Oregon highlights parity in conference
EUGENE — The Pac-12 has cannibalized itself.
Oregon celebrated a memorable 38-36 victory over No. 7 Stanford on Saturday night.
Then the parity party continued with 5-5 Arizona beating No. 10 Utah, 37-30 in overtime, and resurgent Washington State stunning No. 19 UCLA, 31-27 in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.
The good news for the conference: Five Pac-12 teams, including the Ducks, are in this week’s Associated Press poll.
The bad news: The Cardinal is the highest ranked at No. 15, which means the Pac-12 will not be included in the College Football Playoff unless there is extreme chaos over the next few weeks.
“Well that could be argued in a number of ways,” coach Mark Helfrich said when asked if the competitive balance is good for the Pac-12. “It’s a tremendously difficult conference. As we talked about back at media day, we expected something like this could happen and might happen and nobody is undefeated.
“I don’t think anybody is surprised by that, unfortunately. Good or bad, up to you.”
Both No. 23 Oregon (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) and No. 22 USC (7-3, 5-2) are still in contention for the Pac-12 title game entering Saturday’s game at Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks, who were predicted to win the North Division in the preseason media poll, need to win out and have California knock off Stanford for that to happen.
The Trojans, the preseason Pac-12 favorites, are tied with No. 18 Utah (8-2, 5-2) atop the South Division and own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Utes.
“I don’t think we ever look at somebody else’s impression of what we’re doing for validation, either way,” Helfrich said of the program’s ascension back into the rankings after four consecutive wins. “Now the trick is after such an emotional game is get ready to play and get ready for a very talented team.
“You flip on the tape and you’re quickly slapped in the face of how good USC is, and we’re all going to have to be excited for that challenge.”
Stanford knocked Oregon out of contention for BCS national championships in Chip Kelly’s final season (2012) and Helfrich’s first season (2013) as coach.
The pendulum swings in the rivalry have led to some bittersweet postgame handshakes.
“That’s as fun a feeling as you can get. Then it’s tough on Stanford, they lost a lot (Saturday) as a team,” secondary coach John Neal said after Oregon’s defense stopped a two-point conversion attempt to clinch the win. “The old saying is that we really respect this team, and we do, not only the kind of players they recruit, but the coaches they have. Some of those guys are my friends and I have a deep, deep amount of respect for them.
“I realize what they’re going through right now, the what-ifs and second guesses and all that stuff, and all we have to do is get on a plane and eat and be happy. At least until I turn on the ’SC film and say, ‘Oh, God, here we go again.’ ”
Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who began his playing career at Stanford before transferring to Nebraska, was pleased to see Royce Freeman (105 yards) and the running game (231 net yards) gash the Cardinal’s vaunted defense.
“I think our guys get a little tired of hearing how physical Stanford is, and our offensive line and our running backs kind of take umbrage with that,” Frost said. “When we come down here and rush for more yards than them, I think it says a lot about the desire of our kids.”
Christian McCaffrey finished with 147 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. Stanford had 202 net yards rushing, including a 22-yard touchdown run by quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Although Neal has moved up to the press box level for the last two games, Helfrich said defensive coordinator Don Pellum is still calling the shots.
“The play calling hasn’t really changed much. It’s more of the feedback between series, the recognition of things as plays happen,” Helfrich said. “That’s a different dialogue, just because the voices are different, but nothing from a logistical or a schematic standpoint.”