Pac-12 moves to 3-0 as Trojans (barely) bounce ‘Huskers

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To say that the Pac-12 has seen a successful start to the 2014-15 postseason would be significant understatement.

Utah kicked off the conference’s bowl season with a win over Colorado State Dec. 20.  Arizona State followed that up with a win over Duke earlier Saturday.  Next up was USC, and the Trojans didn’t disappoint.  Barely.

After taking a seven-point lead into halftime, USC (9-4) stretched its lead to 18 points at one point before hanging on for dear life and heading home with a 45-42 win over Nebraska (9-4) in the Holiday Bowl.  With 4:03 left in the third quarter, the Trojans’ lead was a seemingly comfortable 45-27; the Cornhuskers, led by interim head coach Barney Cotton, did not go quietly into the San Diego night, however.

A 65-yard Tommie Armstrong touchdown pass late in the third quarter and an Armstrong 15-yard touchdown run — and two-point conversion — with 6:52 remaining cut the Trojans’ lead to 45-42.  Unfortunately, at least as far as the ‘Huskers are concerned, a failed fourth-down attempt ended their second-to-last drive at the Trojans 30-yard line with 2:31 remaining.  Cotton, likely rightly so, eschewed what would’ve been a 47-/48-yard field goal attempt that would’ve tied the game if successful; kicker Drew Brown‘s long make this season was 44 yards, and he was 2-of-6 from 40-49 yards overall.

The Trojans were forced to punt on their subsequent possession and the Cornhuskers got the ball at their own 32-yard line with :17 seconds remaining.  A Hail Mary on a play that began at the Nebraska 44-yard line was knocked away.

Explosive plays on both offense and special teams played a pivotal role in the Trojans’ second consecutive bowl win and sixth in their last seven — or at least stretching out the lead far enough that they could ultimately hang on.

Adoree’ Jackson opened up the scoring for the Trojans by returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, then followed that up with a third-quarter receiving touchdown that covered 71 yards.  Four minutes after the latter score, Buck Allen went 44 yards for a score that pushed USC to a 38-24 lead.

Jackson, a true freshman, was named the Player of the Game after accounting for 204 all-purpose yards while also putting in time at cornerback.

Cody Kessler, who announced after the win that he’ll be returning for his senior season,passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns in the win.  It was his seventh 300-yard game of the season.  Armstrong, meanwhile, passed for a career-high 381 yards and three touchdowns.  The performance marked the first time Armstrong has eclipsed 300 yards in a single game.

Hit total offense output of 422 yards set a Nebraska bowl record, as did his passing yardage.

The two teams combined for 1,040 yards of offense, 525 for the Cornhuskers and 515 for the Trojans.  USC also tied a Holiday Bowl record with 12 penalties.

With the Trojans’ win, the Pac-12 is the only conference that’s played more than one bowl game that’s undefeated.  The SEC is 1-0 after playing its first postseason game Saturday, while the Big 12 won’t play its first bowl game until Monday afternoon (West Virginia vs. Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl).

The Big Ten, meanwhile, saw its mark dip to 2-2, although, given the fact that many thought the league could toss-up a doughnut as all 10 conference members were/are underdogs, that’s quite the positive start.

No. 6 Oregon clinches Pac-12 North title with win over Arizona

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Justin Herbert stuck around his hometown school for one more season in order to deliver on a few promises and lead Oregon back to conference and, hopefully, national glory. The senior quarterback took a step in that direction on Saturday night in Eugene, helping the No. 6 Ducks thump Arizona 34-6 and lock up the Pac-12 North title in the process.

It was a wire-to-wire victory too, with the home side delighting the Autzen Stadium crowd with a 73 yard touchdown reception by Johnny Johnson III on just the second snap of the ball game thanks to a busted coverage. That was one of four scoring tosses for Herbert, who finished with 333 yards through the air and an interception off a tipped pass in what was his penultimate game at the stadium just a few miles from his childhood home.

While that strike to Johnson was a heck of a way to get the game going, it was another Johnson, Penn State transfer Juwan, who led the team in receiving (93 yards) and had the highlight-reel throw from the potential first-rounder off a lovely reverse flea-flicker he took into the end zone.

UO’s defense also continued their strong run of results in netting six sacks, nine tackles for loss and allowing just five third down conversions while keeping the Wildcats under 250 yards of total offense.

Grant Gunnell actually got the start at quarterback for Arizona but threw for just 82 yards and was mostly sitting on the sidelines during the second and third quarters. That was the time for UO’s normal tormentor in Khalil Tate, who failed to get much of anything going despite some past performances full of big numbers.

While it was going to be a tough task no matter what to knock off a top 10 team at home, the ‘Cats now face an even more difficult task of beating both No. 7 Utah and Arizona State in their remaining two games or risk missing a bowl game for the second straight year under Kevin Sumlin.

A postseason berth isn’t something for the Ducks to worry about as they clinch their first division since 2014 and will be ticketed to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 title game against what they hope is a College Football Playoff quarterfinal against a similarly red-hot Utes team. Oregon has won nine in a row since their season-opening loss to Auburn and outside of perhaps Ohio State, Clemson or LSU, there are few teams in the country playing better football than this one.

That’s just what Herbert and his fellow stars were hoping to do in returning for one last hurrah and they’re certainly living up to those expectations with their play so far in 2019.

No. 6 Oregon strikes fast in grabbing halftime lead over Arizona

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There are a wide variety of things you could call ‘tone-setting’ plays in college football and it’s safe to say that No. 6 Oregon scoring a long touchdown on the second offensive snap of the game would qualify as one as they look to clinch a division title on Saturday night.

The Ducks jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead over visiting Arizona in a rather convincing effort at Autzen Stadium as they continue to look impressive in the beauty contest that is the College Football Playoff race at this point.

A Wildcats coverage bust led to that initial score, as Johnny Johnson III raced 73 yards to pay dirt to showcase right from the get-go that things were clicking on all cylinders offensively. Oregon QB Justin Herbert wound up at the break with 218 yards and tossed another touchdown off a nifty reverse flea-flicker right into the waiting arms of Juwan Johnson from 53 yards out.

The Ducks didn’t miss All-America-caliber left tackle Penei Sewell as a result with the mammoth offensive lineman sitting out the first two series for what school officials said was being late to a meeting. Given that the first of those drives lasted all of two plays and the second was a 3-and-out, he certainly lucked out despite the tardiness.

Things didn’t go so well for WR Mycah Pittman. The freshman has been one of the team’s top options since getting healthy but it sure looked like he might not return the rest of the regular season after suffering from a horrible looking injury to his wrist/forearm. He was carted off the field after being looked at by trainers and while he won’t be missed this game the way the two Johnsons are playing, is a long term injury worth monitoring for sure.

As for Arizona, Grant Gunnell started at quarterback (4-of-6, 28 yards) but was eventually replaced by Khalil Tate as things wore on in the second quarter. The latter did seem to provide some spark in helping move the ball down the field but the end result was just a pair of field goals and a decent deficit to overcome after the break.

Keep in mind that the Wildcats are hoping to even their record on the year at 5-5 and remain in the running for a bowl game while Oregon will no doubt be looking for style points in the second half to impress the Selection Committee and lock up the Pac-12 North title at the same time.

No. 10 Oklahoma mounts program-record 25-point comeback to snap No. 13 Baylor’s 11-game winning streak

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The offense was scoring at will and the defense was making life hell for Jalen Hurts, and for a time No. 13 Baylor seemed like a safe bet to rocket up the rankings, leading No. 10 Oklahoma 28-3 early in the second quarter on Saturday night. But Oklahoma’s offense, like a Ferrari so many times under head coach Lincoln Riley, instead became a tank, plowing right through the Bears’ defense with drive after drive after drive.

In fact, after trailing by 25, Oklahoma ran 72 plays for 351 yards while its defense pitched a second-half shoutout, and the Sooners came back to win, 34-31. The 25-point rally is the largest in Oklahoma history.

Playing without All-American wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, the Sooners leaned on Hurts and the running game, overcoming three Hurts turnovers in the process, as the quarterback threw for 297 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 114 more. Most importantly, the Sooners snapped the ball 95 times and held the ball for 40:46, limiting Baylor to just 16 plays after halftime.

Oklahoma forced a Baylor punt to open the game and, taking over at their own 47, quickly moved into the red zone, but Hurts was sacked on a 3rd-and-5 and the Sooners settled for a 39-yard Gabe Brkic field goal.

Charlie Brewer had Denzel Mims streaking wide open for what would have been a 78-yard touchdown on the first play of the ensuing drive, but skipped the ball to him. It didn’t matter. He hit Mims for 11 yards on the next snap, kicking off a 78-yard touchdown drive that Brewer himself capped with a 2-yard keeper.

After forcing one of the rarer sights in college football — an Oklahoma three-and-out — Baylor went up 14-3 on a 30-yard connection that missed earlier, as Mims got about as open as a receiver can get on a 30-yard fade route.

Facing an uncharacteristic 14-3 deficit, Oklahoma added to its own misery with a pair of Hurts turnovers. The first came deep in his own territory, when the quarterback placed the ball on the ground in an attempt to steady himself and simply lost the ball, which Terrel Bernard recovered for Baylor at the OU 27. Brewer kept for 23 yards on the final play of the first quarter, then added the final four on the first snap of the second.

On Oklahoma’s next possession, the Sooners reached the Baylor 36 when Grayland Arnold stepped in front of a Hurts pass and returned it 71 yards to the OU 9, where he was finally tackled by Hurts himself. A second Brewer-to-Mims scoring strike put Baylor up 28-3 at the 11:02 mark of the second quarter, and putting the Sooners on the wrong end of a 48-3 run dating back to the fourth quarter of the Iowa State game.

Oklahoma finally stopped the bleeding with an un-OU like 14-play, 75-yard, near 6-minute drive, one that was extended when a 4th-and-5 incompletion at the Bears’ 33 was wiped away due to defensive holding by Baylor’s Jameson Houston. Hurts’ 5-yard pass to Austin Stogner made the score 28-10 with 5:06 left in the first half.

Baylor answered the Sooners’ prolonged drive with one of its own, moving 61 yards in 13 plays, but stalling at the the OU 11 as the Bears settled for a 28-yard John Mayers field goal with three seconds left before halftime.

Oklahoma accepted the ball to open the second half and rumbled down the field, moving 74 yards in a deliberate 12 plays, consuming 5:44 of clock, as Stogner’s second short touchdown catch cut the deficit to 31-17.

Baylor’s offense picked up right where it left off as JaMycal Hasty broke free for a 32-yard run into Sooner territory, but he forced the ball out of his own hands and OU’s Pat Fields grabbed the bouncing pigskin, giving the Sooners’ their first takeaway since their win over Texas Tech way back on Sept. 28. Led largely by the ground game, and the ground game led largely by Hurts, Oklahoma moved all the way to the Baylor 4 on a 2nd-and-goal play when Baylor’s James Lynch knocked the ball from Hurts’ hands and recovered it in the end zone, keeping the score at 31-17 with three Hurts turnovers serving as the difference.

The Bears, though, went three-and-out and Oklahoma mounted another long drive, this time going 90 yards over 13 plays and 4:59, and a 19-yard grab by Theo Wease pulled OU within 31-24.

When Baylor’s offense stepped on the field at its own 22 after the ensuing kickoff, the Bears had run all of four second half plays to Oklahoma’s 36, gaining 38 yards to OU’s 215. Baylor desperately needed a drive and they didn’t get one, as a Tyquan Thornton drop on 3rd-and-9 doomed the Bears to a second consecutive three-and-out.

Oklahoma took over at its own 23, but by that point it didn’t matter where the Sooners got the ball. The drive could have started in Norman and Baylor’s once-fierce, now-gassed defense still wouldn’t have stopped them. This time, OU went 77 yards over 13 snaps and 6:01, tying the game with 5:25 to play on a 2-yard lob from Hurts to Brayden Willis (plus a Brkic PAT).

Needing a drive even more than they did last time, Baylor got one first down (thanks to pass interference against Mims) but could not get another as Brewer threw incomplete on 2nd- and 3rd-and-11 and Oklahoma, which trailed 28-3 early in the second quarter, took the ball at their own 27 with 4:15 to play and a chance to take the lead. Oklahoma got its lead, but it wasn’t a knockout blow. This drive totaled just eight plays and 59 yards, stalling at the Baylor 14 and resulting in a 31-yard Brkic field goal, the true freshman’s 12th make in as many tries as a Sooner, to put Oklahoma back in front for the first time since leading 3-0 early in the first quarter.

Trailing 34-31 with 1:45 to go, Baylor quickly moved to the Oklahoma 40, but Brewer was nearly intercepted by Sooner linebacker Nic Bonitto on 2nd-and-10 and then was intercepted by Bonitto on 3rd-and-10, completing the second half shutout and the record comeback.

With the loss, Baylor’s 11-game winning streak and its surprise College Football Playoff hopes are now history, but the Bears (9-1, 6-1 Big 12) can still forge a rematch with OU (9-1, 6-1 Big 12) in the Big 12 Championship.

UCLA becomes No. 7 Utah’s latest victim as Utes continue to roll in Pac-12 play

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We may not find out for a while whether or not Kyle Whittingham was the one who called for a fake punt from inside his own 25 yard line, but it certainly summed up No. 7 Utah’s night against UCLA that the eventual turnover on downs resulted in no harm at all and actually worked out in the Utes’ favor six plays later.

Such has been life for most of the past month for the most dominant team West of the Mississippi as Utah trounced the Baby Bruins 49-3 on Saturday night in a throughly overwhelming outing in Salt Lake City.

Outside of that lone special teams gaffe, things otherwise went swimmingly for the home squad. QB Tyler Huntley was 14-of-18 for 335 yards and two scores through the air while rushing for another score in an impressive outing for the senior. Fellow member of the backfield Zach Moss wasn’t too shabby either with 127 yards on just 17 carries to go along with the tailback’s two trips into the end zone and another 73 yards receiving.

That one-two punch was good for the Utes… but perhaps the team’s defense was even better on the night as they forced five turnovers, held UCLA under four yards a play and recorded five sacks. The Bruins mounted seven dries inside their opponent’s 40 yard line and yet game away with just three points. Those giveaways played a role but so too did the tenacious tackling and ability to bend a little yet not come anywhere close to breaking.

As you can expect, that resulted in a very forgettable game for what had been one of the more improved teams in the conference the past month or so. QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a rough outing in particular with 219 yards passing but a pair of both picks and fumbles, including more than one in the red zone. RB Joshua Kelley managed 78 yards on the ground, which was impressive given what the Utes were allowing coming in but that was about it.

In addition to stifling late season momentum under Chip Kelly and putting UCLA’s bowl hopes on thin ice,  the final score also took the Bruins’ hopes of somehow winning the Pac-12 South out of their hands. Utah hasn’t quite clinched the division yet due to their tie-breaker loss to USC earlier in the year but they remain firmly pointed at a date in Santa Clara against fellow one-loss contender No. 6 Oregon for the conference title.

Who knows, given Tua Tagovailoa’s injury for No. 5 Alabama, it’s possible that the Utes even move up a spot or two in the rankings as well. They certainly will have earned it the way they’re are playing as they remain the buzzsaw nobody wants to face at the moment given how well things are going on both sides of the ball.