Maybe it's Time to Panic
Last week, I reminded everyone that it's much too early to panic. Just wait until the Beavers roll up a bunch of points on UCLA. The Beavers did put 35 on the scoreboard, which I expected would be enough to win, but the defense had its roughest day I could remember. It was just plain ugly. Redshirt freshman Tyler Ebell broke out for 200 yards against what was supposed to be among the toughest defenses in the conference. What were the problems? As much as I would rather look ahead to next week, it's my duty to break it down.
What went wrong? Almost everything. UCLA ran 86 plays to OSU's 59. UCLA notched 26 first downs, OSU 14. UCLA had the ball for 40:36, OSU had it for 19:24. The numbers are not pretty. Part of the blame falls on OSU's defense, but it doesn't hold it alone. It was another weak performance on offense. The first three quarters had nothing to show for them other than an 80-yard run that led off the game. Derek Anderson was rattled again by pressure, and the receivers were not helping by dropping key passes. Even the usually reliable James Newson had a hard time holding onto the ball in the early going. I think everyone was trying a little too hard to make things happen.
But something clicked near the end of the third quarter to get the Beavers going. They did not quit. James Newson personified this attitude by carrying the entire Bruin defense on his back inside the two-yard line before stretching his arms out for his most impressive touchdown catch in his career with 8:45 left in the fourth quarter. This cut the Bruin lead to eight, but it was as close as the Beavers could get. The defense was struggling most of the day, but the blame couldn't be placed on them, because the offense was not putting up points. But when the offense got it going, the defense was still helpless, and UCLA rolled down the field to score two key touchdowns in the fourth to preserve the victory.
"You could feel it in the fourth quarter, that they felt if they got the ball back they could go down and score," said Dennis Erickson in his weekly press conference. "So that gives us some confidence, hopefully, going into this football game."
It is a nice boost to the offense, but the defense is probably angry after that performance. They have some things to prove. There are two aspects to pass defense: rushing the quarterback and defending receivers. A successful defense must do both. It is nearly impossible to do a good job of defending receivers without a good rush. This was the downfall. There was no pressure on UCLA quarterback Cory Paus, and he went on to have his career-best performance. Bruin receivers were beating Beaver defensive backs on almost every play. They ran crisp routes, got open, and caught everything thrown at them. After seeing the defensive backs getting burned, Craig Bray called for more zone defenses. But I would liked to have seen more zone earlier on.
I have to give credit to UCLA. They played well. They overcame adversity. They have the chance to blow a late lead, but held on. They outcoached their opponent. They did everything I didn't think they would do.
There was something special about the USC-Washington State game last weekend. The overtime thriller was filled with great plays, lead changes, and that extra excitement that comes from a rinky-dink college town being transformed into the center of the college football world. That is the magic of college football. Those players were having a blast on the field. There isn't a nicer guy than Mike Price, and that's why his players love playing for him.
WSU just might have the magic it takes to win the Pac-10. After being down at halftime at Cal, they rallied to comeback and win behind Jason Gesser's outstanding performance with a broken rib. They come back home and put up 30 points on a USC team that had been playing in a different world defensively. But nothing encapsulates that magic like Drew Dunning's 35-yard game-tying field goal with 1:50 left. Not only did the kick barely sail through after it appeared a Trojan defender got a piece of ball at the line, but the kick wouldn't have even tied the game if USC kicker Ryan Killeen hadn't missed an extra point attempt after a 55-yard touchdown pass with 4:10 remaining.
A Little Second Guessing
It's widely known that Dennis Erickson's teams at Oregon State have gotten much better as the season progresses. They generally struggle early in the season, and have more success as the year goes on. One might argue that experience makes teams better, so it takes a few games to get going. This is true, but it's also something opposing teams have to deal with.
When examining the difference between Oregon and Oregon State, there appears to be obvious differences. The Ducks have had great success reloading year after year and bringing new players up into roles vacated by former stars. The Beavers seem to do this, but it takes more time. Some of the explanation lies with the depth Oregon has been able to develop after being successful for a longer period of time.
When specifically looking at the offense, one thing sticks out in my mind as a possible explanation for the struggles. I believe one of the factors that separates the Beavers and the Ducks is creativity in play calling. Watching Oregon's game at Arizona, their strategy became clear. They were riding what works for them – Onterrio Smith – while allowing their young quarterback time to sit back, make easy throws, and not have to think too hard. Oregon runs all sorts of counters, slants, screens, and plays I've never seen before to take pressure off the quarterback and allow the receivers to make plays. The defense is off balance and doesn't know what's coming.
The Beavers tend to run a high-level take on the smash-mouth football theory. "We're going to run right at you. You know what's coming. You can't stop it." The variation is that it's in a spread offense. The Beavers run only a few run plays and feel that proper execution will keep the opposing teams off balance and unable to make plays. This a good strategy that has been proven to work, especially near the end of the season. But if I were a defensive coordinator, regardless of personnel, I know which offense I'd rather go up against.
The Wildcats were beat up heading into their game against Oregon. But it was news that just surfaced that has them hurting the most. Clarence Farmer will be out for the season after knee surgery. Farmer was an all-conference selection last season and will be sorely missed by an offense that has already become too reliant on the Jason Johnson to Bobby Wade connection. Also hurting for the Wildcats are big contributors Lance Briggs and Michael Jolivette. Briggs has a shot of playing against the Huskies Saturday, but Jolivette is out. The Wildcats have talent in key positions up front, but their lack of depth is clearly being exposed by these injuries.
Andrew Walter's emergence as the quarterback for Arizona State has me drawing all sorts of parallels in my mind to Jonathon Smith in 1998. The biggest differences are probably that Walter is seven inches taller and throws a much prettier ball. That's pretty scary. Walter relieved Chad Christensen in the second quarter of the game against San Diego State (when ASU was trailing 22-0) and threw a 72-yard touchdown on his first pass of the game. Walter went on to throw for 414 yards against Stanford and 474 last week against North Carolina. He has a couple of good receivers to throw to in Shaun McDonald (possibly the Pac-10's best receiver) and Daryl Lightfoot (what a name for a receiver – I'm sure the TV commentators have too much fun with that one….every week).
The Sun Devils are 4-2 on the year and are one of the most difficult teams to get a handle on. They could easily beat any Pac-10 team any given week, yet they could also get blown out. Their defense has been weak at times. They blitz frequently and take chances. That could have led to giving up the game-winning 74-yard touchdown pass with two and a half minutes left in the game last week to North Carolina.
Their offensive line was a question mark coming into the year after placing four lineman in the NFL from last year's team. They have shown steady improvement in every game, and the Sun Devils are using their passing game to run the ball effectively, taking advantage of the draw. Draws have proven to be very effective against the Beavers team speed, so expect to see a fair share of those this weekend.
1) Washington State
6) Arizona State
8) Oregon State
This Week's Focus
Season Prediction Record: 33-10
Last Week: 4-2
I'm a little behind my pace from last year. I was 35-10 after the first seven weeks. I've got to pick it up a little bit. So it starts with the game of the week this week, Oregon at UCLA.
Oregon once again has the help of its opponent being without a few starters because of injuries. The Bruins will be down three starters, running back Manuel White, safety Ben Emanuel, and defensive tackle Rodney Leisle will all be out. Defensive end Dave Ball will also sit out the first half due to a suspension after a cheap shot on Derek Anderson last week led to his ejection. I don't like to see big guys like Ball do bad things to Beaver quarterbacks, but it sure lit a fire under Anderson. It was the most intensity I'd seen out of him all year.
The Ducks tacked up another win last week, giving them the longest overall winning streak, the longest conference winning streak, the longest home winning streak, and the longest road winning streak in the conference. They haven't faced a challenge yet this year, but they will get an eye-opener Saturday. The Bruins are vulnerable defensively. It showed last week in the fourth quarter. But they have some great players who can make you pay on defense. Ricky Manning is the hardest hitting cornerback in the Pac-10 and he returned an interception for a touchdown against the Beavers last week. Matt Ware is a great corner as well. Without Emanuel, the Bruins will probably go with junior Kevin Brant. The Bruins will have two solid backs, although none as good as Onterrio Smith.
The Ducks will give up some yards through the air. Bobby Wade was still able to get separation on almost every play, even though Johnson was only throwing his way. You'd think Nick Aliotti would catch on. But Wade went on to catch 12 catches for 151 yards. With Tab Perry, Craig Bragg, and Mike Seidman making plays like they did in Corvallis, it will be difficult for the Ducks to stop the passing game. Cory Paus was hurt in the Oregon State game, although it didn't look like it by his performance, and will not practice much this week. But he'll be ready to go by game time. His performance will be key.
It should be a high-scoring affair going back and forth until the end. As nervous as I am about picking Bob Toledo two weeks in a row, I think the Bruins will knock off the Ducks at home, taking away the last undefeated team in the conference.
UCLA 38, Oregon 34.
Washington 34, Arizona 17. The Huskies have been through a tough week of questions after getting knocked off by Cal at home. Arizona has been riddled with injuries. Arizona has the ability to make this a close game, but the Huskies will work extra hard this week in practice after the loss to the Bears.
Washington State 44, Stanford 13. Stanford took the early lead on Notre Dame, but the Irish rallied back to win big, 34-7 last week. The Cougars are coming off a big win against USC and could get ambushed in Palo Alto if they don't come ready to play. But they should stay focused long enough to win on the road.
USC 35, Cal 20. Believe it or not, Cal has won its last three trips to the Coliseum. The Trojans are coming off a momentum killer against Washington State. But they know they are still alive in the race for the Rose Bowl. It starts with beating Cal. The Bears have impressed me all year, but I think USC will prove to be the tougher team in this contest.
Oregon State 42, Arizona State 34. The Beavers will get their offense back on track against the Sun Devils who will give up lots of yards defensively. But offensively, Andrew Walter gives this team something they haven't had since Ryan Kealy was healthy, a quarterback who can sling it. Expect Shaun McDonald to have a big game, especially if the Beavers don't double cover him. UCLA and USC were able to take advantage of single coverage. The Devils will do the same if adjustments aren't made.
The Sun Devils share the carries mostly between Cornell Canidate and Mike Williams. The Beavers must do a better job against them than they did against Delvon Flowers last year. Oregon State needs to run the ball more often and more effectively in order to be successful. Steven Jackson didn't get enough carries to make an impact in the UCLA game. Jackson can change the way a game is played if he allowed to be a factor. I expect things to open up for him.
This game could go down to the fourth quarter. Both teams have the ability to put points up quickly. I think the Beavers will snap out of their funk offensively and get in the endzone.
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