The Pac-12 was supposed to be an offensive conference. Filled with Heisman candidates across the board and some of the nation’s best offensive minds on the sidelines, one would think that the Pac-12 would provide us with high-scoring affairs left and right. This has not been the case, as defense has taken things over all the way from the Pacific Northwest down to the Valley of the Sun.
In Oregon, where points were supposed to be scored by the second last week against Arizona, the Ducks shut out the Wildcats 49-0 after a 13-0 first half. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s forgotten unit forced five turnovers, including two pick-sixes and stopped Arizona on all six of these trips to the red zone. The 22nd ranked Wildcats had scored over 56 points in their previous two games and had gained the fourth most yards of any offense in the nation heading into their matchup with the Ducks. Additionally, points had been easy to find in the first three meetings between these programs of Chip Kelly’s tenure as Oregon head coach, with combined scores of 85, 77 and 87 since 2009.
Earlier in the day, defense was also a major topic of conversation at the Rose Bowl. The Oregon State unit that had held Wisconsin to just seven points and star running back Montee Ball to 61 rushing yards in a 10-7 victory in their first game of the year, stopped a UCLA offense that had scored over 36 points in their first three games and 37 against the “black-shirts” of Nebraska. Heisman contender and the nation’s leading rusher heading into the game, Jonathan Franklin, could not getting anything done on the ground and finished with just 45 yards.
Across town and in a stadium filled with cardinal and gold, USC’s defense showed why they are the team’s true driving force in a victory over Cal. With the team’s three Heisman candidates, Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, being a huge disappointment thus far, the defense has stepped things up. When Barkley threw for just 192-yards and was intercepted twice on Saturday versus Cal, the Trojans' defense prevented the Bears from reaching the end zone.
Which Pac-12 defense has been the most impressive thus far?
The week before, when Southern California was flying high as favorites for the BCS National Championship Game and Barkley had his name atop most Heisman lists, Stanford upset the Trojans 21-14 at “The Farm.”
In these two programs' last three matchups, when it was Andrew Luck versus Barkley, Stanford won much more offensively dominated competitions by scores of 55-21, 37-35 and 56-48 in triple-overtime. This time around was very different, as the USC defenders stopped Stanford’s new quarterback Josh Nunes, but running back Stephan Taylor took over with 213 total yards and two touchdowns. However, Taylor did not make headlines the next day, as the Stanford defense forced three turnovers, prevented Barkley from throwing a touchdown and held the Trojans’ top rusher to just 37 yards.
Defense in the Pac-12 has been great in the past, but it was not supposed to be its defining feature in 2012. Although it may be too early to judge how the rest of conference play will turn out, do not be surprised if the Pac-12 resembles the SEC much more than itself from previous years.