Thursday, September 9, 2010
What to watch in the Pac-10: Week 2
By Ted Miller
Ten issues to consider heading into the second week of games.
1. UCLA's run defense needs to bounce back: UCLA surrendered 313 yards rushing at Kansas State, including 234 yards on 28 carries to Daniel Thomas. Thomas is a quality back, but that's pretty freaking porous. While Stanford visits the Rose Bowl on Saturday without Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal offensive line is more talented than the Kansas State crew. If the Bruins front seven doesn't buck up, Stanford will use a its new backfield-by-committee to run over them. While Andrew Luck is the star, Jim Harbaugh would be perfectly content to run it 40 times. And, of course, if the Bruins can't stop the run, their obsession with it will provide plenty of big downfield opportunities for Luck.
2. Jake Locker and the Washington offense need to play better at home: Washington scored just 17 points and got shut out in the second half at BYU. Twice in the second half, drives deep in Cougars territory ended after failed fourth-down conversion attempts. Locker's numbers weren't bad, but no player shoulders more responsibility for his team's success as he does. The fifth-year senior who spent much of the summer being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate when pundits weren't talking about his NFL prospects. Syracuse won't be a push-over on defense -- 10 starters are back from 2009. But Washington plays better in Husky Stadium, and the guess here is Locker and his supporting cast on offense will be far sharper.
Expect Jake Locker and the Washington offense to be more sharp against Syracuse than it was against BYU.
3. Does Oregon QB Darron Thomas start fast or get rattled? Thomas' first career road start will be in Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, which means there will be 105,000 or so orange-clad fans riding his case. There's no way to know how a young man will react to that. He might come out smooth and poised and lead a dominant offensive effort by distributing the ball to all of his weapons. Or he might make an early mistake or two and get rattled and down on himself. Just as Autzen Stadium gives the Ducks a big advantage, so does Neyland do the same for the Volunteers.
4. Did USC's defense just have a bad day at Hawaii? It's possible that USC just had a bad night at Hawaii, that the poor tackling and flat effort weren't indicative of the capabilities of a seemingly talented crew. It's possible that Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron will correct mental and physical mistakes, make a few personnel decisions, and USC will show Virginia that it's back to its stingy ways. But there's also enough available evidence now -- see terrible performances vs. Oregon and Stanford in 2009 -- to support the notion that the Trojans' defense has lost its swagger and isn't actually as talented as its recruiting rankings suggest. Virginia shouldn't be able to keep up with USC on Saturday. But if the same defense from Hawaii shows up, the Cavaliers will do just that.
5. Cal's Kevin Riley completes 60 percent of his passes: Riley owns a career 54 percent completion rate. Accuracy has long been his bugaboo. Of course, he also hasn't benefited from great receivers during his tenure. Last weekend, he completed 70 percent -- 14 of 20 -- of his throws, though it's worth noting that UC Davis is an FCS team. What was most notable, however, were the impressive performances by his receivers, particularly true freshman Keenan Allen. There was a reasonable theory in the preseason that Riley would breakthrough as a senior, because that's when the light goes on for many QBs. It will be a lot easier with a dangerous group of playmakers at receiver, guys who can go and get the ball -- even when it's not perfectly thrown -- and boost a completion percentage. Colorado is strong at cornerback, so it will offer a good test as to whether Riley and his receivers are truly in sync and ready for Pac-10 play.
6. Washington State buries Montana State from the get-go: It's fairly simple. Washington State needs to go out and whip Montana State. It needs to start quickly, establish dominance and allow its fans to feel good about the program. The Bobcats are a quality FCS team, but the Cougars should have restocked their talent enough in year three with coach Paul Wulff to take them to the woodshed. Jumping to a big lead will boost the confidence in the locker room. Struggling and playing a tight game into the fourth quarter won't. Losing? Let's not even go there.
7. Arizona's rebuilt defense posts another dominant performance: The Wildcats defense was surprisingly stout at Toledo, a team that piled up big numbers on offense in 2009. Things should be even easier on Saturday against The Citadel in front of the home crowd. Still, another game of experience is another game of experience, no matter the quality of the opponent, and smoothing out any wrinkles will be valuable leading into the Sept. 18 visit from Iowa. Arizona needs to jump on The Citadel hard and then get its starters to the bench early in the third quarter.
8. Arizona State QB Steven Threet is cool, efficient vs. Northern Arizona: Threet played well in the opener vs. Portland State, and the Sun Devils offense as a whole looks substantially more skilled than the anemic unit from 2009. Threet and his mates need to duplicate that performance in another "preseason" game vs. an FCS program. The idea is to be as confident as possible before heading to Wisconsin on Sept. 18. It also would be nice to get all the starters on the bench as soon as possible so they will be rested and healthy.
9. Andrew Luck vs. Rahim Moore: If UCLA's run defense proves stout, that means Stanford will have to throw. And that means a showdown between these two All-American talents. Luck has uncanny downfield accuracy. That's one of the big reasons NFL scouts love him. Moore led the nation with 10 interceptions a year ago, so his ball skills qualify as uncanny, too. Will Luck be able to beat Moore and the Bruins over the top? Or will Moore bait Luck into an ill-advised throw that could be a game-changer?
10. Will Tennessee be able to run against Oregon? If the Vols can't run vs. Oregon, the Ducks are going to deliver a butt-kicking. No way Matt Sims, a junior JC transfer, will be able to pass them to victory. But Tennessee rolled up 332 yards rushing in its opener -- albeit vs. Tennessee-Martin -- and its got a strong stable of running backs, topped by Tauren Poole, and a big, talented, if inexperienced, offensive line. The Ducks defense is as fast as they come, but it also is undersized. If the Vols power-running game is consistently effective, then Oregon will be in for a highly competitive test.