NCF Nation: Jermaine Kearse

Taking a look back at some of the best and worst moments from the Pac-12's bowl season.

Best overall performance (team): We're a field goal away from flipping a coin between Stanford and Oregon. But the Ducks won, and to the victor go the spoils. Say what you want about Wisconsin being overrated; Oregon beat a very good team with one of the most productive college running backs in history, and the Ducks did it on a major stage.

Best offensive performance (individual): Keith Price outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, passing for 438 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for three more scores. And the Huskies lost! Someone on the Washington defense better be carrying his books around campus until the start of next season.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireWashington's Keith Price passed for 438 yards and four touchdowns and also ran for another three touchdowns in a losing effort against Baylor.
Best offensive performance (team): As good as Washington's offensive show was against Baylor, Oregon did it against a tougher opponent and under a brighter spotlight. LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas both went for more than 100 yards, Lavasier Tuinei turned in season highs in catches (eight) and yards (158) to go with two touchdowns and the offensive line had its way with Wisconsin.

Best defensive performance (individual): In the conference's five losses, teams gave up an average of 41 points. Still, Cal first-team all-conference linebacker Mychal Kendricks did all he could to limit Texas to 21, notching nine solo tackles (10 total) and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Best defensive performance (team): Pass.

Best offensive performance in a losing effort: Andrew Luck's one interception was the lone stain on an otherwise fantastic performance, in which he completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns. He was 15-of-15 on all of Stanford's scoring drives and 4-for-4 on the final drive that set up the almost-game-winning field goal.

Worst offensive performance: Both Cal and UCLA faced fairly tough defenses in Texas and Illinois, respectively, and their 24 points combined reflected that. (For the record, Washington had 35 by halftime and Oregon had 28 at the half.) But the nod goes to Cal for 7 rushing yards on 36 attempts. That's 0.2 yards per carry. ASU was actually worse with minus-11 rushing yards, but at least it put up 24 points (well, 17 if you take away Rashad Ross' 98-yard kick return).

Worst defensive performance: As a conference, Pac-12 teams gave up an average of 455 yards in their bowl games. Washington was the worst offender with 777 yards yielded.

Best bang for buck: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. Two carries, two touchdowns, 155 yards and a 77.5 yards-per-carry average.

Best supporting cast: While Price was fantastic, lest we forget that Chris Polk ran for 147 yards, Jermaine Kearse caught five balls for 198 yards and a score and Devin Aguilar added two receiving touchdowns.

Best holiday spirit: Cal certainly got into the season, giving the ball away five times to Texas.

Best "Oh jeez" moment: Stanford running back Jeremy Stewart taking out teammate Ty Montgomery after he tried to run a kickoff out of the end zone. Stewart, a fifth-year senior, stopped the true freshman right at the line and dropped him, much to the chagrin of 69,927 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Worst "Oh jeez" moment: Watching Dennis Erickson try to call a timeout when ASU had fourth-and-goal at the Boise 1-yard line. Then watching his face as Jamar Taylor picked off Brock Osweiler and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.

2011 preseason All-Pac-12 team

August, 12, 2011
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It's time for our preseason All-Pac-12 team.

Feel free to disagree.

Offense
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
RB LaMichael James, Oregon
RB Chris Polk, Washington
TE David Paulson, Oregon
WR Juron Criner, Arizona
WR Jermaine Kearse, Washington
OL Jonathan Martin, Stanford
OL Matt Kalil, USC
OL David DeCastro, Stanford
OL Ryan Miller, Colorado
OL Tony Bergstrom, Utah
K Erik Folk, Washingon

Defense
DE Nick Perry, USC
DT Alameda Ta'amu, Washington
DE Junior Onyeali, Arizona State
LB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
LB Shayne Skov, Stanford
LB Mychal Kendricks, California
LB Chase Thomas, Stanford
CB Cliff Harris, Oregon
CB Nickell Robey, USC
S T.J. McDonald, USC
S Delano Howell, Stanford

P Bryan Anger, California
PR Cliff Harris, Oregon
KR Robert Woods, USC
It has become a difficult day to rank Pac-12 teams at receiver due to reports of the uncertain health of Arizona's Juron Criner.

Criner is only the best returning receiver in the conference, a potential All-American and the leader of one of the nation's best units. Still, the Wildcats would rate in "great shape" on this list even without Criner, though they wouldn't top it.

As for the conference as a whole at receiver, things look pretty solid, top-to-bottom. Even the two teams in "We'll see," aren't desperate at the position.

So how do things stack up? Read on.

Great shape

Arizona: The Wildcats may have the best collection of receivers in the nation. First-team All-Pac-10 selection Criner is the headliner, but there's also David Douglas, David Roberts, Terrence Miller and Richard Morrison -- each caught between 19 and 52 passes a season ago. Oh, and there's also Texas transfer Dan Buckner, Austin Hill, Garic Wharton and Tyler Slavin. There's size, speed, depth and experience.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Kearse
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJermaine Kearse had his best season yet for the Huskies, catching 63 passes for 1,005 yards.
Washington: Jermaine Kearse, second-team All-Pac-10, is a 1,000-yard receiver who caught 12 touchdown passes. Devin Aguilar has 90 career receptions. James Johnson struggled to get in sync last season but caught 39 passes as a true freshman in 2009. Kevin Smith turned in a good spring, and hopes are stratospheric for incoming freshman All-American Kasen Williams.

Washington State: Marquess Wilson was a 1,000-yard receiver as a true freshman. Jared Karstetter caught 62 passes. Gino Simone has seen plenty of action, while hopes are high for redshirt freshman Kristoff Williams and Bobby Ratliff. Quarterback Jeff Tuel has plenty of targets for what should be a potent passing attack.

USC: Perhaps no team has more upside than the Trojans. Sophomore Robert Woods is a potential All-American, while Brandon Carswell and Brice Butler are experienced players. But the upside is all about incoming freshman George Farmer and redshirt freshman Kyle Prater. If those two live up to their talents, the Trojans will be tough to stop in the passing game.

Good shape

California: Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones are a potentially strong tandem if the Bears get good quarterback play. Oft-injured Michael Calvin posted a solid spring. Kaelin Clay has a lot of speed, and he and Coleman Edmond need to step up.

Arizona State: T.J. Simpson's knee injury didn't help, but the Sun Devils are fairly deep and experienced at the position. Gerell Robinson was a standout this spring, while Mike Willie, Aaron Pflugrad and Jamal Miles each caught at least 25 passes in 2010. George Bell, A.J. Pickens, J.J. Holliday and Kevin Anderson provide good depth.

UCLA: Just because UCLA couldn't pass in 2010 doesn't mean it's bad at receiver. It certainly will be experienced in 2011 because everybody is back. Nelson Rosario has the talent to be a star, as do Randall Carroll and Josh Smith. Still, the Bruins lack consistency at the position -- too many dropped balls, too few big plays.

Oregon State: With a healthy James Rodgers and Jordan Bishop, the Beavers are in "great shape." But they have enough talent and experience at the position to at least end up in pretty good shape even if they don't. Markus Wheaton caught 55 passes as a sophomore, while Darrell Catchings and Geno Munoz are two guys who can help, if they can stay healthy. Kevin Cummings also should see action in the slot.

Utah: DeVonte Christopher, the second-leading receiver from 2010, and he's the only returning receiver who caught more than 20 passes, but the Utes feel pretty good about the guys they have coming back. With Reggie Dunn, Dres Anderson, Luke Matthews, Dexter Ransom and Kenneth Scott.

We'll see

Oregon: Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis are gone and they took 119 receptions with them. Lavasier Tuinei caught 36 passes and Josh Huff caught 19, but there's little experience beyond that. The Ducks are stacked at tight end and the incoming class is thick with speedy, touted receivers. But, as we've said before, "we'll see."

Colorado: Colorado has two guys it can count on in Paul Richardson and Tony Clemons, who combined for 77 receptions in 2010. After that, things are fairly questionable.
SMU’s legendary "Pony Express" backfield, Craig James and Eric Dickerson, have teamed up again for an award that recognizes college football's best tandem -- on either side of the ball -- the "Pony Express Award."

[+] EnlargeCraig James and Eric Dickerson
AP File PhotoRunning backs Craig James, left, and Eric Dickerson were dominant at SMU in the early 1980s.
The award, the press release said, "will look at two- and three-player tandems from across the nation, ultimately honoring the combination whose work ethic, desire, on- and off-field leadership and playmaking ability best fuel their team."

The award will be "voted on by a blue ribbon panel of experts that will form the award’s board of directors," and will be announced at the end of the regular season.

“Eric and I were able to complement each other on the field in such a way that together we formed a much more potent weapon than even our individual talents would have suggested,” James said in the release. “We have remained life-long friends, and each season we have always had fun talking about the great tandems that were making an imprint on the game that season. We decided someone should recognize these great combinations, and that really became the genesis of the Pony Express Award.”

Said Dickerson: “You usually talk about football in terms of offensive and defensive units and the individual standouts on either side of the ball. But if you look at those units, usually there are a couple of guys who stick out and really form a very tough matchup. The most obvious would be a great quarterback and a standout receiver. In Craig and mine’s case, it was two great running backs. On defense, it might be a pair of great safeties. These are the types of tandems we will be looking at.”

The 48 tandems on the "Watch List" include seven from the Pac-12, including two from both Stanford and Washington.

Stanford: QB Andrew Luck, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener
Stanford: OT Jonathan Martin, OG David DeCastro
Arizona: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner
Oregon: QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, RB Kenjon Barner
USC: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods
Washington: DT Alameda Ta'amu, LB Cort Dennison
Wasington: RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse

Some that might have been worth adding:

Arizona State: LB Vontaze Burfict, DE Junior Onyeali
California: LB Mychal Kendricks, S Sean Cattouse
Colorado: RB Rodney Stewart, WR Paul Richardson
Oregon: CB Cliff Harris, S John Boyett
Stanford: LB Shayne Skov, S Delano Howell
Washington State: QB Jeff Tuel, WR Marquess Wilson
1. Which offense has the best rusher-receiver combination in the nation? I’ll take South Carolina sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore and junior wideout Alshon Jeffery. Lattimore, despite being a freshman, withstood physical SEC defenses to rush for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. Jeffery’s imposing size (6-4, 233) and sticky hands got him 88 catches for 1,517 yards and nine scores.

2. Runners-up: Washington tailback Chris Polk’s (1,415 yards, nine touchdowns) emergence as an every-down back in the second half of last season boosted the Huskies to their season-ending four-game winning streak. Polk’s work in the middle of the field got defenses to stop cracking down on junior wideout Jermaine Kearse (63 catches, 1,005 yards, 12 scores). Together, they makes defenses work.

3. The other quality that the Gamecocks and Huskies share is a question at quarterback. South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier cracked open the door this month for the return of troubled, suspended senior Stephen Garcia. Behind him is sophomore Connor Shaw. Washington sophomore Keith Price, who won the starting job this spring to replace the beloved Jake Locker, has one career start. If either team can get its quarterback position gels -- or even just stay out of the way -- these offenses will flourish.

Pac-12 three-headed monsters

March, 25, 2011
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Last summer, we took a look at "three-headed monsters" -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver in the conference.

Seems reasonable that we revisit the idea this spring. (And we may revisit our revisitation this summer, when some position battles begin to clear up).

Ranking these isn't easy. The challenge is priority and value. What if a team is, say, outstanding at running back and receiver but inexperienced at quarterback? How does that measure up with a team that is merely good but also experienced at all three positions?

The only "pure" three-headed monsters in the Pac-12 are Arizona and USC, in that the Wildcats and Trojans welcome back their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver.

Arizona
QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner

USC
QB Matt Barkley, RB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods

California, Utah and Washington get "incompletes" because we have no idea who will be the starter at at least one position, though the Utes and Huskies are pretty strong at two of the spots. This summer, after spring practices have possibly created a pecking order, we'll likely be able to include them in our overall ranking.

Utah
QB Jordan Wynn, RB ?, WR DeVonte Christopher

Washington
QB ?, RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse

California
QB ?, RB Isi Sofele, WR Marvin Jones

So, of those nine remaining, here's our ranking:

1. Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Chris Owusu

The skinny: Luck is the best QB in the country. Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 TDs in 2010. Owusu, when healthy, is the Cardinal's most dangerous receiver.

2. Oregon
QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, WR Lavasier Tuinei

The skinny: James is the best RB in the country. Thomas is one of the nation's best QBs. Tuinei is a big target who caught 36 passes last year. You could flip the Cardinal and Ducks here and probably not get much argument from neutral observers. (Neutral observers, Ducks fans).

3. Arizona
QB Nick Foles, RB Keola Antolin, WR Juron Criner

The skinny: Foles and Criner are the best pass-catch combination on the list. Antolin struggled to stay healthy but he rushed for 668 yards last year.

4. USC
QB Matt Barkley, RB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods

The skinny: It's possible Barkley and Woods will challenge Foles and Criner for best pass-catch combination this fall -- Woods, after all, was a true freshman in 2010. Tyler struggles to stay healthy but rushed for 913 yards and nine TDs in 2010.

5. Washington State
QB Jeff Tuel, RB Logwone Mitz, WR Marquess Wilson

The skinny: Lookie here! The Cougs on a list! Wilson ranked second in the conference as a true freshman with 83.8 yards receiving per game, averaging a strong 18.3 yards per catch. Folks who pay attention know Tuel can play. Mitz was the Cougars' second-leading rusher.

6. Colorado
QB Tyler Hansen, RB Rodney Stewart, WR Paul Richardson

The skinny: Hansen is experienced -- 16 starts --and has looked good at times. Stewart rushed for 1,318 yards last season. Richardson, a UCLA transfer, caught 34 passes for 514 yards with six TDs as a true freshman and looks like a budding star.

7. Oregon State
QB Ryan Katz, RB Ryan McCants, WR Markus Wheaton

The skinny: The Beavers would look even better here if WR James Rodgers were certain to be healthy. He and Wheaton are a strong combo. Katz flashed plenty of ability last year. The issue is running back: McCants is merely the first in line to replace Jacquizz Rodgers.

8. Arizona State
QB Brock Osweiler, RB Cameron Marshall, WR Mike Willie

The skinny: This is a solid threesome that lacks star-power. Osweiler was outstanding at the end of the year when he replace an injured -- and now retired -- Steven Threet. Marshall led the Sun Devils with 787 yards rushing and nine TDs. Willie was the second-leading receiver with 36 receptions for 442 yards with six TDs.

9. UCLA
QB Richard Brehaut/Kevin Prince, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Taylor Embree

The skinny: The Bruins maybe should have been left off this list with the "incompletes" because we don't know what will happen at QB. But Prince and Brehaut have plenty of starting experience, Franklin rushed for 1,167 yards and eight TDs -- let's not recall the fumbling issues -- and Embree has finished first or second on the Bruins in catches and receiving yards in each of his first three seasons.
The second bowl game for the Pac-10 features Washington's rematch with Nebraska in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Thursday.

Here's a look.

WHO TO WATCH: While QB Jake Locker is the big name on Washington's offense -- and he needs to redeem himself for his dreadful numbers in the first meeting with the Cornhuskers -- he really is just the first name in a threesome of stars on offense along with running back Chris Polk and receiver Jermaine Kearse. All three need to come up big in this rematch. In Game 1, Polk rushed for just 55 yards with a long run of 9 yards. Kearse caught a 45-yard touchdown pass, but that was about it. All three need to put up big numbers for the Huskies to have a chance: Polk needs 100 yards rushing, Kearse 100 yards receiving and Locker 250 yards passing.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can the depleted Huskies defensive line hold off Nebraska's physical attack? The Huskies are down three key defensive linemen -- Cameron Elisara, Talia Crichton and Semisi Tokolahi -- due to injury. The line began the season as a question mark with dubious depth and it's fair to say that's even more of an issue in the postseason. In the first game, the Huskers rushed for 383 yards and dominated the Washington D-line. It's going to take an inspired effort from some young players -- four of the top-eight linemen are freshmen or redshirt freshmen -- for the story to be different in take two.

WHY WATCH: For one, there's a bit of curiosity as to whether the rematch will be any different than the original. So often teams talk about getting a second shot at a foe that embarrassed it, so, well, here you go Huskies. And that potential redemption starts with Locker. He's still solidly on the NFL radar, so if he produces a distinguished performance in his final game in a Huskies uniform, he could start to reclaim his reputation among NFL scouts. And he could walk away from the Huskies feeling pretty good about helping the program regain firm footing.

PREDICTION: While it's not unreasonable to suspect that the Huskies will be fired up and will play more competitively, it's hard to imagine them winning. The Cornhuskers are just so clearly superior on both lines. That's too much to overcome. Nebraska 41, Washington 24.

Who might bolt for the NFL draft early?

December, 16, 2010
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Third-year players -- juniors and redshirt sophomores -- have until Jan.17 to declare their intentions to enter the 2011 NFL draft, and a number of Pac-12 players are likely to do so.

USC already has lost two: Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.

Many of the upcoming decisions -- both to stay or to go -- are going to be surprises. Some certain early draft picks opt to return for whatever reason, including the fact that they will never -- ever -- have as much fun as they did in college. And a handful of obscure players annually decide to enter the draft for whatever reason, including getting bad advice from a know-it-all "acquaintance" who doesn't know a darn thing.

This will not turn out to be a complete list. And our speculation is intentionally vague because it can be nothing else: We don't know what's going on inside these young men's heads.

Note: Though some players have indicated they plan to return, they are included here because, well, you never know -- they might change their minds.

You can review Mel Kiper's "junior" rankings here.

Arizona
QB Nick Foles, Jr.:
Foles would benefit from returning for his senior year and could improve his stock considerably. But his knee injury this year and questions about the Wildcats' offensive line might give him pause.
WR Juron Criner, Jr.: Criner is the best receiver in the country few folks have heard of, but he might want to look at this year's receiver class, which is loaded.
CB Trevin Wade, Jr.: Wade needs to return for his senior season after taking a step back as a junior.

Arizona State
CB Omar Bolden, Jr
.: Bolden rejuvenated his career this fall, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. He also knows what it's like to get hurt and miss a season. The Sun Devils could break through in 2011, and that could greatly benefit his status.
DT Lawrence Guy, Jr.: The general thinking is Guy wants to return for his senior season. He faces a tough choice.

California
RB Shane Vereen, Jr.:
Mel Kiper ranks Vereen No. 5 among junior running backs. The Bears' questionable supporting cast on offense next year might sway him to the pros.
OLB Mychal Kendricks, Jr.: Lots of potential, but he's not ready.

Colorado
OG Ryan Miller, Jr
.: Miller has already said he plans to return next fall, though Kiper ranks him No. 2 among junior guards.

Oregon
RB LaMichael James, RSo
.: Kiper ranks James as the No. 3 "junior" running back. The Ducks' first unanimous All-American must choose between college glory -- Heisman Trophy, (another) national championship -- or getting paid now. Probably won't get picked until the second round because of size and middling skills as a receiver, but his top-end speed is enticing.
TE David Paulson, Jr.: Kiper ranks him No. 4 among junior tight ends. Good bet to return.

Oregon State
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr
.: Rodgers has indicated he plans to return because his brother, James, is likely to get a fifth year via medical hardship because of a knee injury this past season. But Beavers fans are rooting for it to be Jan. 18.
WR James Rodgers, Sr.: It's likely the Rodgers are a package deal: Both stay or both go.

Stanford
QB Andrew Luck, RSo.:
If he enters the draft, he's almost certain to be the No. 1 overall pick. More than a few folks, however, believe he's seriously considering a return for his junior year, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh remains at Stanford. We'll see.

UCLA
LB Akeem Ayers, Jr
.: Odds are that Ayers will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.
FS Rahim Moore, Jr.: Odds are that Moore will enter the draft. A likely first-round pick.

USC
DL Armond Armstead, Jr
: Armstead has said he plans to return. He should. A healthy season could send his stock skyrocketing.

Utah
CB Brandon Burton, Jr
.: Burton, second-team All Mountain West, is No. 5 on Kiper's list of junior corners. He's definitely on the NFL radar.
OT Tony Bergstrom, Jr.: It would make sense for the second-team All Mountain West player to return for his senior year.

Washington
WR Jermaine Kearse, Jr
.: Kearse is highly productive but dropped a few too many balls this year. While he'd benefit from another year, he might be worried about the Huskies breaking in a new quarterback.
RB Chris Polk, RSo: Polk eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for a second consecutive season. He's admitted that entering the draft is a possibility.

Washington State
DT Brandon Rankin, Jr.:
It would be wise for Rankin to return for his senior season.

ESPN.com's All-Pac-10 team

December, 8, 2010
12/08/10
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We tried to emphasize consistent production this year on our All-Pac-10 team, not just NFL prospects. That's why some big names are missing.

For comparison, here is the coaches team, which was announced Tuesday.

We didn't include a tight end because receiver was a far deeper position. And, unlike the coaches, we didn't make a wishbone backfield just to accomodate Stanford's Owen Marecic. Instead, we made up a specialist position for a guy who starts at both fullback and linebacker: "STUD."

So here you go.

Offense
QB Andrew Luck, So., Stanford
RB LaMichael James, So., Oregon
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr., Oregon State
WR Juron Criner, Jr., Arizona
WR Jeff Maehl, Sr., Oregon
WR Jermaine Kearse, Jr., Washington
OL Chase Beeler, Sr., Stanford
OL Colin Baxter, Sr., Arizona
OL Tyron Smith, Jr., USC
OL Bo Thran, Sr., Oregon
OL Jonathan Martin, Jr., Stanford

Defense
DL Brandon Bair, Sr., Oregon
DL Cameron Jordan, Sr., California
DL Stephen Paea, Sr., Oregon State
DL Jurrell Casey, Jr., USC
LB Chase Thomas, So., Stanford
LB Mason Foster, Sr., Washington
LB Casey Matthews, Sr., Oregon
DB Talmadge Jackson, Sr., Oregon
DB Omar Bolden, Jr., Arizona State
DB Delano Howell, Jr., Stanford
DB John Boyett, So., Oregon

Specialists
PK Nate Whitaker, Sr., Stanford
P Bryan Anger, Jr., California
KOR Robert Woods, Fr., USC
PR Cliff Harris, So., Oregon
STUD (FB-LB) Owen Marecic, Sr., Stanford

Final: Washington 16, California 13

November, 27, 2010
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The Apple Cup now has meaning, particularly for Washington, which can earn its first bowl berth since 2002 if it wins at Washington State next weekend.

The Huskies scored on the final play of the game -- a 1-yard run from Chris Polk -- to beat California 16-13.

Washington (5-6) has now won two in a row after suffering three blowout defeats. Cal finishes 5-7 after losing four of its final five games.

Expect there to be some soul-searching in Berkeley this offseason. The Bears' streak of seven consecutive bowl games is over.

Huskies quarterback Jake Locker completed 17-for-27 for 237 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown pass. He set up the winning score with a 46-yard connection to Jermaine Kearse. A supremely frustrating year for Locker could be in some part redeemed by the Huskies reaching a bowl game.

Cal had only 283 total yards. Its offense was running back Shane Vereen and little else. Vereen gained 106 yards on 23 carries.

Kearse eager for Nebraska challenge

September, 16, 2010
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Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse's final stats looked pretty good after the BYU game. He caught five passes for 108 yards, among them a 43-yard reception and a 19-yard TD. That shouldn't be surprising. Kearse is one of the best receivers in the Pac-10 and quarterback Jake Locker's favorite target.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Kearse
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWashington receiver Jermaine Kearse is quarterback Jake Locker's favorite target.
But the stat box doesn't include drops. Or "what ifs." As in: What if the normally sure-handed Kearse didn't drop three passes? Might that have changed the ultimate number -- the scoreboard reading a disappointing 23-17 in favor of BYU?

"I put too my pressure on myself," said Kearse, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior when asked to diagnose what went wrong on the drops. "It's the first game and you have so much adrenaline going on in the first game."

The dreaded dropsies can be the ruin of a receiver. So it wasn't unfair to wonder how Kearse might respond when the Huskies played host to Syracuse last weekend. It was enough of a concern, in fact, that coach Steve Sarkisian gave his second-team All-Pac-10 receiver a brief pep talk.

"I said, 'Don't try too hard.' Sometimes when a guy doesn't have the best game of his career -- you know, he struggles a little bit -- he can come out and try too hard," Sarkisian said. "I just said, 'Just let the game come to you. You're going to get your opportunities.' And I thought he did that.''

Oh yes he did. Kearse earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week honors after hauling in a career-high nine passes for 179 yards with three touchdowns. And no drops. As for the three TDs, each involved him making a play with the ball to get into the endzone. The best one came on the first play of the third quarter, when he transformed a short pass into a 57-yard TD, which sparked the Huskies rout.

Said Locker, whose numbers were far shinier due to Kearse's efforts: "I think Jermaine took it upon himself to really come out and be dominant [against Syracuse] and he was. It was really fun to watch. He expects a lot out himself, and I think you were able to see that [last] Saturday."

Ah, but Locker, Kearse and the Huskies face a far tougher test on Saturday: No. 8 Nebraska. And it's not just that the Cornhuskers are a top-10 team. For Locker and Kearse, it's a matter of facing an elite defense whose strength is the secondary, which might be the best unit in the nation, led by cornerback Prince Amukamara.

While Nebraska lost five starters from last season's dominating defense, including extraordinary tackle Ndamukong Suh, coach Bo Pelini hasn't been shy about saying this year's crew should be better. The Cornhuskers, who often employ seven defensive backs at a time, already have six interceptions.

"You'd like to think you have better odds of running the football, but they hold up pretty well," Sarkisian said. "The minus [for an offense] is, they've got defensive backs not only covering your receivers but covering your tight ends and covering your running backs out of the backfield. So they're able to stay close to guys. There's not a lot of room for error, not a lot of room to throw balls. So there's a real onus on the quarterback to know what coverage it is and anticipate throws and be accurate.''

In other words, Nebraska will pose a major test for Locker to prove he's improved his accuracy. If Locker can complete 60 percent of his passes vs. Nebraska, he can do it against any college defense. And NFL scouts will take note.

And Kearse is Locker's go-to guy, even though the Huskies are deep at receiver. Kearse is third in the nation with 143.5 yards receiving. No. 2 receiver, junior Devin Aguilar, averages 69 yards per game.

"I think we have enough playmakers to make them defend the whole field," Kearse said.

That includes trying to get the running game going with Chris Polk. That might be a significant challenge vs. the Cornhuskers, particularly with a shuffling on the offensive line this week that might make true freshman Erik Kohler a starting guard.

In other words, the Huskies must be consistent in the passing game to win. If Locker makes his national breakthrough, that likely also will mean Kearse posts a "hello world" performance.

"Obviously, I have personal goals," Kearse said. "But those will come with helping the team win."

That means walking off the field with an impressive box score as well as no "what ifs."

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

September, 13, 2010
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An undefeated weekend. Unless you're UCLA.

Team of the week: Oregon actually in some ways looks better because it came back from a 13-3 deficit at Tennessee with a 45-zip run. If the Ducks had rolled from the get-go, it would have been a case of "that's what we expected." But by bouncing back from adversity -- nothing went right in the first quarter on either side of the ball -- Oregon showed notable resilience and grace under pressure. And, let's face it, it was kind of fun that the early going spawned some SEC trash talk -- "We play defense in the SEC!" -- that was notably muted by game's end.

Best game: So Washington State nearly went down to Montana State? Think Virginia Tech, Kansas and Minnesota would prefer a "nearly" for themselves? The Cougars showed some heart by rallying from 15 points down in the fourth quarter to win 23-22.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
AP Photo/Wade PayneStopping LaMichael James in space is one of Stanford's biggest challenges.
Biggest play: LaMichael James' all-on-his-own 72-yard TD run was a thing of beauty. Just spectacular. And when he made the Tennessee defense look silly -- there was a palpable wince in Neyland Stadium -- you could sort of sense that the Ducks were about to deliver a beatdown. And they did.

Offensive standout: Washington receiver Jermaine Kearse bounced back from an inconsistent performance at BYU to dominate Syracuse's secondary. He hauled in nine receptions for 179 yards with three TDs. Kearse ranks third in the nation with 143.5 receiving yards per game.

Defensive standout (s): Two strong performances from Bay Area teams. California linebacker Mohamed led the Bears defensive effort against Colorado with 14 tackles and an interception for a TD, while Stanford safety Michael Thomas had five tackles -- one for a loss -- and forced two fumbles in the shutout win against UCLA. The second forced fumble he returned 21 yards for a TD.

Special teams standout: Kenjon Barner returned a punt 80 yards for a TD, giving the Ducks three punt returns for scores in two games after Cliff Harris had two against New Mexico in the opener.

Smiley face: The Stanford defense, which recorded its first road shutout since 1974, a 35-zip blanking of UCLA. Also, the Pac-10, a week after going 6-4 in nonconference games, went 7-0 against nonconference foes, including wins against the Big 12 (Colorado), the SEC (Tennessee), the Big East (Syracuse) and the ACC (Virginia).

Frowny face: UCLA. The Bruins rank 115th in the nation in scoring, 115th in passing and 111th in total offense. The defense? It ranks 116th vs. the run and 102nd in scoring. And Arizona State's rushing offense, which only produced 56 yards on 29 carries against Northern Arizona. That's 1.9 yards per rush vs. an FCS team.

Sloppy: Look at the bottom of this list. Arizona State and USC rank 118th and 119th in penalty yards per game (112 and 120, respectively). Both have committed 24 penalties in their first two games. Yeech.

Quote of the week: "That's the most miserable 2-0 locker room I've ever been in," USC coach Lane Kiffin said after his Trojans beat Virginia.

Quote of the week II: "Tonight was an offensive disaster," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said after his Bruins were blanked.

Thought of the week: Here's are the top games (Oregon vs. Portland State is not included).

Iowa at Arizona
Arizona State at Wisconsin
Nebraska at Washington
Cal at Nevada (Friday)
Wake Forest at Stanford
Houston at UCLA
USC at Minnesota
Washington State at SMU
Louisville at Oregon State

The win-loss record on Saturday night will play a huge role in how the Pac-10 is perceived this season. And, Oregon fans, if you are starting to entertain national-title dreams, you should root hard for the conference to do well. And, yes, that includes the Huskies and Beavers. Saturday's results will resonate in both the national and computer polls -- and later the BCS standings.

Who are the Pac-10's big-play guys?

August, 19, 2010
8/19/10
7:08
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Sure, speed kills, but this list of the Pac-10's big-play standouts isn't only about 40 times. It's about who you are often going to see hoisting the ball in the end zone while the crowd goes, "Wow!"

Some of these are proven veterans. And some are new guys we just have a feeling about.

Arizona: WR Juron Criner

Criner led the Wildcats receivers with 12.9 yards per catch and nine TDs, which tied for first in the conference. He's got good size -- 6-foot-4 -- so he can go and get a jump ball and he's athletic enough that he ran a handful of fly sweeps in 2009.

Arizona State: RB Deantre Lewis

Lewis is a true freshman, but you keep reading things like this about him in news reports: "Deantre Lewis continues to make defenders miss in a way that not many of his teammates can." The Sun Devils seem to have a better-than-you'd-think collection of skill players, but Lewis sounds like a guy that can make things happen on his own.

[+] EnlargeJames Rodgers
AP Photo/Ben MargotOregon State's James Rodgers led the Pac-10 in all-purpose yardage last year with 171.1 ypg.
California: RB Shane Vereen

He's accumulated 19 TDs over the previous two seasons as a backup. He can run with speed (see an 81-yard TD vs. Michigan State in 2008 and 61-yard TD vs. Arizona in 2009) or power (see 42 carries for 193 yards in the win over Stanford last year). Vereen is as good an all-around player -- running, receiving, return game -- as you'll find outside of Corvallis.

Oregon: RBs LaMichael James & Kenjon Barner

These two might form the nation's fastest backfield tandem. James led the nation last year with 21 carries over 20 yards, including four over 50. Barner had 420 all-purpose yards over his final two games and set a single-season school record with 1,020 yards in kickoff returns.

Oregon State: WR James Rodgers

Rodgers ranked seventh in the nation and No. 1 in the Pac-10 in all-purpose yards with 179.1 yards per game. He led the Pac-10 with 1,034 yards receiving and 91 receptions with nine touchdowns. He also rushed for 346 yards and ranked third in the conference with an average of 11.6 yards per punt return.

Stanford: WR Chris Owusu

The speedy Owusu ranked fifth in the nation with a 31.5-yard average on kickoff returns, including three taken to the house for TDs. He led the Stanford with 18.4 yards per catch, the highest average among Pac-10 receivers with 10 or more receptions.

UCLA: WR Josh Smith

If Smith can stay healthy -- a big "if" so far since he transferred from Colorado -- he is going to be a playmaker on special teams returning punts and as a receiver. He returned a punt for a 60-yard TD Wednesday, inspiring a fan to shout "don't get hurt," according to the Orange County Register.

USC: WR Ronald Johnson

Johnson's 2009 season was mostly ruined after he broke his collarbone, but his 12 career touchdown receptions average 26.3 yards. He's probably the most dangerous deep-threat receiver in the Pac-10

Washington: WR Jermaine Kearse

Among the Pac-10's top-10 receivers in 2009, Kearse's 17.3 yards per reception ranked No. 1. His eight TDs tied for second. He figures to be Jake Locker's No. 1 target this fall.

Washington State: Marquess Wilson

Wilson is a true freshman who has made numerous plays in preseason camp. He's not a burner -- Jeffrey Solomon is probably the Cougs fastest receiver -- but his 6-foot-3 frame allows him to go up and get the ball over smaller defensive backs.

Receiver is a difficult position to evaluate this year. Just about every team has a solid (or better) lead receiver back and some intriguing, but inexperienced, talent around him. But, other than Washington, no team should feel completely secure.

There is, however, a lot of potential at the position. Many of the names below who appear as secondary options could end up competing for All-Pac-10 spots.

Note: Tight ends and running backs don't count here.

Great shape

  • Washington: The Huskies entire two-deep is back, topped by second-team All-Pac-10 pick Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, who ranked seventh in the conference in receiving yards per game in 2009. James Johnson was probably the best freshman receiver in the conference last year.
Good shape

    [+] EnlargeJames Rodgers
    AP Photo/Ben MargotOregon State's James Rodgers caught 91 passes for 1,034 yards and nine TDs last year.
  • Oregon State: James Rodgers is clearly the No. 1 returning receiver in the conference. Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Darrell Catchings offer promising depth, but they combined for 25 receptions last year (Catchings was injured).
  • Oregon: The Ducks aren't flashy, but they welcome back their top three receivers from last year. By season's end, Jeff Maehl was one of the best in the conference. Things would have been better if Tyrece Gaines and Diante Jackson weren't ruled academically ineligible.
  • Arizona: After Delashaun Dean got himself kicked off the team, the Wildcats must replace their Nos. 1 and 4 WRs, which is why they aren't in "great shape." Still, Juron Criner tops a solid returning crew.
  • UCLA: The Bruins welcome back their top-two WRs -- Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario -- and Colorado transfer Josh Smith figures to make an immediate impact. Sophomores Damien Thigpen and Morrell Presley also seem poised for breakthroughs.
  • USC: While he was hurt much of last year, Ronald Johnson is a top home run threat. Brice Butler and David Ausberry will have to fight to stay ahead of a talented crew of incoming freshmen.
  • Stanford: The Cardinal welcome back their top-two receivers in Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu. That's the good news. The question is who will become options No. 3 and 4?
We'll see

  • California: The Bears only lose No. 2 WR Verran Tucker and the underwhelming Nyan Boateng, but, other than Marvin Jones, they didn't get much production here in 2009.
  • Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost their top-two WRs, but the cupboard isn't empty, with Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad, who would have started for the Ducks in 2009, and JC transfer George Bell, Gerell Robinson, Jamal Miles and Kerry Taylor. Still, it's not a proven group.
  • Washington State: The Cougars went through spring with just four scholarship receivers, a crew topped by Jared Karstetter and Gino Simone. The incoming recruiting class features five receivers, and at least a couple will get on the field. The Cougars are OK here but they did rank last in the conference in passing in 2009.

Fear the three-headed monsters

July, 8, 2010
7/08/10
11:51
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A month ago Rivals looked at the nation's top offensive triplets -- elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver.

Two Pac-10 teams -- Arizona and Washington -- made the list.

Hey, we're never afraid to copy a good idea. So let's rate the top five offensive troikas in the conference (tomorrow morning we'll look at the top-five on defense).

The challenge here is priority and value. What if a team is outstanding at running back and receiver but inexperienced at quarterback? How does that measure up with a team that is merely good but also experienced at all three positions?

Tough distinctions but "Tough Distinctions" is our middle name. Er, names.

5. Stanford: QB Andrew Luck, RB Tyler Gaffney, WR Ryan Whalen

The skinny: Stanford nips Oregon for the final spot mostly because of experience and elite talent at quarterback and better numbers at receiver. Luck led the conference in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman. Gaffney seems like he'll be first among the candidates to replace Toby Gerhart. Whalen ranked fifth in the conference in receiving yards per game. (And, yes, the presence of speedy Chris Owusu on the opposite side flashed through our minds.)

4. USC: QB Matt Barkley, RB Allen Bradford, WR Ronald Johnson

The skinny: Barkley is a major talent who ranked third in the conference in passing efficiency in 2009 as a true freshman. The bruising Bradford rushed for 668 yards and eight touchdowns with a 5.8 yards per carry average. Johnson was hurt much of last year but he's caught 12 career TD passes and is one of the conference's most dangerous deep threats.

3. Oregon State: QB Ryan Katz, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR James Rodgers

The skinny: Sure, Katz has yet to throw a meaningful college pass, but he's an impressive talent with a great arm and running ability. Still, the Beavers rank third here for one reason: The Rodgers brothers are the best players at their positions in the conference. Both are proven All-America candidates.

2. Arizona: QB Nick Foles, RB Nic Grigsby, WR Juron Criner

The skinny: After becoming the starter following the third game of 2009, Foles passed for 2,486 yards and 19 TDs. Grigsby was in and out of the lineup with injuries, but he averaged 7.2 yards per carry when he got the ball (and it doesn't hurt that his backup, Keola Antolin, has been productive over the past two seasons). The 6-foot-4 Criner tied for the conference lead with nine TD receptions.

1. Washington: QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Polk, WR Jermaine Kearse

The skinny: Rivals tapped this threesome No. 1 in the nation. Locker ranked No. 2 on our list of the conference's top 25 players and he may go No. 1 in the 2011 NFL draft. Polk ranked fourth in the conference with 1,113 yards rushing in 2009. Kearse earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors after hauling in eight TD passes and leading the conference with a 17.3 yards per reception average.

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