NCF Nation: Fili Moala

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

A look inside the Pac-10 this week.

Arizona State: Sun Devils fans cringing at the defensive performance against UNLV, particularly the 18-play, 88-yard drive in the fourth quarter for the game-tying field goal, will be glad to hear the defense will restock a bit with Georgia coming to town. First, middle linebacker Gerald Munns, whose physical performance against Stanford earned him conference defensive player of the week honors a week ago, returns after surgery on his pinkie finger, though he's going to sport a cast for about five weeks. Also, the Sun Devils welcomed back LB Morris Wooten and DE Jamarr Robinson, who both return from suspensions for undisclosed reasons. Wooten, a 245-pound senior, will add a physical presence behind Munns, while Robinson, a 233-pound sophomore, had three sacks in the spring game and will add another athletic threat on the perimeter.

Oregon: Forget for a second that that Oregon's QB position will be split between a pair of first-year players in JC transfer Jeremiah Masoli and true freshman Chris Harper against Boise State. Both of those guys have seen action at home and on the road. With starter Justin Roper sidelined for at least one game, their holy-cow-this-is-D-I-football jitters are mostly gone. The more interesting matchup here is the Broncos redshirt freshman QB Kellen Moore vs. the Ducks defense, which boasts one of the nation's best secondaries. Oh, and that little thing known as the chummy Autzen Stadium crowd. Moore is making his first start on the road. At Autzen. Not easy. Moreover, with four new offensive line starters, it won't be easy to rely on veteran RB Ian Johnson. Boise State only gained 340 yards at home last weekend in a 20-7 win over Bowling Green.

Arizona: After two games, Arizona QB Willie Tuitama was 11th in the nation in pass efficiency with five TDs and no INTs. But after the loss at New Mexico, his rating dropped 30 points because he threw a pair of picks and barely completed 50 percent of his passes. He also was sacked three times and fumbled twice against the Lobos. Two words: Bad night. So how will the senior bounce back at UCLA? The good news is he's getting a huge target back because TE Rob Gronkowski will play for the first time this season since he got sick (strep throat, mono). BYU QB Max Hall made the supposedly stout UCLA defense look like warm butter; can Tuitama regain his confidence and do the same?

UCLA: Remember how the media pounded home the questions about UCLA's offensive line during the preseason? Well, score one for reporters because we were right: This is a lousy O-line. Look no further than the rushing attack: Worst in the nation with 19 yards per game and 0.8 per carry. Longest run of the season? Seven yards. Yuck. Oh, and here's some more bad news. Center Micah Reed, one of two starters with significant experience, will be out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his MCL. The Bruins are scrambling for answers on offense, which includes trying a variety of combinations up front during a time when most teams are trying to create continuity with the same starting five. The visit from Arizona probably will go a long way toward answering this question: Was the Tennessee game a total fluke?

USC: So USC loses a pair of defensive linemen to the first round of the NFL draft -- Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson -- and then, nonetheless, turns in a pair of dominant performances to start the season. How do the Trojans do it? Well, depth of course. And look no further than the ledger from the 35-3 win over Ohio State. It wasn't just tackle Fili Moala and company whipping the Ohio State offensive line; it also was three true freshmen: tackle Armond Armstead, who recorded a sack, nose tackle Jurrell Casey and end Malik Jackson. That's the future D-line. The present, by the way, had five total sacks and 24 tackles against the Buckeyes.

Who's USC's Heisman candidate?

September, 14, 2008
9/14/08
1:52
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire
 Mark Sanchez threw four touchdown passes to power USC to a 35-3 thumping of Ohio State on Saturday.

LOS ANGELES -- On page 76 of the "Book of College Football's Unwritten Rules", it says: "When USC is ranked No. 1 and stomps on all-comers, the Trojans will feature a leading Heisman Trophy candidate".

It appears that rule will be in effect in 2008. The only question is: Which Trojan will be leading the race for the program's eighth bronze trophy?

Linebacker Rey Maualuga had an original idea when asked about who his team's top candidate should be.

"You are looking right at him," quipped Maualuga, who returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown in the Trojans 35-3 pounding of No. 5 Ohio State. "Unfortunately, quarterbacks always get all the attention."

He then said some nice things about his quarterback and endorsed him. It made Mark Sanchez, who was sharing a stage at the time, start blushing.

Most of the Trojans felt the same way.

"Clearly our defense is our strong point -- there's no question that Rey and [Brian] Cushing are special, special football players -- but if you play defense you can't win the Heisman Trophy," guard Jeff Byers said. "So it's got to be Mark. He fits into that spot so well. And, truth be told, he's good enough to win it."

Sanchez threw four touchdown passes against the Buckeyes and now has seven on the season. His overall numbers -- 17 of 28 for 172 yards with an interception -- weren't spectacular, but he was playing against what was billed as the nation's best defense.

"He's working the offense the way it works," coach Pete Carroll said. "We really can count on him. He's really a big-time player for us already."

While Sanchez is the undisputed leader of the Trojans offense, he might get some competition for the unit's most "special" talent designation.

There were a number of moments during the game in which sophomore running back Joe McKnight looked like the second-coming of Reggie Bush.

McKnight scooted and juked and whirled and sprinted for 106 yards on just 12 carries (8.8 per carry) and often left the Buckeyes grabbing air.

"He's so explosive," Sanchez said. "In my head, the only thing I'm thinking about with Joe is get it to him -- quickly and as smooth as possible. When he's got time and a little space, anything can happen. He can light up that scoreboard."

McKnight, however, has a problem. There's only one quarterback, but six other running backs carried the ball against Ohio State.

"Joe is obviously a tremendous football player but we've got a stable full of running backs and it's hard to get enough carries," Byers said.

With the Pac-10 -- other than the Trojans, of course -- having a terrible day Saturday, it doesn't appear the road to another conference title and BCS title game will be too arduous.

That means Sanchez and McKnight likely will be front-and-center all season.

At this point, Sanchez looks like he leads the ticket.

"I think you've got to go with the shot-caller out there -- Mark is well on his way," defensive tackle Fili Moala said.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Not to be too serious, but take a moment and remember what day it is. 

  • Arizona surely is sorry to hear the New Mexico QB is struggling
  • Arizona State's tight ends are playing OK, which is a bit of a surprise after significant attrition at the position. Here's a boost for the offensive line. Turns out the "Bring on Georgia" promotion wasn't a conspiracy from Atlanta.  My wife loves Chick-fil-A, so consider this an apology.
  • Maryland may not look good on film, but this is a long road trip for California. Let's hear it for the fullback, who brings out the Best in the Bears running game. For those interested in a review of how the Tree Sitters started sitting, here's a good read.
  • Nice story on Oregon's "other" defensive end, Will Tukuafu, becoming the Ducks' emotional leader.
  • What's wrong with the Oregon State defense?
  • Stanford TE Jim Dray, back from a knee injury, could play against TCU.
  • UCLA might be able to exploit BYU's secondary. Which Kevin Craft shows up at BYU to run the Bruins offense? Speaking of QBs, an update on Ben Olson. And might Moya be Craft's go-to guy?
  • Hey, it's USC -- that means celebrities on the sidelines! DT Fili Moala likes Ohio State's physical style of play. A keyboard battle over the USC-Ohio State showdown. Spicer wants to spice things up.
  • The good news is Washington safety Darin Harris is OK. The bad news is his concussion will sideline him for the Oklahoma game. Also in the story: RB Chris Polk is likely done for the year due to a shoulder injury but the freshman likely will qualify for a redshirt year. Where's the pass rush? Frosh TE Kavario Middleton is stepping up.
  • Washington State is down, but LB Gary Trent is the sort of player who can bring the program back. Former coach Jim Walden asks for patience.
  • Jon Wilner reacts to an Indianapolis Star report on "special admits" for football programs, of which California led the nation.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
 Rey Maualuga had 10.5 tackles for a loss last year.

LOS ANGELES -- The term comes up more than a few times during this highly charged week: "scary."

Such as, "Coach Tressel, is Rey Maualuga scary?"

Jim Tressel, Ohio State's coach, doesn't want to bite on the loaded word, not completely anyway. "I don't look at it as scary because I don't have the ball."

USC defensive end Kyle Moore almost seems bothered that folks refer to his good friend, his soft-spoken friend, his newly svelte friend (down 26 pounds from his Rose Bowl MVP weight to 247), Rey Maualuga, as "scary."

"Rey's not scary," Moore said. "It's just the way he plays on the field that gets him perceived as scary."

Well, yeah.

Now, Moore adds, Brian Cushing. He's scary. That's a notion seconded by defensive tackle Fili Moala.

"We're all kind of fiery at times but Cush is nonstop, no holds barred, all out -- that, 'I'm going to give it to you before you give it to me,'" he said. What puts Cushing over the top, though, is this: He's from Jersey.

Cue the music from the "Psycho" shower scene.

"He's got that little accent," Moala says with a grin that suggests that, oh, just maybe that characteristic comes up every once in a while during locker room jesting.

In a week of hot topics -- hey, did you know No. 5 Ohio State is visiting No. 1 USC on Saturday? -- the comparison of the linebacking corps has been scorching.

The Buckeyes boast James Laurinaitis, whose trophy case features the 2007 Butkus and 2006 Nagurski awards, and Marcus Freeman, who was second-team All-Big Ten. The Trojans counter with Maualuga and Cushing, both preseason All-Americans.

All four are going to make a lot of money playing on Sundays, but first they have to endure endless questions about the opposing unit and how they match up.

"It doesn't match up at all because we're not going to be on the field at the same time," Maualuga reasonably points out.

Still, this exciting, Rose Bowl-like showdown features an extraordinary amount of talent, especially at linebacker.

"It's a really cool opportunity for people to watch these guys on both sides of the ball," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "It's rare that you would have this many guys who would have big futures, big upsides as you see in this game."

Cushing, Maualuga and Laurinaitis got acquainted this summer at the festivities surrounding their selection as Playboy All-Americans. Photos that circulated on the Internet suggested they all got along famously.

"Besides being a great linebacker, [Laurinaitis is] a great person, he's got a great personality," Maualuga said. "You'd think a guy with that stature, who's gotten all the accolades and awards he's got, he'd be a different type of person. But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."

Added Cushing, "He's a good kid."

Cushing has battled injuries throughout his career, but became a national figure when he won the 2007 Rose Bowl MVP after recording 2.5 sacks in the victory over Michigan. He's 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and carries as much body fat as a petrified tree.

Maualuga, whose combination of size and speed and Samoan heritage makes it impossible to not introduce Junior Seau comparisons, was the Trojans leading tackler a year ago and earned All-Pac-10 honors for a second-consecutive year. He had 10.5 tackles for a loss and became a YouTube sensation for his numerous blowup hits.

"[Maualuga] brings a presence," Laurinaitis said. "He's a tremendous blitzer. Quarterbacks know they better watch out where 58 is. He does a great job running to the ball. If you're a ball carrier, you know where he is, because if you don't and he catches you off guard, you're going to be on ESPN."

Carroll sees differences in the tandems. He describes the Trojans "classic" linebackers as physical, tough and capable in space and tight areas.

The Buckeyes unit is a smaller and, Carroll intimated, perhaps quicker. It's also clear that Laurinaitis is a player Carroll can't help but appreciate.

"Laurinaitis can do everything; he's an extraordinary player," Carroll said.

There's an oh-by-the-way here, too. As Tressel pointed out: "Don't discount 43 either -- he gets after it."

No. 43 would be USC's third linebacker, senior Kaluka Maiava, who led the Trojans with six tackles at Virginia from his weakside spot. Also, Clay Matthews, listed as a defensive end, plays a hybrid position -- the "elephant" -- that's closer to a linebacker than a pure, hand-on-the-ground end.

For Ohio State, the weakside 'backer is Ross Homan, whose 10 tackles in the Buckeyes first two games is not far behind the pace of Laurinaitis (14) and Freeman (12).

Both groups of linebackers have spent the week discounting Saturday as a showdown of the nation's top two units on its top two defenses. It's all about team, they say.

But it doesn't take too much prodding for them to admit there's a little bit of extra juice to the matchup.

"Seeing [Laurinaitis] across the field and knowing who we are playing is going to bring a little more out of me," said Cushing, who's not allowing hip and wrist injuries to keep him off the field.

If it brings a little more out of the crews on both teams, it could make it a long afternoon for both offenses.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- It's clear that Pete Carroll needs our help. The USC coach acts like he's content listing six tailbacks on his depth chart -- four loosely connected to the first team by an ambiguous "or" -- but that can't possibly be right.

Obviously, he's just going through a Hamlet phase -- he can't make a decision. That must be why he's running the quintessential backfield by committee.

"There's no committee," Carroll said. "We don't talk like that."

Then what should Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford be called? A backfield by ensemble? Free-form jazz backfield? The Sybil Backfield?

Sure, the four combined for 202 yards in the 52-7 win at Virginia. Sure, Carroll's approach to coaching seems to work fairly well, with all those conference and national championships and whatever.

But there's a simple way to resolve this.

Talk to the Trojans defenders. They know who The Man really is.

They see these guys every day, and on competition Tuesdays, both sides go full-speed trying to make the other look bad.

So, Fili Moala, what do you think?

"Pick your poison," Moala said. "Do you want to get shook out of your jock strap or do you want to get run over?"

Recalling some jock strap issues during preseason camp, we're glad that Moala went with the latter.

The defensive tackle picked the 225-pound Bradford as the hardest to handle.

"He's very capable of running you clean over and just applying his will on you," Moala said. "You've got to hit Allen before he hits you."

Considering that Bradford has made up the most ground in the on-going competition, that sounds like a good pick.

Safety Kevin Ellison tips his cap to Bradford, too.

But then he goes with C.J. Gable, whose 73 yards on nine carries topped the Virginia stat sheet.

"All our backs got something different," Ellison said.

Fine. So, let's break the tie. Kyle Moore: Bradford or Gable?

"Joe [McKnight] gives me a little problem because he's so elusive," Moore said.

McKnight had 60 yards on six carries against Virginia, his 10 yards-per-tote average leading the Trojans, and he also caught four passes for 24 yards.

Hmm. These guys must have gotten together and talked in order to ruin this survey.

Perhaps Ohio State coach Jim Tressel can help. He first described the list of backs thusly: "On and on and on."

But then, probably just to spite our survey, he threw in the name of fullback Stanley Havili.

"What I love about them is you never hear of them complaining that they need the ball more," Tressel said.

Well, how could he hear that? He's Ohio State's coach. And he claims to never read the papers. Still, he's got a point. There have only been the merest whispers of complaint since these guys arrived over the past three seasons.

How can that be? These guys are competitive. They all were hyped high school recruits. How can they not complain, at least just a little behind the scenes? For example, how does it feel to be Allen Bradford, after an impressive spring and preseason, sitting on the sidelines watching McKnight or Gable or Johnson pilfering balls that he should be carrying? Surely that makes him want to lash out.

"I get real anxious," Bradford said. "I'll be on the sideline seeing Joe, Stafon and C.J. get carries and it just makes me want to go out there and work harder."

"Work harder"? That's not the colorful, controversial sort of comment we were looking for.

The Four Horsemen of the Apportion give each other plenty of grief, Bradford said, but they understand the system. Each has a package of plays that accentuates their strengths.

Yes, Bradford admitted, there are moments in running backs meetings when he wants to hoot down discussions of his backfield mates plays. But not during the serious business of a game.

"If it's your number, then we go," he said. "If not, then you've just got to wait until your number is called."

It appears, to be serious for a moment, that the buy-in for the approach operates well for a number of reasons. The players trust the system because they keep winning. They also feel like even without 20 touches a game, they will be able to showcase their skills enough to impress NFL scouts. And building an unselfish, team-first reputation probably won't hurt them at the next level, either.

Carroll seems to find it amusing that reporters are so obsessed with his backfield. He just doesn't see anything terribly complicated about it.

"We try to find niches for them within our scheme," he said. "It has nothing to do with anything else other than we're trying to win."

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

I really labored over some of these.

Offense

QB: Rudy Carpenter, Sr., Arizona State
RB: Jahvid Best, So., California
RB: Jeremiah Johnson, Sr., Oregon
TE: Rob Gronkowski, So., Arizona
OL: Alex Mack, Sr., California
OL: Jeff Byers, Sr., USC
OL: Juan Garcia, Sr., Washington
OL: Max Unger, Sr., Oregon
OL: Andy Levitre, Sr., Oregon State
WR: Mike Thomas, Sr., Arizona
WR: Brandon Gibson, Sr., Washington State
K: Thomas Weber, So., Arizona State

Defense

DE: Nick Reed, Sr., Oregon
DT: Fili Moala, Sr., USC
DT: Brian Price, So., UCLA
DE: Dexter Davis, Jr., Arizona State
LB: Rey Maualuga, Sr., USC
LB: Brian Cushing, Sr., USC
LB: Zach Follett, Sr., California
CB: Jairus Byrd, Jr., Oregon
CB: Alterraun Verner, Jr., UCLA
FS: Taylor Mays, Jr., USC
SS: Patrick Chung, Sr., Oregon
P: Keenyn Crier, So., Arizona

KR: Ronald Johnson, So., USC
PR: Sammie Stroughter, Sr., Oregon State

Posted by ESPN.coms' Ted Miller

Just think: 119 sets of fans are optimistic right now. Wonder what that number will be in a week?

  • A guide to get ready for Arizona's season, but the news is about TE Rob Gronkowski, who might have mononucleosis as well as strep throat. That could knock him out for a few weeks.
  • Good news for Arizona State: Mr. First Down, WR Chris McGaha, returned to practice Sunday after missing 10 practices with a toe injury and should be ready to go against Northern Arizona. The article lists eight true freshmen expected to play: defensive end Lawrence Guy, linebacker Brandon Magee, linebacker Shelly Lyons, cornerback Josh Jordan, tailback Ryan Bass, receiver Gerell Robinson offensive lineman Zach Schlink and safety Clint Floyd.
  • What did we learn from California's training camp? Jonathan Okanes breaks it down -- lots of good stuff here.
  • We should find out Monday about Nate Costa's knee, but it's clear that Justin Roper will start against Washington. One thing to keep in mind with Costa out: Neither one of the Ducks' backups -- Jeremiah Masoli, a sophomore transfer, who led City College of San Francisco to the JC national title last year, and true freshman Chris Harper -- have played a single down of Division I-A ball. Notes from the official press release.
  • Oregon State plays Stanford and coach Jim Harbaugh on Thursday. Know the last name of a Beavers student assistant? Harbaugh. Paul Buker, wedging tongue into cheek, spies on the potential spy. The Beavers aren't exactly sure what they will get out of Stanford. A big concern is new Cardinal defensive coordinator Ron Lynn. An NFL veteran, he may have been scheming up surprises during four years away from the field. A scouting report.
  • Low expectations won't keep UCLA's Rick Neuheisel from being optimistic. UCLA's got "The Boz" at DE, but Korey Bosworth is a quiet guy. The future QB at UCLA, Richard Brehaut, has Bruins fans saying Matt Barkley who?
  • No. 1 overall? Is USC DT Fili Moala really that good? We shall see. USC's depth chart -- still a lot of "ORs" on it. A first look at Virginia. A Scott Wolf note on RB Joe McKnight's "special status."
  • Washington's defense is a huge question mark, but DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is not one of them. Good stuff on his background and upbringing.
  • A report from banged-up Washington State... Coug fans might be a little worried about the OL injuries. Stadium renovations mean new stuff on Washington State football Saturdays.

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