Thursday, October 1, 2009
What to watch in the Pac-10
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
The Bay Area is the center of the Pac-10 universe on Saturday, though Oregon State's visit to Arizona State feels underrated to me. Oh, and Washington heads east to take on Notre Dame and the cardiac Fighting Irish.
1. Will the real Cal please stand up? California can't possibly be as bad as it looked at Oregon. You look up and down the roster and check off guys with NFL futures and just shake your head. So, do the Bears put it together and play to their potential against USC? Or will they look out of sync again? It's possible that Cal could put forth a strong effort and still lose, but at least that might leave some sparks for a strong run through the rest of the conference slate.
2. Toby Gerhart vs. Reggie Carter & Brian Price: Obviously, there are 11 guys on both sides of the ball, but the 237-pound Gerhart is the irresistible force and Carter and Price are the immovable objects. If Gerhart prevails and gets his 100-plus yards, he should jump onto the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. But Carter and Price are bad men -- maybe two of the nation's most underrated players. There will be some pads popping here.
3. Danny Sullivan must play better: Arizona State proved at Georgia that its defense is good enough to get the Sun Devils to a bowl game, but the offense needs to step up, particularly Sullivan. Only problem for him is his already questionable offensive line is banged up -- two or three starters could be out. Still, playing in front of the home crowd, Sullivan needs to make plays in the passing game or coach Dennis Erickson might decide to give talented true freshman Brock Osweiler a serious look.
4. Will Irish run or pass vs. the Huskies' defense? Or both? Washington's primary worry in the preseason was its outmanned secondary, but after Stanford ran all over the Huskies, the run defense now seems like a bigger problem. Notre Dame has been successful both throwing (297 yards per game) and running the ball (158 ypg). Against A-list programs, the Huskies have flashed decent run defense (LSU) and pass defense (USC). What will they have for Charlie Weis and the Irish?
5. Welcome to Autzen Stadium, Jeff Tuel: Sure, Washington State's true freshman quarterback got his first career action in the Coliseum against the fearsome Trojans, but it's much different coming off the bench without thinking time compared to having a first-career start hanging over a youngster for an entire week. Not to mention that Tuel won't be able to hear himself think inside Autzen Stadium -- it's not nearly as loud inside the Coliseum. And the Ducks' defense gives a QB lots of looks -- it certainly confused a veteran Cal offense.
6. The Trojans' offense can't possibly be this bad: The overall statistics don't look terrible, but the Trojans are averaging just 19.3 points over their last three games and only one of those defenses -- Ohio State -- is a first-tier unit. Moreover, the offense is only converting on 25 percent of its third downs, which ranks last in the conference. All of this is happening with an outstanding offensive line and a strong crew of skill players. So, even with young quarterbacks, it's not a lack of talent or experience. The pressure is on Jeremy Bates to earn his substantial paycheck and call better plays. Or, perhaps, Pete Carroll needs to free up Bates to call the game as he sees fit. Either way, this shortcoming falls on the coaches.
7. Is it better to be Crafty or Lucky? UCLA's and Stanford's quarterbacks come at Saturday's game from far different angles. The Bruins' Kevin Craft is the senior backup who lost his job to a now-injured redshirt freshman because he threw 20 interceptions in 2008. The Cardinal's Andrew Luck is a super-talented redshirt freshman who unseated a senior starter and who appears destined for an NFL career. Funny thing is: Craft probably will be more responsible for his team's fortunes. Luck has a powerful running game to rely on. Craft won't have that luxury. Of course, Craft did beat Stanford with a pressure-packed TD drive last year.
8. Bringing the heat in Tempe: Arizona State's defense has been dominant. Oregon State's defense has been disappointing. But here's a number that might shock you: Which two teams are tied for last in the conference with just two sacks? That would be the Sun Devils and Beavers, though the Sun Devils have played one less game. Both offensive lines have struggled, and the Sun Devils are digging deep into their depth chart because of injuries. Neither QB is terribly mobile. And Arizona State gets back suspended defensive end James Brooks, which will allow pass-rush specialist Dexter Davis to return to his preferred weak side. Guess here is one -- or maybe both -- of these teams is going to get to the quarterback.
9. Jahvid Best needs a big day in a big game: Last year against USC, Best had just 30 yards on 13 carries. Last week against Oregon, he had just 55 yards on 16 carries. While it's unfair and untrue to say that Best has not produced good numbers in big games, the Bears need him to step up and make some plays against a rugged Trojans defense that is going to gang up on him. Sure, quarterback Kevin Riley needs to create a passing threat so the Trojans can't crowd the line to stop Best, but if Best makes a few plays early, things probably will be a lot more open for Riley downfield.
10. Locker vs. Clausen: Washington's Jake Locker is 21st in the nation in total offense, but most will see him as the second-best quarterback on the field Saturday. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen is finally living up to his talent and recruiting pedigree, and the nation's fourth-rated passer is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. But he also has a bum toe. Locker is a team player and a good citizen, but he's incredibly competitive. Bring up Tim Tebow, and Locker's reticence clearly suggests he thinks he's just as good. Locker would love to steal the big stage in front of Touchdown Jesus and turn in a blockbuster performance.