NCF Nation: internal affairs 12
Getting deep into this week's games.
Pressuring the quarterback won't be as easy for Oregon State against Arizona: Oregon State's defensive scheme is all about pressure, and it gave California a heavy dose last weekend, sacking Kevin Riley five times and rattling him many others. The Beavers average 2.8 sacks per game, with ends Slade Norris and Victor Butler combining for 13. But Cal was starting a freshman and sophomore JC transfer at the tackles. Arizona this week will offer junior Eben Britton, a potential NFL first-round draft pick, and senior James Tretheway, who plays beside Joe Longacre, a 37-game starter. The Wildcats haven't been spectacular protecting quarterback Willie Tuitama this year, see 23 sacks yielded. But this is one of the Pac-10's more experienced units, and they won't be cowed by the nation's No. 15 defense.
Stop the run, retake the Axe: Stanford relies almost entirely on its running game. USC knew that last weekend, but burly Toby Gerhart & Co. still rushed for 200 yards against the nation's best defense. The Cardinal can run on just about anybody, so they will try to run against California's 3-4 defense, which ranks fourth in the Pac-10. The Bears hardly dominated the action on the line of scrimmage last week against Oregon State as freshman Jacquizz Rodgers piled up 144 yards on 27 carries. On the other side of the ball, Cal got 116 yards rushing from Jahvid Best against the Beavers, but 65 of those came on one spectacular run. On the plus side for the Bears, though, is the potential absence of Cardinal linebacker Pat Maynor, who missed the USC game with a bruised knee. Still, the ledger leans toward Stanford as the team most likely to run consistently.
Brandon Gibson, you're the best player on the field: Combing the depth charts of Washington and Washington State, it's difficult to see where the pressure points are. Both teams have been so weak across the board in all areas that it's hard to find a strength-on-weakness matchup. It's all weakness on weakness. Both teams are bad on offense (national rankings of 117 (UW) vs. 118) and defense (110 (UW) vs. 112). But at the beginning of the season, Cougars receiver Brandon Gibson was an All-American candidate after finishing seventh in the nation with 107 yards receiving per game in 2007. In last year's Apple Cup, he caught the game-tying and game-winning touchdown passes among his six receptions for 137 yards. The Huskies rank 117th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. While Gibson's senior season -- he considered (and probably regrets not) entering the NFL draft last spring -- has been a massive disappointment, no one in the UW secondary can keep up with him. But can the Cougars get the ball to the best player on the field?
Which quarterback has a Big Game? Or just not a Bad Game? Neither Cal nor Stanford wants to find itself needing to throw to win the Big Game. In his past two games, Bears quarterback Kevin Riley has completed 15 of 41 passes with two interceptions and a touchdown. Riley has seemed to regress as the year's gone on, even as coach Jeff Tedford finally made him the permanent starter. While Stanford's Tavita Pritchard has improved in fits and starts, he completed only 9 of 22 for 111 yards with an interception against USC last weekend. Riley ranks sixth and Pritchard ninth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency. Both offensive coordinators want to run the ball and allow their quarterbacks to be game managers and perhaps supply a nice scramble or two. But in games like this, it often seems like a quarterback leaves his fingerprints on the final result, either in a good way or a bad way.
Rodgers can seal up Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year against Arizona: Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers can put an exclamation point on the greatest true freshman season in Pac-10 history over the next two weeks. He is on the cusp of becoming the first frosh to win conference Offensive Player of the Year. He leads the conference and ranks ninth in the nation with 123 yards per game. The next highest true freshman? Houston's Bryce Beall at No. 42. He's a Doak Walker Award semifinalist and an All-American candidate. But can he carry the Beavers to the Rose Bowl? Arizona has a decent but hardly dominant run defense (sixth in the Pac-10). The Beavers probably want to limit the plays the potent Arizona offense gets in its home stadium. Which means Rodgers going for 100-plus for an eighth time this year would leave a rose-fragranced afterburn.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few tidbits from around the Big 12 this week.
The biggest change in recent weeks is that Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is trusting in his scheme and the players who are operating it. Earlier this season, Pelini crafted a gimmick defense when he played Missouri. Now, he's more willing to let his talent play. Of course, the recent surge by the Nebraska front four is helping him feel that way, too. The Cornhuskers have notched nine sacks in their last two games after producing only five in the first five Big 12 conference games.
Two recent losses to Texas A&M has Texas coach Mack Brown searching for ways to better prepare for his traditional rival. One change that will help will be enthusiasm from his young players. Brown has been pleased with the contribution of young players in recent weeks. The list includes safety Christian Scott, center David Snow, defensive tackle Kheeston Randall and defensive ends Sam Acho and Eddie Jones. All had big games in the Longhorns' 35-7 triumph over Kansas last week. And the excitement of playing next week for a possible BCS berth should do the trick, too.
Oklahoma will be scrambling against Texas Tech's massive offensive line without two key pass rushers this week as defensive ends Auston English and Alan Davis both will be out with knee sprains. To build depth at the position, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has moved converted linebacker J.R. Bryant to one backup spot and seldom-used Pryce Macon will serve at the other position behind starters Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal. The Sooners are also bracing to use the nickel formation as their base against Tech's collection of wide receivers. That would mean extensive use for backup safety Quinton Carter, who made his first career start against Kansas last month. And Nic Harris will likely remain at safety with redshirt freshman Austin Box continuing to start at middle linebacker for Ryan Reynolds, out for the season with a knee injury.
Chase Coffman is unquestionably one of the most valuable receivers in the conference, but does the Missouri system play just a little part in his success? Freshman backup Andrew Jones produced seven catches last week against Iowa State as the Cyclones hardly missed Coffman, who was out with a sprained toe.
Iowa State has gotten to the final game without quarterback Austen Arnaud sustaining an injury, with only freshmen Jerome Tiller and Brett Bueker behind him as backups. If Arnaud should become injured against Kansas State, coach Gene Chizik has a plan. Chizik said he would insert freshman wide receiver Darius Darks, a converted high school quarterback and the team's leading receiver last week against Missouri, into the quarterback position. Chizik also said that the Cyclones have worked on an emergency package that includes direct snaps to the tailback. He remains adamant about saving the redshirts for both Tiller and Bueker after not playing either of them this season after the midseason departure of former backup quarterback Phillip Bates.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Iowa -- Kicker continues to be a question mark for the Hawkeyes with the re-emergence of junior Daniel Murray in recent weeks. Murray, who made the game-winning field goal against Penn State, connected on a 45-yard attempt last week against Purdue. Starter Trent Mossbrucker missed two extra-point attempts against the Boilers, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said the freshman needs a strong week of practice to reclaim a spot on the field Saturday at Minnesota. Mossbrucker had performed well entering the Penn State game, but Ferentz went with the more experienced Murray in the clutch. "He's been kicking a long time," Ferentz said of Mossbrucker. "He knows a lot more about it than I do or anybody here does. Yeah, just get back to what's made you a successful player. He'll be fine."
Michigan -- It will be interesting to see how head coach Rich Rodriguez uses his running backs Saturday at No. 10 Ohio State (ABC, noon ET). Junior Brandon Minor, the Wolverines' most productive back during the second half of the season, expects to return from a multitude of injuries against the Buckeyes. But junior Carlos Brown comes off his best performance, a 115-yard effort against Northwestern, and freshman Michael Shaw also is in the mix. Brown and Shaw likely will get the first opportunities against the Buckeyes, but Minor will be a factor. Michigan has racked up 170 rushing yards or more in five of its last six games.
Penn State -- Derrick Williams is playing his best football at the end of his career, and the Nittany Lions are doing all they can to get the ball to the talented senior. Two weeks ago, Williams took snaps at quarterback as Penn State used a Wildcat-like formation at Iowa. Last week against Indiana, he racked up 164 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, getting eight touches on offense to go with three returns. If quarterback Daryll Clark continues to struggle early against Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), don't be surprised to see Williams with the ball in his hands. Also, defensive end Josh Gaines (ankle) practiced Monday and is expected to play against the Spartans.
Illinois -- The days of removing Juice Williams from games to let him regroup appeared over after the Illini junior quarterback had a scorching start to the 2008 season. But after committing two turnovers last Saturday against Ohio State, the coaches replaced Williams with backup Eddie McGee. Williams has committed nine turnovers (8 interceptions, 1 fumble) in Illinois' last four games. He leads the Big Ten in both touchdown passes (22) and interceptions (15) this season. Still, head coach Ron Zook maintains confidence in Williams heading into the regular-season finale at Northwestern. "A lot of times he gets a lot of the blame that isn't necessarily his fault," Zook said. "That's part of it as well and it gets exaggerated when things aren't going right, particularly with a football team that was expected to play a little bit better and be a little bit more productive than we have been."
Indiana -- After dealing with a multitude of injuries all season, the Hoosiers appear to be getting healthy right at the end. Tackle Rodger Saffold returned to action against Penn State, and the other starting offensive linemen are all fine for Saturday's season finale at Purdue (ESPN2, noon ET). Head coach Bill Lynch isn't sure if backup running back Bryan Payton (ankle) will play, though Payton did more in practice Monday than he has in previous weeks. Running back Marcus Thigpen and wideout Mitchell Evans should be fine, and Indiana actually will have the option of playing either Kellen Lewis or Ben Chappell at quarterback. The Hoosiers previously had been forced to rotate the two because both have been banged up.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
With five of the 12 teams in the SEC off this week, we take our Internal Affairs look at the conference:
A Hardy sighting: Ole Miss junior defensive end Greg Hardy is feeling healthier and also has fresh legs, which could be bad news for LSU. Hardy led the SEC with 10 sacks last season, but has been plagued by a stress fracture in his right foot. He missed the first three games of the season, but returned in time to play a key role in the Rebels' 31-30 upset of Florida. He re-injured his foot against Alabama and spent most of the next two games on the sideline. But last week, he returned against Louisiana-Monroe and showed glimpses of his old self with a sack and 22-yard interception return. The open date before the Louisiana-Monroe game gave Hardy some extra time to rest his foot, and he should be closer to 100 percent this Saturday. When he's on, he's still one of the SEC's best pass-rushers.
Where's the Wild Berry? One of the reasons Tennessee safety Eric Berry has not played on offense this season, according to coach Phillip Fulmer, is that he's had a shoulder injury and the coaches didn't want to take a chance on getting him tackled. Fulmer and Berry had both talked in the preseason about getting Berry involved on offense, and Berry did play one snap of offense against Alabama when he caught a screen pass. Berry, one of the top safeties in the country, has still been working some on offense in practice in recent weeks and could get a few snaps this Saturday against Vanderbilt, Fulmer said.
Battle of the brothers: It's a given that one of the Dick brothers will start at quarterback this Saturday for Arkansas. Whether it's Casey Dick or Nathan Dick, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino would like to keep Mississippi State guessing. Casey has started every game this season, but was knocked out of the South Carolina game two weeks ago with a concussion. He also threw three interceptions in that game, which didn't sit well with Petrino. Having the open date last week to get a longer look at Nathan (and with Casey sitting out because of the concussion), Petrino decided to open up the competition. Casey is second in the SEC with 2,389 passing yards, but has also thrown 14 interceptions.
Nickson to start: Senior quarterback Chris Nickson will make his second straight start after leading Vanderbilt to a 31-24 victory over Kentucky last week, earning the Commodores their sixth victory and making them bowl eligible. Nickson has played through the pain of a shoulder separation (his right throwing shoulder, no less) for much of the last two seasons. The injury rendered him ineffective earlier this season, and Mackenzi Adams took over. Both quarterbacks may end up playing in the game, but Nickson looked much healthier in the win over Kentucky with 118 yards rushing and three passing touchdowns. His ability to both run and pass makes the Commodores a much more difficult team to defend. Nickson is just 78 yards shy of the all-time rushing record for a Vanderbilt quarterback. He has 1,390 career rushing yards.
Auburn pushing back the spring: It may not be game strategy, but Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is already looking at some different strategy for the offseason. The Tigers are typically one of the earliest teams out of the gate for spring practice, starting in February. But with the injuries and surgeries piling up, Tuberville is now thinking about pushing back the start of spring practice. His thinking is that the extra time will give more players a chance to recover physically and be healthy enough to go through most of the spring if the Tigers hold off until March. The latest Auburn player to go down was tight end Tommy Trott, who will have knee surgery this week. He's the ninth Auburn player to undergo surgery since the preseason.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
VIRGINIA -- It will be a family affair this weekend for tight end John Phillips, who will celebrate his senior day at the same time his older brother, Jake, does at William & Mary. Jake is the Tribe's starting quarterback and a team captain. Phillips' mom, Susan, is going to Williamsburg and his dad, Gene, will be in Charlottesville. Phillips is one of 24 seniors who will be recognized before Saturday's game against Clemson. He has been an integral part of the Cavaliers' offense, as he has had at least two catches in every game. He ranks first among ACC tight ends in receptions per game with 4.6.
GEORGIA TECH -- The health of both quarterbacks is a concern. A real one. Tech is hoping both Josh Nesbitt and his backup, Jaybo Shaw, will be ready, but they've both been practicing in a limited capacity this week. Shaw has a leg injury and Nesbitt a sprained ankle. The good news is that neither one has worn the red jersey injured players typically wear during practice and neither are listed as "out" on this week's injury report. Coach Paul Johnson isn't putting a lot of stock into the Yellow Jackets' past success against Miami, considering how different the teams are this season.
FLORIDA STATE -- With safety Darius McClure on crutches this week, the odds of him actually playing on Saturday are slim, but nothing is official until Thursday's injury report comes out. McClure tore cartilage in his left knee last Saturday while celebrating his first career interception, which came against Boston College. Meanwhile, junior Jamie Robinson expects to start in place of Myron Rolle, who will miss part of the game to interview for a Rhodes Scholarship. And Kenny Ingram, who has played significantly at linebacker this season, has reportedly been moved to safety to help with the depth there.
CLEMSON -- The question this week has been whether defensive tackle Dorell Scott will return after suffering a knee injury in the second quarter against Florida State. He missed the Duke game and is listed as questionable for Saturday's game at Virginia, but has been upgraded from a yellow jersey to a green jersey at practice. Scott and defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson are the Tigers' two best interior linemen, but they have played together for only 10 plays this season. Jackson hurt a tendon in his knee in preseason practice and missed the first eight games. The only game they played in together was against Florida State.
NORTH CAROLINA -- Butch Davis has opened up his starting quarterback job and probably won't reveal it until later in the week, if he does at all before kickoff. Cam Sexton wowed and surprised just about everyone with his win at Miami -- his first game in taking over for the injured T.J. Yates -- but his production has slowly decreased since then. He wasn't the only one who could have played better at Maryland last week, but his mistakes were costly. He and Yates have been splitting the reps with the first team this week at practice.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have had four different tailbacks take starring roles this season. Last week, redshirt freshman Joe Martinek ran for 98 yards and two touchdowns at South Florida. The week before, Kordell Young had 143 yards against Syracuse. Earlier this season, Jourdan Brooks and Mason Robinson each had big games, but their roles have diminished of late. Coach Greg Schiano said he determines who will be the featured back each week based on the opponent. "We have to look and see what do we think we're going to try to do most in the run game, and then who fits that description best and try to rep it that way during the week," he said. "It's hard to get more than two backs ready for a game. There's always a third guy that is ready and a fourth guy that's ready, but they don't get many repetitions. I can't tell you right now who that guy will be."
Cincinnati: Should the Bearcats be concerned about kicker Jake Rogers? He lost his job early in the season after missing a few extra points, and coach Brian Kelly wondered about his confidence. But then Rogers came back and tied a school record with 13 straight converted field-goal attempts. Since then, however, Rogers has missed four straight kicks, including all three tries at Louisville. The conditions were poor at wet and windy Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and Kelly said that had more to do with Rogers' problems than anything. "It's the development of a kicker," Kelly said. "Earlier in the year, he struggled mentally. This time, it was technique. He has a natural draw on his kicks, but they didn't draw because of the wet balls. He hit all of them well, but he missed all of them to right. Then he overcompensated. I'm sure he'll be able to correct it for this weekend."
West Virginia: The Mountaineers could be without starting center Mike Dent for a second straight game this week at Louisville. A mainstay in the lineup the past two seasons, Dent missed the Cincinnati game with a neck injury. Now he has swelling in the neck, and team officials aren't sure what the problem is. Dent could play this weekend, but coach Bill Stewart is fearful of further damage to his neck. Sophomore Eric Jobe got the start versus Cincinnati and likely will be the snapper on Saturday. "Eric Jobe is good.," Stewart said. "He's just not Mike Dent. Mike Dent isn't good, he's great. We had two pro scouts watching tape on him. He's got a chance to play at the next level.''
Pittsburgh: Fourth down doesn't necessarily mean it's time to punt for Pittsburgh. The Panthers have shown an inclination to go for it on fourth down this year, and usually with success. They have converted 13 of their 17 fourth-down attempts, a 76.5 percent rate that ranks sixth-best in the nation. An outstanding running game and a strong offensive line gives coach Dave Wannstedt confidence in going for the gamble. "I think that every time we get in a fourth-down situation our players want to go for it," he said. "That's a normal reaction. They're like the fans and the media. I think you have to look at the defense and what we feel we can execute and then try and make up a sound decision as to what your chances are of making it. You don't want to do something just to do it. We have been outstanding though."
Syracuse: Quarterback Cam Dantley has struggled in his past few games and was pulled for Andrew Robinson in the Connecticut loss. Dantley was just 3-of-12 for 19 yards against Rutgers and 4-of-16 for 38 yards with an interception against UConn. Robinson hasn't been much better in relief, going a combined 4-of-14 for 29 yards and throwing two picks in those same two games. Cody Catalina even got a couple of looks under center versus the Huskies. Coach Greg Robinson isn't saying yet who will be the starter this week at Notre Dame.
Playing it safe: In the years Bronco Mendenhall has been around the Holy War rivalry between BYU and Utah, he's learned that even the smallest thing can be turned against him or his team. So this year, he's decided not to let that happen. Unlike a normal week, Mendenhall said he was limiting media opportunities and keeping freshmen, or other players that haven't been around the rivalry as much, off limits. Mendenhall said while he trusts his upperclassmen, he's not sure some of his younger players would know what to say about rival Utah and he doesn't want to add any more fuel to an already well-lit fire.
Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City: Kyle Whittingham is taking an opposite approach with his Utah team this week. While he is going to close practices because of the sheer swarm of people that like to attend during this week, he said he doesn't want to change anything that could possibly screw up the rhythm that's gotten his team to 11-0 this week.
"We have a mentality and a format that's worked for 11 weeks and we're not going to change now," Whittingham said. "If there was a better way to do things, a better way to prepare, we wouldn't save it for this game, we'd do it every week. Sometimes that's hard for fans or people to understand, but really that's the only way you can approach it. Go about your business, do the same things that got you here, and play some hard football on Saturday."
Focus up: Nevada players aren't going to lie, they've been focused on Boise State since the 69-67 four-overtime loss last season. With this year's Boise State game finally here, the Wolf Pack hasn't changed their routine or even really talked about it, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick said there's a different sense of focus on the field this week than there's been in the past.
"We're more focused to details," Kaepernick said. "We know this game is going to come down to details and every play is going to matter. So, we can't let one play slip past us like last year."
Tulsa moves forward: Tulsa coach Todd Graham said Houston didn't do anything during last Saturday's 70-30 Cougar win that the Golden Hurricane hadn't seen on film, but what they did do, they did with a passion for which Graham said he had not prepared his team. But he said despite the big loss, his team is not done for the season. His players have been fighters and he expects more of the same to end the year.
"We don't apologize for daring great," Graham said. "Just like I told our staff [Tuesday] morning, we're 8-2. Are we happy with that? No, not at all, because that's what our program is all about. Our kids are going to respond with great character."
Job openings? Kyle Whittingham has not received any inquiries about defensive coordinator Gary Andersen from Utah State or Wyoming (should it come open) -- the two jobs to which his name already has been linked -- but he thinks it's coming. Whittingham said he's gotten calls aboutdefensive coordinator Gary Andersen before and with an 11-0 record and one game remaining, he thinks the calls will start coming.
"Our defensive coordinator, Gary Andersen, has had a very good run here as the defensive coordinator the last four years certainly would be a viable candidate," Whittingham said.
Whittingham also mentioned offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, but said he wasn't sure if Ludwig wanted to be a head coach at this time.