Issues to consider heading into the 10th week of games.
Is Foles in sync early? Nick Foles is expected to return to his starting spot at quarterback after missing two games with a dislocated knee cap. Foles is one of the best QBs in the nation, no doubt. But this is not just another start. For one, he'll be thinking about his knee early, no matter how hard he tries to block it out. That might affect his performance. And rust might be an issue -- Foles hasn't been at game-speed since going down at Washington State on Oct. 16. Moreover, if Foles isn't in-sync and, say, throws an early interception, how quickly might Mike Stoops go with Matt Scott, who was outstanding filling in for Foles? In a big game, when the stakes are high, it might be hard to be patient.
Fight still on for USC? USC can't play in a bowl game this season, so a few Trojans called last week's game with No. 1 Oregon their bowl game. Well, they lost their bowl game by three TDs; does that mean the season is over? Does the cumulative effect of two last-second losses and that blowout defeat -- not to mention what figures to be a small crowd in the Coliseum -- leave the Trojans unfocused and unmotivated with Arizona State in town fighting for its bowl life?
"Tavita" Price? Washington would have had no chance at Oregon even with Jake Locker. It will have even less of no chance without him. Right? Redshirt freshman Keith Price surely will wilt under the pressure of boisterous Autzen Stadium and relentless blitzing from mean-old Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. Right? Well, Duck fans, let's not forget that in 2007 a Stanford team with no chance that also was starting a backup QB who made things even no-chancer entered the Coliseum -- where USC had won 35 in a row -- and beat the No. 2 Trojans, 24-23, on a 10-yard TD pass on fourth down from Tavita Pritchard. But lightning won't strike again. Right?
Lots of Jacquizz: Jacquizz Rodgers and the Oregon State running game broke through last weekend versus a good California run defense. So what will it do against a struggling UCLA run defense, which is yielding more than 200 yards per game? The guess here is Mike Riley will be eager to test the fortitude of the Bruins, whose season is teetering on the brink.
Building a Mansion on the road: Cal has been a complete disaster on the road this year, at least other than a tight game at Arizona. That makes even a trip to Washington State ominous. Further, after QB Kevin Riley suffered a season-ending knee injury during a blowout loss at Oregon State, junior Brock Mansion now will be making his first career start. Crowd noise won't be an issue -- Martin Stadium won't be full. And, while there might be some rain, the elements won't be a factor, as they sometimes are in Pullman. For Mansion, it will be all about staying focused and poised and making plays against perhaps the worst defense in the nation. Is Mansion -- and his supporting cast -- up to that, even if they aren't playing inside the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium?
Make Luck un-Lucky: The challenge for Arizona's defense is to get the Pac-10's most talented and efficient passer, Stanford's Andrew Luck, out of his comfort zone. That won't be easy. The Cardinal again has a great running game -- 224 yards per game -- and it protects Luck well, with just three sack surrendered. And even if you pressure Luck, he's such a good runner that he can make a big play with his legs just after you think a sack dance is coming. The Wildcats lead the conference in sacks, with 3.38 per game, and Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed are the best defensive end combo in the conference. But the Wildcats will have to give Luck lots of different looks, and hope that a few of them cause him a bit of angst. And provoke a mistake (or two).
A Threet to the Trojans' secondary: Arizona State QB Steven Threet leads the Pac-10 in passing yards per game. USC ranks last in passing yards surrendered. That would seem to favor Threet and the Sun Devils. At the same time, Threet has hurled 13 interceptions, most in the conference. Threet has proven he can make plays in the passing game, and USC has proven vulnerable to passers. But Threet sometimes is his own worst enemy. Can the Trojans -- and coordinator Monte Kiffin -- rattle Threet into making mistakes?
James makes more Heisman noise (and maybe Thomas, too): My Mama always said if you can't say something nice, don't say anything. But then I wouldn't be able to do my job, which is at this moment to observe that the Washington defense is lousy. The Huskies are particularly bad versus the run. Oh, by the way, Oregon rushes for 309 yards per game. So expect Ducks running back LaMichael James to get another 200-yard performance and then sit out the fourth quarter. And when the Huskies become addled trying to stop James, Thomas will find plenty of opportunities downfield. Count on both putting up numbers that are noted in next week's review of Heisman Trophy candidates.
Just when you count the Bruins out...: Seems like we've already written off UCLA about five times this year. And folks are always trying to write of Rick Neuheisel. But it also seems like, just when things are darkness for Neuheisel ... sunrise! Mike Riley seemed to be aware of that this week; he seemed genuinely concerned about how his team might view UCLA's vulnerability. Not sure how the Bruins would beat the surging Beavers, but stranger things certainly have happened. Recall that the Beavers didn't exactly shine the last time they were on the road at Washington.
Breakthrough for the Cougs? Speaking of strange things: The Cougars last Pac-10 win came in the 2008 Apple Cup against the winless Huskies. So Cal comes to Pullman looking to hand the Cougs a 16th consecutive conference defeat. If Washington State had played Arizona State tougher last weekend -- instead of, say, losing 42-0 -- then it would be easier to project an upset. Still, you'd think that, based on some of the competitive performances this year, the Cougs are going to surprise someone and get a win at some point. Cal, with a new starting QB and a tendency to throw up on itself on the road, seems like a legitimate potential victim.