It's crunch time. And as the saying goes, big-time players make big-time plays in big games. Who will step up this weekend? We debate.
Ted Miller: There will be plenty of star players on the field Saturday when Oregon hosts Stanford. And there will be plenty of key players who are question marks. But my choice for a player who could play a crucial role is not one on many folks' immediate radar.
It's a fullback. Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt, actually.
Oregon, of course, doesn't even have a fullback. In fact, only about half of the Pac-12 even plays one regularly. But Stanford loves its fullbacks -- recall two-way star Owen Marecic -- and Hewitt is among the best in the country.
First, the obvious: Hewitt is the guy who will regularly be running immediately in front of Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, the Cardinal's best offensive weapon. He's the guy providing the final block that often means a 6-yard gain or a 2-yard gain. The difference will be key in this game.
Ideally from the Stanford perspective, Taylor will run about 30 times, average 6 yards a carry -- and the Ducks offense will find itself chilling on the sidelines during a number of six-, seven- and 10-minute stretches. Stanford wants to pound a beaten-up Oregon defense, convert third downs and win a battle of attrition.
Oregon's beaten-up defensive line adds another layer to Hewitt's value. More often than not, he's a blocker seeking a linebacker. Oregon is very good at linebacker, and the Ducks linebackers will play an even more crucial role than usual because of the injuries up front and the fact that Stanford is a downhill running team. You can expect Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso each to be around 10-plus tackles. Where those tackles take place depends a lot on Hewitt.
Further, if the Cardinal running game is surging like an army of steamrollers, it will make life much easier for redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is making his first road start in raucous Autzen Stadium. And guess what a consistent running game sets up? That's right, play-action passing.
While Stanford would rather go downfield with its play-action game, that's always a risk. Guess who made his presence felt for the first time all season in the passing game against Oregon State? Yep. Hewitt.
Not only did he lead the way for a running game that ground out 163 yards against a run defense that had been yielding just 91.8 yards per game, he caught four passes for 52 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown, against the Beavers.
The 6-foot-4, 248-pound Hewitt, who was recruited as a tight end, could be a key target, both on third down and in the red zone, while the Ducks try to gang up against the Stanford tight ends.
Of course, if Stanford posts the upset Saturday, you probably won't read much about Hewitt afterward. That's the way it is with fullbacks. But here's a guarantee that if Stanford does pull the upset, everyone in the Cardinal locker room will be giving Hewitt a special fist-bump.
Kevin Gemmell: First off, that's a great call, Ted. On a team without a ton of star power, Hewitt is certainly deserving of the recognition.
But Southern California is home to the stars, and the Rose Bowl field is going to be littered with A-list playmakers when the Trojans travel crosstown to face UCLA. It's very possible that an under-the-radar player has an impact in this game, but with at least a dozen or so guys from both squads with NFL futures, it's more likely than not that one of the superstars will emerge and carry ... or catch ... or throw ... or intercept ... or sack at a key time of the game and lead his team to the South Division title.
Sometimes there is nothing wrong with going with the obvious -- and Marqise Lee is the obvious. The USC wide receiver has been one of the -- if not the -- most dynamic playmakers in the Pac-12 and, at the very least, should win the Biletnikoff Award for the nation's top wide receiver. Even Oedipus could see that.
The numbers speak for themselves. He has 36 more receptions than the next-closest Pac-12 wide receiver (98), 424 more receiving yards than the next-closest receiver (1,447), and he's averaging a ridiculous 144.7 receiving yards per game.
If ever there was a game for him to show up big-time, this is it.
Regardless of what your standards are, this has so far been a very disappointing season for the Trojans. They will not be playing for a national championship after starting the year as the Associated Press preseason No. 1. But they can still play in a BCS game -- namely the Rose Bowl. To get there, they have to go through the Bruins, then likely through Oregon again -- this time at Autzen.
Aside from maybe De'Anthony Thomas, there is no player in the Pac-12 who can shift momentum faster than Lee. Be it with an 80-yard touchdown after the defense gives up a score or a long kick return (he also leads the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards by a huge margin, at 223.4), Lee has the capability to change the game with a single catch, carry or return.
Teams have tried to bracket him, double-team him and even triple him. But he still makes the plays before, during and after the catch. Stanford head coach David Shaw gave Lee the ultimate praise when he said he hasn't seen a college wide receiver do what Lee has done since he scouted Randy Moss. No doubt he'll tax a UCLA secondary that gives up a ton of yards through the air and ranks in the bottom half of the league in pass-efficiency defense.
And while the Trojans' unfinished business -- i.e., a national championship -- will remain just that, it's quite possible we'll see a Trojan in New York for the Heisman ceremony after all. Another huge game for Lee on a national stage (and yes, I promise a lot of people will be watching) could help garner some more Heisman support. There is still work for this team to do, and I'd expect Lee to play his usual, significant and spectacular role tomorrow against the Bruins.