Ahhh, the Pac-10
The Pac-10 race has gotten just a little bit clearer, or has it? With the Ducks defenseless and USC already losing their chance, Washington State looks to be the odds-on favorite to win the conference. The Cougars are still undefeated in conference play. Arizona State is as well, but the Devils just don't have the schedule in their favor, still needing to play Washington, at Washington State, Cal, and at USC. This being the Pac-10, the Sun Devils could lose the rest of their games. The winner of the USC-Oregon will make lots of noise down the stretch, but will still need a WSU loss. Of course, Oregon could be the one to make that happen. But with that game at Washington State, look for UCLA providing the best chance of an upset. The Cougars have everything in their favor right now, with senior leadership at quarterback and a favorable schedule down the stretch.
A few weeks ago, I pointed out that Arizona State was facing a difficult stretch in their schedule in which they were having to go against the four northwest schools. When I said I thought the Sun Devils had a great shot of upsetting one of the northwest schools, I never imagined they could "upset" them all. But after beating Oregon and Oregon State, ASU has a great shot of beating Washington this weekend. Things will get tougher November 2nd, as they must travel to Pullman for a showdown with the Cougars. I don't think they'll win that one, but Dirk Koetter and his coaching staff deserve recognition for the way the offensive line has been rebuilt so quickly after losing four of last year's lineman to the NFL. They were able to give Andrew Walter plenty of time to throw. It was surely the key to their victory. Well, that and the inability of the Oregon coaching staff to make an adjustment defensively in a timely manner. It took three long bombs, with a true freshman cornerback getting burned, before they left a safety back in coverage to help. Single coverage on a First Team All-Pac-10 receiver is not going to cut it.
Arizona State's success has come because of all the young talent that has developed so quickly. There is only one senior starter on the offense, tight end Mike Pinkard. And on the defense, there are four sophomores, four juniors, and just three senior starters. I had a good feeling about ASU coming into the year, mostly because of Dirk Koetter's abilities as a coach, but I couldn't rationalize picking them to do well because of all their key losses last year. In other words, they lost their best players off a team that wasn't very good last year. In the ultra-competitive Pac-10 it is very difficult to win with inexperienced players. Why would they be any better this year?
But since Andrew Walter took over the starting quarterback position, the Sun Devils have rallied from 22-0 and 21-0 deficits for victories. This is a team that is quickly gaining confidence and experience. They will be scary in the years to come.
I mentioned briefly last week the chaos that has hit Seattle. The Huskies came into the season with high hopes of contending for a Pac-10 title. But things have come crashing to the ground. After last year, when it seemed like Washington pulled out every close game, the expectations were large. The defense was expected to improve, after all, how could it get worse? I think those wearing purple may have learned their lesson. Asking "How could it get any worse?" is only asking for the questioned to be answered. Against Cal, there was more than one person that remarked, "Oh. This is how it could get worse." It seems every week there is a new example. Stanford, with a completely new defense this year held Arizona to six points. This is the same Arizona team that put four touchdowns up on the scoreboard at Husky stadium (and almost got the win). Alumni are calling for more intense practices, saying the team has gotten too soft.
The Husky defense has been made even more vulnerable with the news that cornerback Roc Alexander is likely out for the season. He didn't play against USC and had surgery on his shoulder.
The Huskies can't run the ball either. They are averaging just over 85 yards per game on the ground. Even more damning is that tailback Braxton Clemen caught 15 passes against USC, yet only ran 8 times for 12 yards. He had more receptions than rushing yards. As long as Cody Pickett returns to school next year as expected, the Huskies will still be a very talented team with a chance to put something special together.
Rick Neuheisel is finally coming under serious fire. I wonder if Athletics Director Barbara Hedges is regretting signing him to a huge extension before the season. Maybe if UCLA comes calling at the end of the year, UW wouldn't put up such a fight. Although, I'm not sure he'll get a contract like he has at Washington. The Huksies will have to focus hard this week if they want to go in and beat Arizona State on the road this weekend. That's never easy to do with all the grumbling around town.
The Cal Bears come into Corvallis this weekend riding a great home win over UCLA. Cal plays good defense, doesn't try to do too much on offense, and makes big plays. They have been a surprise team in the conference thus far, but have lost three straight to the Beavers.
On offense, it all obviously starts with Kyle Boller. He leads the Pac-10 in touchdown passes with 19, while throwing just 5 interceptions. He has improved his mechanics, and more importantly his confidence, under new Head Coach Jeff Tedford. Tedford is very creative offensively and is almost sure to spring something different on the Beavers this weekend. Against Michigan State, Boller ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown pass, and threw for a touchdown. Boller will spread the ball around to his receivers who are led by junior college transfer Jonathon Makonnen. Geoff McArthur and LaShaun Ward will also see passes thrown their way. The bottom line is that the Bears are very efficient. They don't turn the ball over and they score in the red zone (they lead the Pac-10 in red zone offense).
Defensively, it starts with a guy up front, Tully Banta-Cain, and a guy in the defensive backfield, Jemeel Powell. Banta-Cain has been a terror on quarterbacks, with eight sacks on the year. In fact, the whole Cal defensive line does a great job of putting pressure on the quarterback without blitzing too much. UCLA struggled mightily against this pressure. When the pressure comes, that's when Powell makes his move. He has five interceptions on the year, to go along with his six pass breakups. Cal has always had a good defense, and this year is no different. The Bears lead the Pac-10 in turnover ration. The Beavers are third.
Special teams are also an area in which Call succeeds. Powell is an outstanding punt returner. He gave his team a huge spark on their way to a road win against Michigan State with a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown.
This Week's Power Poll
1) Washington State
3) Arizona State
8) Oregon State
Washington State is in the driver's seat. Stanford gets a reprieve from the bottom after a big win over Arizona at home. An Oregon State victory could shake up the standings.
Midway All-Pac-10 Team
Offensive Player: Jason Gesser, Washington State
Defensive Player: Terrell Suggs, Arizona State
Coach of the Year: Jeff Tedford, Cal
QB Jason Gesser, Washington State
RB Onterrio Smith, Oregon
RB Steven Jackson, Oregon State
WR Reggie Williams, Washington
WR Bobby Wade, Arizona
TE Mike Seidman, UCLA
OL Derrick Roche, Washington State
OL Kwame Harris, Stanford
OL Makeo Freitas, Arizona
K Jared Siegel, Oregon
DT Eric Manning, Oregon State
DT Rodney Leisle, UCLA
DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State
DE Tully Banta-Cain, Cal
There were some tough decisions. The two most difficult, without a doubt, were leaving off Dennis Weathersby and all the quality receivers, most notably, Shaun McDonald. Weathersby has been great this year, but I don't believe he is playing at the level of Manning and Trufant. Weathersby has had his lapses this year, most notably against USC's outstanding receivers, but he is still the best professional prospect of the three. The hits that Manning has delivered this year, as well as his interception returned for a touchdown against the Beavers, is what gives him the edge.
This Week's Focus
USC travels (without Traveler) to Eugene this weekend to take on the Ducks. The Trojans have played great football this year, having lost to two good teams on the road. They have been impressive at home (4-2) and decent on the road (1-2 against three ranked opponents). They come to Autzen with a bit of a chip on their shoulder having blown the game last year.
For USC, true freshman Mike Williams has provided a huge spark the past few weeks. Keary Colbert is an extremely talented player who is their top receiver, but Williams has been on fire. He caught nine passes for 159 yards and three TDs against Washington for his third consecutive 100-yard game. At 6'5" and about 210 pounds, he has a significant size advantage over anyone the Ducks will try to use to cover him. That is unless they put George Wrightster on him.
The Ducks got a wake-up call last week against Arizona State and will not be caught off guard this week. They will need to make adjustments to keep Carson Palmer from passing all over. Keith Lewis needs to have a big game in both run and pass coverage. Sultan McCullough will not repeat his performances from the past two weeks, but will also be a factor.
Look for a contest that will go down to the wire. The key for the Trojans, as it is every week, is to get an early lead. An early lead could be insurmountable by the Ducks. They need to be able to run the ball. I think the Ducks will keep this one close, but look for USC to pull one out for the second straight shocker in Autzen.
USC 34, Oregon 30.
UCLA 23, Stanford 13. Stanford probably just picked up the only conference win they'll get on the year. Even with UCLA's top two QBs likely not playing, the Bruins will probably be too tough. I've never seen anyone in as much visible pain on the football field as Cory Paus was after breaking his ankle. But the Bears didn't stop there, injuring true freshman Drew Olson, leading Bob Toledo to bring in redshirt freshman John Sciarra. It will either be Sciarra or another true freshman, Matt Moore that will get the start. UCLA needs a big defensive performance.
Washington State 55, Arizona 7. The Cougars are coming off a bye week that hopefully gave them a chance to get healthy. They have been hurt by injuries to their offensive line. But even with the problems WSU has had, it's not close to the headache John Mackovic is going through with so many of his stars hurt. Clarence Farmer is out for the season, for one. Jason Gesser should have a big game against the depleted Wildcat defense. Cougs win big.
Arizona State 86, Washington 28. Okay, so the Sun Devils won't score 86 points. This one will probably be a close one. The Huskies seem to creep by the Sun Devils every year. But with all their problems, this is an awful time to face Arizona State. I expect to see a little bit of a letdown early in the game after a big road win over Oregon, but after rallying from 21-0, Arizona State knows they can come back at any time.
Oregon State 20, Cal 16. For all the struggles of late, the Beavers have still won 19 of their last 22 games at Reser Stadium. All three of those games were home conference openers. After having two weeks to prepare for the Bears, the Beaver offense is optimistic that it will show some sign of life. The offense is surely long overdue for a touchdown. Look for the Beavers to come out and play well and gain some momentum for the rest of the year.
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