Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Saturday Slate Week Four: Arizona State and Stanford set for a showdown and yep that's about it

You know how your significant other is always bothering you about doing nothing except watch football on Saturdays? She/he constantly bothers you about how you never get the yard work done and you haven't taken a Saturday night out in weeks but guess what? Your companion is in luck today. Why is that you ask? It's because this week's schedule is rancid, awful, and unwatchable save for one big game that I will get to in a moment. The Pac-12 schedule looks boring enough but don't bother looking outside the conference for good games because the only thing you will see outside the pacific time zone are tears of boring sadness. So put the ASU-Stanford game on DVR and take your lady or man out for a nice seafood dinner and then call them in the morning.

Now, if you are a single degenerate like me you will probably chose to stay in and watch this wasteland of a schedule and you know what? That's okay. The college football season is sadly brief and fleeting. Savor every taste of college football, even the stuff that tastes like old sushi that was made by a white person. Here is what's happening in the Pac-12 today.

All Times are Pacific

Bye Weeks: Oregon, California, Colorado, Arizona. The Ducks and Bears each get a week off to prepare to score points, points, points (and more points) in their meeting in Eugene next week. Colorado was given a default bye last week after their game with Fresno State was postponed and will now get this week off meaning the Buffs will have three weeks of rest in between their games against Central Arkansas on Sept. 7 and Oregon State on Sept. 28. Arizona has a nice bye week set up as they refocus following the end of non-conference play and get set for a huge conference opener against Washington in Seattle next week. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Washington basically has the week off too...

Idaho State at #17 Washington (-50), 12:00 PM on Pac-12 Network

Can Washington hit the over by themselves? Will Keith Price throw an incompletion? Will Bishop Sankey hit 200 yards by halftime? Find out at noon on Pac-12 Network! Make no mistake about it, this game will be a joke and it's not worth your attention. Washington is a borderline top 10 team getting a nice cupcake game to wrap up a tough non-conference schedule. Idaho State by contrast is...wait, they're 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by a combined score of 69-17! Wow, break up the Bengals, we could have an Eastern Washington-Oregon State situation here!

Oh wait, those two wins are over Division II Dixie State and Western State (which yields no results on Google, it's probably a school located in Kandahar). Upon examining ISU's 2012 schedule, you will find that the Bengals went 1-10 and surrendered 70+ points four times and held an NCAA opponent under 50 points exactly once. So yeah, Idaho State sucks and they're going to get slaughtered which means the only competition here is the point spread. 50 points is a lot but Washington has a top 10 offense and Idaho State by the looks of things has one of the worst defenses ever assembled. I'll go ahead and lock up the Huskies 70-3.

Utah State at USC (-6.5), 12:30 PM on ABC

As much as most of the college football media loves to poke fun at this week's set of games this one might actually be pretty good. Utah State comes in hot at 2-1 following blowout wins over Weber State and Air Force. The Aggies could very easily be 3-0 as they held a nine point second half lead on the road against Utah in week one but lost a heart breaker. Utah State is eighth in the nation in scoring offense at 49.3 points per game and has done it with star power and balance. Junior QB Chuckie Keeton emerged as a bonafide star in college football last year and has put together one of the nation's most ridiculous stat lines through three games in 2013. Keeton has completed 82 of 105 passes (78.1%) for 923 yards and 12 touchdowns with only one interception. As great a passer as he is, Keeton might be a better runner with 187 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. That is good for a 6.68 yards per carry average that puts him 13th among all quarterbacks.The Aggies have had stable production from three tailbacks in addition to Keeton that have allowed the Aggies to stay ahead of schedule and face short third downs. As a result the Aggies are converting on better than 65% of their 3rd down attempts, making it very difficult for opposing defenses to get them off the field.

USC will try to counter Keeton with the nation's number two run defense (only 43 yards per game surrendered on the ground). We know USC is great up front as they have dominated opposing offensive lines all season but what we don't know is if the secondary is all that good or not. The Trojans have not yet faced a QB anywhere near the caliber of Keeton and they simply have not seen a top quality passer who can hit open receivers since the UCLA game last year. The Trojans secondary has tightened things up the last couple weeks but they allowed a lot of open receivers in week one against Hawaii but it didn't hurt them as Hawaii QB Taylor Graham had a dreadful game. Even if the USC secondary holds up, Keeton is a good enough passer to throw to covered receivers and place the ball perfectly where only his guy can get it. Because of that, it is going to be critical for USC's defensive line to get pressure on Keeton and knock him out of rhythm. As great as Keeton is, he won't be able to throw effectively if he is not getting room in the pocket to step into his throws or if he is lying on his back. USC will need to affect Keeton's ability to stand and throw in the pocket but do it without losing containment and allowing him to scramble for first downs. This is certainly a tall order but if any defense has the ability to pull it off, it's the Trojans.

As for the USC offense, well I don't really know what to expect. They were dreadful for two weeks and then looked great seven days ago. Settling on just one QB in Cody Kessler was a smart move as Kessler played with way more confidence last week and his teammates seemed to play better with the uncertainty at QB lifted. Now we must find out if Kessler and this reinvigorated USC offense can remain productive or if last week was a flash in the pan. Utah State is a step up in competition from Boston College but they have holes on defense. The Aggies were shredded by Travis Wilson of Utah in week one particularly by deep throws but their two opponents since, triple-option team Air Force and FCS Weber State, didn't have the ability to exploit those holes.

I'm still not sold on Kessler and I need to see him remain effective over the course of several weeks before I believe in him. That being said, I think USC's cast of receivers can run open on the Aggies and Kessler will just need to throw competent passes to keep the chains moving. This feels like a close game to me and one where USC fans are breathing heavily well into the second half but I think USC's defense can hold down Keeton for the most part while getting just enough big plays on offense to win. I do like the points in this game but I'll take USC to win 28-24.

 #23 Arizona State at #5 Stanford (-6.5), 4:00 PM on Fox

Tonight we can finally welcome Stanford to the 2013 college football season as the Cardinal will no longer be able to hold back and play possum against the Sun Devils. If you watched a second of Stanford's breezy wins over San Jose State and Army it was pretty evident that the coaches were holding back on their game plan. The offense consisted of only a handful of basic plays run from different formations with some slight variations while the defense mostly played base zone defenses and relied on their athletes to win battles. Stanford's athletes could very well be the difference tonight again but the Cardinal will need more than that to knock of the Sun Devils.

ASU will present an intriguing challenge for Stanford's mammoth offensive line. At first glance, you would think ASU would struggle up front against the Cardinal given their diminutive stature. None of the Sun Devils starters up front are taller than 6'2'' which is almost unheard of but they make up for it in a number of ways. ASU loves to use two gap principles, meaning they line up their defensive linemen directly in front of the opposing offensive lineman instead of lining them up in the gaps in between the offensive front. One of the advantages of being short up front is having elite movement skills. That allows the ASU D-line to shift and get into what ever hole they need to go to. By using two gap principles, it's almost impossible to have a bad run fit because you aren't leaving any gaps in the O-line unaccounted for. The down side is that it is much easier for an offensive lineman to get his hands on a defender and drive block him backwards if the defender is lined up right in front of him. What you will probably see happen is ASU calling a lot of run blitzes and trying to attack the line of scrimmage with their linebackers to try to create a schematic advantage that can overcome the physical advantage that Stanford possesses. This means that there will be play action pass opportunities and open receivers available down the middle of the field.

Stanford has been content to run the ball right at the two over matched defenses they have faced so far but doing that again might be playing right into the Devils' hands. Arizona State did struggle against the run last week but that was mostly due to being unable to contain Wisconsin's explosive tailback Melvin Gordon. Frequently throughout the Wisconsin game, the ASU defense had angles and proper containment on Gordon but he simply beat those angles with his athleticism and caused a lot of missed tackles. All due respect to Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson but they do not have the type of raw ability that Gordon has. Stanford's backs are more like Wisconsin's other quality tailback James White. White is a very good runner but he also does not possess Gordon's elite athleticism and made almost no impact on last week's game thanks to ASU's defense. the Wisconsin match up is almost perfect practice for ASU as the Badgers also have a very big and physical offensive line and an offensive scheme mostly based on a power running attack. ASU was able to use its athleticism up front against the Badgers and outmaneuver them; they just might be able to do the same to the Cardinal.

There are two key differences for Stanford that will help them maintain an advantage where Wisconsin could not. The Badgers offensive line may be comparable to Stanford in terms of sheer size and physical playing style however, Stanford's linemen are far more athletic. Stanford's front has the foot speed to match ASU and can keep them from slanting, twisting, and stunting into those holes. Also, Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is a far better player than Wisconsin's Joel Stave. There were opportunities to throw in behind the ASU linebackers last week but Stave just wasn't good enough to deliver the ball. If Stanford can push back Will Sutton and company and force ASU's linebackers to creep up, Hogan can deliver the ball on play action and find big passing plays on first and second down.

As for the Sun Devil offense against the great Stanford defense, it's no secret ASU will be in tough. On the surface it seemed like ASU had a good game offensively against the Badgers as Taylor Kelly threw for 352 yards and Marion Grice scored four touchdowns. However, Kelly had to attempt 51 passes to hit that yardage mark while Grice was held to just 3.8 yards per attempt. Despite a distinct advantage in team speed, the Sun Devils struggled to stretch the field and especially with their usually great zone read. Wisconsin attacked ASU's running backs and forced Kelly to keep the ball but Kelly wasn't able to outrun Wisconsin's relatively slow linebackers. The one player who did have a great game with no caveats was WR Jaelen Strong who used his athleticism and his big body to over power Wisconsin's corners and make a couple back shoulder grabs in some critical spots late in the game. However, Stanford has arguably the most physical corners in the nation and they will be able to match up better with Strong than anyone else the Sun Devils will face this year.

At the end of the day, I think the Sun Devils defense can play the Stanford offense essentially to a draw but I just don't see how ASU's offense can keep up. I think this game stays relatively close for awhile but at some point, Stanford is going to put together a couple drives in the second half and ASU just won't be able to answer. I think Stanford dominates in the fourth quarter and ends up winning more comfortably than you might expect, 30-17.

Oregon State (-8) at San Diego State, 4:30 PM on CBS Sports Network

The Beavers will look to keep rolling offensively and they just might get a defensive match up they can actually win. The Aztecs of San Diego State have been pitiful this year as they are one of only nine teams to be ranked 100th or worse nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Aztecs are coming off a bye which is always great but before that week off they got shellacked by Ohio State and not only lost to FCS Eastern Illinois but were blown out.

Even when SDSU has been good their games have been poorly attended. A sparse crowd in an NFL stadium sitting far away from the field means there is no intimidation factor for OSU on the road this week at all. The Beavers should roll all over the Aztecs this week and the fact that this line is only at eight is stealing money. I know the Beavers have struggled defensively this year but SDSU can't move the ball on anyone. The only compelling story for this game is the amount of yards Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks can pile up in their ongoing quest to rewrite the Beavers record book. I think the Beavers will crush the Aztecs, 52-21.

 Utah at BYU (-7), 7:15 PM on ESPN2

College football's best named and most underrated rivalry continues tonight in Provo as the Utes and Cougars look to define their seasons in the 95th Holy War. There was already plenty of fresh fire for this confrontation following the ending of last year's game. Even more vitriol was added to this clash after a Utah fan acquired photos of a BYU player partying in Las Vegas (and therefore violating BYU's strict honor code) and used them to get the player suspended for five games. Adding to the fire is the fact that both teams are very good but are saddled with difficult schedules that will make six wins a challenge. Simply put, the difference between making and missing a bowl game could come down to this game for both teams.

BYU is a tough team to figure out. The Cougars have only played two games this year and looked like complete opposites in both. BYU opened on the road against Virginia and slogged their way to a sloppy 19-16 loss (by the way that same Virginia team gave up 59 points the following week). Then the Cougars returned home to face then #15 Texas and opened up a can whoop ass on the Longhorns with 550 rushing yards (yes that is accurate) in a 40-21 win. So what offense will show up following a bye week against the Utes? Will BYU look disjointed and struggle to execute like they did against Virginia? Or will BYU's run game become a traveling road show and produce the way it did against Texas?

BYU is definitely not as good as the Texas game suggests. Texas has one of the worst defenses in the nation and stupidly used five and six man defensive fronts against the Cougars and missed at least 20 tackles. I also don't think the Cougars are as bad as they showed against Virginia. The truth of BYU's offense lies somewhere in the middle however, I think their passing offense is bad regardless. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is one of the best running quarterbacks in college football thanks in large part to a 259 yard outing against Texas. Unfortunately for him "running quarterback" is a perfect descriptor of him because he is one of the worst passers in college football. Hill is currently completing 33% of his passes (22/66) for just one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. His passer efficiency rating is 70.96 which puts him outside the top 100 most efficient quarterbacks by about 30 points. It's not like this is the result of a tiny sample size either since Hill is averaging 33 pass attempts per game.

It is imperative therefore for Utah's stout defensive line, the strength of their team aside from QB Travis Wilson to stop BYU's run game and force Hill to win this game with his arm. If Utah can stop BYU on the ground the battle will not be instantly won as they also must account for wide receiver Cody Hoffman. Hoffman caught 100 passes for 1248 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and is expected to be one of the top wide receivers in the upcoming NFL draft. Hoffman missed the opening game with a hamstring injury but returned against Texas. With Hill struggling and BYU running the ball with such ease, Hoffman only managed two catches. With two weeks of rest since that Texas game, Hoffman should be back to 100% and that spells trouble for Utah. Utah may force Hill to go to the air but Hoffman is good enough to allow BYU's offense to turn into "throw it up 40 yards for Cody and see what happens." It is imperative that Utah double covers Hoffman at all times in addition to winning at the line of scrimmage.

As for when Utah has the ball, they might need a slightly different game plan than what they used against Oregon State last week. Travis Wilson should still be able to find open receivers down field but running the ball will be a challenge. BYU has one of the stingiest run defenses in the nation, allowing less than three yards per carry this season against two decent running teams. BYU's great performance against the run is certainly no fluke either as the Cougars dominated up front last year allowing 2.74 yards per carry for the season while allowing only five rushing touchdowns. BYU has a very athletic group of linebackers led by All-American and future first round pick Kyle Van Noy. Van Noy presents a unique challenge because he can rush the passer, drop into coverage, spy the QB, or track down the running back and do it all at an elite level. The Cougars will line him up at all four linebacker positions in their 3-4 alignment making him very difficult to stop.

Normally, teams will use a particular player at all four spots as strictly a pass rusher and they move him around to try to confuse the offensive line and make it difficult to adjust their blocking scheme. Utah will have to find Van Noy before every play but that is only half the battle as they must then figure out what he's going to do. You can adjust your blocking scheme and give extra help to the offensive lineman assigned to Van Noy but that is potentially going to open up holes elsewhere in the defense particularly if Van Noy isn't rushing the passer on a given play.

Once this game gets underway and the two teams and fan bases can take their anger out on each other, I expect to see a great game. Both offenses will likely be forced to play one dimensionally as BYU will struggle to throw the ball and Utah will have issues on the ground. I'm really tempted to go with BYU simply because the Cougars are coming off a bye while Utah just played an emotionally draining overtime game. Then again I do think Utah is the better team and if this game is close in the fourth, the team that can get big pass plays to flip field position and get into scoring range always has an advantage. I expect to see a pretty low scoring game and one where Travis Wilson continues to build his star by leading a couple big drives in the 4th quarter of a 27-24 Utah victory.

Idaho at Washington State (-31), 7:30 PM on Pac-12 Network (regional broadcast)

Oregon State's opponent is one of nine teams ranked in the triple digits for both scoring offense and scoring defense and coincidentally, Washington State's foe is another such team. After a an easy game against FCS cupcake Southern Utah, Wazzou gets another easy outing against one of the FBS' worst. It feels weird to say this about the Cougars given how bad the program has been for the last decade but if they show up they should win big. Connor Halliday finally got on track and took care of the ball last week and I want to see if he can keep that going and build some momentum and confidence for himself as the Cougars head into the meat of their schedule.

The Cougars defense has been great this year as they lead the nation in pass defense and are one of only four teams that hasn't allowed a passing touchdown heading into today. The Cougars have been solid against the run as well allowing just 4.16 yards per carry which combined with their great pass defense puts them at 11th in the nation in total defense. The Cougs should be great again facing an Idaho offense that simply can't match up with them. There is no way Idaho will be able to block Wazzou's front and their receivers simply do not possess the athleticism to get open against their great secondary. I probably won't watch this one and neither will anyone who isn't a Wazzou fan but I will go ahead and take the Cougars to cover and win 45-7.

New Mexico State at #13 UCLA (-42.5), 7:30 PM on Pac-12 Network

To complete the trifecta of Pac-12 opponents ranked 100th or worse in scoring offense and scoring defense, UCLA returns home from its epic comeback win over Nebraska to face the lowly Aggies. This is the first Bruins home game since Nick Pasquale's death so there should be a powerful and touching tribute and moment of silence to him before the game. Once UCLA moves on from the emotions of the pregame ceremony, they will stomp the Aggies. Simply put, NMSU does not have a single advantage over UCLA in any personnel match up and the Bruins should score at will while stifling the Aggies' offense.

UCLA is a great team and one without any major flaws. I'm starting to reach "UCLA minus anything" territory and I'm going to start today. The Bruins win big in this one, 59-6.

Last Week Against the Spread: 6-4

Last Week Straight Up: 9-1

This Season Against the Spread: 18-11

This Season Straight up: 24-5

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