NCF Nation: Alden Darby

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 5

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
11:00
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Taking stock of Week 5 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Arizona State’s home victory over USC was an announcement to the rest of the country that the Sun Devils deserve to be ranked, and the country responded by putting ASU back in the Top 25 at No. 22. More important than national perception, however, is that the Sun Devils didn’t fall to 0-2 in conference play, which would have been devastating for the team’s season-long goals. They picked up a South Division win and are still in control of their destiny in the division. One last nonconference game next week against Notre Dame and then it’s all league games the rest of the way -- including a pivotal Oct. 19 game against Washington and the all-important No. 23 game at UCLA.

Best game: In a week where the average margin of victory was 29 points in the five games, the “closest” was Washington’s 18-point victory over visiting Arizona. But there was a sense Washington was in control all 60 minutes. Oregon was fun to watch simply for the fact that not even Mother Nature could play defense against the Ducks. Stanford was fun to watch because the Cardinal looked explosive. Oregon State was fun to watch because it was a complete performance. But the ASU-USC game probably had the most drama. We had an idea of what was at stake, and even when USC cut it to 48-34 with 9:54 left in the game, there was still that lingering thought that maybe it wasn’t over. Of course, ASU scored two more touchdowns to put it away. And the end result was Lane Kiffin’s dismissal.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriD.J. Foster played a part in Arizona State's offensive explosion against USC.
Biggest play: After USC took a 21-20 lead in the opening minute of the second half, the Sun Devils responded 21 seconds later with a 74-yard touchdown from Taylor Kelly to D.J. Foster. But that wasn’t the biggest play. On USC’s next series, less than a minute later, Alden Darby jumped a Cody Kessler pass and returned it 46 yards for a score, giving the Sun Devils a 34-21 lead less than two minutes into the third quarter. He had two picks on the day, and the pick-six was a massive momentum swing, and it happened while Pat Haden and USC decision-makers were huddling to decide Kiffin’s future.

Offensive standout: Tough to ignore the kind of numbers Sean Mannion is putting up. After matching a school record two weeks ago at Utah with five touchdown passes, he surpassed the record by throwing for six touchdowns and 414 yards in the blowout win over Colorado. He did have an interception, but only because his receiver’s hands and chest got in the way and it was tipped in the air. Mannion now has 21 touchdowns on the year to just two picks.

Defensive standout: Has to be Darby, who totaled seven tackles to go with his two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Defensive standout 1B goes to Stanford’s Trent Murphy. Is there any outside linebacker with better hands? Or does he only show them off at CenturyLink Field? Saturday he intercepted a point-blank pass in the backfield from Austin Apodaca and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. If that looked familiar, he did the same thing last year at the CLink against Washington.

Special teams standout: With four games in the Pacific Northwest Saturday, weather was dominant storyline when it came to special teams. We saw numerous fumbles, bad snaps and weather-induced wackiness. But there was nothing wacky about Oregon’s Bralon Addison, who returned two punts for touchdowns. The first was a 75-yard return in the second quarter that was pure sideline speed. The second, a 67-yard return, required a little more dancing and cutting -- and avoiding being knocked down by his teammate before the play even got started.

Smiley face: The Pac-12 once again has five teams ranked in the Top 25 in both polls with ASU’s victory over USC. And Oregon State is receiving votes in the coaches poll.

Frowny face: Injuries always get a frowny face -- and Saturday saw two of the league’s superstars go down with injuries. Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas was injured on the kickoff and didn’t return. And USC wide receiver Marqise Lee suffered a knee injury that hopefully looked worse than it really is.

Thought of the week: The Beavers are back, sort of. Oregon State finally strung together a game where its defense matched the offense. And Colorado is a much-improved team from last season. Are the Buffs bowl bound? Probably not. But they aren’t the Buffs of last year, which gives a little credence to Oregon State’s dominating performance. The initial thought was that the Beavers would be 7-0 or 6-1 heading into their Oct. 26 showdown with Stanford. And they might still be (though Washington State isn’t going to make it easy). Not suggesting you go all-in on the Beavers. Remember, they are only a week removed from a miraculous win over San Diego State. But don't sell just yet, either.

Question of the week: The Trojans have a bye week to patch holes and put “Operation: Changing Lanes” in action. Do they look to an NFL name or a college name? UCLA is showing that a former NFL coach can have success in Los Angeles, even if he’s not an alumnus. USC is an attractive gig, and you can bet there were a lot of back-channel phone calls going out over the past 72 hours.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State: Cooks was the best player on the field in Corvallis, decisively winning his battle with Colorado WR Paul Richardson in the Beavers' 44-17 victory. Cooks caught nine passes for 168 yards (18.7 yards per catch) with two touchdowns. He also rushed five times for 47 yards.

Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State: Cooks was brilliant, but Mannion was also stellar, throwing six touchdown passes, a new team record. He completed 27 of 52 passes for 414 yards with an interception in the blowout win. That pick, by the way, bounced off the chest of his receiver, so it shouldn't count against him.

Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington: Sankey set a school record with 40 carries in the Huskies' 31-13 win over Arizona. He gained 161 tough yards and scored a TD.

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: Kelly completed 23 of 34 passes for 351 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in the Sun Devils' 62-41 win over USC. He also rushed for 79 yards on just four carries -- 19.8 yards per pop.

Alden Darby, S, Arizona State: Darby had two interceptions against USC, including one he returned 46 yards for a touchdown. He also forced and recovered a fumble and tied for second on the Sun Devils with seven total tackles

Bralon Addison, PR, Oregon: Addison returned two punts for touchdowns against California, the first for 75 yards and the second for 67 yards.

Devon Cajuste, WR, Stanford: The big receiver was the star of the Cardinal's new downfield passing game. He caught four passes for 115 yards in their 55-17 win over Washington State, including touchdowns of 57 and 33 yards.

Pac-12 media day primer

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
10:05
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Two weeks and counting. Ted and I are gearing up for media day. Are you? Here's what you should know.

When: July 26

Where: Sony Studios, Los Angeles

Who will be there (all times PT):
UPDATE: Arizona State informed me Friday morning that it has decided to bring Will Sutton instead of safety Alden Darby. This is a good thing because Sutton was the league's defensive player of the year last season, and his presence helps bolster his name -- and the program -- in the eyes of the national media.

Who won’t be there: The biggest name missing is Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, who led the nation in rushing last season. Coaches tend to bring veterans and guys with experience. Yankey is a great spokesman for Stanford and a good candidate, but I know others wouldn't mind hearing some thoughts from Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan.

Five storylines:
  1. Hitting? Scott is expected to announce the league's health and safety initiative, which will limit how much hitting can be done in practice. This isn't a new concept, but the league jumped in front of it by being the first to make a conference-wide mandate.
  2. Bowl updates? We know the status of the Rose, Alamo, Holiday, Kraft Fight Hunger and Sun bowls. Not sure if the rest of the lineup for beyond this season will be announced at media day. But one of us will ask.
  3. New coaches: This is the meet-the-world opportunity for the new head coaches in the league: Dykes, MacIntyre and Helfrich. Expect the requisite questions on the difficulty of changing cultures and rebuilding programs.
  4. Preseason poll: Is there any fodder better than preseason polls? Oregon or Stanford? Stanford or Oregon? ASU, UCLA or USC? Your Pac-12 bloggers will be submitting their ballots this weekend after a visit to the Oracle of Delphi, a seance channeling Nostradamus and a dartboard.
  5. Quirky questions: With the access of media day comes the spectacle of media day. Granted, it's not as bad as some of the quirks at Super Bowl media day. But there's bound to be a couple of left-field questions -- and they'll probably be directed at Leach, who is great and usually has fun with them. Last year he was asked which Pac-12 coach he'd go hunting with and which Civil War generals he'd compare some of his players to.

Ted and I will be trying something new this year (we think). Instead of the on-the-stage posts, we'll be doing a live chat during the entire stage session and bringing you info real time. So take note of the times (in Pacific, to save you the math) and be ready to interact.
We've looked at offensive three-headed monsters -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver -- so now let's look at the defensive version.

That would be elite combinations of top tacklers, top sack men and top interceptors, as tackles, sacks and interceptions make defensive coordinators happy.

The combinations here might be stronger even than the offensive troikas. Stanford, for example, welcomes back an elite, All-America sort of player for each category. It seems to us all 12 teams have at least one player to be excited about heading into the fall.

Just two teams -- Arizona State and Utah -- only hit on one category. Arizona, Colorado and Washington join Stanford hitting all three, though Colorado's interception numbers from 2012 are so meager -- 3! -- that it's not terribly relevant. And USC's just missing was a matter of 0.4 tackles per game.

So here's how we see things stacking up.

And, again, you should feel free to be outraged by our lunkheaded bias against your team, which obviously should be ranked much higher.

1. Stanford
LB Shayne Skov, OLB Trent Murphy, S Ed Reynolds

The skinny: Three potential All-Americans. There is no finer troika in the nation. Not sure if anyone else is even close.

2. USC
LB Hayes Pullard, OLB Morgan Breslin, S Dion Bailey

The skinny: Pullard was seventh in the conference with 8.2 tackles per game, just behind safety T.J. McDonald. Breslin is transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker, which actually seems like a better fit. And Bailey, who led the Trojans with four interceptions, is moving back to safety from linebacker.

3. UCLA
LB Eric Kendricks, OLB Anthony Barr, S Randall Goforth

The skinny: UCLA gets here on the power of the first two, an elite combination, with Barr a likely top-10 NFL draft pick next spring. That balances out the questions in the secondary. Goforth, a promising player, just seemed like as good a choice as any.

4. Oregon State
LB Michael Doctor, DE Scott Cricthon, CB Rashaad Reynolds

The skinny: Doctor took a big step forward last year, even if D.J. Alexander is a flashier player. Crichton, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2012, is trying to lead the Beavers in sacks for a third consecutive year. Reynolds had three picks last year and now becomes the Beavers' lead cornerback with Jordan Poyer off to the NFL.

5. Oregon
LB Derrick Malone, DE Taylor Hart, S Erick Dargan

The skinny: Malone was just thrown in there because the Ducks' linebacker situation is cloudy. Hart is a budding all-conference guy who should get his due this fall. Dargan led the Ducks with five picks, but there's an acknowledgement here also of cornerback Ekpre-Olomu, a preseason All-American, who had four.

6. Arizona State
LB Chris Young, DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby

The skinny: Sutton is the big fish here, obviously. Linebacker is a question for the Sun Devils, who lost their top two tacklers. Young and Darby are returning starters, though, with Young ranking third in tackles and Darby second in interceptions in 2012.

7. Washington
LB John Timu, OLB Josh Shirley, CB Marcus Peters

The skinny: This is a solid but unspectacular trio, as none of the three were all-conference. But the Huskies defense, which was greatly improved in 2012, has a lot of production back. It's worth noting that defensive end Andrew Hudson tied Shirely for the team lead with 6.5 sacks, and linebacker Shaq Thompson also had three picks, like Peters.

8. Arizona
LB Jake Fischer, LB Marquis Flowers, CB Jonathan McKnight

The skinny: All three leaders are back, but they get marked down for the overall defensive numbers in 2012. Flowers, an underrated player, had 5.5 sacks and was tied with McKnight with three interceptions.

9. California
LB Nick Forbes, DE Chris McCain, S Michael Lowe

The skinny: Forbes averaged 7.1 tackles per game last year. McCain tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.5, but don't be surprised if Todd Barr or Brennan Scarlett lead the pass rush. Lowe had three picks last year to tie for the team lead, but he's listed behind Alex Logan on the post-spring depth chart.

10. Washington State
S Deone Bucannon, OLB Logan Mayes, LB Cyrus Coen

The skinny: Bucannon is an A-list guy, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. He led the Cougars in tackles and interceptions, so we included Coen, who was second with three picks. The gigantic void is the pass rush, which lost four-year sack leader Travis Long.

11. Utah
LB/S Brian Blechen, DE Trevor Reilly, S Eric Rowe

The skinny: These are three solid players, but there's a lot of uncertainty on the Utes defense. The Utes lost their top two sack men and their top three cornerbacks. Blechen has bounced back and forth between linebacker and safety, and neither Reilly nor Rowe were able to top the depth chart at his position this spring without an "Or" beside him.

12. Colorado
LB Derrick Webb, DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, CB Kenneth Crawley

The skinny: All three leaders are back, but we're listing the promising Crawley instead of the two guys who had a single pick last year. Uzo-Diribe is legit. He has 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including seven last year. Big issue here, however, is how terrible the Buffs defense was last year.

Q&A: Arizona State's Josh Hubner

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
4:30
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We at the Pac-12 blog don't discriminate. Which is why we felt compelled to get a special teams player in one of the Friday Q&As. And who better than Arizona State punter Josh Hubner, who is second in the nation with 47.4 yards per kick? Coach Todd Graham calls him "without a doubt" the best punter the country, and he was recently named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award. He was kind enough to rest his leg for a few minutes and chat with the Pac-12 blog.

I know you were a quarterback, a wide receiver, a tight end, a punter and a defensive end in high school. How did you settle on being a punter in college?

[+] EnlargeJosh Hubner
AP Photo/Rob HoltArizona State punter Josh Hubner has NFL aspirations.
Josh Hubner: It was just as much of a shock to me as it was everybody else. I came out of high school and had originally signed up for the Army. That fell through. So I picked up with Scottsdale Community College literally three weeks before the season started. I sat down with the coach and he knew I was an all-state punter coming out of high school and he said he wanted me to punt and work with the tight ends. I worked with them for about 15 minutes and then it was established that all I was going to do was punt. It became something I poured my heart and soul into.

Pretty thankless job, though. Right?

JH: Yeah. But that's alright. I'm used to it and I'm accustomed to it. You jog out there understanding that your offense didn't get it going, so you do what you can to put your defense in a good position.

What's the feeling for a punter when you stick a ball inside the 10? Is it comparable to a sack or scoring a touchdown?

JH: Thinking back to high school, I don't think there is any better feeling than scoring a touchdown or sacking the quarterback 10 yards behind the line. But it's definitely a pretty invigorating feeling. A lot of the guys will look at me like I'm crazy because I'm running off the field all fired up because I put the ball inside the 3-yard line. I know in my head, I'm thinking now we can get a safety and I can be directly responsible for that. Or you kick it 65 yards and they muff the punt. All of those things fire you up. Guys like Will Sutton look at me like, 'you're crazy, but whatever you're doing, you're doing well.' It's always cool. The guys are cool about it.

You're in the hunt for the Ray Guy Award. What would that mean to you?

JH: That's big. I would have never imagined. It's an honor. He's somebody I idolized for a long time. I actually went to a couple of his camps and I actually got a chance to work with him personally a few years back. I don't think I actually realized who I was standing next to at that point. Now we're here. It's almost overwhelming, and it leaves me at a loss for words. I can't believe I'm where I'm at.

Do you miss hitting? Do you ever go out of your way to get out there and drop the shoulder a few times?

JH: I'm sure if you ask [safety Alden] Darby or any of those guys about me, they'll tell you. In spring ball we do this thing called "The W Drill" and they would always have the walk-ons run the ball. It's like a trench drill. I'd be the first guy to jump in there and grab the football and relive the glory days. But the more and more my tenure at Arizona State comes to a close, I'm starting to realize I'm just a punter and I probably need to preserve my health and my leg. But I also think I'm always going to be that way. I'm always going to be high strung and wired and wanting to get in on the action.

Looking at the team in the big picture, you had the hot start and now you're in another losing streak, not unlike last year. Can you tell a difference between the mentalities of last year's team and this year's at this point?

JH: Absolutely. It's 180 degrees. Guys are still playing for the team and the coaching staff and the fans. Guys are confident. They still have that hunger about them. Now it's mixed with a little bit of that disappointing feeling when you know you have all of the talent in the world to do what you know you can do, and you end up beating yourself. It comes down to whether you want it, and these guys want it. We want to be bowl eligible. We want to beat UofA. All of those things are big. We want the seniors to go out with a bang. This will be my last game at Sun Devil Stadium. I would say the mentality is much more positive than you'd think. We're still trying to get better, and that's all you can do.

Can we assume the NFL is next for you?

JH: Yeah, hopefully. A lot of that is something I'm trying to do my best to keep on the backburner. But it comes at you real quick. It's something I'm focused on, but it's not going to take away from what I'm doing here. We want to finish big. Hopefully I'm not on the field too much at the end of the season. But it's something I'd like to give a shot in the future.

You're 6-4, 238. Do you ever give coach [Todd] Graham a little elbow in the ribs and say 'come on, let me fake one. Let me run one.'

JH: Let me run the ball. Haha. If we're running a fake, I'm not throwing. I'm going to keep it. I'm going to run it. Send a couple big 280-pound guys like Will Sutton out on the end to seal a block and I'm taking it to the house or running over that 180-pound returner that wants to tackle me high. I wish. But as a punter, you understand you're down to do whatever for the team. Whatever the team needs, I'm out there and I'm doing it. Right now, that's punting the ball, so I'll stick with that.

Instant analysis: USC 38, ASU 17

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
6:59
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With the Trojans ahead 21-17 late in the third quarter, ASU was driving and had the ball in USC territory. On third down, a short pass to an open Davon Coleman was missed and the Sun Devils went for it on fourth down, but Wes Horton got the sack on Taylor Kelly to force a change of possession. USC promptly scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive and never looked back, easily cruising to a 38-17 win.

It was over when: With six minutes left in the game, Marqise Lee took a handoff on a reverse, changed direction, got a block from Matt Barkley and raced 38 yards down the sideline to the ASU 9-yard line. The Trojans ended up kicking a field goal on the drive to make the score 31-17, which is where the score stayed until a late USC touchdown.

Stat of game: Turnovers. ASU forced five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) that helped keep the Sun Devils in the game early on. On USC's first offensive play of the game, Lee fumbled. ASU recovered it and quickly scored to take a 7-0 lead. The Sun Devils also added an interception return for a score when Alden Darby read a Barkley pass, stepped in front for the pick and went 70 yards for the touchdown. USC forced four turnovers of its own -- one fumble and three interceptions.

Game ball goes to: USC's defense. A unit that has been much maligned in recent weeks for poor performances against spread offenses put together a solid effort against the Sun Devils' version of the spread. ASU came into the game among the nation's leaders in passing efficiency and scoring offense but Kelly was held to 19-of-30 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Unsung hero: USC running back Curtis McNeal took over as the starter with Silas Redd sidelined and ran for 163 yards on 31 carries with two touchdowns and helped steady the Trojans' offense throughout the game.

Record performance: Barkley set the Pac-12 career passing yardage record. He now has 12,026 yards, breaking the previous mark held by Carson Palmer (USC).

What it means for USC: The Trojans' game against UCLA next week at the Rose Bowl will be a good old fashion rivalry game with high stakes on both sides, as the winner will represent the Pac-12 South in the conference title game.

What it means for ASU: A season that looked to be a rebirth under new coach Todd Graham has turned in the wrong direction with a four-game losing streak. All four losses were to ranked teams but that will be of little consolation to the Sun Devils.
Todd Graham can throw all kinds of diagrams and playbooks and chalk talks at his players until their heads spin. But if they don't believe in what the Sun Devils are trying to do, then it doesn't really matter how much of the playbook they do or don't retain.

So more important than the Xs and Os, Graham is stressing the dos and don'ts of being in his program and the challenges that come from making a culture change. And after a few months on the job, he's pleased to report that, in his mind, Arizona State is headed in the right direction.

"The thing I'm most proud of is how they responded to such a drastic change," said Graham. "In terms of accountability -- we expect them to go to class every day, we check every class, we drug test every kid in the program. We're trying to install this structure and discipline and I'm proud of the way this team has responded to that and embraced that. The guys have bought in."

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew ASU coach Todd Graham said his team has responded well to his direction this spring.
Before the start of the spring session, Arizona State's players were little more than images on film to Graham. He could read bios, track workouts and see what they did last season. But that didn't really give him a sense of what he had to work with as he and his staff are trying to install new systems on both sides of the ball. Now that he's seen them do some live work, he's starting to get a sense of the team's identity.

"Those first six practices, you know how it is when you are trying to change things up, you just want to beat your head against a wall," Graham said. "But on the seventh practice, I got the impression that they were finally getting it."

Graham said he's been impressed with the offensive line play -- which he thought was going to be a question mark heading into the spring. He was complimentary of returning starters Evan Finkenberg and Andrew Sampson, but also noted that Brice Schwab and Jamil Douglas "have really been impressive."

"I think the strength of our defense is the defensive line so those guys [on the offensive line] are playing against some pretty good competition," Graham said. "Every day those guys get a little better. That has been a real bright spot."

Graham didn't add much to what offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said last week about the quarterback competition, but he did single out the springs of running back Cameron Marshall, safety Alden Darby, cornerback Osahon Irabor, defensive tackle Corey Adams and wide receivers Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross.

"Miles has really started to master his craft," Graham said. "He's been very disciplined in his route running. Marshall is at the front of a stable that I think is going to be very good.

"The reality is that we still have a long way to go. But I've got confidence because I think this team is coming together because of each one of them buying in and working as a team. We are making great progress in developing that trust that it takes to be a family and a team and a team that wins. I remind them every day that we're going to be a team that wins championships and you can't do that without winning every day in everything that you do."
Arizona State, the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 South Division, suffered a major blow Tuesday when it was announced two returning senior starters -- cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson -- had suffered ACL injuries that will sideline them for five to eight months.

Bolden, a unanimous pick for first-team All-Pac-10 in 2010, is a particularly big loss. He opted to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft and was an All-America candidate. The Sun Devils are deeper at receiver than at corner. Further, Bolden, whose career has taken a number of twists and turns, including a season-ending knee injury in 2009, was one of the team's best leaders.

Both will undergo surgery next week.

Deveron Carr, who's sitting out spring after shoulder surgery, and Osahon Irabo will likely be the Sun Devils' starting cornerbacks. Coach Dennis Erickson also said that Alden Darby, presently playing free safety, could switch to corner. Redshirt freshman Devan Spann was Bolden's backup on the spring depth chart.

Redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson was Simpson's backup at the "X" receiver spot.

Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin writes that the Sun Devils will need a leader to step up, and she suggests that linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a good candidate.

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