By Don Wanlass
The Pac 12 football teams picked a bad year to regain credibility in the college football universe.
In the last year of the conference’s existence as we know it, the schools collectively are having their best season in the last 20 years, if not more.
Through four weeks, Pac 12 teams are a combined 36-12, a .750 winning percentage. Four teams are ranked in the AP College Football Poll’s top 10 and two more are in the top 20.
A week ago, eight teams were in the top 25 but Oregon defeated Colorado and Utah defeated UCLA last week, knocking both teams out of the top 25. USC won on the road by 14 points and fell from fifth to eighth in the poll.
Washington slid by the Trojans into seventh, followed by No. 9 Oregon and No. 10 Utah.
For what it’s worth, the high and mighty Southeastern Conference has two teams in the top 12; four in the top 20.
As conference play continues, that .750 winning percentage will start to drop, but the Pac 12 has reestablished itself as a force to be reckoned with. Whether a team will be able to survive a brutal conference schedule to make the four-team college playoff remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, Pac 12 football is going out with a roar this season.
Week 5 begins bright and early Sept. 30 with USC traveling to Boulder, Colorado, to face Deion Sanders and his Colorado Buffaloes.
Fox has chosen to play the game at 9 a.m. West Coast time, which means it’s a 10 a.m. start in Boulder.
The Trojans may have received an early wake-up call Sept. 23 in the form of the Arizona State Sun Devils, who played the Trojans tough before falling 42-28.
The Trojans committed too many penalties (10 for 85 yards) and missed way too many tackles, but in the end had too much Caleb Williams and Marshawn Lloyd for the rebuilding Sun Devils.
Williams threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns and scored two other touchdowns on one-yard runs. Lloyd provided a good offensive counter to Williams with 154 yards on 14 carries — 11 yards per carry.
Wide receiver Brenden Rice had a big game, catching seven passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns on throws of 43 and 29 yards.
But Arizona State played USC tough, trailing 35-28 with eight minutes to play. Williams then hit Tahj Washington with a 45-yard scoring pass less than a minute later and the Trojans held on for the win.
Colorado is coming off a 42-6 beat down from Oregon after averaging 41 points a game in their first three wins. The Buffaloes will be missing their two-way star player Travis Hunter for the second week in a row and may be without Deion’s other son, starting safety Shilo Sanders.
As long as quarterback Shedeur Sanders is healthy, the Buffaloes will give the Trojans defense fits. In four games this year, Sanders has completed 76.9% of his passes for 1,410 yards, 11 touchdowns and only one interception. He also is a threat to run the ball. On one play against Oregon he took off and ran for 28 yards.
By comparison, the Trojans’ Caleb Williams has completed 74.3% of his passes for 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has yet to thrown an interception.
The USC defense will have to do a better job of tackling against Colorado than they did against Arizona State.
One bright side on defense was the pass rush that recorded eight sacks. Solomon Byrd, Romello Height and Tackett Curtis each recorded two sacks.
They will need to keep the pressure on Sanders because the secondary had trouble containing Arizona State, which was down to its third-string quarterback.
This will be the Trojans’ first opportunity to make a statement this season and it had best be a positive one.
On the other hand, UCLA is on a bye week after suffering a 14-7 loss to Utah Sept. 23 in a game in which the Bruins’ offense was held scoreless for more than 56 minutes.
The Bruins got off on the wrong foot when freshman quarterback Dante Moore threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on the first play of the game.
Facing the toughest test of his young career, Moore struggled. He completed only 15 of 34 passes for 234 yards. The Bruins also couldn’t get their ground game going against Utah’s tough defense.
Aside from their opening interception, the Utes were stifled by UCLA’s defense for most of the game in what was a defensive struggle throughout.
The Bruins return to action at noon Oct. 7 against the 16th-ranked Washington State Cougars in the Rose Bowl. The winner will maintain its status among the top teams in the conference.
IN THE WIN COLUMN: On the pro side of the local football ledger, the Chargers finally found a way to win Sept. 24 while the Rams lost the next day on Monday Night Football. Both teams are 1-2, but there is still plenty of time for both to put themselves into playoff contention.
The Chargers survived another one of coach Brandon Staley’s bad gambles to hold off the Minnesota Vikings, 28-24 in a big road win.
Staley gambled on a fourth-and-one situation at his own 24 yard line late in the game with the Vikings out of timeouts. Fortunately, the defense managed to keep the Vikings out of the end zone.
Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen were the stars of the game. Herbert completed 40 of 47 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Allen caught 18 passes for 215 yards and also threw for a touchdown, hitting Mike Williams for a 49-yard touchdown in the third quarter on a fake end around.
Williams later went down with a season-ending knee injury. With running back Austin Ekeler still out with an ankle injury, the Chargers are now without two key members of their offense.
Former UCLA running back Joshua Kelley gained only 12 yards on 11 carries against the Vikings, forcing Herbert to provide most of the offense again. The Vikings had more first down and six more minutes of ball possession, but the Chargers defense recorded four sacks and had two turnovers to score a much-needed win.
The Chargers return to SoFi Stadium Oct. 1 for the annual invasion of Raiders fans. Both teams are 1-2 and fighting to stay alive in the AFC West, where Kansas City again reigns supreme.
The Raiders may be without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was placed in concussion protocol after a loss to Pittsburgh Sept. 24.
The Rams stay on the road Oct. 1, facing the Indianapolis Colts at 10 a.m. The Rams have a short week, after losing to the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-16 Sept. 25.
In what was largely a defensive struggle, the Bengals front line dominated an injury-plagued Rams offense. The Bengals sacked Matthew Stafford six times and intercepted him twice.
The Rams broke a 6-6 halftime tie with a field goal to start the third quarter but the Bengals marched right back down the field to score on a 14-yard run by Joe Mixon.
The Bengals made it 19-9 with back-to-back field goals at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth and held the Rams to a meaningless touchdown with 63 second left on a one-yard pass from Stafford to Tutu Atwell.
Missing two starters on the offensive line, the Rams couldn’t protect Stafford or run the football. That needs to change against Indianapolis or else the 49ers are going to run away with the NFC West.
PREPS TO SOFI: It was announced Sept. 27 that two schools from Downey will become the first high school teams to play at SoFi Stadium.
Downey and Warren high schools are long-time intra-city rivals who will face each other Oct. 13 at SoFi. The winner will be invited back and recognized before the college football L.A. Bowl on Dec. 16.
“L.A. Bowl is committed to promoting the importance of education, health and wellness, and physical activity by hosting various events in the local community,” Adolfo Romero, vice president of programming and booking for SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park, said in a statement announcing the game. “We’re excited to continue these efforts by welcoming the students, faculty and families of Downey High School and Warren High School to SoFi Stadium for its first high school football game.”
The Warren and Downey football programs have one of the longest rivalries in Southern California Warren won the game, 49-22, against Downey when the two teams met last season. Downey went on to win the CIF Southern Section Division 4 championship.
“As a former Downey Viking player, the Downey vs. Warren game is something I know players look forward to every year,” Downey head coach Jack Williams said in a statement. “Being able to compete in this crosstown rivalry game and be the first-ever high school game to be played at SoFi Stadium will be something extra special that will live on with our players forever.”
Kevin Pearson, the Warren High head coach, said the rivalry with Downey is one of the best he has experienced in his coaching career.
“Having been a head coach in the Los Angeles area for 28 years, I’m aware of many great rivalries, but I’ve always said that the Warren vs. Downey rivalry was the best kept secret in high school football,” Pearson said. “I’m excited that the dedication and great work from Downey Unified, administration, teachers, staff, students and families will be showcased at this historic event. I am humbled and honored that our unique and historical rivalry has been chosen for the first high school football game hosted at SoFi Stadium.”
Tickets for the game go on sale Sept. 28 at ticketmaster.com.
Besides hosting the Rams and Chargers, SoFi also has hosted a Super Bowl and last year’s college football championship game.
City News Service contributed to this story.