NCF Nation: Apple Cup

Darryl Monroe represents grounds for hope for Washington State, hope that the beleaguered program will trend up in 2013.

It's not only that he played well last fall as a redshirt freshman starting at middle linebacker in the Pac-12, which is pretty rare. It's his makeup. When coach Mike Leach griped about the focus, work habits and mental toughness of his team last year, he wasn't talking about Monroe.

"Definitely an impressive guy," Leach said. "A good individual to build a defense around."

Want to know why Leach calls Monroe "impressive" and why we're pulling out the word "makeup," one of those vague, football scout-type terms, as one of his positive qualities?

[+] EnlargeDarryl Monroe
AP Photo/Rob Holt"The struggle is something you've got to embrace," Darryl Monroe said. "It's what's going to make you better in the long run."
How about this: Monroe was asked about the Cougars' dramatic 18-point fourth-quarter comeback and overtime victory over the archrival Washington Huskies.

"It will be one of the games I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said. "We played that game for Travis Long. He was holding back tears because he couldn't play. We got him an Apple Cup before we were out of here. That's what it meant to me: Getting that win for Travis."

That is a good answer in so many ways. Yet perhaps there's not enough Husky hate from the Orlando, Fla., native, who admits to not knowing much about the rivalry before he arrived in Pullman?

"We bleed crimson and we don't like Washington," he said.

Other than the Apple Cup, the 2012 season was tough on the Cougars. The great hope inspired by Leach's hiring quickly spiraled into the muck of a 3-9 finish and another campaign -- no winning seasons since 2003 -- spent looking up from the bottom of the Pac-12. It became clear there would be no quick fix, and Leach repeatedly promised an escalation in the intensity of his demands.

Monroe described the offseason work as "brutal ... and it's not even over." But that's not the important part of his thinking.

"The struggle is something you've got to embrace," he said. "It's what's going to make you better in the long run."

As we said: Makeup.

Know that Monroe isn't just a smooth talker. The 6-foot-1, 215 pounder earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention, finishing second on the team with 80 tackles. His 8.5 tackles for a loss, including three sacks, ranked third on the team.

Another aspect of his makeup: He didn't bail out on the program.

Monroe picked the Cougars over Cincinnati and South Florida because of his relationship with Chris Ball, the defensive coordinator under Paul Wulff. His true freshman season ended with a torn Achilles, which was a bummer. When Wulff was fired, Monroe seriously considered leaving so he could start over somewhere else.

Pullman, after all, is a long way from home, both literally and figuratively. Orlando doesn't have too many days when the temperature is in the single digits, for one.

"It was a stressful time, period," he said. "It was pretty tough. It was a time of uncertainty for me, whether I would still be a Cougar or not."

But his parents pretty much advised him to suck it up. So he did. By midseason, he became one of the Cougars' best leaders, earning game captain honors three times, including for the Apple Cup.

He's not the conference's biggest or fastest linebacker. He makes up for that, though, with his brain.

Said Leach, "He really plays well from the neck up. He's a really smart guy."

Coaches often talk about "attention to detail," and Monroe uses that phrase three times in a 15 minute interview. When asked about what aspect of his game he's working on, he talks about reading his keys and leadership.

He sounds very "coachy." It's not difficult to imagine Leach nodding with approval after his every answer.

For Cougars fans looking for grounds for hopes, Monroe is a good place to start.
Just when it seemed like Washington State had all the Apple Cup momentum, Washington produced a strong response.

After the Cougars scored consecutive touchdowns to tie the game, the Huskies drove 61 yards in 1 minute, 41 seconds to retake the lead, 21-14 at the break.

The Huskies jumped to a 14-0 lead, mostly feeding off a sloppy start by the Cougars. Washington scored one touchdown on a blocked punt, then drove 55 yards for another.

The Cougars had five penalties, fumbled and gave up a blocked punt in the first quarter.

But Washington State found its footing on offense, driving 80 and 66 yards for touchdowns.

Both quarterbacks are playing well. Cougars QB Marshall Lobbestael completed 14 of 18 passes for 167 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. Huskies QB Keith Price completed 10 of 16 for 134 yards with two TDs and no picks.

So far, Washington State has done a good job of containing Washington running back Chris Polk.

The second half question may be which defense breaks first.

Break might help struggling Price

November, 18, 2011
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It might be a good thing that Washington quarterback Keith Price is going to miss Saturday's game at Oregon State. While that supposition hangs on the Huskies managing to beat the 2-8 Beavers with backup Nick Montana, Price has looked like he could use a break the past few weeks.

When the Huskies headed to Stanford on Oct. 22, they were 5-1 and ranked 22nd. Price, a sophomore, was fifth in the nation in passing efficiency (177.9) and had thrown 21 touchdown passes to just four interceptions.

Keith Price
Steven Bisig/US Presswire"I don't think we've played very well around him," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian says of the struggles of sophomore quarterback Keith Price.
Price and Washington got crunched 65-21 that evening, and a downward slide started for him and the Huskies, who have lost three of four, including the drubbing by the Cardinal. Price has throw four touchdown passes in his past four games, with six interceptions, and his rating has fallen to 155.1.

That's hardly terrible -- it ranks 16th in the nation. And, to be fair, the competition level went up, considering those defeats came to Stanford, Oregon and USC. But Price also threw three picks at home against woeful Arizona (though one wasn't his fault, he was saved from another by a penalty).

And, yes, coach Steve Sarkisian has seen it, too. Price has been playing with multiple injuries much of the season -- ankle, both knees -- but there's more than just a physical element to Price's recent struggles.

"I think when you start to struggle a little bit and you're a young quarterback, you can have a tendency to press and to maybe try a little too hard," Sarkisian said. "I think that's been a part of it."

But it's not all on Price.

"I don't think we've played very well around him," Sarkisian said. "I don't think we've protected the quarterback great. We haven't run the football as well as I think we can to take some of the pressure off of him. We haven't made tough catches. All of those things added up, your quarterback goes from being one of the hottest in the country to struggling a couple of games."

That's all fair. Price's receivers have dropped way too many passes. His offensive line has yielded 29 sacks, including seven to USC. And running back Chris Polk, who is averaging 113.2 yards per game, has only 116 total rush yards in the past two games.

So Price perhaps could use the break before the Apple Cup and whatever bowl game the Huskies end up in. Get healthy. Rediscover his kwan.

Of course, again, they need to win in Corvallis. To make sure that happens, the Huskies need to regain, to use Sarkisian's term, their "real sense of purpose and attitude," which he said he didn't see at USC.

As for Montana, son of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, he might not be asked to do too much if Polk can get back on track against the Pac-12's No. 11 run defense. But Sarkisian said he feels good about Montana running the entire offense.

"I feel great about Nick Montana because I have some experience with him now," Sarkisian said. "I understand what his demeanor is like on game day more so than the beginning of the season.''

The experience will be good for Montana. And the rest should be good for Price.

But none of it will feel good if it becomes the fourth loss in five games.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the Pac-12...

November, 9, 2011
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Lots and lots of Oregon-Stanford chatter this week. As it should be. Big game. Big stakes.

But there's a lot going on outside of Center Court.

  • Three 5-4 Pac-12 teams can get bowl-eligible this week: California at Oregon State and the winner of UCLA's visit to Utah.
  • Dennis Erickson was Paul Wulff's coach -- one of them, at least -- at Washington State. One of them is going to leave an axe wound in the other's once-promising season.
  • Is Colorado going to win a Pac-12 game? It seems like a visit from 2-7 Arizona offers the last good chance for a conference win. The Buffs just don't win on the road, particularly against good teams, and their final two games are at UCLA and at Utah.
  • [+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
    AP Photo/Bret HartmanRick Neuheisel is trying to direct UCLA to its third consecutive win this weekend.
  • Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has won two in a row over his former team, USC. He and Lane Kiffin have been trash-talking each other this week, which has been amusing. But this is a big game in the overall conference pecking order.

First there's Cal and UCLA.

Both program's have restless fan bases. Getting to a six win and bowl eligibility would quiet that a bit.

Cal needs to win. It will be an underdog in its final two games: at Stanford and at Arizona State. If the Bears finish 5-7 for a second consecutive year, coach Jeff Tedford will be near the top of hot seat lists going into 2012.

UCLA needs to win. Neuheisel is already on one of the nation's hottest seats, but a third consecutive quality victory might win friends and influence people. If that happens, the Bruins should be able to handle Colorado at home on Nov. 19. That then would set up a visit to archrival USC on the season's final weekend as a potential South Division title clincher.

And a loss at Utah would immediately bring the villagers and their torches back to Westwood.

If the Utes won at home, a third consecutive conference victory would suddenly turn a season that was once spiraling into the mire into one that could be pretty darn successful: 8-4 and a quality bowl game to get a potential ninth victory. Not too shabby after an 0-4 start in Pac-12 play.

Oregon State, Arizona and Colorado are just playing for pride. And every win makes the offseason just that much more tolerable. The Buffaloes and first-year coach Jon Embree, in particular, probably don't want to be freighted with a 1-12 record -- 0-9 in the conference -- for the next nine months.

Wulff is in a tight spot, period. Few folks believe he has a chance to save his job. But beating the Sun Devils -- not that far-fetched considering it could be rainy/snowy and cold on Saturday night -- would leave open the possibility of a late-run at a 6-6 finish. And, perhaps, 5-7 with an Apple Cup victory might offer Wulff some hope to return in 2012.

Meanwhile, for Erickson, a loss to the Cougars could overturn a once-promising season. Just two weeks ago, a 10-win regular season and South Division crown seemed likely. A second-consecutive defeat to a previously reeling team would cast a dark shadow over Tempe. Talk of Erickson's job security could renew.

As for USC-Washington, they are in the race for the unofficial title of "Third Best Team in the Pac-12." Both have good shots at winning nine games. The Huskies need to win their final three games. The Trojans need to go 2-1, and with a visit to Oregon on Nov. 19, this might be a must-win.

While the Trojans can't play in a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions, a 10-3 finish would generate plenty of positive momentum for the program as well as Kiffin.

The Huskies, meanwhile, could play their way into the Alamo Bowl. For a program that was 0-12 in 2008, there would be no mistaking the transformation under Sarkisian.

And he'd love to improve to 2-0 versus his buddy Lane Kiffin.

Weekend rewind: Pac-12

October, 3, 2011
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Taking stock of the fourth week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Washington State. While the Cougars buddies in Seattle deserve a tip of the cap for winning at Utah, it's not an exaggeration to say Washington State's comeback, 31-27 victory at Colorado was the most important result of the Paul Wulff Era. It was a show of mental toughness that will be nearly as important as improved talent for the Cougs' return to relevance.

[+] EnlargeMarquess Wilson
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireWashington State's Marquess Wilson, right, celebrates with John Fullington after his fourth-quarter TD catch against Colorado.
Best game: The Cougars came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit with two TDs in the final 2 1/2 minutes, then forced a fumble to clinch the win. The key play was a 63-yard TD pass from Marshall Lobbestael to Marquess Wilson with 1:10 remaining.

Biggest play: Well, in order to spread the wealth -- Lobbestael-Wilson duly noted above -- Arizona State running back Cameron Marshall, playing on a nagging sprained ankle, turned in a physical, multi-tackle breaking 37-yard TD run against Oregon State that put the Sun Devils up 28-20 in the third quarter of a surprising tight contest with Oregon State.

Most memorable play: New category here to commemorate Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck's unbelievable, one-handed 13-yard reception against UCLA that also included him athletically getting a foot in-bounds. Hey, if the quarterback thing doesn't work out, there's always tight end (and we're only half-joking; he could play tight end).

Offensive standout: There will many outstanding offensive performances, but USC quarterback Matt Barkley completed 32-of-39 passes for a school-record 468 yards with four touchdowns in the Trojans' 48-41 victory against Arizona.

Defensive standout: Washington State linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis had 14 tackles -- 12 solo -- and two sacks against Colorado.

Special teams standout: Jamal Miles, Arizona State's multi-purpose star had a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown in the win against Oregon State.

Smiley face: The state of Washington. As Bud Withers of the Seattle Times pointed out, Washington and Washington State won road conference games on the same day for the first time since Oct. 18, 2003. Might the Apple Cup have some real stakes for both teams this year?

Frowny face: The new Pac-12 members. Colorado and Utah are now a combined 0-3 in conference play and 3-6 overall. The Buffaloes blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Washington State, and Utah might have lost quarterback Jordan Wynn for a few weeks with a shoulder injury.

Thought of the week: Pac-12 defenses need to pick it up. No conference team ranks in the top-25 in total defense -- Stanford and California are 26th and 27th, respectively -- and eight rank 50th or worse. Here's a guess that the teams playing for the Pac-12 title on Dec. 2 will have top-50 defenses.

Questions for the week: Does Arizona State (4-1, 2-0) sew up the South Division on Saturday at Utah? The Utes, widely viewed as the Sun Devils top competition for the division title when the season began, are 0-2 in conference play and likely won't have Wynn. USC isn't eligible due to NCAA sanctions, and Arizona, UCLA and Colorado haven't shown much thus far.

Stakes are real in Apple Cup

November, 30, 2010
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The "Crapple Cup" is no more. That hapless and widely ridiculed battle between Washington and Washington State in 2008 has given way to a game that has meaning Saturday for both programs.

If the Huskies win, they will become bowl eligible and enjoy the fruits of the postseason for the first time since 2002. If the Cougars win, they will announce a return to competitiveness after three seasons of being one of the worst BCS conference programs in the nation.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonWashington quarterback Jake Locker will play for a chance at his first bowl game this Saturday against Washington State.
And they certainly would make coach Paul Wulff more secure as he tries to convince school administrators and a gaggle of frustrated boosters that he is the right guy to lead the program in 2011, which would be his fourth season.

"We know we've been in a major rebuilding mode, but we're about out of that part," Wulff said. "I think this is a bowl-quality team heading into next year."

It felt like Wulff and the Cougs broke through with a 31-14 win at Oregon State, which ended a 16-game Pac-10 losing streak. After a season of improvement and competitive losses, that was a tangible step forward in the record book. But there is a group of boosters who fell out of love with Wulff early-on in his tenure. It's hard to ignore that athletic director Bill Moos -- long thought to be in Wulff's corner -- has been silent on Wulff's status, which suggests there are machinations going on in the background, as highly respected Spokesman-Review columnist John Blanchette pointed out.

The Apple Cup might not -- shouldn't really -- decide Wulff's fate. But winning wouldn't hurt.

As for the Huskies, it's all about the bowl game. They are the Pac-10's best hope -- Oregon State also would finish 6-6 if it beat No. 1 Oregon on Saturday -- for a fourth bowl team. Most years, earning a sixth win on the season's final weekend would only garner a low-rung bowl invitation. But if Washington wins, it's going to either the Alamo Bowl -- if Arizona loses to Arizona State on Thursday -- or the Holiday Bowl. In either case, the Huskies will end up opposite a nationally ranked Big 12 team. That ain't too shabby.

Further, it would mean quarterback Jake Locker plays in his first bowl game, a nice cap for a disappointing senior season.

"It's special for him obviously, with all of the kind of ups and downs we have been through this year," coach Steve Sarkisian said.

There are a couple other issues, starting with weather. It's expected to be cold -- in the 20s -- and perhaps snowy on Saturday in Pullman. But both coaches called that a non-issue, with Wulff pointing out that it's a myth that the Cougars, with a roster made up significantly Californians, are used to playing in the snow.

Second: The Cougars haven't played since Nov. 13. That three-week layoff should produce a fresh, rested team, but it also might lack sharpness.

The Huskies are beaten up -- the latest casualty, offensive tackle Senio Kelemete, is decidedly questionable with a high ankle sprain -- but they should be sharp after winning two in a row to get to the cusp of bowl eligibility.

Neither team should lack for motivation.

The 2010 Apple Cup is about progress. For the Huskies, that means earning a bowl berth. For the Cougars, it means suggesting they will be contenders for one in 2011.

"To have the opportunity to go play in a bowl game symbolizes progress, no doubt," Sarkisian said. "Whether completely internally, it has that perception externally."

Oh, there's also this: It's a rivalry game and these two programs don't like each other. Don't want to forget that.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

November, 29, 2010
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A look back on the week that was.

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezChris Polk's touchdown on the final play of the game against California improved Washington's record to 5-6. The Huskies can go to a bowl game if they can beat in-state rival Washington State on Saturday
Team of the week: Washington looked dead in the drizzle after it dropped three in a row by an average of 36 points, but the Huskies got off the canvas and now have won consecutive games for the first time all season, including a 16-13 win at California over the weekend. If they win at Washington State on Saturday in the annual Apple Cup, the Huskies will go to a bowl game for the first time since 2002.

Best game: It doesn't get much more thrilling than recording a game-winning touchdown run on a fourth down from the 1-yard line on the final play of a game, as the Huskies did in Berkeley. Coach Steve Sarkisian could have kicked a field goal for the tie, but he boldly went for the win and was rewarded.

Biggest play: Top-ranked Oregon trailed Arizona 19-14 early in the third quarter when freshman receiver Josh Huff took a pitch 85 yards for a touchdown, giving the Ducks their first lead of the game. Thereafter, the Wildcats had no chance, as Oregon ended up winning 48-29.

Offensive standout: Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler came off the bench for injured starter Steven Threet and completed 27 of 36 passes for 380 yards with four touchdowns in the Sun Devils' 55-34 win over UCLA. Osweiler also ran six times for 35 yards and a score. He will start Thursday at Arizona.

Defensive standout: Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas had nine tackles and 2.5 sacks in the Cardinal's 38-0 win over Oregon State.

Special teams standout: Just after UCLA scored a touchdown to narrow Arizona State's lead to 31-27, the Sun Devils Jamal Miles returned the ensuing kickoff 99-yards for a touchdown. The Bruins never threatened again.

Smiley face: Letdown shockers late in the season that cost teams BCS bowl berths are an annual occurrence in college football. So Oregon and Stanford impressively taking care of business at home against credible foes deserves a tip of the cap.

Frowny face: We don't even know you any more, Oregon State. Lose to UCLA and Washington State? Beat USC? Then get stomped 38-0 at Stanford? Make up your mind. Please. Might be a good idea to bring the team that beat USC to Reser Stadium on Saturday or the Civil War could get uncivil.

Thought of the week: When Stanford reached No. 4 in the BCS standings, which guarantees the Cardinal a berth in a BCS bowl game, athletic directors across the Pac-10 -- even at California -- jumped into the air and clicked their heels together. Why? They know they will get a check for at least $450,000 this winter, which is the conference's per team distribution of the bonus payout for getting a second BCS bowl team. There are plenty of cash-strapped departments than can use the extra money.

Questions for the week: Will the Apple Cup be Washington State coach Paul Wulff's final game? He appears to be the only coach in the Pac-10 whose fate for 2011 is still a question. While the Cougars are much improved, and they broke through with a win over Oregon State, athletic director Bill Moos' silence on Wulff's status suggests there are some behind-the-scenes machinations going on. It's hard to believe the decision could come down to one game, but beating the Huskies and ending their bowl hopes would certainly make Coug fans happier heading into the offseason.

Final: Washington 16, California 13

November, 27, 2010
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The Apple Cup now has meaning, particularly for Washington, which can earn its first bowl berth since 2002 if it wins at Washington State next weekend.

The Huskies scored on the final play of the game -- a 1-yard run from Chris Polk -- to beat California 16-13.

Washington (5-6) has now won two in a row after suffering three blowout defeats. Cal finishes 5-7 after losing four of its final five games.

Expect there to be some soul-searching in Berkeley this offseason. The Bears' streak of seven consecutive bowl games is over.

Huskies quarterback Jake Locker completed 17-for-27 for 237 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass. He set up the winning score with a 46-yard connection to Jermaine Kearse. A supremely frustrating year for Locker could be in some part redeemed by the Huskies reaching a bowl game.

Cal had only 283 total yards. Its offense was running back Shane Vereen and little else. Vereen gained 106 yards on 23 carries.

Pac-10 bowl projections

November, 21, 2010
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No changes to our bowl projections this week.

But you can now see our thinking pretty clearly (for better or worse): Four bowl-eligible teams -- two in BCS bowls -- and an unfulfilling amount of 5-7.

We believe Auburn will lose the Iron Bowl at Alabama on Friday, thereby opening the door for an undefeated Boise State or TCU to play Oregon for the national title. That will secure Stanford a Rose Bowl invitation opposite the Big Ten champion.

Arizona will finish third and earn a berth in the Alamo Bowl. California will beat Washington on Saturday, improve to 6-6 -- becoming bowl-eligible -- and an unhappy Holiday Bowl, with no other options, will be forced to take the Bears.

Other possibilities: If Washington beats Cal, the Huskies would play the Apple Cup at Washington State on Dec. 4 with a chance to earn that Holiday Bowl berth.

Further, the winner of the UCLA's visit to Arizona State on Friday still has a chance. If the Bruins win, they play for their sixth win in their season finale against USC on Dec. 4. If the Sun Devils win, they do the same, only at Arizona on Dec.2 -- but only if they are given a waiver by the NCAA for having played two FCS teams.

We don't, however, believe the Bruins-Sun Devils winner will win their rivalry game.

Finally, if Oregon State wins at Stanford or beats Oregon in the Civil War at home on Dec. 4, it would become bowl-eligible. We don't think that's going to happen, but we feel less sure of it today than we did last week at this time.
  • Tostitos BCS National Championship Game: Oregon vs. BCS team [a non-AQ]
  • Rose Bowl Game: Stanford vs. Big Ten
  • Valero Alamo: Arizona vs. Big 12
  • Bridgepoint Education Holiday: California vs. Big 12
  • Hyundai Sun: No team.
  • MAACO Las Vegas: No team
  • Kraft Fight Hunger: No team.

What to watch in the Pac-10: Week 10

November, 4, 2010
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Issues to consider heading into the 10th week of games.

Is Foles in sync early? Nick Foles is expected to return to his starting spot at quarterback after missing two games with a dislocated knee cap. Foles is one of the best QBs in the nation, no doubt. But this is not just another start. For one, he'll be thinking about his knee early, no matter how hard he tries to block it out. That might affect his performance. And rust might be an issue -- Foles hasn't been at game-speed since going down at Washington State on Oct. 16. Moreover, if Foles isn't in-sync and, say, throws an early interception, how quickly might Mike Stoops go with Matt Scott, who was outstanding filling in for Foles? In a big game, when the stakes are high, it might be hard to be patient.

[+] EnlargeUSC V. Oregon
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC will have to rebound after getting crushed by Oregon in its "bowl game" last week.
Fight still on for USC? USC can't play in a bowl game this season, so a few Trojans called last week's game with No. 1 Oregon their bowl game. Well, they lost their bowl game by three TDs; does that mean the season is over? Does the cumulative effect of two last-second losses and that blowout defeat -- not to mention what figures to be a small crowd in the Coliseum -- leave the Trojans unfocused and unmotivated with Arizona State in town fighting for its bowl life?

"Tavita" Price? Washington would have had no chance at Oregon even with Jake Locker. It will have even less of no chance without him. Right? Redshirt freshman Keith Price surely will wilt under the pressure of boisterous Autzen Stadium and relentless blitzing from mean-old Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. Right? Well, Duck fans, let's not forget that in 2007 a Stanford team with no chance that also was starting a backup QB who made things even no-chancer entered the Coliseum -- where USC had won 35 in a row -- and beat the No. 2 Trojans, 24-23, on a 10-yard TD pass on fourth down from Tavita Pritchard. But lightning won't strike again. Right?

Lots of Jacquizz: Jacquizz Rodgers and the Oregon State running game broke through last weekend versus a good California run defense. So what will it do against a struggling UCLA run defense, which is yielding more than 200 yards per game? The guess here is Mike Riley will be eager to test the fortitude of the Bruins, whose season is teetering on the brink.

Building a Mansion on the road: Cal has been a complete disaster on the road this year, at least other than a tight game at Arizona. That makes even a trip to Washington State ominous. Further, after QB Kevin Riley suffered a season-ending knee injury during a blowout loss at Oregon State, junior Brock Mansion now will be making his first career start. Crowd noise won't be an issue -- Martin Stadium won't be full. And, while there might be some rain, the elements won't be a factor, as they sometimes are in Pullman. For Mansion, it will be all about staying focused and poised and making plays against perhaps the worst defense in the nation. Is Mansion -- and his supporting cast -- up to that, even if they aren't playing inside the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium?

Make Luck un-Lucky: The challenge for Arizona's defense is to get the Pac-10's most talented and efficient passer, Stanford's Andrew Luck, out of his comfort zone. That won't be easy. The Cardinal again has a great running game -- 224 yards per game -- and it protects Luck well, with just three sack surrendered. And even if you pressure Luck, he's such a good runner that he can make a big play with his legs just after you think a sack dance is coming. The Wildcats lead the conference in sacks, with 3.38 per game, and Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed are the best defensive end combo in the conference. But the Wildcats will have to give Luck lots of different looks, and hope that a few of them cause him a bit of angst. And provoke a mistake (or two).

A Threet to the Trojans' secondary: Arizona State QB Steven Threet leads the Pac-10 in passing yards per game. USC ranks last in passing yards surrendered. That would seem to favor Threet and the Sun Devils. At the same time, Threet has hurled 13 interceptions, most in the conference. Threet has proven he can make plays in the passing game, and USC has proven vulnerable to passers. But Threet sometimes is his own worst enemy. Can the Trojans -- and coordinator Monte Kiffin -- rattle Threet into making mistakes?

James makes more Heisman noise (and maybe Thomas, too): My Mama always said if you can't say something nice, don't say anything. But then I wouldn't be able to do my job, which is at this moment to observe that the Washington defense is lousy. The Huskies are particularly bad versus the run. Oh, by the way, Oregon rushes for 309 yards per game. So expect Ducks running back LaMichael James to get another 200-yard performance and then sit out the fourth quarter. And when the Huskies become addled trying to stop James, Thomas will find plenty of opportunities downfield. Count on both putting up numbers that are noted in next week's review of Heisman Trophy candidates.

Just when you count the Bruins out...: Seems like we've already written off UCLA about five times this year. And folks are always trying to write of Rick Neuheisel. But it also seems like, just when things are darkness for Neuheisel ... sunrise! Mike Riley seemed to be aware of that this week; he seemed genuinely concerned about how his team might view UCLA's vulnerability. Not sure how the Bruins would beat the surging Beavers, but stranger things certainly have happened. Recall that the Beavers didn't exactly shine the last time they were on the road at Washington.

Breakthrough for the Cougs? Speaking of strange things: The Cougars last Pac-10 win came in the 2008 Apple Cup against the winless Huskies. So Cal comes to Pullman looking to hand the Cougs a 16th consecutive conference defeat. If Washington State had played Arizona State tougher last weekend -- instead of, say, losing 42-0 -- then it would be easier to project an upset. Still, you'd think that, based on some of the competitive performances this year, the Cougs are going to surprise someone and get a win at some point. Cal, with a new starting QB and a tendency to throw up on itself on the road, seems like a legitimate potential victim.

Building a Pac-10 'House of Pain'

August, 5, 2010
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Here's our take on the most painful losses for each Pac-10 team.

Feel free to disagree.

Arizona

Oregon 44, Arizona 41, 2OT, 2009

With "College GameDay" on campus for the first time, Arizona fans stormed the field in celebration. Prematurely. And that set up a red ring of disappointment around the field at packed Arizona Stadium, when Jeremiah Masoli rallied the Ducks late for a tie in regulation and then a win in double-overtime. As it turned out, if the Wildcats had won, they would have gone to the school's first Rose Bowl. Masoli tied the game at 31-31 with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Ed Dickson with six seconds left, capping a 15-play, 80-yard drive. Two plays before, he had converted an 8-yard pass on fourth-and-5. Masoli scored the game winner from 1-yard out in the second overtime. It was his sixth touchdown of the night -- three passing and three running. It may have been the best game of 2009.

Arizona State

Ohio State 20, Arizona State 17, Rose Bowl, 1997

So close to a national championship. The Sun Devils' 11-0 regular season included a 19-0 victory over defending national champion Nebraska, and they looked poised to win in Pasadena when Jake Plummer, on third-and-11, scrambled for a touchdown and 17-14 lead with 1:40 to play. But the Buckeyes weren't done. They drove 65 yards for the winning score, with David Boston hauling in a touchdown pass from five yards out with 19 seconds left. That pass was thrown by Ohio State's backup quarterback, Joe Germaine, who came off the bench to earn game MVP honors. Germaine was born and raised in Arizona and grew up rooting for ASU but opted to go to Ohio State because the Sun Devils coaches wanted him to play defensive back.

California

USC 23, California 17, 2004

Cal dominated the best USC team of the Pete Carroll era -- the Bears outgained the Trojans 424 yards to 205 -- but a comeback attempt fell short at the end. It was the Bears only regular season loss, despite quarterback Aaron Rodgers tying an NCAA record by completing 23 consecutive passes. Rodgers was nearly perfect until three throws missed from the USC 14-yard line in the final minute. Cal was undone by poor special teams play and three turnovers (versus one from USC). Making the defeat even more bitter: After a lobbying effort from Texas coach Mack Brown, the Longhorns eclipsed the Bears in the BCS standings and played in the Rose Bowl, which relegated Cal, which hadn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1959, to the Holiday Bowl, where they played without passion in an upset lost to Texas Tech.

Oregon

Arizona 34, Oregon 24, 2007

It's hard to decide between the 49-42 loss to Stanford in 2001 -- the Ducks lone defeat that season -- or this one (the 2000 Civil War defeat also deserves note). The Stanford loss -- after leading 42-28 -- ended a 23-game winning streak and was the Ducks first home loss in four years. It also cost the Ducks a shot at the national title against Miami. At Arizona in 2007 on Thursday night on ESPN, the 8-1 Ducks were ranked No. 2 and quarterback Dennis Dixon was the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. They led 8-7 and were driving when Dixon blew out his knee (he'd first hurt it 12 days before versus Arizona State). Things mostly fell apart from there, in the game and over the final two games of the regular season. Here's the distinction: 2001 and its final No. 2 ranking still rate as the best season in program history. If Oregon had beaten Stanford, however, it would have played Miami in the Rose Bowl, the BCS title game, and that Hurricanes team was, well, awesome (in the real sense of the word). If the 2007 Ducks had won out and played LSU or Ohio State for the national title, their chances would have been very good to win the program's first national title. Instead, the season ended in major disappointment -- the Sun Bowl -- and an overwhelming sense of what might have been.

(Read full post)

Top 10 Pac-10 moments the decade

January, 19, 2010
1/19/10
11:20
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Great and notable -- and not so-great -- moments of the Pac-10 decade.

Note: Games of the decade comes tomorrow.

10. Le Affair de Neuheisel: Washington fired Rick Neuheisel before the 2003 season amid an NCAA probe into his participation into a high-stakes pool on the NCAA basketball tournament. Neuheisel would go on to win a $4.5 million settlement for wrongful termination. The Huskies subsequently would endure their worst run in program history.

9. Civil War for the Roses: While both teams were ranked higher in the 2000 Civil War, Oregon and Oregon had never previously played for higher stakes: a Rose Bowl berth for the winner. The game matched the pregame hype as the Ducks prevailed in a 37-33 thriller.

8. Pullman goes nuts: "The ruling on the field was that it was a backward pass. Washington recovered that pass, and the game is over," said the referee presiding over the 2002 Apple Cup. The Huskies' 29-26 upset win over then-No. 3-ranked Washington State in triple overtime ended on a controversial play that was about as inconclusive on replay as a play could be. Fans in Martin Stadium, however, thought they were getting jobbed, and they preceded to bombard the field with bottles and other objects.

7. Oregon left out: The BCS computers preferred No. 4 Nebraska, fresh off a 62-36 loss to Colorado, which knocked the Cornhuskers out of the Big 12 championship game, over No. 2 Oregon for the national title game vs. Miami. The Hurricanes routed Nebraska 37-14 for the national title, while the Ducks stomped Colorado 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.

6. Price to Alabama: When rumors started swirling that Alabama wanted to hire Washington State coach Mike Price, it seemed like a terrible match. It was. Price, after leading his listless Cougars to a loss in the 2003 Rose Bowl against Oklahoma, took over the Crimson Tide but would never coach a game. He was fired after an intoxicated afternoon at a strip club became a national scandal.

5. USC left out: USC was No. 1 in both human polls at the end of the 2003 season, but the BCS computers saw differently and matched LSU and Oklahoma for the computer title, even though the Sooners had just been beaten 35-7 by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game. LSU beat Oklahoma, while USC beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The AP and FWAA polls crowned the Trojans national champions. The coaches poll was contractually obligated to name LSU its champion, though three coaches rebelled and voted USC No. 1.

4. The replay screw-up: The scoreboard said Oregon 34, Oklahoma 33 in Autzen Stadium on Sept. 16, 2006, but Sooners fans -- and everybody else, really -- knew differently. In what was surely the worst replay call in history, the Ducks were "awarded" possession on an onside kick in which the kick was illegal -- it touched an Oregon player before going 10 yards -- and was recovered by the Sooners anyway. The Pac-10 office later admitted the call was blown. Bringing it up remains an outstanding method to annoy Oklahoma fans.

3. Bellotti to Kelly announced: On March 13, 2009, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, the dean of Pac-10 coaches and the fifth-longest tenured coach in FBS football, handed the Ducks over to offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. Bellotti, who became Oregon's athletic director, went 116-55 in 14 seasons as the Oregon coach.

2. Bush push: The play became the defining -- and controversial -- moment of No. 1 USC's 34-31 win at No. 9 Notre Dame in 2005, though a 61-yard pass from Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett on fourth-and-9 on the final drive was just as dramatic. Leinart's initial push on a quarterback sneak for the winning touchdown in the waning moments failed, but running back Reggie Bush jumped into the fray and pushed Leinart into the end zone. A couple of Notre Dame fans through the years have noted that such a play is against the rules.

1. USC hires Pete Carroll: On Dec. 15, 2000, USC made a decision that was almost unanimously panned by the media and fans: It hired Carroll as its head football coach. Things, however, worked out OK for the Trojans.

What we learned in the Pac-10: Week 13

November, 29, 2009
11/29/09
12:22
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What did we learn from Week 13 of Pac-10 action?

1. Toby Gerhart's Heisman Trophy candidacy is legit: Playing against 11 BCS conference teams, including seven that are or have been ranked this season, Toby Gerhart ended up ranked No. 1 in the nation in rushing touchdowns (26) and No. 2 in rushing (144.7 yards per game). His worst game? 82 yards on 17 carries on Sept. 12 at Wake Forest. Unlike other candidates, he always produced big against rivals and ranked teams. In his season-finale against Notre Dame, he hoisted the Cardinal upon his shoulders and rushed for 205 yards and accounted for four touchdowns -- three rushing, one passing -- in a comeback 45-38 victory. It's fair to ask: How can rational minds not judge him to be this season's most outstanding player?

2. Carroll vs. Neuheisel makes USC-UCLA more interesting: USC and UCLA don't like each other. Never have, never will. It appears, however, that Pete Carroll and Rick Neuheisel -- who seemed to get along fine when Neuheisel was first hired to coach the Bruins before the 2008 season -- will make the dislike deeper and more entertaining in coming years. Some folks will think Carroll unnecessarily piled on with that late 48-yard touchdown pass that made the final count 28-7 Saturday. Others will point out that Neuheisel called a useless and annoying time out, which justified the Trojans tacking on an in-your-face TD. The end result is there will be lots to talk about annually, both before and after these coaches and teams tangle. That's cool with me.

3. Washington State has a lot of ground to make up: The Cougars were a much worse team last year, but they still won the Apple Cup with a spirited comeback. This year, the Huskies utterly dominated in a 30-0 win, the first Apple Cup shutout in 45 years. Washington State struggled to find a healthy quarterback during the game, so the offensive futility was understandable, if hard to stomach for fans who are tired not only of losing but doing so badly. New Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian may land a top-25 recruiting class. It appears his program is trending up. Paul Wulff will need to counter, first this winter in recruiting, then next fall. Washington State has fallen way behind in the Pac-10, which may be even tougher and deeper in 2010. Can it get up?

4. Arizona finally got lucky: Arizona, you looked terrible in the second half as Arizona State made its comeback from a 14-point deficit. But you've been through a lot this year, including that dispiriting double-overtime loss to Oregon that ended your Rose Bowl dreams. While Stanford and Oregon State fans likely would remind you that not all your luck has been bad this year, that muffed punt that saved the day against the Sun Devils might have been a kindly gesture from the college football gods. "Here," they said. "Here's a gift for 'ya. Sorry about those deflections."

5. Dennis Erickson needs to win in 2010: Boy, did we see some tough coach walks after games Saturday? Kansas' Mark Mangino, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson. I always look at the coach's face and gait -- the extraordinary effort it takes to simultaneously walk to mid-field and maintain as close to a neutral expression as possible. You can feel how hard each step toward their grinning counterpart must be. I wanted to crawl through the TV and offer a pat on the back to Erickson as much as anyone. He just looked so... pained. But empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium and a second consecutive losing season won't cut it in Tempe for long. With what Erickson has coming back in 2010, there are reasons to believe the program will be on the uptick. But he needs to recruit his butt off this winter and produce a winning season or his seat will get plenty hot in the desert.

What to watch in the Pac-10

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
4:00
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It's about rivalries and bowl positions this week.

1. Will USC rediscover its mojo? The Trojans had a bye week to think about where their season has gone. They had plenty of time to consider a 27-point loss to Oregon and a 34-point defeat at home to Stanford. Will it make them mad and refocus them for UCLA's visit? Or will they shrug their shoulders over a season not up to their standards? Or, are the Trojans just not that good? There's still a lot to play for -- USC can still win 10 games -- and beating the Bruins would certainly bolster spirits, but it's hard to say what team will show up Saturday based on what's happened over the previous month.

2. Arizona tries avoid an Oregon hangover: While it's hard to imagine Arizona not being excited about playing hated rival Arizona State, that double-overtime loss to Oregon was an emotional blow, in large part because it ended Rose Bowl dreams. It was clear that many of the Wildcats felt they blew it against the Ducks. But they can't afford to ponder what-might-have-been too long. Losing to the Sun Devils would make things even worse and would sink a once-promising season.

3. Toby Gerhart vs. Notre Dame's run defense: Gerhart and Stanford rank 13th in the nation in rushing offense. The Cardinal offensive line is extremely physical. And it's probably plenty motivated by a poor performance in the Big Game vs. California. Notre Dame ranks 80th in the nation in run defense. It's not terribly physical on its defensive line. And it may be sagging a bit as another disappointing season wears down. The potential is here for Gerhart to have a big day and loudly state his case as a leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

4. Will this be Jake Locker's last game in Husky Stadium? Early in the season, Locker was widely viewed as a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. But his inconsistency in recent weeks might have tamped down those expectations. Of course, there's also his baseball contract with the Los Angeles Angels. It makes a lot of sense for Locker to return next fall and develop his game, but he might not be able to resist the allure of the next level -- in one sport or the other. Just something for Washington fans to think about as they watch Locker try to win his first Apple Cup.

5. UCLA's O-line vs. USC's D-front: UCLA's offensive line has improved this year. USC's front-seven has seemed to get worse. Both units have suffered significant injuries, but the Bruins seem to have been more resilient overcoming them. The Trojans figure to gang up on the run and try to force redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince to beat them. If the Bruins can run anyway, that would bode well for the upset.

6. Szakacsy can establish himself as ASU's QB. Or not: Arizona State's offense has been mostly bad this year. The first order of business in 2010 will be figuring out who the quarterback will be. Samson Szakacsy, a sophomore, was OK in his first start last weekend at UCLA. He made some good plays. He made some bad ones. His speed is a nice thing to have behind a middling offensive line. If he could lead the Sun Devils to a win over Arizona, he could position himself as the frontrunner to win the job heading into spring practices.

7. Weis Watch vs. Big Game hangover: Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is about to be fired. How will his players react on Saturday knowing he's shortly out the door? Will they play hard for him, or will they be flat and unfocused and thinking about their next coach? And what about Stanford? Will it bounce back from the disappointing loss in the Big Game and take out its frustrations on the struggling Fighting Irish? Or will it also be flat and unfocused? Both teams are coming off emotional lows. The winner likely is the one that feels like it's got more to prove.

8. Do the Cougs have another miracle in them? Washington State was hopeless last year -- way worse than this season -- yet it managed to post a surprising comeback overtime victory over Washington in the 2008 Apple Cup. On paper, the Huskies are much better than the Cougars again. And they are playing at home with a new coach they seem to like playing for. Ergo, Washington is a big favorite. But rivalry games sometimes turn out in surprising ways. It may take a miracle for Washington State to win, but sometimes miracles happen.

Middleton: Huskies want to run score up

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
10:53
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Where have you gone, Andre DeSaussure, the Apple Cup turns its lonely eyes to you?

Before the 1998 Apple Cup, DeSaussure, a Washington receiver with a quirky personality, announced to reporters: "I think Pullman is a bunch of crap. But it's a place you can go and have a good time, as far as a lot of drunk people."

I've always thought it a cosmic injustice that quote predated me in Seattle by a year. For a reporter covering a rivalry game, that is spun gold.

The Apple Cup has mostly been devoid of good quality trash talk of late. Just like the good quality football.

But it appears Huskies tight end Kavario Middleton wants that to change -- first the trash talk, then, one would assume, the quality football.

Said Middleton: "We want to put up 50 points. Run the score up. Put on a show. We're just trying to make a statement that we are the real deal."

As for as trash talk ratings, that's about 12 clicks below DeSaussure's masterful effort, but it's all I got for you.

Obviously, the 3-7 Huskies are significantly improved from last year's 0-12 team, though early-season hopes for a bowl berth proved a mirage. The same could be said for the Cougars, who have been far more competitive week-to-week, despite their 1-10 record.

Still, in 2001, the Apple Cup matched teams ranked No. 16 and No. 9 in the nation. The next season, the Cougars entered the game ranked No. 3.

But since 2004, both teams have been sliding down the slippery slope of bad, the climax likely -- hopefully -- being last year's Crapple Cup.

Meanwhile, across the border in Oregon, the Civil War next week will be a big national show on ESPN, with the Rose Bowl being the reward for the winner. There was a time when that game was a quaint rivalry with zero national significance. Times change.

Bob Condotta wryly noted in his blog that Middleton won't be available to talk to reporters again this week. He wouldn't have been anyway, per media policy, but this apparently is a Steve-Sarkisian-approved double-no for his potential availability.

Still, the Pac-10 blog salutes Middleton. You poured fans a small cup of colorful with your comment. The divergent reactions it will inspire will remind fans there's a game Saturday.

Perhaps some day in the future, the stakes will be more than pride.

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