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Pac-12's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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Today we put a bow on the 2013 season (almost -- a few more review posts are coming up, and then probably a few more after that). But today across the blogosphere, we’re categorizing some of the top moments and individuals from the Pac-12 season. These are set in stone and in no way open to argument or interpretation.

Best coach: Arizona State's Todd Graham was voted as the league’s coach of the year by his peers. And it’s hard to argue with that, given the fact that the Sun Devils had the best league record and won their division. But you can’t discount the job of the L.A. coaches (interim or otherwise). Ed Orgeron did a phenomenal job in relief at USC before Steve Sarkisian was hired, and Jim Mora shepherded his team through a difficult time early.

Best player, offense: Ka’Deem Carey was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. And the Pac-12 blog agrees. Certainly, cases can be made for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was on the Heisman Trophy track before being derailed by a knee injury. And there is the debate between Carey and Washington running back Bishop Sankey, which will rage until the end of days.

Best player, defense: The coaches went with Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton. And there’s nothing wrong with that selection. But cases certainly can be made for outside linebackers Trent Murphy (Stanford) and Anthony Barr (UCLA).

Best moment: Lots of them. Shocking upsets (see below) and stellar individual performances dusted the landscape of the 2013 Pac-12 season. But in terms of moments that were seared into our memories, it’s tough not to think about UCLA’s come-from-behind win at Nebraska way back on Sept. 14, following the death of Nick Pasquale. Specifically, Anthony Jefferson recovering a red zone fumble and then sprinting off the field to give the ball to Mora, followed by a big hug. It was as authentic and genuine a moment as you’ll find in sports.

[+] EnlargeKodi Whitfield
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's Kodi Whitfield had a highlight touchdown grab against UCLA.
Biggest upset: Take your pick between Utah topping Stanford or Arizona topping Oregon. Both were road losses for the favorites and both shook up the national and league landscape. Granted, Utah’s win over Stanford came earlier in the season, and early-season losses are easier to rebound from. Oregon’s loss to Arizona came at the end and cost the Ducks all kinds of postseason possibilities.

Best workhorse performance: It’s a tie between Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and Carey -- both of whom put in the work in their teams’ victories over Oregon. Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries; Gaffney carried 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown.

Best play: One of the most subjective categories, for sure, but Kodi Whitfield’s one-handed touchdown catch against UCLA was nothing short of spectacular. He elevated between two Bruins defenders and backhanded the ball out of the air for a 30-yard touchdown. Something about UCLA-Stanford brings out the one-handed catches. Recall in 2011, Andrew Luck hauled in a one-handed catch against the Bruins, and a few plays later, Coby Fleener snagged a one-handed dart from Luck for a touchdown.

Best performance, offense: Again, wildly subjective. Take your pick from Ty Montgomery’s five-touchdown day against Cal, Marion Grice’s four touchdowns against USC or Wisconsin, or Myles Jack’s four touchdowns against Washington. Brandin Cooks had a pretty nice day against Cal with his 232 receiving yards. There were games with seven touchdown tosses from Mariota and Taylor Kelly. Connor Halliday’s losing effort against Colorado State was spectacular. In terms of impact, it’s hard not to go back to Carey’s effort against Oregon.

Best performance, defense: As in every other category here, plenty to go around. But think way back to Washington State’s win over USC. Damante Horton had a 70-yard interception return that tied the game at 7-7 in the second quarter. Then, after Andrew Furney’s 41-yard field goal put the Cougars ahead 10-7 with 3:15 left in the game, Horton picked off Max Wittek, which allowed WSU to run out the clock.

Pac-12 assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
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We’re four weeks into the season and the Pac-12 has (mostly) made short work of its nonconference foes. Now the fun starts. League play kicks off conference-wide this week. But before we look forward, the ESPN blogosphere is looking back at some of the best and worst through the first four weeks of each conference.

Best game: In terms of excitement, it’s tough to beat an overtime shootout. And that’s what happened when Oregon State traveled to Utah in Week 3. After building a 27-10 lead early in the third quarter, it looked like the Beavers would cruise. But Travis Wilson would lead the Utes back and they’d eventually grab a 38-37 lead. The teams swapped touchdowns in the closing three minutes to force overtime, where the Sean Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks connection gave the Beavers a 51-48 victory.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBrandin Cooks leads the nation in catches, receiving touchdowns and first-down receptions. Yeah, that's good enough to get our best player vote.
Best player: For as shaky as Oregon State’s defense has been, its offense has been sensational. So we’re going to give the nod to Cooks, who has 10 more receptions than anyone else in FBS football. Through four games he leads the nation in catches (43), receiving touchdowns (7) and first-down receptions (23). Mannion gets honorable mention, since someone has to throw the ball. But Cooks is head-and-shoulders above the rest of nation’s receivers right now. Another honorable mention to Washington’s Bishop Sankey, who has emerged over the last nine or so games as one of the country’s elite running backs.

Best performance: How about the Washington State defense -- that’s right, defense -- for its performance in the 10-7 win at USC. Damante Horton nabs a pair of interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six. Daquawn Brown makes his first career start and has a team-high 11 tackles and two pass breakups. Toni Pole blocks a kick, the front seven gets 7.5 tackles for a loss and a sack. You can say USC’s offensive inefficiency played a role. And you’d be right. But give credit where it’s due. Mike Breske had the boys ready to go and the Cougs came to town and pushed their way to a win.

Best surprise: Though his team has played in only two games so far this season, it’s hard not to feel good about the comeback of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson -- and really the rebirth of the Buffs under Mike MacIntyre. Richardson has 417 yards in just two games, which puts him eighth in the country. Had Colorado played its game against Fresno State (which was postponed due to flooding), it’s likely we’d see Richardson toward the top with Cooks. As for the Buffs in general, we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. They still have a long way to go. But you can definitely see an air of confidence about this team that’s been lacking the last couple of seasons.

Biggest disappointment: Head’s: Oregon State's defense. Tails: USC's offense. Go ahead and flip. Either way, you're right. Both have been disappointing. Anytime a BCS conference team loses to an FCS team, it’s disappointing. Anytime one of the country’s proudest football institutions is averaging 22 points per game through four games, it’s disappointing. Anytime a team -- once ranked in the top 25 (I guess that actually applies to both schools) -- is allowing an average of more than 35 points per game, it’s disappointing. Both teams are 3-1. And probably counting their blessings that (1) USC's defense has been that good and (2) Oregon State's offense has been that good.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
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Taking stock of Week 2 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: It was inevitable that Washington State's 10-7 win at USC was going to end up being an archly negative referendum on Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, rather than a celebration of the Cougars' advancement, but the Cougs still had to make the plays to win the game. And they did. Washington State hinted at Auburn in the opener that it would be a tougher out in Year 2 under Mike Leach. At USC, the Cougars showed they are capable of winning Pac-12 games.

Best game: The Cougars' win at USC was devoid of offense, but it was the only game of the weekend that presented a lot of drama. Even California's closer-than-expected win over Portland State owned a note of inevitability once the Bears settled down on defense in the second half. In terms of good football, Oregon and Stanford certainly provided that in dominant victories.

Biggest play: Washington State cornerback Damante Horton provided the Cougs with their only touchdown when he returned an interception of a Cody Kessler pass for a 70-yard TD with one minute left before halftime. That tied the score at 7-7 and seemed to irritate Trojans fans in the Coliseum. Go figure.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsOregon RB De'Anthony Thomas rushed for 124 yards and three TDs against Virginia.
Offensive standout: There were a number of big performances against weak foes, but De'Anthony Thomas' work at Virginia stands out the most, in large part because it answered a question: Yes, Thomas can be a lead running back. His 124 yards on just 11 carries -- 11.3 yards per run -- and three touchdowns were not just flash. There were moments of physicality, too. Heck, he threw a couple of effective stiff arms against far larger defenders. He also caught a 28-yard pass, so he's still a weapon in the passing game when Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost want him to be.

Defensive standout: Horton not only had his pick-six, he also intercepted USC's other QB, Max Wittek, on the Trojans' final possession. That would be enough for a tip of the cap, but he also had two tackles for a loss and four total tackles. It's worth noting that he helped limit the nation's best receiver, Marqise Lee, to seven catches for 27 yards, though some of that may fall on the guy calling plays for the Trojans.

Defensive standout II: Stanford All-American safety Ed Reynolds had 12 tackles and an interception, leading the Cardinal's dominant defensive effort against David Fales and San Jose State. The Spartans had only 251 total yards in a 34-13 Stanford victory. Trent Murphy's two sacks also are worthy of note.

Special teams standout: New Arizona kicker Jake Smith set a school record with 16 points via kicking in the Wildcats' 58-13 win over UNLV. Smith was 3-for-4 on field goals with a long of 41 yards and he was perfect on seven extra points. Those 16 points broke the previous single-game record for kickers of 15 held previously by three players. In addition, Smith kicked off 11 times, with five touchbacks and a 63.3-yard average. The Rebels mustered only 16.5 yards per return on six tries, and Smith registered one tackle to stop a potential long return.

Smiley face: The Pac-12 took care of business and avoided upsets, going 8-0 in the Week 2 nonconference slate. There were some scares, most notably California and Colorado, but winning is the thing. The conference's top two teams, Oregon and Stanford, both posted dominant wins against respectable foes.

Frowny face: Well, this isn't terribly difficult: USC. Not USC as a whole, because the Trojans turned in a sterling defensive performance against Washington State. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done everything asked of him. Maybe more. But the Trojans' offensive ineptitude against the Cougars is inexcusable. You could make an argument that a purely random selection of play calls would have produced more points and yards than what the Trojans got Saturday as boos rained down in the Coliseum.

Thought of the week: It's measuring stick week, time for the Pac-12 to announce to the country what many started theorizing in the preseason: The Pac-12 this fall is as strong as it has been in recent memory, top to bottom, and should be in the mix when debating the nation's best conference. There are games against three ranked teams: California vs. No. 4 Ohio State, UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska and Arizona State vs. No. 20 Wisconsin. Further, Washington visits Illinois, Colorado plays host to Fresno State, Boston College visits USC and Tennessee is at Oregon. The Pac-12 blog -- and others on the West Coast -- have talked the talk. Now the teams must walk the walk.

Questions for the week: Was Washington State Kiffin's Waterloo? It's not difficult to ascertain what fans at the Coliseum were thinking after the 10-7 loss to Washington State. After booing throughout the game, they chanted "Fire Kiffin" in the fourth quarter. The Pac-12 blog gets no joy from hot seat talk. Being gleefully snarky about a guy struggling at his life's work is pretty lame. But Kiffin is a big boy. Big-time college football is a bottom-line profession -- winning is the thing. And that's even more true at a place such as USC. Things will have to turn around quickly and dramatically, particularly on offense, for Kiffin to retain his job.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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So who deserves a helmet sticker for a job well done?

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: Sure, it was against Sacramento State, but Kelly was darn near perfect in a 55-0 win. He completed 23 of 31 passes for 300 yards with five TDs and no interceptions. That earned a 96.3 Total QBR rating (out of 100) from ESPN.com Stats & Info.

Travis Wilson, QB, Utah: Again, we don't get too excited about games against FCS teams, but Wilson has been sharp in two consecutive starts. In the 70-7 win over Weber State, he completed 14 of 19 passes for 264 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. He also rushed three times for 93 yards and two scores, one a 51-yarder.

De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon: Thomas, looking like a much more polished, complete running back than in the past, rushed for 124 yards on just 11 carries -- 11.3 yards per pop -- and scored three TDs in the Ducks' blowout win. He also caught one pass for 28 yards, but his catching just one ball shows that he's really a RB and not as much a "slash."

Jared Goff, QB, California: Goff completed 30 of 47 passes for 457 yards with two touchdowns in the Bears' comeback 37-30 win over Portland State, an FCS team. ... While he wasn't always on target -- he missed a number of potential big plays -- he didn't throw any interceptions. He had three while also putting up big numbers last week in the loss to Northwestern, including a pair of pick-6s. The true freshman has already thrown for 900 yards this year.

Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado: Two games, two 200-yard receiving games. Richardson caught 11 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Buffaloes' 38-24 win over Central Arkansas. The Buffs went 1-11 last year without Richardson. They are 2-0, in large part because he's back.

Oregon State's defense: A week after becoming a national laughingstock for their horrid performance against Eastern Washington, the Beavers' D bounced back against Hawaii, holding the Rainbow Warriors to 239 total yards and no second-half points in a 33-14 victory.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: His suspension ended in the second quarter with a bang when he took his first carry 58 yards for a TD. He finished with 171 yards on 16 carries -- 10.7 yards per carry average -- with two touchdowns in the Wildcats' blowout victory.

Damante Horton, CB, Washington State: His 70-yard interception return provided the Cougars their only TD in a 10-7 win over USC. It was the most memorable of his two picks -- one for each Trojans QB. He also had two tackles for a loss among his four total tackles.

Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford: Gaffney returned to college football after a year off playing pro baseball by rushing for 104 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns in the Cardinal's 34-13 win over San Jose State.

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