Monday, 16 September 2013

The Pac-12 Week 3 Recap: Marcus Mariota is back to abnormal, Washington is baffling, and UCLA did it for Nick

You can't overstate how important last Saturday was to the Pac-12 and all the opportunities this conference had to make a major statement. You also can't overstate what a rousing success this past Saturday became. How does 8-1 with wins over the Big Ten, SEC, and ACC sound? How about the first 300 yard passer against Wisconsin in 46 games? The worst loss in 108 years for Tennessee? 600+ yards on the road against a Big Ten team? 38 unanswered points against a ranked Big Ten team? It all happened, and now the Pac-12 is without a doubt the second best conference in college football behind the SEC. Here is the important stuff that happened two days ago and what it all means going forward.

1. Marcus Mariota's arm has finally remembered that the off season is over. A sense of panic had been setting in with the Oregon fan base. "Yeah, we're blowing teams out but have you seen Marcus? His passing looks terrible!" Leave it to Oregon fans to find something to complain about after winning by seven touchdowns but to a certain extent they were right to fret. Mariota was completing only 53% of his throws through two games and although he had been victimized by some drops particularly against Virginia he was missing some open receivers. His mechanics looked fine, he was comfortable in the pocket, and he was not throwing under pressure yet he was missing a lot of throws. It wasn't a simple problem either like he was consistently throwing too high. He was missing high, low, to the right, and to the left.

After about half a quarter against Tennessee, Mariota wasn't looking any better. He was 2/7 passing on Oregon's first two series and twice he over shot an open man on 3rd down. People started to groan and worry continued to rise. Then Mariota went out and had a career day by throwing for 456 yards and became the first Oregon QB since Kellen Clemens in 2005 to surpass the 400 yard mark. I think Mariota's problems were all mental. My theory is that he started out like gangbusters last year including the most efficient passing debut for a freshman ever because he had been battling Bryan Bennett for playing time all summer. Practice and Fall Camp were so intense for Mariota last year that it put him in a better position to succeed once the season started. Not having that competition and extra push this year may have hurt him. 

I also think he struggles to get comfortable right out of the chute. Even after his great performance against the Vols, Mariota is completing just 48.1% of his 1st quarter passes. Despite his supposedly rough outings against Nicholls and Virginia though, Mariota is completing 65.4% of his passes in the 2nd quarter and 65.5% in the 3rd. It's important to note that he still hasn't thrown an interception and his QBR (an advanced stat created by ESPN to track a QBs entire performance, including rushing numbers) is 97.4 out of 100. That is the second highest number ESPN has tracked through three games in the past 10 seasons trailing only Russell Wilson's senior season at Wisconsin. Mariota's 1st quarter efficiency will be corrected over the course of the year but, the real concern are his red zone numbers. Even with a pair of red zone scores to tight end John Mundt on Saturday, Mariota is sitting at 5/16 on pass attempts in the red zone. Those 11 incompletions include a drop by Byron Marshall that would have gone for a touchdown against Virgina but it also includes a pair of missed throws on 4th down against Nicholls and overthrowing a receiver on 3rd down during Oregon's second possession against Tennessee.

There is certainly hope for Mariota's red zone efficiency to come around just like his 1st quarter numbers. Last year, Mariota completed 64.3% of his red zone passes and threw 19 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions. Long story short, not only will Mariota be fine he's already been fine. Oregon fans need to find something else to be worried about (like the interior offensive line) besides the most well rounded QB in college football.

2. Officiating is still a pandemic in the Pac-12, and it's not getting any better. By now, I'm sure you're well aware of what happened at the end of the Wisconsin-ASU game. I have certainly hashed out the events in painstaking detail. In the wake of Saturday night's events, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has reprimanded the officials responsible for the fiasco and promised "additional sanctions" against those officials. What those sanctions are or will be if they haven't already been enforced is anyone's guess. I personally doubt it will be a suspension as there are six games in Pac-12 stadiums next week that will all require an official Pac-12 crew and I believe Utah's visit to independent BYU also calls for Pac-12 refs (since BYU is independent, its games are normally officiating by the conference of the visiting team). I'm sure Wisconsin fans and most college football fans would like to see those refs suspended but unfortunately they will probably be needed to work next Saturday.

The bottom line here is that officiating isn't getting any better. Then Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen promised a probe and sweeping changes following the 2006 Oklahoma-Oregon onside kick debacle, and Larry Scott brought in former NFL head of officials Mike Pereira to help out two years ago and yet the situation never improves. Oh and don't forget that the integrity of the Pac-12's men's basketball officiating was shattered six months ago. The thing is, Pac-12 commissioners past and current have tried bringing in new blood, hiring top professionals to run seminars, acquiring more respected heads of officials, raising officials salaries for motivation, and suspensions and fines in extreme cases like this one but none of it is working. Commissioner Scott has tried everything and I don't know what to say or how to fix this problem. It's all just sad really.

3. Washington's numbers don't make sense. What team has a difference of 43 between it's national ranking in total offense and scoring offense? That would be the Washington Huskies who have managed to average more yards per game than anyone other than Baylor, Oregon, and Texas A&M yet find themselves staring up at 46 teams when it comes to actually scoring. This discrepancy baffles me and I can't think of ever seeing one like it. Cal also has a similar dichotomy (9th in yards, 51st in scoring) but Cal's issues are easily explained through turnovers (two per game) and third down inefficiency (45.6% conversions). 

Washington has only committed three turnovers all year and has the third best 3rd down conversion rate in the nation at 67.7%. But then I found Washington's problem: they need to get better in the red zone. The Huskies have had 10 red zone possessions this year and have six touchdowns. That 60% touchdown conversion rate puts them at 74th in the nation which is not good enough. Considering how good Washington is at tailback particularly with physical backs who can get tough yards along with a mobile and accurate passer and perhaps the best red zone receiving target in the country in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, there is no excuse for UW to be at anything less than 90%. Maybe near perfection is a little too much to ask but go look at their roster and the type of talent they have and tell me they shouldn't be punching in more touchdowns. UW needs to find a way to be more effective when close to their opponent's end zone and do it soon because teams like Stanford and Oregon will make them pay for kicking field goals.

4. Stanford is playing possum. If Stanford played Arizona tomorrow would anything actually happen? I joke of course but in addition to the Wildcats, Stanford has also decided to show about 40% of their hand to the rest of the conference. Stanford's game against San Jose State was fairly monotonous and I figured that would happen because I thought SJSU was good enough to push Stanford for a little while and keep the score respectable. As for Saturday against Army, I'm still not sure if that game actually happened or not.

I have a feeling David Shaw has some major offensive wrinkles hiding in the playbook that we're going to see fairly soon. All Stanford has run this year is basic dive and stretch run plays and some highly simplified pass concepts. That's all Stanford has needed so far but pretty soon, as in this weekend, Stanford will have to start emptying the playbook. There is only one top 25 match up in college football on Saturday and Stanford is in it as the Cardinal host Arizona State and it's vaunted defensive front. I've heard some rumblings of an expansion on the option pass concepts that Shaw tinkered with late last year after Kevin Hogan became the starting QB. It's going to be fascinating to see what Stanford does now that they start playing good teams that will require a maximum effort. I promise you this, the boring weeks of Stanford football are over until next year.

5. UCLA won one for Nick. The best moment of the weekend in college football was not Johnny Manziel having the best performance of all-time against Alabama's defense. It was not Alabama overcoming that effort to win one of the great shootouts in college football history. The one truly great moment of the weekend was not a plush suited renegade cowboy trying to capture a wild fox, an FCS team pulling a big upset on a Hail Mary, Michigan almost losing to Akron, or one of the most inexplicable endings to a football game ever witnessed. The true moment of the weekend was when Jim Mora in the wake of a come from behind 41-21 win at Nebraska, broke the fourth wall and looked straight into an ESPN camera and addressed the Pasquale family. Jim Mora genuinely seemed to forget that he was in the middle of an interview with Shannon Spake standing a foot away from him or that millions were watching and listening to him. For a brief few fleeting seconds, Mora was thousands of miles away from the Pasquales yet he was alone with them.

Mora held back his emotions as he said, "We won one for your son" and later, "We got one for Nick." Honestly, sometimes I hate writing and the limitations of this craft. I could have written two thousands words about what Nick Pasquale meant to his teammates and the emotions that the UCLA players fought through during the game and what poured out of them afterward. I hate clich├ęs, but if "a picture says a thousand words" then here is a million:

May Nick Paquale rest in peace. May his memory stay forever with the UCLA players and all who were close with him. May he rest in heaven and watch down with pride and joy as his brothers play for him and go on to a special season in his honor.

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