NCF Nation: Brian Blechen

Utes defense needs playmaking

July, 23, 2013
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Utah's defense wasn't bad last year, particularly when you consider it was supported by an anemic offense. But there was a decided lack of big plays that transferred momentum to the team in red.

Here are two telling measures.

  • Utah forced just 22 turnovers. That ranked 10th in the conference. Six Pac-12 teams forced more than 30.
  • Opposing offenses scored touchdowns on 31 of 43 red zone trips -- 72 percent. The only conference team that was worse was woeful Colorado.

The loose correlation there? Playmaking. Who's going to make the play that stops a drive short of the end zone?

[+] EnlargeTrevor Reilly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerUtah will need defensive end Trevor Reilly to be a playmaker this fall.
"We have to make those few plays that win you games," Utes defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said. "That's the difference between an 8-4 year and a 5-7 year. We didn't make enough of those big-time plays."

Overall, the Utes were pretty middling on defense in 2012, even with massive defensive tackle Star Lotulelei gobbling up blockers. They ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (25.1 points per game) and fifth in total defense (363.5 yards per game). They were still strong against the run, ranking second in the conference. But the end result was lagging.

What Sitake realized is the Pac-12 had something to do with that. In their second year after making the move up from the Mountain West, the Utes saw an injury bug slow down starters and hit their depth. Banged up guys playing more plays than they should is not good anytime but particularly against up-tempo offenses.

"You can't just have just 11 starters anymore with everyone doing these uptempo offenses," Sitake said. "Your twos have to be as good as your ones because they are going to play a lot of snaps."

Utah is still catching up with the rest of the Pac-12 when it comes to top-to-bottom depth.

Further, two of Sitake's top playmakers, defensive end Trevor Reilly and linebacker Brian Blechen, didn't have the seasons they'd hoped for due to nagging injuries, not to mention Blechen's three-game suspension. Reilly hobbled around on a bum knee the entire season, though he still ended up leading the team in tackles.

The good news is both are now healthy. Blechen is back at linebacker and back to 230 pounds. Reilly will be at defensive end instead of outside linebacker.

The questions are at linebacker and cornerback, positions where fall competition should be fierce.

Replacing Star? Not possible but also not a pressing problem.

"You can't replace him," Sitake said. "But we've always had reliable, strong D-tackles. There's never been a shortage of that at Utah."

Sitake is high on JC transfer Sese Ianu, who likely will rotate at tackle with LT Tuipulotu and Tenny Palepoi.

Blechen will lead the linebackers, but the other two spots aren't filled, as LT Filiaga is listed as an "Or" behind V.J. Fehoko and Jared Norris at both middle and rover linebacker, respectively.

In the secondary, things are solid at safety, but the top three cornerbacks from 2012 need to be replaced.

Sitake is optimistic he'll find some answers this fall. But his big-picture hopes aren't focused on specific positions.

"I'd like to see our depth get better," he said. "I'd like for us to remain healthy."

And he'd like to see a few more game-changing plays.
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.

What we learned about USC at Utah

October, 5, 2012
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SALT LAKE CITY -- It took the Utah Utes 165 seconds to score 14 points in Thursday night's game against No. 13 USC. It took them more than 56 minutes to score 14 more, as the Trojans' offense and defense both tightened up for a 38-28 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Here are five things we learned about USC in the win:

1. This team has some fight

Fourteen points in 2 minutes, 45 seconds? USC essentially gave itself a real-life spread to fight back from in this game -- and, fittingly, the Vegas spread for this one hovered around 14 points.

The Trojans handled it with aplomb, weathering the storm to an impressive extent and taking back the lead before halftime in a hostile environment. Coach Lane Kiffin said it was a situation that he'd be glad happened by the end of the year. That makes sense.

USC is going to face tougher teams than the Utes, for sure, but it's probably not going to face a tougher start than that all season.

Star receiver Marqise Lee said the 14-point deficit gave the Trojans "an opportunity to fully understand our team as a whole."

"Is SC going to break down or pick it back up?" he envisioned people around the country asking after that. "There you see: We pick it back up."

2. USC's defense is better than people realize

[+] EnlargeUSC defense
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAside from points off turnovers and those scored against backups, USC's D was solid against Utah.
In Lane and Monte Kiffin's first season with the Trojans, the USC defense was downright awful at times. And the Trojans still had some bad moments in 2011.

But the truth is, this unit hasn't had a bad game, yet, this year. They're actually starting to become a force.

Taking away Utah's first two touchdowns that USC's defense had almost nothing to do with and the fourth-quarter score against the backups, the Trojans allowed only seven points and created seven points of their own with a Nickell Robey pick-six.

A Lane Kiffin-coached team being good on defense? Yes, it's true.

Kiffin admitted after Thursday's game that his defense was playing the best it has in his 30-game tenure at USC.

3. Woods can still play

His numbers weren't fantastic, but Robert Woods was a big part of USC's offensive performance in the Trojans' win.

He and Lee were both given more room with which to work on Thursday night, probably because Utah saw from the tape of the Cal game that USC's ground attack can be effective. And both guys did a lot with it, Woods pulling down six grabs for 69 yards and a score and Lee flirting with 200 yards on 12 catches.

Woods had a first-half scare when he tried to deliver a block on Utah's Brian Blechen during a punt return, then stumbled to the turf while trying to run off the field.

His explanation said a lot, though.

"I just got dazed for a little bit and tried to get up, not stay down," Woods said. "For pride."

The junior receiver has a lot of that.

4. Holmes is an ideal leader

It's unusual in football to be able to correctly fault a single player for an opposing touchdown, but USC center Khaled Holmes really was directly responsible for both of Utah's early scores.

He had bad snaps on two of the Trojans' first five to give the ball to the Utes and a holding penalty mixed in there on a failed run play.

Here's the thing, though: From then on, he played great. And he took full responsibility for his mistakes afterward, apologizing to his teammates in the locker room after the game before Kiffin even had a chance to speak.

He said he made a point to forget the plays after Utah scored twice in the first three minutes.

"You have to," Holmes said. "Quarterbacks have to forget it if they throw a pick, cornerbacks have to do it if they get beat deep. Unfortunately I had two terrible plays. But I was able to past them, and the guys never faltered with their confidence in me. And I couldn't be any more grateful for that."

Holmes didn't offer any excuses. He's had to come out of games twice in the last four weeks due to injury, but he didn't even mention that.

5. Barkley might yet have a chance at the Heisman

Based on his early-season play, experts around the country had been rapidly dropping USC's Matt Barkley on their Heisman Trophy leaderboard, and deservedly so: He hasn't really been playing as well as he did late last year.

But he had a fantastic game in Salt Lake City, completing 23 of his 30 passes for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He made only one or two bad decisions the entire game ... and two drops by his receivers prevented his numbers from really looking supreme.

Sure, if West Virginia Mountaineers' Geno Smith keeps putting up "video-game numbers" -- as Barkley called it this week -- he'll be the Heisman favorite.

But to count Barkley out would be premature.
Utah boasts the top defensive tackle in the Pac-12 -- probably the country -- in Star Lotulelei. Arizona State's defensive tackle -- Will Sutton -- is probably playing the best football of any defensive interior lineman through the first three weeks of the season.

Both take center stage this weekend when the Sun Devils host Utah on Saturday in a Pac-12 South matchup. Each team is looking to get to 3-1, and both coaches believe it will be the play of their defenses that gets them there.

"You've got two guys that are probably pretty similar," said ASU coach Todd Graham of the opposing defensive tackles. "They are both pretty dominant, both pretty physical, both very fast off the ball and explosive and disruptive. It will be interesting to watch those two on opposite sides of the ball. They are similar in their skill set. But Will is my guy so I'm pretty partial to him."

And with good reason. Sutton is tied for second in the conference in sacks (3) and has more tackles than any other defensive tackle in the conference with 22. He's tied for 11th in the league in tackles and only linebackers and defensive backs rank ahead of him.

[+] EnlargeWill Sutton, Corbin Berkstresser
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonArizona State will be counting on Will Sutton to help stop Navy's fierce rushing attack.
Pretty good stuff. But Utah's offensive line, though there is some inexperience, is used to seeing a pretty good defensive line in practice.

"We have a pretty formidable front led by Star Lotulelei," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's our leader on defense, no doubt. I think having the opportunity for our offensive line to go up against a quality defensive line like they do week in and week out is a healthy thing and a good thing. And hopefully it makes them better."

Probably not a good thing for Utah this week, but Lotulelei has actually made Sutton better, though he probably doesn't know it. Sutton has been a fan of Lotulelei for quite some time. And he watches film on Utah's big man every chance he gets.

"He's big and physical so I like to see what he does," said Sutton, a 6-foot-2, 271-pound junior. "I'll study him and see if I can use any of his moves to better myself."

Is he willing to share what he's learned?

"Yes, I have taken some stuff from him, and no I can't tell what," Sutton said with a laugh.

At 6-4, 320 pounds, Lotulelei isn't the type of player who will put up big statistical numbers. His job is to disrupt, plug holes and eat up blockers. He's exceptional at it, which is why many project him to be a top-10 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. However, he came up big in Utah's victory last week over rival BYU, tallying six solo tackles and blocking a field goal.

Naturally, Lotulelei and the rest of the Utah front have Graham concerned.

"This is the best defense we've played so far," Graham said. "I think the explosiveness on the defensive line, their interior defensive linemen, there aren't any better in the country. They have one of the best defensive tackles in the nation. They are very disruptive, very explosive and very smart. They are well-coached. One week they'll do a multitude of things. They are well-schooled schematically."

And Utah's defense gets a boost this week with the return of safety Brian Blechen, who missed the first three games serving a suspension.

"He is ready," Whittingham said. "He has worked his tail off. He has taken virtually every rep for us on the scout teams. If there is a positive aspect, he has handled it the right way and done everything he could do -- he was a quarterback on the scout teams, a receiver, whatever we have needed him to do he has done."

ASU comes into the game tied for the conference lead with seven interceptions. Utah quarterback Jon Hays, who has once again thrust into the role as starter, is completing 56 percent of his throws (30 of 53) with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Utes should also be more effective running the ball with John White back in the lineup. Whittingham said that will be crucial moving forward.

"Arizona State is very good on the defensive line and playing good defense overall," Whittingham said. "We've got our work cut for us, there is no doubt about it. We've got to play much better in the run game offensively than we have been if we want to have a chance to win. We haven't been running the football nearly effective enough so that's one area of emphasis for us."
Utah's defense -- which projects to be one of the best in the Pac-12 this season -- will have to get on without one of its starters for the first three games of the 2012 season.

Safety Brian Blechen has been suspended for three games for violating team rules, the school announced on Monday. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound strong safety has been a starter since his true freshman season.

Blechen, who was originally recruited to play quarterback out of Moorpark, Calif., will have to sit out against Northern Colorado, Utah State and -- this is the one that has to sting -- rival BYU.

Blechen, who earned all-conference honorable mention last season, is one of Utah's most versatile defenders, having started four games at linebacker last season before moving back to safety. Last season he forced three fumbles and had three interceptions. The freshman All-American has seven interceptions in his first two seasons.

Junior Quade Chappuis is listed behind Blechen on Utah's post-spring depth chart. The former walk-on has one career interception -- against BYU. He appeared in all 13 games last season, starting one against Washington.

Blechen will continue to practice with the team throughout his suspension. He's eligible to return Sept. 22 at Arizona State. The Utes are then on bye before their Oct. 4 showdown with USC in Salt Lake City.

Pac-12 offseason check list

January, 20, 2012
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While recruiting season is heating up for its home stretch, national signing day is about the future. The present matters, too, and there are plenty of present matters that need attending.

What are the main areas of focus in advance of spring practices? Glad you asked.

1. Hello, my name is Coach ____________: There are four new Pac-12 head coaches: Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Todd Graham at Arizona State, Jim Mora at UCLA and Mike Leach at Washington State. That's a lot of turnover -- one third of the league. Further, none of the four retained many members of the previous staffs. So there will be a lot of "Getting to know you" in advance of spring practices. Also, beyond head coaches, Norm Chow left Utah to become Hawaii's head coach, so the Utes need a new offensive coordinator. Washington rebuilt its defensive staff. Coach Steve Sarkisian fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt and two other coaches and saw defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin bolt for UCLA. He then raided Tennessee, California and Oregon State to replace them. Because of the Huskies, Cal will have two new assistants this spring and Oregon State one.

[+] EnlargeBryan Bennett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireBryan Bennett is the favorite to take over for Darron Thomas at Oregon.
2. Settled at quarterback? The only teams that have certainty at quarterback are: California, Oregon State, USC and Washington -- and some Cal fans might even harrumph that assertion. You can probably throw Arizona's Matt Scott in there as a certainty, both because he has quality starting experience and because there's no one around to unseat him. UCLA, Utah and Washington State have returning starters, but they also have plenty of intrigue. It's uncertain who takes the first snap in the opener. For Oregon, most would favor Bryan Bennett stepping in after Darron Thomas' surprising decision to enter the NFL draft, but his name isn't written atop the depth chart in ink just yet. Arizona State, Colorado and Stanford are wide-open competitions. It would be wise for any quarterback who wants to be in the starting mix to be laying groundwork with his teammates and coaches well in advance of the first spring practice.

3. Line up: Arizona welcomes back five starters on its offensive line, while USC and Washington get four starting offensive linemen back. Every other team has some degree of uncertainty with at least two voids to fill. Perhaps more than any position, the quality -- and depth -- of an offensive line can be advanced during the offseason. Hit the weight room, training table and the track -- get stronger, quicker and work off the baby fat and turn that into quality size. Right now just about every team has a guy who thinks he's going to automatically advance on the depth chart who is going to be overtaken by a youngster who is eyeballing his slack, er, rear end while doing an extra set of power cleans.

4. Taking the next step: At this point last year, Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan and Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei were just promising guys, not first-team All-Pac-12 defenders. Wide receivers Keenan Allen of Cal and Robert Woods of USC were coming off impressive freshman seasons but were facing the inevitable, "What's next?" questions, which implied the possibility of sophomore slumps. But, of course, Allen and Woods joined Jordan and Lotulelei on the All-Conference first team. Did you know that USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil wasn't even honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2010? Kalil was a big-time talent who had yet to make a statement -- you know, the "I'm a top-five pick as the best left tackle in the NFL draft" statement. There are a lot of players who had good seasons in 2011. Good for them. But just like Oregon coach Chip Kelly, the Pac-12 blog is a forward-thinking operation. Yes, we were very impressed De'Anthony Thomas, Marqise Lee, John White, Ben Gardner, Nickell Robey, Marquess Wilson, Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard, Brian Blechen, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Keith Price, Tramayne Bondurant, Mustafa Jalil, Stefan McClure, David Bakhtiari, Colt Lyerla, Scott Crichton, Sean Mannion, Ty Montgomery, Sean Parker, John Fullington, etc. But what are you doing to get better right now? Yes, right now. So stop reading this, wondering why your name isn't listed and go do some wind sprints.

5. Don't believe the hype -- either way: Everyone is massively overrating USC and Oregon. Top-five teams? Pfftt. So stop staring at yourself in the mirror in your tighty-whiteys, doing a most-muscular pose. I talked to your mammas and they said you ain't all that. California, Washington and Utah are eyeballing your girlfriends. Better watch out. If you don't do the work, you won't be top-five anything. And what about you Colorado, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon State, Washington State -- are you going to hear those national yawns and assume there's no hope? Are you expecting to lose and using that as an excuse to eat a Twinkie on the sofa while watching "Caddyshack" again instead of going to a workout? From now until opening day, there will be endless fan and media chatter decided how every Pac-12 teams' season is going to go. Hey, it's fun. But that doesn't decided a season. The 100 guys in the locker room do. Oh, and one final thought. Stanford? You're done. You ain't poo without Andrew Luck.

Pac-12 rewind and look ahead

September, 5, 2011
9/05/11
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Taking stock of the first week of games in Pac-12 history (and perhaps the last first weekend of games in Pac-12 history).

[+] EnlargeCalifornia quarterback Zach Maynard
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuCalifornia quarterback Zach Maynard recovered nicely after an early interception.
Team of the week: California was far from perfect in its 36-21 win over Fresno State -- the offensive line struggled at times -- but the Bears, singled out by some as a potential game one upset victim, made a solid statement against the Bulldogs that they might be a factor in the Pac-12 North Division. The biggest piece of news was the solid play of quarterback Zach Maynard. That he bounced back so well from an early interception might even be more meaningful. His two predecessors were known for letting mistakes linger and affect their performances.

Best game: It shouldn't have been a thriller, but Washington needed a late interception to outlast Eastern Washington 30-27. And it's worrisome that the Huskies were outgained by the Eagles 504 yards to 250. Hey, guys, how about a little pass defense?

Biggest play: Sure you've seen the highlight of UCLA receiver Nelson Rosario's 54-yard reception against Houston, ESPN's Play of the Day on Saturday, though it came in a losing effort. Rosario, turned around with his back to the endzone in tight coverage, grabbed the ball with his right hand, then trapped it on the back of the Cougars defender to make the catch. An instant classic. Now, Nelson, how about becoming consistent on routine plays?

Offensive standout: USC wide receiver Robert Woods caught a school-record 17 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans' 19-17 win over Minnesota. A tip of the cap to Oregon State's true freshman running back Malcolm Agnew, who rushed for 223 and three TDs on 33 carries in the Beavers upset loss to Sacramento State.

Defensive standout: While Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict (three sacks) and Utah linebacker Brian Blechen (two interceptions) put up nice numbers versus FCS foes, Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks piled up a game-high nine tackle with 2.5 coming for a loss -- the 0.5 was a sack -- against a solid Fresno State team. He also broke up a pass as the Bears held the Bulldogs to 218 yards and 11 first downs. It's possible the Bears will have the best defense in the conference.

Special teams standout: Washington kicker Erik Folk was 3 for 3 on field goals of 40-plus yards in the tight win over Eastern Washington, connecting on kicks of 53, 47 and 40 yards.

Smiley face: To the Bay Area. Both Cal and Stanford took care of business with solid performances. Sure, San Jose State isn't much, but Stanford was cruelly efficient in dispatching the Spartans. Cal surely raised more than a few eyebrows in the conference.

Frowny face: The state of Oregon. Both Oregon and Oregon State went down, though to very different foes in very different ways.

Thought of the week: Two things we thought we'd see on Saturday that we didn't: An improved UCLA defense and a strong performance from Colorado at Hawaii. The Buffs defense was pretty solid, though the Hawaii offense was rebuilding other than quarterback Bryant Moniz. But the offensive line is a big concern, giving up seven sacks and struggling to open holes for the running game. A struggling offensive line doesn't bode well for Cal's visit. As for the UCLA defense, it played much better in the second half at Houston. We'll see if the first half was an anomaly-- Case Keenum is a pretty good QB, after all -- or the start of a pattern of inconsistency.

Questions for the week: Welcome to "measuring stick" week. There are big nonconference games across the board that likely will establish how the Pac-12 is viewed nationally, particularly after a lackluster opening frame. Will the conference notch a couple of quality wins? Or will it get cut down and see its national perception plummet? Further, Utah's visit to USC is the first Pac-12 game in,well, history. Will the Utes immediately prove they belong?

Pac-12 helmet stickers

September, 4, 2011
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Who gets a helmet sticker for a job well done (on a bad day for the Pac-12)?

Nick Foles, Arizona: Foles completed 34 of 42 passes for 412 yards with five TDs and no interceptions in the Wildcats' 41-10 win over Northern Arizona.

Robert Woods, USC: Woods caught a school-record 17 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans' 19-17 win over Minnesota.

Marvin Jones & Keenan Allen, California: The Bears receivers each eclipsed 100 yards receiving, combining for 230 yards in the 36-21 win over Fresno State. Jones caught two touchdown passes.

Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State: The Sun Devils linebacker had three sacks in the 48-14 win over UC Davis.

Chris Polk, Washington: Polk rushed for 125 yards in the 30-27 win against Eastern Washington less than three weeks after having minor knee surgery.

Brian Blechen, Utah: Blechen intercepted two passes to go along with seven tackles in the Utes' 27-10 win over Montana State.

Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: The Bruins running back rushed for 128 yards on 16 carries -- an eight yard average -- with a touchdown in the 38-34 loss to Houston.

Learning to hate in the Pac-12

April, 1, 2011
4/01/11
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Ohio State-Michigan? Whatever. Auburn-Alabama? That's a quaint bit of hate. Oregon-Washington? The ranting and raving from the rain-soaked adherents in green and purple fleece just doesn't compare.

To what, you ask? Well, the hottest rivalry in college football, of course.

Utah-Colorado! (Cue "Psycho" shower scene music).

Doesn't do it for 'ya does it?

Think about your college football conference. Every game matters, but some matter just a bit more. Those are your rivals. You don't like them; they don't like you. It's a beautiful thing.

Now consider Utah and Colorado fans. The Utes, who are leaving the Mountain West for the Pac-12, are still under contract with arch-rival BYU for the next two seasons, but there are no guarantees that game will continue to be played annually (though the good money says it will). The Buffaloes, who are leaving the Big 12 for the Pac-12, no longer will play arch-rival Nebraska, which is skipping off to the Big Ten.

Their new schedules include nine conference games with teams that, well, they just don't have any strong feelings about.

"I'm sure we can conjure up some kind of hate for [Colorado]," Utah's colorful offensive tackle Tony Bergstrom said. "Tell us they're Communists or something."

Tony, they are Communists.

Expansion isn't a regular thing. Oh, the Southwest Conference got picked apart in 1996, and the ACC raided the Big East in 2004-05, but when teams jump from conference to conference -- particularly when automatic qualifying conferences are involved -- it sends strange ripples across sport's space-time continuum. The Buffaloes and Utes in the Pac-12 is a new thing in a sport that leans hard on its history to fuel the emotions of obsessive fandom.

You can't force the Utes and Buffaloes to hate each other. That's not how it's done. Confessed Utah linebacker Brian Blechen, "I don't have anything against Colorado."

So what must be done? Obviously, some Pac-12 team must commit a grave offense against Utah or Colorado. This, of course, will be mostly imagined, thereby making it easier to attribute it mythic status over the coming years.

"Invariably, something is going to happen in those games, and School X is going to be the school that you point to," Colorado coach Jon Embree said.

Embree also has been selling to his players that they are a part of program history because they, in fact, are making program history.

"Coach Embree said in the locker room that we get to start new traditions, we get to start new rivalries," Buffaloes quarterback Tyler Hansen said. "That's something to look forward to. Ten years from now, if the Colorado-Utah game is a big rivalry, we can say, 'Hey, we were the first game. We started that rivlary.' That could be something special."

There are potential angles for Utah-Colorado hate. Nebraska was all about red. Colorado fans therefore are not big fans of red. Utah is all about red, too. And everyone knows that Utah fans are jealous of the vastly superior skiing in Colorado. Or is it vice versa?

On perhaps a more substantive level, Colorado is entering the Pac-12 as an equal member -- in 2012, per the original agreement -- while Utah will get no payout from the conference in 2011 (other than an equal share of revenue from the Pac-12 championship game), and partial shares for the two years after that (50 percent in 2012 and 75 percent in 2013). There is some "all are equal but some are more equal than others" at play here.

While the Buffaloes have been a mediocre team of late in the Big 12, and the Utes are a national power coming out of the MWC, there's still a bias that favors the AQ team. When Utah -- or TCU or Boise State, for that matter -- was making one of its undefeated runs over the past few seasons, some dismissed it with a, "They wouldn't be able to do that in the SEC/Pac-10/Big Ten/Big 12."

"Coming from the Mountain West, I think a lot of people are going to be look at how we transition into that," Blechen said. "Kind of like a statement on whether we can hang or not in the Pac-12. I think we'll be ready."

Of course, Utah's most recent game with a Pac-12 team was a win over California in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl. Colorado visited California last fall. That trip went badly.

"A lot of bad," Hansen said with a pained look. "I'm looking forward to playing those guys. That's a big game for me personally because I didn't play well last year."

So there you have it: Colorado has a history with a Pac-12 foe.

Of course, not everyone fuels up on emotion.

"I've been playing different teams my whole life," Colorado running back Rodney Stewart said. "I don't care who I'm playing against. I just try to do my job. It's just football."

It is just football, but that's the good news for we lovers of rivalries. Football is too emotional and physical of a game for teams that regularly play to remain neutral about each other.

No hate between Utah and Colorado and other Pac-12 teams? Just give it time.

Utah notes: Wynn getting healthy

March, 28, 2011
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn, who had shoulder surgery in December, will start throwing next week, coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Wynn will toss only short throws with a trainer and won't practice with the Utes this spring, but Whittingham said that Wynn's rehabilitation is "very much on schedule, if not ahead of schedule."

With Wynn out, sophomore Griff Robles and true freshman Tyler Shreve (a grayshirt) have been getting all the work with the first-team offense as they compete to back up Wynn in 2011. In just five practices, Shreve has shown enough that he's squarely in the hunt.

"He's progressed," Whittingham said. "He's a kid who has a strong arm. He sat out last season so he's a little rusty."

Some more notes:
  • Whittingham on the move of Brian Blechen from safety to linebacker: "It's very obvious that's where he belongs."
  • The running back competition is down to three guys: John White, Harvey Langi and Thretton Palamo. Luke Matthews had been listed as a running back but Whittingham said he's become more of a "slash" player: a receiver/running back.
  • In fact, it appears new offensive coordinator Norm Chow is bringing the "F-back" hybrid position to Utah. In the latest depth chart, Matthews and tight end Jake Murphy were listed as "fullbacks." In the previous depth chart, receiver Mo Lee also was listed there.
  • Boo Anderson has moved back to linebacker after starting spring as a fullback.
  • Whittingham seemed to be feeling pretty good about his front seven, particularly defensive tackles Star Lotulelei -- Whittingham said he's "the anchor of the defensive line" -- and James Aiono.
  • When asked for some standout redshirt freshmen so far this spring, Whittingham listed Murphy, receivers Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott, linebackers V.J.Fehoko and Jacoby Hale, and safety Terrell Reese.

Will have more after practice.
On Friday, we looked at offensive three-headed monsters -- the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver troikas -- so it also makes sense to also look at their defensive counterparts, the best threesomes from each of the three levels of defense: defensive line, linebacker and defensive back.

Here's the tally from last season, if you are interested.

1. Arizona State

DE Junior Onyeali, LB Vontaze Burfict, CB Omar Bolden

The Skinny: No question on No. 1 here. Onyeali was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Burfict is the nation's best inside linebacker. Bolden was unanimous first-team All-Pac-10.

2. Stanford

DE Matt Masifilo, LB Shayne Skov, SS Delano Howell

The Skinny: Masifilo, the lone returning starter on the Cardinal defensive line, was honorable mention All-Pac-10, as was Skov, who was playing as well as any linebacker in the conference over the final third of the season. Howell was second-team All-Pac-10.

3. California

DE Trevor Guyton, LB Mychal Kendricks, S Sean Cattouse

The Skinny: Guyton had 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks despite being a part-time starter. Kendricks was second-team All-Pac-10. Cattouse earned honorable mention.

4. Oregon

DE Terrell Turner, LB Josh Kaddu, CB Cliff Harris

The Skinny: Two solid returning starters and a second-team All-Pac-10 cornerback who figures to be a preseason All-American after earning second-team honors from the Associated Press and Walter Camp Football Foundation in 2010.

5. Washington:

DT Alameda Ta'amu, LB Cort Dennison, FS Nate Fellner

The Skinny: Ta'amu earned honorable mention All-Conference honors and seemed to find himself over the latter half of the season. Dennison had 93 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions. Fellner tied for second in the conference with five interceptions.

6. Arizona

DT Justin Washington, LB Paul Vassallo, CB Trevin Wade

The Skinny: Washington's numbers fell off when he got banged up, but he still had 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks as a redshirt freshman. Vassallo was honorable mention All-Conference. Wade had an off year last fall, but was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2009.

7. USC

DE Armond Armstead, LB Chris Galippo, FS T.J. McDonald

The Skinny: This actually could be one of the best threesomes in the conference, but Armstead and Galippo have injury issues and only put up middling numbers last fall. McDonald was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010.

8. Washington State

DE Travis Long, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, SS Deone Bucannon

The Skinny: Long was honorable mention All-Conference, Bucannon, who started as a true freshman, and Hoffman-Ellis were the Cougars' top two tackles in 2010.

9. UCLA

DE Datone Jones, LB Patrick Larimore, SS Tony Dye

The Skinny: A solid threesome that is down here more because it gets an "incomplete." Jones missed all of last season with a foot injury, but, if healthy, he's an All-Conference sort. Larimore was solid in seven games before suffering a shoulder injury. Dye led the Bruins in tackles and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10.

10. Colorado

NG Will Pericak, LB Jon Major, FS Ray Polk

The Skinny: Pericak earned honorable mention All-Big 12. Major was the Buffaloes leading tackler before he blew out his knee in Game 7 (a knee injury also killed the junior's true freshman season). Polk was the second-leading tackler.

11. Utah

DE Derrick Shelby, LB Chaz Walker, CB Conroy Black

The Skinny: Honestly don't know how to rank the Utes here. Shelby and Walker are returning starters -- Walker earned second-team All-Mountain West honors. Black was the top backup cornerback last season. But Star Lotulelei might be the Utes' best defensive lineman, and Brian Blechen has moved from strong safety, where he was very good, to linebacker. How highly do the Utes think of him? They list him as an All-American candidate.

12. Oregon State

DE Dominic Glover, LB Rueben Robinson, S Lance Mitchell

The Skinny: Three returning starters, but none of them even earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Mitchell was the Beavers' third-leading tackler, Glover had 2.5 sacks, and Robinson split time with Tony Wilson.

Utah in the Pac-12

January, 27, 2011
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The time is nigh for me to hand Utah off to our esteemed Pac-12 blogger, Ted Miller. I want to thank all the Utah fans for reading this season, and all your mail and comments into the mailbag. I had fun covering the Utes, if only for a year, and attending my first game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Sorry, you may not want to be reminded of that game.)

Before I say farewell to Utah, I wanted to weigh in on a few matters on the future of the program now that it is set to join an automatic qualifying conference. First, where will Utah finish in the Pac-12? Ted had Utah at No. 7 overall in his way too early preseason Pac-12 rankings earlier this month. That would have Utah finishing fourth in its division, behind Arizona State, USC and Arizona.

The Utes have big questions to answer as they head into their new conference. With only 13 starters returning, this will be a young team headed into uncharted territory. Its best player on defense, cornerback Brandon Burton, is gone. So is the running back tandem of Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, and special-teams ace Shaky Smithson, along with its best offensive linemen in center Zane Taylor and Caleb Schlauderaff.

[+] EnlargeWynn
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireHow well Jordan Wynn's shoulder responds after surgery is one key X-factor for Utah next season.
But I like Utah to finish in the top half of the league and its division for a number of reasons. First, I think the hire of Norm Chow will help this offense in the new league. Chow has been able to develop quarterbacks in the past, and he will have plenty to work with in Jordan Wynn. What could change this scenario is how long Wynn's rehab takes from shoulder surgery. Utah has not disclosed the extent of Wynn's injury, but it's serious enough that he will be unavailable for the spring. How he recovers will impact how Utah does next season. Though Utah is losing its top two backs, hopes are high for junior college transfer John White and incoming freshman Harvey Langi.

Defensively, Utah does return its top three tacklers and plenty of depth on the defensive line, which rotated 10 players into games last season. The front seven is going to be a huge key for Utah, especially after watching the way some of those players were overmatched in losses to TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State. Safety Brian Blechen could compete for all-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore.

What Utah has been so good at as a non-AQ is not rebuilding, but developing talented players and inserting them into the starting lineup when it was their turn. That may not be as easy now that it is going into an automatic qualifying conference. What we don't know is how Utah's depth matches up with everybody else in the league, and depth plays such a critical role especially down the stretch.

As for the conference competition, I am not yet sold on Arizona State being a power, Arizona has to rebuild its lines and I also have questions about USC and whether it will improve in 2011. As we saw this past season in the Pac-12, there were two dominant teams and everybody else. Where Utah's schedule was back-loaded last season, it is front-loaded in 2011 with games at USC and at BYU in the first three weeks of the season. That being said, my projected record for Utah is ... 9-3 with losses to USC, BYU and Arizona. This may be overly optimistic because there is no way to gauge how Utah will perform in a different conference.

Reminder -- it's only January so please take these projections with a grain of salt.

What I am especially going to watch his how Utah performs and whether this changes the perception people have of non-AQ schools. One of the biggest arguments against the non-AQs when you start debating whether they deserve a spot in the national championship game is this one: They would never be able to survive the grind of an AQ schedule. We will get our first chance to see whether that is true or not. If Utah does survive, will this argument become moot? Or will it survive because the Pac-12 is perceived to not be as difficult as the "SEC grind"?

Ted takes over in a few weeks. Until then, keep sending in your Utah questions and comments.

Utah Utes season recap

December, 7, 2010
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When you win at least 10 games for three straight seasons, it is hard to call anything a disappointment. Yet Utah may be best remembered this season for its 47-7 loss to TCU, a game that showed its 8-0 record at No. 5 ranking in the BCS standings were not what they appeared to be. Still, this season has to be considered yet another in a line of success stories, considering the unknowns headed into 2010. You figured the offense would be just fine with a core group returning, including quarterback Jordan Wynn, running backs Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata, and a solid offensive front. But the defense had to replace seven starters, including all three linebackers. Well the new faces at linebacker stepped up big time, and the defensive line showed its strength and depth. A new star emerged in the secondary in safety Brian Blechen, a true freshman who made big plays at crucial moments. Shaky Smithson also developed into one of the best punt returners in the country. This may not have been another undefeated season, but it certainly was another good one. Another note to remember: Utah’s senior class leaves as the winningest in school history with a 42-9 record.

Offensive MVP: QB Jordan Wynn. Yes, he missed two games during the season with an injury, and was awful in the two losses. But so was the entire offense. He still gets credit for finishing second in the league in passing yards per game (233.4) and taking another step forward in his development. But next year is going to be absolutely critical with Utah joining a bigger conference.

Defensive MVP: MLB Chaz Walker. The second-team all-Mountain West Conference selection leads Utah with 103 total tackles. He is the first Ute to reach 100 tackles since 2007 and his 103 tackles with one game remaining ties him for the most in the past five years. Incredible, considering he began his career as a walk-on and this is his first year as a starter.

Turning point: Losing 47-7 to TCU on Nov. 6. Utah went into the game ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings and a 21-game home-winning streak. But TCU cruised to a 23-0 halftime lead and Utah was never in the game. The hangover lasted another week. Utah played an uninspired game against Notre Dame and lost 28-3 for back-to-back losses in which it scored just 10 points.

What’s next: Utah plays No. 11 Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas on Dec. 22 in its final game as a member of the Mountain West Conference. The Utes join the Pac-12 for next season.

Non-AQ Players of the Week

November, 29, 2010
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Here are your non-AQ players of the week, as selected by each conference.

Conference USA

Offense: Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne. Completed 62 percent of his passes and was 23-of-37 for a career-best 406 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-50 win over Southern Miss. He also ran for two scores.

Defense: Marshall LB Mario Harvey. Recorded a career-high 21 tackles, had two sacks, forced a fumble, and recorded five pass breakups in a 38-23 win over Tulane.

Special teams: Southern Miss KR Francisco Llanos. Returned seven kickoffs for 197 yards, including an 87-yard return for a touchdown the first time -- his first-ever kickoff return for Southern Miss.

MAC

East Division

Offense: Miami RB Thomas Merriweather. Ran for a career-high 182 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown in a 23-3 victory over Temple. His 96-yard touchdown tied for the second-longest run in Miami history.

Defense: Kent State LB Cobrani Mixon. Had eight tackles, one sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two pass breakups and a hurry in a 28-6 win over Ohio.

Special Teams: Ohio P Paul Hershey. Averaged 46.7 yards per punt on three kicks at Kent State.

West Division

Offense: Toledo QB Terrance Owens. Went 24-of-32 passing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-31 win over Central Michigan in his third career start.

Defense: Northern Illinois DE Jake Coffman. Had five solo tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble in a 71-3 win at Eastern Michigan.

Special Teams: Toledo KR Eric Page. Became the first Rocket in history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns, a 99-yarder in the first quarter and a 95-yarder in the third quarter, in a 42-31 win over Central Michigan.

Mountain West

Offense: San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley. Completed 22 of 30 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-14 win over UNLV. It was his sixth 300-yard passing game of the season.

Defense: Utah DB Brian Blechen. Had seven tackles, one sack, an interception and a pass breakup in a 17-16 victory over in-state rival BYU.

Co-Special Teams: Utah DB Brandon Burton, UNLV K Marcus Sullivan. Burton blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the game, helping preserve the victory over the Cougars. Sullivan set a new UNLV single-game record for kick return yards with 224 yards and an average of 37.3 yards per return.

Sun Belt

Offense: North Texas RB Lance Dunbar. Set a career-high and had the sixth-best rushing performance in the nation this season with 270 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to Kansas State.

Defense: Middle Tennessee LB Darin Davis. Set a Sun Belt record with 101 yards on his two second-half interception returns in a win over FAU.

Co-Special Teams: Louisiana SS Cooper Gerami, North Texas WR Brelan Chancellor. Blocked an extra point attempt to preserve a victory for the Cajuns over their in-state rivals. Gerami also added five tackles on the night. Chancellor returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second game in a row, taking one back 93 yards against Kansas State. He is one of seven players in the nation this season to have two or more kickoff returns for a touchdown.

WAC

Offense: Hawaii RB Alex Green. Ran for a school-record 327 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries in a 59-24 win at New Mexico State.

Defense: Fresno State LB Travis Brown. Made five tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown in a 23-20 win over Idaho.

Special teams: Louisiana Tech KR/PR Phillip Livas. Returned a punt a career-long 88 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter of Louisiana Tech's 45-38 win at San Jose State. It was his eighth career return (kick or punt) for a touchdown, tying an NCAA record set by five others. He had a total of three punt returns for 103 yards and added a kickoff return for 27 yards against the Aggies.

Non-AQ Players of the Week

November, 1, 2010
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Here are the non-AQ players of the week, as selected by each conference:

Conference USA

Offense: UAB running back Pat Shed, UCF running back Ronnie Weaver. Shed ran for a career-best 176 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 50-49 double overtime win against Southern Miss. He finished with 235 all-purpose yards as the Blazers posted their first win in Roberts Stadium. Weaver ran for a career-high 180 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns in a 49-35 win against East Carolina.

Defense: Tulsa linebacker Shawn Jackson. His interception with 37 second left in the first half gave Tulsa the momentum in its 28-27 win against Notre Dame. He also had six tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries.

Special teams: Tulsa punt returner Damaris Johnson. Had a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown, the second of his career in the win. He is 25 yards shy of tying the Conference USA all-time kickoff return record.

MAC

East Division

Offense: Miami receiver Nick Harwell. Had eight receptions for 97 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-9 win at Buffalo.

Defense: Bowling Green defensive tackle Chris Jones. Had six tackles, five tackles for loss, three and a half sacks and recovered a fumble in a 17-14 win at Central Michigan.

Special Teams: Kent State punter Matt Rinehart. Averaged 52 yards on four punts as the Flashes posted a 43-yard net in a 33-14 win against Ball State.

West Division

Offense: Western Michigan receiver Jordan White. Had a career-high 14 receptions for a career-high 180 yards and one touchdown in a 28-21 loss to Northern Illinois.

Defense: Northern Illinois defensive end Jake Coffman. He had four tackles and the game-saving interception on Western Michigan’s final offensive play to seal the win.

Special Teams: Toledo punter Vince Penza. Averaged 40.6 yards on five punts in the Rockets' 42-7 win at Eastern Michigan.

Mountain West

Offense: San Diego State receiver DeMarco Sampson. Had seven receptions for 175 yards and two touchdowns in a 48-38 win against Wyoming. He has three straight 100-yard games.

Defense: Utah safety Brian Blechen. Had a career-high nine tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in a 28-23 win at Air Force.

Special teams: San Diego State punter Brian Stahovich. Kicked the longest punt in San Diego State history at 89 yards in the second half against Wyoming. It was his only punt of the day.

Sun Belt

Offense: North Texas running back Lance Dunbar. Ran for a season-high 215 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-6 win at Western Kentucky. The 215 yards was the most by any player in the Sun Belt this season and the third-highest rushing total in the nation this week.

Defense: ULM Darius Prelow. Had six tackles and an interception in a 28-14 upset win against Troy. The defense held Troy to its lowest point total in a Sun Belt game since 2006.

Co-Special Teams: Louisiana kicker Brett Baer, North Texas kicker Zach Olen. Baer made a field goal and four extra-point attempts, and had two perfectly placed onside kicks in a loss at Ohio. Olen made two field goals, including a 48-yarder, the longest by a North Texas kicker since 2005.

WAC

Offense: Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz. Went 27-of-38 for 326 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-10 win against Idaho. He also rushed seven times for 43 yards and another score. Moniz is the first quarterback in the nation to reach 3,000 yards this season (3,247).

Defense: Hawaii S Mana Silva. Had nine tackles (six solo), including one for a loss of 13 yards, and intercepted a pass in the win against Idaho.

Special teams: New Mexico State kicker Tyler Stampler. Went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts in a 29-27 win against San Jose State. He made a 42-yard field goal as time expired in the first half and then added a 25- and a career-long 43-yarder in the fourth quarter of a tight game.

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