Oregon Ducks: Terrance Mitchell

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.

Pac-12 at NFL combine: Tuesday recap

February, 26, 2014
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Before Washington State safety Deone Bucannon made his way to Indianapolis for the NFL combine, he said he wanted to be a first-round pick.

While the first round still seems like a bit of a reach, Bucannon certainly helped his cause Tuesday with an impressive display of athleticism across the board. He turned in the day's fastest 40 time among the Pac-12's six defensive backs that participated (4.49) and ranked in the top-three among safeties in the 40, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump and three-cone drill.

NFL Network's Mike Mayock ranks Bucannon as the draft's No. 5 safety:
"He's got size, and he's got four years of high-quality production," Mayock said. Bucannon, who measured 6-1 and 211 pounds, had 383 tackles and 15 interceptions in his Cougars career. "I like him in the box, but he has the range to play on the back end," Mayock said.
Utah cornerback Keith McGill, who drew solid reviews at the Senior Bowl, also seemingly helped his draft stock by running 4.51 in the 40. Equally impressive was his 39-inch vertical leap which, at 6-foot-3, makes McGill a unique combination of athleticism and size.

McGill fits the mold mentioned here by ESPN's John Clayton:
The other bonus is the draft class offers corners with decent size and long arms. Many teams want to copy what the Seahawks have done with Richard Sherman and others. Going to a man-to-man scheme on the outside of a defense that uses a three-deep zone is going to be the trend if defenses can find the type of corners to run those strategies.

Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks probably made himself quite a bit of money after running the fastest 40-time among receivers over the weekend, but added $100,000 to his bounty because he did it wearing adidas cleats. The shoe company offered up that amount to whatever player at the combine clocked the fastest 40 time wearing its cleats. Kent State's Dri Archer ran the fast time, but wasn't wearing adidas.

Former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla earned a payoff of $10,000 from adidas for running the fastest 40 at his position group.

Here are how the defensive backs did in the 40 and bench press:

Cornerback

McGill, Utah: 4.51/did not lift
Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State: 4.51/20 reps
Terrance Mitchell, Oregon: 4.63/did not lift

Safety

Bucannon, Washington State: 4.49/19 reps
Ed Reynolds, Stanford: 4.57/15 reps
Dion Bailey, USC: 4.66/did not lift

Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.

Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal

The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.

Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal

The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.

Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal

The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.

Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal

The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.

Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal

The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.

Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)

The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDe'Anthony Thomas' unique set of skills will be hard for Oregon to replicate.
Leaving: De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.

Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).

The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.

Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon

The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.

Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State

The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.

Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.

Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergStanford has a lot of offensive linemen with experience, but replacing an All-American such as David Yankey is never easy.
The replacement: A member of Stanford’s lauded offensive line recruiting class of 2012, Joshua Garnett has already seen his share of playing time. That’s one of the big advantages of being an offensive lineman at Stanford. With their multiple offensive-linemen sets, there is plenty of rotation. Then again, Yankey was a two-time All-American -- it's tough to replace that.

Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford

The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.

Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford

The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.

Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington

The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.

Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington

The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.
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.
While a number of big-name players opted to stick around for another year of Pac-12, most notably Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, UCLA QB Brett Hundley and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion, the conference was hit hard by early defections.

Here's the complete list of Pac-12 players who entered the NFL draft despite remaining eligibility.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
Brendan Bigelow, RB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE, California
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Viliami Moala, DT, California
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (was kicked off the team in October)
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Cameron Fleming, OT, Stanford
Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Grimble, TE, USC
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington


Season review: Oregon

January, 9, 2014
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We continue our team-by-team review of the Pac-12 with Oregon.

[+] EnlargeMariota
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsA healthy Marcus Mariota made a huge difference for the Oregon offense.
Offense: Things were going pretty well there, for a while. The Ducks stormed out of the gates and scored at least 50 points in their first five games and in six of their first seven. Then Marcus Mariota quietly, partially, tore his MCL and Oregon’s offensive decline was evident. They went from scoring an average of 57.5 points per game in the first seven to 31.3 over the final six. Still, they averaged more than 45 points per game, which was fourth nationally, and they were a top-10 rushing team and a top-25 passing team. All in all, the Ducks were again one of the most dominant offensive teams in the country. Obviously, as Mariota goes, so go the Ducks. In the first seven games, pre-injury, he was completing 62 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns, zero interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 95.3. He also had nine rushing touchdowns. Post-injury, his completion percentage actually went up to 64 percent because he wasn’t running, but that also means he had zero rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns, four interceptions and an adjusted QBR of 79.9 percent. Still, he finished as the national leader in adjusted QBR, Byron Marshall was a 1,000-yard rusher and Josh Huff and Bralon Addison were a vicious receiving duo. Aside from a couple of games, the Ducks offense was explosive and potent. Grade: A

Defense: Stanford and Arizona used similar tactics in their wins over the Ducks. Run, rinse, repeat. Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 45 times and Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were as advertised, combining for eight interceptions and Derrick Malone posted a team-high 105 tackles with two interceptions. Avery Patterson also pitched in three picks as the Ducks were plus-seven in turnover margin. But the lingering problem all year was third-down defense, where the Ducks allowed teams to convert better than 40 percent of the time -- which was 10th in the conference. In the games when things got tight, the defense wasn’t able to get off the field. Grade: B

Special teams: The kicking game is always an, ahem, adventure, when it comes to the Ducks. But this year things were a little more consistent. Matt Wogan was a solid 7 of 9 and Alejandro Maldonado was 3 of 5. Though neither converted a kick beyond 40 yards (Wogan attempted only one and missed, Maldonado didn’t attempt any). Plus, there were three missed PATs on the year (Wogan missed two, Maldonado one). Maldonado was solid at punting and the kick return and coverage teams were steady. Addison returned two punts for touchdowns and De’Anthony Thomas returned one kick for a score. Grade: B+

Overall: Again, we base a lot of these grades on what the expectation was versus where the team finished. And despite an 11-win season, the Ducks, once thought to be a national championship contender, failed to meet those expectations. In fact, they failed to make it to a BCS bowl game. The loss to Stanford was viewed as disappointing -- but certainly not shocking. The loss to Arizona was head-scratching. And from a public relations standpoint, the Ducks didn’t have a great year. Still, they did win their bowl game and finished ranked in the top 10. There’s something to be said for that. And we’re in no way calling Mark Helfrich’s first year as coach a bust. He won a bowl game in his first year – which Chip Kelly never did -- and probably learned a few lessons along the way. When you have a title-game-or-bust mentality, every loss is heart-wrenching. But we also understand that injuries can impact a team -- especially injuries to a Heisman-contending quarterback. Grade: B.

Early entry talent drain for Pac-12

January, 6, 2014
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While the return of UCLA QB Brett Hundley for his redshirt junior season was the weekend's big news, an early-entry to the NFL draft talent drain is hitting the Pac-12 hard.

While a number of big-name players have not yet formally announced their intensions -- such as Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford OG David Yankey, Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Arizona State LB Carl Bradford and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion -- already 17 players have announced they will give up their remaining eligibility to turn professional.

The deadline to declare is Jan. 15.

There has been good news at quarterback. Hundley joins Oregon's Marcus Mariota as pretty significant surprises that they opted to return to school, and that means the 2014 class of Pac-12 quarterbacks will be without peer in the nation by a wide margin.

Here's the early-entry list so far:

Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon*
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE California
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah

*Lyerla was kicked off the team at Oregon in October.

Lunch links: Draft declarations

January, 3, 2014
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Happy Friday.

What are Oregon's weaknesses?

October, 23, 2013
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Oregon is terrible on fourth down. The Ducks have converted on just seven of 18 fourth-down plays this year. Their 38.9 conversion rate ranks 10th in the Pac-12, behind struggling teams like Colorado and California.

We point that out because that's about the only thing Oregon isn't doing well right now.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon appears to have no glaring weaknesses, yet first-year coach Mark Helfrich says the Ducks can get better in every phase.
The Pac-12 keeps track of 33 statistical categories, covering offense, defense, special teams, penalties, turnovers, etc. The Ducks rank first in the conference in 11 categories, including the two most important: scoring offense and scoring defense. They rank in the top three in 18 categories. Most of the categories they are not doing well in -- time of possession, onside kicks, opponent penalties -- evoke a "neh."

Others are deceptive. Oregon ranks sixth in total defense but is No. 1 in the far more revealing stat of average yards surrendered per play, where they rank eighth in the nation at 4.46 yards. The Ducks are 10th in red-zone offense, but their touchdown percentage in the red zone -- 72.1 percent -- ranks second.

This seems like a team with few, if any, holes. So what are the Ducks' weaknesses?

"I haven't seen any," said California coach Sonny Dyke, whose Bears lost 55-16 at Oregon on Sept. 28. "They are incredibly fast. I think the difference this year is they are throwing the ball so much better. Their receivers are faster, bigger, stronger, more physical, making more plays than in the past."

In the preseason, there were three questions about Oregon: 1. How would Mark Helfrich do stepping in for Chip Kelly? 2. What would be the pecking order at running back and how would De'Anthony Thomas be used? 3. How would the Ducks replace the dynamic linebacking troika of Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay?

Check, check and check.

The 7-0 record, No. 2 ranking in the national polls -- No. 3 in the BCS standings -- and 40-point average margin of victory suggest that Helfrich is doing fairly well. He might be a softer touch than Kelly -- though he's not afraid to tweak a reporter or two -- but he's not taking any mercy on the field.

Running back? The bottom line is the Ducks are No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 332.4 yards per game, 17 yards better than last year's average, and they've done that with DAT missing the last four games with an injury. Backups Byron Marshall and true freshman Thomas Tyner are both averaging 6.7 yards per carry and have combined for 16 touchdowns. Marshall, a sophomore, ranks 19th in the nation with 106.6 yards rushing per game.

Linebacker? Tony Washington, who replaced Jordan, has nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Jordan had 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012. Derrick Malone leads the Ducks in tackles with 59. And, really, the bottom line is the defensive numbers, including a run defense that ranks 22nd in the nation.

"I think [the Ducks defense is] certainly the best they've been," Dykes said. "The secondary is really, really good. They are good at linebacker and they are pretty active up front."

Of course, Dykes is a first-year Pac-12 coach who hasn't been dealing with Oregon during its rise to consistent top-five team, though he was Arizona's offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2009. If we're going to ask whether this version of Oregon might be the best yet, we need to ask someone who's seen them all.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose Huskies have lost 10 in a row to Oregon, including five defeats during his tenure, let out a big breath when asked if this was the Ducks' best team.

"Hooof," he said. "We've played some pretty good ones. I think the balance they have on offense is probably the best that they've been."

The general consensus is Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' best quarterback during its recent run. He might, in fact, as former Ducks All-American QB Joey Harrington recently volunteered, be the best in program history. Mariota brings a dangerous downfield passing game to a longstanding dominance running the ball. As for the defense, it's very good, though it remains to be seen whether it's as good as the 2010 unit or even the talented crew of 2012 that battled numerous injuries.

Still, every coach who has played the Ducks probably feels there's something he wishes he might have attacked more or tried to exploit.

"I think there is a lot of places," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "There's always a lot of places."

Washington State lost 62-38 at Oregon last weekend, with Leach's Cougars adding two late touchdowns to make the gap less dramatic. Quarterback Connor Halliday set a number of Pac-12 and NCAA passing records in the game -- he completed 58 of 89 passes for 557 yards -- but also threw four interceptions, one of which Terrance Mitchell returned 51 yards for a touchdown.

"Oregon is really fast," Leach said, echoing a common theme. "As you play Oregon, everything they do -- they can reel plays in quicker. They react to everything quicker. Very explosive... Oregon hits you in the mouth when you throw one up."

Of course, speculating on Oregon's seeming lack of weaknesses and its standing among other accomplished Ducks teams is a mostly a meaningless academic exercise when five regular season games remain ahead, including a visit Saturday from No. 12 UCLA. In fact, the next five Pac-12 games (combined opponent record of 26-7) are far tougher than the first four (combined record of 12-16).

Helfrich isn't really biting, either. When asked about areas of concern, he pointed back to the preseason questions and implied the jury is still out at linebacker.

Yet his overriding conclusion sounded very Chip Kelly-ish, while also offering plenty of room to read between the lines.

"I think everything," he said. "In every phase we can get better, starting with me, everything we do."

That's either coachspeak -- we need to get better every day -- or carries a more ominous implication: No weaknesses? Best Oregon team? You haven't seen anything yet.

Week 8 helmet stickers

October, 20, 2013
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EUGENE -- Several Oregon players put up big numbers against Washington State on Saturday, though they didn’t quite match the eye-popping 58-of-89 for 557 yards WSU quarterback Connor Halliday put up. But the Ducks were able to pick off Halliday four times, and the Oregon offense displayed much more balance. Here are some top Oregon performers from Week 8:

RB Byron Marshall: Marshall continues to impress since De’Anthony Thomas went down. In Saturday's game, Marshall had 21 rushes for 192 yards, an average of 9.1 yards per carry. He rushed for three touchdowns and also caught two passes for 54 yards, even though one of those catches was negated by a fumble. That equals 246 total yards.

DE Tony Washington: The junior had a monster first half, recording six unassisted tackles and two sacks on the night.

S Terrance Mitchell: The junior had fewer tackles than some of his teammates, but was he one of four Ducks to record an interception. And what an interception it was in the fourth quarter. After the Halliday pass was tipped, Mitchell alertly scooped it up. That by itself would have been a nice play. But he made it a great play by eluding some tackles along the sideline, then popping over the middle and zipping in 51 yards for the pick-6.
Welcome to the second half.

Greg in Salt Lake City writes: "If you don't like where you are in the Power Rankings, play better." Oh, like maybe beat No. 5 Stanford? Done. Wait, that didn't really help. Utah is a few turnovers away from being undefeated, they get better every week and just beat Stanford. Because Power Rankings take the most recent games into account more we should definitely be ahead of Oregon State and Washington -- neither of which has beat a team that is still ranked. I would think a former MWC guy would show a little more respect ;)

Kevin Gemmell: I appreciate the passion, Greg. I really do. And I particularly appreciate the emoticon wink. And as a former MWC guy, I've followed Utah's rise in that conference and transition to the Pac-12 with great interest.

For the record, it did help. You moved up from seventh to sixth in this week’s Power Rankings.

No, you shouldn’t be ahead of Oregon State or Washington. You lost to Oregon State. Any way you slice it, the Beavers have more wins and beat you at home. As for Washington, we’ll find out more about them this week when the Huskies travel to Arizona State. Washington lost to Stanford on the road by a field goal. You beat Stanford at home by two field goals. Washington’s two losses have been to top-five teams. Utah’s losses have been to a top 15 team and an unranked team. Plus Utah has had the luxury of not having to go out of state yet.

I think the Stanford win was a critical stepping stone for the Utes, but it’s how they follow it up that will be extremely telling.

This isn’t the Mountain West where the entire season boils down to one game against TCU. You beat Stanford. Great. Now can you go on the road and beat Arizona? At USC? Can you avenge the beating you took last year from ASU? Can you win at Autzen?

Recall Washington scored two wins over top-10 teams last year, but still finished with seven wins and the season was perceived as unsuccessful. If Utah fails to make it to the postseason, how much does this one win really mean? Not a whole lot. You'll be viewed as the team that just caught Stanford on a bad day on the road rather than a team that is climbing the Pac-12 pecking order.

It was a good win. What are you going to do with it?

Ducku03 in Eugene writes: Hey Kevin I've been reading a lot about that Heisman Moment that takes a candidate over the top. It seems to me that all of these moments, the media talks about, are come-from-behind moments that give their team a miraculous win. Isn't it a little unfair to degrade a Heisman campaign just because your team is always ahead in the fourth quarter such as the case for Marcus Mariota?

Kevin Gemmell: Aside from “mandatory” and “colonoscopy,” there are no two words put together that irk me more than “Heisman” and “moment.” It’s a sham. A fluke. Just as I railed in last week’s mailbag about one play being a determining factor in a game, one moment doesn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t determine something as important as a Heisman.

I can think of about two dozen Heisman moments for Marcus Mariota already. And, as you noted, none of them involved a come-from-behind victory. That’s because he’s got his team so far ahead.

I’ve written a couple of times on the Heisman in recent years. It’s a completely subjective award that is open to all kinds of interpretation. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I happen to disagree with how some people go about their voting process. That’s what makes the Heisman so controversial. As I noted in 2011, Andrew Luck had plenty of Heisman moments, they just weren’t “traditional” Heisman moments.

I don’t think Mariota’s campaign will be slowed down if the Ducks don’t have a come-from-behind-fourth-quarter win. What he’s done so far has been too impressive. Obviously, the Stanford game will be of significance. It will be nationally televised and East Coast voters should stay up to watch.

The whole Heisman exercise has gotten out of hand. It’s taken on such a life of its own that it’s essentially downgraded the importance of some other awards like the Maxwell and Walter Camp, the Outland and the Rimington. I hate that the metrics aren’t there for linemen or defensive players to win it. And the spread offense has completely slanted the playing field in favor of quarterbacks. The whole process feels less like a celebration of greatness and more like, well, a mandatory colonoscopy.

Tommy Trojan in a beach chair on the beach writes: I know and the USC faithful know how important a win against ND this weekend is for the future of the program and for the rivalry. What does a USC win mean in the world of the Pac-12 down the stretch?

Kevin Gemmell: In terms of the standings, not a whole lot. In terms of their perception, it’s huge. USC’s brand has taken a huge hit over the last 12 months. With that comes negative recruiting from other schools and a general uneasy feeling about the state of the program.

But USC is still a brand. And it will endure. Because there are always going to be elite athletes who want to come to USC.

The Trojans aren’t out of the South Division hunt yet, but they’ll need some help along the way. All they can do is hope to win out and restore the confidence of the fan base and potential future Trojan players. Winning at Notre Dame would be a huge first step toward rebuilding that.

Chris in Foresthill, Calif. writes: Sonny Dykes is on record that Cal has the prerequisites “location, facilities, weather, academics and access to state-wide and national talent” to be a national championship contender. I don’t see it due to the predominance of pro sports in the Bay Area. In three to five years, do you see Cal as a contender, pretender or also-ran?

Kevin Gemmell: I think what we have right now, this year, with Cal is the perfect storm of a young team adjusting to new schemes, a horrific string of injuries and one of the toughest schedules in the country.

The Bears have been able to move the ball, they just haven’t been able to score. I still think the skill position players are really good, they just haven’t been able to translate it on the field on Saturdays.

Losing 10 of 11 potential starters on defense doesn't help. Dykes said today that he's never seen this many season-ending injuries in one year in his career.

In three to five years I think Cal should certainly be a mainstay in the postseason. Cal has too many advantages not to, at the very least, be a six-win team. I’m cutting Dykes and Co. some slack simply because of all the dice loaded against them this season. But there are still six opportunities left for progress. And six opportunities for a lot of younger players to get some valuable experience.

Don in Newberg, Ore. writes: Kevin, Most impressive aspect of the Ducks' win @ Washington? When the season started, there was no argument that Oregon's best three offensive players were Mariota, DAT and Lyerla. They beat the Dawgs without two of those three. That says something.

Kevin Gemmell: I’d argue that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell were right up there in terms of preseason hype. And so far Oregon’s secondary has been beastly. I’d say that was the most impressive aspect.

Keith Price did what he could, but the Ducks held him to his lowest output of the season in terms of yards and touchdowns. His longest pass was 28 yards. His completion percentage was below 60 percent for just the second time this year (the Arizona rain game was his lowest).

For as much as people want to talk about what Oregon is doing on offense -- and full disclosure, I’m one of those guys talking about their offense -- the defense has quietly been one of the best in league. Just as it was quietly one of the best in the league last year, and the year before that. They are allowing a league-low 13.8 points per game and have only allowed four touchdowns in the air. Be impressed with the offense. But don’t forget what the guys on the other side of the ball are doing.

Darin in Monterey, Calif. writes: I have a couple of questions about QBR ratings. Can you explain to me how you get a high QBR rating? Mariotta has an average of 96 or something like that and Mannion only has 82. When Oregon State played Colorado Mannion only recorded a QBR of 61, while scoring 6 TDs. … I understand that Colorado isn't exactly a powerhouse, but Mariotta scored a 96 QBR against Nicholls St. while throwing less touchdowns and about the same pass completions. So, what’s the difference?

Kevin Gemmell: You basically have two different QBR ratings. One is raw QBR, the other is adjusted QBR. Adjusted takes into account the strength of opponent and various other factors.

Essentially, it boils down to how much of a contribution did the quarterback make? What was his completion percentage on first, second or third down? What were the circumstances under which a touchdown was scored?

Here’s the complete guide to the QBR that fully explains it all. It’s a lot to take in, and requires reading it a few times. But once it all settles, you’ll start to look at QB stats differently.

Like all stats, it’s not a complete representation of the player. But it’s, in my opinion, the best statistical measuring stick out there.

Scappoozer in Scappoose, Ore. writes: I won't say I told you so. I like your coverage of Pac-12 football and a little homerism to boot but you and Ted have never jumped on your potential champions bandwagon the way the SEC bloggers have never wavered over Alabama. You start your article by saying Oregon is the national title contender we thought they were, huh? Last week Ted puts Stanford back to No. 1 in the Power Rankings? Pick a team and stick with them. Win the Decade is soooo sweet. You drank the Washington Kool-aid, yes they are a good team but pupil of the spread was not ready to beat the teacher of the spread. I've said all along Stanford is too slow and it showed, Washington might be better. I just felt like nationally and through voting the rest of the nation were closer to reality than the Pac-12 bloggers I follow. Washington was overrated and you guys always had them ranked too high and they are not ready to compete for a national championship let alone a Pac-12 championship. Our local reporters can't even pronounce our QB's name correctly, it's MARIO-TA. Go Ducks!

Kevin Gemmell: First off, the “I told you so” doesn't fly with me. I went back through my entire mailbag for the last six months and this is the first note I got from you. But I’m happy to answer it.

Second, I challenge you go to back through the blog and find a single instance where either Ted or I wrote that Washington was ready to compete for a national championship. I’ll save you the time. It’s not there. Neither of us ever wrote that.

Did Ted and I like Washington coming into the season? Yep. Still do. Did we expect them to be where they are right now? Yep. No shame in losing on the road to Stanford and at home to Oregon.

The Stanford is too slow argument doesn’t work, either. Does anyone really think Ty Montgomery looked slow the last couple of weeks?

Yes, Ted did put Stanford on top of the Power Rankings last week. As he noted, he and I squabbled over that decision. But since he gets the final byline, he pulled rank. Just as he had Paul Richardson at No. 10 in his midseason top 10 player re-ranking. But since I had the final byline, I swapped Richardson out for Montgomery and I pulled rank.

I get it. You’re excited about your team. We’re excited about them too. Coming into the season, we both felt it was 50-50 with Stanford and Oregon, and our only reservations where the coaching change. It’s clear now that Mark Helfrich has done a phenomenal job and the Ducks haven’t missed a beat. In fact, they’ve gotten better.

We've said all season long we thought the Pac-12 had two teams that could challenge for a national championship. Oregon was always one of those teams.

So go ahead and keep being excited for your team and their possible date with the BCS championship game. But don’t forget what happened last year when everyone said Stanford was down. All they did was run off 12 straight, beat Oregon in Eugene and win the Rose Bowl.

Be confident. Be excited. Be proud. But don’t get cocky until you’re holding a crystal ball.

That, my new friend from whom I expect to hear more, you can quote me on.

Helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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So which Ducks deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Marcus Mariota, QB: While Mariota wasn't terribly sharp early against Colorado, he still put up huge numbers. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 355 yards with five touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also rushed seven times for 43 yards with two touchdowns in the 57-16 victory. So, yeah, accounting for seven TDs is pretty good.

Bralon Addison, WR: Addison only caught five passes, but two went for TDs of 44 and 75 yards. He finished with 158 yards receiving.

Terrance Mitchell, CB: Mitchell got off to a slow start against Colorado's elite WR Paul Richardson, but he finished with two interceptions, six tackles and one pass breakups.

Pac-12 lunchtime links

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
2:30
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When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

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.”

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Friday, 12/26
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