 USC 42, Syracuse 29 — The game was delayed by lightening, a situation that clearly benefitted home-er team, Syracuse (the game was played in New Jersey). USC played well but never got into a groove offensively, exerting just enough force to definitively wrap it up before the clock ran out. And they tried to cover, they really did, staying with an air attack well into the fourth quarter. Their defense was exposed on the outside a little bit, which is good news for Oregon, but it’s hard to imagine that SC wouldn’t have covered under slightly sunnier circumstances. My Pick: USC. Win, no cover.
Oregon State 10, #13 Wisconsin 7 — What a difference a year makes, or, because it was a leap year, what a difference 361 days makes. 361 days prior to Oregon State’s most important win since beating a #1 ranked USC team in 2008, the Beavers lost one of its most depressing, falling to Sacramento State in over time. Yes, the same Sacramento State that knocked off Colorado this year. New year, new script, just like Louis C.K.. This season, Oregon State welcomed in a #13 Wisconsin team, a team coming off a Rose Bowl appearance, and slowly bled the Monte Ball-led badgers to death. In the upset of the week, Oregon State’s defense proved decisive. My Pick: Wisconsin. But I wasn’t alone.
#4 Oregon 42, Fresno State 25 — My second win of the week (sort of) came at the expense of the Ducks. Thanks to spectacular play from Oregon’s version of Crosby, Stills and Nash (DAT, Mariota and Barner), the Ducks throttled Fresno State out of the gates, but sloppy play in the second half (including a four series stretch that produced three Oregon fumbles and a punt) allowed Fresno QB Derek Carr to regain his footing. Oregon held off the push, but failed to cover for the second straight week, only reaffirming my theory that Chip checks betting lines about as frequently as Paula Dean reads nutrition information. My Pick: Fresno State and the points.
#3 LSU 41, Washington 3 — Washington posted its first points, a field goal, 57 seconds into Saturday night’s primetime matchup. They then proceeded to play out the next 59 minutes and three seconds to the same soundtrack that plagued the Animaniacs. LSU’s defense devolved the Washington attack into a series of implosions, self-inflicted wounds and cartoonish hijinx normally reserved for the afternoon slot on the artist formerly known as the WB (shout out to the ’90s). Keith Price threw for just 157 yards on 36 attempts, and Washington was held to 183 total yards as LSU held its annual Pac-12 Smack Down party (scoring summary below). My Pick: LSU, laying the 24 points.
UCLA 36, Nebraska 30 — In the real upset of the week, new head coach Jim Mora Jr. and UCLA flexed their muscles over a Nebraska team that is growing more and more Cowboy-ish every season*. UCLA held tough, keeping the game tied at 27 through three quarters before letting redshirt freshman Brett Hundley (305 yards on 21-33, four TDs), RB Johnathan Franklin (217 yards, second straight week with 200) and UCLA’s suddenly-staunch defense take over. The defense held Nebraska to just 106 yards in the second half, they cut Taylor Martinez’s production into tenths (101 first half yards, 11 second half yards), and they provided the game’s signature play when Datone Jones sacked Martinez in the endzone for a safety, breaking the 27-up tie. Hundley then hooked up with Franklin with 2:13 to play to nail the coffin shut. Message to the Pac-12: Jim Mora Jr. is no joke. Even if he says his comments about USC were a joke. I took Nebraska to win, but UCLA to cover, which makes me half right. I’m rounding up. My Pick: UCLA and the points.
Arizona 59, #18 Oklahoma State 38 — Just one week after hanging 84 on Savannah State, Oklahoma State got back-handed by that bitch called Karma in Tuscon on Saturday night. Arizona racked up 501 total yards on their way to an upset of a double-digit favorites. RichRod is back, folks, and it seems that the west coast is a little more accepting of his wide open ways. Sure, Oklahoma State QB Wes Lunt (awesomely southern name) threw for 436 yards and four TDs, but he also threw three picks, one all too costly. Arizona’s Jonathan McKnight picked off a fourth quarter Lunt pass and took it to the house, putting Arizona up 45-31 and effectively ending the game. Which also effectively ended my chances at a winning weekend. My Pick: Oklahoma State laying the 10 points. Woops.
Arizona State 45, Illinois 14 — The Pac-12 stood over the Big Ten this weekend like Ali over Liston (bring on the heat Midwest, I can take it), and this was the knockout blow. ASU clubbed Illinois, then put in the reserves in the fourth and made ’em say uncle. ASU QB Taylor Kelly threw for 249 yards and a TD, and backup Michael Eubank threw two more TDs in the effort. Todd Graham is now 2-0 in his first season in Tempe. That’s the good news. The bad news? Dennis Erickson was 2-0 last year, too. My Pick: Arizona State, laying the 4.5.
#25 Stanford 50, Duke 13 — As the last entry in the “What a Difference a Week Can Make” category, Stanford, coming off a 20-17 horror film against San Jose State, brought the hammer down on Duke. New QB Josh Nunes aired it out a bit, throwing for 275 yards and three TDs, and Drew Terrell returned a punt for a TD and caught another from Nunes. It would appear that head coach David Shaw has found life worth living after Andrew Luck, which makes next week’s matchup against USC about this much more compelling. My Pick: Duke and the 15 points. Super-woops.
*Seriously. Every single year they seem to be the fashionable “Get it back on the dominant track” pick, they obtain a mid-to-late teens preseason ranking, then they end up playing like an above-average Big 12/Big Ten team for the entirety of the season. They win games they should lose, lose games they should win, they have a quarterback in Taylor Martinez who is clearly effective (like Romo) yet seems to shrink to G.I. Joe size during big games (like Romo). They have a coach that constantly feathers the line between ‘overrated’ and ‘underrated’ and they have an odd sort of national appeal. They are the Cowboys.