USC Trojans: Josh Nunes

It all seemed so simple before Week 1 of last year. Six quarterback competitions, six resolutions before the first game of the year.

Taylor Kelly had won the gig at ASU. Jordan Webb set foot on campus and was almost instantly Colorado’s starter. Marcus Mariota outdistanced Bryan Bennett. Josh Nunes was Andrew Luck’s successor. Brett Hundley was an exciting unknown, and Jeff Tuel was the guy to lead WSU’s Air Raid.

Of course, simplicity doesn’t always last. Be it injury or performance, Webb and Nunes weren’t the starters at the end of the season and Tuel went back-and-forth with Connor Halliday. Mariota, Kelly and Hundley, however, went on to be three of the four most efficient quarterbacks in the league.

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek and Cody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMax Wittek (13) and Cody Kessler (6) will both see time at QB for the Trojans.
The moral of the story: Don’t fear the unknown. But don’t be too comfortable with it, either.

Which leads us to this year’s crop of quarterback competitions. It’s not as cut-and-dried as it was a year ago. At least two of them are ongoing and will probably stretch into the first weeks of the season.

The No. 24 Trojans open against Hawaii with Cody Kessler and Max Wittek still in the hunt for the right to replace Matt Barkley. Coach Lane Kiffin, however, said he has zero concerns that the competition hasn’t been resolved.

“I see it as completely opposite,” Kiffin said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 conference call. “I think they have both performed so well. We feel great about both of them running our offense. I see it as a positive. I think they've really worked on their weaknesses … that way we don’t have to call the game any different based on who is in. We can do all of our stuff.”

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez hasn’t picked his guy yet, either. Though he did say he has seen some recent progress from B.J. Denker, Javelle Allen and Jesse Scroggins. A week ago, it was thought that as many as four or five guys could still be in the mix.

“I’d be more concerned if none of them made progress,” Rodriguez said. “In the last week and a half, they have all made some pretty good progress. B.J. Denker and Javelle Allen, the guys that have been in the program, have made pretty good progress. And Jesse Scroggins has gotten better as well. I feel good about that. There’s no question there is always more concern when you don’t have experience there. B.J. has been in the system for a year and Javelle has been in the system for a year. We feel pretty confident they can run the whole entire offense and with Jesse it’s just a matter of time.”

And time is on Arizona’s side. The Wildcats don’t exactly have a pressing first month of the season. They host Northern Arizona this weekend, followed by a trip to UNLV before hosting UTSA on Sept. 14. Then it’s a bye week before opening league play at Washington.

One report last week had Oregon State playing the quarterback shuffle heading into Week 1. But Mike Riley put that to rest yesterday when he named Sean Mannion his starter.

“I had told some stories in the past of experience with two quarterbacks playing, but never intended to start a rotation situation here at all,” Riley said. “We intended to name a starter and then have kind of left it up in the air … Sean is the starter and we’ll go into the game like that.”

Connor Wood won the job at Colorado -- ending a QB competition that started with six but dwindled after injuries and transfers.

"He's big, he's athletic, he's got a strong arm, and he's a talented athlete," said coach Mike MacIntyre, who noted he was also very pleased with the progress of freshman Sefo Liufau. "He really started capturing the essence of our offense and understanding where to go with the ball and where to go with our run game. He kept improving."

Cal coach Sonny Dykes took a different approach, naming Jared Goff his starter as soon as he could.

“Anytime you have a starting quarterback, I think everyone is more comfortable,” Dykes said. “The quarterback is more comfortable. The skill-position players can start to get on the same page. You develop a relationship with the center and quarterback and their ability to communicate with each other and the sense of timing that needs to exist there. I think what it does is settle everybody down.”

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 7

October, 14, 2012
10/14/12
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What did we learn in Week 7? Read on.

Arizona State will be Oregon's toughest test: Sure, the Sun Devils haven't played anyone, much less anyone nearly the equal of second-ranked Oregon. But the way the Sun Devils have looked against that schedule suggests strongly that they will be able to challenge the Ducks, particularly playing at home. Arizona State's defense is aggressive and gets good penetration, while the high-tempo offense has nice balance, and Taylor Kelly is playing better than any quarterback in the conference, including Ducks counterpart Marcus Mariota. And there is the issue of Mariota struggling in his only road start this season.

[+] EnlargeCody Vaz
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireCody Vaz (14) proved he was a more-than-capable replacement at QB for Oregon State.
Oregon State can maintain with QB Cody Vaz: Vaz, a redshirt junior making his first start since high school, completed 20 of 32 passes for 332 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Beavers' 42-24 victory at BYU. That was pretty much the equal of what Sean Mannion, out with a knee injury, has done this year. Actually, Vaz's efficiency mark (180.6) would rank No. 1 in the Pac-12. Further, the Beavers were able to run the ball fairly well against the nation's No. 1 run defense, while the defense grabbed three interceptions. The Beavers are 5-0 for the first time since 1939. The magic continues.

Home Stanford, good. Road Stanford, bad: The Stanford Cardinal are a completely different team when you get them away from the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium. In two road games this year, they have failed to score an offensive touchdown (the two they've had have come from the defense, one against Washington, one against Notre Dame). Quarterback Josh Nunes has struggled away from home. In his two road games, he's a combined 30-of-62 (48 percent) for 295 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions. His teammates have dropped 11 balls on the road (five against Washington, six against Notre Dame). Stanford is on the road again next week for the Big Game against a Cal team that has won two straight.

USC just isn't going to be as pretty as expected: USC quarterback Matt Barkley, the preseason Heisman Trophy front-runner, completed 10 of 20 passes for 167 yards in the 24-14 win over Washington. He threw a touchdown pass. He threw a pick. It was his third game with fewer than 200 yards passing this year. His numbers aren't terrible, but they seem more like something he'd have done four years ago when he was the freshman starter for the nation's premier college football program, which never started true freshmen at QB. Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee have fallen well short of high expectations, and maybe it's time to let those go. The preseason expectations for this team aren't being met. Still, the Trojans are 5-1. They are still in the national title hunt, if on the outside. It's just that the Trojans looked like a team that would make you gasp over the playmaking in the preseason. Hasn't been the case. This is a team that is conservative, often sloppy and good on defense. You know: SEC-ish.

California, Tedford aren't dead: With a 31-17 victory over Washington State, California improved to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in Pac-12 play. Is that a good record? No. But the Bears have won two in a row and will host Stanford on Saturday in an unusual midseason Big Game. Cal needs three wins to earn bowl eligibility, and the remaining schedule is far from easy. Coach Jeff Tedford remains on the hot seat, and it's difficult to imagine a losing record will leave folks in Berkeley happy. So the pressure remains. But two weeks ago, Cal seemed dead. Now it's off life support. If it can trip a Stanford squad coming off a dispiriting loss at Notre Dame, the hope may blossom into genuine opportunity.

Poll: Pressure-packed weekend for QBs

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
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We at the Pac-12 blog love pressure situations. And it just so happens that there are some pressure-packed scenarios this week for some of the conference's quarterbacks. But is there one scenario that seems tougher than another? That's for you to decide.

So your Thursday poll question is this: Which Pac-12 quarterback has the most pressure to produce this week?

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 quarterback has the most pressure to produce this week?

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    18%
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    4%
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    18%
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    13%
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    47%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,086)

Your options:

Matt Barkley, USC: He's climbed his way back into the top five of the ESPN.com Heisman poll after a strong showing on the road against Utah. Now he and the Trojans head to Seattle against a Huskies squad that is allowing just 274 total yards and 12.6 points in three home games.

Brett Hundley, UCLA: Even though he completed 66 percent of his throws (31 of 47) against Cal and had a pair of touchdowns, he also threw four interceptions. Saturday marks a huge home game for Hundley and his young offense with a very seasoned Utah defensive front coming to town.

Josh Nunes, Stanford: He silenced some of his critics with a five-touchdown performance against Arizona. But many skeptics are still looking to see if he can do it away from home. No easy task facing a highly-ranked, highly-motivated Notre Dame squad.

Keith Price, Washington: He's been less-than-stellar this year, but the schedule has also been less-than-favorable. Most notable is Washington's 75 percent conversion in the red zone -- which ranks ninth among conference teams. Price is also last in touchdown passes among regular starters with five and four interceptions.

Cody Vaz, Oregon State: Talk about pressure? How about making your first collegiate start for a 4-0 team that's ranked 10th nationally. Oh yeah, and do it on the road against the No. 3 scoring defense in the country. No problem, right?

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
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A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:
    [+] EnlargeJosh Nunes
    Kyle Terada/US PresswireCardinal quarterback Josh Nunes has solidified his starting job.

  1. Game of the week: Which Stanford team shows up at No. 7 Notre Dame? Is it the explosive offense that racked up more than 600 yards against Arizona? Or the struggling offense which failed to score an offensive touchdown at Washington? The Irish have one of the nation's best defenses, but Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes put to rest any questions about his starting job with his five-touchdown performance against the Wildcats. But for the Cardinal to be considered serious contenders in the Pac-12 North, they are going to have to get it done on the road.
  2. Speaking of the road: Heck of a time to make your first collegiate start -- midseason and on the road. But that's the challenge in front of Oregon State backup quarterback Cody Vaz. With the news that Sean Mannion will be out at least 2-4 weeks with a knee injury, the junior steps in after having not played since 2010. Head coach Mike Riley created a minor media buzz during spring ball when he said Vaz had closed the gap with Mannion. Fortunately for the Beavers, the running game is starting to click with Storm Woods and Malcolm Agnew, and the wide receiver duo of Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks is playing well. Vaz has some support.
  3. Is he for real? Anyone recognize the guy in blue wearing No. 15 last week? After his first interception last week, Cal quarterback Zach Maynard was, dare we say, prolific. He completed 83.3 percent of his throws and tossed four touchdowns in the Bears' upset against UCLA. This coming a week after he completed 32.1 percent at home against Arizona State. The yards, touchdowns and completion percentage were all season highs. Has the light finally come on?
  4. No peeking: Can the Sun Devils resist the urge to look beyond Colorado to their showdown next week with Oregon? Head coach Todd Graham said it shouldn't be hard. But then again, these are college players, and you have to wonder if the 1-4 Buffs are being overlooked. The good news is we'll find out tonight, since it's the national Thursday game.
  5. Rally the troops: It's a good thing for Washington that USC isn't still ranked in the top five. The Huskies have been outscored 93-24 in their two games against top five programs this year. After the 41-3 loss to LSU, the Huskies had Portland State to beat up on. It's not going to be as easy this week with the No. 11 Trojans coming to town. Steve Sarkisian has had some success against the Trojans, and he obviously knows the program very well. Can he get the Huskies to put last week's debacle at Oregon behind them?
  6. About those Trojans: Head coach Lane Kiffin talked at length this week about how tough it is to come into the season with a high preseason ranking -- ya know, like No. 1. But the Trojans showed last week that maybe the fork-sticking was premature. After spotting the Utes 14 points, quarterback Matt Barkley calmly led a USC offense that looked potent and efficient. And in the process, he pulled himself back into the Heisman race -- though there is still work to be done on that front. Nov. 3 is still high noon for the Trojans, and the better they look leading into that game against Oregon, the better it will be for the conference. And, aside from the first three minutes last week, the Trojans looked pretty good.
  7. Swing game? If the Utah Utes hope to make a bowl game this season, this game might be the turning point. They face a UCLA team that showed its youth against Cal on offense, and a fairly seasoned defense looked porous. The Utes have to travel to Oregon State next week, where they'll see the Vaz-led Beavers (Utah knows a little something about overcoming-quarterback-injury adversity). Then it's five straight games against unranked teams to close out the season. A win puts them back at .500 and still in the bowl hunt. The Bruins are two wins away, but face a tougher second-half schedule, including closing out the season with USC and Stanford. A win by the Bruins puts them on the verge of bowl eligibility.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 6

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
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Taking stock of the sixth week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Just as the hot seat talk for California coach Jeff Tedford was starting to crescendo, the Bears pulled out an impressive 43-17 win over No. 25 UCLA. The Bears played tough on both sides of the ball, and QB Zach Maynard overcame an early interception to post perhaps his best career game, accounting for five TDs -- four throwing, one running. The defense forced six turnovers and pressured UCLA QB Brett Hundley most of the evening. Cal needed a win, and it got it.

Best game: There were nine lead changes in the first three quarters of Arizona's visit to Stanford, as neither defense could get a stop. But when the Wildcats jumped up 48-34 with nine minutes left in the game, it didn't appear we'd get an 11th change. But Stanford rallied around QB Josh Nunes and forced overtime. At that point, the Cardinal defense stepped up, forcing a turnover, and RB Stepfan Taylor's 21-yard TD run provided the winning points at 54-48.

[+] EnlargeJosh Nunes
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireStanford QB Josh Nunes talks with coach David Shaw during a timeout against Arizona on Saturday.
Biggest play: Down seven with 1:21 left and facing a fourth-and-9 at the Arizona 20-yard line, Nunes found Zach Ertz over the middle for 17 yards to the 3-yard line. Nunes went the final 3 yards for the tying touchdown that got Stanford to OT.

Offensive standout: Nine days after a loss at Washington had some fans calling for him to be benched, Nunes' clutch performance against Arizona might end up being more resonant than his struggles versus the Huskies. He overcame a slow start and accounted for five Stanford touchdowns, completing 21 of 34 passes for 360 yards and two scores while also rushing for 33 yards on seven carries and three touchdowns.

Defensive standout: What's it with all these three-interception games? Oregon State CB Jordan Poyer grabbed three picks against Washington State, while Cal's Kameron Jackson did the same against UCLA. Both also had four tackles. Earlier in the year, UCLA CB Sheldon Price had three picks against Houston.

Special teams standout: Stanford's Daniel Zychlinski averaged 54.3 yards on four punts in the Cardinal's overtime win over Arizona with a long of 59 yards.

Smiley face: The Pac-12's top four teams: Oregon, USC, Oregon State and Stanford each found different ways to win. Oregon rolled over rival Washington 52-21, looking like a dominant, national title contender along the way. USC overcame a horrible start that left it in a 14-0 hole two minutes into its visit to Utah. Oregon State was sloppy and inefficient on offense but was bailed out by its defense against Washington State. And Stanford, as already mentioned, overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Arizona in overtime. One of the signs of a good conference is when its ranked teams just get it done, even if they aren't clicking.

Frowny face: Mike Leach was supposed to bring a high-powered passing offense to Washington State, and the Cougars were supposed to have the QB-WR combinations to make it potent. But it hasn't played out that way. The Cougars were held to two field goals in a 19-6 loss to Oregon State. They finished with a measly 227 total yards with five turnovers, including four interceptions. Neither Connor Halliday nor Jeff Tuel is playing well, and the receivers have been making too many drops. The Cougs are 98th in the nation in scoring with 21.8 points per game.

Thought of the week: Notre Dame, which Stanford visits on Saturday, is 5-0 and ranked seventh. The Fighting Irish appear to be finally emerging from a long period of malaise, and that's good for the Pac-12. The past few years, Stanford's and USC's annual whipping of the Irish meant little to the national audience. But a ranked Notre Dame team provides an opportunity for Stanford and USC to post wins that do raise eyebrows nationally, as well as raise the perception of the conference. Of course, Stanford and USC have to win those games for Notre Dame's return to relevance to be a positive one.

Questions for the week: The Pac-12 features four teams ranked from Nos. 2 through 17: No. 2 Oregon, No. 10 Oregon State, No. 11 USC and No. 17 Stanford. While any of those four teams could fall apart and out of the rankings, they do appear to comprise a top third of the conference so far. But who might rise from the Pac-12 and become a fifth ranked team, or at least the fifth team in the Pac-12 pecking order? The conference isn't lacking candidates. You'd have to rank Arizona State and Washington as the top two. The Sun Devils are playing well, while the Huskies already have a win over Stanford. Then there's UCLA, Arizona and Utah. And, perhaps, a resurgent California, which just beat UCLA. Will a nine-win team emerge from that group? Or will we end up with a lot of 7-5, 6-6 and 5-7?

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 7, 2012
10/07/12
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So much offense! So much defense! So hard to choose ...


  1. Josh Nunes, QB, Stanford: The goat of last week's Washington-whooping, Nunes was absolutely clutch in leading the Cardinal from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 54-48 overtime victory at home over Arizona. He engineered back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter -- including a steely 4th-and-9 toss that helped set up the tying score. Nunes accounted for five Stanford touchdowns, completing 21 of 34 passes for 360 yards and two scores while also rushing for 33 yards on seven carries and three touchdowns.
  2. Nickell Robey, CB, USC: Leaned heavily toward the USC quarterback, but Robey was so solid that we couldn't pass him up. He had seven tackles (four solo), forced a fumble and had the nail-in-the-coffin interception that he returned 38 yards for a score with 9:30 left in USC's 38-28 victory at Utah on Thursday. The Trojans had a 10-point lead at the time, so the game wasn't exactly wrapped up. Robey saw to that.
  3. Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State: In the preseason, we talked about there being two true lockdown corners in the conference. Poyer is one of them (see the above entry for the other one). When the offense was struggling, it was Poyer and the Beavers defense that kept Oregon State in the game. Poyer tallied three interceptions to help keep the Beavers undefeated, while also breaking up a pass, notching a tackle for a loss and finishing with four stops in the 19-6 win at Washington State.
  4. Zach Maynard, QB, Cal: With the exception of a couple of handoff-exchange issues, Maynard played fantastic football, throwing four touchdowns and running in a fifth in a 43-17 upset win over UCLA. He completed 25 of 30 passes (83.3 percent) for 295 yards to keep the Bruins winless at Cal since 1998. His 1-yard rushing touchdown was his second of the season on the ground. Nice bounce-back performance after a 9-for-28 showing the previous game against Arizona State.
  5. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: In the biggest game of his young career, Mariota tossed four touchdown passes and completed 15 of 24 balls to lead the Ducks to yet another blowout win -- 52-21 this time -- over the Washington Huskies. He also ran for 40 yards on seven carries and kept plays alive with his feet. He had one pick, but for the most part he showed good decision making on when to throw and when to throw it away. The Pac-12 blog sees marked improvement in Mariota each week.
  6. Matt Scott/Ka'Deem Carey, QB/RB, Arizona: We normally don't hand out stickers in defeat, so Scott and Carey can get a half-sticker each. But both deserve the recognition for fantastic performances. Carey rushed for 132 yards and three touchdowns against the conference's No. 1 rush defense. Scott was 45-of-69 for a career-high 491 yards with three scores. Those numbers are too good to go unrecognized.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 3

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
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Taking stock of the third week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Stanford didn't just beat No. 2 USC, it physically dominated the Trojans in a 21-14 victory, the Cardinal's record fourth consecutive win in the series. First, there was the post-Toby Gerhart Era. Then there was the post-Jim Harbaugh Era. Then there was the post-Andrew Luck Era. Maybe it's just the Stanford Era? The Cardinal is now squarely in the Rose Bowl race. And maybe the national title hunt.

[+] EnlargeJosh Nunes
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCardinal quarterback Josh Nunes had one of the biggest plays of the week in the Pac-12.
Best game: Utah's 24-21 win over BYU wasn't pretty. It wasn't, really, even deserving of a "best" tag. But it was really weird, particularly the ending, and weird is often noteworthy. On a weekend when four games came down to the fourth quarter, the Holy War had the most breathless finish because it had two breathless finishes.

Biggest play: On third-and-10 from the 50 in the fourth quarter, Stanford QB Josh Nunes was under pressure. He scrambled and found himself bottled up and cut off. Yet a player not exactly known for his athleticism juked the USC defense and cut for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, he hit TE Zach Ertz for a 37-yard TD and a 21-14 lead, the final margin of Cardinal victory.

Biggest play II: California had No. 12 Ohio State on the ropes. The score was tied with just under four minutes left in the game, and the Buckeyes faced a third-and-7 from their 28-yard line. QB Braxton Miller was forced from the pocket, but the Bears secondary gagged and let Devin Smith get free behind the coverage. The ensuing 72-yard TD pass provided Ohio State its 35-28 margin of victory.

Biggest play III: BYU had a first-and-10 on the Utah 25-yard line, down 10-7 in the third quarter. Lined up in a shotgun formation, QB Riley Nelson wanted to change the play. While he was barking signals, his center delivered the snap, which rolled past an unaware Nelson. Utah's Mo Lee scooped up the loose ball and rambled 47 yards for a TD. The Utes would need those points in a 24-21 win.

Offensive standout: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor was the best player on the field against USC. He rushed 27 times for 153 yards and a 59-yard TD and caught five passes for 60 yards and a 23-yard score in No. 21 Stanford's upset win over No. 2 Trojans.

Defensive standout: UCLA CB Sheldon Price matched a school record with three interceptions in the Bruins' 37-6 win over Houston.

Special teams standout: Not a lot to choose from. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas returned four punts for 87 yards against Tennessee Tech, though he did fumble one.

Smiley face: Cal RB Brendan Bigelow brought life to the Bears by doing his best De'Anthony Thomas at Ohio State, rushing for 160 yards on just four carries -- yes, an average of 40 yards per carry! He had touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards, and both were spectacular. Might he give the Bears offense a weapon that turns around their season?

Frowny face: Can anyone kick a freaking field goal? USC has no kicker, and Arizona, California, Oregon, Stanford and Utah were a combined 1-for-10, with the Bay Area schools going 0-for-6.

Thought of the week: Two of the Pac-12's five unbeaten teams will go down this weekend because of head-to-head matchups. Arizona travels to Oregon, while UCLA plays host to Oregon State. We'll get a better measure of contenders and pretenders this weekend.

Questions for the week: Is Oregon's Thomas ready to make a Heisman Trophy statement against Arizona? The set-up seems perfect: an ESPN game against a questionable defense. With USC and QB Matt Barkley going down, the Heisman race has opened up. Can Thomas be his fancy self and win the affection of the pundits?

Stanford wins at big-man football 

September, 16, 2012
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This one hurts for USC fans. It hurts for many reasons, but one of the ways it hurts the most is the way Stanford won the game. The Cardinal beat USC in this game by imposing their will and the Trojans weren’t able to do anything about it.

That kind of “big man on big man” football is supposed to be USC football. What do you think the reaction was of John McKay and Marv Goux watching from above as the Cardinal physically dominated the Trojans in the second half on both sides of the ball?

Stanford ended up with 202 rushing yards compared to 26 for the Trojans. One team was able to run the ball, one team wasn’t. The Cardinal sacked Matt Barkley four times, and the Trojans didn’t get a sack on Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes. One team applied relentless pressure, one team didn’t.

Cardinal ride Taylor to victory

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
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PALO ALTO, Calif. – Stanford’s Kevin Danser was living an offensive lineman’s dream Saturday night.

“You finish your block and you’re on the ground, and then you look up and your running back is still going,” said Stanford’s guard. “Man, that’s a great feeling. How about that guy? Man, not a lot of people can do what 33 can do.”

That guy -- 33 -- is Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who was the offensive catalyst in Stanford’s ugly-but-effective 21-14 victory over No. 2 USC in front of a sold-out (50,360) Stanford Stadium. Classes don’t start until next week, but that didn’t stop the students in attendance from rushing the field and celebrating Stanford’s fourth consecutive win over the Trojans.

It’s the second time in the past five meetings that Stanford has beaten USC when the Trojans were ranked second nationally. They did it in Los Angeles in 2007 on a last-minute touchdown pass by Tavita Pritchard, winning 24-23 when Stanford was a 41-point underdog.

Saturday night, the Trojans (2-1) weren’t as heavily favored, but they were still considered a grade above No. 21 Stanford (3-0). Taylor saw to disprove that. He chipped, chipped and then broke through. Then he chipped and chipped again. And then he broke through again. And when he was done chipping, he had broken USC’s defense.

“That guy is a rock,” said Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt. “I get to see his yards after contact because he usually blows right by me. And it’s impressive.”

Taylor looked like the best player on the field Saturday night -- not exactly a passing statement when he was sharing the field with USC quarterback Matt Barkley and A-list wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Taylor rushed for 153 yards on 27 carries (5.9 average) and a touchdown to go with five catches for 60 yards and a score.

“We were going to keep giving him the ball,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “He never gets tired. He drags people, he breaks tackles. By one out-of-town paper I was called 'the king of hyperbole' [when talking about Taylor] but that is why I love talking about him. We typically like to rest him, but when we need him, I told him two years ago, we are going to put a saddle on him and ride him.”

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor, George Uko
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStepfan Taylor scoots away from USC's George Uko for the first of his two touchdowns.
And Stanford needed him Saturday. With a new quarterback still learning his way around the offense and a rebuilt offensive line, the Cardinal looked stilted at times on offense. Then again, so did Barkley, the Heisman frontrunner who probably lost a few voters with his 20-of-41 performance and two interceptions. But more damning to his campaign were the zero touchdowns -- almost unheard of with playmakers like Lee and Woods at his disposal. The Cardinal kept Barkley under constant pressure and sacked him four times.

“They played better football than us,” said an extremely despondent Barkley. “We were prepared. They played better.”

Taylor certainly had his share of highlights. His 59-yard touchdown run that knotted the score at 7-7 in the first quarter was pretty. So was his 23-yard screen pass that went for a touchdown, tying the score at 14-14 in the third quarter. But he saved some of his best running for the end of the game -- and he didn’t even get in the end zone. His 2- and 3-yard runs were turning into 7- and 8-yard runs by the second half. The final 8 minutes, 40 seconds was exactly the kind of football Shaw wants his team to play. The Cardinal started at their own 19 and pounded; Taylor for 1, Taylor for 7, Taylor for 2, Taylor for 8, etc., etc., etc. At the end of the scoreless drive, the Cardinal had run 10 plays and eaten 5 minutes, 56 seconds of clock.

The Trojans took over with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left at their own 11, trailing 21-14. But penalties and a pair of Stanford sacks ended the drive, and the game. The Cardinal threw all kinds of blitzes and pressure at Barkley all night -- and without starting center Khaled Holmes, the Trojans were unable to adjust.

“If you sit back there, the quarterback is too good,” Shaw said. “Regardless of what happened tonight, that is the best quarterback in the country. If you give him too much time, he will kill you. You have to get after him. Those receivers are really good. We had to mix it up. Some plays we came after him and some plays we sat back. Our secondary made all the tackles.”

For Josh Nunes, tasked with replacing Andrew Luck as Stanford’s quarterback, having a back like Taylor has made life a lot easier. He was 15-of-32 for 215 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“He’s a quarterback’s best friend,” Nunes said. “This game was a testament to our style of football, the guys up front, and certainly Stepfan Taylor."

Inside the locker room: Stanford edition 

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from Stanford Stadium after the Trojans' (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) 21-14 loss to Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12).

Kiffin comments: “We knew we didn’t play with a lot of discipline today -- two critical personal fouls, and you can’t do that versus a good team on the road.”

On the lack of a running game: “If you don’t run the ball and they’re able to run it -- even though our defense played pretty well for the most part, I thought we put them out there a lot with the lack of third-down conversions.”

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Instant analysis: Stanford 21, USC 14

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Classes at Stanford don’t start until next week. But that doesn’t mean the students moving in couldn’t rush the field. And a field-storming was warranted when the No. 21 Cardinal shocked No. 2 USC 21-14. Here’s how it went down in Palo Alto:

It was over when: Matt Barkley failed to convert a fourth-and-40 (yeah, you’re reading that right) and the Cardinal took over on downs with nine seconds left. The Trojans took over with 2:44 left, trailing 21-14, and Barkley was sacked twice on a drive that included one fourth-down conversion.

Game ball goes to: Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 156 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. He also had four catches for 61 yards and a score.

Stat of the game: Stanford’s defense held USC to 276 yards of total offense, including just 23 on the ground. Conversely, Stanford totaled 415 yards.

Stat of the game take 2: 4 -- that’s how many interceptions were thrown between Barkley and Josh Nunes during an eight-play stretch in the second quarter, including consecutive interceptions from both quarterbacks on three straight plays.

What this means for USC: For starters, the Trojans' national title hopes are now in serious jeopardy. (Are Stanford's alive?) Not only did they lose, but they looked bad doing it. USC couldn’t run the football, nor could it stop the run -- especially in the fourth quarter, when Taylor wore the Trojans down. Barkley’s Heisman campaign just took a turn for the worse as well.

What this means for Stanford: It owns the Trojans, pure and simple. The Cardinal have now won four straight against USC. Moving forward, the Cardinal now have a signature victory and are back in the national picture.
Stat of the half: Turnovers -- 3 for USC, 2 for Stanford. USC had a lost fumble by Silas Redd and a pair of interceptions from Matt Barkley, but the Trojans countered with interceptions of Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes by Dion Bailey and Jawanza Starling. Those are uncharacteristic numbers for these two teams.

Player of the half: T.J. McDonald. The Trojans senior safety has been physical and active in helping to limit the Stanford run game. The Cardinal have 103 rushing yards on 13 carries, but 59 of those yards came on one run by Stepfan Taylor.

What’s working for our team: Explosive plays. The two USC touchdowns came as a result of short passes that went for long gains thanks to yards-after-catch by Nelson Agholor (48) and Robert Woods (24). The play by Woods came on a 4th-and-19 play where he was able to get outside for the first down.

What’s not working: Run game. The Trojans have 17 carries for 35 yards, but 26 of those yards came on one carry late by Curtis McNeal. Part of the reason for the lack of numbers is the fact that both McNeal and Redd went to the sidelines during the game with injuries, although McNeal later returned to action. The Trojans are also without Khaled Holmes in the middle of the offensive line.

Five things to watch: USC-Stanford

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
11:33
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LOS ANGELES -- The No. 2-ranked USC Trojans begin Pac-12 conference play Saturday against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium (4:30 p.m. PT). Here are five things to watch:

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley and Robert Woods
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillMatt Barkley and the Trojans hope to turn around a trend that has seen them stumble early out of the blocks in conference play ... as well as lose three consecutive contests to Stanford.
1. No Luck. How much of a problem? By now, just about everybody knows the Cardinal are without former all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck, who graduated to the NFL after last season and now starts for the Indianapolis Colts. What not everybody knows is the name of his replacement: Josh Nunes, a fourth-year player from Upland, Calif. He's been good so far, making few of mistakes that often plague first-time starters. But many of the Trojans weren't afraid to say this week that Nunes is not yet comparable to Luck. For the Cardinal, the obvious narrative after they barely snuck by the San Jose State Spartans to win their opener was growing pains with a first-year signal-caller. But Nunes demonstrated improvement against Duke in Week 2. If they were to upset the Trojans, that would obviously be a sign his growth process has accelerated quite a bit.

2. The unkind road and the unkind team. In each of the past five seasons, USC has lost either its first or second conference road game, including its first in three of the past four seasons. That's kind of an alarming statistic, and it might help explain why the Trojans are favored by single digits in most locations for this game. Of course, it's an even more unsettling stat that this season’s crop of USC seniors -- Matt Barkley included -- hasn't beaten Stanford in their college careers. That hasn't happened to a USC class with a regular opponent in more than a decade. Stanford Stadium isn't the loudest, craziest opposing atmosphere in the conference. But many of the Trojans' older players may have memories of a 37-35 loss on a game-ending field goal two years ago at Stanford enter their heads at various times Saturday.

3. A real running back. Stanford's Stepfan Taylor hasn't played like a particularly elite running back thus far this season, but he's thought of as one around the country. He may be the best back the Trojans face all year, so it could be a telling test for the USC front seven. Linemen Morgan Breslin and Antwaun Woods have played better than expected through two games. But can they keep it up when a capable, varied running game is thrown into the mix? If this is the first game this season USC sees the originally planned linebacking crew of Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard on the field together shortly after kickoff, can they handle the Cardinal's run game as a group? Will the Trojans' secondary be unified enough to prevent long runs?

4. Media distraction? It's easy to overstate the impact here -- and let's first clarify that few of USC's players may have even heard about what happened this week with the status of injuries and the local media – but it's quite unlikely thee events will affect play. But if Lane Kiffin were to somehow lose this week, he'd get absolutely roasted in subsequent days by the national media for worrying about the practice suspension of a local reporter in the middle of an important game week. He'll of course say it wasn't a distraction, but the results will stand alone. It's kind of a ready-made critique of a college football coach: If they don't win, what's the point of being so secretive about your players' injuries, anyway?

5. The tandem. Most in-game signs are pointing to Silas Redd 's eventual takeover of the Trojans' No. 1 running back role and Curtis McNeal's quiet demotion to the second spot. If it's going to happen, this will be the week it does, with USC needing to establish a consistent run game early against Stanford's solid defense. Then again, there's always the possibility that Kiffin has been keeping McNeal extra fresh, what with 16 carries in two games, so he can succeed in a game like this one. If Redd again gets 60 to 70 percent of the total carries and performs well, it's safe to assume he's USC's top back -- regardless of whether he's officially defined as such by Kiffin and Co.

Prediction: USC 41-30.

Take 2: Trojans vs. Cardinal

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
9:00
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Pretty straight forward this week. The first Pac-12 Conference game features two ranked teams with a fun recent history. Make your case:

Ted Miller: Stanford has two chief keys against USC on Saturday. It must run the ball well. And it must contain USC's passing attack. The reason the Trojans are going to win this football game -- and end a three-game losing streak in the series -- is Stanford won't be able to do either consistently.

Against San Jose State and Duke, the Cardinal averaged 3.7 yards per rush. I know this is a risky thing to type, but you guys know I'm not afraid to write bold things: USC's defense has more talent than San Jose State and Duke. No, really.

[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee, Robert Woods
Shelly Castellano/Icon SMIMarqise Lee and Robert Woods (2) are as good a receiving tandem as Stanford coach David Shaw says he's seen.
If Stanford's offensive line can't get a push against San Jose State and Duke, it will not do so against the Trojans. Which means new starting quarterback Josh Nunes will be forced to throw into a very good secondary, one that already has four interceptions.

Nunes throwing a lot is what USC wants. Stanford is still lacking at receiver, so the Trojans' back half will have a significant athletic advantage. And it doesn't hurt that Nunes and not old what's-his-name will be delivering the ball.

Speaking of athleticism at receiver ... hey, USC! Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. And tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer. Those are four superior athletes, all of whom made plays last year against the Cardinal.

Quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns in last year's triple-overtime classic, and Stanford is replacing three starters from its secondary. Barkley's numbers will be big on Saturday.

Against San Jose State and Duke, Stanford grabbed four interceptions and surrendered just one touchdown pass. That's the good news. The bad news is a 67.3 percent completion rate and 290 yards passing per game. And just five sacks seems modest for a team with such a salty, talented front seven.

While Stanford's scheme is about stopping the run first and foremost, which it has done very well in the first two games, it might have to change its approach against the Trojans. More nickel and dime looks will mean the Cardinal will be forced from their comfort zone. And that could open up the Trojans' running game.

A balanced USC is a scary thought, with Barkley & Co. ready to pull the trigger on a deep fade route when they see one-on-one coverage.

Then there's this: What about a close game? USC is capable of winning this one going away, but that's not what I foresee. I expect the game to be won in the fourth quarter.

Stanford has won consecutive nail-biters against the Trojans. It's difficult to not attribute that ability to win the fourth quarter to having an advantage at quarterback. That advantage now belongs to USC by a wide margin. And that will be the difference.

Kevin Gemmell: A good debater can come at a problem from all sides. But since ESPN wouldn't hire one just for a Take 2, and since Ted went first, I guess I'll take a swing at making the case for Stanford. We both picked the Trojans to win, but détente makes for poor debate.

Stanford coach David Shaw knows how to attack the Trojans. When Shaw was coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers with the Baltimore Ravens, you know who the defensive coordinators were? Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan. You don't think he picked up a couple of tips on how to call plays against a sophisticated, Rex Ryan defense? The past five meetings, when Shaw was either offensive coordinator or head coach, Stanford has increased its total offensive yards in every game against the Trojans. As a playcaller, Shaw is 4-1 and averages 413 total yards and 39 points per game against USC.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireStanford is 4-1 against the Trojans with David Shaw calling the offensive plays.
On paper, this game should be a double-digit win for the Trojans. Even Shaw said he has never seen a pair of wide receivers like Woods and Lee on the same team in the modern football era.

But there are intangible factors at play. The Cardinal have to be -- at least a little bit -- in the heads of Trojans players given the circumstances of the last few meetings. It's not a matter of USC "owing" one to Stanford from a tight game the previous year. The Trojans owe the Cardinal three, and there are only so many times you can go to the "we-owe-them-one" well. At some point, that becomes a mental hurdle.

The world expects USC to win this game. But here's a little worm that might be wiggling into a few Trojans' brains.

What if they don't?

What if Stanford takes a 14-0 lead? What if there's a pick-six or a special-teams touchdown that swings momentum and it all starts to fall apart? It probably will take something out of the ordinary -- a special teams touchdown, a crucial turnover or a trick play (anyone know if Nunes can catch?) to swing the tide. But the Cardinal lead the conference in turnover margin at plus-5. They've allowed fewer red-zone touchdowns than any team in the Pac-12 (except Oregon State, which has played one game). USC's defense is allowing teams to convert third downs at an alarming 45.5 percent. It's one thing to give up yards and allow completions. But the longer Stanford's offense stays on the field, the less time the Trojans' touted troika is playing.

Stanford's defense, which looked sluggish in the opener, was much livelier and motivated when Shayne Skov returned to the lineup last week. Expect the same emotional boost when Ryan Hewitt returns to the offense. Barring any setbacks on his ankle, he's expected to play. And his presence opens up a lot for Stanford: stronger run blocking, more receiver options, more diversity in offensive personnel groupings and formations.

Anyone who remembers last year's Stanford-Oregon game knows the Cardinal buckled under the weight of expectation. Every victory was another ton of bricks they carried leading up to that moment. This game has similar implications, sans the bricks. All of the pressure is on the Cardinal & Gold, not the Cardinal.

Five Storylines: Stanford 

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
10:42
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1. The streak
Stanford has won three straight in this series, but as last season’s 56-48 triple-overtime thriller showed, it hasn’t been easy. If Stanford were to come away with a victory this time around, it would mark the first time in the history of the series that they’ve taken four in row from USC.

2. Josh Nunes in the spotlight
With the loss of Andrew Luck to the NFL, the Stanford quarterback job now belongs to junior Josh Nunes, and despite a slow start he has performed solidly overall. But facing San Jose State and Duke is a lot different than going up against USC, and he’ll need to stay poised at center stage. The Stanford offense will also look for him to continue stretching the field, as he did against the Blue Devils.

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