Thursday, November 10, 2011
What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 11
By Ted Miller
Issues to consider heading into the 11th week of games.
Luck & James: We've said -- and typed -- this before and we will say -- and type -- it again: Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Stanford QB Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James are big-time players. They were both Heisman Trophy finalists in 2010. Luck finished second; James won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back. Luck is the overwhelming Heisman favorite at present. James leads the nation in rushing. Who makes more big-time plays on Saturday? The one who does likely will play for the winning team, and he might end up hoisting the bronze stiff arm trophy.
Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. So who will make more: Stanford's Andrew Luck or Oregon's LaMichael James?
Barkley makes Sarkisian seem brilliant: Washington coach Steve Sarkisian made headlines this week when he said he'd pick Trojans QB Matt Barkley over Stanford QB Andrew Luck. Maybe he was hoping Barkley would be so flattered that he'd take it easy on a Huskies pass defense that yields 283 yards per game? Don't count on it. In fact, expect Barkley to eclipse 30 TD passes this season -- he enters the game with 28 -- and perhaps move within sniffing distance of Matt Leinart's conference record of 38 with two games to play.
Chow down? It seems like Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow plays one of his former teams every other week, but this time it's different. He was UCLA's offensive coordinator the previous three seasons, so he knows the Bruins personnel on both sides of the ball extremely well. That could be invaluable, particularly with two teams that are limited offensively.
For the defense? Arizona and Colorado own the two worst defenses in the conference. You'd think that Arizona then would have an advantage because it has a much better offense -- Colorado ranks last in the conference in scoring and 11th in total offense. But the Buffaloes are healthier than they've been in weeks, and two cornerbacks return from suspension (Parker Orms and Paul Vigo). Plus there has to be a sense of urgency and desperation at the thought of going winless in their first year of Pac-12 play, while the Wildcats seemed to take a step back last weekend at Utah. While Nick Foles against the Colorado defense seems like a bad matchup, and two poor performances in a row for Foles seem doubtful, don't be surprised if the Buffs come out playing with as much fire as they have in their final home game.
Good Bears or Bad Bears? In terms of matchups, you have to like California's defense against Oregon State, as well as the Bears ability to run and stop the run while playing at home. But it's difficult to focus on X's and O's with the Bears, because it seems like so much goes on -- right and wrong -- in their collective heads. They won three in a row to start the season. Then lost three in a row. They won a game, looking great against Utah. Then lost a game, looking terrible against UCLA. They then looked good again while pounding Washington State last weekend. So does that mean it's time for the Bad Bears to reappear? Cal should beat the Beavers. It's more talented and playing at home. But you never know which team will show up.
Sun Devils should be hot under the collar: Arizona State blew a special season at UCLA. That should bother them. As should tweaks from fans and the media. But they can still win the South Division, go to a good bowl game and have a good season. Nine or 10 wins isn't out of the question. So they need to bring their best focus and intensity to Pullman to face a desperate Washington State team. It's going to be a bit chilly. It may snow. But QB Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict need to make sure that the locker room is in a frenzy and ready to make a statement against the Cougars.
Red zone, turnovers, third down: Stanford is a perfect 52-of-52 in the red zone this year (with a stunning 41 TDs). It also is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in red zone defense. The Cardinal is No. 2 in the conference in turnover margin, and has given the ball away just seven times this season. Finally, Stanford is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions and second in third-down defense. Oregon is strong by these three measures also. Whoever is better in two of three categories on Saturday is probably going to end up smiling when the clock strikes zero.
The Price of playing defense: Last year, lots of folks were down on USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and for good reason. The Trojans, so long a dominant defensive team, played soft and tentative and put up bad numbers. But, without a lot of fanfare, USC has significantly improved on D. For one, it's held six of nine foes to 17 or fewer points. The Trojans rank fourth in the conference in total defense. Still, they aren't great against the pass. They give up 271 yards passing per game and rank sixth in pass-efficiency defense, with foes completing 63 percent of their throws. Washington QB Keith Price started the season hot, but has cooled off of late, tossing six interceptions in his past three games after throwing four in his first six. The Trojans have been tough to run against, so Price won't be able to just lean on running back Chris Polk. He's going to have to make plays in the passing game. Like he did in the first six games.