Tuesday, November 24, 2009
What to watch in the Pac-10
By Ted Miller
It's about rivalries and bowl positions this week.
1. Will USC rediscover its mojo? The Trojans had a bye week to think about where their season has gone. They had plenty of time to consider a 27-point loss to Oregon and a 34-point defeat at home to Stanford. Will it make them mad and refocus them for UCLA's visit? Or will they shrug their shoulders over a season not up to their standards? Or, are the Trojans just not that good? There's still a lot to play for -- USC can still win 10 games -- and beating the Bruins would certainly bolster spirits, but it's hard to say what team will show up Saturday based on what's happened over the previous month.
2. Arizona tries avoid an Oregon hangover: While it's hard to imagine Arizona not being excited about playing hated rival Arizona State, that double-overtime loss to Oregon was an emotional blow, in large part because it ended Rose Bowl dreams. It was clear that many of the Wildcats felt they blew it against the Ducks. But they can't afford to ponder what-might-have-been too long. Losing to the Sun Devils would make things even worse and would sink a once-promising season.
3. Toby Gerhart vs. Notre Dame's run defense: Gerhart and Stanford rank 13th in the nation in rushing offense. The Cardinal offensive line is extremely physical. And it's probably plenty motivated by a poor performance in the Big Game vs. California. Notre Dame ranks 80th in the nation in run defense. It's not terribly physical on its defensive line. And it may be sagging a bit as another disappointing season wears down. The potential is here for Gerhart to have a big day and loudly state his case as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.
4. Will this be Jake Locker's last game in Husky Stadium? Early in the season, Locker was widely viewed as a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. But his inconsistency in recent weeks might have tamped down those expectations. Of course, there's also his baseball contract with the Los Angeles Angels. It makes a lot of sense for Locker to return next fall and develop his game, but he might not be able to resist the allure of the next level -- in one sport or the other. Just something for Washington fans to think about as they watch Locker try to win his first Apple Cup.
5. UCLA's O-line vs. USC's D-front: UCLA's offensive line has improved this year. USC's front-seven has seemed to get worse. Both units have suffered significant injuries, but the Bruins seem to have been more resilient overcoming them. The Trojans figure to gang up on the run and try to force redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince to beat them. If the Bruins can run anyway, that would bode well for the upset.
6. Szakacsy can establish himself as ASU's QB. Or not: Arizona State's offense has been mostly bad this year. The first order of business in 2010 will be figuring out who the quarterback will be. Samson Szakacsy, a sophomore, was OK in his first start last weekend at UCLA. He made some good plays. He made some bad ones. His speed is a nice thing to have behind a middling offensive line. If he could lead the Sun Devils to a win over Arizona, he could position himself as the frontrunner to win the job heading into spring practices.
7. Weis Watch vs. Big Game hangover: Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is about to be fired. How will his players react on Saturday knowing he's shortly out the door? Will they play hard for him, or will they be flat and unfocused and thinking about their next coach? And what about Stanford? Will it bounce back from the disappointing loss in the Big Game and take out its frustrations on the struggling Fighting Irish? Or will it also be flat and unfocused? Both teams are coming off emotional lows. The winner likely is the one that feels like it's got more to prove.
8. Do the Cougs have another miracle in them? Washington State was hopeless last year -- way worse than this season -- yet it managed to post a surprising comeback overtime victory over Washington in the 2008 Apple Cup. On paper, the Huskies are much better than the Cougars again. And they are playing at home with a new coach they seem to like playing for. Ergo, Washington is a big favorite. But rivalry games sometimes turn out in surprising ways. It may take a miracle for Washington State to win, but sometimes miracles happen.