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Friday, October 3, 2008
What to watch in the Pac-10, Week 6


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.

1. We should know fairly quickly if USC solved its run defense problems: What stood out more than anything in the Trojans loss to Oregon State was their poor run defense, with true freshman Jacquizz Rodgers rushing for 186 yards and USC's defensive linemen and linebackers struggling to get off blocks. Oregon is the nation's No. 4 rushing team and its passing game is still trying to find its rhythm with juco-transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli running the show. Ergo: The Ducks will immediately challenge the Trojans up front.

2. Who will start at quarterback for California and what will it mean?: Coming off a 42-7 victory in which your quarterback doesn't throw an interception is a curious time to renew a quarterback competition, but that's just what Bears coach Jeff Tedford did. And based on news reports this week, both sophomore starter Kevin Riley and senior challenger Nate Longshore -- who started 26 games before losing out to Riley -- practiced well, with neither surging ahead or falling behind. So Tedford said he'd wait until pregame warmups to announce who will start against Arizona State. How much of this is gamesmanship, and how much of an advantage does this garner Cal, if any? Here's a guess that the tag goes to the incumbent, and Riley remains the starter, with Longshore seeing spot action, which was the plan entering the season.

3. As usual, Rudy, not the run game, will be the key for Arizona State: Dennis Erickson said the Sun Devils need to run the ball more, period. The return of running back Keegan Herring from a nagging hamstring injury should help the Sun Devils sagging (110th in the nation) ground attack. But that won't change the basic fact that quarterback Rudy Carpenter is Arizona State's centerpiece, its singular star who will determine this team's fate almost every week. The speedy Herring might break a run or two for a big gain, but the Sun Devils will live or die by the pass in this game and the rest of the season.

4. Washington's new quarterback Ronnie Fouch won't wilt at Arizona: Don't be shocked if the Huskies offense puts up some points against the Wildcats with Fouch, a redshirt freshman, making his first start on the road after Jake Locker was lost to a broken thumb. Fouch has looked solid in limited action and seems confident in his abilities. More than a few folks have noted that he's already a more accurate passer than Locker. He might inject energy into a sagging team that may, in fact, be grateful to be away from its unhappy home fans.

5. Notre Dame will attack Stanford's secondary: Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen is rapidly improving and is developing timing with his young, talented receiving corps. Stanford's secondary is mediocre at best -- it allows opponents to complete 65 percent of their passes -- so the Cardinal will rely on pressure to keep Clausen in check. Stanford is second in the Pac-10 with three sacks a game, and the Fighting Irish offensive line is still figuring things out. But if Clausen gets time on his home field, he'll pick the Cardinal apart.

6. Rick Neuheisel's UCLA honeymoon will end if the Bruins lose: Neuheisel talked about noticeable improvement in the Bruins loss to Fresno State, but moral victories don't inspire a fanbase. And losing at home to the Cougars, a bad team even before it became a M.A.S.H unit, could cause some early grumbling in our win-now-or-else culture. UCLA should win going away. They should run right at the Cougars sagging defense and pressure redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael into making mistakes as he makes his first start on the road. Most of the schedule will be an uphill slog for the Bruins, so they shouldn't treat a rare weekend as a favorite as a time to relax.

7. Arizona should score 50: Arizona had a bye week to prepare for Jake Locker, and now they don't even have to deal with the annoyance of a running quarterback who can play keep-away from the Wildcats potent offense. And that offense will be rested and reloaded as it faces one of the nation's worst defenses. Tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be completely back to form after missing the first three games with mono. Also, receiver Terrell Reese returns from a suspension, giving quarterback Willie Tuitama another option in the Wildcats potent spread attack.

8. Who will lead USC's tailback-by-committee this week?: Joe McKnight had emerged as first among equals in USC's crowded running back depth chart, but then he fumbled and was mostly ineffective in the loss to Oregon State. This past week, Allen Bradford, who had fallen off the radar, expressed frustration to coach Pete Carroll about his lack of carries. More than a few observers piped in that Stafon Johnson is being underused. And C.J. Gable remains the most complete back the Trojans have. The chatter won't matter if USC runs for 200-plus yards and rolls to victory -- success has always been Pete Carroll's justification for trying to distribute the ball among so many talented backs without establishing a consistent pecking order. But another meandering performance by the offense, particularly the rushing attack, might force a philosophy change.

9. Cal's offense won't be worse without Best: Well, of course, there will be some dropoff without the playmaking of speedy Jahvid Best, who's expected to return from a dislocated elbow on Oct. 18 at Arizona. But Shane Vereen is pretty fancy, too. Sure, Best has two 80-yard touchdown runs, but Vereen has an 81-yarder to his credit and he went 39 yards for another score for good measure. Vereen is averaging 69.8 yards rushing per game and a stout eight yards per carry. He also has 10 catches for 44 yards, so, like Best, he's also a good receiver. If Arizona State's defense exhales
because it doesn't see Best in the backfield, that could be a critical mistake.

10. This is Washington State's best chance for a Pac-10 win, at least until the Apple Cup: UCLA should beat the Cougars. The Bruins also should have beaten the Cougars last year, but Washington State won 27-7, a game that became a significant nail in then-Bruins coach Karl Dorrell's coffin. UCLA is prone to distraction. It may look at the schedule and yawn. Moreover, the Rose Bowl is hardly a hostile environment these days, so redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael might not be overwhelmed in his first road start. The Cougars may, in fact, benefit from being on the road, considering they lost by an average of 56 points in their first two conference home games. This might not qualify as an upset alert, but it won't be written very often this season that Washington State actually has a shot to win.