NCF Nation: Pat Maynor

Pac-10 regular-season wrap

December, 10, 2008
12/10/08
10:48
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

There were four big stories in the Pac-10 this year.

  • Oregon State's surprising run for the Rose Bowl, which ended in a tough loss at home to rival Oregon.
  • USC's struggle and ultimate failure to get back into the national title picture. The Trojans, widely viewed as the nation's most talented team, however, were done in by a schedule that didn't allow them to rise to the top among the other one-loss teams.
  • Washington and Washington State's season-long toilet spin toward each other so one or the other could earn the title of Nation's Worst BCS Team. The Huskies triumphed in that battle for ignominy, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory in a comeback loss in the Apple Cup. That's a big reason why Tyrone Willingham was pushed aside and USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is taking over the program.
  • And, finally, the general perception of Pac-10 weakness, most often illustrated by the Pac-10's 1-6 record against the Mountain West Conference, which formed the foundation of a lackluster 14-19 nonconference record.

The top-four teams in the Pac-10, however, went 1-1 vs. the MWC, the loss being the Beavers' down-to-the-wire, 27-21 defeat at No. 6 Utah, one of four nonconference foes playing in BCS bowl games.

Four nonconference foes -- Oklahoma, Penn State and Ohio State being the other three -- playing in BCS bowl games? Anyone else do that? Nope.

The Pac-10's 2-8 record in nonconference games against the top-18 doesn't compare favorably to other conferences because no other conference even approaches that level of difficulty.

Of course, if the Pac-10 were to post a successful run through the bowl season, it would make it a lot easier to argue that the perception of Pac-10 weakness is almost entirely a creation of scheduling -- and likewise, perhaps, the perception of strength among other conferences.

Four of five bowl opponents are nationally ranked. It's not inconceivable that when the final polls are released, four Pac-10 teams will be ranked.

Not too shabby.

If the perception of a down year in the Pac-10 was about more than scheduling, however, then the next explanation has to be the decline in quarterback play.

Only one conference quarterback, USC's Mark Sanchez, ranked in the top 20 in the nation in pass efficiency. The most productive passing offense, Oregon State, ranked just 25th in the country (253.7 yards per game).

Only Arizona had no quarterback issues this season. Six teams started more than one quarterback. Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Washington State lost their starting quarterbacks to season-ending injuries. The Ducks, Bruins and Cougars were forced to hand the ball to the No. 3 or deeper guy on their depth chart.

It was a season of tumult filled with undistinguished moments, but a successful bowl season could transform the down vibe heading into 2009.

 
 Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
 True freshman Jacquizz Rodgers racked up 1,253 yards and 11 TDs.

Offensive MVP: Running back Jacquizz Rodgers was THE difference-maker for Oregon State. He was the central figure in the dramatic upset over USC with 186 yards rushing, and his absence felt critical in the Beavers' Civil War defeat. Sure, Cal's Jahvid Best passed him for the Pac-10 rushing title with 311 yards in the win over Washington, but Rodgers' 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns is a special yield for any player, even more so a 5-foot-7 true freshman.

Defensive MVP: USC linebacker Rey Maualuga won't blow you away with numbers -- he ranked 13th in the conference with 73 tackles. But this is what Maualuga is: The best defensive player on the best defense in the nation. And he'll likely be the first Pac-10 player drafted in this spring's NFL draft. That's good enough for us.

Newcomer of the year: At midseason, this was Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, whose conference-leading 16 touchdowns merit honorable mention here. But Oregon wouldn't have finished second in the Pac-10 and earned a Holiday Bowl berth without the rapid maturation of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli, a sophomore and first-year juco transfer, finished ranked fourth in the conference in passing efficiency -- with a 12:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- and ranked 10th in yards rushing per game (55.6) with seven touchdowns. Moreover, Masoli didn't let home-fan frustration get into his head as he did his best work in the two critical wins that concluded the season.

Coach of the year: Most -- who, me? -- during the preseason projected Oregon State would finish in the middle of the conference. So, even though the Beavers' Rose Bowl run fell short due to an offensive blitzkrieg from rival Oregon, no other team exceeded expectations as much as the Beavers. That means more credit needs to be given to coach Mike Riley. Just because a coach is open, genuine and friendly doesn't mean he doesn't know a thing or two about coaching. Moreover, Riley might have assembled the best group of assistant coaches in the Pac-10.

Biggest surprise: It wasn't surprising just that Stanford nearly earned a bowl berth when in the preseason most projected the Cardinal in the bottom third of the conference. It was the way Stanford played under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Cardinal featured the Pac-10's most physical running attack, with a gritty offensive line paving the way for 230-pound tailback Toby Gerhart. The Cardinal's 200 yards rushing per game didn't come from spread misdirection. It came from running right at opposing defenses, led by tough-guy center Alex Fletcher. Moreover, Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football, built a reputation for playing dirty. Cheap shots shouldn't be amusing, but it's hard not to smile just a little that the conference's biggest rogue hitter, linebacker Pat Maynor, is also an economics major and a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Academy of Finance and Future Business Leaders of America.

Biggest disappointment: Arizona State went from No. 15 in the nation in the preseason to 5-7 and sitting out the bowl season. That's what happens when a team suffers through a six-game losing streak, the program's worst run since the Great Depression, which began with an embarrassing home loss to UNLV in overtime. A year after looking like a budding annual Pac-10 contender under new coach Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils ended up the state's second-best program when Arizona ended three years of frustration in their rivalry with a 31-10 win in the Territorial Cup. Many thought that quarterback Rudy Carpenter and his solid array of supporting skill players could overcome an obviously deficient offensive line. They couldn't. And, truth be told, Carpenter and said touted supporting cast didn't live up to their advance billing.

Game of the year: No game changed the complexion of the season -- in national terms -- like then-top-ranked USC losing 27-21 at Oregon State. USC, fresh off of demolishing a good Ohio State team 35-3, was generally considered the nation's most talented team, and even at the end of the season, most folks -- including Las Vegas oddsmakers -- would pick the Trojans to win over any other opponent. But with the widespread, if wildly exaggerated,  perception of a weak Pac-10, the Trojans were scheduled out of the national title game because of the perceived strength of the SEC and Big 12. In other words, if Oregon State, a 25 1/2-point underdog, hadn't dominated the Trojans for a half and then showed guts fighting off a second-half comeback, odds are that USC would be claiming its third national title of the Pete Carroll era in the BCS title game instead of facing Penn State in the Rose Bowl. And recalling Rodgers slicing through the Trojans defense for 186 yards sounds even more shocking today because none of the Trojans' 11 other opponents approached that level of success.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Stanford is the most elite academic institution playing FBS football. It's basically a West Coast Ivy League school. And in recent years the Cardinal played football like they belonged on the field with Yale and Harvard.

 
 Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
 Jim Harbaugh's players are more physical than they have been in recent years.

But that's changing. Both on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Stanford of the past brings to mind a team that boasts a future NFL QB and tries to finesse wins by out-thinking its opponents. Its smart players might not smack the opposition in the mouth, but they just might fool or outflank it every once and a while.

And Stanford was always disciplined. It didn't make mistakes or commit stupid penalties (see Pac-10 rankings of No. 1, No. 1 and No. 3 the previous three seasons in penalty yards against).

During the preseason, second-year coach Jim Harbaugh repeatedly spoke of developing a more physical team, one that wasn't trying to outsmart a foe but preferred to put a cleat mark on its figurative forehead.

While Stanford fans might prefer talking about an improved running game -- and we will, in a moment -- one unmistakable measure of the new Stanford is this: The Cardinal rank eighth in the conference in penalty yards per game (68) and are building a reputation as a team not afraid of playing until the echo of the referee's whistle -- or just a bit after.

Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-10) had at least one personal foul penalty against all three Pac-10 opponents, and left coaches from Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington grumbling afterwards.

"They're dirty," said one Pac-10 assistant in the postgame elevator.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley, a guy not prone to ranting, spent two weeks ranting about Stanford LB Pat Maynor's cheap shot on Beavers QB Lyle Moevao in the season opener.

So these guys don't play like theoretical physics majors.

Another way the physical attitude shows itself is the run game. The Cardinal ranks third in the Pac-10 with 168.4 yards rushing per game and has eclipsed 200 yards on the ground in three of five games.

The defense is hardly dominant -- 27.6 points per game surrendered -- but it's aggressive (15 sacks) and tough against the run (3.4 yards per carry, 128 yards per game).

Both the passing offense and passing defense are a problem, but those issues are due in large part to an overall lack of speed and athleticism.

That might be changing because Harbaugh is proving to be an excellent recruiter.

Stanford presently has 16 verbal commitments for its 2009 class and most recruiting services rank the class among the nation's 15 best. ESPN.com's Tom Luginbill lists the Cardinal class among his 11 "Chomping at the Bit" outside his top 10.

So the athletes are coming.

And with a new, nasty attitude, Stanford might become a player in the Pac-10 and not just the team with the highest SAT scores.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter knows how to deliver the ball -- he's one of the nation's most accurate passers -- but the reason he's climbing the Pac-10's all-time passing record list is almost as much about his ability to take a hit.

He completed 27 of the 36 passes he threw in the 15th-ranked Sun Devils 41-17 victory over Stanford, rolling up 345 yards with three touchdowns.

And after just about every throw , a Cardinal defender plastered him to the turf.

He was sacked only twice, but two roughing the passer penalties showed that Stanford fully intended to try to bust Carpenter into little pieces by any means necessary.

"He is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-10 and in the nation," Cardinal linebacker Pat Maynor said. "He's a tough kid."

Added Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh: "Rudy was very impressive. I gained a lot of respect for him tonight. He took some hits. He was under pressure a lot, but he made some good throws and was very accurate."

Carpenter's lone mistake was second-quarter interception that led to a Stanford touchdown, which closed the gap to 13-10. Carpenter, sprinting to his left, uncharacteristically lobbed the ball into coverage and made things easy for Stanford cornerback Kris Evans.

"That was a terrible interception," Carpenter said.

It didn't take long for Carpenter to bounce back, though. With less than a minute before halftime, he parlayed good field position after the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and a roughing the passer penalty into a touchdown drive, which he completed with a 45-yard scoring toss to Kerry Taylor.

"That was a huge play, scoring there just before half," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "That was probably the turning point of the game, without question."

Carpenter completed passes to nine different receivers, often flinging the ball just before a defender flattened him.

It's hard on Carpenter, but not so bad for his receivers.

"It seems kind of easy out there right now, knowing where Rudy is going to put the ball," Taylor said. "I know where the ball is going to be every time."

Carpenter said he wasn't unhappy with his protection. In fact, he saluted the entire offense working together to put away the bugaboo of the 55 sacks yielded a year ago.

"I think our offensive line did a great job of picking up pressure today," Carpenter said. "I think our receivers did an even better job recognizing blitz and coming open on their hot routes."

Carpenter, who has made 33 consecutive starts, has thrown for 733 yards in the first two games, which is the most passing yards a Sun Devils quarterback has compiled to start a season.

He now has 69 touchdown passes, ninth most in Pac-10 history. He also has 8,731 career passing yards, which ranks 14th on the conference's all-time list. Another 300-yard effort next week against UNLV and he will pass Sun Devils legend Jake Plummer and former Washington State star Jason Gesser.

He's put up big numbers because he's one of the nation's best passers. But he's also had to survive. It's hard to imagine many QBs across the country who have hit the turf more in their careers.

Particularly one who never stays down.

"He knows how to take a fall," Erickson said. "He's had to take a few. It's amazing how many times he gets hit and gets right back up and makes plays."

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