USC Trojans: Jon Hays

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.

Inside the Locker Room: Utah edition 

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from Rice-Eccles Stadium after USC’s (4-1 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) 38-28 win over Utah (2-3, 0-2).

Silas Redd
Russ Isabella/US PresswireSilas Redd (pictured) and Curtis McNeal were both knocked out Thursday's game with injuries.
Lane Kiffin comments:
On the game: First of all, credit Utah. They came out, and the crowd was electric, as we thought it would be. The players came out and played really physical right off the bat and made some big plays. And, we obviously helped them by not performing well early in the first quarter and getting down 14-0. But at the end of the day, as you go through your season and your team builds itself, those things are good.”

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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.

Five storylines: USC vs. Utah 

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
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1. Two teams with a lot to lose: Coming into the season, this was penciled in as a highlight matchup between the expected front-runners for the Pac-12 South. Instead, both teams already have a conference loss, so another defeat would really be a blow in terms of conference standings.

2. USC defensive pressure vs. Utah QB Jon Hays: The Utes have given up 11 sacks behind an inexperienced offensive line, while the Trojans already have 16 sacks to their credit. Look for USC's pass-rushers to pin their ears back and come after Hays early and often.

3. Homecoming for USC RG John Martinez: Two weeks ago, Martinez went up against his brother, Keni Kaufusi, a defensive lineman at Cal. He won’t face any relatives this week, but it will be homecoming for the former Murray (Utah) Cottonwood star. Martinez will have several former high school teammates lining up for the Utes.

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Lamar DawsonCal Sport Media via AP ImagesFinally healthy, Lamar Dawson is wreaking havor for the Trojans from his linebacker position.
LOS ANGELES -- It was shorts and shoulder pads for the Trojans on Monday morning for what USC coach Lane Kiffin referred to as a Thursday practice in terms of its look and what was covered. Just three days remain before the Utah game, and a refreshed USC squad is anticipating a spirited crowd at sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“I think the players are anxious to play again after having some time off,” said Kiffin following practice. “And we’re excited for it. I think it will be a very entertaining game in a place that I think will be rocking when we go in there. It’ll be a good test for us.”

Storyline of the day: Cornerbacks
The cornerbacks were the topic of the day on Monday, with Kiffin noting the stellar play of Nickell Robey at the outset of his post-practice media session. You don’t hear the 5-foot-8 standout’s name called very often, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly by no fault of his own.

“I think he’s played great, they just don’t throw at him,” said Kiffin. “You’re seeing of him a little bit like Robert [Woods]. If they take something away, or don’t give you the opportunity, it’s hard to get numbers. “

The best way to get Robey more opportunities, Kiffin said, would be to get improved play out of the opposite cornerback position, something that the Trojans have struggled with in 2012.

“We need to play better at the other spot, and force them to throw the ball to [Robey],” he said. “We need to cover better, we need to tackle better and we need to make the play when the play is there. It’s no secret we haven’t played well there. We haven’t played well there all year, and it’s unfortunate for Nickell because, I mean, we’ve watched the film, the ball goes the other way all the time.”

Time for Harris to settle in
The quick fix for the Trojans opposite Robey since the Syracuse game has been Torin Harris, but with Harris having missed extensive time at the start of the season due to injury, Kiffin admitted that maybe they rushed him. The good news is that, with some extra time to get in shape this week, there’s hope Harris will begin to resemble the standout cover corner that the staff fell in love with at the beginning of the 2011 season.

“Torin has missed a lot of time,” Kiffin said. “We probably played Torin too much right away. As you go back to that Syracuse game, he played 70 snaps or something. We can’t do that because he’d been out for so long. So I think this bye has been good for him. He’s got some extra conditioning in, and I think he’ll continue to improve.”

Awesome Dawson
Lamar Dawson has been one of the stars of the defense since returning from injury before the Syracuse game, racking up 19 tackles in the past two contests alone. And this might just be the tip of the iceberg for the 6-foot-2, 235-pound middle linebacker.

“I think we played our best game on defense last week -- it had a lot to do with him,” said Kiffin. “He’s played physical, and he’s finally getting comfortable. He’s only in his second year, and he’s been hurt in both seasons and missed time. So it’s almost like he kind of now has one full season of games. So we’re really excited about his development and the way that he’s played the last two weeks.”

Mr. Versatility
It’s not as if T.J. McDonald had a whole lot more to prove heading into this season in terms of his individual play, but now you can add versatility to his long list of talents. The Trojans have been bringing the 2011 All-American safety up on certain plays into a kind of hybrid defensive end position, freeing him up to cause havoc at the line of scrimmage. It’s safe to say that the move has been a success so far, further emphasizing his unique abilities.

“We did some similar things with Eric Berry a few years ago in our one year with him, and it really kind of came from watching T.J. blocking kicks -- how well he rushed,” explained Kiffin. “And when it came up, our defensive ends had been beat up like they still are, so it allows us to get some reps there with some speed. And obviously he can drop too, and do all of the things in coverage as well.”

Hays a backup no more
Utah’s offense was dealt a crushing blow in the second game of the season when fourth-year starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down with a career-ending shoulder injury. Six-foot senior Jon Hays has taken over, and the transition has certainly come with its struggles -- the Utah offense currently ranks dead-last in the Pac-12 in passing offense (190.8 yards per game). Hays has shown promise, and with 11 starts under his belt, he doesn’t lack experience.

“I thought he’s thrown the ball well,” Kiffin said. “I thought there were a couple times where they could have helped him out by making some plays outside. From a competitive standpoint, you like when you see a backup that you’re getting ready to play, but when you watch him, he’s not really a backup. And he played a lot last year.”

First look: Utah

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
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[+] EnlargeLotulelei
Russ Isabella/US PresswireUtah's Star Lotulelei, a potential top five pick in the 2013 NFL draft, anchors Utah's defense.
USC (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) vs. Utah (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12)

Time: Thursday, Oct. 4, 6:00 p.m. PT

Location: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPNLA 710

Scouting Utah:
Eighth-year head coach Kyle Whittingham’s Utah squad, rested after a bye, is coming off a 37-7 loss at Arizona State in its Pac-12 opener two weeks ago. That came a week after upsetting No. 25 BYU at home, 24-21. Senior QB Jon Hays (40-of-68, 58.8%, 467 yards, four TDs, one interception in 2012) has taken over for junior QB Jordan Wynn (25-of-38 passing, 65.8 completion percentage, 247 yards, two TDs, one interception), who had his second straight season cut short by a shoulder injury (the fourth of his career) when he was injured against Utah State. Hays is 7-4 starting in place of Wynn, who retired after throwing for 4,637 yards and 33 touchdowns. Senior RB John White (65 carries, 233 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, one TD; five receptions for 36 yards) is the top runner, while senior WR DeVonte Christopher (nine receptions, 83 yards, plus four kick returns for 98 yards), sophomore WR Dres Anderson (eight receptions, 116 yards, one TD) and sophomore TE Jake Murphy (nine receptions, 91 yards, 10.1 avg, two TDs) are among the featured pass-catchers.

The Utes' defense, which is tied for 25th in sacks per game (2.8, sixth in Pac-12), is led by senior DT Star Lotulelei (19 tackles, four for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles in 2012), who was an All-Pac-12 first team pick in 2011 when he won the Pac-12’s Morris Trophy. Lotulelei is aided by junior LB Trevor Reilly (25 tackles, four for loss, 2.5 sacks, one fumble recovery) and senior LB Dave Fagergren (23 tackles, one for loss). Senior punter Sean Sellwood (47.8 avg) is second nationally in punting.
-- Courtesy USC sports information

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 10

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
7:41
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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.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 27, 2011
10/27/11
9:04
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Issues to consider heading into the ninth week of games.

Barkley vs. Luck: Stanford Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in college football, the Heisman Trophy favorite and is almost certain to go No. 1 overall in this spring's NFL draft. USC's Matt Barkley is pretty good, too, and could be picked in the first round. He certainly could help his stock -- and his team -- by outplaying Luck on Saturday. For USC to notch the upset, Barkley almost certainly will need to match or, more likely, exceed Luck's numbers. Last year, these two combined for six TDs and no interceptions as Stanford won 37-35 with a field goal in the waning moments.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireStanford's Andrew Luck puts his Heisman campaign on the line Saturday against another marquee quarterback, USC's Matt Barkley.
James and Thomas watch: Oregon is probably not going to have much trouble with Washington State at home on Saturday, though, of course, you never know. The big issue will be whether quarterback Darron Thomas or running back LaMichael James play. It's not really about how much they play or even how effective they are. It's more about them being ready to go for a crucial two-game road trip: at Washington on Nov. 5 and at Stanford on Nov. 12. Those are games when the Ducks will want -- need? -- to be at full strength.

Return of Onyeali: Arizona State appears poised to dash to the Pac-12 South Division title, and a visit from 1-7 Colorado doesn't figure to slow the Sun Devils down. But the return of defensive end Junior Onyeali from a knee injury is big news. Onyeali, the conference's defensive freshman of the year in 2010, was hurt Sept. 17 at Illinois. The Sun Devils defense has mostly played well in his absence, with Greg Smith and Davon Coleman stepping up opposite Jamaar Jarrett. But four good DEs is a good thing. A really good thing.

Maynard sharp II? California QB Zach Maynard had perhaps his best game in the Bears' 34-10 victory over Utah, passing for 255 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 36 yards and a score. He rolled out and moved around in the pocket and seemed to be sharper, more confident and, most important, more accurate with his throws. Was the win over the Utes a turning point game for him, and therefore the Bears offense? If so, the Bears should roll over UCLA, which is awful on defense.

Where's the O, Utah? Speaking of the Utah-Cal game, the Utes offense didn't show up. It turned the ball over four times -- three interceptions from QB Jon Hays -- and gained just 178 total yards, including just 13 yards rushing. It's certain that the Utes won't have a juggernaut offense anytime soon. They didn't have one approaching that even when Jordan Wynn was playing quarterback. But if the season is to be salvaged, they are going to need to figure out ways to get a few points on the board. A solid defense can keep things close, but it's hard to win if you can't score.

Price vs the Arizona secondary: Four Arizona players are suspended from Saturday's game at Washington for their role in a brawl with UCLA just before halftime last week. All four are from a secondary that has already lost two starters to injury. Cornerback Shaquille Richardson and nickelback Jourdon Grandon are suspended for the entire game; cornerback Lyle Brown and strong safety Mark Watley are suspended for the first half. While Richardson is the only starter, things are still going to be tough against a Huskies passing offense led by quarterback Keith Price and a deep crew of receivers. Price leads the Pac-12 with 22 touchdown passes and ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency. Even before the suspensions, the Wildcats ranked last in the conference in pass efficiency defense, with opponents completing 71 percent of their throws.

Other than Woods? Before showing balance at Notre Dame, USC's offense was all about Barkley throwing to receiver Robert Woods. Stanford's defense, which got gashed by Barkley-to-Woods last year, figures to be all over Woods with bracket coverages with safeties helping cornerbacks on just about every play. Woods still figures to have his moments. It's not like he's a secret, yet he still ranks second in the nation with 129 receiving yards per game. But the Trojans need other receivers to step up and help Barkley. Or, even better, what if the running game, which piled up 219 yards against the Fighting Irish, comes through again?

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 8

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
6:34
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Issues to consider heading into the eighth week of games.

Price vs. Luck: Think back to your college football brain in August. Now look that bolded intro. Who would've thunk it, right? Well, turns out that Andrew Luck is a heck of a quarterback, but at present not only is Washington's Keith Price nipping at his heels in terms of passing efficiency, but he's also got more touchdown passes than the leading Heisman Trophy contender -- 21 vs. 18. Luck is almost certain to play well at home against a fair-to-middling Huskies defense. To lead the upset for Washington, Price will need to match -- if not exceed -- Luck's numbers.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireWashington quarterback Keith Price enters Saturday's game with 21 TD passes, more than Stanford counterpart Andrew Luck.
Barkley to Woods: USC QB Matt Barkley and WR Robert Woods are the best pass-catch combination in the Pac-12, and one of the two or three best in the nation. They've combined for six TDs and 130.5 yards per game. But they were not in sync last week against California. It's likely the Trojans will struggle to run against a tough Notre Dame front seven. So the way USC wins in South Bend is Barkley to Woods, Barkley to Woods.

Who starts at QB, RB for Oregon? Not much to this one: Do Darron Thomas (knee) and LaMichael James (elbow) start for the Ducks at Colorado? Or do their backups: Bryan Bennett and Kenjon Barner? This pretty much is the only expected intrigue in Boulder on Saturday.

Hays or Maynard? While there's no single reason Utah and California are both 0-3 in Pac-12 play, the biggest is inconsistent play at QB. Utes QB Jon Hays replaced injured starter Jordan Wynn for the second half against Washington and has mostly improved in two starts. Cal's Zach Maynard started the season well but has struggled since the conference slate began, bottoming out last Thursday with three interceptions against USC. With two good defenses at AT&T Park, it's unlikely either offense will be able to run the ball 40 times and win. The team that is more efficient passing the ball likely ends up smiling.

Wildcats set free? There's a feeling that Arizona's players were playing tight -- more worried more about mistakes than focused on making plays -- in recent weeks as the losses piled up and coach Mike Stoops got more frenzied on the sidelines. We'll get a better feel for that Thursday night. The Wildcats have started slowly all season. If they get off to a quick, enthusiastic start against UCLA, you'd have to think a lot of players have loosened up since Stoops was fired. That shouldn't be over-construed as an indictment of Stoops, by the way. After all that losing and a coach firing, sometimes it becomes easier to play when you have nothing to lose.

Tuel time: Washington State QB Jeff Tuel didn't pick a great team for his first start since a fractured clavicle forced him to miss the Cougars' first five games: Stanford. While Tuel had his moments, he looked a little out of sorts against an A-list defense. But after getting his game legs back, Oregon State's defense offers a much softer landing. Tuel is the Cougars unquestioned leader. This is a must-win game for the Cougs' bowl hopes and for coach Paul Wulff — and in such games, unquestioned leaders step up, lead and make plays that turn must-wins into victories.

Hogs on the Farm: While the rise of Stanford football is not unreasonably connected to Luck, more than a few folks will tell you a culture shift was more important. A program that was seen as soft, one populated by smart young men with aspirations other than pro football -- because they wanted to make more money than the NFL could pay them -- transformed into an edgy, physical and, yes, maybe slightly dirty unit that played until the very echo of the whistle. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has been talking about the Huskies playing physical football since he was hired to take over a team that went soft under Tyrone Willingham. The Huskies have taken some big steps forward -- see the dominant victory over Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl. But they aren't there yet on either line. Or are they? We'll see Saturday in the trenches.

Prince wears the crown: Kevin Prince is (again) UCLA's quarterback. While this has many Bruins fans slapping their foreheads, Prince was a capable passer in 2009 and ran the pistol offense well in 2010. He's just never been consistent and, most important, never stayed healthy. Well, Richard Brehaut is out for the year, so the QB job is (again) Prince's. At least as long as he can stay healthy, and barring any horrible play -- see Prince against Texas -- that forces embattled coach Rick Neuheisel to turn to true freshman Brett Hundley. Yet there is a potential positive spin here. What if Prince rises to the occasion? A UCLA win at Arizona would set the Bruins up nicely for a second-half run.

Predictions: Pac-12 Week 8

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
6:34
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Went 5-1 last week and the season record is now 40-12.

Oregon State fans: Look, I know it's my fault. I am more than willing to save the season and pick against your team in every game, but can you get the word out so I don't get angry email about how I always disrespect the Beavers?

Thanks for you consideration.

Thursday

Arizona 35, UCLA 30: Is this about the Wildcats playing looser now that volatile coach Mike Stoops is gone? No. Probably would have picked the same score with Stoops still madly gesticulating and grimacing on the sidelines. It's more about Wildcats QB Nick Foles being the best player on the field.

Saturday

Stanford 42, Washington 24: I expect this to play to the pattern for most of Stanford's games thus far: Close at the half, then BOOM! Andrew Luck and a tough Cardinal defense assert themselves.

Notre Dame 28, USC 24: The Trojans are much better on offense, while Notre Dame is much better on defense. The tipping point is the Fighting Irish playing at home under the lights.

Oregon 48, Colorado 17: Whether the Ducks have quarterback Darron Thomas and/or running back LaMichael James doesn't really matter. The Buffaloes are injury-ravaged and might have lost what little confidence they had.

Utah 24, California 21: This pick is based in large part in the belief that the Bears will be missing two starting linebackers, most painfully leading tackler Mychal Kendricks (shoulder). That will help the Utes establish the run, which in turn will make life easier for QB Jon Hays.

Washington State 38, Oregon State 30: The Cougars will get it done in a must-win game for their bowl hopes. Home-field advantage helps, but there's also the expectation we'll see QB Jeff Tuel far less rusty after making his first start of the season since a shoulder injury last weekend against Stanford.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 7

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
9:43
AM PT
Issues to consider heading into the seventh week of games.

Thomas takes over: With RB LaMichael James out, QB Darron Thomas becomes the veteran presence inside a young Ducks offensive huddle. He's the guy everyone will look to. Arizona State's defense has rattled some pretty good QBs, most notably USC's Matt Barkley. Thomas hasn't put up big numbers this year, but he's thrown 15 TD passes and just two interceptions. It's likely strong passing numbers from Thomas will be a key in this game.

[+] EnlargeMarshall Lobbestael
AP Photo/Dean HareMarshall Lobbestael faces a big challenge Saturday in the form of the Stanford defense.
Lobbestael vs. Luck: It's fun to ha-ha at the absurdity of that -- Washington State's backup QB vs. the most talented QB in college football in a decade -- but that's what we've got Saturday in Pullman: The almost certain No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft this spring versus a guy who has admirably filled in for starter Jeff Tuel but who may be seeing the last football of his career. There's some poetry there. By the way, Marshall Lobbestael is good enough to give Stanford's secondary some trouble if he gets time to throw.

Barkley-Woods: Last year against California, Barkley threw five first-half TD passes, tying a USC -- full-game -- record. Robert Woods might be the best receiver in the nation in terms of pure talent. If you wonder what Cal needs to be concerned with tonight, it's Barkley-Woods, Barkley-Woods, particularly with starting CB Marc Anthony out.

Price increases Buffs' secondary costs: Washington QB Keith Price ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and first in TD passes. Colorado's patchwork secondary, which has been riddled by injuries and suspensions, ranks 10th in the conference in passing efficiency defense and has yielded 14 TD passes, most in the conference. Not a good matchup for the Buffs. Colorado's solution to a struggling secondary is to attack with blitzes -- see 17 sacks, tied for most in the conference. The Huskies have yielded 11 sacks. If Price gets time to throw, he can make Colorado pay. But will he?

Utes up front: Utah's strength is its lines, and it needs to lean on that strength at Pittsburgh. The Panthers on offense are mostly one guy: RB Ray Graham, the nation's second leading rusher. The Panthers aren't good if they have to pass. They yield 4.67 sacks per game, most in the nation, and rank 96th in the nation in passing efficiency. So it's obvious: Make Pitt throw. On the other side, the Utes probably will faces that same strategy. The Panthers will try to make new Utes starting QB Jon Hays beat them. But RB John White and a solid offensive line might be good enough to still win that battle in the trenches.

Beavers fall: Every year is a new year, so past trends don't always matter. Until they do. This year started out particularly bad for Oregon State, but losing Septembers are -- sorry -- standard in Corvallis. That's the bad news. The good news is the Beavers typically seem to get better. They have entered October with losing records eight consecutive years. But since 2004, they are 38-15 in October, November and December. After an 0-4 start, they are now 1-0 in October. Can they maintain their trend of mid-to-late-season improvement?

The 6-8 QB: Inside Autzen Stadium, everything starts with the opposing QB. How well can he handle the noise? Can he maintain focus and make plays and avoid miscues. Arizona State's Brock Osweiler, who it will be noted at least once on Saturday is 6-foot-8, made his first career start at Autzen in 2009 as a true freshman. That evening started badly and ended quickly when he was knocked out of the game. Suffice it to say, he's a different guy these days: Skilled, confident, knowledgeable. It's also impossible to believe the Sun Devils can record an upset without him playing lights out -- as he did against Missouri and USC.

Cougs up front: While Andrew Luck gets all the publicity, Stanford is as much about being physical up front on both lines as it is about Luck. Luck will stress the Washington State secondary, but the real measure of the Cougars' ability to hang with Stanford will be on both lines. Can the Cougs slow down the Stanford running game and force Luck to throw? That doesn't sound like a great thing, but it's critical in terms of slowing down Stanford. And, on the other side of the ball, will the Cougs be able to run well enough that the Cardinal doesn't load up with blitzes on Lobbestael? Playing at home will help. But Washington State's only chance is not getting exploited at the line of scrimmage.

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