Oregon Ducks: Shayne Skov

On Monday, we took a look at how the Pac-12's offensive players stack up as NFL prospects in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Tuesday, it's the defense's turn.

Defensive line

  • DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)
  • DT Will Sutton, Arizona State: No. 8 (Kiper), No. 10 (McShay)

If you've been following along since the end of the season, Sutton's spot isn't all too surprising. He didn't have a good showing at the combine and has taken heat about his physical condition, dating to before last season. Even with the concerns, it's hard to imagine he won't eventually find his way in the NFL. After all, he's only the second player in conference history to be a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91) was the other. That's not by accident.

Coincidentally, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, isn't ranked in the top 10 by either. See the list here. Insider

Other Pac-12 defensive linemen who figure to be in the mix in the draft are Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Taylor Hart (Oregon), Deandre Coleman (Cal), George Uko (USC), Tenny Palepoi (Utah), Morgan Breslin (USC), Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Josh Mauro (Stanford).

Linebacker

  • [+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFormer UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr could be the first Pac-12 player to be drafted this year.
    OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA: No. 2 (both)
  • OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 9 (McShay)
  • ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford: No. 3 (both)
  • ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: No. 8 (Kiper)

Barr is widely considered the Pac-12's best hope at landing in the first 10 picks, but if McShay was drafting, that wouldn't be the case. On drafting Barr, McShay wrote:
[Barr] of UCLA is a speed-rusher who stalls out when attempting to convert speed to power, and there is too much finesse to his game for me to pay a top-15 price for him. He looks like he's on skates when he attempts to set the edge.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the same player Stanford coach David Shaw compared to Jevon Kearse. Shaw called Barr called the best (defensive) player the conference has had in the "last few years."

Murphy is in a similar boat to Sutton in that his college production isn't necessarily being viewed as a lock to translate to the NFL. He still figures to be a good fit for a 3-4 team and should be expected to contribute right away.

Outside of the four listed, it wasn't a very deep year for linebackers in the conference. Utah's Trevor Reilly, who can play both OLB and DE, Arizona State OLB Carl Bradford and USC's Devon Kennard headline the rest of the NFL hopefuls.

Defensive back

McGill should send a thank you card in Pete Carroll's direction. It's largely because of Seattle's use of big-bodied corners en route to a Super Bowl victory that the league appears to be trending in that direction. At 6-foot-4, McGill's size -- in addition to his solid showing at the combine -- is a rare asset among the group of corners.

Bucannon looks like he'll be the first defensive back off the board, but will he be a first-round pick? That's unlikely, but it would be a surprise if he lasts into the third round.

Another storyline to watch is where the three defensive backs who left early -- safety Ed Reynolds (Stanford), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and cornerback Kameron Jackson (Cal) -- wind up.

See the lists for linebackers and defensive backs here.Insider
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division. We've already done offense for the South and North divisions. Wednesday we looked at defenses in the South.

Next up: North Division defensive three-headed monsters.

1. Stanford

LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson, S Jordan Richards

The skinny: The Cardinal lose their top tackler (Shayne Skov) and top sack guy (Trent Murphy). But there are others ready to take control. Tarpley has long been one of the league’s most underappreciated linebackers (93 tackles last season) and Anderson’s return boosts a front seven that should continue to party in the backfield. Richards is solid at one safety spot, though there are some questions about who will play opposite him. The Cardinal still boast the top defense in the league until proven otherwise.

2. Washington

LB Shaq Thompson, DE Hau’oli Kikaha, DB Marcus Peters

The skinny: The Huskies have some losses, like everyone else in the country, but there is plenty of talent coming back for the new coaching staff to work with. That returning production is enough to slot them No. 2. Thompson continues to get better with each season and appears on the verge of a breakout year. Kikaha has not-so-quietly turned into one of the Pac-12’s most feared rushers (13 sacks last season) and Peters is back after making five interceptions last season. They lose some leadership with the departure of Sean Parker and there's some question marks in the secondary. But this should be a salty group in 2014.

3. Oregon

LB Derrick Malone, DE/OLB Tony Washington, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

The skinny: Despite losing Avery Patterson, Brian Jackson and Terrance Mitchell, the secondary still boasts one of the top defensive backs in the country in Ekpre-Olomu. Mitchell led the team with five picks in 2013, but a lot of teams opted not to test Ekpre-Olomu. Malone is back after making 105 tackles, and Rodney Hardrick should be on his heels as top tackler. The linebackers should be a strength. Washington returns after recording 7.5 sacks to go with 12 tackles for a loss. Now, if they could just get off the dang field on third down ...

4. Oregon State

S Tyrequek Zimmerman, DE Dylan Wynn, CB Steven Nelson

The skinny: Zimmerman brings his 104 tackles back from last season and the return of OLB Michael Doctor, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, should be a nice boost. Replacing the production of Scott Crichton and his 7.5 sacks will be difficult. Linebacker D.J. Alexander and Wynn should see their share of time in the backfield. Nelson, a former junior college transfer, had a spectacular first season with the Beavers with a team-high six interceptions (tied with Rashaad Reynolds) and eight breakups.

5. Washington State

LB Darryl Monroe, DT Xavier Cooper, ?

The skinny: Do-all safety Deone Bucannon is gone after leading the team in tackles (114) and interceptions (6). He was an All-American for a reason. Monroe is an obvious choice for tackles, and Cooper is the obvious choice for sacks. But the secondary is wide open. Mike Leach has essentially said all four spots in the secondary are up for grabs. Clouding the issues is the future of cornerback Daquawn Brown, who has legitimate experience but also some legal hurdles to overcome.

6. California

S Michael Lowe, LB Jalen Jefferson, S Avery Sebastian?

The skinny: We all know about the defensive injury issues the Bears had last season, which is why Lowe returns as the leading tackler and tied for the lead in interceptions with one (the Bears only had five all last season). Jefferson returns with the most sacks, and Kyle Kragen appears to be a good fit for the scheme. (Remember when Kameron Jackson had three in one game!) We’ll see how oft-injured but talented Stefan McClure fares at safety. Getting Sebastian back from injury will help in the secondary. The pass rush should be improved with Brennan Scarlett’s return.
The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.

But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.

Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.

In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.

The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.

Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).

But a lot more is gone than is coming back.

That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.

The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.

Pac-12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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Who were the Pac-12 standouts this bowl season? Here are our picks.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley finished the season with a strong performance in the Bruins' bowl win.
QB Brett Hundley, UCLA: Hundley accounted for four touchdowns in the Bruins' 42-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. He rushed for 161 yards on 10 carries -- 16.1 yards per run -- with two touchdowns and he also completed 16 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two scores. Other QBs had nice games, but Hundley put up big numbers against an outstanding defense.

RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: In the AdvoCare V100 Bowl win over Boston College, Carey rushed for 169 yards on 27 carries and two scores, averaging 6.3 yards per rush. He decisively outplayed Boston College RB Andre Williams, who won the Doak Walker Award and was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

RB D.J. Foster, Arizona State: Despite being banged up, Foster rushed for 132 yards on 20 carries -- 6.6 yards per carry -- in the Sun Devils' 37-23 loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. He also caught five passes for 23 yards.

WR Marqise Lee, USC: In his career finale, Lee caught seven passes for 118 yards with two touchdowns in USC's win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

WR Nate Phillips, Arizona: Phillips, a true freshman, caught nine passes for 193 yards in the Wildcats' win over Boston College.

WR Josh Huff, Oregon: Huff caught five passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in Oregon's 30-7 win over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA: Su'a-Filo led the Bruins' offensive line against a tough Virginia Tech defense. UCLA rushed for 197 yards against a top-10 rushing defense and yielded only two sacks.

OL Abe Markowitz, USC: The sixth-year walk-on stepped in at center for an injured Marcus Martin -- the Trojans' best offensive lineman this season -- and played well in the 45-20 win over Fresno State. The Trojans yielded only one sack and rushed for 154 yards. He was named the "Offensive Outperformer of the Game" by his coaches.

OL Jake Fisher, Oregon: Fisher led a strong effort from the Ducks' offensive line in the win over Texas. Oregon rushed for 216 yards and yielded only two sacks. Fisher did a good job against Texas' top defender, end Jackson Jeffcoat.

OL Micah Hatchie, Washington: Hatchie, the Huskies' left tackle, was the biggest reason BYU didn't record a sack in the Fight Hunger Bowl, a 31-16 Huskies victory. Washington also rushed for 190 yards.

OL Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State: Seumalo led perhaps the Beavers O-line's best effort of the season. Oregon State rushed for 195 yards and yielded no sacks.

K Travis Coons, Washington: Coons made a 45-yard field goal against BYU -- the longest Pac-12 postseason field goal -- and was good on all four of his PATs.

DEFENSE

DL Scott Crichton, Oregon State: Crichton had three tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and pass breakup in the win over Boise State.

DL Taylor Hart, Oregon: Hart had a game-high 11 tackles, with half a sack and a forced fumble in the Ducks' win over Texas.

DL Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: Kikaha had nine tackles with three sacks and a forced fumble in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Shayne Skov, Stanford: Skov had nine tackles, three tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble in Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

LB Jake Fischer, Arizona: Fischer had a game-high 14 tackles in the Wildcats' win over Boston College. He also had a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Arizona held Williams to only 75 yards on 26 carries.

LB John Timu, Washington: Timu had a game-high 14 tackles, a sack and an interception in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Jabral Johnson, Oregon State: Johnson had a game-high 12 tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry in the Beavers' win over Boise State.

DB Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State: Reynolds had 10 tackles and returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the Beavers' win over Boise State. The fumble returns went for 70 and 3 yards.

DB Avery Patterson, Oregon: Patterson had nine tackles and returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the win over Texas.

DB Josh Shaw, USC: Shaw held Fresno State receiver Davante Adams to nine receptions for 73 yards in the Trojans' win over the Bulldogs. He finished with six tackles and had an interception in the end zone.

DB Anthony Jefferson, UCLA: Jefferson had seven tackles, shared a tackle for a loss and had a pass breakup in the Bruins' win over Virginia Tech. The Hokies completed only 15 of 36 throws for 176 yards.

P Ben Rhyne, Stanford: With five punts, Rhyne averaged 49.8 yards per boot in the Rose Bowl.

Pac-12 players in Senior Bowl

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The Reese's Senior Bowl, which is scheduled for Jan. 25th in Mobile, Ala., is the most prestigious postseason college All-Star game, mostly because it picks the players NFL GMs and scouts want to see up close in advance of the NFL draft.

So far 11 Pac-12 players have been offered and accepted invitations.

Here's the list, which you can review here.

Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State

Deandre Coleman, DT, California

Shaquelle Evans, WR, UCLA

Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State

Taylor Hart, DE, Oregon

Ryan Hewitt, FB, Stanford

Josh Huff, WR, Oregon

Keith McGill, DB, Utah

Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford

Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford

Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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Taking stock of Week 10 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Is there any doubt? Stanford, again a substantial underdog to No. 3 and unbeaten Oregon, again controlled the line of scrimmage with its trademark physical style in a 26-20 victory on Thursday, that final score in no way reflecting the complete control the Cardinal had from bell-to-bell. It was a total team effort, featuring a great plan from the coaches that was well-executed by players who relish their underdog status when compared to flashy Oregon. Nerd Nation rules again. (But don't celebrate too long, Stanford. The season's far from over.)

[+] EnlargeKelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTaylor Kelly led two fourth-quarter TD drives as Arizona State rallied to beat Utah on Saturday.
Best game: Arizona State trailed at Utah for most of three quarters, and it entered the fourth quarter down 19-7. It looked like a familiar scenario: The Sun Devils blowing it on the road. But QB Taylor Kelly, stymied most of the afternoon, led two fourth-quarter TD drives and Will Sutton iced the game with, of all things, an interception with 1:01 remaining for a 20-19 victory.

Biggest play: While there were a number of big plays in the above game, no play was as "Good golly!" good as Myles Jack's 66-yard touchdown run for UCLA at Arizona. For one, he's a linebacker. Second, it was on a third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter just after an Arizona TD that reduced the Bruins' lead to five points. The Wildcats would score a TD on their next possession, so UCLA needed all the points it got. And the nation got introduced to Jack, a certain freshman All-American who is already being referred to as a first-round NFL draft pick.

Offensive standout: In the preseason, Stanford's offensive line looked like the nation's best unit. At times during the first half of the season, it didn't live up to that billing. But against Oregon it was dominant against a good defensive front. It not only paved the way from RB Tyler Gaffney's 157 yards on 45 carries, it also held the Ducks without a sack. QB Kevin Hogan was hurried just once. Stanford beat the Ducks because it made time of possession matter, with the offensive line playing the most important role in converting 14 of 21 third-down plays as well as the only fourth-down attempt. Last season's win over Oregon was about the Stanford defense. This one was about the O-line.

Defensive standout: Stanford LB Shayne Skov led the Cardinal's defense, which was pretty darn salty against the Ducks, with nine tackles (two for loss), two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He also broke up a pass and had two QB hurries.

Special teams standout: USC's Nelson Agholor returned punts 75 and 93 yards for TDs in the Trojans' 62-28 beatdown of California.

Special teams standout II: Against Arizona State, Utah punter Tom Hackett averaged 50.6 yards on nine punts, with a long of 70. He killed three inside the Sun Devils' 20-yard line and was a big reason the Utes controlled field position most of the afternoon.

Freakish two-way standout: Jack, a true freshman, became a national sensation on Saturday -- despite the late West Coast kickoff -- when he turned in helmet-sticker worthy performances on BOTH sides of the ball. On defense, he had eight tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery. On offense, he rushed for a team-high 120 yards on just six carries, including the aforementioned 66-yard touchdown.

Smiley face: In recent seasons, just when things started to go well for Arizona State and UCLA, it became time to bet against them, particularly on the road. Both lacked consistent mental toughness. But both might be changing their ways. Both won on the road against good foes, overcoming myriad momentum shifts when they looked like they might be in trouble. Is it possible that their game on Nov. 23 will match top-15 teams with the stakes being the South Division? Maybe.

Frowny face: As great as Stanford's win is for Stanford, the Cardinal -- for the second consecutive season -- ruined the Pac-12's chances to put a team in the national title game. The Pac-12 hasn't won a national title since USC in 2004. The conference, in fact, has played in the title game only twice since then, with USC losing to Texas after the 2005 season and Oregon getting nipped by Auburn after the 2010 season. While the league isn't mathematically eliminated -- if there's only one unbeaten team at season's end, the Pac-12 has a good shot at being No. 1 among the once-beatens -- it is a bit disappointing that the conference likely won't finish 2013 with the No. 1 team, thereby ending the SEC's streak of 103 consecutive national titles. Plus or minus.

Thought of the week: Oregon fans should stop panicking or allowing the nationwide trolling to get to them. College football nation: If the Ducks have been truly unmasked and your rough-tough team would dominate them, then why not seek them out for a nonconference game? Baylor, Florida State, Alabama, etc? If the Ducks are just a gimmick team, sign a game contract for a home-and-home series. [Edit note: This originally included Ohio State, which HAS signed a game contract for 2020 and 2021. My bad.] Out West, however, we won't hold our breaths for one reason: Those teams want no part of that. Why? Because while a very good Stanford program, which is rougher and tougher than just about anyone, has won two in a row against the Ducks in impressive fashion, Oregon remains an elite team that can slice and dice the hopes and dreams of an opponent before it can say, "I wish my team hadn't been brave because now I can't be an anonymous trash-talking troll on Twitter."

Question for the week: Is the Pac-12 still in the Heisman Trophy hunt? Sure, there's been an overreaction against Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, sprained knee and all, after the Ducks went down to Stanford and he didn't play well on a big stage. And Arizona losing to UCLA diminished Ka'Deem Carey's chances. But what happens if one or both finish strong? You could make an argument that both are the best players at their positions. Difficult to imagine at least one won't get an invitation to New York for the ceremony.
STANFORD, Calif. – For obvious reasons, there was no talk of titles -- national, Pac-12 or otherwise -- from the Oregon side following Stanford’s 26-20 victory over the Ducks Thursday night.

That Stanford won isn’t/shouldn’t be considered shocking. That Oregon was scoreless through three quarters might be. That the Ducks stormed back for 20 points in the fourth quarter in only an eight-minute span makes perfect sense.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMarcus Mariota had a rough night against Stanford as rumors swirled about a possible knee injury.
And the Pac-12 has again dragged itself into November chaos. That's par for the course.

Heading into Thursday night’s showdown, the No. 3 Ducks represented the Pac-12’s best chance for a national championship. A victory over No. 5 Stanford would have almost guaranteed they’d jump Florida State in the BCS standings and put them back in the No. 2 spot. From there, it was as simple case of winning out and advancing to the title game.

But for the second year in a row, the Ducks' BCS title hopes were severely wounded at the hands of a Stanford defense that was dominant on the line of scrimmage and an offense that jack-hammered its way up and down the field.

“Any loss is disappointing,” said Oregon first-year coach Mark Helfrich. “Where we’ve put ourselves and where our players have put ourselves, it’s obviously magnified. … We don’t hold the cards anymore, but we never hold the cards. We have to come back, prepare and get ready for whoever is next.”

And next is Utah -- the team that could ultimately go down as the fly in the Pac-12’s title ointment after it knocked off Stanford in Salt Lake City last month.

The Cardinal seized control of the Pac-12 North. With victories over USC and California, the Cardinals would again represent the North Division in the Pac-12 championship game. Their regular-season finale against Notre Dame also takes on a greater importance when considering the BCS landscape.

The Cardinal still need some help if they hope to get into one of the top two spots in the BCS rankings. Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State are all undefeated. And the chances of a one-loss team -- even one with a résumé as impressive as Stanford’s -- making that kind of jump seems improbable. There is obviously much football to be played. But for now, 2013 projects to play out much like 2012. If the Cardinal win out, they’ll likely go to another Rose Bowl and a one-loss Oregon team should find its way into a BCS game as an at-large team.

But that’s a lot of ifs.

“You know, it’s November. It’s November,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “We talked as a team about [how] it’s time to play our best football. No one has seen our best football, and that’s including us. Tonight was about three and three quarters of it, and that’s what we talk about. We can’t be satisfied. We can’t be satisfied with how we finished the game. I’m not happy about it one bit. We can’t be satisfied with one win. We’ve got to win in November. We’ve got a tough game next week against an outstanding USC team that’s playing great and we’ve got to be ready to roll.”

For the Ducks, there is plenty to lament in a game accented by turnovers and missed opportunities. Twice Oregon advanced inside the Stanford 5-yard line and twice they were turned away. Both failures led to 96-yard scoring drives by the Cardinal.

And then there was the issue of Marcus Mariota’s injured knee. Reports started to circulate just before kickoff that he had a sprained MCL, and the coach and quarterback tip-toed around the issue during the postgame non-festivities.

“It is what it is,” Mariota said. “It’s a little banged up, but it’s nothing too extraordinary. We’re just going to take it and get healthy and I’ll be ready next week.”

Asked if he thought Mariota’s knee was bothering him, Helfrich said: “I don’t know. Everybody’s banged up this time of the year.”

Still, the Cardinal defense kept Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas bottled up. The Ducks managed just 62 rushing yards and were 3 of 10 on third-down conversions.

“We don’t concede points,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, who made 10 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles. “People can write what they want to and say what they want. But what counts is the guys that take that field. Eleven guys on offense take the field and 11 guys on defense. What happens between the lines is dictated by us. That’s the only thing we can control and that’s how we play.”

In the national picture, Oregon’s loss feels more significant than Stanford’s win because it takes another undefeated team off the board. But in the Stanford locker room, where things were far more festive, this victory sends a message that Stanford’s sustained success is not by coincidence.

“It’s huge,” said running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 45 carries. “I think the whole nation knows, and us especially, that this is a play-in game for the Pac-12 North. To be able to win the Pac-12 championship, you have to go through Oregon or you have to go through us. That is the mentality.”

Cardinal ball requires white knuckles

November, 6, 2013
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When the Andrew Luck era ended at Stanford, coach David Shaw knew for his team to maintain the high standard of play, it would have to commit to the old evolutionary adage of adapt to survive.

Gone were the 43 points per game the team enjoyed during Luck’s senior year -- Shaw’s first year as head coach. With the graduation of a player like Luck, Stanford’s offensive production was expected to take a step back.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireStanford coach David Shaw credits his team's record in close games to the players' resilience.
And it did.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Cardinal have averaged just 29.6 points per game -- two touchdowns fewer on average per contest than when Luck was running the show. And yet during that stretch, Stanford has still gone 19-3 against opponents that boast a 62.6 winning percentage. That ranks 10th among all FBS teams over the last year and a half.

The Cardinal have adapted and survived behind a brutalizing defense and power-running game. Though they aren’t scoring as many points, they are speeding the game up by slowing it down. And they are winning.

Good enough has been good enough for Stanford.

Since the start of the 2012 season the Cardinal are 10-3 in games decided by one possession (eight points). In those 22 games, their margin of victory is 11.6 points. As Shaw is fond of saying, football isn’t a beauty contest.

“We expect to be in tight games,” Shaw said. “We practice it. We spend a lot of time working on red zone. A lot of time working on overtime, two-minute offense, two-minute defense, the things that happen at the end of the game, so when we get in those times during the game, we just act and react.”

Compare that to No. 3 Oregon, Stanford’s opponent Thursday night in Palo Alto in a game that is sure to have a massive impact on the Pac-12 and BCS pecking order. Over that same stretch, the Ducks have enjoyed a margin of victory of 32.1 points per game. While the Cardinal have been in 13 one-possession games, Oregon has been in one. Just one. For those with a short memory, it was last year’s 17-14 overtime loss to the Cardinal at Autzen.

“All it really means is we’re doing our job and executing,” said Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. “We don’t look at something like that as a bad thing. You execute and you win a ball game. That’s what the main intent is. In any situation we have confidence the coaches will do an awesome job preparing us and we’ll go out there with confidence and be comfortable in whatever situation.”

This year could present another close situation. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he’s expecting another tight, drag’em-out showdown with the veteran Cardinal defense.

“When you look at their defense and their two-deep, 15 or 16 are seniors,” Helfrich said. “And there is so much depth. So much continuity. It feels like we’ve been playing against Trent Murphy and [Shayne] Skov and [A.J.] Tarpley for 20 years. They are obviously very confident in what they do, and I think their offense will grind it out and create some situations. But I know at the end of the game they are going to have confidence. Hopefully so will we.”

Maturity and experience is obviously a big reason for Stanford’s success in close games. Take the last win -- a 20-12 victory over Oregon State in Corvallis. A late fumble could have swung the momentum to OSU’s favor. But the veteran Cardinal defense stiffened and preserved the win.

“They played us well not only physically, but they played a very smart game,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “I think the combination of what they have, which is physical talent and lots of experience, is a positive for them.”

The Cardinal, however, will be without one of their veteran leaders in defensive end Ben Gardner, who is out of the rest of the year with a pectoral injury. The fifth-year senior was a team captain and has been an integral part of Stanford’s defensive success for not only his pass-rushing abilities, but also for his ability to occupy blockers which opens things up for the outside linebackers. However, the Cardinal will get defensive end Henry Anderson back, who has been out since September with a knee injury. Josh Mauro, who has been filling in for Anderson, will replace Gardner.

Despite Gardner’s absence, there isn’t much this Cardinal team hasn’t seen. And it’s that experience they’ll draw from against an Oregon team that averages more than 55 points per game.

“When things don’t go our way during the game, we don’t lament over it,” Shaw said. “I think our maturity helps that. When you don’t play your best football and end up in a tight game, we don’t have a lot of guys spending a lot of time being upset how they didn’t play well in the first or second or third quarter. They know it’s a tight game. They know they have a chance to win it so let’s go out and win it.”

And the Cardinal also know they are going to have to get their offense moving more efficiently than it has in the last three games -- two of which were decided by eight or fewer points. Stanford has averaged slightly more than three touchdowns per game. And a lot of that falls on the shoulders of quarterback Kevin Hogan.

“When Kevin has a not-great game, it’s mechanics, and we’ve got to keep working on that and get him to be consistent and he’s working extremely hard,” Shaw said. “Everybody hates when I say it, but he’s still young. We don’t have a huge sample size of him playing football. He played so well early that everyone is shocked when he doesn’t have a great game. But I think the arrow is still pointing up. He’s got a chance to be a great college quarterback and we hope that surfaces again this week coming up.”

Happy Halloween in the Pac-12

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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The Pac-12 has its share of ghosts, ghouls and goblins. So in the spirit of the Halloween weekend ...

Scary movie -- Worst loss of the season: Washington headed to Arizona State ranked 20th, with national pollsters being forgiving of consecutive, competitive losses to Stanford and Oregon. A shocking 53-24 beatdown delivered by the Sun Devils, and the Huskies were dumped from the national rankings. The new storyline was a familiar one: Another seven-win season?

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Ducks rocked Tennessee, 59-14, in the "biggest debacle of the season."
Rising from the dead: Oregon State surely was headed for the slag heap after it opened with a 49-46 loss to Eastern Washington, an FCS team. The defense looked AWFUL. Fire Mark Banker! Fire Mark Banker! Panic in the streets of Corvallis! After all, we'd seen this before.The Beavers opened with a loss to Sacramento State in 2011 and then meandered to a woeful 3-9 finish. But the Beavers dusted themselves off and surged to six consecutive wins. Last weekend, they extended Stanford until the waning moments before falling 20-12. With QB Sean Mannion and WR Brandin Cooks fronting the nation's best passing offense, Oregon State remains a threat in the North Division.

Haunted House: Arizona State struggles on the road, but it certainly has horrified visitors to Sun Devil Stadium. Of course, we can start with the, er, unusual finish against Wisconsin. Then there's the dismantling of both USC and Washington. Sure, the Sun Devils looked like a different team -- in a bad way -- while losing at Stanford and to Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium, but visiting foes often leave Tempe with a haunted look.

Thriller: The most exciting Pac-12 game so far this year is Oregon State's 51-48 overtime win at Utah. The Beavers jumped to a 20-7 lead, but the Utes tied things in regulation with a 21-point fourth quarter, including a 9-yard run from QB Travis Wilson for the tying TD on third-and-goal with 21 seconds left in the game. On the Beavers' side of things, QB Sean Mannion converted two critical fourth-down plays in the fourth and then threw the winning TD pass in overtime to, of course, Brandin Cooks.

Nightmare in Eugene -- Biggest debacle of the season: Tennessee took a 7-0 lead at Oregon, and the folks in orange maybe starting thinking about "SEC!" chants. Then the Ducks scored 59 unanswered points by the end of the third quarter. Oregon fans started chanting "We want Bama."

House of horrors: Horrors? We give you USC. The Trojans fired coach Lane Kiffin as he got off the team bus at LAX after a 62-41 beatdown at Arizona State, and they have suffered through epidemic injuries that are even worse for a team crippled by scholarship reductions. Meanwhile, the program has watched as the NCAA reduced Penn State's sanctions and provided a reprieve for Miami, which overlooked the scandalous doings of now-incarcerated booster Nevin Shapiro while under the leadership of late athletic director Paul Dee, who chaired the Committee of Infractions against USC.

Cursed team: California, losers of 10 consecutive Pac-12 games, might be headed for its worst season since the regrettable Tom Holmoe Era. Start with one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Then move on to a roster decimated by injuries. The Bears have been slow to adjust to new schemes on both sides of the ball, and they presently ranked last in the conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Halloween costumes

Thorpe, Butkus semifinalists annouced

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
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The Pac-12 is well-represeted on the list of semifinalists for the Thorpe and Butkus Awards, given annually to the nation's best defensive back and linebacker.

Three Pac-12 players are among 15 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award: Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Oregon State CB Steven Nelson.

Four Pac-12 linebackers are among the 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award: UCLA's Anthony Barr, California's Khairi Fortt, Utah's Trevor Reilly and Stanford's Shayne Skov.

Here are the complete lists:

Thorpe Award semifinalists
Butkus Award semifinalists
Welcome to the mailbag. I'm Kevin, your single-serving friend.

A conglomerate of questions about Steve Sarkisian’s postgame comments about the replay and Stanford faking injuries is a major theme in this week’s mailbag. So here is a conglomerate answer:

Kevin Gemmell: I’ll start with the replay: Sark was clearly frustrated with the way the game ended. I’d be too. It was an uncomfortable thud to a heck of a game. And there continues to be debate on whether Kevin Smith had possession -- as was the call on the field -- or whether the ball indisputably hit the ground -- which was the call on the reversal. My opinion? I think it hit the ground. But I’m not sure I can say that indisputably. That raises a letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law debate that we don’t need to engage in right now.

The bigger picture, however, is a troubling trend that seems to be popping up more and more. And that’s one play being the focal point for an entire 60 minute game. Whether it’s this game, Arizona State-Wisconsin, Texas-Iowa State, etc. we’re seeing 10 seconds dominate the other 59 minutes, 50 seconds.

Washington had run 87 offensive plays before that controversial fourth-and-10. The Huskies scored four touchdowns. That means there were 83 opportunities to impact the game; 83 chances to score; 83 chances to advance the ball; 83 chances to do something other than let the final offensive play of the game for your team come down to an instant replay. Take play No. 86 -- third-and-10 -- one play before the controversial call. If All-Universe tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins catches the ball, it’s a first down. But it was a flat-out drop. Keith Price’s throw was on the money. It’s those kinds of plays that make the “we got hosed” argument tough to swallow.

In the end, hat’s off to the Huskies for a very strong performance. The Price naysayers need to go back under their bridges and any questions of Washington’s legitimacy should be put to rest.

Now … those pesky injuries.

Do teams fake injuries? Yes. And it’s an ugly part of the game that is getting uglier and uglier as more teams take on uptempo offenses. As my colleague once wrote, there is something unseemly about booing when a player is down.

Sark called out Randy Hart by name -- a name, by the way, that should still garner a ton of respect in Seattle from his long time service with Don James. He says he saw something. Across the field, in the middle of a tight game? Maybe.

But given the way the game ended and the aggressive nature in which Sark called out Stanford and its players, it comes across as sour grapes even if he does have a legitimate gripe.

Ben Gardner and Shayne Skov, by the way, have vehemently denied they faked injuries.



This is an unsavory he said-he said. I know Sark. I also know Gardner and Skov. I like all those guys. And I also know of at least one person on the Washington staff who has practiced this technique in the past (to be fair, while at another program).

This seems like as good a time as any to open up some dialogue about what to do with injured players. How about if a player goes down with an injury and play has to be stopped, that player must sit out the remainder of the series or a minimum of seven plays. That gives the player ample time to recover and be treated by the medical staff. And it’s punitive enough that if the player is faking, he’s standing on the sidelines for a reasonable amount of time.

That’s just a suggestion, not necessarily the solution. But I think it has to be addressed at some point in the very near future so we don’t have to question the legitimacy of injuries.


Colin in Seattle writes: Sorry, but you totally miss on your "Stanford, Oregon still a cut above" piece. No mention of the fact that the Huskies out-gained Stanford by 200 yards and 16 first downs? No mention of the fact that Stanford was totally outplayed with the exception of two really bad kick return covers? You are not a "cut above" when your quarterback puts up 12/20, 100 yard game at home while the other quarterback puts up 350 yards. Stanford won the game, fair and square, but are by no means "a cut above". They were significantly outplayed at home, excepting a few poor mistakes by the Huskies.

Gemmell: There are only three undefeated teams left in the Pac-12. Stanford is one of them. Washington isn’t. Can't make it anymore black and white than that.

The column was about records and whether the rest of the league has closed the gap enough to challenge Oregon and Stanford and possibly derail a meeting of undefeated teams on Nov. 7. In that regard, the piece was 100 percent accurate -- because neither Stanford nor Oregon has lost. Both still have to play UCLA, the league’s other undefeated team.

It didn’t mention your examples because it was a conference-wide piece, not a game-specific column. But it also didn’t mention that Washington trailed the entire game. It didn’t mention the 18-play, 73-yard drive that ate up 5 minutes, 37 seconds and ended in an interception, and it didn’t mention that the most penalized team in the conference added 10 more penalties for 89 yards.

The “a few poor mistakes” rationale speaks to the point of the column. The upper-tier teams are able to overcome “a few poor mistakes” or they simply don’t make them. And last time I checked special teams were still a major part of the game. It wasn’t just Montgomery’s two long kick returns. How about the 12-play, 88-yard drive Washington strung together at the end of the first half. Fantastic drive. Huge momentum changer … followed by a pooch kickoff that gives Stanford the ball at the 39. Then 52 seconds later the Cardinal answered.

This game was exactly what we thought it would be -- a hard-fought game between two good teams. But if Washington wants to take the next step and contend for conference titles, these are the types of games it has to win.

It sounds like you're more peeved with the headline than the story. And if that's the case, I'll take the fall for that one. It was 1:30 a.m. and I needed something that fit on one line. If that's your biggest gripe, I can live with that.


Pete in Austin, Texas writes: What do you think the take home message is from the UW-Stanford game? I think UW is greatly improved over last year, but UW did beat Stanford last year maybe they are just a tough match-up for the Cardinal.

Gemmell: This UW team is a heck of a lot better than last year’s team. I don’t think they are a tough match-up for Stanford -- I think they are going to be a tough matchup for everyone this year. Last year’s Washington team struggled on the road and grappled with consistency (largely in part because of injuries). I think this year’s team is really, really legit. And if it didn’t play in the Pac-12 North, it could compete for a division title in just about any other division in college football.

But that’s what makes the Pac-12 North so darn tough. Washington might be the third best team in the division. The takeaway is that the rest of the country recognizes Washington’s legitimacy as well -- which is why they were only dinged one spot in the polls.

Heck, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News has Washington at No. 10 this week. Jon and I were discussing his ballot after the game walking back to our cars and he felt like Washington gained a measure of respect with their performance. A lot of voters tended to agree.

Feel bad that you lost the game and missed an opportunity to make the jump to North Division elite status. But be happy that your team showed it can do it on the road. After all, there is always this week to make another statement.


Matt in San Francisco writes: Not surprisingly, many Cal fans are entering full meltdown mode after the loss to WSU. I am trying to stay more grounded, because this is a young team that has been absolutely decimated by injuries. What is the perspective from the outside? Is it really as bad as it seems? Am I overly optimistic? Is Cal on the precipice of a tailspin, or is this just a rebuilding year?

Gemmell: For now, I’d qualify it as a rebuilding year. When we did the preseason media poll, I had Cal last in the Pac-12 North simply because I thought Washington State was going to be improved in Year 2 under Mike Leach. As you note, Cal is heavy on the youth. And when you combine that with two completely new systems, one of the toughest schedules in the country and then all of those unexpected injuries, the end result is what you have now.

It’s never as bad as you think it is -- especially in-season, when it always feels worse. When you look at the rest of Cal’s schedule, you have to wonder how many -- if any -- FBS wins are out there.

Give Sonny Dykes a little bit of time to let his system take flight (no pun intended) and if you are still in this hole at the end of next year, then we can talk tailspins.


Fat_O_Line in Springfield, Ore., writes: Kevin help me out here.. How does Ted in power rankings place Stanford ahead of Oregon but in top 25 places them ahead of Stanford? I need to hear the rationale.

Gemmell: Same answer as last week, and the week before, and the week before. The power rankings are a direct reflection of where the teams are after this weekend and are independent of the top 25 rankings.

Ted’s rationale for the move this week was a direct reflection of a guy with an Oregon bumper sticker cutting him off Sunday morning on the Pima Freeway in Scottsdale.

Ted told me of this great insult, to which I replied “No, Ted. You're better than that. You can’t change the power rankings just because of something so arbitrary and capricious.”

“You and your fancy words, Gemmell," he snarled. "You think you're so perspicacious. Watch me."

Then he hung up. We haven't spoken since.

Pac-12 top 25 for 2013: No. 1

August, 30, 2013
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s top 25 preseason players in 2013 concludes.

A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won’t make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.

You can review our 2012 postseason top 25 here.

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

2012 numbers: In his redshirt freshman year, Mariota was the league’s most efficient passer and second nationally per ESPN’s QBR rating. He completed 68.5 percent of his throws for 32 touchdowns and 2,677 yards with only six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 57.8 yards on the ground. And yes, we didn’t forget, he caught one ball for two yards and a touchdown. That was the beginning of the end for the dynamic Bryan Bennett-to-Marcus Mariota connection.

2012 postseason ranking: No. 1

Making the case for Mariota: He ended 2012 as our No. 1, and we see no reason to penalize him for getting better in the off season. Yes, he should be even better in 2013. With an outstanding line and cast of players around him like De'Anthony Thomas, Colt Lyerla, Josh Huff and a surging Byron Marshall, expect Mariota to build off his incredible numbers that made him an All-American honorable mention last season. Look for the postseason accolades to increase as well -- maybe even the bronze guy with the stiff arm. It's fun to wonder what his numbers might have looked like last year had he not sat out of the second half of a few games because Oregon couldn't help but put up 40-plus points in the first half. And given Oregon's early schedule in 2013 -- it's possible we could see Mark Helfrich treat his quarterback the same way Chip Kelly did last year. Still, as long as he’s running Oregon’s offense with fantastic precision, he’ll put up the kind of dual-threat numbers that Heisman voters love. The fact that Oregon starts the year ranked in the top five and will be a national championship contender helps. In this quarterback-driven league, Mariota stands at the top of his position and the top of our preseason list.

2. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
4. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
6. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
7. Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
8. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
9. David Yankey, OG, Stanford
10. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
11. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
12. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
13. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
14. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
15. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
16. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
17. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
18. Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
19. Morgan Breslin, OLB, USC
20. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
21. Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
22. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
23. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
24. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
25. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford

Pac-12 top 25 for 2013: No. 8

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s top 25 preseason players in 2013 continues.

A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won’t make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.

You can review our 2012 postseason top 25 here.

8. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon

2012 numbers: Was Oregon’s fourth-leading tackler last season with 63 stops. Broke up 16 passes and was seventh nationally in passes defended (20). He had four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. He also forced six fumbled and recovered another.

2012 postseason ranking: No. 18

Making the case for Ekpre-Olomu: Emerged as one of the premier defensive players in the country last year and was a turnover machine with his four picks and six forced fumbles. Now he comes into 2013 regarded by many as the top cornerback prospect in the country. Much like Ed Reynolds' numbers are bolstered with safety Jordan Richards playing along side him at Stanford, Ekpre-Olomu certainly benefits from Terrance Mitchell playing across the field. Together, they make up the most feared cornerback tandem in the country and with teams throwing away from Mitchell last year, Ekpre-Olomu made the most of his opportunities, earning third-team All-America honors. This might be the best Oregon secondary in school history. And with the Ducks returning their entire defensive backfield from a year ago (a group that led the country in interceptions) look for them to again be one of the top secondaries in the country with Ekpre-Olomu again in the mix for All-American honors.

9. David Yankey, OG, Stanford
10. Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
11. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
12. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
13. Austin Seferian Jenkins, TE, Washington
14. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
15. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
16. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
17. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
18. Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
19. Morgan Breslin, OLB, USC
20. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
21. Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
22. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
23. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
24. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
25. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford

Pac-12 defenses closing the gap

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
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Changing the perception of a league is no easy task. And for the Pac-12, bucking its offense-first image may never happen.

As long as Oregon keeps gobbling up points by the minute and yards by the mile; as long as Rich Rodriguez does what RichRod does and there are Air Raids and Bear Raids about, offense will always be associated with the Pac-12. As long as De’Anthony Thomas and Marion Grice can score from anywhere; as long as Marqise Lee keeps turning a 4-yard slant into an 80-yard touchdown; as long as Ka’Deem Carey is running wild and Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley are burning up stat sheets, Pac-12 defenses will continue to be overshadowed.

And yet …

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesUCLA linebacker Anthony Barr leads an impressive group of defenders in the Pac-12.
“I would love to see an all-star game with our conference’s defensive players on the same team,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “I think it would be phenomenal, and scary. Anthony Barr is borderline unblockable. Will Sutton gets in the backfield seemingly every play, single block, double block, whatever. Morgan Breslin, Sutton and Ben Gardner on the line and Shayne Skov sideline to sideline with Barr coming off the edge.

“Maybe we’re getting to a golden era for defensive players in this conference because you’ve got good defensive units and some really elite standout players.”

Last season, five Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 15 nationally in sacks per game including Stanford (first), Arizona State (second), USC (fourth), UCLA (eighth) and Washington State (14th). That’s up from three teams in the top 20 in 2011, two teams in the top 20 in 2010 and zero teams in the top 10 in 2009.

ASU and Stanford were first and second, respectively, in tackles for a loss per game, and WSU and USC ranked in the top 11. It’s a given that a lot of points will be scored in the Pac-12. But defenses are making it tougher.

“It’s been an interesting evolution,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, the dean of the Pac-12 who is entering his 13th season. “What you’re seeing is a premium on speed and guys with a lot of flexibility. There are still big people that need to play on the interior. But your edges -- if you’re going to lead the league in sacks -- then having a great edge rusher is always at a premium.”

Guys like the aforementioned Barr, Sutton and Breslin, Stanford’s Trent Murphy, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, Cal's Deandre Coleman and ASU’s Carl Bradford are in that conversation. All of them are expected to rank among the nation’s best in sacks and TFLs. That should make for a heated debate when picking the league’s defensive player of the year.

And who says it will be someone from the front seven? Four Pac-12 teams were among the top 20 in interceptions last year, and Oregon led the country. The Ducks have the nation’s best cornerback duo with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, while Stanford boasts the outstanding safety tandem of Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards. Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy, USC’s Dion Bailey and WSU’s Deone Bucannon are also elite safeties.

Washington might have the best young defensive player in the league in Shaq Thompson.

“You can have a high-powered offense that puts up big points, but if you can’t stop anybody, it’s anyone’s game,” said Sutton. “With a great defense, you can accomplish anything.”

Those who follow the league know there have been great defenses in the past. Washington in the early '90s and Arizona’s Bear Down defense come to mind. Behind all of USC’s Heisman quarterbacks a decade ago were outstanding defenses.

“I think what we’re starting to see is the individual players and coordinators starting to get some notoriety,” said Shaw, whose team ranked fifth nationally against the run last year -- an amazing statistic considering the running backs they faced in 2012. “When Oregon started being really good and scoring a ton of points, people didn’t realize they were keeping people from scoring too and playing great defense. To this day I still think they have the most underrated defensive coordinator [Nick Aliotti] in the country.”

One of the major challenges of being a defensive coach in the Pac-12 is the diversity of offenses. Oregon’s spread is considered run-based, yet the Ducks had the most efficient passing attack in the league. Arizona’s spread is considered pass-based, yet its running back led the nation in rushing. Stanford is considered “conventional” with its pro-style, but it’ll use personnel groups with seven offensive linemen.

“I don’t even know what pro-style means anymore,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “The perceptions are distorted. You can break down a spread offense or a pro-style and they’ll have the same route concepts. There are only so many. But the formations are different. The personnel is different. The motion before the snap is different. The league has so many speed athletes so one of the reasons we play a 3-4 is to get more speed athletes on the field.”

It’s time, says Bucannon, to let rest of the country know the Pac-12 can play a little defense, too.

“We have fast, up-tempo teams and marquee offensive players. At the same time, there are some great defensive players on that side of the ball,” he said. “And we refuse to be overshadowed.”

Pac-12 teams getting defensive

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
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T.J. McDonald, Star Lotulelei, Shayne SkovUS PresswireThe Pac-12 boasts some of the best defensive talent in the country: USC safety T.J. McDonald, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov.
In the depths of their offices, some of the best offensive minds in college football are grinding.

Chip Kelly is pondering how to get 10 more plays per game out of his offense.

Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach are re-re-revolutionizing their attacks.

David Shaw is trying to figure out how to get nine offensive linemen, five tight ends and three fullbacks on the field at once.

Lane Kiffin has more offensive toys than an FAO Schwarz display.

"Option, option spread, I, heavy-I, pistol, triple-backs, full house, triple tights; it's something new every week," said Oregon linebacker Michael Clay. "It makes every week pretty interesting."

The Pac-12 is widely regarded as the conference of offenses. And they are only getting better. Prior to 1990, only twice has a team led the conference with a scoring average of more than 40 points. Since 1990, it's happened nine times -- including USC's conference best of 49.1 points per game in 2005.

That means being a defensive player in the Pac-12 is awfully difficult.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillKyle Whittingham says his defense must be able to adapt to the different offenses in the Pac-12.
"You get Andrew Luck one week and then Matt Barkley the next," said USC safety T.J. McDonald. "The preparation is on a whole other level compared to other conferences. There are great quarterbacks and great receivers and running backs. But the culture of this conference has changed. They've forced defenses to get better."

As the spread offense became chic and more teams were stretching defenses, they were forced to respond in kind. Gone are the days of everyone lining up in a base 4-3 and slugging it out. Now defenses are evolving into multiple fronts, exotic and disguised coverages and zone blitzes.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham should know. He and UCLA coach Jim Mora are the only head coaches in the conference with a defensive background.

"We're definitely the minority," Whittingham said with a laugh. "It's a broad spectrum. Defensively, in this day and age, you have to be able to defend it all anyways. When the spread became en vogue 10-12 years ago it caught on like wildfire. Now almost everyone has a version of it. You have to be equipped to deal with whatever you come across week in and week out and have a scheme that is flexible enough and adaptable enough that you can cover all of your bases.

"Things go in cycles. The spread becomes en vogue and takes a while for the defense to catch up. Then the zone blitz was giving offenses fits and the offenses had to catch up to that. I think everything in football is cyclical and if offense has the upper hand right now, it won't be too further down the road where that role is reversed."

And that time might be coming sooner than later. Utah, California, USC, Oregon and Stanford all have defenses that are very good and bordering on elite. But the numbers don't always add up because in this conference, you are going to give up yards and you are going to give up points.

"Part of it is innovation," Shaw said. "Part of it is Chip Kelly and Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez. The thing is, you can use the word 'spread' offense for half the teams in our conference, but they are all different. You can say 'pro-style' offense, which is what you would say about us and USC, but they are so different. The hard part of playing defense in our conference is every single week, you are playing against something you didn't see the week before.

"Cal has a pro-style offense. But their passing is different than our pass game and their running is different than our running game. And theirs is different from USC's. You are going to play a nine-game conference schedule and every single offense you play is going to be completely different. Defensive coordinators -- and we've got a really good group in this conference -- defensive coordinators and players have to flush a lot of what you watched the week before and study film hard the next week because you're going to see a different animal."

The conference also has the players to back up the defensive hype. Stanford linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are projected as two of the best at their positions. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is regarded as the best defensive tackle in the nation and McDonald is a returning All-American.

And while perception might never really change nationally since the conference keeps chugging out A-list offensive players, Washington quarterback Keith Price says he's seen the difference.

"The difference between us and some of those other conferences is the defensive linemen," Price said. "We've always had good skill players. They say the trenches is what separates the SEC from the other conferences. But you can see now that our conference is starting to get there. When you look at teams like Cal and Utah, their defensive lines are really tough."

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