Pac-10 internal affairs: California won't run over Arizona
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Getting deep into this week's games.
California won't run over Arizona: In Arizona's two losses, its defense got run over by a big back -- New Mexico's Rodney Ferguson and Stanford's Toby Gerhart, a pair of 230-pound bruisers. California is not a power-rushing team with Jahvid Best, who's expected to return after dislocating his elbow on Sept. 27, and Shane Vereen, neither of whom pushes the scale past 200 pounds. Moreover, the Bears have two injured starting linemen, tackle Mike Tepper and guard Chris Guarnero. Without Best, the Bears rushed for just 79 yards at home against Arizona State, and playing on the road makes it harder to use a variety of run audibles. Best and Vereen can hit home runs, but they don't grind out four yards and a cloud of dust. Cal will need balance to win, and the Bears passing game has not clicked this season. Meanwhile, the Wildcats pass defense is holding opponents to just a 55.3 completion percentage and has grabbed eight interceptions. Hmm.
A two-quarterback system might work for Stanford: Cardinal quarterback Tavita Pritchard has steadily improved this year and was 13-of-17 for 113 yards and a touchdown before he was knocked out against Arizona with a concussion. He's likely to start against UCLA on Saturday. But Alex Loukas' running ability off the bench confused the Wildcats defense and was the key component of the 11-play, 60-yard game-winning drive. Loukas completed a 21-yard pass and ran four times for 32 yards, and apparently earned more playing time, according to coach Jim Harbaugh. Loukas not only adds a nice change of pace, but he also forces a defense to use valuable practice time preparing for a running quarterback and some spread-option plays.
Washington State's goal is to protect quarterback Kevin Lopina: If you read a week's worth of stories on Washington State, you can't help but wince. Two of the Cougars top three quarterbacks are done for the year. Kevin Lopina, who took over the starting job two games into the season, will return to face USC's fearsome defense after missing the past three games with a fractured vertebrae. If the Trojans knock Lopina out, the Cougars must turn to either walk-on freshman Daniel Wagner or burn the redshirt of true freshman J.T. Levenseller, with coach Paul Wulff suggesting this week he'd have no alternative but to go with Levenseller because there's half a season remaining. That means the Cougars figure to try to run the ball and use a lot of quick-hit passes to minimize the hits on Lopina, a strategy that isn't likely to put many points on the board. Of course, as a 43-point underdog, don't expect the Cougars to give the Trojans a scare. In fact, don't be shocked if USC coach Pete Carroll, who's team isn't exactly healthy, calls off the dogs fairly early and doesn't try to become the fourth Pac-10 team to score 60-plus on the Cougs.
UCLA may be able to force Stanford to pass: Sure, UCLA's rushing defense ranks eighth in the Pac-10 (171.3), which would seem to bode well for Stanford's potent ground game. But the Bruins have faced the nation's No. 6 (Oregon) and No. 16 (Fresno State) rushing attacks in recent weeks. Moreover, Stanford's more conventional power-running scheme matches strength-on-strength as the Bruins defensive tackle combo of Brian Price and Brigham Harwell is as good as any in the conference. It's almost certain that defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker will try to force Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard to throw the ball. The Bruins secondary has been terribly inconsistent this year -- strong safety Bret Lockett is fighting to hold onto his job this week -- but Pritchard, while improving, has a tendency to force passes into coverage, see eight interceptions vs. seven touchdowns. The Bruins secondary has only four interceptions this season, but that has been a point of emphasis in practices this week. Stanford beat Arizona despite losing the turnover battle, 0-3. It will be harder to do that on the road.
Beavers should be on upset alert: There is absolutely no logical reason to believe that Washington can upset Oregon State. The Huskies are winless, beaten up and about to fire head coach Tyrone Willingham. Oregon State has won three of four and is in the middle of the Pac-10 race. The Beavers are superior in just about every area and should be highly motivated. Yet this is college football, and only twice since 1999 has a Pac-10 team gone winless in the conference (though Washington did it in 2004). Moreover, the Huskies' loss last year at Oregon State was hotly contested and bitterly lost, including a controversial knock-out hit on quarterback Jake Locker by Beavers safety Al Afalava, which has been a hot topic this week (though let's be clear that the hit was legal). The Beavers won 19 games over the previous two seasons, but managed to get drubbed both years by inferior UCLA teams, so it's not inconceivable that the Beavers could come out flat with overconfidence.