Week 5: What we learned in the Pac-10
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
We learned that USC can't take anything for granted, that Oregon and California might still be relevant and that Washington and Washington State are not.
This is not Pete Carroll's best USC team: This might be Pete Carroll's most talented team, but the 2004 squad that went unbeaten and won a second consecutive national title remains at the top for one reason: Winning is everything. As for 2008, no other team in the country features so many players with so much potential. But that doesn't mean squat when a team ends up on the unhappy side of the scoreboard. Remember how many times in the past USC futzed around in the first half only to come back with an overwhelming show of force in the second half? Recall USC trailing No. 14 Arizona State 21-3 at the break in 2005 and then rolling back for a 38-28 win? It looked like Mark Sanchez and company were going to duplicate that sort of reinvigorated steamrolling when they scored a pair of TDs to start the third quarter against the Beavers, but they couldn't muster that final push -- the one that marks great teams.
Let's make sure Oregon State gets credit for a stellar performance: Much of the commentary on the Beavers' upset centered on ripping apart USC. That's understandable when the nation's No. 1 team, favored by 25, loses to an unranked team and when that team is one that the nation can't wait to bury (Florida, of course, gets pass on this measure). But Oregon State didn't back into this victory. They whipped USC. They had a better game plan and they executed it. And the Beavers' triumph came at the most fundamental, physical level: Up front on both lines, blocking, getting off blocks and tackling. So coach Mike Riley and his coordinators Mark Banker (defense) and Danny Langsdorf (offense) deserve kudos for their efforts. Of course, many Pac-10 observers and Beavers fans are wondering why it seems Oregon State needs to fall flat on its face in an early-season game (or two) before it seems to blossom? Why couldn't the team that whipped USC have shown up in Happy Valley to challenge Penn State? And, by the way, much of the newfound street cred will be lost, Beavers, if you fail to take care of business at Utah on Thursday.
Change is coming at Washington: After the Huskies lost at home to Stanford to fall to 0-4 on the season, it's fair to project another lost season, particularly with QB Jake Locker -- the lone star on the team and its unquestioned leader -- going down with a broken thumb. Coach Tyrone Willingham is now 11-29 as Washington's coach and it seems like even he admits things aren't turning around. "I keep asking myself every day and every night, what is it that hasn't allowed us to turn that thing over to click it to get it going right?" he told the Seattle Times. "Because I believe we have the team that can get it done. But for some reason we are not." Losing Locker is a huge problem going forward, but the biggest issue is the Huskies look even worse on defense than the 2007 unit that ranked as the worst in program history: Stanford gained 466 yards of total offense, 103 more than in any of its first four games. Guess how many sacks the Huskies have this season? Zero, a uniquely bad number among FBS teams.
California and Oregon bounced back: Sure, the competition was inferior, but that could have been said about some of the teams that whipped the Pac-10 a week or two ago. California blistered Colorado State, 42-7 -- a win over the Mountain West Conference! -- despite its offense being mostly mediocre, while Oregon simply crushed overmatched Washington State, 63-14. That's the second time this season the Cougars have given up more than 60 points. Both teams could have come out flat after dispiriting defeats in their previous games. And both teams face stiff tests this weekend: Oregon is at USC and California plays host to Arizona State. If the Pac-10 has any hope to redeem itself with any team other than the Trojans, it's likely going to be the Ducks and Bears. Or, ahem, the Beavers.
This may sound strange, but UCLA is getting better: As in most competitive games, there were a lot of "what ifs" in UCLA's 36-31 loss to Fresno State -- such as what if freshman running back Derrick Coleman didn't fumble on the Bulldogs' 10-yard line? Or what if the defense didn't yield a nine-minute, 86-yard drive to kill the clock thereafter? But the Bruins' performance suggested there's hope even at 1-3. Hope, first of all, in that Washington State is coming to town next weekend. Moreover, it appears that the Bruins will be able to find at least a few more wins inside the conference and thereby avoid making Rick Neuheisel's first season a complete train wreck. The most encouraging number was 234 yards rushing. A run game will help QB Kevin Craft feel more comfortable. On the downside, as the offense has improved, the defense has regressed.