First & 20: UCLA, USC rebound after fall from grace

Anthony Gimino

October 26, 2015 at 9:58 am.

October 24, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws against the Utah Utes during the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

October 24, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws against the Utah Utes during the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles schools have made a stand.

UCLA and USC, both of which fell from grace after being Top 10 teams earlier this season, were down to their last strike in the Pac-12 race before staying alive last week with nearly identical scores.

The Bruins dispatched 20th-ranked Cal 40-24 on Thursday night, and the Trojans swatted third-ranked and previously unbeaten Utah 42-24 on Saturday.

That tightened the chase in the Pac-12 South. The Utes dropped to 3-1, one game ahead of UCLA, USC and Arizona State. A loss by either of the L.A. schools last week would have signaled time to start packing up the season.

As it is, neither is in position to make a run for the College Football Playoff, but a Pac-12 title — which likely goes through Stanford from the North — is still very much doable.

“When you believe, and you have a team like we do, and you just believe in the family, you can go far with it,” said USC offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers. “We just believe in each other.”

That includes interim head coach Clay Helton, and the Trojans can move past that distraction and settle in to getting more wins behind senior quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and three-way star Adoree’ Jackson. This team’s raw talent is still the envy of everyone in the league.

Speaking of raw talent, UCLA moves on after a 399-yard passing performance from true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. The Bruins, too, talked about belief after their win.

“I don’t think that people understand how hard it is to win a game, and multiple games,” coach Jim Mora said.

“We have had a lot of adversity of with personnel changes. When you work hard and have faith and believe in what you’re doing, good things are going to happen. It’s a message that has to permeate your program.”

Let’s not forget, Utah still leads the South. Its schedule isn’t that formidable — Oregon State, at Washington, at Arizona, UCLA, Colorado. It’s not a stretch to think the Utes could recover from the USC loss and run the table, although looking bad Saturday night damages their playoff hopes.

But Stanford is now the Pac-12’s best hope for a playoff berth. The Cardinal are rolling after an opening loss at Northwestern, and it would be impossible to keep a Stanford team that wins the Pac-12 and is on a 12-game winning streak out of the final four.

The Pac-12 is the only major conference without an unbeaten team. That’s a scenario that those in the league feared — a deep league would cannibalize itself before the postseason. Shoot, it’s not even November.

And the rest of the league might soon regret not putting USC and UCLA on the canvas when it had a chance.

10 things we think we learned in Week 8

1. Ohio State is ready for the stretch run. With J.T. Barrett starting for the first time, the Buckeyes rolled Rutgers 49-7 and will head into November without a quarterback controversy. Ohio State should be at peak efficiency by the time the season is on the line vs. Michigan State and Michigan.

2. Nobody has an easier playoff path than Clemson. The Tigers, coming off a 58-0 win over Miami, play host to Florida State on Nov. 7 and finishes at weakened rival South Carolina before the ACC title game. This looks like 13-0.

3. The airspace will get more crowded above Sun Life Stadium. With Miami suffering its worst-ever loss, 58-0 to Clemson, the anti-Al Golden banners in the sky figure to multiply by the time the Hurricanes return home against Virginia on Nov. 7. There no longer seems a credible way for Golden to survive.

4. Michigan State’s luck will run out. The margin in the Spartans’ 52-26 win over Indiana was deceiving, as this was anybody’s game late in the fourth quarter before MSU finished with a three-touchdown flourish. The Spartans have had trouble putting away teams all season and can’t expect any more gifts from the football gods. #FailToTheVictors

5. We love this season. Georgia Tech’s version of the “Kick Six” — the wild return for a final-play touchdown of a blocked field goal that knocked off unbeaten Florida State — was only the second craziest thing we had seen in seven days. #FailToTheVictors

6. The AAC is fascinating. There are 12 undefeated teams in the FBS, and three — Temple, Houston and Memphis — are in the American Athletic Conference. Houston has the most favorable remaining schedule, which includes a Nov. 14 home game against Memphis. Tom Herman for Coach of the Year?

7. Never change the college overtime system. Critics will say starting every drive on the opponents’ 25-yard line isn’t real football, but, man, is it entertaining. Arkansas-Auburn and Virginia Tech-Duke played four-overtime thrillers on Saturday, and we wouldn’t change a second of it.

8. Alabama needs more explosive plays. The Tide have 33 scrimmage plays of 20-plus yards, an average of 4.125 per game, which ranks 96th nationally. You won’t catch Nick Saban worrying about that. “Look, I don’t like to lose,” he said after a 19-14 win over Tennessee. “So I like to win however we win. And I’m not really particular with how we win.”

9. Baylor must hold its breath. Quarterback Seth Russell suffered a broken bone in his neck Saturday, with no timetable for his return, pending further examination. His replacement is true freshman Jarrett Stidham, and games against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU loom.

10. Utah’s turnover margin was not sustainable. The Utes didn’t rank all that high nationally in any major offensive or defensive category entering last weekend but had been propped up, in part, by a turnover margin of plus 2.0 per game. That flipped around to minus-3 at USC.

5 top Heisman candidates

1. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. A “bad” day for Fournette is 150 yards and a touchdown against Western Kentucky. He still leads the nation in rushing — by 45 yards per game — with an average of 193.1 per game.

2. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. The director of the nation’s second-highest scoring team had the week off. Boykin is second in the country in passing efficiency (180.7 rating), trailing only now-injured Seth Russell of Baylor.

3. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford. He was huge again in Stanford’s rout of Washington, with 300 all-purpose yards. The sophomore has 669 all-purpose yards in the past two games.

4. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor. Caught two more touchdown passes Saturday, giving him 18 in seven games. Eighteen, folks.

5t. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State; Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. They have the skills, the reputation, fine numbers, and they play for playoff contenders … but it’s still a long way to Fournette territory.

5 best Week 9 games

1. Notre Dame at Temple (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET). Totally weird that this is the Game of the Week, but no other game has the same implications for the College Football Playoff and the Group of 5’s spot in the big-bowl lineup. Defense rules.

2. Georgia vs. Florida, in Jacksonville, Fla. (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET). The SEC East is up for grabs in what used to be known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Welcome to the rivalry, Jim McElwain.

3. Stanford at Washington State (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET). It’s the Road Graders vs. the Air Raiders in a battle of the Pac-12’s most extreme offenses. The hot Cougars are the last chance to reel in the Cardinal in the North division.

4. North Carolina at Pitt (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET). After dropping a close opener to South Carolina, UNC has reeled off six consecutive wins. Pitt, with the help of a late fake punt, outlasted Syracuse 23-20 to also move to 6-1. One of these teams, or Duke, will win the ACC Coastal.

5. West Virginia at TCU (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET). If North Carolina-Pitt isn’t what you want, channel surf over to this one to see if West Virginia can finally pull an upset at the end of a four-game stretch against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor. Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s five prospect takeaways for this week. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

5. OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss, 6-5, 305, Jr. (#4 overall prospect/#1 OT): Making his season debut after missing seven games due to an NCAA investigation, Tunsil’s battle against Texas A&M star pass rusher Myles Garrett was about as good as it gets. Other than a holding penalty, the night belonged to Tunsil, who used his long arms and quick, strong hands to routinely lock Garrett up.

4. Jared Goff, Cal, 6-4, 210, Jr. (#3/#1): While outshined by his freshman counterpart, Goff did perform well in completing 32 of 53 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. However, he also appeared uncomfortable at times, misfiring on NFL-type seam routes and fades and boosting his numbers late on relatively easy quick screens.

3. RB Jalen Hurd, Tennessee, 6-2, 230, So. (#7 RB in class of 2018): The sophomore showed not only power but impressive fluidity for a back of his size while averaging 5.1 yards on 18 carries against a stout Alabama defense.

2. QB Josh Rosen, UCLA, 6-4, 208, Fr. (#1 QB in class of 2019): The Bruins lost star RB Paul Perkins to a knee injury in the first half, but Rosen was unfazed, guided scoring drives on eight of UCLA’s first nine possessions. He’s not eligible for the draft until 2018, but certainly has the look of a future first-round pick.

1. RB Derrick Henry, Alabama, 6-2, 242, Jr. (#33/#2): His size and runaway freight train style of running has earned comparisons from scouts to everyone from Brandon Jacobs to LaGarrette Blount. In rushing for 143 yards against Tennessee, he displayed good vision, surprising burst to and though the hole and is a cognizant, physical pass blocker.