Unpacking The Pac-12: Statement Games For RBs Moss, Gaskin

Photo: Oct 26, 2018; Pasadena, CA, USA; Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) runs the bad while UCLA Bruins linebacker Leni Toailoa (26) attempt a tackle during the second half at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

There were six games played in the Pac-12 this weekend. One was on Friday, in which the favored Utah Utes smacked the UCLA bruins around. The rest were on Saturday: Washington State v. Stanford, Washington v. Cal, Oregon State v. Colorado, Oregon v. Arizona, Arizona State v. USC.

In every single game, the underdog (via point spread) won outright.

What a magical conference.

Utah v. UCLA

The big story for this game has to be the performance of Utah RB Zack Moss -- a junior who has been getting a ton of buzz in recent weeks. Trevor Sikkema just did his 5-Play Prospect on Moss, which is worth the read if you haven't yet seen his game.

Against the Bruins, Moss turned 26 handoffs into 211 yards and 3 touchdowns. That...might be good.

When I evaluated Moss in the summer for the Pac-12 previews, he graded out as my RB5 in the Pac-12. Two of the players who I ranked above him -- Stanford's Bryce Love and Oregon's Tony Brooks-James -- have fallen off the cliff this season. Washington's Myles Gaskin is dealing with a shoulder injury, but has put out excellent tape for yet another season with the Huskies. Arizona's J.J. Taylor is unrecognized nationally as only a redshirt sophomore, but is putting out great tape as a returner and feature back.

I still have Gaskin ahead of Moss; and Taylor might be there too. Even despite his dominant performance against the bruins, my questions linger:

Is he enough of an athlete to survive at the NFL level?

So many of Moss's positive runs last night came with some stellar blocking up front, which isn't a knock on Moss. He's a decisive runner who hits the hole like he was shot from a cannon. Low riding and with a ton of muscle mass, Moss punished the Bruins linebackers when he arrived with velocity; and if he was caught unawares, he regularly absorbed the first contact given his natural leverage and good contact balance.

But Moss is not an explosive runner -- he broke one long run that I can remember, and the only tackler he warded off on that run was a cornerback.

His lack of elusive traits make it difficult for him to really break into the third level. Without the change of direction ability to make sudden cuts, he's limited as a zone runner and has minimal efficacy on space touches. Moss is a bull in a china shop; he looks for contact, seeks it out. And I love that tone-setting, but it caps his NFL outlook.

For one, Moss should have durability questions as a prospect -- he's had ankle injuries in both legs, and with his running style, will take a pounding every week. But even beyond that: Moss is a savvy enough runner to generate good angles through the first level and angle his body into contact, but does he have the speed and agility to be anything more than a power-running hammer at the next level? I'm unsure, and as such, I remain a bit bearish on Moss. I need to see him test; and I need to see it translate onto the field.

Additional Notes

  • Utah LB Cody Barton had a nice interception in coverage, and almost a second on an errant pass. Some nice rangy plays into the boundary as well. He's officially on my watch list.
  • Utah SAF Marquise Blair had his third ejection that I can remember for targeting; this one on a sliding QB. He's a reckless player that I don't trust on the back-end in coverage. Don't understand his hype.
  • UCLA RB Joshua Kelley, a UC Davis transfer, has wrested the starting job for the Bruins. At 210 pounds, he runs with some surprising explosion. He's an on-the-radar guy for sure.

Washington v. Cal

How could Myles Gaskin have a statement performance in a game in which he didn't play? Just check the scoreboard: Washington loses on the road to a middling Cal team, a limp 10 points on the board at the final bell.

QB Jake Browning was actually pulled in the third quarter of this game, at which point he had gone 8/15 for 109 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. It wasn't honestly his worse game to memory -- that Utah performance was dreadful -- but he was doing little to move the football in the absence of Gaskin, the true motor of the Washington offense.

It's no surprise to anyone who watches Washington football that their offense struggled without Gaskin in the game. Gaskin has rushed for 1,000 yards in every season of his college career up to this point. A four-year run is in jeopardy for his senior season, however, given the nature of his injury and his depreciated efficiency on a per touch basis. Gaskin will need to accumulate 377 rushing yards over the remaining four games on Washington's schedule -- Stanford, Oregon State, Washington State, bowl game -- to clear the bar; at his current average of 89 yards per game, he won't make the cut.

Despite his (relatively) poor numbers, however, Gaskin's 2018 tape has impressed me. He looks a bit more explosive on a line, and I think his top speed when bursting has also improved a bit. Always a tough runner, Gaskin will need to make sure he proves to teams that his shoulder is 100 percent with some strong performances to close out the season. As a player who thrive on contact balance, he needs to be able to lower his shoulder into hits.

Despite his career long production and strong tape, the Washington runner remains under-appreciated in the national conversation around running backs. My hope is that Washington's offensive struggles without him -- and then, perhaps, offensive resurgence with his return -- will draw more eyes to how valuable he is as a bellcow for the Huskies.

Other notes

  • Washington LB Ben Burr-Kirven, about whom I've written a few times here, modeled some of the weakness in his game against the Golden Bears. Cal had a heavy attack to the flats, and Burr-Kirven often arrived to the tackle point without coming to balance, which created easy cutback lanes; and, as a tackler, Burr-Kirven lacks good radius or grip strength, and often melted off the larger Patrick Laird. Speaking of which...
  • Cal RB Patrick Laird is a low-ceiling prospect, but he had a hard-nosed performance against the Huskies when his team needed to gut out a win. Athletically, Laird offers little -- but he has a big frame and is a surprisingly good pass-catcher out of the backfield. If he brings special teams value at the next level, he may earn himself a roster spot.
  • Washington iDL Greg Gaines had one of his best games of recent memory. A true space-gobbler cut from a vintage cloth, Gaines did well to become the aggressor with power on passing downs, offering good interior push and notching a couple noticeable pressures (and a sack!). I still prefer his running mates Levi Onwuzurike and Jaylen Johnson, but good on Gaines for his work today.

Author note: I did not get a chance to get eyes on Oregon/Arizona or Stanford/Washington State to significant degrees this weekend, which is a shame because those games turned out mighty interesting. I'll be getting some reactions up to them early in the week, so keep an eye out for those.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Deputy Editor of Bleeding Green Nation. Undergrad at UChicago.