Pac-10 internal affairs: Utah will reveal who the Beavers really are
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Getting deep into this week's games.
Oregon State's real test is Utah: The massive, shocking upset is a staple of college football and its frequency relative to other sports is one of the reasons we love the game so much. The issues for Oregon State is whether there's an encore for its win over top-ranked USC. Follow a victory over USC with a win at No. 15 Utah, and the Beavers figure to be the first two-loss team to enter the national polls. Or they can lose and retreat to the muddle of the middle-50 teams, their 15 minutes of 2008 fame over. The key for the Beavers will be the run game. Can Jacquizz Rodgers slash and dash against the Utes like he did against the Trojans? Most would say why not? But it's tougher going on the road, and Utah's run defense is stout. It ranks fifth in the nation and yields just 60 yards per game and 2.0 yards per rush. Oh, by the way, the Utes also have the best secondary in the Mountain West Conference, so passing won't be easy either against the nation's No. 5 overall defense (223.4 yards per game).
USC goes blue collar: The demotion of sophomore defensive end Everson Griffen and the likely decreased carries for sophomore tailback Joe McKnight may suggest that a true culture of competition is back at USC. Griffen and McKnight were both marquee recruits even among the Trojans superstar recruiting classes and both are exceptional physical talents. But the production -- and in Griffen's case, consistent effort -- hasn't been there. Griffen has just seven tackles and a sack thus far. His backup, Clay Matthews, a former walk-on, has 17 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. So who should start? As for McKnight, he's been spectacular at times and seemed to break through against Ohio State, but Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford each are more complete players and are far more likely to run north-south and get tough yards. Oregon's defensive scheme is to gang up on the run and force teams to throw into its talented secondary. But it's possible the Trojans will want to play some smash-mouth at home and take out their anger, which might mean less McKnight.
Stanford needs ball control: The injury report tells you what you need to know about the Stanford offense: Running back Toby Gerhart (concussion) will play at Notre Dame but wide receiver Richard Sherman (knee) will not. With its most talented receiver again on the sidelines, the Cardinal will need to lean on its dramatically improved running game, with the capable Anthony Kimble spelling Gerhart at times. The Fighting Irish defense is mostly bend-but-don't break, surrendering yards (385 ypg) but not a whole lot of points (18.5 ppg), but it's hardly dominant against the run (134 ypg). While Stanford is grinding it out, it also is keeping the Irish offense and rapidly improving quarterback Jimmy Clausen -- 20-for-35, 275-yards, three touchdowns in a win over Purdue -- on the sidelines and away from the Cardinal's suspect secondary.
Is Arizona State really going to run? Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson is a wily sort, and he's not above using the media for his purposes. This week he told reporters that his offense must run the football, period, and that if he had one regret he wished he'd run more against Georgia. For real? The Sun Devils ran 19 times and gained four yards against the Bulldogs, so Erickson is almost saying he'd rather bang his head against a wall 25 times rather than 19 times. And consider that, just three weeks ago before the Stanford game, Erickson told reporters that, "Right now, philosophically, we're going to come out flinging it." Then they came out and ran 36 times and passed 36 times. Sure, the return of speedy running back Keegan Herring will help the Sun Devils' anemic -- last in the Pac-10, 110th in the nation -- running attack, but this offense with Rudy Carpenter out front prefers to "fling" it. It is notable, however, that Cal is playing very good pass defense: It's ranked 11th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and leads the Pac-10 with eight INTs.
I have no feel for Cal's reopened QB competition, and maybe that's the point: How many teams opt for a high-profile QB controversy after a 42-7 victory with a critical game the next weekend? That's what Cal coach Jeff Tedford did by announcing that starter Kevin Riley, a sophomore, would need to fight off a challenge from senior Nate Longshore, who's started 26 career games, during practices this week. Tedford's official explanation is the offense has been starting slowly the past few games, and Riley has been inconsistent of late. He completed just 6 for 13 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State, one of two games this year when he's passed for less than 60 yards. In fact, Riley hasn't looked good since the season-opening win over Michigan State, when Longshore seemed to hammer the final nails into his QB coffin by tossing two interceptions, one of which was returned for a TD. Tedford said it looks like Riley is pressing, which was something Longshore often did as well. One possible explanation: Riley may need the competitive pressure in practice to thrive. Or maybe Longshore is legitimately winning back his coaches' favor. Guess we'll see on Saturday, eh?