Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.

Washington names Michael Penix Jr. starting QB for opener

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — Washington is going with Michael Penix Jr. as its starting quarterback for the season opener against Kent State, coach Kalen DeBoer said.

Penix, a transfer from Indiana, had been considered the leader for most of the offseason in the competition with Dylan Morris and Sam Huard.

“He’s just had a really great camp and he’s been consistent from the time spring ball started to where he’s at now,” DeBoer said. “He’s done a great job earning it.”

Penix, who is a junior in eligibility, had an injury-filled career at Indiana before deciding to transfer after last season.

Penix knows DeBoer’s system the best after having played for him in 2019 with the Hoosiers. As a freshman, Penix threw for 10 touchdowns in just six games before injuries took over. Penix has never played more than six games in a season.

“I just wanted to be somewhere where I felt like I’d be comfortable and be able to become a better person and become a better player, and I felt like this was definitely a spot,” Penix said. “Being under coach DeBoer once already I know some of the things that he brought to the table and the way he wants things to run and I wanted to be a part of that.”

DeBoer said Morris would be the primary backup with Huard serving as the third-string QB. Morris started 15 games the past two seasons, but got the blame for an offense that underperformed last season.

Huard arrived at Washington as a highly touted recruit with significant family ties to the program. He made his first career start against Washington State in the Apple Cup last season and struggled.

Washington QB competition getting started with spring ball

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SEATTLE – The first spring with Kalen DeBoer in charge of the Huskies is all about the quarterback and what direction Washington will go heading into the fall with three players competing for the job.

The program incumbents are two-year starter Dylan Morris and highly touted freshman Sam Huard, whose one start last season came in the Apple Cup against rival Washington State.

But Washington also added former Indiana starter Michael Penix Jr. in the offseason, giving the Huskies plenty of options to look at during spring workouts.

The difficulty is splitting up the reps during the limited time to gauge if there’s a leader going into the summer.

“That’s where it gets hard is now the reps are diminished among three guys. That’s the hard part,” DeBoer said. “But I know this, we’re just going to pour everything into trying to coach these guys up. That’s just how I’ve always done it and it will shake itself out.”

Penix could be the leader because of what happened three years ago when he was the QB at Indiana and DeBoer was his offensive coordinator. Penix started six games that season and the Hoosiers were 5-1. His numbers weren’t eyepopping but they were solid enough – 1,394 yards passing, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions – to show he had a solid grasp of the system.

Penix and DeBoer were together for only one season before DeBoer returned to Fresno State to become the head coach of the Bulldogs. But the relationship created was strong enough that Penix chose Washington over other suitors when he decided to transfer.

“Coach DeBoer already being with me at Indiana in 2019, I just felt like we had a good connection,” Penix said Friday after the second of Washington’s spring practices. “I love the offense that he brought over there for us and we continued to run that offense, so I felt like that was something I wanted to be a part of.”

The issue with Penix has been health. He’s never played more than six games in a season due to injuries.

Morris was the incumbent last season for the Huskies but he regressed from what he showed during the 2020 season and was eventually benched. Morris threw for nearly 2,500 yards in 11 games last season but also had just 14 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and a knack for making a mistake at the wrong time.

“Obviously, not the way anybody wanted it to go. But it was definitely eye-opening and a big learning lesson for me as a quarterback and as a man,” Morris said. “Just continuing to deal with some hard things and try to look that adversity in the eyes and just go attack it. And then leading into this season a lot of things I got to work on as a player.”

Huard is the most highly regarded of the trio. He was one of the top prep QBs in the country before his arrival at Washington and his father Damon and uncle Brock were former quarterbacks for the Huskies.

Huard’s only start last season was a rough introduction to college football, being thrust into the starting role for the Apple Cup while the program was in turmoil following the suspension and eventual firing of head coach Jimmy Lake.

While the blowout loss to Washington State was painful, Huard said he learned from the experience and the new offensive system plays more to his strengths as a passer.

“Competition is only going to bring the best out of me and we’re going to push each other to get the best out of each other,” Huard said. “That’s the way it goes.”

DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb intend to split reps evenly to start spring ball before potentially making decisions on a hierarchy leading into the summer. A decision on the starter probably won’t be made until August.

“You’ve got to try to create the most equal environment that you can and see who really rises to the top,” Grubb said. “And that doesn’t mean just reps. It means opportunities in scheme, opportunities in field position. So there’s a lot of thought that goes into it.”