NCF Nation: Keola Antolin

Second-half bad news for OSU defense

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
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STILLWATER, Okla. -- Oklahoma State's defense lost a key starter and gave up a touchdown midway through the third quarter.

Not the kind of start it needed to put away Arizona, who trails, 21-7.

Linebacker Alex Elkins suffered what looked like a left knee injury, and after being attended to for several minutes, was helped off the field.

That's a big loss for a young Oklahoma State linebacking corps, and Elkins already had a handful of tackles and a big hit so far in his night.

Arizona's drive was highlighted by a bit of razzle dazzle when the Wildcats caught the Cowboys on a well-executed hook-and-ladder from David Douglas to Keola Antolin to reach OSU territory.

Oklahoma State's offense has been stopped on four consecutive drives, and it needs to rediscover the momentum it had earlier in the game, or Arizona may sneak back into this game.
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Oklahoma State's offense has gotten plenty of attention tonight, and it's well-deserved.

Brandon Weeden is 22-of-23 and the Cowboys lead 21-0 late in the second quarter.

But don't forget the other side of the ball, which has been very impressive, too.

Sure, Arizona is missing one of the nation's best receivers in Juron Criner, but Nick Foles has completed 14 of 18 passes and Arizona is still hanging a zero on the scoreboard.

That's thanks to a fourth-down stop near the goal line on Arizona's last possession, courtesy of a pass breakup by Daytawion Lowe, who is stepping in for ineligible starter Johnny Thomas.

Arizona running back Keola Antolin has just 12 yards on seven carries, and daylight near the line of scrimmage has been at a premium.

OSU's offense will get plenty of credit if this ends up a runaway win, but the defense deserves a good bit as well.

Arizona has just six first downs to Oklahoma State's 12, and the Wildcats have established some momentum on a couple drives so far.

Each time, though, the Cowboys have held before it cost them points.
Look, the Pac-12 is the conference of quarterbacks. Everybody knows that. No other conference even approaches the talent the Pac-12 has at the position in 2011.

Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles each could be first-round NFL draft picks next spring. Luck is almost certain to go No. 1 overall. Oregon's Darron Thomas, Oregon State's Ryan Katz, Utah's Jordan Wynn and Washington State's Jeff Tuel also are experienced, talented guys with plenty of upside.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireQuarterback is the position of power in the Pac-12, but LaMichael James and his fellow running backs can make a strong case as well.
So the Pac-12's position of power is, obviously, quarterback.

But don't sleep on the running backs, either.

The conference welcomes back five backs who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last fall, including Oregon's Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner, LaMichael James. That crew includes Washington's Chris Polk, Colorado's Rodney Stewart, UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. Those are five backs who ranked among the top-38 in the nation in rushing last fall, including three in the top 13.

(And, by the way, if Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers and California's Shane Vereen hadn't opted to enter the NFL draft a year early, the conference also would include the nation's No. 21 and 23 rushers from 2010).

Further, only California, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State have questions at the position. USC is stacked with talented backs, whether senior Marc Tyler (913 yards, nine TDs in 2010) comes back from suspension or not. Arizona State's Cameron Marshall (787 yards, nine TDs) is one of the most underrated players in the conference, and Arizona's Keola Antolin (668, seven TDs in 2010) has rushed for 1,830 yards and scored 21 TDs in three seasons.

Further, many of the backups -- Oregon's Kenjon Barner, Washington's Jesse Callier, Arizona State's Deantre Lewis or Kyle Middlebrooks, Stanford's Anthony Wilkerson and UCLA's Derrick Coleman (or Malcolm Jones/Jordan James) -- are talented and experienced (other than James, a redshirt freshman).

So conference of quarterbacks, conference of running backs -- both are positions of power.

Perhaps the Pac-12 in 2011 is now the Conference of Backfields?
The Pac-12 features another strong crop of running backs -- five returning 1,000-yard rushers -- but there are also a few teams facing uncertainty at the position.

So how does it stack up?

Great shape

    [+] EnlargeLaMichael James
    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesLaMichael James leads a talented running back corps that has both experience and depth.
  • Oregon: It's not just that the Ducks have Heisman Trophy finalist and unanimous All-American LaMichael James coming back, it's that they have Kenjon Barner and Lache Seastrunk to help carry the load. When you toss in touted incoming freshman De’Anthony Thomas -- play or redshirt? -- Oregon may have the best backfield in the nation.
  • Washington: Chris Polk is a workhorse who gained 1,415 yards last season -- he's also a good receiver -- and there's good depth with Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper, who sat out last year with a knee injury.
  • Stanford: Stepfan Taylor lead the way with 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010, but the depth is phenomenal with Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart.
  • UCLA: Not unlike Stanford, there's a returning 1,000-yard rusher -- Johnathan Franklin -- and great depth: Derrick Coleman, Malcolm Jones and Jordan James.
  • Colorado: Rodney Stewart, at 5-foot-6, 175 pounds, is a diminutive workhorse. He rushed for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010. The only issue here is depth, though redshirt freshman Tony Jones had a nice spring.
Good shape
We'll see

  • California: Strange to see Cal down here, eh? What in the name of J.J., Marshawn, Jahvid and Vereen is going on? Isi Sofele is No. 1 on the post-spring depth chart, but it's wide open after that, with incoming freshmen expected to be immediately in the mix.
  • Oregon State: The Beavers have experience with Ryan McCants, but he's struggled to break through. Sophomore Jovan Stevenson, redshirt freshman Malcolm Marable and grayshirt freshman Terron Ward are options, as is Jordan Jenkins, who missed spring with a shoulder injury.
  • Utah: The Utes lost their top three backs from 2010, and their top three backs heading into 2011 have no experience. But John White, Harvey Langi and Thretton Palamo showed plenty of promise this spring. It's just we don't know what they'll do when the lights go on in Pac-12 play.
  • Washington State: Logwone Mitz and Carl Winston are back -- they combined for 353 yards in 2010 -- and hopes are high for Ricky Galvin, who was injured early in the Cougars opening game last fall. But this is not a position of strength for the Cougars.
Previous reviews

Quarterback

Pac-12 three-headed monsters

March, 25, 2011
3/25/11
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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.

Stepping up in the bowls: Arizona

December, 27, 2010
12/27/10
7:21
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Arizona kicks off the Pac-10 bowl season on Wednesday with a big test against Oklahoma State in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

The Wildcats are underdogs against a Cowboys team that was hoping for a BCS bowl berth until it lost its season finale against rival Oklahoma 47-41. The Cowboys own one of the most potent offenses in the nation. They have really only been slowed down once this year: during a visit to Kansas State when the Cowboys played was without the services of Justin Blackmon, who is only the nation's best receiver.

But let's ask this question: Who might dramatically change this game if he -- or they -- stepped up with a marquee performance?

Running backs Keola Antolin, Nic Grigsby and Greg Nwoko: This is fairly simple. What if Arizona can consistently run the ball against the Cowboys? Well, that would be a game-changer for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it would shorten the game and help play keep-away from the potent Oklahoma State offense. Further, if the Cowboys are forced to commit more bodies to stopping the run, it also would open things up downfield for quarterback Nick Foles. The reason three guys are listed here is all three will get carries, and each brings something different to the attack. Antolin is the starter and the most consistent. Nwoko brings a power element. Grigsby is a home run threat who's struggled with injuries. Of course, these guys need the Wildcats to win battles on the line of scrimmage, but it's up to the backs to turn those creases into big plays. If this troika manages to combine for around 180 or 200 yards -- significantly more than the season average of of 135 -- then expect Arizona to be in pretty darn good shape.

Pac-10 rewind and look ahead

October, 25, 2010
10/25/10
2:36
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A look back on the week that was.

[+] EnlargeMatt Scott
Chris Morrison/US PresswireMatt Scott performed well, completing 18-of-22 with two touchdowns, while filling in for an injured Nick Foles.
Team of the week: When starting quarterback Nick Foles went down with a knee injury, Arizona had reason for concern. How would backup Matt Scott handle a second tour as a starter? Very well, in fact. Scott completed 18-of-22 for 233 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions and rushed for 65 yards in the Wildcats 44-14 win. But don't forget a defense that held the Huskies to 290 total yards.

Best game: There were no exciting games this past weekend, but Oregon's 60-13 stomping of UCLA on Thursday night certainly sent out a message to the country that the Ducks are a legitimate national title contender.

Biggest play: Arizona only led Washington 17-14 midway through the second quarter when Wildcats running back Keola Antolin exploded for a 78-yard touchdown run. The play seemed to break the Huskies' back.

Offensive standout: Oregon QB Darron Thomas completed 22-of-31 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions and rushed for 48 yards on five carries. And he had no negative yardage.

Defensive standout: Arizona linebacker Paul Vassallo had 14 tackles -- nine solo -- and a sack in the Wildcats blowout win over Washington.

Special teams standout: California safety Chris Conte blocked an Arizona State punt and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.

Smiley face: Oregon and Arizona both made strong statements with complete performances in all three phases.

Frowny face: Arizona State played its worst game of the season at California and now its bowl hopes are dimming. The same for Washington, which continued its pattern of playing great one weekend, bad the next.

Thought of the week: While most of the national attention will be on Oregon's visit to USC, California's trip to Oregon State is also interesting. Will the Beavers, who have only one Pac-10 loss, be a factor in the conference race, even without James Rodgers? Can Cal win a game on the road? The winner will climb the pecking order in the conference.

Question of the week: Can Oregon do what Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma could not -- hold onto the No. 1 ranking in the major polls while playing a ranked foe on the road?

Oregon State answers Arizona challenge

October, 9, 2010
10/09/10
9:26
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Oregon State isn't backing down, that's for sure.

Arizona took the third-quarter kickoff and drove 66 yards for a touchdown -- Keola Antolin doing much of the work with a 33-yard TD run. After a missed PAT, the Wildcats were down 17-13.

But that felt like a statement by the nation's No. 9 team.

Only the Beavers immediately answered with a 65-yard TD drive. And they even matched the Wildcats' missed PAT, which left the score at 23-13.

The Wildcats entered the game ranked second in the nation in total defense, surrendering just 230.8 yards per game. They've given up 351 yards already tonight.

The defense better step up or we could be headed for an upset. The Beavers are now 8 of 10 on third down.
Another year, another strong collection of running backs, even with the departures of Toby Gerhart and Jahvid Best.

While Pac-10 quarterbacks will grab most of the preseason headlines -- that's what happens when the two best NFL prospects at the position play in the same conference -- the class of running backs is nearly as strong.

Three 1,00o-yard rushers are back, and that doesn't include California's Shane Vereen, who piled up 952 yards as a backup, nor does it including Arizona's Nic Grigsby, who rushed for 1,153 yards in 2008. Six of the top-nine running backs will return this fall, and more than a few teams are decidedly deep at the position.

By the way, you might note there is more mention of incoming freshman at this position than others. Two reasons: 1. The Pac-1o had a strong haul of RBs in recruiting; and, 2. RB is often the easiest place for a young player to break into the lineup.

Great shape

  • Oregon: While the Pac-10 blog rates Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers ahead of LaMichael James as an individual player, the Ducks have a decided edge in depth, and not only because James' backup, Kenjon Barner, is one of the conference's most explosive players. The incoming recruiting class also features Lache Seastrunk and Dontae Williams, the No. 6 and No. 13 prep running backs in the nation in 2009.
  • [+] EnlargeJacquizz Rodgers
    Rick Scuteri/US PresswireJacquizz Rodgers may be the most talented individual running back in the Pac-10 this year, but Oregon has the best group.
  • Oregon State: Jacquizz Rodgers is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as the most complete back in the conference. Depth behind him is a little iffy, though Ryan McCants turned in some of his best work during spring practices.
  • Washington: Washington fans often note that Chris Polk gained most of his 1,113 yards last year after contact because he was running behind a young offensive line. That line, with four starters back, should be better in 2010. Good depth with Johri Fogerson and freshmen Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, who both participated in spring drills.
  • California: As noted above, Vereen put up impressive numbers as a backup and then starter over the final four games after Best got hurt. 12 TDs on 183 carries shows he has a nose for the endzone. Depth behind him is uncertain. Trajuan Briggs, Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Isi Sofele and Dasarte Yarnway are competing for backup touches.
  • USC: Allen Bradford, a neglected talent under Pete Carroll, who was oddly in love with the mercurial Joe McKnight, could end up being a first-team All-Pac-10 back. C.J. Gable also will have a chance to emerge from Carroll's doghouse. True freshman Dillon Baxter was the star of spring practices, while Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler are major talents who just need to stay healthy.
  • Arizona: The Wildcats welcome back their top three running backs: Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko. But Grigsby, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry last year when he wasn't hurt, needs to find a way to stay healthy.
Good shape
We'll see

  • Stanford: The Cardinal doesn't have one guy who can replace Gerhart. But who does? The good news for a backfield-by-committee approach with Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and freshman Usua Amanam in the mix is the offensive line in front of them should be outstanding.
  • Arizona State: The Sun Devils must replace leading rusher Dimitri Nance, who didn't exactly scare opposing defenses in 2009. Cameron Marshall is the leading returning rusher with 280 yards. James Morrison and Jamal Miles will provide depth, though an incoming freshman might get into the mix. As has been the case for a while with the Sun Devils, the first order is improving the offensive line.
  • Washington State: Leading 2009 rusher Dwight Tardy is gone. If James Montgomery is healthy -- and stays that way -- he gives the Cougars a quality runner. He was clearly the best guy last preseason before he got hurt. Logwone Mitz, Chantz Staden, Carl Winston and Marcus Richmond will compete for touches during fall camp. Whatever the pecking order, the offensive line is the biggest issue.

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.
At what position is the Pac-10 deep? At what position in the Pac-10 thin? Here's the second of three parts taking a look at just that.

(By the way, some of you wondered about QB. The Pac-10 is, without question, the nation's deepest conference in terms of quarterbacks -- and it would have been deeper if not for a certain Duck making a very, very poor decision. But that's so obvious and been written about so much that we're not including it in this three-part package).

Deep: Running back

[+] EnlargeJacquizz Rodgers
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireJacquizz Rodgers is one of several talented running backs returning to the Pac-10 this season.
Why is it deep? Six of the top-10 running backs from 2009 are back, and four of them rushed for more than 950 yards. Eight teams welcome back a player who qualifies as a starter or at least an experienced veteran. Only Arizona State and Stanford, which is replacing Heisman Trophy runnerup Toby Gerhart, are uncertain at the position. But it's not just about starters. There's depth. Most teams can point to one or more solid backups, not to mention there are a number of elite incoming freshmen recruits expected to immediately contribute.

The big names: Start with Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, the conference's top Heisman Trophy candidate, and Oregon's LaMichael James, who has All-American potential. They combined for just under 3,000 yards and 35 TDs in 2009. Then there's Washington's Chris Polk (1,113 yards rushing), California's Shane Vereen (952 yards, 12 TDs) and Arizona's Nic Grigsby, who rushed for 1,153 yards in 2008. The Wildcats, in fact, have their top four rushers back, including Keola Antolin, who's rushed for over 1,100 yards and 14 TDs over the past two seasons. USC and UCLA are both experienced in the backfield and have highly rated freshmen recruits who figure to be in the mix, particularly USC's Dillon Baxter, who was spectacular this spring. Washington State has three of its top four rushers back.

Thin: Cornerback

Why is it thin? Three of the four All-Pac-10 cornerbacks are gone: UCLA's Alterraun Verner, California's Syd'Quan Thompson and USC's Kevin Thomas. Each of them were NFL draft picks. Only second-teamer Trevin Wade of Arizona returns. In fact, only one returning CB even earned honorable mention all-conference recognition (Washington's Desmond Trufant). Only Oregon, Stanford and Washington welcome back both starting CBs from 2009, and each of them is hardly settled at the position after spring practices. Arizona State and USC are replacing both corners, though the return of Omar Bolden from injury and Shareece Wright from academic ineligibility should bolster the Sun Devils and Trojans, respectively.

Fill the void? Wright might turn out to be the conference's best cover corner and a top NFL draft pick. Wade had five interceptions last year and could earn national attention. Bolden had a great spring after missing last season with an injury and suffering through a disappointing sophomore year. Trufant, UCLA's Sheldon Price, USC's Torin Harris and Oregon's Cliff Harris are youngsters who might break through. Oregon's Talmadge Jackson and Oregon State's James Dockery are veterans who could take the next step.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Little game of Pac-10 Jeopardy: This nationally ranked team controls its own conference destiny and it never rains in its home stadium.

Oregon!

 
 Chris Morrison/US PRESSWIRE
 Even with a tough upcoming schedule, coach Mike Stoops believes Arizona's best football is ahead.
No, though we enjoy that jocular pregame announcement at Autzen Stadium as much as anybody. And, please, remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question.

Who is Arizona?

Right!

No, really. Who is Arizona?

The Wildcats, ranked 18th in the BCS standings, are 5-2 overall and, at 3-1 in conference play, are alone in second place in the standings. If not for an odd and controversial deflection at Washington, the Wildcats would be sniffing the top 10.

Yet few folks seem to know much about them.

They rank No. 1 in the Pac-10 and 14th in the nation in total offense (455 yards per game) and third in the conference in total defense (315 ypg). They are balanced on offense -- 12 rushing touchdowns, 12 passing touchdowns -- and they do a good job of stopping the run, ranking 17th in the nation (101.3 ypg).

Yet the buzz around the program -- outside of Tucson, at least -- is only a light hum.

"That's all the time. We're always laying low," said Wildcats senior safety Cam Nelson, who knows personally about being underrated.

"We don't get much credit, which doesn't bother us. We don't need anybody to know us. We like being a no-name team that's going to sneak up and make a big run."

Nelson sounds more resigned than perturbed. As for that big run, don't disregard the notion. The schedule ahead is brutal (perhaps the toughest in the nation) but nothing worth achieving is ever easy to obtain.

Arizona should know. It has been waiting a long time for a Rose Bowl berth. Like, er, forever.

We must pause now and acknowledge what Wildcats coach Mike Stoops has been relentlessly telling his team for the past two weeks (Arizona had a bye last week): Do not overlook Washington State, which comes to town on Saturday.

"Our guys are smart enough to understand ... anybody can beat anybody if you give them the opportunity," Stoops said.

But, outside of the locker room, we are free to consider this slate of four games: at California, Oregon, at Arizona State and at USC.

Is it far-fetched to imagine the Wildcats running that gauntlet unscathed? Absolutely. But not impossible.

Arizona whipped Cal 42-27 last year. It's won two of three from Oregon. It beat the rival Sun Devils 31-10 last year. USC only beat the Wildcats 17-10 in 2008, and these Trojans don't appear as salty as those.

Moreover, the Wildcats have reached this point -- on the cusp of consecutive bowl berths for the first time since 1997-98 -- despite major injury issues.

They lost their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, before the season began with a back injury. They've played their last four games without their best pass-rusher, end Brooks Reed. Two of their top three running backs, starter Nic Grigsby and No. 3 Greg Nwoko, likely will miss the Washington State game with shoulder injuries, while No. 2 Keola Antolin is still nursing a sprained ankle. The offensive line has been down one or two starters much of the season.

Said Stoops, "I think our best football is still in front of us. It's going to need to be."

The good news is that Reed appears set to play Saturday, and Nelson believes the return of one of the best ends in the Pac-10 will have a big impact for a unit that has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.

"It will help a whole lot," Nelson said. "Brooks' intensity on the field, the way he plays and carries himself, you'll see a big change in the defense. D'Aundre Reed has stepped in and done a good job, but there's no substitution for Brooks on the field. He plays reckless, hard. He's fast every play, trying to cause a turnover. Once we get him back, things will be a whole lot different. There will be more pressure, which will make it easier on the back end for us."

Speaking of back ends: Nelson has no problem talking about the rigorous back end of the schedule and what it's going to take to win-out. That doesn't, however, mean he's overlooking Washington State.

"Regardless of their record, they are still a Pac-10 team," he said. "Every week is a challenge."

But if Arizona is up to that challenge from now until Dec. 5 at USC, it may accomplish something it's never done before.

What is earn a Rose Bowl berth?
 
  AP Photos
  Washington quarterback Jake Locker and Arizona's quarterback Nick Foles are both looking to make statements this Saturday.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Washington, like many teams, has a "24-hour rule," which means every victory or defeat is left in the past as the team turns its entire focus onto the next opponent.

Ah, but sometimes rules are made to be broken, just as Huskies quarterback Jake Locker refused to talk to reporters after the controversial 37-30 overtime defeat at Notre Dame for the first time in his career.

"I didn't feel like I was in the best emotional state to answer questions," Locker said.

Locker wasn't so much sad. Think of a stronger word for angry and then apply it. Locker and the Huskies were unhappy with the officiating. And they were unhappy about blowing myriad opportunities to take control of the game.

"Jake was stressed out," running back Chris Polk said. "He didn't say anything to anybody. It really took a toll on him. But he's OK now."

He needs to be. The Arizona team coming to Husky Stadium on Saturday is better than the Fighting Irish, particularly on defense.

And this game has some heft to it. The Huskies have lost two in a row since upsetting USC and are facing the prospect of 2009 becoming a close-but-no-cigar season.

Arizona, which is coming off a bye week, can make a statement against the Huskies in the Pac-10 race that might earn the Wildcats a national ranking.

Wildcats safety Cam Nelson wouldn't say the Huskies got jobbed by the officials at Notre Dame, but his admiration for Locker is clear -- and not just because of how quickly Locker became an adept passer after many had pigeonholed him as a running back playing quarterback.

"Funny story: My sophomore year I knocked myself out of the game hitting Jake," Nelson said. "I was kind of looking forward to a rematch with him."

He's more likely to face it in pass coverage. Locker, once a 235-pound bull of a runner, is presently the conference's leading passer with 257 yards per game. His seven touchdown passes is tied for the conference lead. Meanwhile, he's only rushed for 107 yards.

"I think he's as good a player as there is in college football," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said.

Stoops and Nelson also are happy with their quarterback, Nick Foles, who made an impressive debut at Oregon State in the Wildcats 37-32 victory. Foles leads the conference in passing efficiency and has hurled five touchdown passes with no interceptions.

Nelson said the poise Foles showed making his first start in a hostile environment didn't surprise him.

"We knew he was going to make good passes and smart decisions," Nelson said. "It was just everyone else who didn't know about Nick who doubted him."

Foles' giving the Wildcats a passing attack they didn't have in the first three games will take pressure off Nelson and the defense and should bolster an already strong running game. The bye week also appears to have helped the offense, which should get back running backs Nic Grigsby (shoulder) and Keola Antolin (ankle) as well as two starting offensive linemen who are recovering from concussions.

Foles will face a test at rejuvenated -- read: loud -- Husky Stadium, which can make things tough on a young quarterback. Nelson and the Wildcats defense also will face a Washington offense that has picked up its rushing attack with Polk now ranking sixth in the conference with 90 yards per game.

Polk has two touchdowns this year. Check that. His second TD was overruled in the replay booth at Notre Dame.

While their fans are still grumbling -- and not without justification -- the Huskies need to get over their experience at Notre Dame.

"We're over it," Polk said. "We know we should have won and they know we should have won. I'm at peace with it. Everyone in the nation knows and we know and they know. But there's nothing we can do."

Other than look ahead to a matchup in Husky Stadium that could have significant ramifications in the Pac-10 race.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller and Adam Rittenberg


Holy Rose Bowl! It's another Big Ten-Pac-10 weekend, with No. 8 California visiting Minnesota and Arizona headed to Iowa. All four teams are 2-0. Seems like a good time for another blogger debate.

Ted Miller: You again! Adam, we need to stop meeting like this. Or at least the Big Ten should stop meeting like Ohio State did with USC. Perhaps there will be some redemption on Saturday when California visits Minnesota and Arizona takes a gander at Iowa.
Icon SMI/US Presswire
Golden mascots square off in the Twin Cities on Saturday.

Let's start with your game Saturday in fancy pants TCF Bank Stadium. (Nice job, Minnesota.)

I look over Minnesota's particulars and I can't get a good vibe about what Cal should expect, particularly after the Gophers struggled to beat Syracuse and Air Force. Who are these guys ... and whose mascot is more golden?

Adam Rittenberg: Ted! Buddy! Good to be with you again. OK, full disclosure here. I grew up in Berkeley, attended pretty much every Cal home game between 1994 to 1999. Witnessed the one Mariucci season in '96 (still have nightmares about the Pat Barnes fumble at Washington State) and the insufferable Tom Holmoe era. But I was never a huge Oski the Bear fan. Too subdued of a mascot. Looked like a glum professor who hadn't had his sweater ironed in 50 years. And he doesn't wear pants, which is perfect for Berkeley (I grew up there, so I can say that!) So Goldy Gopher gets my vote. He's goldier.

As for Minnesota, they did struggle against the Cuse, but the Air Force win is pretty solid in my book. The defense has been the big plus so far, especially the three linebackers (Nate Triplett, Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence). Triplett has gone from special teams all-star to major playmaker. The offense has struggled quite a bit, as Minnesota incorporates a new pro-style system under Jedd Fisch. It's a pretty dramatic departure from what they did the last two seasons, and it has taken a bit of time to click. Quarterback Adam Weber has loads of experience and can be effective when he limits interceptions, and Eric Decker is a freaking stud. Might be the best wide receiver in America that no one talks about. The problem is Minnesota hasn't found many weapons other than Decker. The Gophers need to spark their rushing attack behind Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge and hope a No. 2 wide receiver emerges, possibly speedster Troy Stoudermire.

I saw Cal is flying in Thursday for the game. Will the Bears be ready to play this time around for a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff, and can anyone slow down Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen? How has Kevin Riley looked so far?
Paul Jasienski-US PRESSWIRE
Cal QB Kevin Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency.
TM: Gosh, Cal coach Jeff Tedford HATES being asked about the 9 a.m. PT kickoff, because that was the prime excuse for the Bears' terrible effort last year at Maryland, an excuse, by the way, that Tedford has rejected from the get-go. Still, it's obvious he's doing everything he can to get his team ready for the early start, changing his previous plan and flying in on Thursday.

As for Best and Vereen, they are a great combination for sure. Best is going to make a play or two, mostly because he always does. The question is whether he can be such a bothersome threat that he forces Minnesota to load up the box. If that happens, a much-improved Kevin Riley and a receiving corps that has grown up could make big plays down field. Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and has yet to throw a pick, so he's started off as a completely different quarterback from the guy who was so inconsistent last last season.

The big issue for Cal is playing on the road: They've lost four in a row on the road. Moreover, they've not been challenged by a team so far that can approach them physically. Minnesota will be a far tougher test, and we just don't know whether Riley and the Bears can maintain their cool efficiency away from Berkley.

As for the other game: Iowa seems to have righted itself with the big win over Iowa State. But Arizona has a fast defense. Can quarterback Ricky Stanzi and running back Brandon Wegher lead an effective attack against the Wildcats?

AR: As I like to say, Stanzi is the Manzi. Actually, Stanzi has been inconsistent throughout his time as the starter, mixing big plays with too many picks. But he has more targets this year with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Tony Moeki, Trey Stross and Marvin McNutt. The running game has been a bit messy this year because of departures (Shonn Greene) and injuries (Jewel Hampton, Jeff Brinson). Brandon Wegher likely would have redshirted but stepped up big last week. He and another freshman, Adam Robinson, will get most of the carries Saturday. It's rare to see Kirk Ferentz play so many young players, but these guys seem up to the task. The offensive line could be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness) again, so those two speedy Arizona pass-rushers will have their ears pinned back for sure.

Let's talk about the Wildcats offense. How good is Nic Grigsby and does Arizona have a passing game to complement the nation's second leading rusher?

TM: Grigsby is off to a fast start, but the Iowa defense will offer a far tougher test than Central Michigan and Northern Arizona. Also, Grigsby had some fumbling problems a year ago -- he got benched a couple of times and capable back Keola Antolin took over -- but that has yet to be an issue in 2009. My guess is the Hawkeyes load the box, gang up on Grigsby and will dare Arizona's new quarterback, sophomore Matt Scott, to pass, which is never easy on the road.
Gronkowski

And therein lies a huge issue for this game. Arizona's best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is out with a back injury. Gronkowski is a beast. More than a few folks in the Pac-10 believe he's every bit the player that Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham is. Think having a 6-foot-6, 265-pound safety valve would help a young QB? It also doesn't help that No. 1 receiver Delashaun Dean has been slowed by a hamstring injury, though he will play.

So, the Wildcats passing game, with Scott making his first road start, is a huge question.

Speaking of road games, seems like all the Big Ten owns home field advantage in all these matchups with the Pac-10 ... no fair. But, seriously, which place will be more difficult for a visitor from the West Coast? I love Minnesota's new digs but I've heard a lot about pink bathrooms and the nutty horde at Kinnick Stadium.

AR: Well, you guys do have this game called the Rose Bowl. If memory serves, it's in Pac-10 country. Like in USC's backyard. That reminds me, Ted, can you find a way to make sure the Trojans don't go to Pasadena this year? The Big Ten would like a break from the Trojans after all these years of punishment. I stayed on the same floor as Pete Carroll last week in Columbus but forgot to ask him myself. Let me know what they say over at Heritage Hall. Thanks, dude.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Ricky Stanzi has passed for 439 yards and five touchdowns so far this season.

TCF Bank Stadium is pretty freaking awesome, and I'm excited to see the finished product in person. But I'd have to go with Kinnick Stadium as a tougher place right now. Iowa always sells it out and the fans are right on top of the field. It's a tremendous atmosphere, one of my favorites in the league. The early start time at Minnesota could be tougher for a Pac-10 team, but Kinnick definitely is less hospitable.

OK, prediction time. Who you got in Minnesota-Cal? Arizona-Iowa?

TM: Rose Bowl in Detroit, which is beautiful in midwinter!

I don't think anyone wants to see USC in the Rose Bowl again -- even USC's fans and players. The Trojans, however, wouldn't mind being in Pasadena again this January, if you catch my drift (nudge, nudge).

As for the predictions: For folks who read the Pac-10 blog, they know I've been advocating Cal as the team that might challenge USC's seven-year run atop the conference. They also know that for weeks I've been ranting about how underrated Arizona is.

So I've got pick a road warrior weekend for the Pac-10.
Let's say: Cal 35-21
And: Arizona 24-21.
Now, for the pick you should take to Vegas ...

AR: Call me a homer, but I've got to go with Cal. Minnesota has really struggled to make plays on offense, and while the Gophers' defense looks much improved, it'll be hard to contain Best and Vereen for 60 minutes and keep Cal off the scoreboard. Minnesota will have its crowd going and should keep things relatively, close, but I have Cal winning by 11, 34-23.

We'll probably see a defensive struggle at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa's defense is always solid under Norm Parker, and the front seven should prevent Grigsby from going nuts. I think Iowa got its mojo back last week and pulls this one out, 21-17 Hawkeyes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

TUCSON, Ariz. -- If the economy is turning the corner, it might be time to start looking for bargains in the stock market. Arizona coach Mike Stoops has a suggestion.

Nic Grigsby, Inc.

"I think he's the most undervalued running back in the nation," Stoops said.

The Pac-10's running back business is flourishing. Five returning backs eclipsed the 1,000-yard benchmark last year.

 
  Christian Petersen/Getty Images
  Arizona running back Nic Grigsby is focusing on keeping hold of the ball.
Of course, you've heard of California's Jahvid Best (He's electric!). And Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers (Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman). And Stanford's Toby Gerhart (Power & Speed!). And Oregon's LeGarrette Blount (Power & Speed II!).

Wait. Who's the fifth guy?

That would be Grigsby, whose 5.4 yards per carry was better than Rodgers and equal to Gerhart. His 1,153 yards rushing was more than Blount and Gerhart.

Yet his name mostly draws a blank outside of Tucson.

"We're all underrated at Arizona," Grigsby said.

Ah, but Stoops and Grigsby also know -- and note without bidding -- that there is one important knock on Grigsby.

Grigsby calls it his "fumbling situation." He lost the ball five times last year.

"I know if didn't put the ball on the ground as many times as I did, I would have had 400 more yards and six more touchdowns and I would have been right up there," he said.

He's right.

But fumbling is bad. It's worse than gaining a bunch more yards.

A Grigsby fumble gave UCLA its only touchdown against the Wildcats. A Grigsby fumble got him benched against California (a sideline sulk didn't help either). A Grigsby fumble killed a drive deep into BYU territory in the Las Vegas Bowl.

But here's where the story might change: Grigsby, by all accounts, has worked extremely hard to beat his fumble-itis. And he hasn't put the ball on the ground once this preseason, Stoops said.

"To me, it isn't even in my vocabulary," Grigsby said. "The only thing in my vocabulary now is being humble, being a play-maker, being a good team player and winning."

Stoops lauds Grigsby's competitiveness and intensity and said that rubs off on his teammates. As for as being humble and being a good team player, Grigsby insists he's comfortable sharing the football with the Wildcats other two backs, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko, who are both very capable.

"It ate me up at first seeing other guys come in and perform. I was like, 'I could be doing that,'" Grigsby said. "But I'm not worried about that. Coach knows he can count on all of us."

As for as being undervalued, that seems to be the theme throughout Arizona preseason camp. The Wildcats, picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 preseason media poll, know not much is expected from them.

"We're not worried about anything but proving people wrong," Grigsby said.

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