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Pac-12 picks: Arizona could give USC fits, while Washington State has sights set on UCLA

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The sixth Saturday of the Pac-12 season is the final Saturday without a scheduled matchup of ranked teams. That doesn’t mean the upcoming weekend should be ignored. The stage is set for drama to dominate the proceedings. Oddsmakers have assigned single-digit point spreads to three of the four games.

Our focus here is the lone matchup viewed as a potential blowout: Arizona’s last scheduled trip to Los Angeles before the conference breaks apart.

The Wildcats are three-touchdown underdogs against USC, and for good reason.

Arizona is unranked; USC is undefeated.

Arizona hasn’t won in the Coliseum since the Pac-12 was the Pac-10; USC hasn’t lost at home under coach Lincoln Riley.

Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura is questionable because of an ankle injury; USC’s quarterback, Caleb Williams, is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and 2023 frontrunner.

But where the oddsmakers see a lopsided affair, the Hotline sees a trap game.

After all, the Wildcats faced nearly identical circumstances last year – as a massive underdog facing a ranked opponent in Los Angeles – and won the game outright.

In early November, Arizona ventured into the Rose Bowl with three wins, six losses and little chance to take down ninth-ranked UCLA.

The Bruins had a star quarterback (Dorian Thompson-Robinson), a Pac-12 title in their crosshairs and a rivalry game looming.

Final score: Arizona 34, UCLA 28.

The point spread then: 19.5.

The point spread now: 21.5.

UCLA’s ranking then: No. 9.

USC’s ranking now: No. 9.

Just as the Bruins were looking ahead to their duel with USC the following week, these Trojans undoubtedly have an eye cast to their showdown at Notre Dame on Oct. 14.

Just as so many Arizona players with roots in Southern California were excited to perform in front of friends and family in the Rose Bowl, so, too, will they be amped up Saturday night in the Coliseum.

Quarterback Noah Fifita, who will start if de Laura cannot play, grew up in Huntington Beach. Ace linebacker Jacob Manu is from Santa Ana. Star receiver Tetairoa McMillan went to high school in Anaheim.

Arizona’s long-standing reliance on talent from Southern California has fueled high-level performances for years.

In 2015, the Wildcats were 19-point underdogs at USC and lost by eight.

In 2018, they were 10-point dogs at UCLA and lost by one.

Two years ago, they were 21-point dogs at USC and lost by a touchdown.

Last year, as 19.5-point dogs, they trailed for a whopping four minutes in the six-point win.

Will this week be any different? Will a blowout emerge in the land of closer-than-expected?

The Trojans are essentially the same team (great offense; wobbly defense) that struggled to repel the Wildcats 49 weeks ago in Tucson.

Meanwhile, Arizona is vastly improved defensively. If de Laura (or Fifita) is efficient with the ball and smart with decisions … if the Wildcats don’t commit drive-killing penalties and are sound on special teams … if they convert enough first downs to keep the defense fresh … this could be far closer than the point spread indicates.

It could be 2022 all over again, with the highly-ranked hosts caught unaware in real time as they cast an eye toward a showdown looming the following Saturday.

To the picks …

Last week: 3-2

Season: 19-17

Five-star special: 3-2

All picks against the spread

Lines taken from BetMGM (via VegasInsider.com)

(All times Pacific)

Washington State at UCLA

Kickoff: Noon on Pac-12 Networks

Line: UCLA -3.5 (total: 59.5)

Comment: The teams have equivalent preparation time (two weeks) but possess contrasting resumes. Washington State has two wins over ranked teams while UCLA lost its only game against a Power Five opponent. The Bruins’ weak schedule provides little substance to accurately evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. The defense appears fairly stout but will face a Cougars attack that averages 45.8 points per game. UCLA’s offensive line seems rickety and must deal with a stellar WSU pass rush. So why are the Bruins favored? Because of home cooking and brand bias.

Pick: Washington State

Colorado at Arizona State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks

Line: Colorado -4.5 (total: 60.5)

Comment: How will the Buffaloes respond to a low-level affair – this is their first appearance of the season on the Pac-12 Networks – after playing so many high-profile matchups? A letdown of some degree seems inevitable, but does Arizona State have the skill to take advantage? The Sun Devils should move the ball effectively; Colorado’s defense is among the worst in the conference. But will ASU’s defense rise to the occasion? We see third down as the key. The Buffs are No. 32 nationally in third-down conversion percentage (46.2) while ASU is 83rd in third-down defense (40.8 percent).

Pick: Colorado

Oregon State at Cal

Kickoff: 7 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks

Line: Oregon State -9.5 (total: 51.5)

Comment: The point spread reflects current views of each team but isn’t indicative of the broader series trend: The Bears have won three of the past four in Berkeley and the lone loss, in 2019, was by four points. Like every OSU game, this will be decided in close quarters at the line of scrimmage. The Beavers average 206 rushing yards per game and will dare Cal’s stout run defense to slow tailback Damien Martinez on first down. If the Bears are successful, they should hang around long enough for one play either way to determine the outcome. A must-win game for the Beavers if they hope to stay within range of a berth in the conference championship.

Pick: Cal

Arizona at USC

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN

Line: USC -21.5 (total: 71.5)

Comment: In addition to the 450 words devoted to this game in the introductory section, we’ll add a few more. Arizona held Washington to 19 points below its season average last week. If the Wildcats are merely half as effective against USC (to account for being on the road), then we could reasonably peg the Trojans for 45 points. To cover the spread, Arizona would need a score in the mid-20s. How many teams have reached that level against USC? Most of them. San Jose State posted 28 in the Coliseum. Arizona State scored 28, too, despite using its third-string quarterback. And Colorado carved up USC’s defense for 41 points last week. We aren’t convinced the Wildcats will replicate their 2022 upset of No. 9 UCLA, but that’s too many points given the circumstances laid out above.

Pick: Arizona

Straight-up winners: Washington State, Colorado, Oregon State and USC

Five-star special: Arizona. Do you trust Alex Grinch’s defense? Neither do we.