The stage is set for a Pac-12 championship play-in game after South-leading Arizona State and UCLA each handled their business against North division competition in Week 12. And when the Sun Devils and Bruins meet in Week 13 at the Rose Bowl, defensive stars are going to decide the outcome—even if it's for much different reasons.
Arizona State's ball-hawking defense capitalized on five Oregon State turnovers, building a 20-0 lead in the first half off takeaways, then slamming the door in the fourth quarter with Robert Nelson's pick-six.
Nelson is quickly establishing himself as arguably the most dangerous defensive back in the Pac-12. His interception returned for a touchdown was his second pick of Oregon State's Sean Mannion and the fifth Nelson's made in the Sun Devils' last five games.
UCLA's offensive innovation vis-a-vis coordinator Noel Mazzone's use of defensive players on the opposite side of the ball was the story of the Bruins' Week 12 defeat of Washington. Linebacker Myles Jack's incredible play at running back is the most interesting subplot percolating in Westwood, Calif.
Will Arizona State's intimidating defensive front have to prepare for Jack's powerful running style? UCLA did, after all, suffer further depletion in its backfield with Malcolm Jones suffering a head injury. His loss compounds the absence of Jordon James that necessitated Jack playing offense.
Jack against Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford has the potential to be a collision straight from the pages of a comic book.
A HEALTHY "MOMBA" IS DANGEROUS
Please excuse the capital letters, but it seems only fitting to commemorate the return of Oregon junior running back De'Anthony Thomas to full strength—followers of his Twitter account, @EATBLACKMOMBA6, get it.
The electrifying Thomas had returned from an ankle injury, but Saturday in Oregon's 44-21 win over Utah was the first time he looked like the Heisman Trophy contender many expected to see this season. He scored on a pass from quarterback Marcus Mariota, but more significant was his 86-yard kickoff return in the third quarter.
Thomas blew the game open with this runback, turning a three-point Ducks advantage into two scores. It was vintage Black Momba.
Washington State Has a Run Game—and Realistic Bowl Aspirations
Three straight losses to Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State by a combined 86 points seriously threatened to extend Washington State's conference-leading bowl-game drought to 10 years. Recharged from a 16-day layoff, Washington State responded to its midseason adversity with a crucial road win Saturday at Arizona.
The surprise wasn't so much that the Cougars won, but how they did so. Though Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey hit the 100-yard mark for a 13th consecutive game, Washington State's defense effectively limited the often-potent Wildcat spread.
And with Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel adjusting his 3-3-5 stack formation for Mike Leach's pass-heavy air-raid offense, Washington State countered with an effective run game from Marcus Mason.
Mason's ability to move the ball on the ground brought Arizona's defense up just enough to give quarterback Connor Halliday the window he needed for two second-half scores, including the game-winner.
Washington State's bowl aspirations come down to the final two regular-season games—the first a home tilt against 4-6 Utah, which is in danger of missing the postseason for a second straight year after its loss at Oregon. The second is a trip to Seattle for the Apple Cup showdown with Washington.
The former might seem like the more realistic opportunity for Washington State to seal its first bowl bid in 10 years, but consider the Cougars are winless at home in Pac-12 play this season. In another ironic twist, Arizona was Washington State's third conference win away from Martin Stadium.
Washington Wide Receiver Corps Is Well-Stocked for the Future
Highly touted 2013 wide receiver recruit Damore'ea Stringfellow had his first breakout performance in Wasington's 41-31 loss Friday at UCLA. Stringfellow is the latest young Huskies wide receiver to shine this season. The passing attack is going to be in fine shape even after Keith Price exits at season's end—and Friday gave a glimpse into the Price-less future.
The unfortunate shoulder injury that sidelined the Washington senior quarterback gave redshirt freshman Cyler Miles meaningful snaps, and Miles responded with a 15-of-22 performance with two touchdowns. One was to Stringfellow, whose relentlessness at the goal line produced the points.
Stringfellow emerged with star receiver Kasen Williams out with injury. Williams is a junior and will likely be back next season. With sophomore Jaydon Mickens and freshman John Ross returning to the fold, head coach Steve Sarkisian may have the Pac-12's best receiving corps in 2014.