Thursday, September 24, 2009
What to watch in the Pac-10
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
After a strong showing in nonconference games, the Pac-10 slate gets rolling in earnest this week, with a couple of marquee matchups in Oregon. Oh, and there's a little nonconference game down south.
1. Jahvid Best vs. the Oregon run defense: Lots of defensive coordinators say stopping the run is the first priority, but Oregon's defense is more obsessed with it than most -- a big reason they've yielded significant passing yards through the years, despite the presence of a handful of NFL-quality defensive backs. Yet this year the run defense has been just fair-to-middling, see 151 yards surrendered per game, which ranks eighth in the Pac-10. No runner in the country stresses a defense more than Cal's Best, who's trying to make a Heisman Trophy statement.
2. Danny Sullivan making his first road start at Georgia: Arizona State fans have been wringing their hands over Sullivan since Rudy Carpenter trudged off at the end of the disappointing 2008 season. Even a solid spring and frequent praise from coach Dennis Erickson hasn't helped win over skeptical fans. Sullivan hasn't done much early on, in large part because he hasn't had to. Well, he'll have to at Georgia, though the Bulldogs' defense is yielding 406 yards and 34 points per game and won't be nearly as good as what Sullivan will see in Pac-10 play. Sullivan's biggest adjustment will be dealing with 93,000 screaming Bulldogs fans who don't like him much.
3. Will Nick Foles bolster the Arizona passing game? Arizona ranks ninth in the conference in passing with just 167 yards per game. That won't cut it, and that's why Mike Stoops replaced Matt Scott with Foles. The Wildcats have a nice run game, but without balance, conference teams will just gang up on Nic Grigsby and dare the quarterback to throw. Foles is a better pure passer than Scott. He'll have an opportunity to make a claim for the full-time job against a questionable Oregon State secondary and pass rush.
4. Washington on letdown alert: The "letdown" game is a college football cliche, but it's a cliche because it happens so often. Teams that win big games tend to relax or lose focus -- just ask the USC team the Huskies beat. If USC isn't good enough to win while unfocused, Washington certainly isn't either. If the Huskies manage to win at a solid Stanford team, however, there will no longer be any question over whether they are a legitimate conference contender and potential bowl team -- they will be, a year after going 0-12. And one of the biggest stories of the season will only get bigger.
5. USC QB play: Will it be Matt Barkley or Aaron Corp vs. Washington State? And how will the starter play? And will that effort allow us to stop talking about the USC quarterback for a day or two?
6. Washington State's fight: You never say never in college football, but it would be beyond shocking if Washington State upset USC in the Coliseum a year after losing 69-0 at home, particularly with the Trojans coming off an embarrassing loss at Washington. Not to mention that the Cougars are -- again -- ravaged by injuries. Yet, if Washington State scraps and claws and keeps the final tally respectable -- say within three TDs -- it will distinguish the Cougars of 2009 vs. 2008. Last year, the Cougs quit. That's the thing they cannot do if they expect to keep the heat off coach Paul Wulff.
7. ASU's defense vs. Joe Cox: Georgia fans were all over Cox after the Bulldogs were dominated by the Oklahoma State defense in the opener, but Cox played better in Game 2 against South Carolina and was lights out at Arkansas in Game 3, throwing for 375 yards and five TDs. It helps that he's got A.J. Green, one of the nation's best receivers, to throw to. We've heard a lot about the Sun Devils' new and improved defense. Cox will test those assertions.
8. Chris Owusu, TD maker: Who's the best playmaker in the Pac-10? Other than Best, it might be Owusu, who's already returned a pair of kickoffs for TDs this year. The Huskies might want to bone up on their kick coverage this week. And Owusu is no slouch at receiver. The sophomore ranks fourth in the conference with 65.7 yards receiving per game and has two touchdowns. He averages 16.4 yards per catch. He's the guy who's going to keep defenses from ganging up against running back Toby Gerhart.
9. Jeremiah Masoli's passing: There has been no more bigger disappointment than Oregon's passing offense. The Ducks rank last in the conference with 126 yards per game and have yet to throw a TD pass. Masoli has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season, and he was 4-of-16 for 95 yards with an interception in the win over Utah. Some fans started asking whether backup Nate Costa should be given a chance. The Ducks can't beat Cal without a passing game, which means Masoli needs to revert to his form at the end of 2008 when he was one of the nation's premier pass-run threats.
10. Oregon State's offensive line: The Beavers have given up 10 sacks, four more than any other Pac-10 team -- their 3.33 sacks per game ranks 107th in the nation. The run blocking has been OK -- 146 yards rushing per game, 4.1 yards per carry -- but the effort has been inconsistent. Arizona's front seven is fast, and Brooks Reed is one of the Pac-10's best pass-rushers, even if he's off to a slow start. The Beavers, who start a true freshman at left tackle and two sophomore former walk-ons, need to grow up fast. Saturday would be a good time to start.