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Thursday, October 13, 2011
What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 7

By Ted Miller

Issues to consider heading into the seventh week of games.

Thomas takes over: With RB LaMichael James out, QB Darron Thomas becomes the veteran presence inside a young Ducks offensive huddle. He's the guy everyone will look to. Arizona State's defense has rattled some pretty good QBs, most notably USC's Matt Barkley. Thomas hasn't put up big numbers this year, but he's thrown 15 TD passes and just two interceptions. It's likely strong passing numbers from Thomas will be a key in this game.

Marshall Lobbestael
Marshall Lobbestael faces a big challenge Saturday in the form of the Stanford defense.
Lobbestael vs. Luck: It's fun to ha-ha at the absurdity of that -- Washington State's backup QB vs. the most talented QB in college football in a decade -- but that's what we've got Saturday in Pullman: The almost certain No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft this spring versus a guy who has admirably filled in for starter Jeff Tuel but who may be seeing the last football of his career. There's some poetry there. By the way, Marshall Lobbestael is good enough to give Stanford's secondary some trouble if he gets time to throw.

Barkley-Woods: Last year against California, Barkley threw five first-half TD passes, tying a USC -- full-game -- record. Robert Woods might be the best receiver in the nation in terms of pure talent. If you wonder what Cal needs to be concerned with tonight, it's Barkley-Woods, Barkley-Woods, particularly with starting CB Marc Anthony out.

Price increases Buffs' secondary costs: Washington QB Keith Price ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and first in TD passes. Colorado's patchwork secondary, which has been riddled by injuries and suspensions, ranks 10th in the conference in passing efficiency defense and has yielded 14 TD passes, most in the conference. Not a good matchup for the Buffs. Colorado's solution to a struggling secondary is to attack with blitzes -- see 17 sacks, tied for most in the conference. The Huskies have yielded 11 sacks. If Price gets time to throw, he can make Colorado pay. But will he?

Utes up front: Utah's strength is its lines, and it needs to lean on that strength at Pittsburgh. The Panthers on offense are mostly one guy: RB Ray Graham, the nation's second leading rusher. The Panthers aren't good if they have to pass. They yield 4.67 sacks per game, most in the nation, and rank 96th in the nation in passing efficiency. So it's obvious: Make Pitt throw. On the other side, the Utes probably will faces that same strategy. The Panthers will try to make new Utes starting QB Jon Hays beat them. But RB John White and a solid offensive line might be good enough to still win that battle in the trenches.

Beavers fall: Every year is a new year, so past trends don't always matter. Until they do. This year started out particularly bad for Oregon State, but losing Septembers are -- sorry -- standard in Corvallis. That's the bad news. The good news is the Beavers typically seem to get better. They have entered October with losing records eight consecutive years. But since 2004, they are 38-15 in October, November and December. After an 0-4 start, they are now 1-0 in October. Can they maintain their trend of mid-to-late-season improvement?

The 6-8 QB: Inside Autzen Stadium, everything starts with the opposing QB. How well can he handle the noise? Can he maintain focus and make plays and avoid miscues. Arizona State's Brock Osweiler, who it will be noted at least once on Saturday is 6-foot-8, made his first career start at Autzen in 2009 as a true freshman. That evening started badly and ended quickly when he was knocked out of the game. Suffice it to say, he's a different guy these days: Skilled, confident, knowledgeable. It's also impossible to believe the Sun Devils can record an upset without him playing lights out -- as he did against Missouri and USC.

Cougs up front: While Andrew Luck gets all the publicity, Stanford is as much about being physical up front on both lines as it is about Luck. Luck will stress the Washington State secondary, but the real measure of the Cougars' ability to hang with Stanford will be on both lines. Can the Cougs slow down the Stanford running game and force Luck to throw? That doesn't sound like a great thing, but it's critical in terms of slowing down Stanford. And, on the other side of the ball, will the Cougs be able to run well enough that the Cardinal doesn't load up with blitzes on Lobbestael? Playing at home will help. But Washington State's only chance is not getting exploited at the line of scrimmage.