West Side Stories

Welcome to the first edition of West Side Stories. Each week I'll provide updates on the movers and shakers in the Pac-10. After all, someone has to ensure that the Conference of Champions isn't passed over because of east coast bias.

Has USC reign ended? Is Jeff Tedford's Cal squad ready to win a Pac-10 title? Can Walt Harris undo the damage left behind by Buddy Teevens? All of these questions and a lot more will be answered in the weeks ahead. For starters, let's take a look at some preseason expectations. Naturally, we'll start at the bottom and work our way up.

Washington

I may be an ardent supporter of Notre Dame football, but placing the Huskies at the bottom of the Pac-10 has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that their current head coach is former Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham. The truth is that they actually belong there in 2006. It won't be until 2007 that the Huskies climb their way out of the cellar, and I honestly believe that will happen.

First, the good news. The Huskies' offense played appreciably better in 2005. Credit the coaching staff, and especially offensive coordinator Tim Lappano. Turnovers were drastically reduced; -19 in 2004 became -3 last year. That's nearly two turnovers per game. At the same time, the offense produced 50% more points per game. The Huskies averaged 14.0 points per game in 2004, and 21.5 points per game last year. Averaging 3.9 yards per carry, they possessed a decent running game to go along with a much-improved passing attack. Washington's quarterbacks completed just 40% of passes in 2004, and led by Isaiah Stanback, that number improved to 52% in 2005. In many ways, comparing the last two years' Husky offenses would be like "night and day," the infamous Willingham quote after a 22-0 Notre Dame victory over Maryland in his opening contest as Irish head coach.

Unfortunately, Washington has lost five of its top six OL heading into the 2006 season. This is a devastating blow to an offense blessed with some talented skill players. The running game could suffer as a result, especially since the coaching staff placed a heavy emphasis on the deep passing game in the spring. Will the offense take a step backwards this fall? Can the offensive line not only open up holes for running backs like Kenny James and Louis Rankin, but also give Stanback time to find his receivers downfield? The OL gave up 27 sacks last year in 324 attempts. That was one of the few offensive statistics that didn't improve from the 2004 numbers. Ultimately, it could be the most telling statistic in predicting the Huskies' offensive production in 2006.

On the other side of the ball, it's not all that rosy, either. Although yards per rush allowed decreased (from 4.4 to 3.8), the Washington secondary was lit up. Opponents completed a whopping 66.8% of all passes thrown in 2005. That was good enough to finish 116th in the country; only Ron Zook's Illinois defense was more porous (67%). The secondary was shuffled a bit, as safety Dashon Goldson was shifted to cornerback. Are the changes enough, and does Washington have enough talent to defend the pass better? At the same time, Washington's pass rush is mediocre, which complicates their pass defense. Twenty-five sacks in 2005 might seem like a decent number, but more than half of them came against lowly Idaho (7) and Arizona State (7). Still, a name to watch is DE Greyson Gunheim. As a sophomore, he dragged down QBs five times, and the coaching staff is hoping he can become a disruptive pass rusher.

The bottom line: This could be déjà vu all over again for Willingham. The odor in Seattle is reminiscent of the stink from the 2003 season: young, inexperienced OL; mobile QB with a live arm; questionable secondary; and last but not least, assistant coaches named Baer, Willis, and Miles. At the same time, there's no Julius Jones-esque superstar to win games single-handedly (Navy, Pitt, Washington State). The Huskies could end up winless, although Karl Dorrell can always find a way for UCLA to blow a game, and San Jose State visits Seattle in the home opener.

Prediction: 1-11 (0-9)

Arizona

It seems that everyone loves Mike Stoops and Arizona. Fans and media alike contend that the Wildcats are a favorite to emerge as one of the top "surprise" teams in the country. I'm not a believer – yet. When Stoops signed on to become the head coach at Arizona, it was his acumen as a defensive coordinator that excited fans in Tuscon. Yet three years later, he owns a 4-16 record against BCS competition, and it's actually the offense that has shown more promise.

Last year's true freshman quarterback Willie Tuitama appeared to be the real deal down the stretch in 2005. After Arizona started the season 1-6, he was named the starter in a road game against Oregon State Not only did he lead the Wildcats to victory, but he also led them to a shocking upset of UCLA the following week. He suffered a bad game in a loss against Washington (somehow Baer's defenses dominate against young, inexperienced QBs), and was leading his team to victory over Arizona State in the season finale until an injury forced him out. The Wildcats subsequently lost the game.

For the season, Tuitama completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,105 yards with nine TD tosses and just five interceptions. Arizona has a bunch of talented, young WRs led by burners Mike Thomas and Syndric Steptoe. There would appear to be a lot of upside to the offense, even if RB Mike Bell has graduated. The offensive line should be solid, and considering the much-ballyhooed recruiting classes Stoops has been able to attract to Tuscon, someone productive should emerge to join Tuitama in the backfield. With that in mind, watch out for a sophomore slump from Tuitama. Pac-10 defensive coordinators will be ready for him in 2006, and there will also be a lot more pressure on the young quarterback's shoulders.

Stoops coached defensive backs for his brother Bob at Oklahoma, and sure enough, it's the Arizona secondary that will cause problems for opposing quarterbacks. Although Arizona lost a talented free safety, both cornerbacks return with two years of starting experience. At one corner, Antoine Cason was a second-team All-Pac-10 player last year. This will be a mediocre year at best for Pac-10 quarterbacks, and most weeks Arizona will enjoy an advantage because of their secondary. On the other hand, their defensive line needs to perform a lot better than it did in 2005. After shutting down opponents' running games in 2004 (3.3 yards per carry), teams had little trouble running on Arizona last year (4.6 yards per carry). Likewise, the pass rush will also need to improve. Help is on the way. Talented two-year starter Marcus Smith will return at defensive end after missing most of 2005 with an injury, and Stoops' recruiting efforts at junior colleges could pay dividends here. Two of the bigger names (and bodies) to watch for are Gabe Long and Louis Holmes. At linebacker, former Irish recruit Ronnie Palmer emerged as a starter last year and finished with 38 tackles and 1.5 sacks (5 starts). In all likelihood, the success of Arizona's defense will depend on the performance of its defensive line.

The bottom line: Don't bet the house on Arizona yet. Stoops is a trendy pick, but Arizona lost the only two games they were favored to win last year, and their 2006 schedule is dangerous. BYU, and its complex 3-3-5 defense, could frustrate Tuitama in the season-opener, and then the Wildcats travel to Shreveport to face LSU. After a week off (aka Stephen F. Austin), Southern Cal travels to Tucson. Arizona could easily be facing a 1-3 start. Capable of springing an upset, they'll be a dangerous team in the Pac-10; however, the Wildcats will still finish with a losing conference record.

Prediction: 4-8 (3-6)

Stanford

First of all, I am a big Walt Harris fan. I thought he did a terrific job in Pittsburgh, and that he unfairly got the shaft from the school administration. Palo Alto will be a terrific fit for him as he returns to his west coast (University of Pacific) roots. He'll certainly be able to develop a potent offense, and the only true question mark as I see it will be his ability to field a strong assistant coaching staff. Any time you hire Buzz Preston as an assistant coach, despite his track record, you must be concerned.

Watch out for Stanford's offense in 2006. If returning starter Trent Edwards has any time in the pocket, he will pick apart opposing defenses. Last year his offensive line let him down at times, but they were thin because of injuries. There are a lot of bodies with experience heading into the fall, and the 42 sacks that Stanford gave up last year is certain to decrease. Keep this in mind: in three years in Teevens' offense, the quarterbacks never completed more than 51.5 percent of passes in a season. Last year, that number jumped up to a robust 61.4 percent; if Edwards is given more time to find receivers downfield, Stanford will easily improve upon its 24.5 points per game from 2005. Likewise, their more experienced line is more likely to open holes for whoever wins the starting running back position. Although none of the backs on their roster may be as talented as departed senior J.R. Lemon, who was also injured last year. Injuries also struck one of Stanford's most talented receivers, Evan Moore. In just a quarter and a half, Moore grabbed three receptions and a touchdown; then a hip injury ended his season. Moore will be joined on the field by former Irish recruit Mark Bradford; the tandem is one of the more dangerous receiving combos in the Pac-10.

Stanford will need to improve to over 30 points per game next year because their defense has some holes. Unfortunately, the biggest hole occurs in the most pivotal position in the Pac-10: cornerback. Who will line up across from returning starter Nick Sanchez? Who will play in nickel downs? These questions could help Pac-10 offensive coordinators sleep easier at night. Compounding matters, Stanford also lost its three top sack producers from 2005. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60.8 percent of passes in 2005; could that number actually increase if they have even more time to hit open targets? That might occur, but the Cardinal appear to be shifting to a 4-3 defense from a 3-4, and they have some talented young players, including brother tandem Ekom and Udeme Udofia. Ekom was a top five national recruit, and Udeme is shifting from his outside linebacker position in the new defense. Likewise, there are some other former Irish recruits (Will Powers, James McGillicuddy) who may be able to contribute along the line this fall. However, the front seven may not even matter; that's how porous the Stanford secondary could be this fall. The numbers just simply aren't there.

The bottom line: Stanford could eke out a winning season, but with so many opponents possessing strong passing attacks, it's more realistic to expect Stanford to finish at the bottom of a competitive Pac-10. Smart teams are simply going to spread Stanford out and force them to defend the pass. Harris will be able to counter that with a strong offense, but in the end, it may not be enough to make a bowl in 2006. Most importantly, take the over every week!

Prediction: 5-7 (3-6)

Coming Soon: Analysis of the next four teams on the Pac-10 ladder.


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