USC Trojans: B.J. Denker

Mailbag: Next big Pac-12 thing?

April, 25, 2014
Apr 25
5:45
PM PT
Happy Friday. Welcome to the Mailbag.

Following the Pac-12 blog on Twitter is the equivalent of eating a perfectly cooked bone-in ribeye, only with the caloric burn of a P90X workout.

To the notes.

Bellingham Duck from Bellingham, Wash., writes: I remember as kid sitting on my back porch listening to my Ducks get blown out by perennial powerhouse Oklahoma 62-7. I dreamed of what it what it would be like to ever be that good. Too ashamed to ask God to intervene, I accepted what seemed to be our fate. What Pac-12 program that is currently down is most unlikely but still destined to reach the top and stay a while?

Ted Miller: This question interested me because of my initial reaction: I see reasons for optimism for EVERY SINGLE PAC-12 TEAM.

That reaction made me grumpy. That much optimism doesn't sit well with me. The Pac-12 blog is not "Oprah." We aren't about uplifting folks. We aren't about fairy tales and happy endings. We are about being realistic. Objective. We want to tell it like it is. We're like Marlo Stanfield in "The Wire" whispering with understated but ineluctable menace, "You want it to be one way… but it's the other way."

And we are not embarrassed to admit we enjoy a bit of snark.

Yet here's what I see with the Pac-12 heading into the 2014 season: Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State and Washington look like potential top-25 teams to me. Oregon State, Arizona, Washington State and Utah look like teams that could be dark horses if a couple of things fall into place and they stay healthy. And California and Colorado look like they will be much better in 2014 than they were last season.

The biggest potential backward step? Arizona State, because it's rebuilding its defense. But I see the Sun Devils as a team that could win nine games, so we're not talking about a tumble.

But none of this answers your question.

Part of that nonanswer is only Utah, Colorado and California could qualify as "down" after the 2013 season. Everyone else seemed to be maintaining a solid status or trending up.

So if you are asking me which program among those three should most decisively reverse course in the next five years, I'd go with Cal, mostly because of its recently -- and dramatically -- upgraded facilities and recruiting base.

If you're asking me which Pac-12 team is on the midst of making a major leap as a program, I'd go with UCLA in the South Division -- as long the Bruins retain Jim Mora -- and Washington in the North.

I also think the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry is going to get very interesting if both retain their present coaching staffs.


Brandon from Seattle writes: This isn't a new topic and relates more to my recent discovery of cfbstats.com (and my loss of productivity). I'm a die-hard Coug fan and after looking into some rushing statistics, I've got a small bone to pick with college football analysts. The last two seasons, much has been made about WSU's ineffectiveness running the football. This viewpoint comes around because of two archaic "truths" of college football: 1. Balance means a team is 50-50 rushing and passing; and 2. Sacks are counted as rush attempts. Without getting into why I believe those "truths" are archaic, I'll just state my point that WSU's rushing game isn't nearly as bad as it's made out to be. In fact, if you look just at rushes by running backs, WSU ranks sixth in yards per attempt at 4.97. That's better than Stanford at 4.96 and UCLA at 4.72. I?m definitely not downplaying those teams' abilities to run the ball, but instead I'd like to bring to light the fact that WSU's O-line and running backs are significantly more efficient in the run game than what we're led to believe by many media members. Just food for thought and a hope that analysts might eventually take a deeper dive than rushing and passing totals.

Ted Miller: This gets a yes and no.

Yes, Washington State was better running the ball than its paltry 53.4 yards per game suggests. Each of its top four running backs averaged 4.5 yards per carry or better. The poor rushing stats were mostly due to a lack of attempts and, as you note, losing 244 yards on 32 sacks. Further, as coach Mike Leach often points out, his short passing game using running backs isn't much different than handing off.

Yet, just as you've gone inside the numbers, you also can go a bit deeper.

Two stats stand out: Third-down conversions and red-zone offense. Both tend to be better for teams with reliable running games.

The Cougars ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions and 10th in red-zone offense. They were eighth in red-zone TD percentage (though it's a curiosity that said TD percentage was better than both Arizona State and Stanford, two good running teams).

Most notable: The Cougars turned the ball over in the red zone a conference-worst seven times. Hard to believe part of that isn't about the challenge of throwing the ball in a compressed space when defenses aren't worried about the run.

All this said, it's really about results. The Cougars ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring last year -- ninth in conference games -- and finished 6-7. If they finished in the top three in scoring and won eight or more games, nobody would care about the rushing statistics.


Mitch from Tucson writes: Hey Ted, longtime reader, first-time writer. What was your reasoning for leaving Austin Hill off the "2014 challengers" list? If I remember correctly, that guy was pretty good. ... Maybe even All-American good: "The sophomore looked like a potential All-American in 2013 after catching 81 passes for 1,364 yards -- 16.8 yards per reception -- with 11 touchdowns. " - Ted Miller

Ted Miller: Considering the receiving depth in the Pac-12 next year, if I listed all the potential challengers to lead the Pac-12 in receiving yards, there would be 20 names.

There are two reasons I left out Hill. First, he's coming back from a knee injury that killed his 2013 season and he wasn't 100 percent himself this spring. I want to see how he reacts when the lights come on and the games are for real. I do suspect we're going to see a guy who is even better than he was in 2012.

But the biggest reason is this: Arizona is as deep as any team in the country at receiver. It's much deeper than it was in 2012, when Hill put up huge numbers, and 2013, when Hill was out. I could see multiple 1,000-yard receivers for Arizona -- or four guys with over 800 yards -- but not one guy with, say, 1,500 yards.

Also, based on how Texas transfer Cayleb Jones looked this spring, he might actually be the favorite to lead the Wildcats in receiving yards.


Kurt from Corvallis writes: Naming the starting QB? Simple: When the coach knows, he announces.

Ted Miller: Maybe for some, but plenty of coaches subscribe to the notion that they want to prolong the competition as long as possible.

For example, it was pretty obvious that B.J. Denker was going to be Arizona's starting quarterback early in fall camp last year, but Rich Rodriguez opted not to announce it until the week of the first game. Why? He didn't want Denker to become comfortable. He told me specifically that he wanted to cultivate as much mental toughness as possible in Denker because he knew Denker's lackluster arm would not be widely celebrated among the Wildcats' fan base and there would be growing pains. As there were -- see his game at Washington.

Chip Kelly also wasn't a big fan of showing his cards early. Think about what we know about Marcus Mariota now. But he wasn't revealed as the Ducks starter as a freshman until after 22 fall camp practices, one week before the opener.

Again, some coaches like to anoint a QB as soon as possible in order to allow him to take up a defined leadership role. Others like to wait as long as possible, believing a lengthy, stressful competition creates mental toughness.


Matt from Carrollton, Texas, writes: Hi, Ted. I'm a longtime fan of USC and the Pac-12 blog, which means it would take something I consider especially momentous to write in (given that I value Kevin and your opinions so much). Anyways, I also happen to be an avid NCAA football gamer on Xbox 360 (read in: nerd), and I hit a milestone this past weekend with a resounding 252-0 win as USC over Wazzu (the first game in my 21st Dynasty season, and first over 250 points). I figured I'd send you this in the hopes that it warrants some space on your next mailbag, especially since it probably took me roughly 340-plus hours of gameplay to accomplish this. P.S.: Before you ask, those 340 hours took place over the course of the past 21 months, and yes, this was on "freshman" difficulty, but in my defense I do play only six-minute quarters and use an accelerated play clock. That's gotta count for something right?

Ted Miller: The Nobel committee has been alerted.

Now, Matt, please go read a book.
On Thursday, we looked at the Pac-12 North Division. Today, we turn to the South:

ARIZONA

Spring start: March 3
Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  • QB competition: Coach Rich Rodriguez has used first-year starters in his first two seasons at Arizona and will make it three-for-three in 2014. For the most part, things worked with both Matt Scott and more recently B.J. Denker, which should make Wildcats fans optimistic about what should be a wide-open competition.
  • Replacing Carey: As intriguing as the quarterback competition will be, the battle to replace all-time great Ka'Deem Carey at running back could be more important. None of the returning running backs had a carry last year, which led to this comment from Rodriguez: "Now it’s a mystery. That’s going to be one of the positions, like quarterback, that will be kind of open to see if we can get guys to get better."
  • Keep Austin healthy: After tearing his ACL last spring following a breakout season in which he caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, receiver Austin Hill has been given a clean bill of health. Said Rodriguez: "He is still wearing the knee brace but I think it is a little bit more precautionary. He is 100 percent doing everything. He’s even a bit bigger and stronger so he should have a big spring. I know he’s hungry to get out there, too."
ARIZONA STATE

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • OL changes: Auburn transfer Christian Westerman, a prototypical guard, could be the Sun Devils' best offensive lineman, which makes things interesting considering both starting guards -- Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo -- will be back next year. Douglas, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, has worked at tackle in the past and could shift outside to replace first-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg.
  • Getting defensive: Coach Todd Graham's college roommate, Keith Patterson, has arrived as the defensive coordinator, but Graham will remain the play-caller and Chris Ball's title will still read co-defensive coordinator. Got all that? New coaching dynamics get sorted out in the spring, too.
  • Looking for replacements: On defense, ASU needs to replace seven starters, highlighted by DT Will Sutton, LB Carl Bradford and CBs Robert Nelson and Alden Darby. If ASU is to build off its impressive 2013 season, those holes need to be filled quickly. They'll benefit from a schedule that starts with Weber State, New Mexico, Colorado and a bye, but after that the Sun Devils have UCLA, USC and Stanford in a span of four weeks.
COLORADO

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • QB development: Sefo Liufau's development will be interesting if for nothing else than because the jump from Year 1 starter to Year 2 starter is always intriguing with quarterbacks. It's tempting to assume a big statistical jump is coming, but it's not always that simple (see: Hogan, Kevin; Mannion, Sean; Hundley, Brett). Liufau will need to get on the same page with his receivers as they combine to …
  • … Replace Paul Richardson: Look for Nelson Spruce, D.D Goodson and Tyler McCulloch to lead what will be a much more balanced receiving corps following Richardson's early departure for the NFL. Spruce was the Buffs' second-leading receiver last year, but Goodson, going into his second season at receiver, figures to make the biggest jump.
  • Rising expectations: It took MacIntyre three years to turn San Jose State into a winner, but there was a four-win improvement in the second year. He won't match that with the Buffs, but a two-win improvement gets Colorado bowl eligible. Colorado has a chance to match last year's win total (4) in the first five games next year: vs. Colorado State, at Massachusetts, Arizona State, Hawaii, at Cal. In fact, it's probably the internal expectation.
UCLA

Spring start: April 1
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Manage expectations: The Bruins are in new territory this offseason with expectations through the roof. They'll likely be a preseason top-10 team, which will drum up chatter about a potential national championship run. Likely message from coach Jim Mora: "Tune out the noise."
  • The #Hundley4Heisman campaign: It's a real thing and Mora threw his weight behind it when he tweeted the hashtag on Jan. 26 with a picture of the Heisman Trophy. Get used to reading "Heisman candidate" next to "Brett Hundley" a lot between now and September. At times, it might feel unavoidable.
  • Leading rusher? They're set at quarterback and bring a lot of talent back at both receiver and on the offensive line, but the running back situation isn't as clear. Hundley was the team's leading rusher in 2013, but someone needs to step up to take pressure off him and LB/RB Myles Jack. It's an important spring for both Jordan James and Paul Perkins, who had varying degrees of success last year.
USC

Spring start: March 11
Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Under center? Cody Kessler is back, but coach Steve Sarkisian immediately made it known there would be an open competition for the quarterback job. Max Wittek is no longer around, but Kessler should get a serious challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne. With a new offense to learn, spring will essentially serve as preparation period for the real competition during fall camp.
  • Catch your breath: The most noticeable change in USC during the first game will be how much faster it's playing offensively. Sarkisian installed a high-tempo offense at Washington last year and, pleased with the results, will continue to press the tempo with the Trojans. Goodbye, huddles.
  • Change it up: As is the case when new coaching staffs arrive, there will likely be a higher percentage of position changes than usual and a more fluid depth chart. It's hard to peg exactly where that'll occur with USC, but it'll be worth monitoring throughout the spring.
UTAH

Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Wilson's road back: Travis Wilson is expected to be the Utes' starting quarterback next season, but he'll be limited to non-contact drills during the spring. That's about the best news Wilson could have received following an early November discovery that he had an undiagnosed injury to an intracranial artery -- a condition that threatened his career. Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will not join the team until after he graduates in May, but he'll be immediately eligible to play.
  • Revolving OC door: Dave Christensen moves in, Dennis Erickson moves over and Brian Johnson moves out. Kyle Whittingham introduced the Utes' seventh offensive coordinator is seven years in early January. Christensen believes in similar philosophies to what the Utes had under Erickson/Johnson, but the terminology will change and the tempo will increase.
  • Pressure building? Utah was used to winning big before it got to the Pac-12 in 2011. Whittingham lost just 20 games in his six full seasons as the school's head coach while a member of the Mountain West Conference. In the three years since, Utah's dropped 19 and qualified for just one bowl. No one should doubt Whittingham's ability as a coach -- he's a good one -- but the jump in competition has been difficult.

Highs & lows in Pac-12 statistics

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
8:00
AM PT
There were many remarkable performances in the Pac-12 this year. And some remarkably bad ones. Of course, one team rolling is another team getting rolled.

Here are some high & low lights of the 2013 season (conference games only).

And some of these are intriguing because they say the opposite thing.

Such as …

Worst rushing performance: Washington rushed for negative-5 yards at Arizona State on Oct. 19 in a 53-24 defeat.

Best rushing performance: Washington rushed for 530 yards at Oregon State in a 69-27 win on Nov. 23.

Best yards per rush: Washington averaged 9.1 yards per carry at Oregon State.

Most points: Washington at Oregon State.

Most rushing TDs: The Huskies at seven rushing touchdowns at … well, you get the picture.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Oregon Ducks had plenty to celebrate when they piled up 755 yards against Colorado on Oct. 5.
Most yards: Oregon gained 755 yards at Colorado on Oct. 5.

Most yards per play: USC averaged 9.8 yards per play at California on Nov. 9.

Longest run: USC running back Javorius Allen had a 79-yard touchdown run at Cal.

Longest pass: Cal QB Jared Goff connected with Chris Harper for an 89-yard TD against Washington State on Oct. 5

Fewest pass completions: Utah completed just six passes against Arizona State in a 20-19 defeat on Nov. 9.

Worst completion percentage: Utes QB Travis Wilson completed 28.6 percent of his throws against the Sun Devils.

Best completion percentage: Arizona's B.J. Denker completed 86.4 percent of his throws -- 19 of 22 -- against Oregon on Nov. 23.

Most interceptions: Wilson threw six interceptions in the Utes 34-27 loss to UCLA on Oct. 3.

Shortest "long" pass in a game: USC's longest completion against Washington State on Sept. 7 went for 8 yards.

Longest field goal: Arizona's Jake Smith (vs. Cal) and Colorado's Will Oliver (vs. Arizona) both made 53-yard boots.

Longest punt: Utah's Tom Hackett posted a 70-yard punt against Arizona State.

Best punt average in a game: Cal's Cole Leiniger averaged 54.2 yards on four punts at Colorado.

Longest punt return: USC's Nelson Agholor returned a punt 93 yards for a TD at Cal. He also had a 75-yard TD on a punt return in that game.

Longest kick return: Stanford's Ty Montgomery went 100 yards for a touchdown at Utah on Oct. 12.

Most fumbles lost: Cal lost four fumbles at Oregon on Oct. 28.

Most sacks allowed: UCLA gave up nine sacks to Arizona State on Nov. 23.

Most sacks by a player in a game: Both Arizona State's Chris Young (vs. UCLA) and Arizona's Sione Tuihalamaka (vs. Arizona State) had three.

Most penalties: UCLA had 13 penalties for 100 yards at Utah.

Most penalty yards: The Bruins had 122 yards in penalties -- on 11 flags -- against Colorado.

Touchdowns in one game: Montgomery had five at California on Nov. 23 (four receiving, one rushing).

Most rushing yards in a game: Washington's Bishop Sankey gained 241 yards against Cal.

Most passing yards in a game: Washington State's Connor Halliday passed for 557 yards at Oregon. (Just don't remind Nick Aliotti).

Most passing touchdowns in a game: Oregon State's Sean Mannion threw six touchdown passes against Colorado.

Most receiving yards in a game: Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks had 237 yards receiving at Cal on 13 receptions.

Most receiving TDs in a game: Montgomery had four against Cal.


Pac-12 lunch links

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
2:30
PM PT
Here comes the letdown, Christmas is over;
Here comes the meltdown, there goes the cheer.
But before we have a breakdown, let us remember;
The light of the world is still here.

Mailbag: Bowl, apple controversies

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
6:00
PM PT
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter. Santa is watching and you don't want to be added to the naughty list.

George from Phoenix writes: I've read Kevin and your pre-bowl comments on how well the Pac-12 needs to (and should do) in the bowls. "Favored in all games (or 8/9)". "Opponents are overmatched," etc. I believe the hype. Then I read Mark Schlabach predictions yesterday which has the Pac-12 going a measly 3-6, including a loss in the BCS game you have so wisely noted is most important for Pac-12 perception!!!! Should I panic? What's a guy to believe?!?!

Ted Miller: I would say Mark shouldn't get too close to Vegas this holiday season.

If the Pac-12 goes 3-6 in its bowl games, Kevin has agreed to wear nothing but a burlap sack for a week. If the Pac-12 goes 3-6 in its bowl games, I will listen only to Adele songs for two weeks. OK, a week. No… a day. An entire day! An entire work day.

Everybody has opinions. And sportswriters are often asked to pick games. They can go the easy route and pick the favorites over and over again. Or they can try to spice things up by predicting upsets. It's also possible that Mark suspected he'd get a rise out of Pac-12 fans, so he's already 1-0 this bowl season. (George was not the only one to note Schlabach's Pac-12 bowl picks.)

But there might be method to his madness, or at least a justifiable logic.

You have two Pac-12 teams, USC and Washington, going through coaching turmoil. You have an Oregon team that had players complaining about the Rose Bowl now playing in the Valero Alamo Bowl against a Texas team that surely will be trying to win one for outgoing coach Mack Brown.

You have Arizona and Oregon State teams that have been pretty mercurial this season. You have Stanford facing a Michigan State team that is playing as well as any squad in the nation.

There are ways to script a 3-6 bowl season. Even Jon Wilner has the Pac-12 going a meager 5-4.

I think both will be wrong.

But ask Cal and Oregon State fans how often I'm right.


Mike from Springfield, Missouri, writes: I will miss the BCS because it really does make every game more interesting throughout the year. I don't deny that the playoffs will be more exciting than the current bowls. But I think the rest of the regular season will be much less interesting.

I would not have been watching the Iron Bowl this year because I would have known that even with a Bama loss, they would still be in the top four and making the playoffs and still probably be the favorite to win it, and so that game would have been not nearly as big as news as it was. We would then be talking about how it was good for Bama to lose because then they didn't even have to play the SEC title game and would be playing for the national title. Same thing years back when No. 1 Ohio State was playing No. 2 Michigan.

As well as Bama recruits, Bama will always start off ranked high in the polls and so the regular season won't get any headlines til Bama loses twice. I would have probably not watched a game all year this year with as good as Bama was, knowing that it would take two losses for them to not win the title and would probably just watch the playoffs. I think there will ultimately be a lot of fans like me and college football will find out that they had a good thing even with as much controversy as it had (there will always be controversy with a league with 119 teams that doesn't have equal schedules).

Ted Miller: You make a fair point.

On the one hand, by adopting a four-team College Football Playoff compared to a two-team BCS title game, we are increasing the pool and therefore the opportunity. It seems more democratic, eh?

But there are always unintended consequences when change comes to a system. It's possible the biggest beneficiaries of the CFP will be the college football superpowers, teams that get the benefit of the doubt after a loss (or two).

If Alabama, USC, Texas, and LSU (group A) had just one loss, and Duke, Northwestern, Boise State and Texas Tech (group B) also had just one loss, how many teams from group A get into the playoff compared to group B?

If the selection committee is, like the national polls, heavily reliant on reputation, the elite powers will typically get the benefit of the doubt.

When a highly ranked Alabama/USC/LSU/Texas team loses its first game, it won't tumble precipitously in the polls, whereas a Duke/Northwestern/Boise State/Texas Tech that is climbing the polls after being unranked in the preseason doesn't get the same consideration.

Further, as you noted, increasing the pool to four teams over two decreases the value of the regular season, the one undeniable strength of the BCS system.

Many think we're headed toward an eight-team playoff. That sounds far more equitable, but that would reduce the value of the regular season even further -- significantly.

It will be interesting to see how the CFP affects how we perceive and react to the regular season. It's still going to be college football, so it will continue to be awesome. And it will still provoke controversies.

It is possible that those controversies won't be as juicy.


Ryan from Kennewick, Wash., writes: Anything is possible in college football. "Never say never" and "Texas (UT) has unlimited resources" are two things we hear a lot. Even though there are provisions in the UT athletic director's contract to keep him from hiring ASU's staff, what are the chances that Texas uses their "resources" to go after one of them anyway? (Obviously I'm primarily referring to Todd Graham.)

Ted Miller: If Texas really, really wants to hire Todd Graham away from Arizona State, it will go after him. And I personally would have no problem with Graham taking the job because this is the United States of America, and if you are a football coach, you should want to coach at Texas and make $5 million a year.

(Kevin has told me that Texas is the only job that could lure him away from the Pac-12 blog. Mine would be Florida Keys Community College -- because, hey, you're living in the Florida Keys!).

I know there was an agreement between Arizona State and its former athletic director Steve Patterson, now at Texas, that Patterson wouldn't bring Sun Devils staffers with him to Austin.

But this is the United States of America. If you have money and good lawyers, you can make just about anything happen you want.

Other than get Nick Saban.


Scott from London writes: Just wondering what your thoughts are on B.J. Denker's 898 yards rushing and how his propensity to ball-hog on the read option hurt Carey's chances at the Doak/Heisman Awards?I know Carey was still a workhorse, but who should be running the ball? Your All-American RB or your gangly 6-2 QB?

Ted Miller: Everyone needs to read Scott's note with a British accent. I first used my best Jeeves/P.G. Wodehouse then went all Oliver Twisty cockney on it.

It might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing for a running back is not getting the ball. It's the same when an A-list quarterback has a beastly running back lining up behind him.

Most defensive coordinators will tell you the first thing they do is try to take away what an offense most likes to do. With Arizona, that was hand the ball to Carey. So that means forcing the Wildcats to show they have other threats to worry a defense.

Denker averaged 5.4 yards per rush -- despite losing 121 yards on sacks -- and scored 12 TDs. A defense has to respect that. A read-option keeper from Denker, which was more often successful than not, forced a defense to obsess just a little bit less about Carey. That translated to a few split seconds of divided attention here or there that probably increased the size of holes Carey saw when he got the ball.

I think Arizona fans should be grateful for what they got out of Denker this year. I know he was doubted by just about everyone in August, including me. He became a solid QB for the Wildcats, and his outstanding performance against Oregon was one he should never forget. Not sure anyone made more out of his talents this year than Denker.


Nick from Seattle writes: "Again, this is a Fujis vs. Honey Crisp discussion. But when you look at overall consistency -- "Now you've done it. Now you have absolutely lost all credibility. How dare you suggest Fujis are better apples than Honey Crisp in any way?! Utter blasphemy...

Ted Miller: I told Kevin that if he uses apples-to-apples analogies, he's wading into deep and emotional waters, particularly with Washington fans. And Washington State fans for that matter.

I'm with you on this one. Kevin has lost all credibility -- ALL OF IT! -- when it comes to comparing apples to apples.

(Cue the Fuji apple fans with their outrage and advanced statistical analysis that proves -- PROVES! -- Fujis are just as good as Honey Crisp.)

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
10:15
AM PT
Five things we learned in the Pac-12 from Week 10:

  1. When consistent, ASU is really good: The Sun Devils picked up their first road win of the season with an extremely impressive 55-21 win over Washington State on Thursday night. Here's the kicker ... running back Marion Grice didn't get in the end zone! Quarterback Taylor Kelly was dominant, completing 22 of 31 passes for 275 yards and five touchdowns. He also ran for 66 yards and two scores, giving him seven on the day. Since dropping a 37-34 game to Notre Dame, the Sun Devils have outscored Colorado, Washington and Washington State 162-58. If the Sun Devils can maintain this consistent, high level of play, the rest of the Pac-12 South will be hard-pressed to keep pace. As for the Cougs, after a 4-2 start, they have dropped three straight, and the defense has given up at least 52 points in all three losses.
  2. [+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC is 3-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron, who celebrated Friday's win in Corvallis with the band.
  3. The Trojans aren't done yet; the Beavers might be: Despite everything that has happened to USC, the Trojans are a factor in the South Division. They need to win out and probably get a little help along the way, but after a fairly convincing 31-14 road win over Oregon State, the Trojans look like a team to be reckoned with down the stretch. Since the Lane Kiffin firing, USC is 3-1 under Ed Orgeron. Conversely, Oregon State suffered a big setback and is now an even longer shot to win the North Division. There is still hope, but the Beavers also need to win out and hope for some help.
  4. Colorado is gritty: Say what you want about the wins and losses, but Colorado is a tougher team than it was last season. UCLA won 45-23, and the final score isn't particularly shocking. But the Buffs led midway through the second quarter, and true freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau looked very poised on the road, going 25-of-36 for a touchdown and zero interceptions. They matched UCLA's physicality and even showed a bit of swagger -- be it from receiver Paul Richardson or Liufau. Culture change takes a long time. But we are starting to see the makings of a team that isn't satisfied with being pushed around. On the flip side, good performance from UCLA to get back on track. Brett Hundley looked like he was still a little uncomfortable with his young offensive line, but he looked stronger. If the Bruins can survive a trip to Arizona and home date with Washington, Nov. 23 is high noon with ASU coming to town.
  5. About those Cats: Arizona has won three in a row, including back-to-back road games to become bowl-eligible for the second straight year under Rich Rodriguez. A fine accomplishment, considering everyone they lost in the offseason through injury, graduation or attrition. Quarterback B.J. Denker turned in another steady performance, completing 24 of 38 passes for 261 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. But he's also emerged the past couple of weeks as a solid complementary runner to Ka'Deem Carey. Denker rushed for 44 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Cal. Carey, meanwhile, continues to shred defenses. Although he didn't reach the end zone against the Bears, he rushed for 152 yards, giving him 1,072 for the year. A big date with UCLA awaits next week. Can't overlook the performance of Cal, either, which sold out to stop the run early and showed a lot of life. Kenny Lawler finally had that breakout game with three touchdown catches, two of them spectacular.
  6. South rising? The early disparity between the North and South seems to be shrinking. The South scored two major victories this week with USC's win at Oregon State and ASU's win at Washington State. Arizona's win over Cal was expected, but again, we give the Bears credit for the strong showing. As it stands, the North still holds a two-game edge over the South with an 8-6 record. Oregon is the only team to be perfect in inter-division play. Stanford, ASU and Oregon State are all 2-1. It stands to reason that the North is still probably considered the stronger division with Oregon and Stanford ranked in the top five. But the South has made a strong play of late with its depth, which includes five of six teams at .500 or better.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
10:15
AM PT
A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12.

  1. Light week: Only four games on the Pac-12 docket this week, including one on Thursday (Arizona State at Washington State), one on Friday (USC at Oregon State) and two on Saturday (Arizona at California and Colorado at UCLA).
  2. Let's go bowling: Three teams, Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State, are already bowl bound. Four others sit on the precipice and as many as seven others are still in the hunt (note, because of the 13-game schedule, USC needs seven wins to become bowl eligible). Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA can all become bowl eligible this week.
  3. [+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
    AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonBishop Sankey is one of four Pac-12 backs who average at least 100 yards a game.
  4. 1K club: Washington running back Bishop Sankey became the Pac-12's first 1,000-yard rusher this season and has 1,162 yards on the year. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (920 yards) probably will break through this week against a Cal rush defense that yields an average of 189.1 yards per game. Carey leads the league with 153.3 yards per game, one of four backs who average at least 100 yards per contest (Sankey, 145.2; Tyler Gaffney, 110.8; Byron Marshall, 109.9).
  5. Scoreboard, baby: The Sun Devils have the top two scorers in FBS football in running back Marion Grice (15.4 points per game) and kicker Zane Gonzalez (11.4 ppg) and rank sixth in the nation with 45.4 points per game. Four times this year they have posted 50 or more points. That's the most since the 1973 team. Worth noting, too that Oregon State's Brandin Cooks is third nationally in scoring, making it a hat trick for the conference.
  6. Rubber arm: Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday is on pace to set single-season school records in pass attempts and completions. Through eight games he has completed 273 passes on 428 attempts. Gabe Marks has been the primary recipient with 59 catches for 655 yards. But eight different WSU receivers have 20 or more catches.
  7. Remember, Reser: The Beavers have won three straight over USC in Corvallis, but the Trojans' defense, though injury-depleted, is having a fine season. The Trojans have held six of their eight opponents to fewer than 300 yards. They'll be tested by an Oregon State passing attack that, despite a loss last week to Stanford, is still one of the best in the nation. Cooks leads the FBS with 10.6 receptions per game and 157 yards per game. USC is tied for the conference lead with 27 sacks, which might not bode well for an Oregon State team that gave up eight sacks to the Cardinal last week.
  8. Off and running: The aforementioned Carey is 80 yards shy of reaching 1,000. When he gets there, he'll be just the third Arizona running back to post multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 straight games, which is the longest active streak in FBS. But it was quarterback B.J. Denker who led the Wildcats in rushing last week, posting 192 yards on 15 carries.
  9. Where's the points? Cal, still winless in conference play, is giving up a league high 44 points per game and scoring a league low 22.9 points per game. Moving the ball isn't a problem. The Bears rank sixth in the league in total offense, averaging 468.4 yards per game. But they have only scored 20 touchdowns on the year, second worst only to Colorado's 19. Receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have combined for 112 catches for 1,387 yards, but just six touchdowns -- five from Harper.
  10. Back to basics: The Bruins are looking to snap a two-game slide after dropping back-to-back road games at Stanford and Oregon. Keep in mind the Bruins have played 32 freshmen this year -- including 17 true freshman. Last year they played 26, including 12 true. Through the first five games, quarterback Brett Hundley averaged 293.8 passing yards per game, was completing 68 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns to four interceptions. In the last two weeks he averaged just 128 yards and completed 63 percent of his throws with two touchdowns to four interceptions. The more comfortable he gets with his young, reshaped offensive line, and the fact that he's not playing two of the top teams in the league, should help him bounce back.
  11. Explosive potential: The Buffs rebuilding process has yet to produce a conference win. But that doesn't mean Colorado can't be explosive. Wide receiver Paul Richardson has 50 catches and 914 yards with seven touchdowns, and he's sneaking up on some Colorado single-season marks. He has six plays of 50 yards or longer this season. Freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau is 1-1 as a starter and is completing 59 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and an interception.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 9

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
11:00
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Taking stock of Week 9 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: UCLA had a good plan and played with fire at Oregon, but the Ducks owned the second half, scoring 28 unanswered points in a 42-14 blowout that seemed like a potentially tight game at halftime. Oregon made another strong statement for its national title candidacy.

Best game: Stanford seemed in control with its dominant defense owning an 11-point lead late in the fourth quarter over Oregon State, but a fumble and a failed third-and-1 conversion gave the Beavers new life, and they nearly forced overtime before yielding 20-12. About a quarter of the Beavers crowd was headed for the gates with five minutes left, but many of them did an about-face and joined the hopeful frenzy that didn't die until the very end.

Biggest play(s): The Beavers had a first-and-goal on the Stanford 7-yard line in the final minute, needing a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to force overtime. They got four shots at the end zone, but each Sean Mannion pass fell incomplete, including a fourth-down attempt that, for a moment, seemed to have a chance.

[+] EnlargeBJ Denker
Karl Gehring/The Denver Post/Getty Images B.J. Denker had a big night against Colorado.
Offensive standout: There have been and probably will continue to be doubts about Arizona QB B.J. Denker, but you have to credit him for showing grit in the face of criticism and, by golly, for improving. He accounted for 457 total yards in the 44-20 win at Colorado. He completed 21 of 32 passes for 265 yards with a TD and interception and he also rushed for 192 yards on 15 carries.

Offensive standout II: Just like Denker, Washington RB Bishop Sankey put up big numbers against a Pac-12 bottom-feeder, but you can't ignore the numbers: a career-high 241 yards on 27 carries -- which works out to 8.9 yards per rush -- with two touchdowns in a 41-17 win over California.

Defensive standout: Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss among his eight total tackles in Stanford's win over Oregon State. He also broke up a pass and blocked another as the Cardinal defense held the Beavers to just 288 total yards. And he was a disruptive force well beyond the stats. There seemed to be six Murphys on the field, and the Beavers didn't block any of them.

Defensive standout, team editions: USC, Oregon and Stanford each deserve special note for playing outstanding team defense. USC held Utah to three points and 201 total yards, Oregon pitched a second-half shutout and Stanford held the most potent passing attack in the nation to 271 yards.

Special-teams standout: Washington K/P Travis Coons was 2-2 on field goals in the Huskies 41-17 win over California, making kicks of 46 and 42 yards. He was perfect on five PATs and had three of his eight punts downed inside the California 20-yard line, as well as a 46-yard effort.

Smiley face: Stanford and Oregon both took care of business against ranked teams, setting up a marquee matchup of national interest on Thursday, Nov. 7. While the Cardinal's loss at Utah reduces the overall wow factor of the Pac-12 showdown that was circled in red in the preseason to some extent, these are still teams in the top five of the BCS rankings, and the Pac-12 North Division is likely at stake. It's good for the Pac-12 as a whole to have the big stage to itself. And both teams get extra time to prepare, so THERE WILL BE NO EXCUSES!

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesStanford needs more offense from Kevin Hogan & Co. to keep up with Oregon.
Frowny face: Stanford will have no chance against the Ducks without some passing game, and the one the Cardinal brought to Oregon State won't cut it against the Ducks defense, which might have the nation's best secondary. QB Kevin Hogan completed just 8 of 18 passes for 88 yards (4.9 per completion), with a QBR of 27.0 -- 50 being average -- against an inspired Beavers defense. Stanford coach David Shaw said as much about his offense after the game. The Cardinal needs receiver Devon Cajuste to get healthy, if that's even possible.

Thought of the week: Let the bowl scramble begin! Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State are already bowl-eligible, with Oregon and Stanford both in position to obtain BCS bowl berths. Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington each have five wins, needing one more to become bowl-eligible. Of course, the South Division winner also has a shot of getting a Rose Bowl berth in the Pac-12 championship game. USC, Utah and Washington State need two more wins to become bowl-eligible. Only Cal, at 1-7, is out of the running, though Colorado getting three wins is a decided long shot. After the BCS bowls, things will get pretty interesting in the rush for the best bowl slots -- Alamo and Holiday -- compared to the other choices. There might be some hurt feelings -- "Hey, we beat them and have the same record and they got a better game!"

Questions for the week: Where are the road warriors (other than Oregon)? Go through the Pac-12 schedule: There have been few impressive or surprising road wins this year. Arizona lost at USC and Washington. Arizona State lost at Stanford and to Notre Dame in AT&T Stadium. UCLA lost at Stanford and Oregon. USC lost at Arizona and Notre Dame. Utah lost at Arizona and USC. Stanford lost at Utah. Washington lost at Stanford and Arizona State. The best road wins? Stanford over Oregon State on Saturday. Oregon over Washington on Oct. 12. Washington State over USC on Sept. 7, perhaps the most surprising win. UCLA over Utah on Oct. 3. And Oregon State over Washington State on Oct. 12. That's about it. A program goes from good to great by learning how to consistently win on the road -- see Oregon and Stanford

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
10:00
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Five things we learned in Week 9 in the Pac-12.

[+] EnlargeByron Marshall
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall rushed for 1,038 yards for the Ducks in 2013.
See Ducks run: First, credit the Bruins for effort. They sold out and committed to the run and totaled 219 yards on the ground in playing the Ducks to a 14-14 halftime tie. They weren’t intimidated and they didn’t back down from the challenge. But like Jim Mora said, “the heck with being close.” UCLA needs to start winning these games if it wants to be considered an elite Pac-12 team. That said, Oregon simply needed 48 minutes instead of its usual 30 to dispatch a team, ranked or not. And it was refreshing to see how the Ducks would react to being punched back. They reacted like a championship team should. Oregon picked up 325 yards on the ground, with 133 yards and three touchdowns from Byron Marshall. And we’ve been saying it in the blog for a while now: Oregon’s defense is really, really good. The Ducks picked off Brett Hundley twice and held him to just 64 yards in the air. Marcus Mariota was a very clean 21-of-28 for 230 yards and a touchdown. His streak of games with at least one rushing and one passing touchdown came to an end, but he extended his interception-less streak to 292 consecutive passes. And it has to be comforting to know that if every Oregon running back is suddenly stricken with sprained ankles, Rodney Hardrick can always carry the rock.

Typical Stanford: Stanford’s offense survived on the strength of tough running by Tyler Gaffney and a defense that sacked Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion eight times. But it was Gaffney’s late-game fumble that should serve as a reminder that Stanford hasn’t been scoring many points of late. So, not unlike last year’s Stanford team, white knuckles will likely be required down the stretch. But credit the defense for creating pressure on Mannion, who was 41-of-57 for 271 yards and a touchdown. His partner in crime, Brandin Cooks, had nine catches for 80 yards and a score. Sans the late-game fumble, Gaffney was stellar again, this time going for 145 yards and three touchdowns. The Beavers saw their six-game winning streak come to an end. But there’s little time to wallow with USC coming into town before a bye and then going on the road for two of their last three. The next time Stanford takes the field will be when Oregon comes to town. And despite the one Cardinal loss, that game still has all the fun subplots and polish we were hoping for.

Where’s the offense? The Utes are reeling after failing to win on the road for the second straight week. And the once-potent offense managed just three points and 201 yards, and it turned the ball over four times. Remember, this is the team that put up 410 yards on Stanford. But this was the worst offensive output by far. A lot of that has to do with the health of Travis Wilson, who sat out the second half for the second straight week. The offensive line looked leaky and the explosive attack we’d come to know the first half of the season looked flat. The defense did what it could, but the offense left it in bad spots. Which leads us to the Trojans. Not a particularly great offensive showing for them, either, so a game ball to Andre Heidari and his four field goals. Cody Kessler looked pretty good, taking care of the ball and completing 21 of 32 passes for 230 yards with a touchdown. But minus-30 yards in sacks left the Trojans with just 30 total rushing yards for the game. Credit USC’s defense for being opportunistic and big ups to the Trojans for continuing to persevere despite a depleted roster. They did what they had to do to win. But now Utah’s signature win a couple of weeks ago is starting to look more and more like a one-week-wonder.

Carey keeps rolling: The leading rusher against Colorado was not Ka’Deem Carey, surprisingly enough. But Carey did rush for 119 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 10 straight games of at least 100 yards dating back to last year’s game against Colorado. It was quarterback B.J. Denker who carried 15 times for 192 yards. The Buffs played this one tough for a while, even leading 13-10 with five minutes left in the half. But the Wildcats struck hard and fast with two late-half touchdowns, and it was game over from there. You can get the sense that this is a different Colorado team than last season. And Paul Richardson is simply outstanding (seven catches, 132 yards, one score). The results just aren’t showing up in the win column. Arizona broke through with its second straight conference win and will look to become bowl eligible next week against Cal.

Huskies bounce back: Washington got exactly what it needed: a win, and a convincing win at that. Cal continues to be everyone’s slump buster. And the Huskies busted their three-game slump with a monster 241-yard, two-touchdown performance from Bishop Sankey. This win won’t get the Huskies back in the Top 25. And beating Colorado next week probably won’t, either. But the Huskies are one step closer to another year of bowl eligibility, and with back-to-back road games at UCLA and Oregon State before the Apple Cup, Washington has an opportunity to finish very strong and break the seven-win curse. For Cal, it’s about finding the little positives. But the Bears have now dropped 10 straight Pac-12 contests dating back to last year. And after another blowout loss, you have to wonder if that streak will end this season.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
9:00
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

USC defense: The Trojans held Utah to 201 total yards in a 19-3 victory. They recorded six sacks, nine tackles for a loss and three interceptions and kept the Utes scoreless after a field goal on their first possession.

Avery Patterson, S, Oregon: Patterson had seven tackles with three coming for a loss and an interception in the Ducks' 42-14 win over No. 12 UCLA.

Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon: Marshall rushed for 133 yards on 19 carries (7.0 average) with three touchdowns in Oregon's win over UCLA.

B.J. Denker, QB, Arizona: Denker completed 21 of 32 passes for 265 yards with a TD and interception in the Wildcats' 44-20 win over Colorado. And he also rushed for 192 yards on 15 carries. He nips RB Ka'Deem Carey, who rushed for 119 yards and four TDs.

Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington: Sankey rushed for a career-high 241 yards on 27 carries -- 8.9 yards per rush -- and scored two touchdowns in the Huskies' 41-17 win over California to break a three-game losing streak.

Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford: Murphy had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss among his eight total tackles in Stanford's 20-12 win over Oregon State. He also broke up a pass and blocked another as the Cardinal defense held the Beavers to just 288 total yards.

Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: Gaffney rushed for 145 yards on 22 carries (6.6 average) with three touchdowns in Stanford's victory.

Pac-12 lunch links: Return of DAT?

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
11:30
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I've never seen a diamond in the flesh
I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
And I'm not proud of my address
In the torn up town, no post code envy.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
10:15
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A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:

1. Title game rematch: UCLA and Stanford will face each other for the third time in the last 10 months. Only this time it’s the Bruins who are the higher-ranked team, coming in at No. 9 after Stanford slid to No. 13 following its loss at Utah. Remember all of those side-to-side swing passes that Dennis Erickson and Utah used to keep Stanford off balance? Remember who worked for Erickson at ASU? Yep, Noel Mazzone. And UCLA loves to hit its receivers in the flat. Keep an eye on what happens after the second-half kickoff, as well. The Bruins are outscoring opponents 71-0 in the third quarter this year. Stanford has a 12-game home winning streak -- third longest in the nation -- and is 10-1 at home against ranked opponents since 2009. Stanford hasn’t lost consecutive games since the middle of the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Ducks are expected to be one of the top two teams when the BCS standings are released on Sunday.
2. BCS time: The first Harris Poll of the season was released Sunday and featured four Pac-12 teams in the top 25: Oregon (2), UCLA (9), Stanford (12) and Washington (25). The first BCS standings will be released this week -- which comes on the heels of the announced selection committee for the College Football Playoff that starts next year. We’re all expecting Oregon to be in one of the top two spots. Question is, where will UCLA or Stanford land?

3. North vs. South: Two more critical North versus South showdowns this week with UCLA traveling to Stanford and Washington heading to Arizona State. The UCLA-Stanford game takes center stage for obvious reasons. But Washington-ASU has all the makings of a thriller. This is one of those 50-50 games that either team needs to win to show they belong in the upper tier of the Pac-12. The quarterbacks, Keith Price and Taylor Kelly, are obviously the mechanisms that make their teams go. But Washington running back Bishop Sankey (899 yards) has rushed for at least 125 yards in five of six games and ASU gives up almost 170 yards per game on the ground. Look for him to probably break 1,000 for the season by the final whistle. On the flip side, ASU’s Marion Grice already has 15 total touchdowns. He had 19 last year, so look for him to eclipse that mark in the next couple of games.

4. Making up is hard to do: Colorado will face Charleston Southern this week as a makeup for the Sept. 14 game against Fresno State that was canceled because of severe rain and flooding in Colorado. Charleston Southern is a perfect 7-0 on the year and is receiving votes in the Sports Network FCS College Football Poll. The Buffs are looking to get to 3-3 for the first time since 2010. And they are making a change at quarterback with Sefo Liufau stepping in after going 18 of 26 for 169 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions in relief against Arizona State.

5. No. 5? The Cougars are looking for their fifth win for the first time since 2007. Tough draw, however, this week with a trip to Oregon. The Ducks are averaging 56.8 points per game and are second in the country in total offense with 630.5 yards per game.

6. Taking care of the ball: Speaking of Oregon, quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Heisman frontrunner through the first half of the season, continues to impress with turnover-free performances. Though his completion percentage is down from last year, he hasn’t thrown an interception in 165 pass attempts this year -- which extends a streak dating back to last season of 233 attempts. His last interception was against Stanford. During that stretch, he’s completed 100 passes for 1,724 yards and 17 touchdowns. Receivers Josh Huff and Bralon Addison have 27 catches each for a combined 1,054 yards and 11 touchdowns.

7. Rebuilding the brand: Nothing can unite the USC fan base like a win against Notre Dame. Better yet, a win at Notre Dame. The Trojans won their first game of the Ed Orgeron era and look to follow it up against the Irish. Neither team is ranked, but the names carry a lot of weight. This is a game that could re-energize the Trojans moving forward. Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin have both practiced and it’s looking like both will play. That should be a huge boost after getting running back Silas Redd back last week.

8. Momentum building? What do the Utes do with their big win over Stanford? Do they keep the momentum rolling? They have to go on the road for four of their next six -- including leaving the state for the first time this season when they travel to face Arizona. The Wildcats are still looking for their first conference win, though quarterback B.J. Denker had a strong statistical performance in the loss last week to USC, completing 28 of 44 passes for a career high 363 yards and four touchdowns.

9. Who needs a running game? The Pac-12’s top two passing offenses square off with Oregon State’s trip to Cal. OSU quarterback Sean Mannion has six straight games of 350 passing yards and the Beavers lead the conference with 433.2 passing yards per game and 25 passing touchdowns. Cal averages 371.3 yards in the air -- second in the league, but just 11 passing touchdowns, third worst. The Bears can move it, they just haven’t been able to convert yards into points.

10. No off week: For the second straight week, all 12 schools will be in action. This was supposed to be a bye week for Colorado, but the Charleston Southern game fills the void. Next week Arizona State and Washington State are on bye. It will be the first of two byes in three weeks for the Cougars, who will have opened the year with eight straight games following this week’s matchup with Oregon.

I am going to go with the balloon animal display. For the kids. And then when she comes close to check it out, guess who is the broken man, haunted past? How about you?
The USC Trojans (4-2 overall, 1-2 Pac-12) hit Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Sunday after a rare weekend away from action following the team’s 38-31 victory over Arizona on Thursday night. Taking part in a short, no-pads workout with a heavy emphasis on game planning and conditioning, it was their first practice in preparation for Saturday’s matchup with Notre Dame. USC coach Ed Orgeron is encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

“Our guys came back really rejuvenated today,” Orgeron said. “We had a good meeting on Friday … covered the film. They had Friday night off, yesterday off and had a Monday practice today. We gave them a little scouting report on Notre Dame … just breaking some stuff in. We had some corrections from the film from the game Thursday night, and we’re moving forward.”

The Trojans’ win over the Wildcats not only marked the team’s first over a Pac-12 opponent this season, but it was also their first under Orgeron, who was making his debut as interim coach.

“It’s been overwhelming,” said Orgeron of the support and feedback that he’s received over the last three days. “The response has been positive. It’s all about the players. I’m just excited to see the Trojans win, and obviously there’s a lot of things that need to get better, but the style in which they played and the energy and the emotion … and again, to see that locker room, it just relieved a lot of pain.”

With that said, Orgeron and Co. have now firmly turned their focus toward a Fighting Irish squad that currently sits at 4-2.

“We realize that this is a rivalry game … USC-Notre Dame, and we have a lot of respect for our opponent,” Orgeron said. “But again, we need to take care of what we can control, and that’s us, the fundamentals and the style of play. But it’s going to be an exciting game, and we know it.”

Help on the way in the secondary?

While Thursday night’s victory was filled with positives, the one glaring negative was the performance of the secondary -- a unit that was continually victimized by Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker, who threw for a career-high 363 yards and four touchdowns.

“All of the things were correctable,” Orgeron said. “We had some coverage things that we looked at, and [we] let the guys get behind us a little too much. We’ve just got to emphasize just being in the right positions … stuff like that. The coaches did a great job of illustrating what we need to get better at.”

Additionally, the Trojans defensive backfield could get a big boost in the form of Anthony Brown this week. Out of action since spraining his knee against Hawaii on Aug. 29, the fourth-year junior cornerback returned to action on Sunday and started for a majority of the practice opposite Kevon Seymour.

And while the Fontana (Calif.) Kaiser product appeared to look healthy and in command during the light workout, Orgeron said that it’s still too early to tell whether he’ll be able to go this weekend with 100 percent certainty, listing him as “probable.”

“We’ve got to see this week,” Orgeron said. “That’s a big decision on our staff. It’s hard for a guy that’s been out for as long as he’s been out to come back. We don’t know if he’s ready yet. It’s going to be very, very critical this week to find out if he’s going to be ready and if he can play.”

Injury report

In addition to Brown, all eyes were on star wide receiver Marqise Lee, who has been sidelined since going down against Arizona State on Sept. 28 with a knee sprain. Wearing a brace on his left knee, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner didn’t participate in drills, but he did run sprints on the sideline, and appeared to do so without a limp.

Others who sat out Sunday’s practice included Kevin Graf, Victor Blackwell (ankle heavily taped), Tre Madden, Xavier Grimble, Marquis Simmons, and Morgan Breslin.

Nathan Guertler filled in for Graf, while Darreus Rogers appeared to go full speed at wideout.

In his post-practice media scrum, Orgeron said that Brown, Graf, Rogers, Grimble, Madden and Simmons are all probable for Saturday’s game, while Lee, Blackwell and Breslin are questionable and D.J. Morgan is out.

3 Up, 3 Down: USC 38, Arizona 31

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
7:00
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LOS ANGELES – A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s 38-31 victory over Arizona on Thursday.

THREE UP

1. USC tailbacks: It’s safe to say that USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron wasn’t joking when he talked about wanting to get more players involved in the offensive attack. All five available scholarship tailbacks contributed on Thursday, helping the Trojans offense amass 249 rushing yards. Tre Madden – who went out in the first half with a hamstring injury – set the tone early, and Silas Redd, Justin Davis, Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac each kept it going. Redd, who closed the game out with some crucial runs during a game-clinching fourth-quarter drive, rushed for a team-best 80 yards.

2. USC passing offense: Offensive coordinator Clay Helton impressed in his first game as the Trojans’ play-caller, spreading the ball all over the field while placing an emphasis on establishing the vertical passing game. Cody Kessler completed passes to six receivers and threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns. The Bakersfield (Calif.) Centennial graduate completed long, first-quarter touchdown passes to Madden and Nelson Agholor, the latter of whom finished with seven grabs for 161 yards and one touchdown. To top things off, USC didn’t turn the ball over.

3. J.R. Tavai: Tavai, who had just two tackles to his credit on the season heading into the game, had a breakout performance. Filling in for Morgan Breslin at outside linebacker, he racked up 10 tackles (seven solo), including 3.5 tackles for loss. He was particularly active early on, making eight stops by halftime.

THREE DOWN

1. USC passing defense: For the second consecutive game, the Trojans defense struggled tremendously in pass coverage. Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker entered the matchup by completing just 50 percent of his throws for an average of 111.2 yards per game, yet he managed to look like an All-American against USC, completing 28 of 44 passes for a career-high 363 yards and four touchdowns.

2. Second-half letdown: The Trojans led 28-10 at halftime and appeared well on their way to a blowout victory, but unable to match the stamina nor the emotionally hyped level of play that they put on display early, they let the Wildcats hang around until the very end. Arizona outscored the Trojans 21-10 in the second half, and the USC defense, in particular, appeared to be physically drained in the fourth quarter, allowing Arizona to drive down the field with ease for touchdowns on the team’s final two possessions.

3. Attendance: The Trojans’ first-ever non-Thanksgiving/non-bowl Thursday night game in the Coliseum drew just 64,215, a number that began to shrink dramatically near the end of the third quarter -- just when Arizona started to make the game interesting. On a positive note, those who were in attendance were noticeably enthusiastic and vocal, feeding off the energy of Orgeron and the USC players.

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