USC Trojans: Star Lotulelei

Pac-12 top 25 for 2012: No. 3

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
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Our countdown of the top 25 players in the 2012 season continues.

You can see the preseason top 25 here.

No. 3: Marqise Lee, WR, USC

2012 numbers: Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards with 14 touchdowns. He also rushed 13 times for 106 yards. And returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD.

Preseason ranking: No. 9

Making the case for Lee: It's pretty simple: Lee, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound true sophomore, was a unanimous All-American because he was the best receiver in the nation this season. Some might argue he was the best overall player in the nation. He ranked second in the nation in both receptions per game (9.08) and receiving yards per game (132.38). His 345 yards receiving at Arizona set a Pac-12 record and also were the fifth-most in FBS history. Lee produced three of the top four receiving games in the conference this year -- the Arizona performance, 197 yards versus Hawaii and 192 yards at Utah. Five times he went over 150 yards receiving. It wasn't like teams didn't know he was coming. He was a 1,000-yard receiver as a true freshman. Further, the Trojans other top receiving target, Robert Woods, was a unanimous All-American the year before. You'd think Lee would have had to share the ball more. Yet Lee was so difficult to stop, so tempting to target, that it's possible -- probable perhaps -- that the Trojans strangely inconsistent offense this year looked to Lee too often. That, however, isn't Lee's fault. Lee posted a spectacular season that wasn't appreciated enough because his team was so massively disappointing overall.

No. 4: Matt Scott, QB, Arizona
No. 5: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 6: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No. 7: Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA
No. 8: Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
No. 9: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
No. 10: Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
No. 11: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 12: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 13: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
No. 14: Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No. 15: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 16: Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
No. 17: Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford
No. 18: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 19: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 20: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
No. 21: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 22: Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
No. 23: Michael Clay, LB, Oregon
No. 24: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 25: Reggie Dunn, KR, Utah

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
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Here are some keys and storylines to watch this spring in the South Division. Yesterday Ted looked at the North Division.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

Start date: March 3

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. New battery: The Wildcats are looking to replace a top-notch quarterback-center combo in Matt Scott and Kyle Quinn. The rock-solid duo helped produce one of the top offenses in the league. Jesse Scroggins and B.J. Denker are among those in the mix to run the offense and several returning offensive linemen are versatile enough to move around. Chris Putton and redshirt freshman Beau Boyster could be in the mix at center.
  2. Many happy return(er)s: Arizona returns a big chunk of its offensive production -- including running back Ka'Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill. Both should be on all sorts of preseason teams and awards watch lists. But behind the big names, there's also David Richards, Johnny Jackson, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton back in the mix.
  3. No learning curve: Last spring, the talk was about Rich Rodriguez calling out his team for its lack of physical conditioning. The fact that the majority of the team understands what is expected -- and they don't need to spend the whole spring learning new systems, should be a huge help. Consider that the Wildcats return their entire defense from a group that was, at times, shaky, but will certainly benefit from another full season of playing in the 3-3-5 scheme.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Plugging the middle: One of the few losses to ASU's roster is middle linebacker Brandon Magee -- a leader on and off the field and an all-around heck of a player. Carlos Mendoza looks to be a good fit -- though he's likely to miss spring while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury suffered against Illinois. Folks might remember his two interceptions before going down for the year.
  2. Catching on: Unlike last spring, the Sun Devils have their quarterback. And he's a good one. Now, they need to find folks he can throw to. JC transfers De'Marieya Nelson (H-back, 6-3, 230) and Jaelen Strong (WR, 6-4, 205) are both big bodies who could step in and contribute immediately.
  3. Wait and see: The kicker here is a lot of these players who are expected to compete won't arrive until the fall. So in the meantime, a lot of the younger players and redshirts will get a ton of reps in the system. And speaking of kicker, don't underestimate how much of an impact Josh Hubner made at punter. Iowan Matt Haack, who arrives in the fall, is a rugby-style kicker who can kick with either foot. That's just cool.
COLORADO BUFFALOES

Start date: March 7

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Meet your QB: Whomever it will be. There are five on the roster and a sixth coming in. Safe to say, quarterback play was extremely inconsistent last season for the Buffs. With an entirely new coaching staff coming in and installing the pistol, this could be one of the more interesting and wide-open position battles in the league.
  2. Curious defense: One needs only to review Colorado's national rankings last year to realize they struggled. As one Buffs insider mentioned to me, they were ranked No. 1 in a lot of categories. Unfortunately, that "1" was followed by two more numbers. Only three defensive ends have playing experience. However a secondary that lacked experience in 2012 has a lot more looking into 2013.
  3. Receiver options: The Buffs welcome back Paul Richardson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Colorado's premier offensive playmaker will be a nice veteran presence to whomever wins the quarterback job. Grayshirt Jeff Thomas also is back. An improved passing attack should help give the quarterback some confidence and open up the running game.
UCLA BRUINS

Start date: April 2

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:
  1. Life after Franklin: The Bruins say goodbye to the best statistical back in school history -- leaving a huge void in the backfield. Johnathan Franklin was a great presence for young quarterback Brett Hundley, but now someone has to step up to fill that role, either solo or along with a committee. Look for Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen to all get looks.
  2. New No. 1: The Y-receiver, aka hybrid tight end, was filled wonderfully by Joseph Fauria -- Hundley's favorite red zone target. Darius Bell and Ian Taubler both had looks last year, but Fauria too will be tough to replace. Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien round out a pretty good receiving corps.
  3. Secondary solutions: The Bruins must replace two corners and a safety -- Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester, Andrew Abbott -- and there isn't a ton of starting experience. Randall Goforth has five starts, but veterans such as Brandon Sermons and Anthony Jefferson have more special-teams experience than actual secondary play. Keep an eye on the secondary too when the Bruins start fall camp to see if any freshmen jump into the mix immediately.
USC TROJANS

Start date: TBD

Spring game: April 13
  1. New defensive scheme: The Trojans will move to a 5-2 defensive scheme under Clancy Pendergast, and the spring drills will be the first opportunity to see the defense in action. The Trojans will have an experienced front seven, but four new starters are expected in the secondary.
  2. Replacing Barkley: Max Wittek got the first extended audition in the battle to take over for Matt Barkley, but he didn’t do enough in two late-season starts to claim the job. Cody Kessler and freshman spring enrollee Max Browne also will be looking to take the reins at one of the glamour positions in college football.
  3. Lane Kiffin on the hot seat: The Trojans are coming off a disappointing season, and the fans are howling in protest, but so far his boss Pat Haden has maintained full support for his coach. Now is the time for Kiffin to show why that support is warranted. -- Garry Paskwietz, WeAreSC
UTAH UTES

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Erickson impact: The biggest question was what sort of role Dennis Erickson would play in the offense once he arrived. We'll know sooner than later. He already has talked about putting an identity on the Utah offense. That starts in spring when routines are established and expectations are set. And with Erickson on board to give the offense a push, the expectations will be much higher.
  2. Wilson maturing: That leads us to the presumptive starting quarterback -- Travis Wilson -- who jumped in midseason after Jordan Wynn got hurt and Jon Hays struggled to produce. Wilson went from OK to pretty good in just a few weeks. A nice jump considering his experience level. With an entire offseason knowing he'll be the starter -- and with Erickson and Brian Johnson molding him -- it will be interesting to see what progress he makes this spring.
  3. D-line makeover: The Utes lose some talent on the defensive line -- specifically All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Look for DE/LB Trevor Reilly to spend more time with his hand down. Tenny Palepoi, LT Tuipulotu and JC transfer Sese Ianu could all see time in the mix at defensive tackle.

Pac-12 on Walter Camp All-America team

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
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The Pac-12 was well-represented on the Walter Camp Foundation's 2012 All-America team, released Thursday.

USC sophomore receiver Marqise Lee, Stanford senior tight end Zach Ertz and a pair of running backs, Oregon senior Kenjon Barner and Arizona sophomore Ka'Deem Carey, were named to the first-team offense.

Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer, both seniors, earned spots on the first-team defense.

(Read full post)

Roundtable: Season in review 

November, 29, 2012
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Marqise LeeMatt Kartozian/US PresswireMarqise Lee's 345-yard, two-touchdown performance against Arizona was universally lauded by the WeAreSC roundtable as one of the Trojans' best performances.
There were many ups and downs during the 2012 season. Give your responses on the following items (good or bad) that helped shape the season.

Biggest individual plays

Garry Paskwietz

Trojans find resiliency 

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
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As the Trojans headed out of Salt Lake City with a win over the Utes on Thursday night, they did so with an extra bounce in their step. It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but it was one that showed a lot of the same spirit and resiliency that helped turn the corner for the 2011 team.

[+] EnlargeNickell Robey
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMINickell Robey's interception return for a touchdown helped seal USC's 38-28 win over Utah.
This was a game that could have gone south quickly based upon the opening possessions. There was a lot of talk coming into the game about how the Trojans had yet to play a complete game this year, and how they were heading into a lion’s den of fan frenzy with a Utah crowd that was fired up to host USC in front of a national-television audience. On paper, the Utes were definitely the underdog, but the Trojans had seen hopes and dreams dashed on the road before with untimely conference losses. And when two quick turnovers were turned into 14 Utah points, it had all the makings of another dangerous trap game.

To make matters worse, the source of the early USC angst was a familiar one, a dominant nose tackle wreaking havoc on the Trojans' offense. The scene had played out recently in the loss to Stanford when USC center Khaled Holmes was out of action. Holmes was back for the Utah game, but Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei had a big impact early with his physical presence, and he played a role in creating the turnovers. There was definite concern while wondering what was going to happen for the rest of the night if Lotulelei was able to continue dominating the game.

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Instant Analysis: USC 38, Utah 28

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
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Instant analysis from USC's 38-28 win over the Utes in Salt Lake City, Utah:

Player of the game: Matt Barkley
This was the best overall performance of the year for the Trojans quarterback. It started with a rough beginning -- he got stripped of the ball on first series which Utah returned for a touchdown -- but he regrouped and was very consistent the rest of the way. Barkley completed 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, but more importantly to USC fans, he looked like the old Barkley again.

Game ball: USC defense
It was still very much a ballgame at halftime, with USC only up 24-21, but the Trojans defense did a terrific job of shutting down the Utes’ offense in the second half. The Utes did not have a second-half score until a meaningless late touchdown and only gained 111 yards in the final two quarters. The win was sealed for the Trojans when Nickell Robey intercepted a pass and returned it for a 38-yard score in the fourth quarter.

Star in the making: Star Lotulelei
Lotulelei is considered as one of the elite defensive players in the country and tonight was the biggest stage for him to live up to that ranking. Well, consider it mission accomplished. He made several big plays early against a pretty good center in Khaled Holmes and showed an impressive combination of size and agility. The Trojans eventually made some adjustments which slowed his impact, but there’s no doubt that Lotulelei is a big-time guy.

Turning point: Third-down conversion for Trojans from Barkley to Marqise Lee
USC was down 14-0 early in the game thanks to a pair of turnovers that were turned into points by Utah. USC got stopped on two early plays and was facing a third-and-7 when Barkley hit Lee for 18 yards. The drive continued and eventually ended up with a Silas Redd touchdown run to make it 14-7. If the Trojans hadn’t converted on third down, Utah likely would have had good field position after a punt and all of the momentum.

What it means for USC: The Trojans showed resiliency
The signs were all there for potential trouble, as Thursday night conference road games had been trouble for highly-ranked USC teams in the past and the Utah crowd was fired up to see it happen again. The Trojans had some hiccups -- two early turnovers and 14 penalties -- but they righted the ship and outscored the Utes 38-14 after spotting the Utes two early touchdowns.

What it means for Utah: John White IV is back
It wasn’t the result the Utes were hoping for, especially after getting spotted 14 points at the beginning of the game, but the good news was the solid running from White (13 carries for 68 yards). The star running back has been limited lately due to injury, but he ran hard in this game and was productive when the game was still in doubt in the first half. USC made some adjustments in the second half that slowed him down, but the Utes will need White for the remainder of the season, as he is the prime contributor for their offense.
Stat of half: 2 quick turnovers for USC
USC had turnovers on the first two possessions of the game and Utah was up 14-0 within a matter of minutes. It was exactly the kind of start the Utes had been hoping for in front of the enthusiastic home crowd. Both plays -- a strip and a forced fumble -- were caused by Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who quickly showed the Trojans why he is considered one of the elite players in the country.

Player of half: Matt Barkley
The Trojans were rocked by the shaky start but Barkley settled the team down. After going down 14-0, Barkley began the next drive by converting a key third-down completion. The drive ended up going 75 yards in eight plays before a Silas Redd touchdown run. Barkley ended the half by completing 12 of 15 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.

What’s working: The USC offense
Outside of the two turnovers that were turned into scores, the Trojans have really gotten off to a nice start on offense and have outscored Utah 24-7 since that point. USC has 190 yards and have held the ball for 17:21.

What’s not working: Penalties
It’s one thing to have a big-time opponent like Lotulelei cause havoc -- it’s another to self-inflict damage with penalties. The Trojans had nine penalties for 60 yards in the opening half.

Turning point: Utah touchdown called back due to penalty
With the Trojans up 24-21 and time running out in the first half, the Utes completed a trick play for a touchdown pass but were called for an ineligible man downfield. The play would have given Utah an emotional burst going into the locker room (not to mention the lead), but instead they had to settle for a field goal attempt which was blocked by Randall Telfer.

USC-Utah: Wounded but not out of it

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
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USC and quarterback Matt Barkley started the season as the toasts of college football. Or the hated front-runners, depending on how you respond to the Rorschach test that the Trojans are across the nation.

But a loss at Stanford and middling numbers from Barkley have doused much of the hype and knocked them off the college football radar. National championships and Heisman Trophies are no longer associated with the program in 2012, and more than a few seem eager to stick the dreaded "overrated" label on the team and player.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley, Lane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireQB Matt Barkley and coach Lane Kiffin know that much is still at stake for USC.
"I'm good at blocking all that stuff out," Barkley said. "I know what's significant to us. I know what people who know football are seeing, not just the media and what they are writing. It doesn't get to me or our offense. We've just got to keep our heads down and work for every yard we get."

USC off the radar? Trojans coach Lane Kiffin isn't buying it.

"I don't think at SC you're ever off the radar," he said. "I think that shows in the ratings of games. Even when you're not No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3, all the conversations are about SC and you're always everybody's biggest game. I don't think you ever really come off the radar here."

Backing him up is Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. To him, as well as the Utes fan base, it's a big deal that No. 13 USC is coming to Salt Lake City to play inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET on ESPN).

"Without a doubt," Whittingham said. "It's been many, many years since USC was here."

Many years is right. The Trojans' previous visit was in 1917 -- a 51-0 victory.

Still, in the preseason this looked like a game with far more national juice. Most so-called pundits projected this as a likely battle of ranked, unbeaten teams, a game with significance for the Pac-12 South Division as well as the national picture. It was seen as one of just a few potential stumbling blocks for USC as it fired up its engines for a run at the national title game.

Instead, we have USC getting beaten at the line of scrimmage in 21-14 loss to the Cardinal, and Utah getting whipped every which way in a 37-7 humbling at Arizona State.

Both teams are coming off a bye week. The Trojans already had a bounce-back game in their solid 29-7 win over California. The Utes spent the extra week trying to correct the myriad issues exposed by the Sun Devils -- blocking, in particular.

"The offensive line play has been an ongoing project for us. Obviously a priority," Whittingham said. "We had plenty to work on."

The Utes must get the running game going against USC. They need running back John White to be fully healthy after an ankle injury -- he didn't look at that way at Arizona State -- because the Trojans have produced a potent pass rush this season (four sacks a game), which could make for a long night for quarterback Jon Hays if his play-action fakes aren't working.

The Trojans also have issues on the offensive line, most particularly the health of center Khaled Holmes. He's likely out of the game, which means fifth-year senior Abe Markowitz will be eyeballing Utah's 325-pound nose tackle Star Lotulelei. In last year's meeting, Holmes, probably the best center in the Pac-12, if not the nation, mostly fought Lotulelei to a stalemate. It's difficult to imagine Markowitz won't need a lot of help from his guards.

Utah's hope rests on being able to slow the Trojans' running game and get pressure on Barkley without resorting to a lot of blitzes. While the Utes pride themselves on their man-to-man coverage in the secondary, it's likely they will use a lot of the Cover 2 to help keep Trojans receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee in check. That's what Stanford did, and such schemes have kept Barkley's numbers down because opposing defenses are willing to take chances with alignments that invite Barkley to check into running plays.

"If teams are going to play Cover 2 and just send safeties over the top and double-team both outside receivers, you're going to be forced to run the ball where they can't support the run," Barkley said.

Sure, Barkley would like to go deep every other play, but, he added, "I'm not really worried about being flashy and all that if we're moving the ball."

The problem is the Trojans have been hot and cold moving the ball, through the air or on the ground. They are fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring and pass efficiency, and sixth in total offense, rushing and passing yards. They are 11th in third-down percentage.

Those numbers suggest mediocrity, not the offensive greatness most projected for Barkley and company in the preseason.

Yet, it's still early. A lot can -- and likely will -- happen over the second half of the season. Neither of these teams have permanently set a trajectory for how things will go in 2012.

An upset victory for Utah would be monumental for the program in its second year of Pac-12 play. And an impressive performance by USC could land it back on the national radar.

Pac-12 superlative tracker

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
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We're tracking the offensive, defensive and coach-of-the-year races in the Pac-12.

For a more thorough look at offense, re-read our Heisman Trophy update.

Offensive player of the year

1. De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon: Thomas scored a touchdown against Washington State but it was a relatively quiet game for him. For the season, he's rushed for 302 yards (9.7 yards per carry) with five touchdowns and caught 19 passes for 193 yards and three TDs.

2. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA: He ranks fourth in the nation and first in the Pac-12 with 139.4 yards rushing per game. He rushed for 111 yards on 15 carries in the blowout victory over Colorado. He also caught three passes for 48 yards.

3. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: Barner rushed for 195 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over Washington State. He averaged 9.8 yards per carry and ran for scores of 22, 10 and 80 yards. He's second in the Pac-12 in rushing with 121 yards per game and his nine rushing touchdowns leads the conference.

4. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: Kelly is first in the Pac-12 and 16th in the nation in passing efficiency. The Sun Devils are second in the Pac-12 with 38.4 points per game. Kelly threw three TD passes in the win at California and now has nine for the season.

5. Matt Barkley, QB, USC: Barkley was off last week. His 12 TD passes still leads the conference, but he's fifth in the conference in passing efficiency.

Keep an eye on: UCLA QB Brett Hundley; USC WR Marqise Lee; Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton. Arizona QB Matt Scott; Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor.

Defensive player of the year

1. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State: Won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after recording a career-high eight tackles (six solo), including three sacks, and forced a fumble in a 27-12 victory over California. He's second on the Sun Devils with 34 tackles, including 10 for a loss. Also has 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and two pass breakups.

2. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Off last week. Fourth on the Utes with 19 tackles. Also has four tackles for a loss, a sack, two pass defenses and two forced fumbles.

3. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford: Had a sack and four tackles against Washington. He's third on the Cardinal with 23 tackles. He also has five tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.

4. Morgan Breslin, DE, USC: Leads the conference with 2.38 tackles for a loss per game and has five sacks.

Keep an eye on: T.J. McDonald, S, USC; Travis Long, OLB, Washington State; Chris Young, LB, Arizona State; Datone Jones, DE, UCLA; Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA.

Coach of the year

1. Mike Riley, Oregon State: The Beavers, who went 3-9 last year, are now 3-0 and ranked 14th. 'Nuff said.

2. Chip Kelly, Oregon: Ducks are atop the Pac-12 and ranked No. 2. If they ended up winning a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title and earn another berth in the national title game, Kelly wins.

3. Todd Graham, Arizona State: While the Sun Devils are lacking a marquee win, they've been impressive during a 4-1 start. Of particular note is their discipline and efficiency on both sides of the ball. That wasn't what you said about the Sun Devils in the past, even during the good times.

Keep an eye on: Jim Mora, UCLA; Steve Sarkisian, Washington

Utah: By the numbers

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
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95: Years since USC and Utah last faced off in Salt Lake City
The Trojans haven’t traveled to play the Utes on their home turf since 1917, a game USC won, 51-0. There’s a ton of hype for the Trojans’ return, and Rice-Eccles Stadium is sold out and expecting a raucous crowd.

8: Games in a row the Utes have won when playing on Thursday
Utah’s overall record in Thursday games is 53-25-5, and the Utes are currently in the midst of an eight-game winning streak. The last time the Utes lost on a Thursday was in 2007 at the hands of Oregon State.

9-0: Utah’s record when running back John White rushes for at least 100 yards
Rushing for 1,519 yards a year ago, White is one of the most productive running backs in the nation when healthy. Unfortunately for the Utes, the 5-foot-8 senior has been slowed by an ankle injury recently, and he rushed for just 18 yards on 14 carries in last week’s loss to Arizona State.

112: Ranking of Utah’s total offense out of 120 FBS programs
Utah lost four-year starting quarterback Jordan Wynn in the second game of the season, and the offense hasn’t quite come together with Jon Hays at the helm, averaging just 298.3 yards of total offense per game. Making things worse has been the decrease in production from White.

27: Ranking of Utah’s rushing defense
Led by a stout defensive line unit that rotates in up to 12 players per game, and features 2011 Morris Award winner Star Lotulelei, the Utes allow just 111.3 yards a game on the ground.

Utah's Lotulelei poses problems

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
5:31
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Stanford's defensive front caused the Khaled Holmes-less USC Trojans a lot of trouble a couple of weeks ago in Palo Alto.

How much havoc could a Utah line, led by Star Lotulelei, wreak this Thursday night if Holmes is again unable to go?

Lotulelei, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, is viewed in many circles as one of the top collegiate nose tackles in recent seasons, and he typically takes up two blockers on each snap. He's known to more often require three offensive linemen than one.

Although he may not always be the one threatening to reach the quarterback, it could be difficult for two or three USC offensive linemen to block the rest of the Utah D-line.

USC coach Lane Kiffin has consistently complimented Lotulelei, dating back to last August. He said this week that the 6-4, 320-pounder has gotten even better.

"I think he's really improved," Kiffin said of Lotulelei. "He was a really good player last year, obviously, but he looks like he's trimmed down, stronger, quicker and in better shape.

"He can take over games if you allow him to."

Kiffin stressed the importance of not watching too much of Lotulelei's 2011 tape, because he's much more dominant now than he was then.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley said he can't afford to think specifically about him during Thursday's game. He also said he doesn't need to worry about whether or not Lotulelei is lining up before each snap because "he's always on the field."

Holmes, the Trojans' senior center, offered no hints as to whether or not he'd be suiting up Thursday when leaving the practice field this week, but he did say he understood why Lotulelei has been so hyped.

"Deservedly so," Holmes said.

Practice resumes with intensity, tempo

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
7:48
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The Trojans were back on Brian Kennedy/Howard Jones Field on Sunday for a late-morning practice that coach Lane Kiffin said was marked by defensive intensity -- a welcome sight with a Pac-12 South Division matchup with Utah coming up on Thursday.

"I thought the defense really practiced well today," he said. "[I] thought they really came out -- especially the defensive front -- really physical, which is good to see, because any time you go on the road in a conference game, you're going to need that."

The offense had its positives as well, with the usual suspects doing their part to bring the somewhat struggling unit together.

"I thought the quarterback (Matt Barkley) and 9 (Marqise Lee) and 2 (Robert Woods) have really had two great days -- if you go back to our last practice and this one -- of really trying to set the tempo for everybody around them," he said.

Getting Woods on track
Speaking of Woods, it's safe to say this season hasn't gone quite as planned for the 2011 All-American, who had only five receptions for 30 yards in the Trojans' last game against Cal. Defenses have modified their coverage schemes in order to contain the talented wideout. On top of that, Woods might be affected by the fact that he still isn't practicing full time.

"I think any time that a guy never really practices a full week, which he doesn't -- there's always a day that we have to give him off -- it's going to affect you," Kiffin said. "Teams have done a good job of taking him away. Even though his numbers aren't as big as they have been before, teams are still game-planning for these two receivers. Hopefully for the passing game, the defenses change. If not, then games will go like they did last week."

Kiffin, of course, was referring to the 296 rushing yards the Trojans racked up against Cal.

Walker and Tuerk still battling
The left tackle position was opened up for competition just after the Trojans' loss to Stanford, and while Aundrey Walker received the majority of the snaps over freshman Max Tuerk against Cal, Kiffin revealed that the competition is still open.

"Aundrey [Walker], as we taked about, played his best game by far last week," he said. "But we opened it up again this week, and we split the reps right down the middle. We haven't made a decision on the game yet."

The SC Factor
While Utah is coming off a 37-7 thrashing at the hands of Arizona State, Kiffin believes the Utes will be a different team on Thursday, coming in focused and driven, in part because of what he referred to as the "SC factor." It's a term he uses to describe the extra motivation teams have when they face the Trojans.

"When you go into somebody else's place, it's going to be their biggest game of the year, and they're going to be up for it," he said. "And just in the Pac-12 media days, how many Salt Lake radio stations were down here, and it was the first thing they said: 'This is going to be the biggest game in the history of the school.' "

Barkley echoed his coach's sentiments.

"A lot of teams that we play get super hyped up to play us," he said. "We realize that, so we're not taking them lightly. They have a very, very solid defense, so it's going to be a big game for them and their fans."

Facing a star
The Utah defense features tackle Star Lotulelei, a potential top-five pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Presenting a very real challenge to a USC offensive line that has struggled at times in 2012, Kiffin said he is particularly impressed with the 6-foot-4, 320-pound player's development over the course of the past year.

"I think that he's really improved," he said. "You get caught up watching last year to this year -- he's a different guy. He was a really good player last year, obviously, but it looks like he's trimmed down, he's stronger and he's quicker. And he's in better shape and he can take over games if you allow him to."

Pac-12 parity
With six Pac-12 teams now ranked in the AP Top 25, the conference has revealed itself to be much more competitive than anyone imagined at the beginning of the season. And it's something that Kiffin partly attributes to recruiting.

"I think that's a result of us just not nailing it in recruiting over the last five years," he said. "You know, players getting away in this conference. And that's been our goal, to stop that. And also, once we get our numbers back to where we're allowed to just sign more, I think that will help, as well."

Pac-12 top 25 for 2012: No. 1

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
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Our countdown of the Pac-12's top 25 players in 2012 concludes today.

Most of this looks back, but, of course, there also is a good dose of projecting forward. A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won't make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.

You can review our 2011 postseason top 25 here.

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC

2011 numbers: Completed 69.1 percent of his throws (308 of 446) for 3,528 yards with 39 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.

2011 postseason ranking: No. 2

Making the case for Barkley: Drum roll please. ... No? No drum roll? We don't have that sound file? OK, so this isn't exactly a "who shot J.R. moment" for the Pac-12 blog. I think it's safe to say we all saw this coming. And why not? Matt Barkley is by far the most complete quarterback in the country. With A-list wide receivers flanking him on either side, a phenomenal ground attack that includes two 1,000-yard rushers, fantastic tight ends, a solid offensive line and a stellar defense to get him the ball back, Barkley should produce credentials worthy of Heisman consideration and a high first-round NFL draft pick. He put the spotlight on himself when he made his declaration of "unfinished business," but if you know Barkley, you know he's not one to shrivel in the spotlight. And there is a bright one on him and his team this year as they enter the season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. He earned second-team all-conference last year and is on every major preseason All-America team this year. Assuming all goes to plan, Barkley will be in New York for the Heisman presentation. He can go a long way toward making his case if he can produce similar numbers to last year and keep his team atop the rankings all season.

No. 2: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
No. 3: De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
No. 4: Robert Woods, WR, USC
No. 5: Keith Price, QB, Washington
No. 6: Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
No. 7: Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State
No. 8: Keenan Allen, WR, California
No. 9: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
No. 10: T.J. McDonald, S, USC
No. 11: Dion Jordan, OLB/DE, Oregon
No. 12: Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
No. 13: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No. 14: Nickell Robey, CB, USC
No. 15: John White IV, RB, Utah
No. 16: John Boyett, S, Oregon
No. 17: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 18: Khaled Holmes, C, USC
No. 19: Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State
No. 20: Dion Bailey, LB, USC
No. 21: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 22: Curtis McNeal, RB, USC
No. 23: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 24: Isi Sofele, RB, California
No. 25: Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State

Pac-12 teams getting defensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Days Countdown: Pac-12

May, 22, 2012
5/22/12
10:54
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As part of “College Football Live’s” 100 Days Till Kickoff countdown, here’s a look at the top 10 players in the Pac-12.

This list, by the way, may or may not match the Pac-12 blog's preseason top 25, which will be posted later in the summer.

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC: Best QB in the nation. Would have been a top-10 pick in this past NFL draft. Could go No. 1 overall in 2013. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards, with 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011.

2. De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon: Thomas is one of the nation's most explosive players and a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. He rushed for 595 yards and seven TDs in 2011, averaging 10.8 yards per carry. He caught 46 passes for 605 yards and nine TDs. He averaged 27.3 yards per kick return with two TDs.

3. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Lotulelei may be the nation's best defensive tackle. He likely will be an early first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's best D-lineman, he had 44 total tackles, with nine coming for a loss. He had 1.5 sacks, a pass break-up, forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

4. Robert Woods, WR, USC: Woods, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2011, earned first-team All-American honors from the AP, The Sporting News and was second-team with Walter Camp. He caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards with 15 TDs in 2011.

5. Marqise Lee, WR, USC: Lee might share All-American honors with Woods this season. He stepped up late in 2011 when Woods was hurt, catching seven of his 11 TD passes over the final five games and hauling in 21 passes for 411 yards in the final two -- wins over Oregon and UCLA. For the season, he caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards with 11 touchdowns. He also averaged 28.5 yards on 10 kickoff returns, with an 88-yard TD.

6. Keith Price, QB, Washington: As a first-year, sophomore starter, Price passed for 3,063 yards with 33 touchdown passes, with those numbers ranking second and first all-time for the Huskies. His 66.9 completion percentage and 161.09 passing efficiency rating were both school records.

7. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford: Thomas was first-team All-Pac-12 and an All-American for The Sporting News in 2011. He had 52 total tackles and led the Pac-12 with 17.5 tackles for a loss, three more than anyone else. He was also second in the conference with 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.

8. Keenan Allen, WR, California: Allen earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after ranking second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards. His 103.3 receiving yards per game ranked 10th in the nation and third in the conference. He caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards with six touchdowns and averaged 13.7 yards per reception in 2011.

9. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State: Wilson earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 and is an All-American candidate in 2012. He ranked first in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation with 115.7 yards receiving per game. His 12 touchdown receptions ranked second in the conference. His 16.9 yards per catch ranked third. He caught 82 passes for 1,388 yards with 12 touchdowns.

10. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: Barner was the nation's best backup running back in 2011 behind LaMichael James. He ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing at 78.2 yards per game. He rushed for 939 yards and 11 TDs in 2011 and caught 17 passes with three other TDs. He has rushed for 1,856 yards and 20 TDs in his career.

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