Pac-10 Preview: Week 4
The big challenge for the Arizona players this week is to keep their heads out of the clouds.
The Wildcats, by virtue of their thrilling 34-27 win over No. 9 Iowa last week, are one of the nation's most buzz-worthy teams. They have climbed to No. 14 in the AP poll, their best ranking since the 1999 preseason poll.
Now, the real work begins.
Arizona went 3-0 through its non-conference schedule and catches a break with its first two Pac-10 games at home. The Wildcats have to take advantage to keep the momentum going, starting Saturday against Cal.
"It's exciting," receiver David Douglas said of being ranked 14th.
"That's something that's really cool, and that is something you shoot for -- to rise up in the rankings. But it's also something you have to take for what it is and just move on and not put too much attention on it.
"You want to go higher and higher every week, and I think our team is mature enough now to look at that and say, 'Hey, we're 14th, but we want to be better.'"
It's not just that Arizona is 3-0 -- two of those victories were mostly gimmes against Toledo and The Citadel -- it's how the Cats have been doing it.
Quarterback Nick Foles has been superb, completing 77 of 98 passes, looking every bit like one of the best in the nation. Meanwhile, the all-new starting linebacker crew, a question mark in camp as late as the final scrimmage -- has been fast and physical.
"I think those guys have played exceptionally well," coach Mike Stoops said.
Not since the 1999 preseason has there been this much hope of the program's first Rose Bowl appearance.
"When we say 'Rose Bowl,'" receiver Dave Roberts said, "we really mean it."
--QB Nick Foles earned the second Pac-10 offensive player of the week award in his career for his performance against Iowa. He completed 28 of 39 passes for 303 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Foles also led the Wildcats on a 72-yard game-winning drive against Iowa. WR Travis Cobb picked up Pac-10 special teams player of the week honors with his 100-yard kickoff return.
--Following its 34-27 win over Iowa, Arizona was selected as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl national team of the week, as presented by the Football Writers Association of America. The Arizona-Iowa game was the only game last week that matched ranked teams.
--Cal has won five of the past six games at Arizona.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads Arizona 14-13-2 (last meeting, 2009, 24-16 Cal).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Coaches still hope to squeeze more from the running game, especially in power sets, but Arizona actually won the battle up front against Iowa last week, which is no small feat. The Wildcats have plenty of balance, and QB Nick Foles has a big and accurate arm, although he can't challenge the Cal defense the way Nevada's Colin Kaepernick did last week with his legs. The Bears defense looked slow and out of sorts last week while losing 52-31 at Nevada, but Arizona coach Mike Stoops chalked that up to the tricky Pistol offense and the quarterback run game. It could be a different story this week for Cal against Arizona's pocket-based spread offense.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: This unit has been a pleasant surprise, and the Wildcats didn't given an inch last week against Iowa's powerful run game. This week, they will have to try to slow Cal's Shane Vereen, who rushed 30 times for 159 yards against Arizona last season, including a 61-yard TD romp with 1:21 left. The Wildcats have handled a spread team (Toledo), a triple-option team (The Citadel) and a balanced north-south team (Iowa). Through it all, they are third nationally in total defense (220.3 yards per game) and seventh in scoring defense (11.7 points per game).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Beating Iowa wasn't going to define us one way or another. The accumulation of the whole 12 games will define who you are. It certainly was a character-building experience, but that is all it was." -- Arizona coach Mike Stoops.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cal at Arizona, Sept. 25 -- This has often been a crazy series, but Arizona hopes it goes to form this season, considering it is favored by about a touchdown. Everything appears to be falling right for the Wildcats, but a stumble here in the Pac-10 opener would be devastating as hopes are skyrocketing.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Pressure Cal QB Kevin Riley. The senior has been prone to the big mistake over the course of his career, more so when the heat is on. Arizona turned up the pressure big-time late in the Iowa game, coming up with three consecutive sacks of quarterback Ricky Stanzi to crush the Hawkeyes' chances on their final drive. Arizona is tied for sixth nationally with 3.67 sacks per game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Nick Foles -- Arizona was driving for a go-ahead field goal in the final two minutes against Cal last season, facing third-and-3 at the Bears 25, when Foles caught his own deflected pass ... and then made a critical error. He attempted another forward pass (which is illegal), and the ensuing penalty knocked the Wildcats out of field goal range. Cal then scored another touchdown. "You have to move forward, and you have to grow and learn from it," Foles said. "And that's what I did."
DT Justin Washington -- The redshirt freshman has been a revelation and is the kind of active inside pass rusher that Wildcats weren't sure they had. Washington has four sacks to lead the Pac-10 and is a nice complement to the outside rush from ends Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore.
WR David Douglas -- With receiver Juron Criner possibly out because of a turf toe injury, Douglas becomes the go-to guy in the passing game. He often finds the holes in the short zone, but isn't the deep threat that Criner gives the offense. Douglas has a team-high 16 catches for 140 yards.
--WR Juron Criner (turf toe) missed the second half of the Iowa game and was considered day-to-day, coach Mike Stoops said Monday. Criner has 14 catches for 284 yards.
--FB Taimi Tutogi (sprained left knee) is out for this week's game. Senior C.J. Parish, who has made quick development since being moved from linebacker late in camp, will fill Tutogi's role as a lead blocker against Cal.
--Backup DT Willie Mobley (knee) missed the Iowa game but has a chance to play this week.
Arizona State is playing host to No. 5 Oregon in its Pac-10 opener, but coach Dennis Erickson figures that the ranking might be in error.
"To me, (they) may be the best football team in the country," Erickson said.
The Ducks are playing like it, ranking first nationally in scoring offense and scoring defense. Two of their opponents have been totally overmatched (New Mexico and Portland State), but Oregon also outclassed Tennessee in Knoxville, never an easy task, even if the Vols are down this season.
Arizona State has reason to be confident, despite coming off its first loss of the season. The first two games produced easy victories over lower-division foes Portland State and Northern Arizona, opponents that didn't truly reveal anything about the Sun Devils.
But a 20-19 loss to Wisconsin -- in which a blocked extra point late in the game was the last of several missed opportunities for ASU -- actually made others take notice of what the Sun Devils are capable of.
"Yeah, I would say we are," Erickson said, asked if the team is more confident from the loss. "We had a chance to win a game against what we thought was a pretty good football team."
Here comes a team that could be more than just pretty good. For sure, the challenge is different. Wisconsin was classic Big Ten -- powerful and plodding. Oregon is all speed and explosion.
"These guys are special, and they have been for three years," Erickson said. "They have such talent carrying the football. Talk about big plays. They get a number of big plays every week, which is unbelievable."
--The Arizona Republic asked coach Dennis Erickson, who is 63, about his health, especially in light of the apparent heart attack suffered last weekend by Michigan State's Mark Dantonio. "I don't ever worry about that. I feel great," Erickson replied. He paused before adding: "Now that you mention it, I'll probably go down and get on the treadmill for an hour."
--Arizona State was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10 in most preseason rankings, including the conference's media poll. But coaches say there isn't much different among most of the teams. "Anybody can beat anybody in my opinion," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "Everybody is fairly even. ... That is how it is going to be all year -- lose one and come back and win."
--ASU forced an average of 3.75 three-and-outs per games last season. The Sun Devils are on a similar pace this season -- 3.67 -- although the competition is about to get much tougher.
SERIES HISTORY: Arizona State leads Oregon 16-14 (last meeting, 2009, 44-21 Oregon).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: QB Steven Threet looks to have command of ASU's new spread offense, so that is one thing that has gone as hoped for the Sun Devils early in the season. After a long quarterback battle between Threet and Brock Osweiler, they don't have to worry about getting production from the position. At running back Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis and Jamal Miles give ASU more explosion from the backfield than in recent years. ASU will need all it can get to make plays against an Oregon defense that might be even faster than the one the Sun Devils have.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Most of the key players are back from last season, when ASU led the Pac-10 in total defense. But the Devils did give up 44 points and 268 rushing yards in a loss at Oregon. The Ducks appear every bit as dangerous this season, with rocket-fueled running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner just needing a little crease to burst into open space and run away from everyone. With DT Lawrence Guy in the middle and Vontaze Burfict at middle linebacker, the Sun Devils will offer plenty of resistance.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Offensively, it's hard to gain that many yards. I don't care who you're playing. They're just explosive." -- ASU coach Dennis Erickson on Oregon, which is averaging 611.7 yards per game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Oregon at Arizona State, Sept. 25 -- It's a tough start to Pac-10 play for the Sun Devils, who open with the league favorite and No. 5 team in the nation. After this game, ASU plays its next three on the road -- at Oregon State, Washington and Cal. The Devils' critical stretch of the season starts right now.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Contain Oregon's running game. Sure. Easy stuff, right? The Ducks' read-option offense, just about schemed to perfection by coach Chip Kelly, is tricky enough as it is, but then the Ducks throw in breakaway running backs and a young quarterback who is making sound decisions. Arizona State counters with plenty of speed of its own on defense and will be in much better shape if it can swarm to the ball and prevent Oregon's LaMichael James (150 yards vs. ASU last season) and Kenjon Barner from more than a couple long plays. "If you make any mistakes, they will take it to the house," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
LB Vontaze Burfict -- His sideline-to-sideline speed will be critical in cutting off the lanes for the Oregon running backs. He played one of his best games last week and didn't commit any personal fouls penalties (often a problem). He has a team-high 23 tackles.
QB Steven Threet -- The ASU offense isn't a juggernaut but he has led the Sun Devils with a steady hand and eased concerns about the position. He has the arm to go deep and open up the field, which helps the running game. He has completed 68 of 103 passes for 841 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
RB Deantre Lewis -- The true freshman adds a speed element to the ASU backfield, having rushed for 151 yards on 18 carries. He nearly had a 90-yard touchdown run against Wisconsin last week, but tripped on the turf with one man to beat after a 38-yard gain.
--Junior college transfer WR George Bell has battled a turf toe injury for a month, coach Dennis Erickson said.
--Second-string DT Corey Adams (torn meniscus in left knee) missed the first two games but played last week at Wisconsin, although he was not credited with a tackle.
--Second-string DT Toa Tuitea (elbow) missed the first two games but played at Wisconsin, although he was not credited with a tackle.
--Starting LB Brandon Magee left the field in the second quarter with the help of crutches during the Wisconsin game, but he returned to the game in the third quarter. He should be fine for this week.
Cal heads into its Pac-10 opener at Arizona on Sept. 25 with a number of concerns.
One, of course, is the quality of the opponent, which is undefeated after knocking off Iowa, then ranked No. 9, at the same venue where Cal will play its conference opener.
The second issue is the resiliency of the team. Cal has buckled in past years after suffering a disappointment. One week after getting swamped by Oregon for its first loss last season, the Bears played one of their worst games in a 30-3 home loss to USC. It took Cal several weeks to right itself.
In 2007, Cal was ranked No. 2 when it was 5-0, but a close loss to Oregon State sent the Bears spiraling to six losses in their final seven regular-season games.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford is trying to present a more relaxed front this season, hoping that wears off on his players, who seemed to tense up when things got dicey or adversity hit in the past. However, Tedford was rocked by the loss to Nevada, too, and he's finding it's difficult to stay relaxed.
A more measurable component is whether Cal can handle Arizona's pass rush. The Bears yielded their first two sacks of the season against Nevada, and Arizona sacked Iowa's Ricky Stanzi six times, including several times at the end of the game when it mattered most. Arizona has 11 sacks and 23 tackles for losses for the season.
Cal quarterback Kevin Riley is not nearly as effective when being harried. That's true of any quarterback, but seems to be particularly true of Riley, whose play against Nevada presents another concern for Tedford. Riley threw his first three interceptions of the season against Nevada, and he must somehow maintain his confidence despite hints to the contrary. Riley has a history of making the critical mistake at the most pivotal moment, and that was the case against Nevada.
Another concern is Arizona quarterback Nick Foles. The Wildcats have a running threat, but it is Foles' passing and big-play potential that must worry the Bears and their secondary. Nevada's Colin Kaepernick completed 10 of 15 passes and was not sacked against Cal, and Foles had a big game against Iowa's strong defense.
But Foles does not present the running threat that Kaepernick did, and the Bears handled Foles pretty well last season when they recorded a 24-16 win in Berkeley. Cal sacked Foles three times and intercepted him once. If Cal can apply similar pressure on Foles, it has a chance, and the style of first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is supposed to facilitate that kind of pressure on the passer.
The final issue is Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed. He missed the Nevada game with a toe injury, and although he certainly could not have solved all of Cal's defensive problems with his presence, he would have helped some. Tedford had said in the days leading to the Nevada game that he thought Mohamed would play, but Mohamed didn't. Again Tedford expects Mohamed to play in the Pac-10 opener, but it seems less certain this time.
--Cal has had much better success against pocket passers than dual-threat quarterbacks in recent years. Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, Washington's Jake Locker and Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli all offered running and passing threats, and all three had big games in lopsided wins over the Bears. Arizona QB Nick Foles is a pocket passer, though, and Cal has done a bit better against those types. They kept Foles under control last season, and did a decent job against Stanford QB Andrew Luck as well.
--Cal is no longer ranked, which should be a blessing. The Bears seem to play better when they are not ranked. They have lost 11 of their past 14 games when they've been ranked, but they are 17-2 in the last 19 games in which they were not ranked.
--Arizona is up to No. 14 in the rankings heading into the Cal game, and the Wildcats have won 14 of their last 17 road games, with all three losses coming against ranked teams.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads Arizona 14-13-2 (last meeting 2009, 24-16 Cal).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal has scored plenty of points in its three games, and the Bears' running game came alive against Nevada when TB Shane Vereen rushed for a career-high 198 yards. Vereen was particularly impressive with his open-field maneuvering. Cal would like to get more out of backup TB Isi Sofele, who has big-play potential, and QB Kevin Riley started to make the critical mistakes against Nevada that haunted him last season. Freshman WR Keenan Allen was a non-factor against Nevada after his spectacular debut, although an ankle problem may have been the culprit. The other wide receiver, Marvin Jones, was outstanding with 12 catches for 161 yards. He is the go-to guy for Riley. At times, he will go against Arizona's standout cornerback, Trevin Wade, who plays only on the right side.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense after the first two games against mediocre opposition, Cal was overrun by Nevada's option attack. The Bears have had trouble with option football in recent years, and Nevada was the biggest example. Cal's pass defense yielded a lot of yardage, too, but it was Nevada's threat with the option that made that possible. Arizona does not run the option, however, and Wildcats' QB Nick Foles is a more tradition pocket passer, which changes the task considerably. Cal has had better success against passers who stay in the pocket and don't run the option.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Arizona puts a lot (of responsibility) on their secondary. They load up the box to stop the run, and they do stop the run. We're definitely going to have to throw the ball on them to win." -- Cal QB Kevin Riley.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cal at Arizona, Sept. 25 -- Cal (2-1) has done well against Arizona (3-0) at home, winning its last four meetings in Berkeley, but it's been a different story in Tucson. Cal has won only one of its six games in Tucson since 1991. Coach Jeff Tedford's only road win against Arizona came in 2004, when the Bears finished the regular season ranked No. 4. Cal even lost at Arizona in 2006, when the Bears tied for the Pac-10 championship. Arizona is coming off a 24-17 victory over Iowa that sprung the Wildcats to a No. 14 Associated Press ranking, while Cal is coming off a 52-31 loss to Nevada that took it out of the rankings. It will be hot in Tucson, but the game will be played at night.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Focus and the pass rush are the two key issues. The Wildcats may have a letdown after their big win over Iowa, which gives Cal a chance for an upset if the Bears can rebound psychologically from the bashing they took from Nevada. It may materialize in the form of a pass rush. Arizona has a strong pass rush and had six sacks against Iowa. If it can apply similar pressure on Cal QB Kevin Riley he is apt to make mistakes. Cal needs to hurry Arizona QB Nick Foles, who is difficult to sack because he gets rid of the ball so quickly. However, Cal sacked him three times last season, and that was a major reason the Bears won.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Kevin Riley -- He must do two things: wipe away the memory of the Nevada game, in which he made several key mistakes, and handle the Arizona pass rush. If he can avoid sacks and mistakes in the face of the Wildcats' pressure, the Bears have a shot. But that is something Riley has been unable to do in the past.
LB Mike Mohamed -- He had 14 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown against Colorado, but he did not play against Nevada, and it showed. Cal hopes he can play and be at close to full speed against Arizona despite a toe injury that sidelined him against Nevada.
TB Shane Vereen -- He had the best game of his career against Nevada, rushing for 198 yards and producing several spectacular runs. It will be more difficult to do that against Arizona's defense, but if he can gain enough yards to keep the pressure off Kevin Riley, he'll will have done his job.
--Backup CB Steve Williams had surgery on his thumb on Sept. 14, but played some against Nevada with a padded cast on his hand. He is expected to play against Arizona, although it's difficult to say how much.
--LB Mike Mohamed (toe) is expected to play against Arizona after missing the Nevada game. However, he was expected to play against the Wolf Pack too.
--WR Marvin Jones leads the Pac-10 in receptions with 21, which is six more than the No. 2 receiver in the conference.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas has passed all the tests so far, and here comes another one.
Thomas played well at Tennessee in his first career road start a couple of weeks ago and now he gets his first start against a Pac-10 opponent. This, too, is on the road, against Arizona State, which despite its struggles in the past couple of years has one of the league's saltiest defenses.
Thomas doesn't need to throw for a lot of yards in Oregon's system, but he does need to make good decisions and not derail the offense with turnovers.
How has he done?
"So far, I think Darron has been tremendous," coach Chip Kelly said.
"I thought he handled himself really, really well in one of the toughest places to play in college football (in front of more than 100,000 at Tennessee), and he was really poised and did a great job of leading our operation.
"He has done everything we asked him to do. He is being really smart with the ball. He has thrown one bad interception, and he wishes he had it back and we wish he had it back."
Thomas, in leading the highest-scoring offense in the nation at 63 points per game, has completed 39 of 73 passes for 562 yards, with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
There was really only one question about the Ducks this season -- would they get needed production and leadership at quarterback after the suspension and transfer of Jeremiah Masoli?
Masoli is a senior, so that's a comparison Kelly can't make, but he did say this about Thomas:
"He's ahead of where Jeremiah was after three games, I'll tell you that. Darron is way ahead of where Jeremiah was after three games. Does that mean he'll be ahead of Jeremiah down the road? I don't know."
--Oregon has been pumping in heat to the Moshofksy Center for practice to get the team ready for Saturday's game at Arizona State. It's a 7:35 p.m. start, and with cooling fans on the sideline, heat probably won't be a major problem even if the temperature is in the 90s at kickoff. Still, coach Chip Kelly is taking no chances. He did something similar before the team played in the humidity at Tennessee earlier this month.
"It helped us when we went to Tennessee," Kelly was quoted in the Oregonian. "I think we were acclimated when we got to Tennessee. Our kids remarked when they got there that it wasn't as hot as what we had practiced in. We're just trying to simulate the situation we're going to."
--Oregon leads the Pac-10 in 16 of 31 statistical team categories tracked by the conference.
--Oregon's 668 yards of offense last week was the third most in school history. The top mark happened just two weeks earlier, when the Ducks had 720 yards vs. New Mexico.
SERIES HISTORY: Arizona State leads Oregon 16-14 (last meeting, 2009, 44-21 Oregon).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: There doesn't appear to be anything the Ducks can't do, although this will be their toughest test to date. Oregon struggled a bit at Tennessee, but then blitzed the Vols for 45 consecutive points. The ground game has been unstoppable so far, with the Ducks averaging 380.7 yards per game. Although the Ducks will see plenty of speed from ASU's defense, they had the upper hand in last year's meeting, rushing for 268 yards and rolling to 44 points.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The supposed weakness of Oregon is its lack of size on defense, but the Ducks are allowing only 93.7 yards on the ground this season, although the competition hasn't been great. ASU runs a spread offense, so Oregon doesn't have to prepare for much power. The Ducks, by virtue of their blowout victories, have used deep rotations on the line and in the secondary -- and that should continue, helping make the Ducks the fresher, faster team at the end of games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People overlook their defense. Their defense is extremely good and they get the football back all the time. That is huge, too." -- ASU coach Dennis Erickson, on Oregon's defense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Oregon at Arizona State, Sept. 25 -- All the good work the Ducks have done to his point will be for naught if they stumble in their Pac-10 opener. Oregon hasn't had much trouble in recent years against the Sun Devils, winning five in a row and scoring 42.6 points per game in that stretch. The Ducks have won nine of the past 12 games against ASU.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Hound QB Steven Threet. Arizona State appears more capable on offense this season with its new spread, and Threet has stabilized the position in his first season as starter. But the Sun Devils haven't seen anything close to this kind of defensive speed, and the Ducks might be able to speed up Threet and force him into mistakes. Oregon has forced 11 turnovers in three games.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB LaMichael James -- The sophomore is coming off a 227-yard game against Portland State, and he rushed for 150 against ASU last season. He missed the opener because of a suspension, but figures to continue to run up the Heisman charts as the Oregon offense rolls on. Coach Chip Kelly calls him a tough inside runner, but his calling card is speed. "If you give him a crack, he can make you pay," Kelly said.
WR Jeff Maehl -- The senior is the team's go-to receiver and is eight catches away from cracking Oregon's top 10 for career receptions. He would already be on that list except he spent the first 10 games of his Oregon career as a safety. Against ASU, he will be facing a big, physical secondary ... and he'll have to watch out for LB Vontaze Burfict on anything over the middle.
S Eddie Pleasant -- Pleasant has made a successful move to the secondary from linebacker, making 14 tackles in three games, tied for the team lead. At some point against ASU, he could end up on WR Aaron Pflugrad, a former teammate at Oregon.
--TE Brandon Williams (hand, arm) missed last Saturday's game and wasn't in full pads early this week.
--RB Kenjon Barner left the game against Portland State with what he called a slightly strained groin. His status wasn't known earlier in the week.
--TE David Paulson (muscle strain) missed most of Saturday's game. The school reported that the injury did not appear to be serious, and Paulson was able to practice some early in the week.
--OT Darrion Weems (muscle strain) left the Portland State game. Coach Chip Kelly is always tight-lipped about injuries, but Weems' injury did not appear to be serious.
It's another trip to play another team among the nation's best when Oregon State plays at Boise State on Saturday.
"Sometimes even I wonder about our non-league scheduling," mused OSU coach Mike Riley.
Except Riley does have "veto power" over the choice of opponents, OSU director of athletics Bob De Carolis said.
So why do it? Riley sees it as good preparation for the Pac-10 schedule, and the opportunity to draw national attention to his program. Sometimes that hasn't been good, as in the loss at Penn State two years ago, but sometimes even a defeat has earned plaudits for the Beavers, as it did with a 2004 loss at LSU and this season's defeat to TCU at Cowboys Stadium.
The Beavers will be making their third trip to Bronco Stadium, where they've lost each previous meeting. But they then won rematches the following year against the Broncos in Corvallis.
Boise State will repay this game with a trip to OSU's Reser Stadium in 2012, when OSU's other non-conference opponents are scheduled to be BYU on the road and Wisconsin in Corvallis.
"We like the challenge," De Carolis said of the aggressive scheduling. "We're not afraid to play anybody."
--In preparation for playing on the blue artificial turf of Bronco Stadium, OSU had one of its grass practice fields painted a similar blue. The problem is the Beavers also want to simulate extra noise, so they had to split practice times between Reser Stadium, with piped in noise, and the blue field, out in the open.
--It's a rare game for the Beavers, playing a nonconference opponent ranked as high as Boise State at No. 3. The last time OSU defeated a top three opponent in a non-conference game was a 22-14 victory at Purdue in 1967. Since then, the Beavers have played four non-conference foes ranked third or higher, and beaten none of them.
--The one offensive statistic that stands out as a positive for OSU is red zone production. In five trips this season inside of an opponent's 20-yard line, the Beavers have produced five touchdowns. The Beavers led the nation last season by scoring on their red zone possessions 96 percent of the time, but only 73 percent of the time did they score a touchdown.
SERIES HISTORY: Oregon State leads Boise State 4-2 (last meeting, 2005, 30-27 Oregon State).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Quizz Rodgers finally had his 100-yard rushing game against Louisville, but will he find many openings against Boise State? The Broncos have held two opponents to a net of 107 rushing yards, which is 53.5 yards on average and an average of 1.5 yards per running play. The Beavers obviously need a better performance than that, but to achieve that balance it will take a better passing game than they've shown in the first two games.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Beavers have struggled against a pair of mobile quarterbacks in their opener, and have only two quarterback sacks. Boise State's Kellen Moore isn't a quarterback who runs often, but he's nifty at avoiding pressure in the pocket and picks apart secondaries if given ample time to throw. Unless the OSU front four steps up its play, it's likely to be a long day for the secondary.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Both teams deserve it. What we're trying to prevent this week is them playing each other in the national championship game." -- OSU coach Mike Riley, on the rankings of TCU and Boise State, the team the Beavers opened the season against and this week's opponent.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Oregon State at Boise State, Sept. 25 -- The Beavers (1-1) are the visitors for a big weekend in Boise, with the Broncos (2-0) playing their home opener for a national telecast by ABC, the first time the network has shown a Boise State game. The ESPN GameDay show is also on hand, adding to the spectacle. The Beavers thought they were in the spotlight for their opener against TCU at Cowboys Stadium but it can't compare to this.
KEYS TO THE GAME: OSU will need to not only combat a very good football team, but blunt the heavy dose of emotion that will be present. In two previous trips to Broncos Stadium, OSU teams took early leads but once the momentum turned, the Beavers couldn't stop the onslaught.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Ryan Katz -- After two games, the OSU sophomore ranks 10th in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, and has completed only 47 percent of his passes. He's obviously going to have to step up his performance because Boise State typically makes an extra effort at stopping the running game. Katz and his receivers will have to make the Broncos pay for that.
LT Michael Philipp -- Assuming the sophomore starts again this week after regaining his starting role, he and right tackle Mike Remmers figure to have a big task when they block Boise State end Ryan Winterswyk. The Boise State senior is fifth in school history in tackles for loss, and leads a front four that brings heavy pressure on quarterbacks.
TE Joe Halahuni -- Boise State's emphasis on stopping the running game brings the safeties up closer to the line of scrimmage and leaves the cornerbacks playing a lot of single coverage. The openings might be in the middle of the field, if run fakes freeze the safeties and Halahuni gets off the line of scrimmage.
--The Beavers had a flu bug run through the team in the past week, but they seem to be over it. But a couple of days without normal intake of food and beverages can take its toll on a football player. And who's to say more players don't yet become ill.
--Through two games, the Beavers have played only one true freshman, linebacker Michael Doctor. That's a definite contrast to last season when eight true freshmen saw action. OSU hasn't ruled out a couple more seeing action this season, depending on how injuries impact a particular position.
--The change at left tackle, with Michael Philipp taking over for Wilder McAndrews, appears to extend into this week's game at Boise State. McAndrews started the opener but then came down with the flu in the days before the second game and Philipp, the starter last season as a true freshman, moved back onto the first unit. Philipp played well enough that he's likely to stay in the starting role.
When most of the team has depth problems, USC coach Lane Kiffin probably doesn't consider what is going on at running back as too big a headache.
The coaches had to go easy in fall camp -- no tackling -- as a tradeoff to keeping players healthy. There are some positions -- including offensive line and linebacker -- where a key injury or two could be devastating.
And then there's the running back situation.
Junior Marc Tyler surprisingly won the job in camp and looked great in the opener against Hawaii. In the second game, true freshman Dillon Baxter made his debut after sitting out the first game because of a suspension. And in the third game, expected starter Allen Bradford put his best foot forward with 131 yards on 12 carries. Plus, C.J. Gable is still around.
What now, Coach?
"We really don't know right now," Kiffin said Tuesday.
"We'll let guys have a bunch of reps throughout the week and see where we're at. It hasn't really separated itself as we had hoped. That is one of our few positions we do have depth at."
Tyler has rushed 44 times for 254 yards and two touchdowns.
Bradford has 23 carries for 193 yards and a score.
Gable has 14 carries for 75 yards.
Baxter has rushed 16 times for 73 yards.
Kiffin wants a physical running attack to be part of the new USC identity, but first he'll have to figure out the pecking order as the Trojans try to go to 4-0 on the season when they open the Pac-10 schedule at Washington State.
--One of the talking points about USC through three games is its propensity to go for two-point conversions at any point of the game. Good idea? Foolish? For sure, new special teams coach John Baxter has always been known as an out-of-the-box thinker. The Trojans have made only two of their seven two-point conversion attempts, but head coach Lane Kiffin is not deterred. "If you make it, you're ahead of things and in a two-score game right away," Kiffin told the L.A. Daily News.
--USC has committed 31 penalties, ranking 117th out of 120 teams in that category. The Trojans are last in penalty yards with 107 per game.
--Coach Lane Kiffin is trying to start 4-0, which is something no first-year USC coach has done since Jess Hill in 1951.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads Washington State 57-8-4 (last meeting, 2009, 27-6 USC).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: This will be a good time for USC quarterback Matt Barkley to reassert himself, as Washington State likely has the worst defense in the conference. USC coach Lane Kiffin said Barkley played "really well" in the opener at Hawaii, but has been less effective in the past two games. USC is 34th nationally in rushing at 196.3 yards per game and 40th in scoring at 32.7 points. With all the Trojans' skill, they should take advantage of WSU's defense, which is allowing more than 40 points per game.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Washington State sophomore Jeff Tuel is a gutsy quarterback, but he gets knocked around a lot, and the Trojans can supply the kind of heat that will disrupt whatever offense the Cougars can manage. After an opening game at Hawaii that coach Lane Kiffin said was "basically a debacle" on defense, the Trojans have gotten progressively better, getting used to game speed after a fall camp in which there was no live tackling. Safety T.J. McDonald has a team-high 25 tackles and an interception.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They've got four guys that are very talented. It's like a home-run hitter. You never know, they can get one out of the yard there for you." -- WSU coach Paul Wulff, on USC's crowded tailback situation.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: USC at Washington State, Sept. 25 -- The Trojans have won seven consecutive games against the Cougars, who don't figure to offer much of a challenge. This game continues a run of opponents, including Virginia and Minnesota, that are expected to finish at or near the bottom of their respective conferences. The strength of schedule might be impressive, but it's probably exactly what USC needed this season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Win with some style. A coach will take a win any way he can get it, but the Trojans haven't played with much panache through the first three games, and this is the last time to show some of that before the schedule starts to get more challenging. USC has too much overall talent to be threatened by Washington State, unless the Trojans shoot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers, which is always possible.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Allen Bradford -- He seems to be the new "it" runner in the backfield, coming off a 131-yard effort at Minnesota. Washington State couldn't corral Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (218 yards) in the opener, so Bradford and/or the other USC tailbacks could have a big day.
LG Butch Lewis -- Coach Lane Kiffin wants to see better play out of the senior and was going to challenge him in practice this week, also giving senior Zack Heberer a shot. Let's see if the competition spurs Lewis to a big week.
DT Jurrell Casey -- The potential all-star is off to a fine start, with 23 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks.
--DT Armond Armstead (sprained shoulder) should be ready to go by game-time this week.
--Sophomore WR De'von Flournoy will redshirt this season, coach Lane Kiffin said.
--Touted freshman WR Kyle Prater hasn't played and is expected to redshirt.
Stanford is preparing for its close-up, as the nation will get its first serious look at the Cardinal and quarterback Andrew Luck when it visits Notre Dame to play a Saturday afternoon game on national television Sept. 25.
It also will set the stage for the Cardinal's next two games, against Pac-10 conference favorites Oregon on Oct. 2 and USC on Oct. 9, that will define Stanford's season.
The Notre Dame game, however, is all about reputation, and an impressive showing could move Stanford close to the top 10 and into the national-championship picture. Already considered a Pac-10 contender, and a favorite by some, the Cardinal still has yet to show its stuff against a quality opponent.
Although Notre Dame is 1-2, its two losses -- to Michigan and Michigan State -- were decided in the last minute or overtime, and the Irish easily could be 3-0. Plus, Notre Dame figures to improve under the leadership of Brian Kelly.
Luck had a great game against Wake Forest, but that was against a lousy defense. It will be more difficult against the Irish, even though Notre Dame has been shaky on defense too.
Luck should have opportunities to make plays if he has the poise to perform on the road on a big stage. Luck's history says he can, because he has played with poise in every setting since he became the Cardinal's quarterback. However, he had by far his worst game in the Cardinal's only previous road game, a 35-0 win at UCLA.
He undoubtedly will be without Ryan Whalen (elbow), his most reliable receiver, but with the return of wide receivers Tim Owusu and Doug Baldwin, Luck will not be short on dangerous targets on the outside.
The Irish have something Stanford's previous three opponents did not -- an effective passing game. Stanford's pass defense has been outstanding this season, which is a major reason for the Cardinal's early-season success, because pass defense was the team's biggest weakness a year ago.
Notre Dame's Dayne Crist is better than the quarterbacks Stanford has faced so far, though. He ranks 14th nationally in total offense coming into the game, and should improve under Kelly's guidance. Crist threw four touchdown passes against Michigan State on Sept. 18, an indication that he is getting better.
The Irish rank eighth nationally in passing offense, and they will test a Stanford secondary that has been far better than expected through three games. However, the first three quarterbacks the Cardinal faced were mediocre, inexperienced or both. Crist is a quality passer.
--Stanford is 3-0 for the first time since 2001, and a win over Notre Dame would make the Cardinal 4-0 for the first time since 1986.
--The Cardinal ranks No. 1 in the nation in pass defense heading into the Sept. 25 game at Notre Dame. Even though the quarterbacks Stanford has faced have been mediocre, it's still an impressive improvement over last season when the Cardinal ranked 110th of 120 FBS teams in pass defense.
--Stanford is ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll heading into the Sept. 25 game against Notre Dame. The Cardinal was ranked as high as No. 14 last season and has not been ranked higher than that since 2001, Tyrone Willingham's final season at Stanford.
SERIES HISTORY: Notre Dame leads Stanford 17-7 (last meeting, 2009, 45-38 Stanford).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Stanford's offense has been impressive the first three weeks. Its 155 points are the most since 1923 by a Stanford team in its first three games. Stanford's success passing is no surprise with Andrew Luck at quarterback, but the success of the running game was unexpected. A lot of it has to do with the offensive line, an experienced, talented bunch that must be considered one of the nation's best. The line is a prime reason Stanford scored touchdowns on each of its first eight possessions against Wake Forest. Heading into the Sept. 25 game against Notre Dame, the Cardinal has not faced a strong defensive team, so the strength of the offense remains in question.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: With LB Shayne Skov back on the field against Wake Forest, the Cardinal defense is complete. And it has been better than expected, especially against the pass. A consistent pass rush out of the Cardinal's new 3-4 alignment and improved play by the secondary, particularly the corners, has made the defense the surprise of the team. One of the worst in the nation against the pass last season, Stanford ranks No. 1 in the nation in pass defense heading into the Notre Dame game. Although Stanford has yet to play an overpowering offensive team, Wake Forest had enough offensive weapons to provide a test, and the Demon Deacons managed just one touchdown until the third quarter, when the game was over and the Cardinal had begun substituting.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're in the part of the season that's really going to tell the tale." -- Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, on playing Notre Dame, Oregon and USC in its next three games, beginning Sept. 25.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Stanford at Notre Dame, Sept. 25 -- Stanford (3-0) ended a seven-game losing streak against Notre Dame when it beat the Irish last season 45-38 at Stanford, but the Cardinal has not beaten Notre Dame in South Bend since 1992, having lost the last seven times there. This is Stanford's best chance in a while to end that streak, primarily because of the presence of QB Andrew Luck. Notre Dame's 1-2 record is a bit deceiving because it could easily be 3-0, having lost one game in the last minute and the other in overtime. The Irish have a strong passing game, but their defense has not been very good. The Cardinal almost certainly will score a bunch of points. It is a matter of preventing Notre Dame from going wild offensively.
KEYS TO THE GAME: If Stanford's defense can control Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist, the Cardinal should win at Notre Dame for the first time since 1992. Crist will be the best quarterback Stanford has faced thus far this season. Stanford has 11 sacks through three games, and if can apply pressure to Crist from the outside, he could be forced into some turnovers. Crist can run a little, so the pass rush must be controlled. Forcing a turnover or two and limiting the big plays by Notre Dame's offense may be enough to keep the Irish at bay. Stanford's offense shouldn't need much more help that, because the Cardinal will score some points.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Andrew Luck -- Luck was at his absolute best against Wake Forest's poor defense, and he should find some holes against Notre Dame's defense, which has yielded quite a bit of passing yardage. He is a lot more mobile than people expect for his size, and he frequently scrambles for yardage in critical stages of the game. He has 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions, albeit against mediocre defenses.
WR Chris Owusu -- Owusu had two touchdown catches in limited playing time against Wake Forest, which was his first game of the season. With Ryan Whalen expected to be sidelined, Owusu becomes a bigger factor in the offense. He is a big-play threat.
LB Chase Thomas -- He has 3.5 sacks through three games and puts pressure on the quarterback with regularity. Thomas is adjusting well to his switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in the Cardinal's new 3-4 alignment. If he can sack or hurry Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist on a regular basis, it would go a long toward producing a Stanford victory.
--WR Ryan Whalen hyperextended his left elbow against Wake Forest, and although Jim Harbaugh is not disclosing his status, it seems unlikely Whalen will play against Notre Dame and could be out for a while. He was Stanford's leading receiver last year.
--TB Jeremy Stewart (ankle) has missed the past two games since getting injured in the opener and it's questionable whether he will play against Notre Dame.
--WR/KR Chris Owusu played against Wake Forest after missing the first two games with an undisclosed injury. His playing time was limited, however, and he did not return kicks. His role may be expanded against Notre Dame.
--Stanford defensive line coach Randy Hart and Cardinal special teams coach Brian Polian both were members of the Notre Dame coaching staff last season under Charlie Weis.
--PK Nate Whitaker had made 66 consecutive PATs until missing one against Wake Forest. He then missed a second PAT in the same game.
It's been a long, long time since Rout 66.
That would be 1997, when the Bruins were rolling behind quarterback Cade McNown and Mack Brown was still coaching at North Carolina. UCLA went into Austin and routed 10th-ranked Texas 66-3 in the second week of the season.
That helped usher out John Mackovic as the coach of the Longhorns, who was fired as Texas collapsed into a 4-7 season. In came Brown, who has brought sustained excellence -- and a national title -- to UT.
UCLA, meanwhile, has mostly floundered and hasn't been back to the Rose Bowl game since that 1998 season.
Now, coach Rick Neuheisel, amid his third year of a rebuilding project, brings his young Bruins to Austin on Saturday. Neuheisel brought his Colorado team to Austin in 1997, winning 47-30.
"It's a loud place, there's gonna be 100,000," Neuheisel told the L.A. Daily News.
"A big game, an intersectional game like this draws a lot of interest. It will be a great atmosphere for college football. As we found out (at Kansas State), you have to be able to handle that kind of noise and still operate efficiently at the line of scrimmage. Fortunately we have had that experience once before."
Even with experience, UCLA appears to be outclassed against seventh-ranked Texas. The Bruins got a much-needed 31-13 win over then-No. 23 Houston last week after an 0-2 start, but this is a big step up in competition.
"They're immensely talented, one of the top programs in the country and they have the home-field advantage," Neuheisel said.
"We have to go in there and understand we can't do anything to help them beat us. We have to take care of the football; we have not been good with that in the first three weeks."
UCLA has given the ball away 10 times in three games and has a minus-1.67 turnover margin.
--LB Patrick Larimore, a sophomore, was selected the FWAA/Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week after his performance against Houston. The middle linebacker had 11 tackles -- 10 unassisted -- and three of his stops went for losses. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pass. Larimore has 25 tackles through two games, with a team-best five tackles for loss.
--DB Andrew Abbott, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship before the season, was impressive in UCLA's nickel package last week against a prolific UCLA passing game. Abbott is a 5-foot-10, 178-pound sophomore. He had seven tackles, including two for loss vs. the Cougars. "It was a great game for Andrew," Neuheisel told the L.A. Daily News. "He's always been knocked because of his size. Can he tackle? He was terrific in the tackling department. It's fun to watch him play when he's hitting on all cylinders like that."
SERIES HISTORY: UCLA and Texas are tied 2-2 (last meeting, 1998, 49-31 UCLA).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Coach Rick Neuheisel has been pleased with the development of the running game in his new Pistol offense, as the Bruins are averaging 203.7 yards per game, which ranks 31st in the nation. That's also about 90 yards more than they averaged last season. What has been lagging, in a big way, is the passing game. Part of that might just be QB Kevin Prince shaking off the rust after missing most of camp with an injury, and he showed signs of improvement last week. To do so again will be difficult because Texas has a big, talented and deep secondary.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Texas has a first-year starting quarterback (Garrett Gilbert) and no real go-to guy at tailback, but the Longhorns can grind out epic drives, such as a 22-play touchdown march that took 9:25 off the clock against Texas Tech last week. UCLA's weakness is on the defensive line, which is breaking in four new starters, so the Bruins will have to tighten the screws against a Texas offensive line that isn't exactly vintage but is never bad.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think probably all of them are exceeding my expectations because I'm not sure I planned on any of them being where they are right now." -- UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, on the play of his offensive linemen.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: UCLA at Texas, Sept. 25 -- The Bruins (1-2) are slightly more than a two-touchdown underdog against the Longhorns, who haven't been overwhelming while beating Rice, Wyoming and Texas Tech. UCLA has the athletes to match up in certain spots, but there hasn't been a true indication yet that the young Bruins can compete on this kind of stage. A solid performance, even in a loss, could help propel UCLA into the bulk of its conference action.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Have a little fun. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has been talking about his team playing "tight," although last week's victory over Houston might have alleviated much of that problem. "We have to earn the right to be a little loose on Saturday by putting good days together (in practice)," Neuheisel said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Kevin Prince -- UCLA can't go far against Texas without some semblance of a passing game, and Prince's passing efficiency rating of 74.49 is abysmal. It's not all his fault, as the receivers have been prone to drops.
RB Johnathan Franklin -- He is coming off a big game against Houston, in which he rushed for a career-best 158 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries. This week, he goes up against a Texas unit that ranks first nationally in rushing defense.
FS Rahim Moore -- He has one interception this season and 14 for his career. Can he get one -- or more -- off Texas QB Garrett Gilbert, who threw three last week vs. Texas Tech?
--Freshman LB Jared Koster suffered a dislocated shoulder on special teams last week and was to undergo surgery.
--Backup DE Iuta Tepa suffered a torn pectoral muscle last week against Houston. That means more time for touted true freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who has seen limited action through three games.
--DB Anthony Jefferson made his season debut against Houston, becoming the ninth true freshman to play for the Bruins this season.
--RB Derrick Coleman (concussion, neck strain) was out for last week's game against Houston but should be available against Texas.
--DE Datone Jones, the team's only returning starter on the defensive line, suffered a broken foot in fall camp and figures to miss at least half of the season.
--Junior C Kai Maiava, a projected starter, suffered a fractured ankle in fall camp and could be out at least until late October.
The Washington Huskies get a much-needed weekend off to lick their wounds and contemplate a sluggish 1-2 start to the 2010 season.
What they say they won't do, however, is change their goals -- namely, to be competitive in the Pac-10 race and make it to a bowl game.
"There's no doubt," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said, when asked if the preseason goals remain intact. "There's no doubt. We just have to find a way to play to our potential. And that will be the goal the next two weeks. So when we go take the field at the (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum in two weeks that we play to our potential. If that's good enough to win, so be it. If not, at least we know we played the way we are capable of playing."
Sarkisian doesn't feel as if UW has done that yet during a start to the season that has dimmed a lot of the preseason enthusiasm about the team in Seattle.
UW hasn't had a winning season or been to a bowl game since 2002. But Sarkisian was adamant throughout fall camp that those streaks would end this year, saying late in August, "I love where we're at."
The Huskies looked sloppy in a season-opening loss at BYU, however, that also revealed that the lines on both sides of the ball still had a ways to go. Then, after a solid, if not necessarily spectacular, win over Syracuse in week two, UW was manhandled by Nebraska in its third game, 56-21.
Not only did UW look bad but so did quarterback Jake Locker, whose Heisman Trophy candidacy was likely squashed for good when he went 4-for-20 for 71 yards with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.
Sarkisian said the team may try to do some more live tackling during the bye week to improve in an area that was exposed against Nebraska. He also said the team will continue to try to get some young players more work to see if they deserve more time.
But mostly, UW will have to refine its schemes with the players it has in the starting lineup while also allowing some veterans to get healthy.
"There are going to be some guys that are going to need a couple days (rest)," Sarkisian said. "We're a little beat up right now. Those were three physical football games, from BYU to Syracuse to Nebraska. Those games can take their tolls, so the bye is coming at a great time for us -- to get healthy but also to push our young kids and get them even more game-ready than they maybe are."
--UW announced last week that it will host Eastern Washington to open the 2014 season. It's the latest move in an attempt to soften the team's non-conference schedules after years of usually playing three major BCS-type teams. UW will also host EWU next year and Portland State in 2012, the first lower-division teams UW has ever played.
--Despite an off game against Nebraska, Jermaine Kearse continues to lead the Pac-10 in receiving at 112.5 yards per game.
--LB Mason Foster leads the Pac-10 in tackles at 12.7 per game.
SEASON SUMMARY: The Huskies ended the non-conference slate of their schedule 1-2, losing at BYU before returning home to beat Syracuse and then getting crushed by Nebraska. Most around the program had realistically hoped for a 2-1 start, but the loss against a Cougars team that has since been easily defeated by Air Force and Florida State looms large as a game that got away.
LOOKING AHEAD: UW has to get better play up front on offense to get that side of the ball completely on track. Jake Locker had little time to throw Saturday, which helped lead to a disastrous outing against Nebraska. And while the running game has had its moments, UW hasn't been able to consistently move the ball on the ground. UW's offense is largely based on using the run to set up play-action, so the line has to get better.
Locker also has to start playing like the Heisman candidate he was before the season began -- but isn't really any longer. The two losses were hardly his fault alone. But especially against BYU he could have made some plays to take over the game late and he didn't. More opportunities will present themselves in future games and he has to take advantage.
UW also has to get better play from its front four on defense, which remains the main weakness on that side of the ball. A few young players may get more time there, especially at end, as UW tries to find a consistent pass rush.
And the special teams just have to get better. The coverage and return units have been below par so far, costing UW valuable field position in all three games, though the kickers themselves have been fine overall.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a lot of season left. We've played three football games to this point. The season is not lost; there's a lot of things for this football team to look forward to. We just need to keep working hard, practicing hard, preparing really well and going out and giving good effort on Saturdays." -- Washington quarterback Jake Locker.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: UW's offense is middle of the pack in the Pac-10 in almost every statistical category, owing both to playing a tough non-conference schedule and simply not playing as well as hoped in a few areas. Most glaringly, QB Jake Locker is completing just 51 percent of his passes, far below the 65-68 percent goal set by UW coach Steve Sarkisian before the season began. Going 4-for-20 against Nebraska is obviously a big part of that, but Locker also didn't look as sharp as hoped against BYU. Sarkisian has said that future game plans may call for some more high-percentage throws to get Locker in a rhythm.
The running game has been fine overall, though just a step short of being dominant enough to take over games. UW ideally wants to use the run to set up play-action and hasn't quite gotten that totally going yet. A nice revelation so far has been the play of true freshman RB Jesse Callier, who has 143 yards on 20 carries (a 7.2 average) and also has shown an ability to catch the ball. He'll likely get more time going forward.
The Huskies need to get more out of their complementary receivers as Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar have 29 of the team's 47 receptions with no one else having more than three. It will help if James Johnson, the No. 3 WR a year ago but relegated to one catch in one game so far, returns to health; he's been bothered by a sprained ankle.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The big worry going into the season was whether the Huskies had the defensive ends necessary to mount a consistent pass rush. That remains a concern after three games as UW has just one sack from an end and just three from its defensive line -- three others coming on blitzes from LBs or DBs.
Washington is continuing to try to rotate in some younger players at end, notably true frosh Hau'oli Jamora, in an attempt to find answers to the pass rush issue. But mostly, UW will either hope for improvement of existing players or try to find some different schemes to bring more pressure.
The LB crew has played pretty well save for a few missed tackles here and there -- senior WLB Mason Foster leads the Pac-10 in tackles with 37. The secondary hasn't been great, either, as UW has just one interception so far -- that coming in garbage time against Syracuse. UW has forced just three turnovers overall, something that also must improve.
--MLB Cort Dennison missed the Nebraska game with a concussion but should return for the USC game.
--WR James Johnson, who sat out two of the first three games with a sprained ankle, should also be back for USC. He caught 39 passes last season as the team's No. 3 receiver but has just one this year in mop-up duty against Syracuse.
--RB Chris Polk will take it easy during the bye week to rest a swollen ankle, but should be good to go against USC.
--Starting SLB Victor Aiyewa also suffered a concussion against Nebraska and sat out the first couple practices of the bye week.
Washington State coach Paul Wulff insists progress continues to be made with his team, now 4-24 since he took over as coach prior to the 2008 season.
The best way to show it comes Saturday when the Cougars host a USC team that is undefeated and ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, but struggling and looking nothing like the behemoths of past years.
There was no better gauge of how far the Cougars had fallen than when USC came to Pullman in 2008 and won 69-0, WSU barely even attempting to play as if it was trying to win the game, mostly attempting not to get anyone hurt.
But after oddsmakers installed USC as 24-point favorites, the betting line dipped to 21.5 early in the week, some apparently sensing that the Cougars are ready to make a run at keeping this one competitive.
Wulff's mantra has been that "we've just got to keep growing together," and he sensed that there was some of that maturing at hand last week when WSU lost 35-21 at SMU, a game that many predicted would be a much larger rout.
Asked what he saw in that game that gives him hope for the future, Wulff said: "Defenisvely, we did a lot better job pressuring the quarterback. I thought we defended the pass in a lot of ways better -- when they made their plays they were really quality plays. I think offensively we were just more consistent throwing the ball. What we didn't do a very good job of was protecting the quarterback very well. But we threw the ball well and had more rhythm in our offense through the game than we did a year ago."
On paper, this game figures to be decided in one area: the running game. USC is averaging exactly twice as many yards per attempt as is WSU -- 5.6 to 2.8 -- and almost twice as many yards per game -- 196.3 to 96.7.
"They are very deep (at running back)," Wulff said. "They've got four kids who can really run, so we've got to be sure tacklers and got to get them down. They are big in their offensive line and athletic."
If WSU can't stop the run, it likely won't be able to contain USC's offense much.
Conversely, WSU has to run to set up some of the one-on-one matchups on the perimeter in the passing game, which have been the Cougars' most consistent area of offense.
The game is WSU's Pac-10 opener. WSU is 1-17 in Pac-10 play under Wulff and has only come within 13 points in any game in that time -- a 13-10 OT win at home over winless Washington in 2008.
--Freshman WR Marquess Wilson has posted two 100-yard-plus receiving games, only the second freshman to do so at Washington State.
--Through three games this season, QB Jeff Tuel has nearly matched his passing numbers for all of last season. He has connected on 50 of 91 passes for 700 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Last season, in six games, Tuel completed 71 of 121 for 798 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions.
--USC has won seven in a row against WSU since the Cougars won 30-27 in overtime in 2002.
SERIES HISTORY: USC leads Washington State 57-8-4 (last meeting, 2009, 27-6 USC).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Cougars appear to be building a decent stable of skill players. But the big issue remains a line that can't protect well or open up holes. WSU has allowed 10 sacks, three more than any other Pac-10 team, and is last in the conference in rushing, averaging 2.8 per carry -- every other conference team is at 4.2 or higher. Until the line improves, the offense isn't going to take off. And WSU now faces what appears to be by far the best defense it has gone up against in USC, which despite some issues defending the pass against Hawaii has been pretty stout against the run in all of its games, allowing an average of 3.5 per carry. USC is last in the Pac-10 in passing defense, however, due largely to some coverage issues in the secondary, so if QB Jeff Tuel can get any time there should be some opportunities to make some plays.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: WSU remains near the bottom in every defensive statistical category, not a great sign considering one of its three games was at home against lower-division Montana State. WSU is last in the Pac-10 in total defense at 457 yards per game and 6.5 yards per play. USC is sure to try to establish the run and then hit play-action passes with QB Matt Barkley, a time-tested Trojan strategy. WSU may try to get creative with some pressure early to get some home-crowd momentum.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It will be a good test for our receivers to see if they can rise up and make plays." - Washington State coach Paul Wulff on the Cougas' WR corps going against an unproven USC secondary.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: USC at Washington State, Sept. 25 -- The Pac-10 opener for both teams will go a long way toward indicating if progress is truly being made in Pullman.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Strike early. WSU has fallen behind so quickly and often in most of its games the last few years. But a good-sized home crowd should provide a good atmosphere early, and WSU needs to do something to keep the crowd in the game. WSU also needs to hit some deep balls. USC's biggest weakness is in the secondary, and there are sure to be some open WRs at time for QB Jeff Tuel. He has to hit those WRs, and they have to make the catches, and maximize every opportunity. On paper, USC appears capable of just blowing through WSU's run defense. But the Cougars need to not let any long runs turn into TDs and at least live to fight another play. The longer USC remains on the field, the more prone it will be to making mistakes.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jeff Tuel -- Tuel is completing just 54.9 percent of his passes, though often not having time accounts for some of that. But he's done a nice job not making big mistakes with a 5-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That will be a key this week against USC.
WR Marquess Wilson -- The true freshman is emerging as a future star, leading the Pac-10 in yards per catch at 21.6 with 281 yards on 23 receptions.
DE Travis Long -- The sophomore has picked up where he left off a year ago when he was one of the better true frosh in the conference, and is fourth in the conference in tackles for a loss with four for minus-22 yards.
--S Chima Nwachukwu was out early in the week with a neck issue that held him out against SMU. If he doesn't go, he will again be replaced by freshman Deone Buchanan.
--RB Chantz Staden was limited early in the week with a knee problem.
--LG-LT Tyson Pencer was limited early in the week with a groin issue.
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