USC concluded the second week of National University Holiday Bowl practices this past Sunday, and with the Trojans now set to transition into planning mode for Nebraska, here is a look at five things that stood out from those initial six sessions.

No lack of enthusiasm

Carrying the momentum over from the big 49-14 victory over rival Notre Dame, the entire Trojans' team was incredibly upbeat throughout the first two weeks of practice. Never was this more evident than during last Friday's session. The rain was pouring and it was cold, but that didn't seem to bother any of the players. In fact, they seemed to feed off the unusual Southern California weather, with a number of Trojans sliding on the turf, and freshman wide receiver JuJu Smith kicking practice off with an impromptu dance in the middle of Cromwell Field.

That kind of scene is a testament to the closeness of this year's USC squad, as well as to its leadership, and it reflects a general mood that stands in stark contrast to how things were at this point last year, when the team was reeling following the emotional departure of Ed Orgeron.

Let's get physical

With USC coach Steve Sarkisian and staff having not yet installed any elements of the game plan for the bowl, the name of the game throughout the first six workouts was competition, and it resulted in some of the most physical practices of the fall. Each session featured a heavy dose of 11-on-11 work marked by impassioned effort, as well as a number of big hits.

This past weekend, however, that physicality might have caught up with the Trojans as a number of players went to the sideline with injuries, although all indications point toward none of those being serious.

Youngsters make noise

Heading into the opening bowl workouts Sarkisian emphasized just how important these practices were going to be in regard to the development of the younger players on the team, and it's safe to say that those less experienced members received plenty of chances to show what they were made of.

Taking advantage of the increased opportunity, in particular, was a quartet of freshmen in cornerbacks Rahshead Johnson and Lamont Simmons, defensive lineman Malik Dorton and offensive lineman Chris Brown -- all of whom were singled out by Sarkisian at varying points in time for their play.

Another player who drew praise from the USC head coach was redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne, who took some limited reps with the No. 1 offense.

JuJu vs. Adoree'

Speaking of younger players, Smith and cornerback/receiver Adoree' Jackson have played more like seasoned veterans this fall than the true freshmen that they are, and it was their head-to-head battles during the early bowl practices that quickly developed into one of the overwhelming highlights each day.

Smith and Jackson -- who was recently named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year -- have gone toe-to-toe plenty this season, but the competition between the two seemed to reach a new level over the past two weeks, and even Sarkisian brought it up on more than one occasion. Lining up opposite each other throughout what seemed like a majority of each practice session, from the early one-on-one drills, to 7-on-7s and on into the 11-on-11 periods, both traded one big play after another, with each refusing to back down even for a second.

Uniquely talented and competitive players, it's going to be fun to watch both Smith and Jackson develop over the next few years. And with each of them there to continue pushing one another, there is little doubt that they're only going to get better and better.

Hawkins makes a move

The surprise of the early bowl game practices took place on Day 1, when, with Leon McQuay III sidelined, second-year freshman Chris Hawkins made a surprise switch from his normal cornerback position to safety. He remained there until this past Sunday when an ankle injury to Kevon Seymour forced Hawkins to slide back to the outside.

While at safety, Hawkins looked remarkably comfortable at the spot considering he hadn't lined up there since early in his high school career, and he came up with a highlight-reel pick-six in just his second day at the position. With the team lacking depth there, coupled with the fact he lost his starting spot at cornerback to Jackson early on this season, it potentially looks like a good move all-around.

It remains to be seen if Hawkins will remain at safety in the long-term, but both he and Sarkisian appear to be open to the possibility. The Trojans' head coach said that if they do decide to keep Hawkins at the position, a big emphasis this offseason will be placed on having him bulk up.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
8:00
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Bye bye Li'l Sebastian;
Miss you in the saddest fashion.
Bye bye Li'l Sebastian;
You’re 5,000 candles in the wind.

Leading off

Where they heck have you all been on the weekends? We've been at games. What's your excuse?

According to a report by Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, attendance has been down in college football across the country. And the Pac-12 is no exception, experiencing a 2-percent drop across the board. Solomon breaks it down by conference. Here's what he had to say about the Pac-12.
Crowds dropped 2 percent to 52,758 and they are down 10 percent since peaking in 2007. Pac-12 attendance leader UCLA ranked 19th nationally. Only four of 12 conference schools had an increase: UCLA, Arizona, Utah and Washington State. A couple of schools' decreases were very minor.

Solomon has attendance numbers for all FBS schools on a chart. It's worth a look to see who is trending up and down.

Future looks bright

At ESPN, we love lists. And we know you love them too. That makes the end of the year like, well, like Christmas. Here's another list for you -- the ESPN.com True Freshman All-America team.

A trio of frosh from the Pac-12 are on the team -- including Oregon running back Royce Freeman:
Freeman started the season by beating out both junior Byron Marshall and sophomore Thomas Tyner for the starting running back spot at Oregon. He finished the regular season by leading the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns (16) and racking up 1,299 rushing yards, becoming the first Oregon freshman to have a 1,000-yard-rushing season.

Also on the list were USC offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn and USC's Adoree' Jackson.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Good one, Kyle.



Pretty sweet.

A look at USC's opponent in the 2014 National University Holiday Bowl

Record: (9-3 overall, 5-3 in Big Ten)
Key wins: Miami, Iowa
Notable losses: Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Common USC opponent: Fresno State (USC won 52-13, Nebraska won 55-19)
Bowl history: 51st total appearance, 25 bowl wins, 4th Holiday Bowl (lost to Steve Sarkisian and Washington in 2010)
Series record with USC:
0-3-1 (most recent game, 2007)

Head coach: Barney Cotton is the interim coach after the firing of Bo Pelini. Cotton is a longtime fixture in the Cornhuskers program (he played at Nebraska, has been an assistant coach and also has a son on the team). Mike Riley is the new full-time coach of the team, but will not coach in the bowl game. Riley is also a former USC assistant coach.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsQB Tommy Armstrong Jr. and running back Ameer Abdullah provide big-play potential for Nebraska.
Team Outlook: Nebraska opened the season with a 5-0 record, including a promising victory against Miami, but then suffered a tough loss on the road against Michigan State in a game that saw the Cornhuskers make a comeback attempt after being down 27-3. The team appeared to get back on track with three conference wins, but then came back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers rolled up over 600 total yards, scored 56 unanswered points, and Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon set an NCAA record with 408 rushing yards. It was a stunning defeat for a proud program, and it was followed by a less-than-inspiring final home-game loss for the seniors against the Gophers. Not even an OT victory in the finale against Iowa, which guaranteed a seventh straight nine-win season, was enough to save Pelini’s job.

Offense: Nebraska runs multiple schemes with elements of read-option and spread at various times. It is ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing and scoring, with a very productive duo at I-back and wide receiver. Ameer Abdullah ranks as the second-leading rusher in Cornhuskers history behind 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, and he is No. 1 overall in all-purpose yardage. He is considered a hard-runner with good change-of-direction skills. Abdullah (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) had four 200-yard rushing games this season (1,523 total rushing yards and 18 TD’s) and he ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and scoring. Abdullah suffered a knee injury on Nov. 1 which slowed his production over the final month of the season, but he is expected to be healthy for the bowl game. Kenny Bell is an athletic target who is the leading receiver in school history, bypassing another Cornhusker Heisman winner in Johnny Rodgers. Bell (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) was named first team All-Big-Ten this season after catching 40 passes with five touchdowns, he is also known as a very good blocker. The quarterback is Tommy Armstrong Jr., a dynamic leader who can run and throw the deep ball, but can be inconsistent with his mid-range passing. Armstrong (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) had 2,314 passing yards and 664 rushing yards, with 24 combined touchdowns. If the Nebraska offense is going to do any damage to the Trojans, it’s likely to come from one of these three players. The offensive line, long a strength of the program, never really came together this season in a manner that Huskers fans had hoped to see.

Defense: The Cornhuskers run a 4-3 defense and feature a strong front line, led by All-Big-Ten performer Randy Gregory, a long and fast defensive end who is projected to join USC’s Leonard Williams as a high draft pick if they decide to enter the NFL. Gregory has battled a knee injury all season but has played through it, with a particularly good performance against Miami when he had seven tackles and two sacks. Gregory has 10 tackles for loss this season. Maliek Collins is a disruptive force in the middle with a bright future. Zaire Anderson is the leading tackler on the defense at linebacker, but this is not a particularly strong group by Nebraska standards. Nate Gerry led the way in the secondary with five interceptions and, though there is a lot of promise for the future of the defensive backfield, this should be an area where the Trojans can make an impact with their balanced offensive attack and overall set of weapons. The Huskers defense struggled in their losses this season, and USC should bring more firepower than anybody Nebraska has seen yet.

Special Teams: An overall strength of the team. Freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El led the nation in punt-return yardage (589 yards on 33 returns, a 17.8 yard average) and returned three punts for touchdowns. Punter Sam Foltz and placekicker Drew Brown are very good. Kickoff returns showcase Abdullah and Bell.

Intangible: It’s always hard to know how a team will respond after the firing of a coach, especially one like Pelini who had such a strong faction of support within the Nebraska community. Of course, the Trojans know that story all too well, after playing in the Las Vegas Bowl last season following the announcement that beloved interim coach Ed Orgeron would not be retained. USC responded with a focused effort under interim coach Clay Helton in that game, and the Cornhuskers will be looking to follow a similar script this year.
Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- usually unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while impacting its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this entire week. Here's the first installment:

No. 15 -- Mannion sets conference passing record

video


Oregon State's season -- and Mike Riley's tenure in Corvallis -- ended in a 5-7 disappointment. That means senior quarterback Sean Mannion has reached the end of his prolific collegiate journey. But the Beaver certainly didn't exit with a whimper. Aside from setting every single career passing mark in the Oregon State record books, Mannion also etched his name into conference history. With a 15-yard fourth quarter pass to Connor Hamlett on Nov. 1 against California, Mannion surpassed USC's Matt Barkley to become the top passer in Pac-12 history.

This individual accomplishment did not alter the wild conference race in any way, but it did provide a powerful symbol of just how much talent the league has amassed in its meteoric rise, particularly at the quarterback position. Heading into 2014, there was a heavy dose of hype regarding what was anticipated to be Year of the Signal-caller in the Pac-12. Between Marcus Mariota's Heisman exploits, Connor Halliday's absurd statistical production, and the fine campaigns of players such as Brett Hundley, Cody Kessler, and Jared Goff, there was plenty to enjoy in the 2014 aerial show. Mannion is the one who grabbed the lasting career mark.

Of course, Mannion's record likely won't last forever -- Goff may have a great shot to break it if he sticks around Berkeley for a full four years -- but it was a testament to a steady, accurate, and poised Pac-12 passer in a season that featured a true gold mine of talent at the position.

No. 14 -- Wazzu missed field goal against Cal ruins Halliday's record night

video


It seemed as if Halliday couldn't catch a break over the course of his tragic Washington State career, but he kept fighting until he could fight no more, and that valiant effort left him with a place in the national record book. Halliday's injury-riddled career in Pullman included a game played with a lacerated liver and finished with a gruesome leg break this season against USC. The misfortune that may best encapsulate his tough luck, though, came on Oct. 4 against Cal.

In a dizzyingly precise passing display, Halliday shredded the Bears' defense to the tune of an NCAA single-game record 734 yards. He completed 49 of his 70 passes and tossed six touchdowns without a single interception. With the Cougars trailing 60-59 as time wound down, Halliday even led his team on a 68-yard drive to the California 2-yard line. With only 19 seconds remained, Washington State was an extra point-length field goal away from winning on Halliday's historic night.

But kicker Quentin Breshears missed the 19-yard attempt, and Halliday looked on in dazed, losing disbelief on the night during which he had made history. Football can be a cruel sport, and Halliday got a particularly vicious dose of it. This was a truly stunning dichotomy. Halliday was the victim of one of the Pac-12's 2014 Twilight Zone finishes -- one that featured a mind-numbing seizure of defeat from the jaws of victory.

No. 13 -- USC stuffs Stanford

video


Stanford entered 2014 having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, but it didn't take long for alarms to sound on the Farm. The first disturbing exhibit of offensive decay came in Week 2, when a short-handed USC defense delivered a bend-but-don't-break performance for the ages. The Cardinal reached scoring territory (at least the Trojans' 35-yard line) on all nine of their possessions, but managed to score only 10 total points throughout all of those chances. USC won the game 13-10, delivering a psychological gut punch that Stanford's offense never fully recovered from. The Cardinal's 119th-place national finish in red zone efficiency was a primary culprit in their tumble to 7-5, and this was the game that set them firmly on that disappointing course.

The slide's seminal moment might have arrived late in the third quarter on Sept. 6. Stanford led 10-7, and they faced a fourth-and-one from the USC 3-yard line. In the championship years of the past, this is where the Cardinal had always brutally asserted their control of the proceedings.

Not this time.

Without Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, or Tyler Gaffney to hand off to, Kevin Hogan fed true freshman Daniel Marx the ball, and USC stuffed him short of the first down marker behind an excellent torpedo play from Su'a Cravens. The tables had turned: The Cardinal were not the bullies up front they used to be. They could no longer stomp on their opposition the old-fashioned way, and the resulting Pac-12 power shift was in full effect.

Katz: Top 5 favorite bowl appearances

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
12:00
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LOS ANGELES -- When it comes to bowl games, few universities have done it better and with more flair and dramatics than the USC Trojans. Come Dec. 27 in San Diego’s 37th National University Holiday Bowl, the Trojans break new ground in a bowl game they’ve have never been a participant.

The Trojans own an impressive bowl record, having the nation’s fourth highest winning percentage (.667) among the 83 schools that have made at least 10 bowl appearances. USC has 32 bowl victories behind Alabama’s 34.

For the record, the Trojans will be appearing in their 14th different bowl game, having also appeared in the Rose, Orange, Sun, Liberty, Bluebonnet, Fiesta, Aloha, Florida Citrus, John Hancock, Freedom, Cotton, Las Vegas, Emerald, and the overlooked Christmas Festival of 1924 against Missouri in the Coliseum.

Obviously, the Trojans have appeared in the Rose Bowl the most number of times (32) and have long considered Pasadena’s Granddaddy as an addendum to their regular season. Since the Trojans began playing in postseason bowl games in 1923, the Rose Bowl against Penn State, lifetime memories for players, coaches, and fans have come in abundance.

Everybody has his or her top 5 Trojans bowl games, so here is our in-person, personal favorites -- win or lose:

5. 2006 Rose Bowl (USC vs. Texas): Probably the most devastating loss in USC bowl history, but also one of the greatest college football bowl games ever played. Although the final score was a wild and dramatic Texas victory, culminating with UT quarterback Vince Young’s eight-yard scoring dash on 4th-and-five with 19 seconds left to play, there were so many highs and lows for both sides that the game almost defied description.
Final score: Texas 41, USC 38

4. 1973 Rose Bowl (USC vs. Ohio State): Historically, the 1972 team of USC coach John McKay is arguably the greatest college football team of all-time. Who better to present your case as the greatest-ever than against the highly respected Buckeyes of Ohio State, and its legendary coach Woody Hayes? McKay’s Trojans had it all on both sides of the ball, and the game will forever be remembered for the four diving touchdowns by storied USC fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham into the Buckeyes' end zone. Hayes later said the 1972 Trojans were the best team he had ever seen.
Final Score: USC 42, Ohio State 17.

3. 2005 Orange Bowl (USC vs. Oklahoma): Using the season long motto “Leave No Doubt" this game was the Pete Carroll era at its zenith. The Sooners scored on their opening drive but the Trojans looked like an NFL team after that, and didn’t take long for Sooners fans to know this was a mismatch. The 2004 Trojans names are legendary: Leinart, White, Bush, Tatupu, Cody, Jarrett, Smith, Grootegoed, and on and on. When the annihilation was heading into the final quarter, Sooners fans were departing like in the midst of the great dust bowl. The BCS title game was more than a championship; it was a coronation of the Carroll gridiron monstrosity.
Final Score: USC 55, Oklahoma 19.

2. 1963 Rose Bowl (USC vs. Wisconsin): Lasting memories of a great Trojans insurmountable Trojans 42-14 fourth quester nearly evaporated, as the Badgers and white-hot quarterback Ron VanderKelen turned the fourth quarter into an almost Nightmare on Elm Street for the Trojans defense. Even worse, there were no lights at the Rose Bowl and darkness during the fourth quarter was eating up whatever light there was from sunset. You don’t forget the drama, the chilling weather, and the Arroyo Seco darkness.
Final score: USC 42, Wisconsin 37.

1. 1975 Rose Bowl (USC vs. Ohio State): Without question, the most brutal and physically demanding game of the aforementioned bowl memories. I won’t soon forget Trojans All-America guard Bill Bain physically attacking the Buckeyes defensive front. The fourth quarter was Ali vs Frazier. The physicality of both teams was simply stunning. It all came down to the final minutes, and one of the greatest Rose Bowl endings ever. Trojans quarterback Pat Haden threw a 38-yard TD strike to receiver J.K. McKay with just 2:03 remaining in this classic slugfest. To top off the drama, after the Haden-to-McKay heroics, John McKay elected to go for two-point conversion. Haden was rushed on the two-point conversion attempt and threw an off-balance completion to receiver Shelton Diggs for the winning tally. Watching Woody Hayes head back up the Rose Bowl visitor’s tunnel, if looks could kill, Hayes will have been sentenced to life.
Final score: USC 18, Ohio State 17

Trojans recruiting notebook

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
11:29
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The USC Trojans had another busy recruiting weekend, hosting three highly touted official visitors in USC offensive line commit Roy Hemsley (Los Angeles, Calif./Windward), athlete Ykili Ross (Riverside, Calif./Poly) and tight end/defensive end T.J. Wheatley Jr. (Buffalo, N.Y./Canisius). Neither of the two uncommitted prospects reportedly gave a verbal pledge to the Trojans on the trip.

[+] EnlargeYkili Ross
Johnny Curren/ESPN.comESPN 300 athlete Ykili Ross has been a regular at USC home games this fall.
USC does, however, appear to be in a good position to potentially land Ross. A fantastic two-way star, he has said that the Trojans are looking at him as a 'hybrid cornerback/safety' type who might also see time at receiver. Ross has been a regular at USC home games this fall, and he’s also considering Notre Dame, Oregon, Oklahoma and Arizona State. Ross will announce his decision on Jan. 3 at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Wheatley, who is the son of former Michigan and NFL running back Tyrone Wheatley Sr., is more of a wild card. He has played his recruitment extremely close to the vest throughout the summer and fall. When it comes to the Trojans, what is known is that he holds a strong relationship with tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo, and he also unofficially visited the USC campus this past spring. He is also considering Alabama, UCLA, Oregon and Michigan among others.

Hemsley is a 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive tackle who committed to USC in May. A mid-year graduate, he has already signed a financial-aid agreement with the Trojans, and he will arrive on campus this January.

Trojans land Petite

The Trojans scored a huge pledge this past Friday from tight end Tyler Petite (Moraga, Calif./Campolindo), who flipped from Duke. The verbal commit is big for USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and staff, not only because he’s a highly sought prospect ranked No. 133 in the ESPN 300, but because tight end is a glaring position of need in this year’s recruiting class for the Trojans.

With USC set to lose fifth-year senior Randall Telfer following this season, the Trojans have only two returning scholarship tight ends on the roster -- Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and Bryce Dixon.

Sarkisian, Tuiasosopo and the rest of the USC coaching staff deserve a ton of credit here for refusing to ease up in their pursuit of Petite after he committed to the Blue Devils last July.

News and notes
  • In addition to the three prospects on official visits, two other recruits were spotted at the Trojans’ practice session this past Saturday -- USC running back commit Dominic Davis (Mission Hills, Calif./Bishop Alemany) and Class of 2016 wide receiver Javon McKinley (Corona, Calif./Centennial). Following practice, McKinley received an offer from the Trojans -- his 11th overall.
  • Riverside (Calif.) City College wide receiver Isaac Whitney is to announce his college decision at 2 p.m. PT on Thursday. He will decide between USC, West Virginia and Washington State. The Trojans are thought to be the favorite to land his signature.
  • ESPN 300 running back Ronald Jones II (McKinney, Texas/McKinney North) announced via Twitter on Sunday that he has decommitted from Oklahoma State, and it looks like USC and Notre Dame will now battle it out for his services. He visited the Fighting Irish this past weekend, and the Trojans the weekend prior.
  • ESPN 300 defensive tackle Tim Settle (Manassas, Va./Stonewall Jackson) listed his top five on his Twitter account on Sunday night, and the Trojans made the cut. Also included were Louisville, Virginia Tech, Washington State and Oklahoma State. Settle took an official visit to USC the weekend of the Notre Dame game.
  • USC offered Class of 2017 quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (Honolulu, Hawaii/St. Louis) last Wednesday. The 6-foot-1 dual-threat passer also holds offers from Hawaii, Texas Tech, Colorado and UCLA.
  • One-time Michigan pledge Mike Weber (Detroit, Mich./Cass Tech) recently committed to Ohio State. The ESPN 300 running back had been considering USC along with Notre Dame, Tennessee and a host of others.
  • There aren’t many recruits who are still playing at this late stage in the fall, but two Class of 2015 USC targets who were in action this past weekend were Trojans running back commit Aca'Cedric Ware and wide receiver target DaMarkus Lodge. In leading their Cedar Hill (Texas) team to a 64-33 victory against Houston (Texas) Westfield in the Class 6A Division II semifinals, Ware rushed for 152 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries, and Lodge caught four passes for 75 yards and one touchdown.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota won the Pac-12's first Heisman Trophy since 2005, and he did so in historically dominant fashion. A record 95.16 percent of voters listed Mariota on their Heisman ballots, and heading into Saturday's presentation, there wasn't much of a question that the Duck would take home college football's most hallowed hardware.

Though he still has a year of college eligibility remaining, Mariota will almost certainly declare for the 2015 NFL draft, so the Pac-12 will have to look elsewhere to repeat the Heisman feat. Here are some early 2015 candidates. Key word here is "early," as we have yet to finish 2014 and some of the players below are still deciding if they will be back next year. Keep that in mind as we quickly imagine the potential future.

Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona

Aside from Mariota, the only Pac-12 player to finish in the top 10 of Heisman balloting was this dominant desert stud. Wright earned four second-place votes and 13 third-place votes, and it would be tough to argue with either of those evaluations based on his absurd 2014 production. Wright's numbers in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles were all either at or near the top of the nation; he was the only player who averaged over two TFL per game, and that race wasn't remotely close. It's clear that Arizona has an absolute machine working the middle of its defense. Yes, the Heisman Trophy has a clear bias toward the offensive side of the football, but Wright was awesome enough to earn 17 votes at linebacker -- as a sophomore.

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

This 230-pound bruiser did his best to give new meaning to the term "true freshman" in 2014. Aside from displaying remarkable vision, Freeman physically pounded opposing defenses like a battle-hardened senior. He supplied Oregon's rushing attack with an irreplaceable dose of physicality. The first-year statistical returns are as eye-popping as they were pad-popping: 1,299 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns. With Mariota almost certainly moving on, the Ducks' offense may center more on this young tank in 2015, and that focus could thrust Freeman into Heisman contention.

Cody Kessler, QB, USC

Kessler was the only quarterback in the nation to attempt over 400 passes and throw fewer than five interceptions in 2014. In the not-so-distant past, those kinds of numbers would automatically thrust a USC quarterback into the midst of the Heisman Trophy discussion. Kessler, however, flew under the radar throughout the entire campaign. If he decides to return to USC for his senior season, expect him to generate a big amount of preseason hype. Related note: Running back Javorius Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor also have eligibility remaining. If those two are back in Troy next year, include them as possible big-time award candidates too.

Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA

Statistically, 2014 was an excellent campaign for this Bruin, who is a redshirt sophomore. He led the Pac-12 in rushing, racking up 1,378 yards on a league-best 6.0 yards per carry. Perkins will have to score more touchdowns to generate more Heisman hype. He found pay dirt only nine times this season, but 2015 will likely present an opportunity to enter the end zone more often, as touchdown machine Brett Hundley has indicated that he will likely be moving on to the NFL. That means that Perkins may become the centerpiece of UCLA's offense. More touches, more glory.

Jared Goff, QB, California

Goff's statistical output was impressive in 2014 (3,973 yards, 35 touchdowns, 7 interceptions), but any hype surrounding him was quickly extinguished by memories of the Bears' nightmarish 2013 campaign (1-11). Cal improved to 5-7 this season, but it still failed to earn a postseason berth. Given the upward trajectory of Sonny Dykes' program, that likely won't be the case in 2015. There's a strong chance that Goff will be the quarterback of a winning team. If he continues to post gaudy numbers under that scenario (also likely), this talented gunslinger will arrive on the radar for major postseason awards. Don't sleep on him.

D.J. Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State

If wide receiver Jaelen Strong returns to ASU for his final year of eligibility, keep an eye out for him. But that seems unlikely, so the top Sun Devil to watch will probably be the versatile Foster, who was the only Pac-12 player to finish with more than 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in 2014. Foster's 59 catches were second to only Strong in Tempe, and his explosiveness makes him a prime sizzle candidate if he decides to stay in school for one more season. Side note: Don't forget freshman running back Demario Richard, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a 17-year-old this season.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona

If you enjoy watching impressive freshman running backs, Wilson is a good player to follow. He delivered an awfully dynamic inaugural campaign in Rich Rodriguez's system, delivering 5.9 yards per carry and more than 100 ground yards per game. Wilson's 15 rushing touchdowns were second among Pac-12 running backs, so second-year improvement would absolutely make him a contender for some major hardware in 2014.

Pac-12 morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
8:00
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As you know Robbie's shining moment this year was when he set a school record for cursing in an eighth grade English class.

Let's get the week started off right. I'm guessing it was a tough weekend for a lot of people. After all, it was our first weekend without Pac-12 football in months. Don't worry, it's coming back soon enough. But, at least there was really good news for the Pac-12 this weekend. Let's start with a Mr. Marcus Mariota who won the Heisman this past Saturday.

First, let's give some major props to this MahaloMarcus.com video because it's very much worth your time and you can view it right here. It has some classic 8-year-old Mariota footage meshed with some current footage, some emotional music and quotes from Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and the gang. Well done to the edit staff. Well done to Mariota for all these plays.

If four minutes of Mariota on video isn't enough for you ... well, lucky you, everyone and their mother reacted to this news, so we'll give you a breakdown of some writer's reactions.
The state of Oregon just doubled down. And the ghosts of this state's football programs just doubled over. Anyone who has regularly seen Mariota operate the heavy machinery that is the Ducks' offense this season knows he's the best player in America, but it really is something to see the rest of the country see it, too.

And finally, props to Oregon State for recognizing Mariota as well. The Beavers bought a full page ad in The Oregonian's special section for Mariota.

Back page of The Oregonian's special section on Marcus Mariota. Classy move from the Beavers.

A photo posted by Karly Imus (@karlyimus) on

Other awards:

It wasn't just Mariota who picked up a big award this weekend. UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks won the Lott IMPACT Trophy. Kendricks follows in the footsteps of Anthony Barr, who won the award last year. Jack Wang wrote that Kendricks is the latest in what could be a long line of linebacker lineage at UCLA.

And look at how cordial everyone was about Kendricks' win. But would you assume anything else? Never. Especially not from the Lott IMPACT guys.



Also, Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson won the Hornung Award, given to college football's most versatile athlete. The Pac-12 Blog agrees.

All right. Here's a quick rundown ...
Marcus Mariota made history Saturday night, becoming the first player from the University of Oregon to win the Heisman Trophy.

Of course, there wasn't a whole lot of suspense heading into the ceremony, held at the Best Buy Theatre in New York City. With the outstanding year that the fourth-year junior quarterback has had on the field this season, it was practically a forgone conclusion that he was going to come away with the award, and perhaps least surprised of all was USC head coach Steve Sarkisian.

Sarkisian did not face Mariota this season, but he did twice when he was head coach at Washington, and he came out on the losing end both times. He also actively recruited the prolific passer when he was a Class of 2011 prospect at Honolulu (Hawaii) St. Louis.

"I won't be surprised at all," Sarkisian said on Saturday morning when asked about the possibility of Mariota winning the honor. "Marcus is a fantastic player, and he's got a great demeanor about him. He's a very calm customer. He's very level headed. He's an extremely accurate passer and he understands their system, and he's the fastest player on the field every snap."

So far this season Mariota has passed for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns, while rushing for 669 yards and 14 more scores, all while leading Oregon into a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Florida State on Jan. 1.

"I'm happy for Marcus," Sarkisian said. "I'm happy for everything he's getting. He's a really good person. I recruited him hard coming out of high school, and that kid deserves everything he gets."

Trojans notebook

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
3:45
PM PT
Practicing in the rain

The Trojans practiced under a steady flow of rain on Friday morning on Cromwell Field, but it sure didn’t dampen their spirits. On the contrary, the team seemed to feed off the unfamiliar conditions.

"It was fun," said quarterback Cody Kessler. "You could see, it was early in the morning, and everyone’s attitude could have been down or they could have been pouting about the rain, but they loved it. Guys were out here belly sliding around, and JuJu [Smith] was the first one out here dancing in the middle in the pouring rain, and that’s really cool -- seeing these guys enjoy it. It’s something different."

The team’s upbeat demeanor certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was encouraged by what his team was able to take away from the full-pads practice session, especially considering that they are in the midst of finals.

"You can always find teachable moments within a lot of things you do, and this was a great chance for us," Sarkisian said. "We haven’t been faced with a whole lot of adverse weather conditions in the year that I’ve been here, and I thought the guys came out with a great attitude today -- energized, working hard, and that’s exactly how it should be. These guys were great, and a bunch of them are going and taking finals here at 11 o’clock this morning, so they’ve got a lot going on in their world. To give us their focus for a little over an hour today, I thought was very impressive."

The practice itself didn’t feature any game-plan installation for USC’s upcoming matchup with Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sarkisian said that process would begin Wednesday, but he seemed to know exactly what the Trojans are up against in a Huskers team that, with the recent firing of coach Bo Pelini, could be out to prove something.

"That is something that guys can rally behind, so we know that we’re going to get a great shot from them," Sarkisian said. "It’s going to take a really good couple of weeks of preparation, because they’re very talented. The running back, [Ameer] Abdullah, is about as good as there is in the country. The quarterback is dangerous -- [Tommy] Armstrong. Kenny Bell, the wide receiver, is a deep-play threat. And then defensively they’re very well coached. Coach Pelini -- that was his strength -- coaching the defense. They’re excellent up front."

Smith draws praise

Smith’s practice-opening dance reflects the kind of positive attitude that the young freshman has brought to each and every workout this season. That, in addition to his work ethic, as well as his performance on the field, has allowed him to quickly win over not only Sarkisian and his staff, but his teammates as well. The Trojans head coach didn’t hold back following practice when asked to discuss Smith’s unique mindset and leadership qualities.

"He’s so mature in every facet of life that it just carries over to the field," Sarkisian said of Smith, who has caught 51 passes for 658 yards and five touchdowns this season. "He loves playing [and] he loves playing with his teammates. If you watch any touchdown, the first guy there just about every time to celebrate with his teammates is No. 9, and I think that his teammates respect him for it. I think initially they couldn’t believe it, 'How could this happen every day and continue to go on?' He just hasn’t wavered. If anything, he’s become more active in a leadership role."

News and notes
  • The Trojans spent most of the day in 11-on-11 periods, with the starters going up against the starters, the twos vs. the twos, etc... Some of the younger, less experienced players continued to take a number of reps.
  • Safety Leon McQuay III wore a yellow no-contact jersey, but he appeared to take part in the entire practice.
  • Cornerback Jonathan Lockett had a strong day, breaking up a couple of passes and making a nice interception on a throw by Max Browne.
  • Placekicker Andre Heidari went 3 for 3 on his field goal attempts -- all in the rain.
  • It did not look like tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo was in attendance. He was likely on the recruiting trail.
Quotebook

Sarkisian on junior defensive end Leonard Williams -- who some project as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft -- being named to the Walter Camp All-American second team.

"In this day and age of college football I think so many times people get caught looking at numbers, and there were a lot of guys this year that had a bunch of sacks," Sarkisian said. "But I think playing defensive line, especially on the interior like Leonard does, is more than just about sheer numbers. But for what that guy did, to have as many tackles as he had for us, TFLs and sacks, I though he had a great season, especially because he wasn’t 100 percent. He fought through an ankle injury, fought through a shoulder thing. I thought he had a fantastic season, but not everybody has to agree with me. So, there are more teams to come out and we’ll see how it plays out."

ESPN 300 TE Tyler Petite flips to USC 

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
3:11
PM PT
USC coach Steve Sarkisian secured a verbal commitment at a key position on Friday when ESPN 300 tight end Tyler Petite flipped his commitment from Duke to the Trojans.

 

Mailbag: South shall rise again!

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
5:30
PM PT
Happy "Mariota wins the Heisman" Eve!

Follow me on Twitter by clicking here.

To the notes!

Stu from Seattle writes: I know you all posted this week that the Pac-12 South will be wide-open next year -- and I agree completely -- but if you had to handicap the division, based on players returning, plus those likely to go pro early (a lot of critical 'SC players on that list, it seems), who do you favor RIGHT NOW to end up on top? No pressure.

Ted Miller: At first, I thought I could just pop something out there when I picked this question. It was like a fat fastball coming at me just where I like it. Swing! Then I did some depth-chart reviews. Ah, Stu, you got me with the ole changeup.

Honest answer is I have no clue how to stack things up right now. You could make a compelling case for five teams, and the sixth, Colorado, stacks up like a potential bowl team if things fall favorably here and there. My initial intention, in fact, was to pick Utah, knowing that would flummox many of you traditional Pac-10 sorts. And you know how I enjoy flummoxing you traditional Pac-10 sorts.

Things are very interesting in the South, but we can't truly stack things up until we know who's entering the NFL draft early. We can make assumptions on some guys -- Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong and USC DE Leonard Williams seem sure to bolt -- but you just never know. There are going to be some surprise players staying and some surprise players going.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe draft decision of Nelson Agholor and others will likely tip the balance of power in 2015 in the Pac-12 South.
At this point, I'm a slight lean to Arizona State. No, USC. No, ASU. Hmm. OK, I'll say the Sun Devils, but I might change my mind. In an hour.

How do things stack up?

Arizona: Lots of skill and name players returning, but BIG hits on O-line and on defense. Still, QB Anu Solomon, RB Nick Wilson, LB Scooby Wright and a deep crew of receivers is a good place to start.

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici is pretty much like a returning starter at QB, and the defense will be much more experienced next fall. There is not a significant area that stands out as a weakness.

UCLA: While most will focus on QB Brett Hundley leaving -- and there could be other early defections -- the Bruins could potentially welcome back 18 starting position players. So the big question is whether touted incoming QB Josh Rosen will be ready, or is there some other answer behind center?

USC: We can't judge the Trojans until guys announce whether they are staying or going. If it's just one or two guys -- Williams? WR Nelson Agholor? -- then USC will be in the thick of things. And maybe the favorite.

Utah: I've got Utah with potentially 17 position players coming back, though RB Devontae Booker bolting for the NFL would be a big hit. The offensive line will be a huge strength and there's good talent coming back on defense. Will the QB position -- I know: broken record -- take a step forward?

This, obviously, is a topic we will revisit. A lot.


Tim from Salt Lake City writes: Do you expect the strength and depth of the Pac-12 South to last? Everything is about balance. For one team to win, another has to lose (not a terribly profound statement, I know). This year, that balance came in the form of several teams underachieving in the North, but Cal and Washington are trending up. Plus, I'm not ready to declare Stanford's reign over based on one underwhelming season. Could things be more balanced next year and, if so, which South team is most likely to regress?

Ted Miller: I don't see any South regression. It might, actually, end up stronger in 2015 than it was this year, particularly if players stick around instead of entering the draft and UCLA solves its QB question adequately.

The North, actually, is a better candidate for regression. Perhaps a significant one. I think Oregon will slip post-Marcus Mariota, but the Ducks still welcome back a strong core of talent. I expect them to be a slight favorite again in 2015, particularly with Stanford taking some huge hits on defense.

As for Cal and Washington trending up, I'm with you on the Bears, but I don't know about the Huskies, who take some monster losses on defense and aren't really scintillating on offense either. Oregon State will be breaking in a new coach and quarterback and rebuilding its defense, while Washington State fills me with uncertainty after I just knew last August the Cougars would take a big step forward this year.

I actually think the Cougs could be dangerous in 2015, but I'm not going to type that because it surely would throw the jinx on them, and Coug fans would blame me for doing that.


Brian from Boston writes: Looking at Cody Kessler's upcoming decision, I can't help but wonder, would he be off leaving after this year? It pains me to say it but, although his stock is not nearly as high as Matt Barkley's was after his junior year (even though his numbers are better), if he leaves now he will be a second-day pick but will probably end up on a better team, with less expectations. However, if he stays, he could get hurt, his numbers could decline and his stock could drop, or he could end up having much higher expectations.

Ted Miller: I think Kessler wants to come back, though I think he's more torn at present than he was several weeks ago, when he was talking about lobbying other Trojans considering the NFL to stick around.

You could make a case either way. Kessler has certainly boosted his stock this season, but he could play his way solidly into the first round next year.

I don't think he'll be fretting playing his way into a high draft pick and then ending up on a bad team. I've never heard a college player say he left early to avoid being drafted sooner the next year, fearing an early first-round pick could become his ruin.


David from Beaverton, Oregon, writes: Fun/hypothetical question -- you guys like those, right? For each Pac-12 team if you could take one player from another Pac-12 team and add them to said team, who would you take and why? And maybe we need some boundaries on this, like no QB's or something like that, because it would be boring if everyone chooses Mariota. The player can either make the new team better or more interesting. For example, as an Oregon fan, while I like our front seven a lot, I think we could really take it up a notch with a top-flight pass rusher like Hau'oli Kikaha. But wouldn't it also be really interesting if Nelson Agholor,was on the team even though he's probably not needed as much? Imagine him in space with the other Ducks playmakers. Anyway, what do you think?

Ted Miller: I actually do this all the time. My favorite in 2014 was imagining what Utah might have been this year with Marcus Mariota at quarterback.

(Inserting pause here for Utah fans to emerge from their swoon, though Washington fans are surely noting the Huskies were the only other Pac-12 team to recruit Mariota).

I'm not going to go through each team because every team could benefit from a Strong or Agholor or a Williams or an Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. But I do have one.

What if Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his 3-3-5 scheme could get a monster nose tackle, such as a Danny Shelton? You think Scooby is productive now? Imagine what he could do with a massive, demands-a-double-team presence in front of him.


Michael from Steubenville, Ohio, writes: When the Rose Bowl hosts the semifinal between Oregon and Florida State, will the winner receive the Leishman Trophy?

Ted Miller: Yep. The Rose Bowl folks are treating this one just like any other Rose Bowl, though obviously it's not a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten matchup. It's the 101st Rose Bowl, quasi-pure and simple -- or the Twitter-unfriendly "College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual."


Mike from Dublin, California, writes: This is a great video that was made by UCLA covering the point when Eric Kendricks won the 2014 Butkus Award. It's a real tear-jerker and something worth watching and sharing.

Ted Miller: Yes, that is very cool.


Kevin from San Francisco writes: Win or Lose, Buffs forever.

Ted Miller: So it's cool video day.

True Freshman All-America Team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
11:34
AM PT
[+] EnlargeSamaje Perine
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsSamaje Perine set the NCAA record for rushing yards in a single game. Not bad for a true freshman.

It seems like every year, true freshmen are having a greater impact on the game. This season continued that trend. There were so many good first-year running backs that great players such as Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook couldn't find their way to this team. Meanwhile, a trio of SEC pass-rushers had immediate influence, with one even breaking Jadeveon Clowney's freshman sack record. Expect to hear a lot more from this group over the next few years.

Offense

QB: Brad Kaaya, Miami

This past summer was a disaster at quarterback for Miami, which lost starter Ryan Williams to injury and prospect Kevin Olsen to off-the-field issues, but Kaaya provided a resounding solution. After some early struggles on the road in his first start, Kaaya was exceptional and led the ACC in touchdowns (25), yards per attempt (8.6) and passer rating (148.2) while proving to be one of the best deep-ball threats in the country.


(Read full post)


There is no such thing as a perfect All-Anything team, but the Pac-12 blog likes to believe its All-Pac-12 team came close.

Or at least inched closer than the official All-Pac-12 team, selected by the coaches, that listed UCLA's Butkus Award-winning linebacker Eric Kendricks on the second team. We agreed with most of their selections, but made a change in format and selected 12 offensive and defensive players (to account for varying schemes).

It still didn't feel like enough spots for the amount of deserving players.

So with that in mind, here are some more players that deserved consideration. It's not a second-team and doesn't mean these players were more deserving than others not listed, just a sampling of players to show how competitive these things are.

QB Brett Hundley, UCLA: Without taking expectations into account, Hundley had a great season: 3,019 yards passing, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions. It might not have been what he or UCLA fans were hoping for, but still a season worth remembering.

QB Cody Kessler, USC: All Kessler did was throw for 3,505 yards and 36 touchdown passes to just four interceptions as the Trojans scored 35.1 points per game. Put him in any other conference and he’s a candidate for Offensive Player of the Year.

RBs Buck Allen (USC), Royce Freeman (Oregon), Nick Wilson (Arizona), D.J. Foster (ASU): There wasn't a clear divide between the conference's six best running backs and there are convincing arguments for why each of these guys might actually be the best back in the Pac-12.

WR Nelson Spruce, Colorado: Flip a coin between Spruce and WSU’s Vince Mayle -- they finished tied for third nationally with 106 catches. Both players were equally deserving for a spot alongside Jaelen Strong and Nelson Agholor.

Hunter Dimick (Utah), Andrew Hudson (Washington), Marcus Hardison (ASU): This trio is for the crowd that likes to measure a defensive lineman's worth by their sack numbers -- all three had at least 10.

LB Jared Norris, Utah: It was easy to leave him off because of the depth at the position, but Norris’ 108 tackles, which ranked fourth in the Pac-12, is worth noting.

LB/S Su'a Cravens, sophomore, USC: Cravens might have been the toughest player to leave off the team, but it wasn’t because he wasn’t deserving. If he remained at safety, there probably would have been a place for him, but since he played most of the season at outside linebacker listing him at safety wouldn’t have felt right.

CB Alex Carter Stanford: Outside of Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Carter might be the best NFL corner prospect in the conference. His lack of interceptions (1) and tackles (29) reflect opposing quarterbacks’ reluctancy to throw in his direction.

Trojans recruiting update

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
7:30
AM PT
There has been a lot of activity lately with the USC recruiting wish list, so here is an updated look at some of the top targets for the Trojans coaches.

QUARTERBACK

Commits: Sam Darnold, Ricky Town
Outlook: Trojans are done at this spot.

RUNNING BACK

Commits: Aca'Cedric Ware, Dominic Davis
Outlook: Ronald Jones II is an option here, a guy who is committed to Oklahoma State but had a good visit to USC last weekend. There had been some interest in Mike Weber as well, but he committed this week to Ohio State.

WIDE RECEIVER

Commits: Tristan Payton, De'Quan Hampton
Outlook: This is a position where there could be more movement. Last week saw a de-commit from Desean Holmes, and next week comes the announcement from junior college star Isaac Whitney. Many recruiting projections have him ending up at USC. That would mean three receiver commits, and there remains interest in Equanimeous St. Brown, DeMarkus Lodge, Terry Godwin and Javarius Davis.

TIGHT END

Commits: None
Outlook: The USC coaches are still active in trying to bring in a tight end with recent in-home visits to Chris Clark, T.J. Wheatley and Duke verbal commit Tyler Petite.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Commits: Chuma Edoga, Cole Smith, Roy Hemsley, Clayton Johnston
Outlook: At various points in the recruiting cycle it has looked like USC wanted to bring in five offensive linemen, but right now it appears as if the coaches might be set with four. Darrin Paulo has received interest and could be a name to watch if there is an available scholarship at the end.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Commits: Jacob Daniel, Noah Jefferson, Christian Rector
Outlook: It would not be a surprise at all to see the Trojans add two more bodies along the defensive line, and they would love for one of them to be Rasheem Green. Porter Gustin could wind up at defensive end or outside linebacker, most likely on the line, and he is another top priority. Both will come on recruiting visits to USC in January. Other names to watch include Mika Tafua, Dillon Faamatau, Benning Potoae, Kevin Scott, and Canton Kaumatule, the Oregon commit who continues to be pursued by the Trojans.

LINEBACKER

Commits: Cameron Smith
Outlook: There are two primary targets remaining at linebacker -- John Houston Jr. and Osa Masina. Houston has long been thought to be a USC lean, but the Oregon Ducks impressed him on a recent visit. Masina will likely be a USC vs. UCLA battle, and his trip to USC for the Notre Dame game could tilt things in the Trojans' favor. Roquan Smith is also on the wish list.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Commits: Isaiah Langley, Taeon Mason
Outlook: Another position where there could be multiple additions in the final month of this cycle, and there are certainly some talented options remaining with names like Iman Marshall, Ykili Ross, Marvell Tell, DeChaun Holiday and Donte Jackson.

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