What to watch in the Pac-10, Week 8
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.