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What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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Five things we learned in the Pac-12 this week:

When Stanford is on, it’s on: Home or away, when the Cardinal are at their best, they are tough to stop. And while Tyler Gaffney’s 22 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns were huge, obviously, it was the fact that the Cardinal could effectively set up play-action off of those runs that was a key to the game. Kevin Hogan was a very efficient 12-of-18 for 277 yards and a touchdown, including an average of 15.4 yards per completion. He was able to find Jordan Pratt, Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste (two catches, 120 yards) on some big plays. That more than anything kept the Sun Devils defense guessing all night.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDavid Shaw and Stanford celebrated another Pac-12 championship after running over Arizona State.
Line play was key: You need only see the final stat sheet of rushing yards to know which team won the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal pounded out 240 yards on 33 carries (5.5 yards per) with four touchdowns on the ground. Arizona State had just 138 yards on 43 carries with one touchdown for an average of 3.2 yards per carry. Part of that was Marion Grice not being available and D.J. Foster getting hurt. Part of it is Stanford’s run defense is really good. See the goal-line stand in the third quarter.

Not so special: It was a rough night for Arizona State from a special teams perspective. Punter Alex Garoutte averaged just 33 yards per punt, Zane Gonzalez missed his only field goal attempt (31 yards) and Stanford’s Ty Montgomery enjoyed an average of nearly 30 yards per kick return. Said Arizona State coach Todd Graham of his special teams: “It’s absolutely sad.”

Fun facts (via ESPN Stats & Information): With the loss, ASU falls to 7-1 at home this season and end an eight-game home winning streak. … Stanford is going to the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1970-1971. … The Cardinal outscored ASU 80-42 in two games this season. … In its past 10 meetings with teams ranked in the AP Top 25, Stanford is 10-0, including 6-0 this season.

Oregon to the BCS? Probably not. But it doesn’t hurt to hope. With NIU losing Friday night, it opened up the possibility of a second Pac-12 team, namely Oregon, going to a BCS bowl game since there are no non-AQ teams going to BCS bowl games this year. Michigan State’s win over Ohio State throws an additional wrench. Various projections are floating for Oregon. But the most likely scenario is still the non-BCS Alamo Bowl. Orange is all but a lock to be Ohio State-Clemson. Best bet for a BCS bowl is probably the Sugar against Alabama -- and of course the BCS ranking will play a role whether Oklahoma (currently No. 17) gets into the top 14. Texas beating Baylor and Oklahoma State taking care of business certainly would have helped. Neither happened.

Calm before Oregon-Stanford hype

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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Apologies to the eight Pac-12 teams playing this trick-or-treat week, but this slate of games really is a light murmur before the hype volume is turned up to 11 next week.

The conference's two highest-ranked teams -- No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford -- are not only off this week, they square off next Thursday in what should be the Pac-12 game of the year.

That doesn't mean there aren't games worth watching over the next three days. Arizona State will try to prove it can beat a solid team on the road Thursday night at Washington State. USC's visit to Oregon State is intriguing on Friday night. And there are always upset possibilities as Arizona and UCLA are heavy favorites at California and Colorado, respectively.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will have the opportunity to make a Heisman Trophy statement as well as put the Ducks in the top position in the Pac-12 race next Thursday at Stanford.
But those games won't attract eyeballs from all areas of the country the way the Ducks-Cardinal showdown will. Oregon will be trying to polish its national championship contender bona fides with its toughest test yet -- Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota also could make a Heisman Trophy statement, and Stanford will be trying to take control of the Pac-12's North Division, as it did last year when it shocked the heavily favored Ducks 17-14 in overtime in Autzen Stadium.

Still, the primary focus for both teams was and will be more on themselves this week. There's recruiting calls to make and injured guys needing to get treatment. Both teams have banged-up players whose presence could be critical for the matchup, most notably Stanford with defensive end Henry Anderson and receiver Devon Cajuste. Stanford already announced that defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with a pectoral injury.

Earnest game preparation won't begin until the weekend, as both teams are trying to stick to a typical game-week schedule.

Even though both coaches want to keep the emotions contained and treat the matchup like any other, there's no question that the buzz started on their respective campuses not long after each dispatched a tough opponent last Saturday, with the Cardinal winning 20-12 at Oregon State and Oregon running away from UCLA in the fourth quarter for a 42-14 victory.

"We know that it's there," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "The guys know what the game is going to be about."

The teams have split their last four meetings, with Stanford winning in 2009 and 2012. Shaw is 1-1 as the Cardinal head coach against the Ducks and he was 1-1 as the team's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh. This will be Mark Helfrich's first taste as the Oregon head coach; he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly the previous four meetings.

While the game will be heated and the stakes high, Shaw and Helfrich seem to get along well. They chatted frequently during the Pac-12 meetings in May. They certainly have a lot in common, as both replaced charismatic former head coaches credited with creating a national power before bolting for the NFL.

And, yes, they talked about exactly that.

"Mark and I talked about that a couple of times," Shaw said. "I think he's done it perfectly. You have to completely take your ego out of it. So many people say from the outside, 'How are you going to make this your program?' You look at it and say, 'This is not my program, it's the kids' program.' Every decision you make is what's best for the kids. And if the scheme is great, who cares if they call it Chip Kelly's scheme? Or Jim Harbaugh's scheme? Whoever, it doesn't matter. The things that work, you don't change. The things that don't work, you take them out."

However, they won't be chatting much over the next six days.

Both coaches subscribed to the notion of nameless, faceless opponents and every game being equally big. That's what elite programs do. Preparation is always the same. Every game is big when conference and national titles are the chief goal.

But the fact is the Oregon-Stanford game is bigger, and has been now for going on four years. We know this because all of the college football nation will be tuning in a week from now, just as it did last year, and in 2011 and 2010.

At the deepest roots of David Shaw’s coaching philosophy is an unwavering belief in run-first football. That's never going to change. Still, that doesn’t mean the Stanford head coach can’t be just a little bit giddy over what his offense -- specifically the passing attack -- has done so far this season.

Fashioned as Tight End U the past couple of years because of the presence of now-NFLers Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, the Cardinal wide receivers have made their presence felt in 2013 after previously yielding the spotlight to the Tree Amigos in 2011 and Twin Towers in 2012.

Through the first four games of 2012, Stanford receivers had just 26 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns. As a unit, they had just six receiving touchdowns all year. It’s a different story this season. Through the first four games, Stanford receivers have accounted for 42 catches for 770 yards and nine touchdowns.

“It’s what we started to see in spring last year,” Shaw said. “... We feel like we have these guys ready to impact games. It’s fun to see their hard work pay off and them being viable options for us.”

As a result of the wide receivers taking first chair in the passing game, the tight ends have just three catches for 14 yards and zero touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeDevon Cajuste
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonDevon Cajuste broke out last week against Washington State with two long TD receptions.
The Cardinal will need all the firepower they can get when they host No. 15 Washington on Saturday. So far it has been Ty Montgomery as the featured receiver. After a strong freshman campaign, Montgomery was hampered by injuries last season. But he has emerged so far with 20 catches for 327 yards and four touchdowns. Devon Cajuste had a breakout performance last week and has 10 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Michael Rector rounds out the crop of receivers who have reached the end zone, catching three balls for 119 yards and two scores.

But it’s not just the increased targeting of receivers -- it’s also the maturation of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is delivering the downfield strike with precision and efficiency. In last week’s blowout win over Washington State, he threw three touchdowns of 30-plus yards (33, 45 and 57 yards). That doubled Stanford’s number of 30-plus-yard touchdown passes this season and matched the total of big strikes it had all last year.

“He grows a little bit each week,” Shaw said. “We took more downfield passes this week, and he did a good job of finding guys and hitting them in stride. He understands things better. He sees things better. He’s getting more in the flow of the season, and we go into every game knowing that every defense we play is going to give us something we haven’t seen before, and he’s done a good job recognizing it, coming to the sidelines, talking about it and ready to make adjustments.”

Washington’s secondary should provide an ample test. The Huskies have yet to allow a 200-yard passer and have given up only one touchdown through the air all season. Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Huskies have the top passing defense and pass efficiency defense in the Pac-12.

“They have a great deal of speed on the perimeter with Montgomery and Rector,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. “Those guys can stretch the field more so than they have in the past. They put a lot of stress on you, because you want to commit yourself to defending the run, which you have to do when playing Stanford, but then the challenge is how do you not give up the big plays? They pose a lot of challenges that way. Hogan is throwing the deep ball really well right now. When guys are open he’s hitting them. That’s the other piece to the puzzle.”

After seeing a mostly tight-end-heavy Stanford team during his career, Washington safety Sean Parker said he’s excited for the opportunity square off against the Cardinal receivers.

“Every year we play receivers that stretch the field,” Parker said. “We’re used to defending down the field and having to man up their key guys. Knowing them, it is a turnaround because we’re used to seeing them running the ball and they get to different formations when they run the ball and then pass off of that. We have to be better with our eye discipline and what we see.”

Perhaps the most important statistic yet to be mentioned is that Hogan is still perfect as a starter (9-0). The Cardinal have won 12 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the country behind Ohio State, and Hogan is 5-0 against opponents ranked in the top 25. Against ranked opponents, he’s completing 70 percent of his throws with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions, averaging 186 yards per game. He also has added two touchdowns on the ground with an average of 38 rushing yards per game.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most to prove in the Pac-12

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Across the ESPN blogosphere on Wednesday, we’re looking at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in each conference. In the Pac-12, the answers should be fairly obvious. Here are 10 from the league in no particular order.

1. Lane Kiffin: OK, maybe this one is in particular order. USC’s head coach is on the hottest seat in America after a disastrous 2012. There were embarrassments for the program on and off the field. That has led to plenty of speculation about what he needs to do to keep his job. Win 10 games? Nine? Win nine and beat UCLA or Notre Dame? Or both? This is a storyline that will no doubt carry deep into the season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
James Snook/US PresswireLane Kiffin isn't the only Pac-12 coach feeling growing pressure for a successful season.
2. Steve Sarkisian: His seat isn’t as hot as Kiffin’s. But the heat index has certainly risen in the wake of another seven-win season. The Huskies have a lot of returning talent – including a quarterback with potential, a healthy offensive line, an outstanding running back and receivers (including TE), and a fairly veteran defensive core. The pieces are in place for Washington to, at the very least, get over the seven-win hump. Seven wins or fewer will be met with harsh criticism and questions about whether Sarkisian is the right guy for the job.

3. Oregon’s linebackers: This appears to be the only question mark for the Ducks, at least on paper, because they have a solid front and an outstanding secondary. Losing Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso and Dion Jordan is a big hit in terms of production, talent and leadership. Boseko Lokombo is a veteran presence, and Tony Washington, Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick have all been in the system for a few years. If they can match the production of their predecessors, the Ducks should be fine defensively.

4. Stanford’s wide receivers: Ty Montgomery headlines this list. At the end of 2011, he showed explosive playmaking ability and his future looked sparkling. But injuries slowed him in 2012. With the Cardinal doing some overhauling after losing their top two tight ends, the receiver spot will likely take on more emphasis in 2013. Players such as Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kelsey Young will need to be productive as well.

5. Paul Richardson: The Colorado receiver missed all of last season with a knee injury and had to sit and watch his team fall apart around him. The Buffaloes went 1-11 and their coach was fired. A new coach, a new offense and a new enthusiasm in Boulder is motivating Richardson to make up for lost time. He is Colorado’s most explosive player and knows he has the potential, and responsibility, to carry the offense. Now he just has to go out and prove he can do it.

6. Oregon State’s receivers: We know what we’re getting with Brandin Cooks. He proved last season that he's an outstanding player. How much of that, however, was a product of the guy across the field, Markus Wheaton? With Wheaton gone, either Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham will have to step up as a complementary threat to Cooks -- along with Kevin Cummings in the slot.

7. QBs, old and new: Not all the quarterback competitions are completed. But whoever wins the job at Arizona and USC will likely be looking over his shoulder for the bulk of the season. Connor Wood is back in the starting role for Colorado, true freshman Jared Goff gets the start for Cal, and Sean Mannion finally won Oregon State's job after a grueling seven-month competition with Cody Vaz. Nothing is set in stone at Washington State, so Connor Halliday will need consistent play to hold the job (we’re assuming, for now, that it’s Halliday). Expect these players to be under the microscope all season.

8. UCLA’s running backs: There are big shoes to fill with the departure of running back Johnathan Franklin, the school’s all-time leading rusher and a Doak Walker finalist last year. Jim Mora has said that he’ll likely use five backs throughout the season. Jordon James is the front-runner of the committee and has the best opportunity to distance himself. But expect Paul Perkins, Malcolm Jones, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen (health pending) to all fight for time and carries.

9. Utah’s secondary: It’s not necessarily young. Just inexperienced. And in a pass-happy league, that could spell trouble. Free safety Eric Rowe has the most playing time among the group. Cornerback Davion Orphey is a juco transfer and opposite him is Keith McGill, a former safety and juco transfer who appeared in five games in 2011 but suffered a season-ending injury and then missed all of 2012. There is talent there. It’s just mostly untested.

10. Arizona State: Yep, the whole team. This is what you wanted, ASU fans … for the sleeping giant to be awoken. The alarm clock just went off. Now it’s time to prove all the hype is worth it. A challenging schedule early -- including Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks -- will be a good measuring stick. Though the USC game is really the one that has South title implications. Still, the other three will go a long way toward determining how ASU is viewed nationally. Going 1-3 and beating USC wouldn’t be disastrous. Going 0-4 will draw the requisite “same old ASU” criticisms.

 

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