NCF Nation: Marion Grice

Pac-12's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Today we put a bow on the 2013 season (almost -- a few more review posts are coming up, and then probably a few more after that). But today across the blogosphere, we’re categorizing some of the top moments and individuals from the Pac-12 season. These are set in stone and in no way open to argument or interpretation.

Best coach: Arizona State's Todd Graham was voted as the league’s coach of the year by his peers. And it’s hard to argue with that, given the fact that the Sun Devils had the best league record and won their division. But you can’t discount the job of the L.A. coaches (interim or otherwise). Ed Orgeron did a phenomenal job in relief at USC before Steve Sarkisian was hired, and Jim Mora shepherded his team through a difficult time early.

Best player, offense: Ka’Deem Carey was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. And the Pac-12 blog agrees. Certainly, cases can be made for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was on the Heisman Trophy track before being derailed by a knee injury. And there is the debate between Carey and Washington running back Bishop Sankey, which will rage until the end of days.

Best player, defense: The coaches went with Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton. And there’s nothing wrong with that selection. But cases certainly can be made for outside linebackers Trent Murphy (Stanford) and Anthony Barr (UCLA).

Best moment: Lots of them. Shocking upsets (see below) and stellar individual performances dusted the landscape of the 2013 Pac-12 season. But in terms of moments that were seared into our memories, it’s tough not to think about UCLA’s come-from-behind win at Nebraska way back on Sept. 14, following the death of Nick Pasquale. Specifically, Anthony Jefferson recovering a red zone fumble and then sprinting off the field to give the ball to Mora, followed by a big hug. It was as authentic and genuine a moment as you’ll find in sports.

[+] EnlargeKodi Whitfield
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's Kodi Whitfield had a highlight touchdown grab against UCLA.
Biggest upset: Take your pick between Utah topping Stanford or Arizona topping Oregon. Both were road losses for the favorites and both shook up the national and league landscape. Granted, Utah’s win over Stanford came earlier in the season, and early-season losses are easier to rebound from. Oregon’s loss to Arizona came at the end and cost the Ducks all kinds of postseason possibilities.

Best workhorse performance: It’s a tie between Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and Carey -- both of whom put in the work in their teams’ victories over Oregon. Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries; Gaffney carried 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown.

Best play: One of the most subjective categories, for sure, but Kodi Whitfield’s one-handed touchdown catch against UCLA was nothing short of spectacular. He elevated between two Bruins defenders and backhanded the ball out of the air for a 30-yard touchdown. Something about UCLA-Stanford brings out the one-handed catches. Recall in 2011, Andrew Luck hauled in a one-handed catch against the Bruins, and a few plays later, Coby Fleener snagged a one-handed dart from Luck for a touchdown.

Best performance, offense: Again, wildly subjective. Take your pick from Ty Montgomery’s five-touchdown day against Cal, Marion Grice’s four touchdowns against USC or Wisconsin, or Myles Jack’s four touchdowns against Washington. Brandin Cooks had a pretty nice day against Cal with his 232 receiving yards. There were games with seven touchdown tosses from Mariota and Taylor Kelly. Connor Halliday’s losing effort against Colorado State was spectacular. In terms of impact, it’s hard not to go back to Carey’s effort against Oregon.

Best performance, defense: As in every other category here, plenty to go around. But think way back to Washington State’s win over USC. Damante Horton had a 70-yard interception return that tied the game at 7-7 in the second quarter. Then, after Andrew Furney’s 41-yard field goal put the Cougars ahead 10-7 with 3:15 left in the game, Horton picked off Max Wittek, which allowed WSU to run out the clock.

ASU can't match Texas Tech's energy

December, 31, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- Cursed! Cursed, I tell ya!

Make it three years in a row that the loser of the Pac-12 championship game has gone on to have an uninspiring performance in the bowl season. In 2011 it was the waiver-approved UCLA Bruins who fell to Oregon in the title game and then dropped a 20-14 contest to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Last year, it was the Bruins again who lost to Stanford in the title game and then got stomped by Baylor 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsTodd Graham talks with defensive back Damarious Randall during Monday's loss to Texas Tech.
The latest Pac-12 team to catch a vicious strand of shootium self em footseeitus is the Arizona State Sun Devils who, as head coach Todd Graham said, picked the last game to play their worst game of the season. The Sun Devils watched Texas Tech jump out to a 27-13 halftime lead and were never able to gain traction in a 37-23 loss in the National University Holiday Bowl.

Whether a title game hangover actually does exist is probably more fodder than fact. But Graham wasn’t interested in excuses. Rather, he and his coaching staff shouldered the brunt of the blame.

“It’s not the players’ fault, that’s why they hire coaches, to get your guys ready to play,” Graham said. “We didn’t get our guys ready to play and on the other hand the other team did … I was embarrassed for our fans that showed up today that we did such a poor job of having our guys prepared to play. I love these players, tremendous group of seniors. Guys gave us everything they had. Really proud of them. Absolutely zero excuses. We just didn’t show up as a coaching staff and didn’t have our guys prepared to play.”

Of course, there is something to be said for Texas Tech hearing all week how great a team Arizona State was and how out of hand this game might get.

“Everybody was picking them,” said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. “They were one of the top 15 teams in the country, we knew that sentiment going in and the kids responded well. They felt it all week. It was a celebration of Arizona State … but we wanted them to know that we were here, too.”

Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb certainly made his presence felt. He threw four first-half touchdowns -- matching a Holiday Bowl record for passing touchdowns in a game -- while completing 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards. All-American tight end Jace Amaro was the recipient of eight of those passes for 112 yards. Jakeem Grant caught two of Webb's four touchdowns.

“Going out, beating a top-15 team as your last game when everyone had you losing by 20 points initially is something to be proud of,” Amaro said. “We knew we were a great team this whole year. We knew how great we could be and I think we proved it tonight on national television.”

On the flip side, ASU’s defense didn’t look good in HD, SD or in person. The Sun Devils were gutted by Webb & Co. as Texas Tech scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions and had six plays of 20 yards or more in the first half.

Playing without injured running back Marion Grice, the Sun Devils offense got off to a sluggish start -- though it did finish with 287 yards on the ground. That was mostly because quarterback Taylor Kelly was pressured all night and had little time to throw. He was just 5-of-7 for 14 yards in the first half and the Sun Devils gained just 181 yards to Texas Tech’s 352. They settled for a pair of Zane Gonzalez field goals in the first quarter and finally got a touchdown from D.J. Foster midway through the second quarter.

“He’s one of the top scorers in the country and he’s a guy we miss,” Graham said of Grice. “D.J. was a little banged up too. … But we didn’t protect our quarterback. We took too many negative-yardage plays. We just didn’t play well and I think that had a lot to do with Texas Tech and the energy they were playing with. This game is meant to be played with great passion and you gotta bring it every single game. They brought it. They were the more passionate team today and, again, it’s a disappointment for our fans.”

Just when it seemed like ASU could grab some momentum, something catastrophic would happen. Case in point: a mismanaged final drive of the first half -- that had the Sun Devils with first-and-goal at the 1-yard line -- yielded no points. Then the Sun Devils marched the opening kickoff of the second half down for a touchdown, only to watch Reginald Davis return the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.

The first-half deficit was too much to overcome.

“The worst half of football we have played defensively all year,” Graham said. “We just didn’t have them prepared. Seven critical errors in the first half … we didn’t see anything, really, we didn’t see in practice. We didn’t come prepared to play, and that’s our job as coaches.”

National University Holiday Bowl preview

December, 30, 2013
Arizona State (10-3) and Texas Tech (7-5) square off Monday night in San Diego in the National University Holiday Bowl at 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Here’s a quick preview:

What to watch: There is a good chance, a very good chance actually, that this game could turn into a track meet. The Sun Devils average 41 points per game -- 10th in the country -- and Texas Tech isn’t too shabby offensively either, averaging almost 36 points per game. Which defense is going to step up and make a play? Arizona State seems the more likely option of the two. Texas Tech gives up 31.2 points per game while the Sun Devils only give up 25.8. The Sun Devils also have a plus-14 turnover margin with 21 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 54.7 percent of their passes against ASU.

Who to watch: The big question is who will start at quarterback for Texas Tech -- Davis Webb or Michael Brewer. This all came about after Baker Mayfield, in a strange turn of events, announced after the season that he was transferring. There's also a chance we could see both QBs. For the Sun Devils, it looks doubtful that Marion Grice will play, meaning the bulk of the running work falls on D.J. Foster. Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton is an All-American and the Pac-12’s two-time defensive player of the year. Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro is also an All-American with more than 1,200 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

Why to watch: The Holiday Bowl is traditionally one of the more exciting games of the postseason. Since its inception in 1978, 17 of the 35 games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and 20 of the games were decided in the final four minutes. This is also the last year that it will keep ties with the Big 12. Next year one of the top tier teams from the Big Ten will be paired against the Pac-12.

Prediction: Arizona State 42, Texas Tech 24.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
Five things we learned in the Pac-12 this week:

When Stanford is on, it’s on: Home or away, when the Cardinal are at their best, they are tough to stop. And while Tyler Gaffney’s 22 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns were huge, obviously, it was the fact that the Cardinal could effectively set up play-action off of those runs that was a key to the game. Kevin Hogan was a very efficient 12-of-18 for 277 yards and a touchdown, including an average of 15.4 yards per completion. He was able to find Jordan Pratt, Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste (two catches, 120 yards) on some big plays. That more than anything kept the Sun Devils defense guessing all night.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDavid Shaw and Stanford celebrated another Pac-12 championship after running over Arizona State.
Line play was key: You need only see the final stat sheet of rushing yards to know which team won the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal pounded out 240 yards on 33 carries (5.5 yards per) with four touchdowns on the ground. Arizona State had just 138 yards on 43 carries with one touchdown for an average of 3.2 yards per carry. Part of that was Marion Grice not being available and D.J. Foster getting hurt. Part of it is Stanford’s run defense is really good. See the goal-line stand in the third quarter.

Not so special: It was a rough night for Arizona State from a special teams perspective. Punter Alex Garoutte averaged just 33 yards per punt, Zane Gonzalez missed his only field goal attempt (31 yards) and Stanford’s Ty Montgomery enjoyed an average of nearly 30 yards per kick return. Said Arizona State coach Todd Graham of his special teams: “It’s absolutely sad.”

Fun facts (via ESPN Stats & Information): With the loss, ASU falls to 7-1 at home this season and end an eight-game home winning streak. … Stanford is going to the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1970-1971. … The Cardinal outscored ASU 80-42 in two games this season. … In its past 10 meetings with teams ranked in the AP Top 25, Stanford is 10-0, including 6-0 this season.

Oregon to the BCS? Probably not. But it doesn’t hurt to hope. With NIU losing Friday night, it opened up the possibility of a second Pac-12 team, namely Oregon, going to a BCS bowl game since there are no non-AQ teams going to BCS bowl games this year. Michigan State’s win over Ohio State throws an additional wrench. Various projections are floating for Oregon. But the most likely scenario is still the non-BCS Alamo Bowl. Orange is all but a lock to be Ohio State-Clemson. Best bet for a BCS bowl is probably the Sugar against Alabama -- and of course the BCS ranking will play a role whether Oklahoma (currently No. 17) gets into the top 14. Texas beating Baylor and Oklahoma State taking care of business certainly would have helped. Neither happened.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
Five things to keep an eye on in Saturday’s Pac-12 championship game between Stanford and Arizona State:

  1. Oh, what a rush: One thing we know for sure about both of these teams is they can get after the quarterback. The interesting element is they do it in very different ways. Per ESPN Stats & Info, since the start of last season, the Cardinal have an FBS-best 92 sacks. And when they are sending just four pass-rushers, they have an AQ-high 67. On the flip side, ASU leads all AQ schools with 48 sacks when sending five or more pass-rushers since the start of last year. They love to attack and blitz. This is important because of …
  2. [+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesHow will Kevin Hogan do against Arizona State's pressure?
  3. … The Hogan factor: Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has completed 51.8 percent of his passes against the blitz this season compared to 65.3 percent when he doesn’t face extra pressure. And if ASU gets too aggressive, it’s also worth noting that he has seven passing touchdowns after play-action, six of which have come on throws of at least 15 yards downfield. Of his 19 passing touchdowns this year, 18 have been to wide receivers.
  4. Grice on ice: Marion Grice, Arizona State’s leading rusher and third-leading receiver, is likely out because of an injury he suffered against Arizona last Saturday. Grice has been responsible for one-third of Arizona State's offensive touchdowns this season, and his 20 touchdowns (14 rushing, 6 receiving) rank second among FBS skill position players.
  5. Here we come: It's no surprise what Stanford wants to do offensively -- run at the heart of ASU's defensive line. Tyler Gaffney has been one of the top running backs in the country over the second half of the season. He has rushed for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns (146.1 yards per game) in the past seven games. ASU's defense is tops in the country at getting offenses off of the field. So far this season ASU's defense has 79 drives where it forced a three-and-out. Stanford converts 52 percent of its third downs, and the average distance to go is an FBS-low 5.2 yards.
  6. Containing Kelly: Stanford wants to pound away with Gaffney for a couple of reasons. First, he's a bruiser and it wears down the defense. But it also keeps ASU's offense off the field. ASU's Taylor Kelly has seven rushing touchdowns over the past six games. This is of note because he had only one rushing touchdown in 18 games prior to the current streak. Through 12 games, Kelly already has 3,337 passing yards and is averaging 278.1 yards per game. Worth noting, too, that ASU is 6-7 when Kelly throws an interception and 11-0 when he doesn’t.

Foster, Sun Devils looking for redemption

December, 4, 2013
Back in August, the Arizona State backfield storyline was about a dynamic duo, a most excellent partnership. It was about Marion Grice here, D.J. Foster there, and defenses seeing double from running backs who were as capable catching passes as taking handoffs.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Foster
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith Marion Grice sidelined, expect Arizona State to put the ball in the hands of the very capable D.J. Foster on Saturday in the Pac-12 title game.
But that narrative quickly got re-written. Grice became the marquee star, a touchdown-making machine. And Foster became … what? Mostly a second option in the passing game.

"They used me to spread out the offense," Foster explained. "They moved me all over the place. Every week, every game plan was a little different."

Foster entered last weekend's Territorial Cup against Arizona with just 42 carries for 183 yards. Last season, he had 102 carries for 493 yards. He had become more of a slot receiver than a running back, the position he was recruited to play, ranking second on the team with 54 catches for 550 yards.

There can be no question that the 11th-ranked Sun Devils' offensive plan has worked. They rank eighth in the nation in scoring with 43.3 points per game and are hosting Stanford on Saturday in the Pac-12 Championship Game. There is probably some question, however, on whether Foster was happy how things worked out for him.

"That's just how it worked out. I trust my coaches 100 percent," he said. "They try to put us in the best position to make plays. I wasn't really disappointed. I'm happy for all the success that Marion has had this year."

Of course, Foster might just be playing good soldier there. He might be frustrated but doesn't air his frustration to nosy reporters. Which is probably a good thing, a sign that coach Todd Graham is running a tight ship. A developing team culture of winning helps keep complaints to a low murmur.

Yet, when Grice got hurt at UCLA, an injury that will also sideline him this weekend, Foster knew that he had an opportunity to remind everyone what he could do with 20-plus touches in a game.

With 23 carries against Arizona, Foster played a key role in the 58-21 blowout of archrival Arizona. He rushed for 124 yards and two scores as the Sun Devils' high-octane offense didn't flinch without Grice.

"I just took it in my mind that it's my time, and I've got to step up and take charge at the running back position," Foster said. "It felt really good to be back there."

While Graham tipped his cap to Foster's performance immediately after the game, he revisited it during his Monday news conference. Turns out Graham had a different reaction after watching the game film.

"I knew D.J. had done well but going back and looking at the film, man, very, very impressive performance by him," Graham said. "He had a different gear. He stepped it up big time."

He'll need an even higher gear against Stanford, which ranks No. 3 in the nation in run defense, holding foes to a meager 87.3 yards rushing per game. In the Cardinal's 42-28 blowout win over Arizona State on Sept. 21, Grice and Arizona State had just 50 yards rushing. Foster didn't record a carry, though he caught eight passes for 80 yards.

The Sun Devils will need balance to beat Stanford. They can't just rely on the passing game against a furious Stanford pass rush. Foster will need to step up. Again.

Foster's performance against Arizona certainly caught the attention of Stanford coach David Shaw.

"D.J. Foster is a big-time back," Shaw said. "He was that way coming out of high school, he's that way now, and he's going to continue to be that way in the future."

Just like his coaches and teammates, Foster is eager to get a second shot at Stanford, particularly inside the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium, where they are unbeaten this season with an average winning margin of 28 points per game.

Foster's role has changed more than a few times this season. But change can be good. It can spur growth. Foster believes that's going to be the difference on Saturday. He and his team have matured and are now ready to go mano-a-mano with the Pac-12's most physical program.

"We've gotten better every week since that game," Foster said. "There's definitely a chip on our shoulder about how we performed last time."

Stakes high for ASU, Arizona

November, 26, 2013
In terms of general bitterness, the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry over the Territorial Cup is pretty darn underrated nationally. That's understandable, though, because the game rarely has much national relevance. One team can be up or down, but it's been rare that both are good and playing for more than state pride.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty ImagesTodd Graham (left) and Taylor Kelly are directing one of the Pac-12's best offense, but will be missing their top rusher.
That’s why Saturday’s meeting feels a bit different. For the first time since 1986, both teams enter the game with at least seven wins. Most notable: Arizona State needs to beat the Wildcats to secure home-field advantage for the Pac-12 title game against Stanford on Dec. 7.

How much does that matter? The Sun Devils are 6-0 at home this year with an average margin of victory of 26.8 points per game, including wins over two ranked teams, Wisconsin and USC, as well as a blowout victory over Washington. They are 3-2 on the road, with a 42-28 loss at Stanford, a game that was 39-7 entering the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats are trying to upgrade their own bowl prospects while playing the role of spoiler. And Arizona fans, who have never experienced a Rose Bowl, want to make it as difficult as possible for the Sun Devils to get to the Granddaddy for a third time.

Both teams are coming off the biggest victories their second-year head coaches have produced. Todd Graham and the Sun Devils captured the South Division crown with a win at UCLA last weekend. A road win like that -- over a quality foe with high stakes -- is something that has been tough to come by for ASU through the years. Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats ended No. 5 Oregon's Rose Bowl hopes with a shocking 42-16 blowout win.

The game sets up to be hotly contested. Seven of the last nine matchups have been decided by a TD or less. The past four games have been decided by a total of 15 points. And home field often doesn't matter. The visiting team has won eight of the last 13 matchups, including the last four.

“I don’t worry about all that stuff,” Graham said. “I don’t think what happened last year has anything to do with this year. People have a whole bunch of time in their hands to spend analyzing stuff. We don’t overanalyze it.”

Despite that harrumph, Graham probably feels pretty good about what happened last year. His team won 41-34, overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in front of a stunned Tucson crowd.

But the typically loquacious Graham might have been grumpy Monday during his news conference because his star running back Marion Grice is highly questionable with what appears to be an ankle injury he suffered in the fourth quarter at UCLA. Grice has been a TD machine this year, leading the Pac-12 and ranking fifth in the nation with 10.7 points per game. Grice also ranks first in the Pac-12 and fourth nationally in all-purpose yards with 176.5 per game.

QB Taylor Kelly is the Sun Devils second-leading rusher, though Deantre Lewis and D.J. Foster are capable backup running backs.

The most obvious personnel change between these two teams compared to last year is Arizona replacing QB Matt Scott with B.J. Denker. The Wildcats are scoring just five fewer points per game than in 2012, but the more notable development is the Wildcats dramatic defensive improvement, something that should put coordinator Jeff Casteel in line for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.

The Wildcats are yielding nearly two fewer touchdowns per game this year compared to 2012 (21.6 points per game versus to 35.3 ppg in 2012). They are giving up 100 fewer yards per game (399 vs. 499) and nearly 40 fewer yards rushing per game (206.2 vs. 166.6). They've risen from ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense to fourth. And they just held Oregon to its lowest point total of the season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Casteel
AP Photo/John MillerRich Rodriguez (right) has a signature win at Arizona after defeating Oregon, but it's been the play of Jeff Casteel's defense that has been surprising.
Of course, the Sun Devils are no slouch on defense either. Playing against a tougher schedule than the Wildcats, they've yielded the same total on yards per play -- 5.2 -- and rank second in the conference in total defense and third in run defense.

"They have nine seniors starting on defense and five senior backups," Rodriguez noted. "That might be the oldest defense in college football.”

It's actually seven senior starters, but Rodriguez's point is it is a veteran unit. The Wildcats start five seniors.

While the game has more tangible meaning for Graham and Arizona State, it might have more intangible meaning for Rodriguez. For one, it would be fair to say he and Graham don't have a terribly warm relationship. And in a battle for state supremacy, Rodriguez doesn't want to find himself in a 0-2 hole against Graham as they battle for state supremacy. So, yeah, this one is important for myriad reasons.

Said Rodriguez: “You’d have to be living under a rock if you play for Arizona and don’t realize how important the ASU rivalry is.”

Mora, Graham build on early success

November, 21, 2013
Pac-12 SouthESPN Stats & InformationArizona State and UCLA's meeting will likely determine the Pac-12 South title.

Consider the UCLA Bruins on Jan. 1, 2012. One day earlier, they had lost to Illinois, 20-14, in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Before that, they had been blown out by Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game 49-31. That was on the heels of a 50-0 shellacking by USC. Rick Neuheisel was relieved of his job, and there was already blowback for bringing in a career NFL coach. The scuttlebutt was that Jim Mora probably couldn’t recruit a surfer to the beach.

Consider Arizona State on Jan. 1, 2012. Losers of five straight, including a 56-24 loss to Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. They lost the Territorial Cup. They lost to Washington State. They lost to UCLA. Dennis Erickson had been relieved of his job and there was already blowback for bringing in a perceived job-hopper from Pittsburgh. The scuttlebutt was that Todd Graham would probably use this as the next stepping stone.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Harry How/Getty ImagesJim Mora has UCLA fans and recruits excited about Bruins football.
Consider the Bruins and Sun Devils today. Both are in the top 20 of the BCS standings -- UCLA at No. 14 and ASU at No. 17 -- and are preparing to square off in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday in a game that could decide the Pac-12 South champion.

In two years, Jim Mora and Todd Graham have won over their respective fanbases, altered the way the rest of the country thinks about their programs and elevated them to top 20 status.

“It’s talented guys that are really serious about being a good football team,” Mora said. “It sounds really simple, but I think it is really simple. You get good players and they work hard, and they trust in what you’re telling them, and they try to do the best they can every day, and I think you have a chance to be a good football team. It’s not really as complicated as you might think. It’s an attitude.”

The hiring of Mike Leach at Washington State was considered a coup for the Cougars. The hiring of Rich Rodriguez at Arizona was a windfall for the Wildcats. Both still might be -- with the Wildcats bowl eligible for the second straight year and the Cougars on the verge of a postseason berth for the first time since 2003. But today, it’s the Bruins and Sun Devils who are the frontrunners in their division.

“Obviously, we’re both having some success,” Mora said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to play each other in a very important game. Both Coach Graham and I are in our second years in our program and I think it’s showing up in the way they play. They are physical and disciplined and tough and they play fast. They really look like they know what they are doing. They have a veteran group. They are a much older team than us and they play like it. They are impressive.”

The divisional scenarios for both teams are pretty clear. If the Sun Devils win Saturday, they will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 title game. If UCLA wins, the Bruins still would need to win next week at USC to claim their third straight division title. Graham reminds his players of the goal daily.

“We talk about it all the time,” Graham said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about all year long and since we walked in the door we’ve been talking about winning championships. Ain’t a day gone by this season we haven’t talked about Pac-12 South championship, Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl championship.”

Last year’s showdown in Tempe, Ariz., served as a critical moment for both teams. Not only did it propel the Bruins into first place in the South Division, which they went on to win, it was a coming-of-age moment for both team’s quarterbacks. Taylor Kelly drove the Sun Devils 56 yards and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass with 1:33 left to give ASU a 43-42 lead. Brett Hundley returned the favor by moving his team 60 yards in the final 93 seconds to set up Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard field goal as time expired.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsTodd Graham and the Sun Devils can clinch the Pac-12 South title with a win over UCLA on Saturday.
Since that game, Hundley and Kelly have gone on to be two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference -- maybe the country. Hundley has thrown 35 touchdowns to 12 interceptions with 11 rushing touchdowns. Kelly has thrown 38 scores to 15 picks with eight rushing touchdowns. They’ve thrown for almost identical yards (4,213 for Hundley, 4,184 for Kelly) and Hundley has completed 67.3 percent of his throws to Kelly’s 63.9 percent.

Graham said it’s what Hundley is capable of doing when plays break down that keeps him up at nights. Per ESPN Stats and Information, since the start of last season, Hundley has 687 scramble yards -- second most of any AQ quarterback behind Johnny Manziel.

“I don’t think there is another guy in the league who can extend plays the way he does,” Graham said. “The key is to make sure we don’t give up big plays. We have to minimize his impact.”

Likewise, UCLA’s touted linebacking corps has to find a way keep ASU’s Marion Grice out of the end zone. Grice has scored 20 times this season -- 10 of which have come on the ground running outside the tackles, which is tied with Washington’s Bishop Sankey and Boston College’s Andre Williams for the most among AQ running backs.

Also key will be ASU’s veteran front seven against a UCLA offensive line that is starting three true freshmen. Since the start of last season, ASU has more sacks (40) than any other AQ team when it sends five or more pass rushers. It also forces offenses to go three-and-out 47.2 percent of the time, tops in FBS.

“It’s a huge test,” Mora said. “This is a very, very, very good defensive front. I think we all recognize what a talent Will Sutton is. But the other players along that line and really their whole defense, I think they start eight seniors, they are a veteran group, they know how to play. They play hard. They have a good scheme. Their head coach is a defensive-minded guy. It’s going to be a heck of a test for us. This is certainly an enormous challenge.”

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
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 10

November, 3, 2013
Five things we learned in the Pac-12 from Week 10:

  1. When consistent, ASU is really good: The Sun Devils picked up their first road win of the season with an extremely impressive 55-21 win over Washington State on Thursday night. Here's the kicker ... running back Marion Grice didn't get in the end zone! Quarterback Taylor Kelly was dominant, completing 22 of 31 passes for 275 yards and five touchdowns. He also ran for 66 yards and two scores, giving him seven on the day. Since dropping a 37-34 game to Notre Dame, the Sun Devils have outscored Colorado, Washington and Washington State 162-58. If the Sun Devils can maintain this consistent, high level of play, the rest of the Pac-12 South will be hard-pressed to keep pace. As for the Cougs, after a 4-2 start, they have dropped three straight, and the defense has given up at least 52 points in all three losses.
  2. [+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC is 3-1 under interim coach Ed Orgeron, who celebrated Friday's win in Corvallis with the band.
  3. The Trojans aren't done yet; the Beavers might be: Despite everything that has happened to USC, the Trojans are a factor in the South Division. They need to win out and probably get a little help along the way, but after a fairly convincing 31-14 road win over Oregon State, the Trojans look like a team to be reckoned with down the stretch. Since the Lane Kiffin firing, USC is 3-1 under Ed Orgeron. Conversely, Oregon State suffered a big setback and is now an even longer shot to win the North Division. There is still hope, but the Beavers also need to win out and hope for some help.
  4. Colorado is gritty: Say what you want about the wins and losses, but Colorado is a tougher team than it was last season. UCLA won 45-23, and the final score isn't particularly shocking. But the Buffs led midway through the second quarter, and true freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau looked very poised on the road, going 25-of-36 for a touchdown and zero interceptions. They matched UCLA's physicality and even showed a bit of swagger -- be it from receiver Paul Richardson or Liufau. Culture change takes a long time. But we are starting to see the makings of a team that isn't satisfied with being pushed around. On the flip side, good performance from UCLA to get back on track. Brett Hundley looked like he was still a little uncomfortable with his young offensive line, but he looked stronger. If the Bruins can survive a trip to Arizona and home date with Washington, Nov. 23 is high noon with ASU coming to town.
  5. About those Cats: Arizona has won three in a row, including back-to-back road games to become bowl-eligible for the second straight year under Rich Rodriguez. A fine accomplishment, considering everyone they lost in the offseason through injury, graduation or attrition. Quarterback B.J. Denker turned in another steady performance, completing 24 of 38 passes for 261 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. But he's also emerged the past couple of weeks as a solid complementary runner to Ka'Deem Carey. Denker rushed for 44 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Cal. Carey, meanwhile, continues to shred defenses. Although he didn't reach the end zone against the Bears, he rushed for 152 yards, giving him 1,072 for the year. A big date with UCLA awaits next week. Can't overlook the performance of Cal, either, which sold out to stop the run early and showed a lot of life. Kenny Lawler finally had that breakout game with three touchdown catches, two of them spectacular.
  6. South rising? The early disparity between the North and South seems to be shrinking. The South scored two major victories this week with USC's win at Oregon State and ASU's win at Washington State. Arizona's win over Cal was expected, but again, we give the Bears credit for the strong showing. As it stands, the North still holds a two-game edge over the South with an 8-6 record. Oregon is the only team to be perfect in inter-division play. Stanford, ASU and Oregon State are all 2-1. It stands to reason that the North is still probably considered the stronger division with Oregon and Stanford ranked in the top five. But the South has made a strong play of late with its depth, which includes five of six teams at .500 or better.
On Thursday morning, the best thing Week 10 had going for it was that it was right before Week 11. It was seven more days of watching the water boil till we could get to the Oregon-Stanford showdown -- the game we’ve been speculating about and talking about and writing about and blogging about and message-board-flaming about for the past nine months.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
Matt Cohen/Icon SMIKa'Deem Carey rushed for his 11th straight 100-yard game in Arizona's win over Cal.
Week 10 was supposed to be filler material; B-roll compilation highlights; a stop-gap to sate us before the game we all want to see. But as it turned out, Week 10 was pretty darn entertaining. For what little buck there was, there was decent amount of bang.

Nothing was particularly earth-shattering or landscape-altering. But there was just enough entertainment value and drama to remind us why we tune in to every Pac-12 game. Not just the ones with ranked teams.

Taylor Kelly was nothing short of brilliant with his seven-touchdown performance in Arizona State's victory Thursday at Washington State. It wouldn’t be a Halloween game without something scary happening. And the scary happening in Pullman was that the Sun Devils scored 55 points and Marion Grice didn’t have a single touchdown.

USC took its Corvallis curse and shoved it right down Oregon State’s front seven as Silas Redd and Buck Allen combined for 273 rushing yards. The Trojans are now 3-1 since the coaching change.

California gave Arizona a scare and was an onside kick away from making things really interesting. But Ka'Deem Carey did what Ka'Deem Carey does best and rushed for his 11th straight 100-yard game -- tops in the FBS.

And UCLA got back to form against a Colorado team that came to play. The drama in Pasadena, Calif., wasn’t breathtaking, but Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau looked extremely poised, and there was a sense that, even down 18 points in the fourth quarter, the Buffs believed they could win. And yes, even in defeat, it’s nice to see a little swagger out of the Buffs. I like seeing Liufau, a true freshman, shove back when Anthony Barr, a probable top-five draft pick, was penalized for excessively slamming the quarterback. I like the entire Colorado offensive line rushing to its quarterback's defense. And I like that Barr came right back and hit Liufau on the next two plays.

The Sun Devils look like the team to beat in the South, but USC and Arizona have climbed back into the hunt and UCLA isn’t going to go gently -- especially after knocking off some of the rust from its two-game losing streak to Stanford and Oregon.

We can pretty much eliminate Oregon State from the race in the North after it lost another conference game. Combined with the loss to Stanford, the Beavers are in a pretty deep hole. It’s not impossible, but they’ll have to run the table over their final three games against ASU, Washington and Oregon, plus get a little help along the way.

However, the next Pac-12 game to be played will feature the Nos. 2 and 5 teams in the country. The speculation will soon come to an end and will be replaced with actual results. Said results could be a 21-point Oregon win or a three-point Stanford victory. Neither would be completely shocking.

The Ducks and Cardinal have split their past four meetings, with each team winning once at home and once on the road. The Cardinal got the better of the rivalry last year in one of the most thrilling games of the 2012 season. Two years ago in Palo Alto, Calif., it was the Ducks who dominated with a 23-point victory.

The wait is almost over. We can officially stop looking over the horizon and focus on the game that could have massive Pac-12 and BCS implications.

But before we do, a tip of the cap to Week 10. Thanks for making things fun. We’re glad we stuck around to watch.

ASU RB Grice full of 'wow' moments

October, 31, 2013
Marion Grice has provided the Arizona State faithful with plenty of “wow” moments, but few that actually make him say “wow” about himself.

Two Saturdays ago in a 53-24 win over Washington, the ASU running back had a self-actualized “wow” moment when he elevated to haul in a Taylor Kelly pass in the end zone with one hand. Though his entire body was already out of bounds, he was able to rotate and contort and land with his left elbow in bounds. Initially called out of bounds, the play was reviewed and ruled a score.

[+] EnlargeMarion Grice
AP Photo/Matt YorkMarion Grice has a nose for the end zone, as he has already scored 18 touchdowns this season for Arizona State.
That was touchdown No. 16 of the season, and the first of three he would have in the game to give him a nation-leading 18 touchdowns on the season.

“I told myself, ‘You’re out of bounds. Get up and try again,’” Grice said. “When they replayed it and said I was in bounds, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I knew some part had to touch in bounds. When I was in the air, I was like, ‘Well, I already know my whole body is out of bounds, let’s see if I can get my elbow down first.’ I didn’t actually think I could do that.”

While Grice doesn’t wow himself often, he’s been wowing his teammates and the Arizona State coaching staff for quite some time. When Grice gets inside the 20, something happens. Call it a nose for the end zone. Call it a switch flipping in his head. Call it good old-fashioned sticktoitiveness. Grice simply scores. And at the end of the day, that’s what this game is about.

“That’s exactly the conversation I had two weeks ago with coach [offensive coordinator Mike] Norvell,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “What is it about him? We can’t put our finger on it. He has a knack for sliding, slipping; he had that unbelievable catch; he’s got a knack for it. We ask each other, ‘Who does he remind you of?’ And he doesn’t remind us of anybody. He’s really unique. And I think that’s what makes him a special back. He wants to get in that end zone. He never takes a direct hit. He slides. He’s a glider and obviously tremendously talented.”

Besides leading the nation in scoring with 18 touchdowns, here are a few other notable Grice numbers to consider, courtesy of the good folks at ASU:

  • Grice has scored a touchdown in 10 consecutive games.
  • He led the nation’s running backs with eight receiving touchdowns last year and is on pace again to do it this year. He leads all backs with six receiving touchdowns.
  • Grice was one of just four FBS players in the past decade to score 12 touchdowns before October and one of two players to do it in just four games (Temple’s Bernard Pierce was the other in 2011, Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree had 14 in five games in 2007 and MSU’s Javon Ringer had 12 in five games in 2008).
  • Grice is averaging a touchdown every eight touches, second in the league among players with 90 touches behind Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks.
  • And perhaps the two most ridiculous stats: Grice has more touchdowns this season (18) than he does negative plays for his career (16); and in 301 career touches (214 rushes, 74 receptions and 13 returns) Grice has yet to fumble.
What Grice doesn’t have are the gaudy rushing numbers that many feel are needed to be considered an “elite” running back. He’s only averaging 79 rushing yards per game and five yards per carry, he’s tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (12) despite having fewer carries than the three other backs with 12 touchdowns (Bishop Sankey, Tyler Gaffney, Byron Marshall).

With his scoring production, you’d think he’d be getting more Heisman hype. Or, really any Heisman hype for that matter. But hybrids are rarely recognized for the simple fact that they aren’t easily categorized. Oh well, says Grice.

“That’s fine,” Grice said. “It doesn’t frustrate me. I do things other running backs can’t do. That’s a positive. I might not touch the ball 40 or 50 times like some other guys. But I know if you give me the opportunity to make a play, I’m going to make it for you.”

The Sun Devils (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) head to Pullman, Wash., to face the Cougars (4-4, 2-3) tonight ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and likely on the BCS bubble. It’s the third time this season the Sun Devils have been ranked. And each time they entered the polls, they would exit a week later. That’s a trend Grice and Co. want to reverse tonight.

“We’re in the second part of the season and now it’s time to finish,” Grice said. “We had an opportunity to build on being a ranked team and we lost both of those games. We learned from those games and now we’re ready to finish the season strong.”

With five games remaining, more “wow” moments are expected.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
A few storylines to keep an eye on this week in the Pac-12.

  1. Light week: Only four games on the Pac-12 docket this week, including one on Thursday (Arizona State at Washington State), one on Friday (USC at Oregon State) and two on Saturday (Arizona at California and Colorado at UCLA).
  2. Let's go bowling: Three teams, Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State, are already bowl bound. Four others sit on the precipice and as many as seven others are still in the hunt (note, because of the 13-game schedule, USC needs seven wins to become bowl eligible). Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA can all become bowl eligible this week.
  3. [+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
    AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonBishop Sankey is one of four Pac-12 backs who average at least 100 yards a game.
  4. 1K club: Washington running back Bishop Sankey became the Pac-12's first 1,000-yard rusher this season and has 1,162 yards on the year. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (920 yards) probably will break through this week against a Cal rush defense that yields an average of 189.1 yards per game. Carey leads the league with 153.3 yards per game, one of four backs who average at least 100 yards per contest (Sankey, 145.2; Tyler Gaffney, 110.8; Byron Marshall, 109.9).
  5. Scoreboard, baby: The Sun Devils have the top two scorers in FBS football in running back Marion Grice (15.4 points per game) and kicker Zane Gonzalez (11.4 ppg) and rank sixth in the nation with 45.4 points per game. Four times this year they have posted 50 or more points. That's the most since the 1973 team. Worth noting, too that Oregon State's Brandin Cooks is third nationally in scoring, making it a hat trick for the conference.
  6. Rubber arm: Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday is on pace to set single-season school records in pass attempts and completions. Through eight games he has completed 273 passes on 428 attempts. Gabe Marks has been the primary recipient with 59 catches for 655 yards. But eight different WSU receivers have 20 or more catches.
  7. Remember, Reser: The Beavers have won three straight over USC in Corvallis, but the Trojans' defense, though injury-depleted, is having a fine season. The Trojans have held six of their eight opponents to fewer than 300 yards. They'll be tested by an Oregon State passing attack that, despite a loss last week to Stanford, is still one of the best in the nation. Cooks leads the FBS with 10.6 receptions per game and 157 yards per game. USC is tied for the conference lead with 27 sacks, which might not bode well for an Oregon State team that gave up eight sacks to the Cardinal last week.
  8. Off and running: The aforementioned Carey is 80 yards shy of reaching 1,000. When he gets there, he'll be just the third Arizona running back to post multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 straight games, which is the longest active streak in FBS. But it was quarterback B.J. Denker who led the Wildcats in rushing last week, posting 192 yards on 15 carries.
  9. Where's the points? Cal, still winless in conference play, is giving up a league high 44 points per game and scoring a league low 22.9 points per game. Moving the ball isn't a problem. The Bears rank sixth in the league in total offense, averaging 468.4 yards per game. But they have only scored 20 touchdowns on the year, second worst only to Colorado's 19. Receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have combined for 112 catches for 1,387 yards, but just six touchdowns -- five from Harper.
  10. Back to basics: The Bruins are looking to snap a two-game slide after dropping back-to-back road games at Stanford and Oregon. Keep in mind the Bruins have played 32 freshmen this year -- including 17 true freshman. Last year they played 26, including 12 true. Through the first five games, quarterback Brett Hundley averaged 293.8 passing yards per game, was completing 68 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns to four interceptions. In the last two weeks he averaged just 128 yards and completed 63 percent of his throws with two touchdowns to four interceptions. The more comfortable he gets with his young, reshaped offensive line, and the fact that he's not playing two of the top teams in the league, should help him bounce back.
  11. Explosive potential: The Buffs rebuilding process has yet to produce a conference win. But that doesn't mean Colorado can't be explosive. Wide receiver Paul Richardson has 50 catches and 914 yards with seven touchdowns, and he's sneaking up on some Colorado single-season marks. He has six plays of 50 yards or longer this season. Freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau is 1-1 as a starter and is completing 59 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and an interception.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
Taking stock of Week 7 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Utah knocked down Stanford last week, but the Cardinal got up, wiped away the blood and posted an inspired performance on both sides of the ball in a 24-10 win over UCLA. RB Tyler Gaffney rushed for a career-high 171 yards, including 84 yards in the fourth quarter, while the defense throttled QB Brett Hundley and the Bruins.

Best game: Utah's visit to Arizona was a back-and-forth affair and wasn't iced until Wildcats running back Ka'Deem Carey capped an epic night with a 44-yard touchdown run in a 35-24 victory. Both teams showed resolve, with the Utes fighting back after losing starting QB Travis Wilson to a hand injury, and the Wildcats bouncing back after losing a big first-half lead.

[+] EnlargeKodi Whitfield
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's defense was spectacular in a 24-10 win over previously unbeaten UCLA, but Kodi Whitfield's one-handed touchdown grab might be the play of the year.
Biggest play: Stanford receiver Kodi Whitfield's 30-yard touchdown reception against UCLA gave Stanford a 10-3 lead in the third quarter, so it was important. But this time we're more about best play instead of biggest. As in ... best play of the year? His twisting, one-handed grab between two defenders was unbelievable. It certainly will make a top-10 list of plays for the 2013 college football season. It's also amusing that such an acrobatic catch came from the son of a former All-Pac-10 offensive lineman, Bob Whitfield.

Offensive standout(s): We have a "chicken or the egg" deal with Oregon State. QB Sean Mannion completed 35 of 45 passes for 481 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the blowout win over California. Receiver Brandin Cooks caught 13 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a score. Mannion leads the nation in passing and touchdown passes. Cooks lead the nation in every notable statistical category for his position, including receiving yards and touchdowns. Feel free to tap whichever one is your personal favorite.

Offensive standout 2: Carey rushed 40 times for 236 yards against a tough Utah run defense. It was a big-time performance by a big-time player when his team really needed it.

Offensive standout 3: Arizona State RB Marion "006" Grice rushed for 158 yards on 21 carries -- 7.5 yards per rush -- with two touchdowns in the 53-24 win over Washington. He also caught four passes for 37 yards and a score. He now has 18 total touchdowns this season.

Defensive standout: Arizona State's defensive effort against Washington was beastly, particularly considering the Huskies had decent success against the two best defenses in the Pac-12: Stanford and Oregon. The Sun Devils held the Huskies to 212 total yards, including minus-5 yards rushing. Bishop Sankey, who entered the game leading the nation in rushing, had 22 yards on 13 carries. The Sun Devils had seven sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. That Huskies offense, by the way, ranked 15th in the nation in rushing, eighth in total offense (526.8 yards per game) and averaged 35 points per game.

Defensive standout 2: Stanford safety Jordan Richards had a team-high 10 tackles as well as two interceptions in the win over UCLA.

Special teams standout: It's not good when your punter is called upon 11 times, but Washington's Travis Coons averaged 46.8 yards on 11 boots with a long of 61 yards. He also made a 27-yard field goal and three PATs.

Smiley face: The Pac-12 is playing defense this fall. The five winners Saturday plus USC, which lost 14-10 at Notre Dame, combined to hold their opponents to 19.6 points per game, and many of those points -- hello, Washington State, says Nick Aliotti -- came in obvious fourth-quarter garbage time. The Pac-12 offenses, of course, are still good, other than a few stragglers (USC!), so there's strength on both sides of the ball. And fewer 52-50 games.

Frowny face: Washington! Washington! That performance at Arizona State was abysmal (though we type that without taking credit away from an inspired Sun Devils effort and game plan). If the Huskies win in Tempe, they buck the "overrated!" taunt that their adversaries -- mostly Ducks fans but also many Cougars and Beavers -- have enjoyed tossing their way for, oh, 12 or so years. A win at Arizona State would have hinted at a team headed toward nine or 10 wins. Now the ugly possibility of a fourth consecutive 7-6 season -- how is that possible! -- is in play.

Thought of the week: The Pac-12 is the center of the college football universe this weekend with two matchups of ranked teams in the BCS standings. And it's all happening in the state of Oregon! In Eugene, with ESPN's "College GameDay" setting up camp, the No. 3 Ducks play host to No. 12 UCLA, while No. 6 Stanford is visiting No. 25 Oregon State just up the road in Corvallis. The Ducks are looking to further burnish their national title game resume, while UCLA is looking for a breakthrough win. The Beavers are trying to move up in the North Division pecking order and make themselves the top challenger for the Ducks. And Stanford is trying to get to its Nov. 7 showdown with Oregon in control of its destiny.

Questions of the week: Which quarterback(s) has the best weekend in Oregon? Does Ducks QB Marcus Mariota make a loud Heisman Trophy statement, or is he upstaged by Mannion? And what about the visitors? Does Hundley rediscover his mojo at Oregon? Or does Stanford's Kevin Hogan show everyone that steady and unspectacular wins the day when you've got a great defense?

Question of the week 2: Who rises above the noise and consistently plays to its ability over the homestretch of the season? It's not easy to go unbeaten, even when you're more talented than everyone on your schedule, because it's difficult to get 40 or so guys to bring their A-game 12 games in a row. It's not easy to go 8-4 and know your team reached its max winning potential, that you only lost to superior teams. And it's hard to win on the road. Take Arizona State. The version of the Sun Devils who blistered USC and Washington at home would have romped Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium, but that team didn't show up that evening in Arlington, Texas. And the Huskies that nearly beat Stanford and whipped Boise State would have won in Tempe. Stanford's tumble at Utah, Oregon State's defeat to Eastern Washington -- losses full of regret. The pressure is building. Which teams win all the games they are supposed to -- as favorites -- and which teams fall to underdogs?

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
Five things we learned in the Pac-12 this week.

  1. Stanford makes a statement: Behind a powerful rushing performance from Tyler Gaffney (36 carries, 171 yards, two touchdowns) and a pair of interceptions from safety Jordan Richards, the Cardinal reminded everyone that they aren't going to go gentle into that good night, topping No. 9 UCLA 24-10 at home. Stanford's defense shut out the Bruins in the first half and held them to just 266 yards of total offense. The Cardinal are at their best when it's them against the world. And that was certainly the case this week. The home stretch is brutal, with showdowns yet to be played against Oregon State, Oregon, USC, California and Notre Dame. Stanford could run the table. Or lose two, three or four of those games. But the Cardinal showed us this week -- as they did last year -- never to count them out.
  2. [+] EnlargeMarion Grice
    AP Photo/Matt YorkMarion Grice rushed for 158 yards and two scores in Arizona State's impressive victory over Washington.
  3. Devils trending up, Huskies trending down: In a must-win game for conference-wide credibility, the Sun Devils weren't just outstanding offensively against Washington -- the run defense was also absolutely stellar. They held Bishop Sankey, the nation's leading rusher in yards per game coming in, to just 22 yards on 13 carries. And when you factor in sack yardage, the Huskies "mustered" minus-5 yards. On the flip side, Marion Grice was his dominant self on the ground and in the air. He rushed for 158 yards and two scores and caught another ... giving him 18 total touchdowns on the year. The Sun Devils probably get back into the Top 25 with this win -- or at least closer to the bubble. Make no mistake, this was a very important win for the Sun Devils and their confidence. The Huskies have dropped three straight, and the special season they were hoping for in August is suddenly looking a lot more mediocre. This was supposed to be one of those games the Huskies could win to take the next step. Instead, the Sun Devils are trending up.
  4. USC missed an opportunity: Things were set up so nicely early on for the Trojans. A huge goal-line stand followed by a 94-yard touchdown drive and a 7-0 lead on the road. A field goal gave them 10 points early in the second quarter. And then the offensive inefficiencies that plagued the twilight of the Lane Kiffin era reared their head in South Bend. The Trojans went scoreless the rest of the way and had 10 drives that included six punts, two failed fourth-down conversions, a missed field goal and an interception. Twice in the fourth quarter the Trojans were at or inside the Notre Dame 25 but were unable to capitalize. This loss doesn't do much in the way of the Pac-12 standings. But for a team trying desperately to salvage its brand, this one hurts.
  5. What to make of the South: All week long, the question surrounding the Utes was whether they could keep the momentum from their Stanford win rolling. We got our answer. Would things be different had Travis Wilson played the whole game? Maybe. Maybe not. Adam Schulz looked good enough in relief of the injured Wilson, throwing for 142 yards and a score. It still looks like ASU's trip to Pasadena on Nov. 23 is going to be the decisive tilt in the South Division. But half of the division sits at 1-2, with ASU on top at 3-1 and UCLA not far behind. Colorado is still winless in league play but is 3-3 overall. Two of the wins have come against FCS teams, but hey, it's two more wins than they had against the FCS last year. Ka'Deem Carey makes Arizona dangerous, no matter what. Utah, albeit inconsistent, is the team no one wants to play. USC, well, who knows what to make of them? The top of the division still doesn't have a front-runner, and Spots 3 to 6 are a mess.
  6. And then there's the North: Oregon scored 62 points and totaled more than 700 yards in its win over Washington State. The scary thing is, the Ducks can be better. And the Cougs, as they did last year, made things interesting in the first half. But unlike the South, there is a true front-runner in the North. The Ducks are 4-0 in the conference and also perfect overall. Without question, they are the team to beat. Speaking of perfect in conference play, the Beavers are also 4-0 behind another stellar performance from Sean Mannion in a win over Cal. But we'll know more about the Beavers when they take on Stanford next week in a game sure to impact the pecking order. Washington's stock is falling, and Cal is already rock bottom. Washington State, which is on bye next week, has four cracks left at two wins to become bowl eligible. The North, at least this week, has a little more clarity. But don't be shocked if that clarity gets muddied in the coming weeks.