USC Trojans: Zach Maynard

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
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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
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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
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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 5

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
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Taking stock of the fifth week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Arizona State has been operating under the radar, in large part because it has posted good wins as it climbed to 4-1, but not one that distinguished it nationally. Still, the 27-17 victory over California had an impressive solidity to it, with the Sun Devils making critical plays on both sides of the ball. Further, you can't forget you can no longer type that ASU hasn't won in Berkeley since 1997, as I did 457 times this past week.

Best game: Oregon State's 38-35 win at Arizona wasn't over until the final minute. It featured six second-half lead changes and 1,158 yards of offense. It featured a lot of gumption from both teams, too. Probably the most entertaining game so far this year. Of course, if you subscribe to DirectTV, you didn't see it. Sorry.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireBeavers quarterback Sean Mannion had a stellar game against Arizona on Saturday.
Biggest play: In a game dominated by the offenses, it was a defensive play that gave the Beavers the prize at Arizona. With less than a minute left, Arizona had a first down on its 42, needing a field goal to force overtime and a TD to win. A minute is plenty of time for the Wildcats' fast-paced offense, which had gashed the Beavers throughout the second half. But Beavers cornerback Rashaad Reynolds jumped in front of a Matt Scott pass and grabbed the game-clinching interception.

Offensive standout: Oregon State QB Sean Mannion completed 29 of 45 throws for a career-high 433 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against the Wildcats. It was the fifth most passing yards in school history. Further, on the game-winning drive, he was 6-for-6 for 52 yards with a 9-yard TD pass to Connor Hamlett.

Defensive standout: UCLA's Damien Holmes moved from defensive end to inside linebacker this year. Then, when Jordan Zumwalt got hurt, he moved to outside linebacker against Colorado. All he did was record seven solo tackles -- five coming for a loss -- with three sacks in UCLA's 42-14 win.

Special teams standout: Washington State true freshman Teondray Caldwell had eight kick returns for 220 yards against Oregon, including a 92-yard effort that set up a Cougars TD. It was the second most kickoff return yards in a single game in school history.

Smiley face: The way Week 5 played out helped the conference end up with six teams ranked in the AP poll. Now-No. 23 Washington's win against Stanford was impressive enough for voters to forget the debacle at LSU. No. 25 UCLA, which shouldn't have been voted out in the first place, bounced back from its loss to Oregon State by winning in an appropriately dominant fashion at Colorado. UCLA joined No. 2 Oregon, No. 13 USC, No. 14 Oregon State and No. 18 Stanford. It's been a long time since the conference earned this much respect for its depth.

Frowny face: With its loss to Arizona State, California fell to 1-4 and 0-2. It was the second defeat so far in newly remodeled Memorial Stadium. The Bears' bowl hopes are feeling increasingly unlikely. QB Zach Maynard doesn't look improved as a second-year starter. The offensive line is getting pushed round. Even the defense has been spotty at times. Things are not going well for coach Jeff Tedford, who will only hear the grousing increase if his team can't find a way to avoid a losing season.

Thought of the week: Conference of quarterbacks? Only one Pac-12 QB, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, at No. 16, ranks in the top 25 in the nation in passing efficiency. Meanwhile, seven conference teams rank among the top 25 in sacks per game: No. 5 Arizona State (4.2 sacks per game), No. 6 USC (4.0), No. 10 UCLA (3.4), No. 13 teams Washington State and Oregon (3.2) and No. 25 teams Stanford and Utah (2.75).

Questions for the week: Will the Pac-12 start eating itself up or will the final regular-season rankings still feature five or six teams? How many teams are capable of winning nine or 10 games? There are some interesting misses of note: USC and Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford, Oregon and UCLA, Washington and either Arizona State or UCLA. When good teams don't play, it makes it easier for multiple teams to remain in the rankings. That's a secret you learn from conferences with eight-game conference schedules.

Inside the Locker Room: Cal 

September, 22, 2012
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Curtis McNealHarry How/Getty ImagesThe USC offensive line paved the way for both Curtis McNeal (pictured) and Silas Redd to rush for over 100 yards on Saturday, by far USC's best effort on the ground this season.
LOS ANGELES -- Notes, quotes and anecdotes from the Coliseum after a 27-9 victory by USC (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12 South) over California (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12 North).

Lane Kiffin comments:

On the game: “I think that the game was won at the line of scrimmage. We limited these guys to 77 yards rushing. Our offense and defensive lines, if you look at pluses and minuses when it comes to sacks, we had seven and they had none. That is an explosive offense, and at the end of the day we won it up front.”

Instant Analysis: USC 27, Cal 9

September, 22, 2012
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It was over when: T.J. McDonald intercepted a Zach Maynard pass at the Trojans' 7-yard line late in the third quarter. The score was 17-9 and California was driving, but McDonald stepped right in front of the Maynard pass and thwarted the Golden Bears' scoring opportunity. The Trojans promptly drove the length of the field for a field goal to go up 20-9.

Game ball goes to: Khaled Holmes. The USC center didn’t play last week due to an ankle injury, and the Trojans' offense struggled in his absence. In this game, USC was without starting left guard Marcus Martin and the left tackle spot had a rotation between Aundrey Walker and Max Tuerk, but with Holmes back in the lineup the offense settled down and put up 488 total yards, including 296 on the ground. Silas Redd had 21 carries for 158 yards and a touchdown, while Curtis McNeal gained 115 yards on 10 carries.

Stat of the game: The Cal offense was able to gain only 250 yards of total offense in the game -- 77 rushing and 173 passing. For an offense that had seen so many explosive plays last week against Ohio State, the Bears' longest play from scrimmage today was 17 yards, and they averaged 2.1 yards per rush.

What we learned from USC: The Trojans responded from a tough loss on the road to Stanford in proper fashion with a solid victory at home. Despite the lofty offensive numbers, the Trojans could have scored a lot more, as they had three turnovers. But it’s a win USC will take as it moves to the bye week.

What we learned from Cal: The Bears were hoping to build upon the momentum of a strong out-of-conference showing last week but were reminded of the reality of where things stand in the Pac-12. This was their ninth straight loss to USC as they were able to muster only three field goals. Of course, that could be considered a positive for the Bears after struggling so much in the kicking game against Ohio State.

Halftime Analysis: USC 17, Cal 3

September, 22, 2012
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Stat of half: 293 total yards
The Trojans have been fairly balanced with 158 rushing yards and 135 passing yards and actually had passed the 300-yard mark of total offense for the half before Matt Barkley stumbled for a loss on USC's final play of the half. To contrast, California has 98 yards of total offense.

Player of the half: USC's defensive line
The Trojans have been able to put good pressure on Cal quarterback Zach Maynard and have three sacks by three different players (Wes Horton, Morgan Breslin and George Uko).

What’s working: USC run game
Curtis McNeal has gone over the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in his career (he has six carries for 113 yards) and Silas Redd added a 33-yard touchdown run.

What’s not working: Passing game precision
It’s not like the Trojans are having a bad day throwing the football, but it could be a lot better. Barkley has thrown two interceptions and both Robert Woods and Marqise Lee have dropped catchable long passes -- the one to Lee would have likely gone for a touchdown.

Barkley, Maynard are seeking positives

September, 21, 2012
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Matt Barkley/Zach MaynardKyle Terada/US PresswireUSC's Matt Barkley and Cal's Zach Maynard are both aiming to get back to winning on Saturday.
California's visit to USC on Saturday features two quarterbacks looking for redemption. Bears QB Zach Maynard wants to redeem himself for a three-interception performance in last season's 30-9 loss to the Trojans.

And Trojans QB Matt Barkley? He's looking to redeem a more recent performance.

You might have heard: The then-No. 2 Trojans went down 21-14 at Stanford last weekend, with Barkley throwing a pair of interceptions and no touchdown passes while getting sacked four times.

You could make a case it was the worst performance of his career, but he had a lot of help. Or, rather, little of it. His offensive line was overwhelmed by the Cardinal, so he had no support from a running game and little time to pass. A Stanford defender seemed to be in his face just about every play.

"No matter how great the quarterback is, that will affect you," USC coach Lane Kiffin said.

You also might be able to at least partially excuse Maynard for his woeful performance against the Trojans last year. Cal rushed for just 35 yards -- 1.3 yards per carry -- amid a flurry of five total turnovers.

And Maynard is not the same QB he was last year. In fact, at sixth in the Pac-12, he ranks just one spot behind Barkley in pass efficiency at present.

"I think he feels the speed of the game a little bit better," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said when asked about how Maynard is different this season. "I think he manages the game better."

USC has won eight straight against California, the Bears last winning a triple-overtime classic in 2003. They haven't won in Los Angeles since 2000. And just about all of those games were much like last year: Blowouts.

There is pressure on Tedford as the Bears try to avoid a 1-3 start. Many fans in Berkeley are frustrated with the recent mediocre turn of the program. And there is pressure on Kiffin as he tries to right a team that a week ago was viewed as the top potential foil for the SEC to win a seventh consecutive national title. Kiffin showed his stress this week when he stomped out of a post-practice news conference, apparently peeved over an innocuous question.

Health -- the improving variety -- is notable for each. It appears the Trojans will get back starting center Khaled Holmes, who sat out the Stanford loss with an ankle injury. Cal certainly should benefit from the potential return of right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin, tight end Richard Rodgers and defensive end Mustafa Jalil.

While Cal's recent history in this rivalry, particularly on the road, isn't good, the Trojans shouldn't feel safe by any stretch. The Bears showed they can go toe-to-toe on the road with an A-list foe at Ohio State last weekend, a game that included a breakout performance from speedy RB Brendan Bigelow. Further, the Bears have a tough front seven, particularly if Jalil is indeed ready to go.

If it's close, it will be interesting to see how things might stack up at kicker. USC's Alex Wood, the Trojans' backup, has yet to be allowed to attempt a field goal, while Cal's Vincenzo D'Amato missed all three of his attempts last weekend.

Cal's Maynard is a lot better than before

September, 19, 2012
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LOS ANGELES -- After USC beat Cal 30-9 last year in San Francisco, former Trojans linebacker Chris Galippo memorably said that Bears quarterback Zach Maynard "just telegraphed the heck out of his passes" while throwing three interceptions and playing generally poor football.

Well, he's not telegraphing them anymore.

Maynard, a left-handed senior, has demonstrated significant improvement through three games this season, completing 67 percent of his passes as compared to 57 percent last year and improving his quarterback rating roughly 20 percent. He has thrown only two picks in 90 attempts after throwing those three in just 43 attempts against the Trojans last year.

USC linebacker Dion Bailey, who had two of those picks in 2011 in a breakout game, said this week that Maynard is no longer the easy-to-read signal-caller he once was.

"He's a completely different quarterback," Bailey said Wednesday after reviewing tape from Cal's nonconference games. "He's more composed, seems like he's got a year more mature, a year better in his accuracy and decision-making."

Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who recruited Maynard out of Buffalo after he started there in 2009, has been similarly impressed. Maynard did nearly lead the Bears to a road victory over Ohio State last weekend and completed 70 percent of his passes in the process, with only one interception in 37 attempts.

"He's really grown," Tedford said on a conference call Tuesday. "Last year, early in the year, we struggled a little bit with just management of the game and turning the football over and speed of the game."

Tedford said Maynard started to improve in the latter half of last season -- his final two regular-season games were his top two of the year. And he has carried that over into 2012.

He'll need to carry it over to the Coliseum on Saturday for Cal to upset USC, who are once again heavy favorites despite losing to Stanford last week.

"He just continues to grow each week and I think he's more comfortable with the offense, comfortable with the speed of the game and protecting the football," Tedford said of Maynard. "He needs to continue to do that against a very athletic, tough USC defense."
How much can we really learn from spring? Funky scrimmages with backwards scoring systems; depleted depth charts; completely new installs for four teams. Actually, more than you'd think. Here are five things we learned about the Pac-12 during spring.

  1. Quarterbacks are still in limbo: Be it Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon or Colorado, almost half of the teams still don’t know who is going to be under center when the season starts. Stanford funneled its list of five down to two, Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. ASU still has a three-way battle with Michael Eubank, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly -- though coach Todd Graham said they have a better idea than they are probably letting on publicly. The very private competition between Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett at Oregon remains in question -- though Mariota was spectacular in the spring game while Bennett faltered. Still, coach Chip Kelly said that one game isn’t going to be his basis for comparison. UCLA coach Jim Mora wanted to name a starter by the end of spring, but no one has “grabbed” it, so we’ll have to wait until August before learning whether Brett Hundley, Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut gets the gig. And at Colorado, the competition was put on hiatus when Nick Hirschman broke a bone in his foot and couldn’t compete in spring drills. One has to think that was a huge advantage for Connor Wood to get almost all of the reps with the first-team offense.
  2. Not everyone has quarterback issues: Teams thought to have quarterback question marks heading into spring seemed to have resolved them. In Utah, Jordan Wynn is completely healthy, and both coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson have declared Wynn their guy. While Mike Leach hasn’t officially declared Jeff Tuel his starter, it’s hard to imagine anyone else winning the job in the fall, short of Tuel suffering a significant injury or amnesia. He had a splendid spring, and appears to be a great fit for Leach’s offense. And at Arizona, Matt Scott seized the job early and left little room for any competition. Coach Rich Rodriguez has been gushing about how quickly Scott has adjusted to the offense. At Cal, Zach Maynard, once thought to be challenged by freshman Zach Kline, appears to not only have held on to the job, but distanced himself from pursuers.
  3. Wide receivers aplenty: And there are plenty of those in the conference. USC has probably the best tandem in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Cal’s Keenan Allen (though he missed spring drills) should continue to put up big numbers, and Washington State’s Marquess Wilson should flourish in the Cougars’ new system with Tuel as his quarterback. Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks could challenge the USC duo statistically if quarterback Sean Mannion continues to develop. There are stars on the rise at Arizona State (Jamal Miles) and Stanford (Ty Montgomery), and a potential star at Washington (James Johnson). Look out Biletnikoff, the Pac-12 is a comin'…
  4. The conference of defense? The Pac-12 might never bunk its reputation as an offensive-centric conference (especially when it keeps churning out offensive talent). But there is a surplus of talented defenses and defensive players who were on display this spring. Washington seems to have plugged its leaks with new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. There’s a 3-4 trend sweeping the conference, and with notable playmakers like Star Lotulelei (Utah), John Boyett (Oregon), Dion Jordan (Oregon), Chase Thomas (Stanford), Josh Shirley (Washington), T.J. McDonald (USC) and DeAndre Coleman (Cal), it’s easy to see why some of the Pac-12 defenses will get the same kind of love as the offenses do in 2012.
  5. Confidence is at an all-time high: As it should be in the spring. The four new coaches all feel confident about the systems they have installed. Stanford feels as good as it ever has about its running game. USC and Oregon should get lofty preseason rankings, and this is the time of the year when fans go through the schedules game by game and always seem to come up with a minimum of six wins. Sorry to say, there are teams in the conference that won’t make it to a bowl game this season. But when you hear the coaches talk about their teams, you’d think the conference is going to go 12-0 in the postseason. This is a magical time for fans filled with hope and possibility. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Early 2012 Pac-12 power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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It's never too early to look ahead, and even if it is, it's not against the law or anything.

And so we have our way-too-early 2012 power rankings.

By the way, schedule does not factor into these. This is a projected pecking order based on where a team stands right now -- Jan. 10, 2012.

And, by the way No. 2, if you don't like where your team is in the way-too-early power rankings, then I'd suggest whining about it until you get to play better.

By the way No. 3, Nos. 1 & 2 were easy. The rest is pretty darn murky, not in small part due to four new coaches.

1. USC: The Trojans welcome back 19 starters from a top-five team, including quarterback Matt Barkley. They beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19. USC might be the preseason No. 2. Or No. 3.

2. Oregon: The Ducks have a strong mix of talent coming back from a team that won the Rose Bowl, but it's not just about 16 returning starters. If you want a reason to favor the Ducks over the Trojans, it's depth. Oregon welcomes back most of its two-deep. By the way, old Ducks fans probably grin about the idea of their team having better depth than USC.

3. Utah: The Utes welcome back 18 starters, though replacing both offensive tackles will be a huge task this spring. The defense has a chance to be beastly. The key? Utah proved it can win eight games with poor-to-middling quarterback play. But does a healthy Jordan Wynn -- back to late 2009, early 2010 form -- mean 10 wins?

4. Stanford: Many will count out the Cardinal, post-Andrew Luck. The Pac-12 blog will not. The over-under with this team is eight wins. Two gigantic holes on the offensive line and at both safeties are major issues, as is quarterback.

5. Washington: The Huskies welcome back seven starters on both sides of the ball, including up-and-coming quarterback Keith Price. The question is how quickly the defense can improve under Justin Wilcox.

6. California: While Cal only welcomes back 11 starters, there's plenty of intriguing talent on the roster, particularly on defense. Will quarterback Zach Maynard take a step forward? And what about his receivers after Keenan Allen? The pressure is on Jeff Tedford to win inside a renovated Memorial Stadium in 2012. If things come together, he just might do that.

7. Arizona: The Wildcats have more potential than most realize, starting with five returning starters on the offensive line and three defensive starters returning from injury, as well as an experienced quarterback in Matt Scott, who looks like a nice fit for Rich Rodriguez's spread-option offense.

8. Washington State: With 18 starters back, I'll go ahead and type it: New coach Mike Leach will lead the Cougars to a bowl game. And, hopefully, someone tips their cap to former coach Paul Wulff for collecting some solid talent, including two quarterbacks, Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, who appear capable of flinging the rock as Leach likes to, as well as a potential All-American receiver in Marquess Wilson.

9. Oregon State: The Beavers could be a surprise team if all the young players who were inconsistent in 2011 grow up in 2012, starting with true freshman quarterback Sean Mannion. With 17 starters back, experience won't be an issue. But those returning players went 3-9, so it's difficult to project a top-half finish. At least, not at this point.

10. UCLA: New coach Jim Mora doesn't start with an empty cupboard -- 16 starters are back. But the overall talent is dubious and, even more challenging, Mora needs to rebuild a culture. Further, taking the Bruins back to a pro-style offense, if that's the ultimate plan, might be a struggle in Year 1. First question: Is Kevin Prince the quarterback, or does Mora go with talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley?

11. Arizona State: The Sun Devils tumbled in these rankings when quarterback Brock Osweiler, curiously, opted to enter the NFL draft. With just 10 starters back, a quarterback with no real game experience -- whoever wins the job -- and a challenging locker room, new coach Todd Graham might find the going rough in Year 1.

12. Colorado: The Buffs welcome back 13 starters from a team that went 3-10 and ranked last in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The rebuilding job on offense, in particular, will be significant with the loss of quarterback Tyler Hansen, running back Rodney Stewart and receiver Toney Clemons. The rebuilding job in Boulder won't happen overnight-- or over two seasons -- for second-year coach Jon Embree.

Predictions: Pac-12 Week 12

November, 17, 2011
11/17/11
9:17
AM PT
Went 5-1 last week -- Arizona State! -- and the season record is now 56-20.

Oregon 42, USC 35: Don't be surprised if the Ducks start slowly. Last weekend was emotional. It's also possible, however, that the Ducks will assert themselves as they did last year against the Trojans and win decisively. Just have a hunch that this one will be highly competitive, though, with Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley playing at a high level.

Stanford 35, California 20: Stanford and Andrew Luck will bounce back with a strong performance in the Big Game. The Bears' chances hinge on QB Zach Maynard passing effectively and efficiently and he's been hot and cold all season.

Washington 33, Oregon State 21: The Huskies should wear down the Beavers with a steady diet of running back Chris Polk -- right, left and up the middle -- no matter who plays quarterback.

Utah 28, Washington State 24: The Utes will win in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and Cougars QB Connor Halliday won't find the going as easy in his first career start against a sound, aggressive Utes defense.

UCLA 30, Colorado 27: The Buffs are hungry to end a 22-game road losing streak, but the Bruins will have just enough to make the South Division be in doubt until the final weekend of the season.

Arizona State 44, Arizona 31: The Sun Devils play much better at home, and they will be able to score as much as they need to against a struggling Wildcats defense.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 12

November, 17, 2011
11/17/11
9:16
AM PT
Issues to consider heading into the 12th week of games.

Barkley's big moment? While much was made of USC quarterback Matt Barkley saying that Oregon didn't seem to be as good this season as the previous two years, a minor tweak won't decide this game. What it did do, however, is brighten the spotlight on Barkley just that much more. He's been the face of the Trojans for three years. This is likely his last college game that will attract national interest. He can secure his legacy by producing a big game on the road in the Pac-12's toughest venue. And even if that isn't enough to produce a victory, it will get the attention of NFL scouts.

Luck rises again: Not much to say here. Just expect Stanford QB Andrew Luck to turn in a tour de force performance in his final Big Game, one that gets him back to the top of Heisman Trophy lists.

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireDespite rushing for over 4,000 career yards, star Washington RB Chris Polk went undrafted.
Doing the Polk-a: Even if Washington QB Keith Price is 100 percent and starting, the Huskies should give the ball to running back Chris Polk and get out of the way at Oregon State. He's surely well-rested after the Huskies had to throw to play catchup during the previous two weekends. And the Beavers are terrible against the run, ranking 11th in the Pac-12, surrendering 183.7 yards per game. Further, if Nick Montana is forced to start for Price, you don't want to put too much pressure on him on the road in what might be chilly, wet conditions.

Can the Cougs stop John White? Utah is fairly simple on offense: RB John White. The Utes rank last in the Pac-12 in passing and 10th in passing efficiency, while White ranks second in the conference with 119 yards rushing per game. That he averages five yards a carry despite defenses knowing he's coming is pretty darn impressive. The Cougars have been decent against the run this year, yielding 155.8 yards rushing per game. If they hold the Utes to that, they should be in pretty good shape to notch an upset.

Erickson's last stand? Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson looked like a Pac-12 coach-of-the-year candidate a few weeks ago. But after consecutive losses to UCLA and Washington State, he's back on the hot seat. Losing at home to Arizona not only would put a big dent in the Sun Devils South Division title chances, it might end Erickson's chances for survival into 2012.

Neuheisel's last stand? Each time UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has looked dead this year, he's resurrected himself with a big win. But at some point that stops working and folks simply point at the lack of consistency as being as bad as losing. If the Bruins lose at home to 2-9 Colorado, perhaps blowing their chances to win the South Division and earn bowl eligibility, it's hard to imagine Neuheisel not getting fired, even if he pulls another rabbit out of the hat and beats USC in the season finale.

James makes Heisman statement: USC is tough against the run, ranking second in the Pac-12 in run defense, but Oregon RB LaMichael James did just fine against the conference's No. 1 rushing defense: Stanford. The Trojans are faster on defense than Stanford, but the home crowd should give James some extra juice. If he produces another 150-yard, multiple-touchdown evening, he should sew up another trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Halliday encore? What is Washington State QB Connor Halliday to do after throwing for 494 yards -- a conference freshman record -- and four touchdowns in an upset victory over Arizona State? Even the confident Halliday admitted it might be impossible to duplicate those numbers. And Utah's defense is a different animal than the Sun Devils'. The key for Halliday is to keep playing within the system and let the game come to him. Don't force throws. Don't hold the ball too long. Don't look for the bomb when the short out is open. The Utes don't have a high-scoring offense. This game doesn't figure to be a shootout. It will be about field position and not making mistakes.

Maynard needs to match up: California's formula for success during a modest two-game winning streak has been run the ball and play good defense, thereby taking pressure off struggling QB Zach Maynard. That might work against Washington State and Oregon State at home, but the Bears will be hard-pressed to make it work against Stanford on the road. Maynard will have to make plays in the passing game and he will have to avoid stupid mistakes. When he gets flustered, his accuracy goes south. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinal can fluster him.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 10

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
7:41
AM PT
Issues to consider heading into the 10th week of games.

Is Oregon sharp and efficient at QB? The first question here is: Who? If Darron Thomas is healthy, it's almost certain he starts. But is his knee 100 percent? Will he be able to pose a legitimate running threat? Will he be sharp throwing the ball? Even before the injury, Thomas was off-and-on as a passer this year. And then if Thomas gets replaced by Bryan Bennett, how will the redshirt freshman react to a potentially competitive game on the road against Washington? He was outstanding against Arizona State at home and solid on the road at Colorado, but this game should be more taxing. Oregon's offense can score so many ways that it doesn't have to be perfect in the passing game. Heck, sometimes it doesn't need to throw at all. But the Huskies chances of recording the upset go up substantially if the Ducks are running at 75-80 percent at QB.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Andrew Luck and Jonathan Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/US PRESSWIREA letdown is likely for Andrew Luck and Stanford following an emotional triple-overtime victory over USC last week.
Are USC and Stanford going to have letdown games? After a triple-overtime thriller, it's hard to imagine that USC and Stanford will bring their "A-games" to road dates with Colorado and Oregon State, respectively. For one, both games look like mismatches, so it's possible that players won't be as focused and intense as they normally would. And, second, both could be running on half-tanks of energy after a physical, emotional game. Don't be surprised if they both start slowly and perhaps look a little sloppy. The question is can they pull it together enough to secure a comfortable win or will they allow the Buffs and Beavs to keep things interesting?

Good Cal or bad Cal? Good Maynard or bad Maynard? California has been all over the place this year, and so has QB Zach Maynard. It appeared that he'd found his groove during a 34-10 win over Utah, but then he lost it when he threw four interceptions in a 31-14 loss at UCLA. It's certainly not all his fault. Cal has been fickle for a while, looking like a top-25 team one week, then like an FCS one the other. The Bears should beat Washington State at home. But they will have to show up to do so. And Maynard needs to be on-target or he could lose his starting job.

Will Neuheisel and/or Wulff pick up a signature win? UCLA and Washington State fans have been waiting for Rick Neuheisel and Paul Wulff to turn their sagging programs around for four years. Neither has produced results that have fans happy. Neither has a meaningful, A-list conference victory that provided a strong indication that better things were ahead (the Bruins beating Texas last year proved a mirage and was a nonconference game). If Neuheisel and the Bruins can beat Arizona State, they will take control of the Pac-12's South Division. That would seem like a win that could resonate. If Wulff and the Cougars could pick up a fourth win at Cal, then it would keep bowl hopes alive and, at worst, show the program was making clear progress.

Foles versus the Utah D: While Utah's first season in the conference has been disappointing, it's played good, consistent defense. It ranks first in the Pac-12 in total defense and second in scoring. While Arizona's season has been disappointing, QB Nick Foles can fling the rock. He ranks first in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game with 366.1, 80 more than anyone else. That matchup alone makes this game worth watching.

Washington's run defense: Oregon is No. 1 in the conference and No. 4 in the nation in rushing offense (309 yards per game). Washington's defense is best against the run. Of course, that requires qualification. Good running teams -- Nebraska and Stanford -- ran all over the Huskies. And, as a whole, the Huskies defense had been rotten, surrendering 430 yards and 33.4 points per game. If Washington is to have any chance, it must 1. find a way to at least slow down the Ducks running game; 2. force turnovers. Time for coordinator Nick Holt to earn his paycheck.

Arizona needs to run, stop the run: Utah is second in the conference with 23 sacks. That suggests that it's in Foles' best interest to hand the ball off at least a few times to slow down the Utes' pass rush. So the Wildcats shouldn't abandon the run. Meanwhile, the Wildcats defense has mostly struggled this year, but the Utes offer a limited, one-dimensional offense that relies on running back John White. That means Arizona should gang up on the line of scrimmage and force Jon Hays to throw the ball. While the Wildcats have been worse against the pass this year than the run -- opponents are completing 69 percent of their throws -- Hays has yet to show he can throw consistently and move his team down the field.

Do Colorado and/or Oregon State have anything left? Colorado is 1-8. Oregon State is 2-6. Both are coming off blowout losses. Both will be at home in front of uninspired crowds. Both are playing foes with a lot more talent than them. Both look like candidates to take a whipping. And yet. Football is a funny game. If one or the other or both come out playing with fire, they might keep things competitive. And when a game gets into the fourth quarter, crazy things can happen.

Predictions: Pac-12 Week 9

October, 27, 2011
10/27/11
9:04
AM PT
Went 3-3 last week -- yeesh -- and the season record is now 43-15.

Of course, Oregon State and California fans should be sending me cookies.

Stanford 38, USC 24: USC will hang around but eventually Stanford -- as it is wont to do -- will wear down the Trojans.

Oregon 48, Washington State 17: Ducks, with or without running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas, just have too much for the Cougars.

Arizona State 45, Colorado 10: Arizona State is getting healthy. Colorado is not. This could get ugly.

California 31, UCLA 20: Will the Bruins rally for coach Rick Neuheisel? There hasn't been any evidence they will so far. And Cal QB Zach Maynard seemed to find his rhythm last week in a win over Utah.

Utah 24, Oregon State 21: This isn't because we're using the transitive property -- Utah crushed BYU; Oregon State lost to BYU -- it's because we believe the Utes will rally at home.

Washington 42, Arizona 31: The Wildcats showed fight while beating UCLA last Thursday, but those four suspensions really hit the depth in the secondary, where the Huskies and QB Keith Price should feast.

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