NCF Nation: Rodney Ferguson
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Five things to consider, underline or anticipate from the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday between Arizona and BYU.
Can the Wildcats win a close one? Arizona has won seven games this year. The smallest margin of victory? Fifteen points (vs. California). The Wildcats have lost five. Largest margin of defeat? Ten points (Oregon). Three of those defeats came by a combined 10 points. (If this sounds familiar, we wrote the exact same thing before the Arizona-Arizona State game; the Wildcats won by 21.) Arizona hasn't won the close games under coach Mike Stoops: It is 5-16 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the last four seasons. No. 17 BYU doesn't look like the sort of team the Wildcats could blow out. So, if the game is tight, will the 'Cats play loose, or will they gag again? Of course, when the Cougars lose, they'd don't mess around, see 25- and 24-point defeats to TCU and Utah, respectively.
Goodbye Tui and Thomas: Quarterback Willie Tuitama and receiver Mike Thomas, both four-year starters, have rewritten the Arizona record book in their respective areas. Thomas needs just three catches to eclipse Arizona State's Derek Hagan, who had 258 career receptions, for the Pac-10 record. Tuitama needs 114 yards to hit the career 10,000-yard passing mark. Both should reach their numbers. But will both go out winners? If so, it may be due to a scoring fest. BYU's defense has given up 32 or more points in four of its last six games.
Power back blues: While high-powered passing comes to mind when most folks think of BYU -- and quarterback Max Hall is outstanding -- the Cougars also have a solid running game. Arizona's run defense isn't bad. It ranked fifth in the Pac-10 (132 yards per game), and held a strong California running game to just 110 yards. But power backs thrive against the Wildcats' undersized front seven. New Mexico's 234-pound Rodney Ferguson rolled up 158 yards on 26 carries in a win over Arizona, while Stanford's 230-pound Toby Gerhart had 116 yards on 24 carries in a Cardinal comeback win. It just so happens the Cougars feature 239-pound Harvey Unga, who's rushed for 1,061 yards and 10 scores. Further, BYU's offensive line is massive -- each starter weighs 315 pounds or more. If Arizona can't slow the run, then it's going to be a long day.
Strength on strength: Hall, who passed for 3,629 yards and 34 touchdowns, is money with receiver Austin Collie, who leads the nation with 1,419 receiving yards on 95 receptions. Arizona, however, is good against the pass, giving up 169.8 yards per game, the 14th-fewest in the country. And Hall did have seven interceptions in the Cougars two defeats, including five in the season-finale against rival Utah.
Which team really cares? None of the Arizona players has been to a bowl game, mostly because the program hasn't played in one since 1998. Will they play as if just getting to the postseason was enough? BYU is playing in its fourth consecutive Las Vegas Bowl. The Cougars had much higher aspirations during a 6-0 start to the season. Will they play like surprisingly frigid Las Vegas is the last place they want to be? Bowl games are often won by the team that is happy to be there and highly motivated to succeed. Will either team here play that way?
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Getting deep into this week's games.
Welcome to Soap Opera Saturday: Down year in the Pac-10? Whatever! This is the Conference of Intrigue on Soap Opera Saturday! (Cue dramatic music). We've got a coach with a history, a tale of woe and redemption. A man facing his demons. Likely in the rain. Rick Neuheisel and his band of UCLA Bruins, the football family that brought him into the football world, return to Seattle to face the bitter and woebegone Washington Huskies, the team he left in an acrimonious split that has been wounded and lost ever since. But there's more in the Northwest! California visits Oregon State, and the last time these two teams tangled, the Bears were poised to ascend to No. 1 in the nation. But then quarterback Kevin Riley, a freshman filling in for injured starter Nate Longshore, while leading a potential game-tying drive, made a fateful decision to scramble with no timeouts and the clock ran out on the Bears. And their glorious season promptly fell apart, as that became the first of six losses in seven games amid locker room recriminations. Meanwhile, downstate in Eugene, Oregon faces the Arizona team that ended its 2007 national championship hopes when quarterback and leading Heisman Trophy candidate Dennis Dixon crumpled to the ground with a knee injury. Wait! There's more! Remember the Greatest Upset of All-Time! USC, a 41-point favorite, going down at home vs. Stanford. Guess who's coming to dinner, Stanford!
Oregon State Canfield a Rose Bowl team. Or it Can'tField one: Sean Canfield has been solid for Oregon State since taking over for quarterback Lyle Moevao, who's still nursing a shoulder injury this week and is questionable for the Cal game. Canfield has completed 70 percent of his passes for 440 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in roughly seven quarters of action. But California is a much better team than Arizona State and UCLA, and the Bears defense has been outstanding of late. It has limited opponents to under 300 yards of total offense in five of nine games and in the last six games it has recorded 19 quarterback sacks among 41 tackles for a loss and forced 19 turnovers (12 interceptions and seven fumbles). The Bears' 17 interceptions this season lead the Pac-10 and rank third in the nation. Canfield has been surprisingly poised thus far, but Beavers fans surely remember that a year ago, as a nine-game starter, he tossed 15 interceptions. The Bears will come after him. And they'll drop eight into coverage and try to tempt him to force balls into tight spaces. How will he respond? And will Moevao be ready and available, if needed?
Arizona's success this year is defined by run defense; Oregon's by running the ball: Oregon leads the Pac-10 and ranks fifth in the nation with 274 yards rushing per game. Only USC shut down the Ducks' running game, holding them to 60 yards on the ground. Arizona has been decent against the run this year with its no-name but productive defense, ranking sixth in the conference (131 yards per game). Yet, at least during the first half of the season, the Wildcats faltered against power running teams. New Mexico rushed for 211 yards with rugged Rodney Ferguson leading the charge, while Stanford piled up 286 yards behind twin 100-yard efforts from Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble. That convinced coach Mike Stoops that the Wildcats needed to get fancier up front, mixing up looks and using more stunts to keep opposing linemen -- and offensive coordinators -- guessing. It worked great against California, which only rushed for 110 yards at Arizona, and pretty well against USC (151). But these new looks have been on film for a couple of weeks now. They won't surprise the Ducks. Or will the Wildcats have a few new wrinkles for the run-happy, spread-option?
Does Stanford have enough offensive balance to challenge the USC defense? Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 186 yards against USC. Since then against the Trojans D: Nothing. Seven of nine opponents have been held under 100 yards rushing. The Trojans have allowed only one touchdown in their last five games and that came on a 15-yard drive by Arizona following a turnover. They have held their last four opponents to less than 200 yards of total offense. So the odds of Stanford just lining up and playing smash mouth in the run game, particularly with running back Toby Gerhart hobbled with a hamstring injury, fall somewhere between zero and none-at-all. The image of last year's upset victory, in fact, were well-thrown, clutch passes from Tavita Pritchard. Last week at Oregon -- in a persistent rain -- Pritchard completed 15 of 22 for 138 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Not spectacular numbers, but they suggest the Cardinal might have a larger offensive inventory now than they showed during the first half of the season.
The stars are rising for Arizona State: The Sun Devils will take one more step in the milquetoast portion of their schedule Saturday by trouncing Washington State. Expect to see more from some of the familiar names who created high -- and misguided -- expectations during the preseason. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter will make his nation-leading 41st consecutive start, and he's finally getting some help on offense as his skill position cohorts get healthy. Receiver Michael Jones, muted much of the season with a variety of injuries, hauled in 11 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend's trouncing of Washington. Running back Keegan Herring, who's been limited much of the season with a hamstring injury, had 22 carries for 144 yards, giving the offense a one-two, lightning and thunder punch at tailback with burly Shaun DeWitty. Meanwhile, on the defen
se, underrated safety Troy Nolan has helped the offense by scoring two touchdowns over the previous two games -- a 41-yard interception return against Oregon State and a 44-yard fumble return against the Huskies.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
Brian Brunner, QB, Central Michigan: Threw for a career-high 346 yards and a touchdown after he found out a half hour before the game that he was going to make his second career start in relief of starter Dan LeFevour.
Tim Hiller, QB, Western Michigan: Set a school record with 471 yards passing (38-of-53) in a losing effort against Central Michigan. Hiller has thrown for 300 or more yards in three consecutive games.
Aldrick Robinson, WR, SMU: Had eight catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort against Houston. He's had a touchdown in seven of the last eight games.
Jerry Hughes, DE, TCU: Had four sacks and forced two fumbles to help the Horned Frogs to a 32-7 win over previously undefeated No. 9 BYU.
DeAndre Brown, WR, Southern Mississippi: Caught 12 passes for 221 yards and four touchdowns, including a score with 17.2 seconds remaining, in a losing effort to Rice.
Case Keenum, QB, Houston: Led Houston to another come-from-behind win by completing 78 percent of his passes for 404 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a touchdown.
Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Troy: Accounted for 221 yards of total offense and two touchdowns -- one passing and one receiving -- in a 33-23 win over Florida International to stay atop the Sun Belt standings.
San Jose State defense: Had three interceptions, two that were returned for touchdowns, and 17 tackles for loss, including six sacks and three quarterback hurries.
Tim Jefferson, QB, Air Force: The freshman quarterback led the Falcons with 261 total yards, including completing 6 of 7 passes for 162 yards in a come-from-behind win over UNLV. He also had two touchdowns.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.
1. Dear Arizona -- Get the ball to Rob Gronkowski and Mike Thomas: What does a dominating running game do for a team? Well, it wasn't just that Stanford had 286 yards rushing last weekend in its win over Arizona, it was that it ran 72 total plays vs. 57 for the Wildcats. What could a team do with 15 more plays? A lot. But if you only have 57, more than six of them should involve tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Mike Thomas.
2. Nate Longshore needs to grab hold of Cal's quarterback spot: California would love to run right at Arizona like Stanford did, but the Bears are down two starting offensive linemen and struggled just two weeks ago to get the running game going at home against Arizona State (79 yards on the ground). While it will help to get speedy Jahvid Best back, he's not going to give Cal 25 carries coming back from a dislocated elbow. That means Nate Longshore, making his second consecutive start, will need to make plays in the passing game. It doesn't help that receiver Michael Calvin was lost for the year this week to a knee injury. But Longshore should be plenty motivated to erase the three-interception performance he had in Tucson in 2006, an upset defeat that cost the Bears their first Rose Bowl berth since 1958.
3. How much does Washington still care?: The Huskies' players don't live in caves. They know that their fan base is hollering for coach Tyrone Willingham's coaching noggin'. They also can look at the guy under center and know he's no longer their leader, Jake Locker, who's done for the year with a thumb injury. While last season's bitter defeat at Oregon State should serve as motivation to play hard in front of the home fans, it will be interesting to see if the Huskies fight all four quarters if things start to get out of hand. And what if the Beavers jump on them early? Will a white flag come out?
4. Beavers stop the pass, own the field: Washington senior guard Casey Bulyca, who rivals center Juan Garcia as the Huskies most physical player, underwent knee surgery Tuesday and is done for the year. The line has been mostly mediocre this year, in any event. The Huskies don't really have a starting tailback, with Willie Griffin, Brandon Johnson and Terrance Dailey shuffling in and out. Locker, the best run threat, is, again, out. The Huskies average 2.9 yards per rush, and Oregon State's run defense has improved dramatically since yielding 239 yards at Penn State. This means it's up to UW quarterback Ronnie Fouch and his young receivers to make plays. But the Beavers likely will welcome the pass because safety Al Afalava and cornerbacks Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis are back to full speed after nursing injuries previous weeks.
5. USC will not be at full speed at Washington State: USC is banged up and it might make sense for coach Pete Carroll to lean toward caution with players who are borderline-ready to play at Washington State. Running back Joe McKnight (toe) won't make the trip. Neither will defensive end Everson Griffen and offensive lineman Butch Lewis (both are sick). Offensive guards Jeff Byers (knee) and Zack Heberer (toe), linebackers Brian Cushing (shoulder) and Kaluka Maiava (foot) and tight end Blake Ayles (groin) also missed significant practice time this week.
6. Don't hold the ball, Kevin Lopina: A team (hopefully) never expects to lose, but Washington State's prime directive is to get quarterback Kevin Lopina safely through USC's visit. Lopina is making his first start since going down with a back injury on Sept. 20 against Portland State, and the Cougars have a bye next week for him to further get his health, rhythm and timing back. The Trojans put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, often with just a four-man rush. Lopina needs to get the ball away in a hurry. That means three-step drops, roll outs, a two count and throw -- heave the ball into the stands if necessary. Just don't give up the sack, the INT or get hurt. The Cougars Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks are done for the season, and the guys next in line are a walk-on and a true freshman, so they really need Lopina to keep taking snaps.
7. Can Stanford run up the middle on UCLA?: Stanford has become the Pac-10's most physical running team. Running back Toby Gerhart is a 230-pound guy who's not afraid of contact, and the Cardinal line, led by center Alex Fletcher, has been the conference's best unit to this point of the season. But UCLA has perhaps the conference's best defensive tackle tandem in Brian Price and Brigham Harwell. Can Fletcher and his guards move these guys out of the way? The going should be far tougher up the middle, though the Bruins haven't been dominant against the run this year by any means, ranking eighth in the Pac-10 with 171 yards given up per game.
8. UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft needs to put four quarters together: Stanford is going to gang up on the run and try to force Craft to win the game. For much of the season, the Cardinal secondary looked vulnerable, but last weekend it did a masterful job containing Arizona's top targets, Rob Gronkowski and Mike Thomas, and didn't allow quarterback Willie Tuitama to throw a touchdown pass. Stanford also brings a lot of blitzes (see 19 sacks on the season). Craft has had fits and starts of success, and he seems to go in and out of rhythm throughout a game. He was sacked six times by Oregon and he threw a lot of ill-advised passes that were dropped by Ducks defenders. If the Bruins are going to defend their home turf, Craft needs to make plays consistently.
9. The solution for Arizona -- Stop the run: Arizona has lost twice this season. In both games, a power back ran all over the Wildcats undersized defense. But Cal doesn't have a Rodney Ferguson (New Mexico, 158 yards) or a Toby Gerhart (116 yards), who both tip the scales at 230 pounds. If the Wildcats force the Bears to throw into a secondary that is the defense's strength that will help in multiple ways. Not only will it ease the pressure on the defensive front, it also will stop the clock more often and allow the potent Arizona offen
se to get more plays.
10. Can any Pac-10 teams win on the road?: Pac-10 teams are 6-20 on the road this year -- 2-8 in nonconference play and 4-12 in conference. While Washington and Washington State have proved hospitable for obvious reasons -- stinking -- the rest of the Pac-10 has treated guests with disdain. Stanford and California are both looking to move up in the conference pecking order, but in order to do that they will have to prove they can win on the road someplace other than Washington or Washington State.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.
1. USC's backfield rotation is getting simpler: With Allen Bradford suffering a hip injury that has imperiled his season, and Joe McKnight battling a sore knee -- not to mention inconsistency -- the Trojans backfield rotation likely will feature Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable as options Nos. 1 and 2, with McKnight used as a change of pace guy who doubles as a receiver.
2. Can a freshman tackle handle an All-Pac-10 defensive end?: If UCLA's offense is going to have any success at Oregon, it's going to have to account for end Nick Reed, who was first-team All-Pac-10 in 2007 and is presently leading the conference with six sacks. That falls to freshman tackle Jeff Baca, a former teammate of Reed's at Mission Viejo High School -- and by teammate we mean Baca used to admire Reed from afar. Baca figures to need some help (sliding protection or even a tight end with a max-protection scheme), but the less he needs the better for the Bruins.
3. Welcome to opportunity, Danny Sullivan: Folks didn't give Arizona State much chance at USC even with marquee quarterback Rudy Carpenter, so it is reasonable to assume that if Carpenter can't go the Sun Devils are pretty much doomed. Well, plenty of inexperienced or unknown athletes have stepped up and turned in clutch performances, so why not Danny Sullivan? Let's remember: Stanford, a 41-point underdog a year ago at USC, was led by Tavita Pritchard, an emergency, first-time starter because T.C. Ostrander had suffered a seizure the previous week. What happened in that game?
4. Will Justin Roper retake his spot as Oregon's starting quarterback?: The latest word is that Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly are still cogitating over who will start at quarterback for the Ducks against UCLA -- either Jeremiah Masoli, who has started the past three games, or former starter Justin Roper, who hurt his knee at Purdue on Sept. 13. Masoli has been solid in Roper's stead, and there's a possibility he holds onto the job, but Roper should have a lot more knowledge of the offense compared to the first-year juco transfer.
5. Arizona's defense needs to show it can stop a physical running back: It's been mostly roses and rainbows for Arizona during a 4-1 start, but the face plant at New Mexico is still why some doubt the Wildcats and attribute their early success to an easy schedule. For example, Arizona ranks No. 2 in the nation in total defense, but Lobos running back Rodney Ferguson, a 6-foot, 234-pound bowling ball, bullied the Wildcats for 158 yards and two touchdowns. So there is reason to be concerned about Stanford's power running game led by 230-pound Toby Gerhart and a physical offensive line.
6. Is a true freshman the best running back in the Pac-10?: It might be premature to hail Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers as such but he presently leads the Pac-10 with 110 yards rushing per game, which also ranks 14th in the nation. On Saturday, he faces a Washington State run defense that yields 241 yards rushing per game. If Rodgers hangs up huge numbers to pair with his red-letter performance against USC, he'll become a front-runner to earn First-Team All-Pac-10 honors.
7. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez will announce that he's joining the X-Men this weekend: Know how the X-Man Wolverine heals really quickly? Well, so does USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who appears ready to add a bone bruise to the dislocated knee cap as injuries that failed to keep him from starting a game. Come to think of it, has anyone ever seen Sanchez and Wolverine in the same room? Hmm.
8. Gronkowski and Thomas should run wild against Stanford's secondary: Stanford ranks 112th in the nation in pass defense after giving up 347 yards and three touchdowns to Notre Dame and quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Arizona has a better offense and a lot more weapons than Notre Dame, namely receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Both of those guys should post huge numbers Saturday.
9. If it comes down to a kicker, Washington State wins: Washington State has notoriously struggled with special teams over the past few years, but kicker Nico Grasu is one of the few bright spots for the Cougars. Meanwhile, Oregon State, which featured former Groza Award winner Alexis Serna for four years, is now floundering with Justin Kahut. Grasu is 5-of-7 with a long field goal of 47 yards and is perfect on his PATs. Kahut is 3-of-7 with a long of 37 and missed a critical PAT at Utah last week.
10. Is there anything else to say about Rick Neuheisel's and Mike Bellotti's relationship?: The first stories of the week were about how Oregon fans and Mike Bellotti hate Rick Neuheisel. But then it turned out that Bellotti and Neuheisel get along well, even play golf together ("Drat!" said reporters). Oregon fans, of course, do dislike Neuheisel for what he did at Colorado and Washington -- you know, compile a 4-1 record against the Ducks. UCLA should be outmanned at Oregon, but don't be surprised if a few coaching tricks keep the Bruins close.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
|Rodney Ferguson led the Lobos to just their fifth bowl game in the last 46 years, but he was academically ineligible to play.|
There are cautionary tales for young players scattered throughout college football, and New Mexico running back Rodney Ferguson is relaying his to freshmen and sophomores on his team.
As a junior last year, Ferguson was on top of the world. He was All-Mountain West. The conference's leading rusher with 1,177 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he led the team to its fifth bowl game in the last 46 years.
But it all came crashing down on Dec. 17, 2007, when Ferguson learned that he was academically ineligible to play in the bowl game because he'd received a D in astronomy, a class he had previously taken and failed.
Ferguson watched the Lobos trounce Nevada 23-0 in the New Mexico Bowl from the comfort of his couch, yelling at the screen in a mixture of elation and self-pity. It was New Mexico's first bowl win since 1961 and Ferguson wasn't there to be a part of history.
"It was one of the roughest things I've been through in my life," Ferguson said. "I was at home basically licking my chops knowing that I was going to work extremely hard to get back. To actually lose the privilege that I have of playing let my team down and it hurt me really bad. It was an eye-opener for me."
Ferguson had to take class over winter break to return to good academic standing and participate in spring football. He said getting better grades wasn't about him being smart enough or needing better help, it was about caring enough to do the work.
"It had nothing to do with needing help; I just needed to help myself," he said.
As New Mexico finishes its second week of camp, Ferguson is a different player and person than he has been the past couple of seasons. There's a greater appreciation for the game, a genuine love of practice, and a mentality to take care of business before he ever straps on his pads.
The goals that he's set for himself this season are different than his goals of the past. Sure, he wants to rush for 1,000 yards as he has each of the last two years and help the team to yet another bowl win, but he also wants to earn a 3.0 GPA and show his academic scare was a life-changing experience.
"This year's goals were more beneficial to my life than my previous goals," Ferguson said. "It's different from previous years because I didn't even have a goal for school. It wasn't a thing on my list. I always wanted to graduate, but now I want to graduate with a cumulative 3.0 or better. Back then, that wasn't even a point. I just wanted to graduate even if it was with a 2.0."
Ferguson is 18 credits shy of graduating and plans to walk in the spring.
But before he leaves, Ferguson said he plans to grab every young player who is on the same path he was and tell them his story. His goal is to talk to each of them one-on-one before he leaves campus.
"I learned not to take things for granted," Ferguson said. "There are a lot of people counting on you that you don't even know are counting on you. I learned to be a good role model to everyone. ... It's made me a better person on the football field, a better person off the football field. A better person inside."
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
For the past couple days, the New Mexico players have been attending Pilates classes in position groups to increase their flexibility and decrease the soreness that comes with weeks of fall camp.
"It's a lot of core work, ab work and a lot of hamstrings and whole body stretching," wide receiver Roland Bruno said. "There's a little work to it. People probably think it's real easy but it's not."
The classes last about an hour as players learn to zip up their abdominals and work from their powerhouse.
"I didn't expect it to be as tough as it was," Bruno said. "It was a surprise when we starting going through the exercises and the instructor was demonstrating exactly what we had to do. There were a lot of exercises I didn't expect to be able to do on the first try."
In true team spirit, the players compete to see who's the most flexible and who can get the positions correct. Players with longer limbs -- receivers and corners -- tend to be better than, say, running backs or linemen.
"Pilates are killing me," running back Rodney Ferguson said. "I am not flexible."
Senior wide receiver Jermaine McQueen has found that Pilates not only increases his flexibility, it also increases his speed. McQueen is the fastest player on the team with 4.3-second 40-yard dash speed, but he said after a session of Pilates, he felt much faster.
"I'm able to feel the difference the day after we stretch," McQueen said. "I'm able to run faster and I'm more flexible. Before we had the Pilates class, the muscles in my thighs were really tight, and I wasn't really able to extend my legs when I run as much. After this class, I noticed that I have more of a range of motion when I run. For me, at least, it helped me."