Thursday, October 22, 2009
What to watch in the Pac-10
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
A full slate of games -- nobody's sitting home this weekend eating Doritos.
1. It's going to be nasty fun in Husky Stadium: Oregon has beaten Washington five consecutive times. And by at least 20 points each time. What was once the most bitter rivalry in the Pac-10 has become a mismatch, which has been galling for the Huskies because, historically, they've dominated the Ducks and still lead the series 58-38-5. Yet this one figures to be more competitive than any of the recent games. Washington has rejuvenated itself under Steve Sarkisian, and that rejuvenation has include renewed energy in Husky Stadium. It should be pretty intense. Just like the old days.
2. Jacquizz Rodgers won't back down: The conventional wisdom is that USC is looking for a little revenge after Oregon State shocked the Trojans 27-21 last year in Corvallis. And the best way to get that revenge is to shut down Rodgers, who sliced and diced them for 186 yards. Folks on the Trojans' side whisper that they didn't know much about the diminutive then-true freshman in 2008. Now they do. And they will put a hurting on Rodgers. Not so fast on that, though. Rodgers has surged of late, and he's an ultra-competitive sort who will be eager accept the Trojans' challenge. Don't be surprised if Rodgers makes some plays against the rugged Trojans run defense.
3. UCLA's secondary will challenge Arizona QB Nick Foles: UCLA's secondary is much better than Stanford's secondary, so Arizona quarterback Nick Foles doesn't figure to find things as easy in the passing game against the Bruins as he did when he piled up 415 yards and three TDs vs. the Cardinal. While UCLA's run defense has sprung a leak -- or two -- of late, the pass defense ranks second in the conference, giving up just 169 yards per game. It's grabbed nine interceptions while surrendering just six TD passes.
4. Vontaze Burfict vs. Toby Gerhart: Burfict is Arizona State's hard-hitting true freshman linebacker. Gerhart is Stanford's 235-pound battering ram of a running back. Burfict looks as good as any young linebacker in the country, but he hasn't faced a back like Gerhart -- probably in his life. These two figure to have plenty of impressive collisions Saturday. So, who wins most of them?
5. Washington State should be motivated by 66-3: On Sept. 6 of last year, everyone found out how deeply down Washington State was when California delivered a stunning 66-3 beatdown in Martin Stadium. It was a humiliating home loss, the second game of the Paul Wulff era. The Cougars haven't suffered a whipping like that this year (though Oregon came close). They probably won't win at Cal on Saturday, but the Cougs should fight hard to earn the Bears' respect. They didn't get it last year.
6. Will Masoli or Locker rule the day? First things first: Will Jeremiah Masoli be 100 percent? The Oregon quarterback appears on track to start, but how much of a running threat he is depends on how close his knee injury is to fully healed. Before Masoli got hurt against Washington State, he was playing with the same dual-threat sharpness he showed late last season. Washington's Jake Locker, meanwhile, is only the most highly touted quarterback in the conference. At their best, both are spectacular playmakers. It will be interesting to see who makes more plays.
7. Does Barkley just keep getting better? USC's Matt Barkley seems to improve every week, and the true freshman already is a pretty good quarterback. While Oregon State's defense has improved of late, it still ranks ninth in the conference against the pass (275 yards per game). The Beavers have given up the most TD passes (11) in the conference and grabbed the fewest interceptions (3, curiously tied with USC). The Beavers are stronger against the run, so it makes sense that Barkley might put the ball into the air. Does he turn in another stellar performance, or does he finally reveal some freshman fallibility?
8. Stanford's defense needs to step up: Stanford's defense has given up 81 points and 1,016 yards in the past two games, which, not surprisingly, were both losses. However, Arizona State doesn't have the offensive weapons that Oregon State and Arizona do, and quarterback Danny Sullivan has struggled much of the season. The Cardinal probably won't be able to pile up points in bunches against the Sun Devils' stout defense, but they shouldn't have to if they muzzle ASU's struggling offense.
9. The Bruins are desperate: Arizona coach Mike Stoops described UCLA as "desperate," and it's true. The Bruins are riding a three-game losing streak, and it's hard to find the three wins necessary for bowl eligibility on the remaining schedule. That desperation should translate into an inspired effort at Arizona. The offense seems to be improving after a solid performance against California. Now, if the defense reverts to the way it played during the first three games, the Bruins should give the Wildcats all they can handle.
10. Jahvid Best should run wild: Washington State ranks last in the Pac-10 in run defense. It's surrendered 17 rushing touchdowns, seven more than any other Pac-10 team. This should be a great opportunity for Best, Cal's spectacular runner, to regain his mojo. While Best had a 93-yard TD run against UCLA, he's still been mostly muted of late -- he's dropped to third in the conference in rushing (102.7 yards per game) and might no longer be a sure-thing for first-team All-Pac-10. He rushed for 200 yards last year at Washington State, including an 86-yard TD. So it might be time for another spectacular game.