NCF Nation: Keith Price


There are those who subscribe to the theory that a coach making the leap from a mid-major conference to one of the big five will need some time to adjust.

Then again, few coaches have the résumé that Chris Petersen brings from Boise State to Washington. Among his accolades: 92 wins, a pair of Fiesta Bowl victories and five conference titles. Oh yeah, he’s also the only two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award.

So if Petersen is fending off any challenges by way of transition, he isn’t letting on.

“The job is exactly the same,” Petersen said. “There hasn’t been one thing that has surprised me. It’s exactly the same. Our recruiting process is the same. When we were recruiting at Boise, we were recruiting against the Pac-12. We were in the same footprint. It was the same battles. All of that is the same. Everybody is regulated by the NCAA on how much time you can lift weights, so it really comes down to implementing your systems and your schemes.”

No question, Petersen has the coaching chops. And Huskies fans are universally proclaiming that they got the better end of the deal when Steve Sarkisian left Washington for USC after five seasons and a 34-29 record.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenChris Petersen's first spring at Washington involves finding replacements for three of the most important players from the Huskies offense.
“It’s a case of be careful what you wish for,” he said. “But nothing has surprised us. We knew for the most part what we’re getting into.”

So the biggest challenge facing the new Washington skipper isn’t transition, but replacing departed personnel. When Sarkisian left, he didn’t exactly leave a barren cupboard. But a talented trio will be noticeably absent in 2014: three-year starting quarterback Keith Price, 2013 Mackey Award-winning tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Doak Walker-finalist running back Bishop Sankey. All are expected to either be drafted or land on an NFL roster.

“That makes things really tough,” Petersen said. “When you lose a quarterback who has been a three-year starter and was as productive as Keith was, that’s hard. Everything on offense, no matter what style you run, is run through that guy. If he’s successful, your team is going to be successful.

“Bishop Sankey was tremendous. You put that tape on and study him, it’s like, ‘wow.’ He has tremendous vision. We played against him twice and we thought the world of him.”

Petersen has already had to deal with a little adversity when one of the quarterbacks vying to replace Price was suspended indefinitely. Cyler Miles, along with wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, remain suspended after allegedly assaulting a Seahawks fan after the Super Bowl last month. Obviously, Petersen doesn’t ever want to have to deal with discipline issues. On the flip side, he has an opportunity early in his tenure to establish himself as a no-nonsense disciplinarian, which he’s done.

Now it’s a matter of filling holes -- knowing full well that most of them probably won’t be filled during the spring session.

“Aside from getting your systems in place, so much of it comes down to how much talent you have,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. So much of this is just recruiting and how much talent you have.”

That and an awareness that he isn’t going to have any easy weeks in the Pac-12. For a while, the Mountain West was considered the strongest of the non-AQ conferences. But even in its heyday, there were always weak sisters. That's not the case in the Pac-12 -- especially in the top-heavy North Division.

“I’ve known about the Pac-12 forever,” Petersen said. “I think it’s extremely competitive conference. The parity from top to bottom is as good as it’s ever been. The coaches are fabulous. It’s as good as any in the country. I thought that before I got here, and now it’s confirmed.”

Expectations are high for Petersen and his staff. While Sarkisian did a fine job turning an 0-12 program into a consistent winner with four straight bowl appearances, the Huskies never ascended to the upper echelon of the league in his tenure.

Petersen brings a big name and track record of success matched by few. Now he has to get the Huskies to buy into what he’s selling.

“The culture is changing. And how quickly those guys buy in is the bottom line,” Petersen said. “It can be tough for the older guys who have been here for four or five years and are used to doing things a different way. We have to get everyone moving and believing in what we do as quickly as possible."

Michigan's offense has hopscotched under Brady Hoke, never establishing an identity despite repeated claims about a clear philosophy. We always hear about who the Wolverines want to be, but because of personnel, youth or fickle schematic decisions, we rarely see who they are.

Perhaps the best thing about Michigan's offensive coordinator transition was the lack of indecision. Hours after Michigan announced Al Borges had been fired, reports surfaced that Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would be his replacement. Hoke knew who he wanted, targeted him and got the deal done (the team has yet to officially confirm Nussmeier's hiring).

It's up to Nussmeier to refine Michigan's offense for the 2014 season. Otherwise, both he and Hoke could be looking for jobs in December. It's that simple.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillHiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is a step in the right direction for a Michigan offense that has sputtered lately and struggled to find an identity.
Nussmeier is a proven coach with an impressive track record, most recently at Alabama, which defended its national title in his first year as coordinator and put up solid offensive numbers this past season as well (38.2 points per game, 454.1 yards per game). Regardless of whether Alabama coach Nick Saban let Nussmeier walk to pave the way for Lane Kiffin, Michigan seems to be getting a high-quality coach. CBSsports.com's Bruce Feldman reports that Nussmeier, who earned $680,000 in 2013, will become one of the five highest-paid coordinators in college football. That's fine, too, as Michigan makes more than any Big Ten team and has yet to translate all that dough to championships on the field.

Hoke's rhetoric about Big Ten-title-or-bust and Team OneThirtySomething rings hollow until his teams start showing they can live up to Michigan's storied past. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State have bypassed Michigan, and 2014 is pivotal for Hoke and the Wolverines, who enter the same division as the Buckeyes. They need to go for it now, and the Nussmeier hire is a good sign that they are.

Nussmeier must take a group of players, some recruited by Rich Rodriguez's staff and some by Hoke's staff, and mold them into a unit that's easy to identify. Quarterbacks such as Alabama's AJ McCarron, Washington's Keith Price and Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Jeff Smoker have improved under his tutelage. He must facilitate similar upgrades with Michigan's Devin Gardner and/or Shane Morris.

A record-setting signal-caller at Idaho who played in both the NFL and CFL, Nussmeier knows quarterbacks, but his first priority at Michigan will be resurrecting a run game that went dormant the past two seasons. Michigan's young offensive line needs to grow up in a hurry, especially after losing left tackle Taylor Lewan, a first-round draft pick in April, as well as right tackle Michael Schofield, a three-year starter. Nussmeier isn't exactly inheriting the Alabama offensive line in Ann Arbor. Or Alabama's running backs, for that matter. There's some young talent at Michigan, but it needs to be coached up.

As much criticism as Borges received, some of it deserved, coordinators can't do much when their offenses are incapable of generating moderate rushing gains between the tackles. Michigan set historic lows on offense this year, becoming the first FBS team in the past 10 seasons to record net rush totals of minus-20 or worse in consecutive games (losses to Michigan State and Nebraska).

Nussmeier has worked in different conferences as well as in the NFL (St. Louis Rams), but his stint in the Big Ten at Michigan State should help him in his new gig. His basic philosophy as a pro-style coach doesn't differ dramatically from Borges -- or what Hoke wants -- and shouldn't turn off Michigan's 2014 recruits.

But his ability to evaluate the strengths of Michigan's players and tailor his scheme around them will determine his success or failure. When Borges built a game plan around what Gardner does best, as we saw against both Notre Dame and Ohio State, the results proved positive. But we saw too much tweaking, too many versions of the Michigan offense, too many attempts to show who is the smartest coach in the building.

Nussmeier is a future head coach and entered the mix for recent vacancies at both Washington and Southern Miss. It might be hard for Michigan to keep him, but the future beyond the 2014 season isn't really important.

Michigan acted quickly and decisively Wednesday night. Nussmeier must do the same in refining the identity of an offense that will determine a lot about where Michigan is headed under Hoke.

Fight Hunger Bowl preview

December, 27, 2013
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Washington (8-4) and BYU (8-4) square off Friday night in the Fight Hunger Bowl at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: For Washington, it starts with running back Bishop Sankey, a Doak Walker finalist and one of the most consistent and powerful backs in the country. He ranks second in the country in rushing yards (1,775), fourth in rushing touchdowns (18) and averages 147.8 yards on the ground per game. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is the first player in school history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. His completion percentage isn't great -- just 54.1 percent, and he has thrown 13 interceptions to go with 19 touchdowns. But what he lacks in accuracy, he makes up for in scary athleticism.

What to watch: Both teams run an up-tempo style of offense that will put a lot of strain on the opposing team's defense. Well-known nationally is hybrid defensive end/OLB Kyle Van Noy, who pretty much single-handedly won the Poinsettia Bowl last year for the Cougars. Washington's offensive line has been steady and consistent, but keeping Van Noy out of the backfield poses as big a challenge as any pass rusher the Huskies have seen this season. How the Huskies protect quarterback Keith Price and open up holes for Sankey will be the matchup to watch.

Why to watch: Much like USC and Boise State, who already have played their bowl games, Washington is a team going through a coaching transition. That always adds intrigue and drama to the postseason, because motivation comes into question. But with Chris Petersen's hire at Washington, the Huskies don't seem to be as unstable as Boise State was in its loss to Oregon State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. BYU has a knack for playing well in the postseason, winning six of its past seven bowl games and four in a row. Their stability provides a stark contrast to the in-transition Huskies, making for some interesting sidebar discussions in this one.

Predictions: Kevin Gemmell picked Washington to win, 38-27. Ted Miller picked BYU to win, 30-24.

3-point stance: Lesson for Winston

December, 5, 2013
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1. Here’s what we know about Jameis Winston: he’s a very talented athlete with a gift for leadership. That’s all we know. He is young and likely to be on the national athletic stage for many, many years. If, as expected, he is not charged with a crime Thursday, it is likely this incident will become a footnote to what looks like a remarkable career. But that’s up to Winston. He has been exposed to the scrutiny that he will undergo with any misstep. Here’s hoping he decides that missteps carry a price too high to pay.

2. The Big Ten Championship Game is a classic matchup of strength against strength, Michigan State’s old-school defense and Ohio State’s explosive offense (when the Spartans have the ball, make a fridge run). The Buckeyes rank in the top 10 in seven offensive categories. Michigan State ranks first or second in five defensive categories. Ohio State has played only one top-30 defense: Wisconsin. But the Buckeyes played well against the Badgers, scoring 31 points with a balanced attack. I don’t think Ohio State needs to score 31 to win Saturday night.

3. Marques Tuiasosopo is a 34-year-old assistant coach with a pedigree as a Huskies hero. He led Washington to a Rose Bowl victory in the 2000 season. He has done good work with current quarterback Keith Price. Under different circumstances, it’s conceivable that Tuiasosopo, whom Washington named as interim coach, could be seen as a genuine candidate to replace Steve Sarkisian. But the Huskies have closed a huge gap in the Pac-12 North. It seems as if athletic director Steve Woodward would want a veteran to help Washington catch Stanford and Oregon.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
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A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:

  1. North race: Oregon’s road is clear. If they win out, they will be the North Division champs. If they lose either of their final two games, both against conference opponents, Stanford will win the North by virtue of its tiebreaker. That is assuming, of course, Stanford gets by Cal in the Big Game. Stanford’s final game is a nonconference matchup against Notre Dame.
  2. [+] EnlargeKelly
    AP Photo/Rick BowmerTaylor Kelly and Arizona State can win the Pac-12 South with a win at UCLA on Saturday.
    South race: A lot will be decided this weekend when Arizona State travels to UCLA. If ASU wins this game, it will win the South. If UCLA wins and beats USC next week, it will be the South champs for the third straight year. USC is still in the mix, but the Trojans need some help. They need to beat Colorado and UCLA and hope that ASU drops its next two games.
  3. Bowl picture: Eight teams are bowl eligible with three more still in the mix. Washington State can become bowl eligible this weekend with a win over visiting Utah. Utah could still become bowl eligible with a win over Washington State and a win over Colorado in the season finale. Colorado could still become bowl eligible with a win over USC and a win over Utah. Recall that Colorado received a waiver from the NCAA that allows their two FCS victories to count toward bowl eligibility.
  4. Questionable quarterbacks: We’re still waiting to see the status of Washington quarterback Keith Price. The Huskies have kept him on ice this week, though he said he’s confident he’ll play. If he can’t, the Huskies will go with Cyler Miles. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota says his knee is near 100 percent. One quarterback we know for sure isn’t playing is Utah’s Travis Wilson, who learned that his playing career might be over after concussion tests revealed a preexisting condition. The Pac-12 blog wishes him the best as the Utes move forward with Adam Schulz -- a strong-armed former walk-on.
  5. Clutch quarterbacks: The ASU-UCLA game obviously has massive Pac-12 South implications. But it also features two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league in ASU’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Remember last year’s game in Tempe? UCLA won in the closing seconds and both quarterbacks led their team on late scoring drives. The Bruins have had to find creative ways to score points. Last week it was LB/RB Myles Jack, who scored four rushing touchdowns, and DE-turned-tight end Cassius Marsh, who snagged a touchdown reception. ASU has had no problems getting production from Marion Grice, who has 20 touchdowns on the season and is closing in on 1,000 yards. Line play will be critical as ASU’s veteran front seven will push a young UCLA offensive line.
  6. Sense of urgency bowl: Both Washington and Oregon State are bowl eligible. But the Huskies are still lacking a quality road win and the Oregon State offense hasn’t been what it was the first half of the season. Washington has dropped all three road conference games this year and four straight dating back to last year’s Apple Cup. Quarterback Sean Mannion has an unfavorable 3-to-7 touchdown to interception ratio in his last two games, though he’s 199 yards shy of the school’s single-season passing mark. Brandin Cooks is now one of five Pac-12 receivers to ever reach 100 receptions in a season. Speaking of school records, Washington running back Bishop Sankey is to break Washington's single-season rushing mark. He has 1,396 yards, and if he keeps up his average of 139.6 yards per game, he'll top Corey Dillon's 1,695 yards in 1996. Both teams need this one to have the semblance of a salvaged season.
  7. Trying to get to a bowl: Aside from the bowl implications, the Cougars will be honoring 19 seniors. The Cougars are yet to win a conference home game this year while Utah is yet to win a conference game on the road. Combine that with Connor Halliday throwing at least one interception in every game and Utah’s inability to intercept the ball (only two on the year) and you have quite the conundrum. Washington State has had 10 or more receivers catch a pass in nine games this year.
  8. In control: The Ducks travel to Arizona this week, where they’ll face a Wildcats team looking to better its bowl situation. Ka'Deem Carey has now gone for at least 100 yards in 13 consecutive games and is second in the country with an average of 150.3. On the other side, Byron Marshall is nine yards shy of reaching 1,000. Assuming he does, that would be seven straight years the Ducks have had a 1,000-yard rusher. And there is the other streak -- Mariota's Pac-12 record of 353 passes without an interception.
  9. A Song of Ice and Fire: Yes, that’s a tip of the hat to my Game of Thrones friends. The Trojans are on fire right now, having won four straight and five of their last six. They are 5-1 since Ed Orgeron was named interim head coach, including a win last week over No. 4 Stanford. But weather conditions are expected to be in the 30s and there is the possibility of snow in Boulder. USC isn’t traditionally a cold-weather team. Colorado is coming off a big home win against Cal and the Buffs still have something to play for in late November. Been a while since we typed that.
  10. Big Game: This is the season finale for Cal, which has a chance to make something of an otherwise depressing season. Of course, to do it, they’ll have to knock off a Cardinal team that probably smells blood after its loss to USC last week. The Bears are more than a 30-point underdog and the Cardinal have to win in the event Oregon drops one of its final two Pac-12 games. The Bears are trying to avoid their first winless conference season since 2001. The Cardinal have forced a turnover in 35 consecutive games.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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Five things we learned in the Pac-12 this week:

1. Oregon has a Stanford problem: Used to be the other way around. Last year it felt more like Oregon had a Stanford inconvenience, not so much a problem. This year, there is little doubt and few excuses. The Cardinal were dominant through 50 minutes and just good enough in the final 10. The extent of Marcus Mariota’s injured knee remains a question. Still, he looked pretty spry in the fourth quarter, and there was ample opportunity along the way for the Ducks to make plays. But it was Stanford’s defense that came up with the stops/turnovers and the offense that shoved its tempo right down the Oregon front seven. This was the offensive line we’ve been waiting to see. And let’s not forget Kevin Hogan’s mobility. He was good enough in the passing game, but his touchdown run was huge, as were his breaking three tackles on a third-down scramble. The Ducks still have national cred. They’ve done too much over the last four years to lose it with one game. But as long as Stanford continues to push them around, they won’t be able to shake the questions about their physicality.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesIt was another long day for Cal's special teams, which allowed two punt returns for TDs to USC's Nelson Agholor.
2. Cal has a special-teams problem: We tip our cap to USC’s Nelson Agholor for his two touchdowns on punt returns -- the first a 75-yard return in the first quarter to open scoring and the second a 93-yard return at the end of the first half. Those were, of course, contributing scores to USC’s 62-28 shellacking of Cal, which is still seeking its first conference win. But this isn’t the first time Cal’s coverage team has had issues. Recall that it allowed two punt returns for touchdowns to Oregon’s Bralon Addison, who ran back punts of 75 and 67 yards in the Ducks’ home win in September. Adding insult to injury, the Trojans got a third “return for a touchdown” when Josh Shaw recovered a blocked punt. Jared Goff had his second interception-free performance in his last three games, so that’s a positive. But there aren’t many smiley faces around Cal right now. The Trojans became bowl-eligible with the win and are 4-1 since the coaching change. Their South Division hopes are still very much alive.

3. ASU almost had a problem: First, give credit to Utah’s defense, which once again came to play. And with the ASU offense struggling, it was the defense that stepped up and kept the Sun Devils in the game. Over the last four games, the Sun Devils are allowing fewer than 20 points per game. And they were clutch in the fourth quarter in the 20-19 win over Utah. The ASU defense held Utah to a three-and-out or a turnover in all five of the Utes' fourth-quarter possessions. And here’s a fun note from our Stats & Info folks: According to ESPN’s win probability model, Arizona State had a 7.1 percent chance of winning at the end of the third quarter. Entering this weekend, only 17 FBS teams have come back to win after having a win probability of 7.1 percent or lower. The offense finally came alive and scored 13 points in the fourth. Utah had won 49 straight games when leading at halftime.

4. No problems for the Huskies: The Trojans weren’t the only team to become bowl-eligible on Saturday. The Huskies picked up pivotal win No. 6 and are bowl-eligible for the fourth straight year after a brilliant performance from quarterback Keith Price, who was 22-of-29 for 312 yards with two passing touchdowns and one on the ground. Bishop Sankey turned in yet another solid performance with 143 yards and a score. The rebuilding Buffs have now lost 14 straight conference games. Washington has back-to-back road games at UCLA and Oregon State before closing out the year at home in the Apple Cup. The potential is there for nine or 10 wins, which would certainly assuage some of the midseason chatter about coach Steve Sarkisian.

5. Myles Jack = a problem for opposing teams: How fun is that guy to watch? UCLA coach Jim Mora has been hinting for quite some time that we’d see the true freshman linebacker swap sides. And on Saturday we saw him tally eight tackles, recover a fumble in the end zone, and then as a running back carry the ball six times for 120 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown. That overshadowed Ka'Deem Carey’s 149-yard rushing performance and a touchdown for Arizona -- Carey’s 12th consecutive 100-yard rushing game, which is tops in college football. More importantly, the Bruins won in Tucson for the first time since 2003 and kept pace with the Sun Devils for the race in the South Division. Arizona is pushed aside, making it a three-way race among the Bruins, Trojans and Sun Devils.
Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is pleased. It has just been noted to him that his Ducks showcased brilliant coverage in the secondary during their 45-24 win at Washington. It's the same observation that had been made by Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, but you get the feeling that Aliotti is not weary of hearing about it.

He admits he even allowed himself some extra time to savor the blanketing of white on black during a postgame film session with his players.

"I said, 'Look at this! There's nobody open for [Washington QB Keith] Price to throw the ball to!'" Aliotti said.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Steve Conner/Icon SMINick Aliotti spent 24 years on the Oregon coaching staff, including 17 as defensive coordinator.
Just like any other coach, Aliotti will tell you the only statistic that matters is about three letters, not numbers: W-I-N. That said, he takes a lot of pride in his defense and the players he sends onto the field. While Aliotti projects an amusing, avuncular personality, just below the surface is an intense competitor. That pride and competitiveness led to his postgame tirade two-plus weeks ago after Washington State scored two late touchdowns against his reserve players in a 62-38 Ducks win.

"That's total [bleep] that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did," Aliotti said to reporters. "And you can print that and you can send it to [Cougars coach Mike Leach], and he can comment too. I think it's low class, and it's [bleep] to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team."

It might have been the most controversial moment of his 38-year career, and it cost him $5,000 after he was fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12. Aliotti apologized to Leach and called himself "embarrassed" in a release from the school two days later.

"It was probably an old guy who didn't understand the Internet, how the media can get going so fast," Aliotti said. "Just making an honest, simple statement about what I thought at the time. Obviously, I made a huge mistake by overstepping my bounds. I shouldn't have said those things. These days, you've got to be politically correct. Not one of my strong suits."

While, no, those comments weren't terribly smart coming from a veteran coach, it's not difficult to ascertain the source of Aliotti's frustration. While there typically have been hat tips to his defense during Oregon's rise to elite national power, most of the nation sees Oregon as being all about offense. That high-tempo, flashy offense is the big story when it rolls up eye-popping numbers, and it's the big story when it gets slowed down.

Recall the gloating from SEC fans about Auburn, with a middling SEC defense, shutting down the Ducks in their 22-19 victory in the 2010 national title game? Why was it not almost as notable that Oregon held Auburn to 18 fewer points than the Tigers averaged against SEC defenses?

Or when Stanford ruined Oregon's national title hopes last fall in a 17-14 overtime win, it was all about the Cardinal shutting down the Ducks with nary a mention of Aliotti's defense holding Stanford to 10 points below its season scoring average.

There's, of course, an obvious answer: The winning team sets the postgame agenda and analysis. Amid all the Ducks winning since 2009 -- 54-7 record -- the offense almost always leads.

That's apparently the big story again as No. 3 Oregon visits No. 5 Stanford on Thursday: Will the Stanford defense be able to thwart QB Marcus Mariota, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Ducks again?

Yet here's a bet that the game won't turn on that. Here's a bet that Stanford's defense doesn't even approach its success from last year and that the bigger issue will be whether Stanford's struggling offense can score enough to keep it close.

Because, by the way, it's Oregon that enters the game with the Pac-12's best defense, not Stanford.

Oregon ranks first in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation in both scoring defense (16.9 PPG) and yards per play (4.41). It leads the Pac-12 and ranks sixth in the nation in both pass efficiency defense and turnovers forced (23).

And this is happening after losing three All-Pac-12 linebackers, Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay.

Stanford coach David Shaw has noticed.

"They are missing three dynamic football players," Shaw said. "The crazy part is, without those outstanding players, the defense as a whole looks better. They are fast. They are big."

Shaw is one of more than a few Pac-12 coaches who frequently gush about Aliotti's defense, about how he maximizes his players' talents and puts them in position to be successful and how his perplexing, flexible scheme is both sound and sometimes baffling.

"It's a different scheme than most 3-4 teams," Shaw said. "It takes some getting used to, to prepare for it."

The enduring ideas about Oregon's defense, even when it is given credit, are quasi-dismissive compliments: scrappy, aggressive, quick, blitz-heavy. Those words are no longer accurate. The Ducks have comparable future NFL talent with many of the nation's top defenses, starting a secondary chock-full of future NFL starters.

Things have changed in part because winning has bolstered recruiting. The Ducks are no longer undersized. They are fast and big -- see eight defensive linemen in the regular rotation who are 6-foot-4 or taller, including three over 6-6. The secondary has become -- and will continue to be -- an NFL pipeline. And at linebacker, things are going fairly well for Alonso these days.

The improved talent has meshed with a good scheme, but Aliotti and his staff also are good at teaching and making sure each player understands what his assignments are. And trusts them.

"Our players believing in what they are doing," first-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "I think Nick and the defensive staff have done a great job of taking advantage of our overall strengths and maybe hiding our potential weaknesses a little bit. I think, collectively, it's a ton of guys playing hard."

Aliotti tweaks things every year. This season, the Ducks are blitzing less, due in large part to the myriad mobile quarterbacks in the Pac-12, a group that includes Stanford's Kevin Hogan, though their respectable 2.88 sacks per game suggest they are still getting pressure on the opposing quarterback.

We won't know if this turns out to be Aliotti's best unit until season's end, but it's certainly good enough to merit a spot on the marquee next to the Ducks' ludicrous speed offense.

And, yes, Aliotti wouldn't mind if he and his players received some credit.

"It's about winning games, but we do all take pride in our job," he said.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
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Ten storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12.

1. Oregon in the spotlight: Separated by just 45 miles, Oregon and Oregon State will host a pair of California teams in games that will surely have major Pac-12 implications. Heisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA square off as the undefeated No. 3 Ducks look to crack the top two of the BCS standings. Oregon State, winners of six in a row, host a reinvigorated Stanford squad that topped UCLA last week to get back into the top 10.

2. Get up for GameDay: ESPN’s College Football GameDay will be in Oregon for the Bruins-Ducks showdown. While the Ducks' offense gets plenty of attention -- and rightfully so -- it’s that defense, allowing fewer than 18 points per game -- that has been equally spectacular, if not underappreciated. They’ll go against a UCLA offensive line that is young and a bit banged up. The Bruins scored a season-low 10 points in the loss last week to Stanford. Part of the decline has been the loss of running back Jordon James, who is questionable this week. In their last two weeks, per ESPN Stats & Information, UCLA backs have been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 60 percent of their designed runs. In the first four games they had nine rushes of 20 yards or more. In the past two games, zero. On the flip side, Oregon has had no trouble running the ball (332.4 yards per game), and should be bolstered by the expected return of De’Anthony Thomas.

[+] EnlargeTyler Gaffney
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezCan Tyler Gaffney push Stanford past Oregon State?
3. Ground vs. air: In the other state of Oregon game, the high-flying passing attack of Oregon State will clash with the run-based approach of the Cardinal. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney is coming off a career performance in the win over UCLA, rushing for 171 yards. He has broken 100 yards four times this season. Conversely, Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks continue to put up ridiculous numbers -- 85.7 percent of Oregon State’s offense comes through the air, second in the FBS only to Washington State. Mannion came into the season with 31 career touchdowns and 31 interceptions. His FBS-leading 29 touchdown passes are already tied for the school record. He has thrown for at least 350 yards in all seven games; no other Oregon State quarterback had more than four in a season. Things will ramp up for the Beavers from here on out. Their next five opponents have a combined record of 26-9.

4. Bounce back? The Huskies -- once ranked as high as 15th in the country -- look to snap a three-game skid when California comes to town. The Bears are still looking for their first conference win and have dropped nine straight Pac-12 games dating back to last season. Complicating the matter for the Huskies is quarterback Keith Price and the injured thumb on his throwing hand. He has played through the injury for three weeks, but there is a question of whether he’ll be effective enough to play this week.

5. Honoring Coach James: Washington is also planning several tributes to legendary coach Don James, who died Sunday at age 80 of pancreatic cancer. In 18 seasons at Washington, James led the Huskies to six Pac-10 titles, a share of the 1991 national championship and a 153-58-2 record. Players and coaches will wear decals with the initials "DJ" and members of his family will serve as the honorary captains for the pregame coin toss. The band will perform a tribute to James at halftime, along with a memorial video. A public memorial service will be held Sunday afternoon at Alaska Airlines Arena.

6. Bounce back? Take 2: Utah and USC will both look to rebound from flat road performances last week. Utah is back on the road, headed down to L.A., where the Utes haven’t won since 1916. Aside from the bowl implications (see below) this is also a big recruiting trip for Utah, since 33 players on the roster hail from California. Utah’s front has been nasty, averaging 3.14 sacks per game, tops in the Pac-12. The Trojans got a boost with the return of Silas Redd (112 yards vs. Notre Dame) but marquee players from both teams, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, are battling injuries.

7. Off and running: In case anyone needs reminding, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s win over Colorado. The teams will meet again in Boulder, and Carey has picked up where he left off last year. He has nine straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the country with an average of 161 yards per game. The Buffs are coming of a win over Charleston Southern where Michael Adkins II rushed for 137 yards and four touchdowns. Also, from the Department of Funky Stats, Colorado is 0-6 in the pregame coin toss this year.

8. Bowl bound: Three Pac-12 teams are already bowl eligible: Oregon (7-0), Oregon State (6-1) and Stanford (6-1). For those three, it’s all about pecking order and jockeying for position to get to the best possible bowl game, which could include Roses, or maybe something bigger. All three of those teams still have to play each other starting with Stanford’s trip to Oregon State this weekend, Oregon’s trip to Stanford on Nov. 7 and OSU’s trip to Autzen on Nov. 29 for the Civil War.

9. Bowl bound? Lots of teams are on the bubble, but only one team could become bowl eligible this week. That’s UCLA (5-1). Of course, to do it, they’ll have to upset Oregon on the road. With GameDay in town, this one takes center stage across the country. Arizona State is the league’s only other five-win team, for now, and is off this weekend. Five other teams have four wins: Washington State (4-4, 2-3), Washington (4-3, 1-3), Arizona (4-2, 1-2), USC (4-3, 1-2) and Utah (4-3, 1-2).

10. Taking a breather: Two byes this week with Arizona State and Washington State resting up. The Cougars started the year with eight straight games, and head coach Mike Leach said that it’s possible some fatigue may have set in over the past couple of games -- both losses to the Oregon teams. WSU and ASU will meet next Thursday night in Pullman.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
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A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12:

1. Title game rematch: UCLA and Stanford will face each other for the third time in the last 10 months. Only this time it’s the Bruins who are the higher-ranked team, coming in at No. 9 after Stanford slid to No. 13 following its loss at Utah. Remember all of those side-to-side swing passes that Dennis Erickson and Utah used to keep Stanford off balance? Remember who worked for Erickson at ASU? Yep, Noel Mazzone. And UCLA loves to hit its receivers in the flat. Keep an eye on what happens after the second-half kickoff, as well. The Bruins are outscoring opponents 71-0 in the third quarter this year. Stanford has a 12-game home winning streak -- third longest in the nation -- and is 10-1 at home against ranked opponents since 2009. Stanford hasn’t lost consecutive games since the middle of the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMarcus Mariota and the Ducks are expected to be one of the top two teams when the BCS standings are released on Sunday.
2. BCS time: The first Harris Poll of the season was released Sunday and featured four Pac-12 teams in the top 25: Oregon (2), UCLA (9), Stanford (12) and Washington (25). The first BCS standings will be released this week -- which comes on the heels of the announced selection committee for the College Football Playoff that starts next year. We’re all expecting Oregon to be in one of the top two spots. Question is, where will UCLA or Stanford land?

3. North vs. South: Two more critical North versus South showdowns this week with UCLA traveling to Stanford and Washington heading to Arizona State. The UCLA-Stanford game takes center stage for obvious reasons. But Washington-ASU has all the makings of a thriller. This is one of those 50-50 games that either team needs to win to show they belong in the upper tier of the Pac-12. The quarterbacks, Keith Price and Taylor Kelly, are obviously the mechanisms that make their teams go. But Washington running back Bishop Sankey (899 yards) has rushed for at least 125 yards in five of six games and ASU gives up almost 170 yards per game on the ground. Look for him to probably break 1,000 for the season by the final whistle. On the flip side, ASU’s Marion Grice already has 15 total touchdowns. He had 19 last year, so look for him to eclipse that mark in the next couple of games.

4. Making up is hard to do: Colorado will face Charleston Southern this week as a makeup for the Sept. 14 game against Fresno State that was canceled because of severe rain and flooding in Colorado. Charleston Southern is a perfect 7-0 on the year and is receiving votes in the Sports Network FCS College Football Poll. The Buffs are looking to get to 3-3 for the first time since 2010. And they are making a change at quarterback with Sefo Liufau stepping in after going 18 of 26 for 169 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions in relief against Arizona State.

5. No. 5? The Cougars are looking for their fifth win for the first time since 2007. Tough draw, however, this week with a trip to Oregon. The Ducks are averaging 56.8 points per game and are second in the country in total offense with 630.5 yards per game.

6. Taking care of the ball: Speaking of Oregon, quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Heisman frontrunner through the first half of the season, continues to impress with turnover-free performances. Though his completion percentage is down from last year, he hasn’t thrown an interception in 165 pass attempts this year -- which extends a streak dating back to last season of 233 attempts. His last interception was against Stanford. During that stretch, he’s completed 100 passes for 1,724 yards and 17 touchdowns. Receivers Josh Huff and Bralon Addison have 27 catches each for a combined 1,054 yards and 11 touchdowns.

7. Rebuilding the brand: Nothing can unite the USC fan base like a win against Notre Dame. Better yet, a win at Notre Dame. The Trojans won their first game of the Ed Orgeron era and look to follow it up against the Irish. Neither team is ranked, but the names carry a lot of weight. This is a game that could re-energize the Trojans moving forward. Marqise Lee and Morgan Breslin have both practiced and it’s looking like both will play. That should be a huge boost after getting running back Silas Redd back last week.

8. Momentum building? What do the Utes do with their big win over Stanford? Do they keep the momentum rolling? They have to go on the road for four of their next six -- including leaving the state for the first time this season when they travel to face Arizona. The Wildcats are still looking for their first conference win, though quarterback B.J. Denker had a strong statistical performance in the loss last week to USC, completing 28 of 44 passes for a career high 363 yards and four touchdowns.

9. Who needs a running game? The Pac-12’s top two passing offenses square off with Oregon State’s trip to Cal. OSU quarterback Sean Mannion has six straight games of 350 passing yards and the Beavers lead the conference with 433.2 passing yards per game and 25 passing touchdowns. Cal averages 371.3 yards in the air -- second in the league, but just 11 passing touchdowns, third worst. The Bears can move it, they just haven’t been able to convert yards into points.

10. No off week: For the second straight week, all 12 schools will be in action. This was supposed to be a bye week for Colorado, but the Charleston Southern game fills the void. Next week Arizona State and Washington State are on bye. It will be the first of two byes in three weeks for the Cougars, who will have opened the year with eight straight games following this week’s matchup with Oregon.

Reranking the Pac-12's top 10 players

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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Bristol apparently felt the Pac-12 reporters weren't getting enough hate mail, so they asked us to rerank our top 10 players from the preseason top 25 ranking at the midway point. No easy task, mind you. Things change. Perceptions change. Rosters change (No. 20, for example, is no longer playing).

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMarcus Mariota is not only the No. 1 player in the Pac-12, but he might be the top player in the nation.
So both halves of the Pac-12 blog banged their heads together and came up with a midseason ranking that is flawless and immune to criticism. Non-skill players are always tough to evaluate, but even tougher with a reduced body of work, so keep in mind that the postseason list will have linemen, defensive backs, etc., and will be a stronger reflection of the conference as a whole. Consider this an appetizer to the surf-and-turf postseason list.

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (preseason ranking: No. 1): We’re pretty confident we got this one right. He’s thrown for 17 touchdowns, run for eight more and has zero turnovers. He’s deserving of his Heisman front-runner status and leads all quarterbacks in adjusted QBR.

2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington (preseason: No. 15): The workhorse back leads the Pac-12 with 149.8 yards per game and 899 yards on 159 carries. He’s had 100-plus yards in five of six games this season.

3. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State (preseason: unranked): He wasn’t even the clear starter when we first put the preseason list together. Now he leads the nation with 2,511 passing yards and 25 touchdowns to just three interceptions.

4. Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA (preseason: No. 4): With 26 tackles, including four sacks and a league-high 10 tackles for loss in five games, Barr has made his case as the league’s premier defender thus far.

5. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State (preseason: No. 22): When Mannion is throwing, Cooks is usually catching. He leads the nation in catches (63), receiving yards (944) and receiving touchdowns (11). Phenomenal first half.

6. Trent Murphy, LB, Stanford (preseason: No. 7): He has emerged as one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the country. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks with five, backed up by eight tackles for a loss. He also has an interception returned for a touchdown.

7. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (preseason: No. 5): He’s completing 68 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns in the air and three on the ground. More importantly, he has the Bruins 5-0 and playing confident football.

8. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (preseason: No. 6): Despite missing the first game of the season for disciplinary reasons, the nation’s leading rusher from last year has kept up his form. He’s averaging 142.2 yards per game with 569 yards on 115 carries while rushing for five touchdowns.

9. Keith Price, QB, Washington (preseason: unranked): The question with Price was whether he’d return to his 2011 form. He has done that and then some. He’s the league’s most accurate passer at 69.3 percent with 12 touchdowns to four interceptions.

10. Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford (preseason: unranked): It was a toss-up here between Montgomery and Colorado’s Paul Richardson, who could be No. 10B. Richardson has more yards, but they both have five receiving touchdowns. The difference has been Montgomery’s special teams contributions the past two weeks. He’s returned kicks of 99 and 100 yards for touchdowns and leads the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards per game with 196.5 -- 20 yards per game more than Cooks, Sankey and Carey.

Pressure? Oregon responds convincingly

October, 12, 2013
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SEATTLE -- When Washington running back Bishop Sankey burst through Oregon's defense for a 25-yard touchdown with 26 seconds left in the third quarter Saturday, causing the Husky Stadium crowd to erupt like a volcano of hope and joy, it was as though the second-ranked Ducks were at that moment handed a three-question exam.

How might the Ducks react to a tight fourth quarter, which they haven't faced this year? Is statistically impressive quarterback Marcus Mariota a clutch performer? And, really, does first-year head coach Mark Helfrich have the cucumber-cool of the guy he replaced, Chip Kelly?

The No. 2 Ducks sharpened their No. 2 pencils and then ...

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMarcus Mariota was calm and confident under pressure.
They drove for two fourth-quarter touchdowns while shutting out the 16th-ranked Huskies in the final frame. Mariota was 5-of-6 for 75 yards in the fourth with a 3-yard touchdown pass and a 5-yard touchdown run. And Helfrich's version of the Ducks showed themselves as a complete and poised team, one that is clearly a national title contender after an impressive 45-24 victory.

"In a hostile environment, under some duress, when you can make some adjustments and execute those adjustments in all three phases, that's a big deal," Helfrich said. "It's a sign of a mature team."

True. The Ducks improved to 6-0 overall, and Mariota produced a Heisman Trophy worthy performance on a big stage. He completed 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards with three touchdowns and he rushed for 88 yards and another score. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns this season, 17 passing, eight rushing.

"I don't have a Heisman vote, but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said of Mariota. "That guy is special. I don't know when he is planning on going to the NFL, but when he does, I think he'll be a top-five draft pick."

It was a brilliant performance from bell to bell, the Ducks 18th consecutive road victory, the longest active streak in FBS football.

As a side bar, one noted by the Oregon fans in attendance with chants of, "Ten more years," late in the fourth quarter, the Ducks recorded their 10th consecutive victory in the bitter rivalry series, and each of those wins came by at least 17 points.

At this point, that dominance seems secondary, almost academic. The average high school senior can't remember Washington beating Oregon. But it's not secondary and academic to folks who can remember when the Huskies dominated the rivalry. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been at Oregon for 21 years in three different stints starting in 1978. He paused when asked if beating the hated Huskies 10 consecutive times seemed possible during his early years at Oregon.

"This was a wild dream way back when," Aliotti said.

But Oregon is not a dream. It's 100 percent for real in all three phases. The Ducks outgained the Huskies 631 yards to 376, averaging 7.8 yards per play. They won the turnover battle 2-0. While the defense yielded 167 tough yards to Sankey, who also had a 60-yard TD run, it blanketed the Huskies' talented corps of receivers, holding Keith Price to 182 yards passing while sacking him four times.

But the star was Mariota, who didn't have his best weapon, running back De'Anthony Thomas, available due to a lingering ankle injury. Of course, it's not easy to get Mariota to talk about himself. When asked about his performance, he noted that it was "a team sport." When asked about feeling pressure in the fourth quarter, he shrugged off the question.

He threw the ball extremely well and when we covered him, he ran. We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."

-- Washington coach Steve Sarkisian
"We have this deal that if we're prepared, we don't feel pressure," he said.

Others are better spokespersons for his Heisman campaign.

"He threw the ball extremely well, and when we covered him, he ran," Sarkisian said. "We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."

Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost calls the Ducks' plays. He said Mariota's best qualities are his maturity and composure.

"It's really easy to be a play-caller when the ball is in Marcus' hands," he said.

It's not only Mariota, as he repeatedly pointed out. When receiver Josh Huff went down with what looked like a worrisome leg injury, sophomore Bralon Addison stepped up with eight catches for 157 yards and two scores. When Huff came back in the second half, looking none the worse for wear, he caught six passes for 107 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown strike from Mariota.

And the Ducks defense held the Huskies to 16 points and 178 yards below their season averages.

The big question entering the game was whether the Ducks would finally get tested. They were. That the final score suggests that they weren't only means that they earned an A-plus for this midterm exam.

Pac-12 predictions: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
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Ted went 5-0 last week. Kevin went 4-1, missing on his Notre Dame-Arizona State pick.

For the season, Kevin is 42-4 while Ted is 41-5.

Things get much tougher from here on, though.

Thursday

ARIZONA at USC

Kevin Gemmell: I have no clue what to make of USC right now. Is this a situation where all of that potential energy is going to erupt? I know getting Silas Redd back is going to be a huge boost to an already outstanding running game. The teams have split the last four meetings and the last six games have been decided by a touchdown or less. When things are that close, go with the home team. USC 38, Arizona 31.

Ted Miller: Arizona State ripped USC's previously dominant defense apart in a 62-41 win, but that was due to QB Taylor Kelly passing for 351 yards and three touchdowns. As in: Kelly's potent passing opened up the Sun Devils running game. Arizona doesn't have that element. The Trojans will be able to gang up against Ka'Deem Carey. Plus, I suspect we'll see an inspired effort from the Trojans under interim coach Ed Orgeron. USC 28, Arizona 24.

Saturday

COLORADO at ARIZONA STATE

Gemmell: The Sun Devils better not take the foot off the gas now that their tough four-game stretch is through. The Buffs have talent and they haven’t lost confidence. I'm excited to see Paul Richardson and Jaelen Strong square off in a battle of elite receivers. ASU ultimately has more consistent firepower and should win easily. But Colorado isn’t going to roll over. Arizona State 42, Colorado 27.

Miller: Arizona State should be mad about its lackluster performance against Notre Dame. It also plays much better at home. Richardson will be a good test for the Sun Devils secondary, which made Tommy Rees look like Tom Brady. Arizona State 38, Colorado 24.

CALIFORNIA at UCLA

Gemmell: The list of defensive injuries continues to grow for the Bears. The fact that Jordon James might not play is a blow, but not a huge one, since the Bruins were expecting a by-committee backfield anyway. Its secondary should feel pretty good about nabbing six interceptions last week. The Bears, however, have dropped nine straight against FBS opponents. This should make it an even 10. UCLA 42, California 27.

Miller: The Bruins are going to be hungry because of the embarrassing way they played in Berkeley last year, particularly QB Brett Hundley. How beat up is the Bears defense? Just one starter from the spring depth chart will start Saturday. The only question is how the potent Cal passing game matches up with the Bruins secondary, which grabbed six interceptions at Utah last week. UCLA 50, California 31.

STANFORD at UTAH

Gemmell: Utah is getting closer, but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet. Stanford’s offense will be looking to bounce back -- as will Utah’s. Last week felt like a good wakeup call for the Cardinal, who own the nation’s second-longest winning streak. I'm expecting physical line play from both teams, but ultimately a Cardinal win. Stanford 31, Utah 21.

Miller: I like both quarterbacks to bounce back from poor performances last week, but Stanford's Kevin Hogan has a better supporting cast than Utah's Travis Wilson, and Wilson will be facing the Pac-12's best front seven. There should be plenty of good contact at the line of scrimmage. Stanford 35, Utah 20.

OREGON at WASHINGTON

Gemmell: I'm curious to see how Washington responds after its first loss of the year. Oregon has been so completely dominant, and would love nothing more than to score 55 or more points for a sixth straight game this season, especially at the expense of the Huskies. I like the progression of Washington, but I like Oregon better in this game. Oregon 42, Washington 31.

Miller: Husky Stadium will be rocking, and Washington is perfectly capable of pushing the Ducks. Keith Price could make himself a true UW legend by leading a winning effort, but we suspect it will be Ducks QB Marcus Mariota getting the ultimate star -- Heisman? -- turn. It's going to be 10 in a row for the Ducks, but it won't be by at least 17 points. Oregon 35, Washington 24.

OREGON STATE at WASHINGTON STATE

Gemmell: Call me crazy, but I like the Cougs in this one. The secondary is physical enough to hang with OSU’s receivers (as well as anyone can hang with Brandin Cooks) and the front seven has done a good job creating pressure. That leads to turnovers. Washington State seems ready to take a step forward in the North Division pecking order. This game would qualify as a step forward. Plus, two of my four misses this year have come by way of Oregon State. I clearly have no clue how to predict the Beavs. Washington State 45, Oregon State 42.

Miller: Oregon State, Oregon State, Oregon State. ... I ... am ... really ... sorry ... but I just got to do it. There really isn't a jinx ... is there? On the other side of the ledger, you are welcome in Pullman. Cold beverages on Kevin at The Coug. Oregon State 40, Washington State 38.

Washington needs to refocus quickly

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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The last thing Washington needs is a distraction. The Huskies are playing their best football in a decade, so the dust-up between Stanford coach David Shaw and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian over the Cardinal allegedly faking injuries during their game on Saturday serves no positive purpose for Washington, other than giving local and national reporters a good controversy on which to engorge themselves

After restating his, "I saw what I saw," Sarkisian quickly moved on to, "I'm done with the subject" during the Pac-12 coaches' call on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesA win over Oregon would be huge for Washington and coach Steve Sarkisian. The Huskies have lost nine straight to the Ducks.
That's probably good. Because after coming off a physically taxing game with a top-five team, the Huskies now must redirect their focus to No. 2 Oregon.

Forget that no two defensive game plans could be more dissimilar between trying to slow Stanford's pro-style offense and the Ducks' up-tempo spread. Even forget that the Oregon-Washington rivalry is the most bitter in the Pac-12 and one of the most bitter rivalries in the nation. The simple fact is the Ducks have owned the Huskies of late, winning nine in a row in the series by at least 17 points.

And you know Ducks fans are eager to print up the T-shirts: Decade of Dominance.

A Washington victory would be transformative -- in the Northwest region, in the Pac-12 and nationally. It would truly signal that the Huskies are ready to become a national power once again.

While the 31-28 loss at No. 5 Stanford was heartbreaking because the Huskies dominated the Cardinal statistically -- other than special teams -- playing the Ducks should provide plenty of motivation to refocus. Too much looking backward could prove catastrophic.

"I think in some ways it helped us," Sarkisian said of playing back-to-back top-five foes. "When you lose an emotional ballgame like we did Saturday night at Stanford, I think it was quick and easy to point out, 'Guys, we don't have time to sulk. We don't have time to sit with a woes-with-me mentality. We've got to get right back on the horse and get healthy mentally and physically'."

The Huskies have already done a pretty good job of staying focused amid outside chatter. The main preseason stories were about whether QB Keith Price could revert to his 2011 form after a poor 2012 season and Sarkisian potentially sitting on a hot seat. The opener against nationally ranked Boise State had the added pressure of being the debut of remodeled Husky Stadium. The Illinois game offered a road test for a team that was notoriously inconsistent on the road.

We all are aware this is a tremendous rivalry in college football and has been for a long time. We're excited to be part of it. That's what makes college football special.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian on the Huskies' rivalry with Oregon.
The Huskies answered all those questions. Price is playing as well as just about any quarterback in the country. Sarkisian is now talked about as a candidate for the USC job rather than a coach on the hot seat. The Huskies stomped the Broncos and opened their stadium in style. And Illinois was efficiently dispatched.

The loss at Stanford didn't quash much of the Huskies' new-found esteem either. They slipped just one spot in both national polls.

As for the bad feelings between the Ducks and Huskies, that's mostly a fan thing. Both teams talk about preparation being purely about a "nameless faceless opponent." But both Sarkisian and first-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich admit to an awareness of the heated nature of the rivalry.

"We all are aware this is a tremendous rivalry in college football and has been for a long time," Sarkisian said. "We're excited to be part of it. That's what makes college football special."

Helfrich, meanwhile, is a native of Coos Bay, Ore. He grew up rooting for the Ducks and hating the Huskies. So while former Oregon coach Chip Kelly would never admit beating Washington, which he did with plenty of panache, meant anything special, and he would cause Ducks fans to slap their foreheads by frequently mentioning how much he liked Sarkisian, Helfrich pretty much must admit there is something extra when playing the Huskies.

"Absolutely I understand the nature of the rivalry," he said.

But don't think Helfrich is that much different than Kelly. He says preparation will be no different, and he has been seen multiple times having a pleasant chat with Sarkisian.

For Washington, the goal is no distractions. Forget Stanford. Forget controversy. It doesn't even matter that it's the Ducks coming to town. It's about preparing to take the next step up the Pac-12 and national ladders.

Oregon, of course, represents one of the most challenging rungs on both ladders.

Said Sarkisian, "I think our guys are going to be prepared for whatever this game presents us."

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
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Taking stock of Week 6 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: The name of the game is winning, so Stanford gets the tip of that cap here, even if the Cardinal should feel fortunate to escape with a 31-28 win over Washington. The Huskies dominated nearly every statistic, most notably a 489 to 279 advantage in total yards and a 30-14 advantage in first downs. But coaches always talk about "all three phases," and that includes special teams, where Stanford held a decided and decisive advantage.

[+] EnlargeTy Montgomery
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsStanford receiver Ty Montgomery had a huge game versus Washington, returning a kickoff for a touchdown and adding another TD pass.
Best game: While UCLA's nail-biting win at Utah was pretty darn entertaining, college football fans who stayed up got a real treat with the Stanford-Washington game. It featured big plays on both sides of the ball, as well as fantastic individual performances. Even the controversial ending -- was there enough video evidence to overrule Keith Price's fourth-down "completion" to Kevin Smith? -- added intrigue as the Twitter debate lasted well into the wee hours of the morning.

Biggest play: Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery took the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against the Huskies. With the Cardinal offense struggling much of the night, those points would prove precious.

Offensive standout: Not everything can be about Stanford-Washington, and Washington State QB Connor Halliday turned in a gutty performance in the Cougars' 42-22 win at California. Despite suffering an upper-body injury -- shoulder? ribs? both? -- that knocked him out of the Stanford game the week before, Halliday passed for 521 yards against the Bears, which was just 10 yards short of the program record set by Alex Brink in 2005. He completed a school-record 41 passes on 67 attempts with three TDs and an interception. Further, the Cougs broke an eight-game losing streak in Berkeley -- they hadn't won at Cal since 2002.

Offensive standout II: Hard to ignore seven touchdowns. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota had five touchdown passes and two rushing TDs in a 57-16 win at Colorado. He completed 16 of 27 throws for 355 yards with no interceptions. He also rushed seven times for 43 yards.

Defensive standout: UCLA S Anthony Jefferson snagged two of the Bruins' six interceptions in their 34-27 win over Utah. He also tied for second on the Bruins with seven total tackles.

Defensive standout II: Stanford OLB Trent Murphy had two sacks and his fourth-quarter deflection of a Price pass led to an interception by A.J. Tarpley inside the Cardinal's 10-yard line. Murphy, who is making a strong case for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, had six total tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss.

Special-teams standout: No doubt about this one. Montgomery accounted for nearly 300 total yards for Stanford in the win over the Huskies, including 204 total yards on kick returns. In addition to his 99-yard touchdown, he also had a 68-yard return that set up an easy Stanford TD. Oh, by the way, he also caught a 39-yard TD pass. Simple as this: Montgomery is the reason Stanford won.

Smiley face: It's pretty cool that the Pac-12 produced a pair of outstanding games UCLA-Utah on Thursday and UW-Stanford winding up another great weekend of football. It's also meaningful, as Kevin noted, that the top teams held serve. Oregon and Stanford have fully justified top-five rankings, while UCLA continues to shine. Further, there was nothing inglorious about how Washington went down.

Frowny face: Arizona State blew its opportunity for a special start to the season with a 37-34 loss to Notre Dame. The Sun Devils had three turnovers, couldn't run the ball and made a previously struggling Notre Dame offense look potent. So, for a second time this season, Arizona State fell out of the national rankings. Further, ASU still seems to be a completely different team on the road than inside the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium, which bodes ill for the potentially critical visit to UCLA on Nov. 23. While many Sun Devils fans would have taken a 3-2 start in the preseason, the schedule turned out to not be as tough as it looked in August. So the present record could be termed a disappointment.

Thought of the week: Last season, we had two major Pac-12 upsets before October arrived: Stanford over No. 2 USC on Sept. 15 and Washington over No. 8 Stanford on Sept. 27. So far this season, we've had no major upsets. But you'd have to guess at least one will shock us at some point. The teams most on upset alert are the highly ranked unbeatens: Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. The Ducks have a tough trip to rival Washington on Saturday. That's a team the Ducks have beaten nine consecutive times by at least 17 points, but this matchup feels far more likely to be competitive. Stanford is at Utah. That also feels like a potentially tricky game, particularly after the emotions of the win over the Huskies on Saturday. And the Bruins shouldn't be overconfident against California, a team that is dangerous because it can throw the ball well.

Questions for the week: Who is USC going to be under interim coach Ed Orgeron? Are the Trojans going to unite around a new, fiery leader and play inspired football? If they do, they could cause some problems for teams with high aspirations. Stanford and UCLA each still play the Trojans. Or do they continue to be a distracted, seemingly indifferent group of individuals? We should get a good idea on Thursday when Arizona visits the Coliseum.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
10:00
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Five things we learned from the five Pac-12 games this week:

  1. Utah won’t make things easy in the South: The conference record might not show it, but Utah is a pretty good football team. Despite going 3-0 in its nonconference schedule, the Utes have yet to really make an impact in conference play. But they’ve made it tough for others -- pushing Oregon State into overtime a couple of weeks ago and then putting a scare into UCLA on Thursday. Six Utah turnovers (all interceptions) didn't help its cause. As for the Bruins, they survived a tough road game and did nothing to damage their national ranking. For a team that’s expected to be in the hunt for the Pac-12 South, you have to imagine they are happy to have Utah in their rearview mirror.
  2. [+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsConnor Halliday threw for 521 yards and three touchdowns in WSUs 44-22 win over Cal.
  3. Air trumps Bears: We knew there would be a lot of passing (combined 129 attempts). We knew there would be yards (1,160) and we knew there would be a lot of passing yards (1,027). It was every bit the air show, needing only the "Top Gun" theme music and an F-14 flyover to make it official. Connor Halliday was 41-of-67 for 521 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, leading WSU to a 44-22 win over Cal. The Bears' Jared Goff was 32-of-58 for 489 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. Red zone fumbles doomed the Bears, who have now lost nine straight games to FBS opponents, the longest losing streak of any BCS conference team. The Cougars, meanwhile, find themselves two wins away from bowl eligibility.
  4. Ducks are deep, dangerous: And this is without De’Anthony Thomas? Oregon scored 50-plus points for the fifth straight game, topping Colorado 57-16, setting a school record and becoming just the second team in the history of history to do that (Princeton in 1885, per ESPN Stats and Information). No DAT? No problem. Quarterback Marcus Mariota set a personal best by accounting for seven touchdowns -- five in the air and two on the ground. Byron Marshall posted his second straight 100-yard rushing game, and Bralon Addison had his first career 100-yard receiving game. Right now the Ducks have zero weak spots.
  5. ASU not quite ready for its close-up: You can’t ask for a better opportunity ... playing a historic program at a neutral site with not one, but two opportunities to drive down and win the game. Trailing Notre Dame 30-27, both drives, however, ended with Taylor Kelly interceptions -- including one that was returned for a touchdown. A late ASU score made the final 37-34 margin. The Sun Devils come out of their brutal four-game stretch 2-2 with wins over Wisconsin and USC, but losses to Stanford and the Irish. The optimistic Sun Devils fan says at least we beat USC, because that keeps us in the hunt for the Pac-12 South. The half-empty-glass drinker notes that twice the Sun Devils have reached Top 25 status and twice (at 2:57 a.m. PT on Sunday morning I'm predicting the Sun Devils don't stay in the Top 25) have had it relinquished. Arizona State could still contend for the division. But its national credibility suffered a setback Saturday.
  6. Stanford, Washington make statements: There’s a couple of different takeaways from Saturday’s nightcap, depending on whether you sleep in purple or Cardinal-colored jammies. This was a quality win over a quality opponent for Stanford. As expected, it was a tight, hard-fought game with both offenses and defenses coming up big at various times. Special teams -- specifically Stanford’s Ty Montgomery -- turned out to be the difference-maker, with Montgomery's long kick returns, including a 99-yard TD return on the opening kick. The takeaway for Washington? The Huskies are a top-20 team and should continue to be ranked accordingly. The Cardinal held Bishop Sankey below his season average, but he still ran for 125 yards and two scores. And there should be no debate about whether Keith Price is back following his performance (33-of-48 for 350 yards with two touchdowns and an interception). Regardless of where you come down on the video replay, this was billed as the game of the week, and it lived up to the hype.

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