Pac-10 internal affairs: It's Soap Opera Saturday!
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Getting deep into this week's games.
Welcome to Soap Opera Saturday: Down year in the Pac-10? Whatever! This is the Conference of Intrigue on Soap Opera Saturday! (Cue dramatic music). We've got a coach with a history, a tale of woe and redemption. A man facing his demons. Likely in the rain. Rick Neuheisel and his band of UCLA Bruins, the football family that brought him into the football world, return to Seattle to face the bitter and woebegone Washington Huskies, the team he left in an acrimonious split that has been wounded and lost ever since. But there's more in the Northwest! California visits Oregon State, and the last time these two teams tangled, the Bears were poised to ascend to No. 1 in the nation. But then quarterback Kevin Riley, a freshman filling in for injured starter Nate Longshore, while leading a potential game-tying drive, made a fateful decision to scramble with no timeouts and the clock ran out on the Bears. And their glorious season promptly fell apart, as that became the first of six losses in seven games amid locker room recriminations. Meanwhile, downstate in Eugene, Oregon faces the Arizona team that ended its 2007 national championship hopes when quarterback and leading Heisman Trophy candidate Dennis Dixon crumpled to the ground with a knee injury. Wait! There's more! Remember the Greatest Upset of All-Time! USC, a 41-point favorite, going down at home vs. Stanford. Guess who's coming to dinner, Stanford!
Oregon State Canfield a Rose Bowl team. Or it Can'tField one: Sean Canfield has been solid for Oregon State since taking over for quarterback Lyle Moevao, who's still nursing a shoulder injury this week and is questionable for the Cal game. Canfield has completed 70 percent of his passes for 440 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in roughly seven quarters of action. But California is a much better team than Arizona State and UCLA, and the Bears defense has been outstanding of late. It has limited opponents to under 300 yards of total offense in five of nine games and in the last six games it has recorded 19 quarterback sacks among 41 tackles for a loss and forced 19 turnovers (12 interceptions and seven fumbles). The Bears' 17 interceptions this season lead the Pac-10 and rank third in the nation. Canfield has been surprisingly poised thus far, but Beavers fans surely remember that a year ago, as a nine-game starter, he tossed 15 interceptions. The Bears will come after him. And they'll drop eight into coverage and try to tempt him to force balls into tight spaces. How will he respond? And will Moevao be ready and available, if needed?
Arizona's success this year is defined by run defense; Oregon's by running the ball: Oregon leads the Pac-10 and ranks fifth in the nation with 274 yards rushing per game. Only USC shut down the Ducks' running game, holding them to 60 yards on the ground. Arizona has been decent against the run this year with its no-name but productive defense, ranking sixth in the conference (131 yards per game). Yet, at least during the first half of the season, the Wildcats faltered against power running teams. New Mexico rushed for 211 yards with rugged Rodney Ferguson leading the charge, while Stanford piled up 286 yards behind twin 100-yard efforts from Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble. That convinced coach Mike Stoops that the Wildcats needed to get fancier up front, mixing up looks and using more stunts to keep opposing linemen -- and offensive coordinators -- guessing. It worked great against California, which only rushed for 110 yards at Arizona, and pretty well against USC (151). But these new looks have been on film for a couple of weeks now. They won't surprise the Ducks. Or will the Wildcats have a few new wrinkles for the run-happy, spread-option?
Does Stanford have enough offensive balance to challenge the USC defense? Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 186 yards against USC. Since then against the Trojans D: Nothing. Seven of nine opponents have been held under 100 yards rushing. The Trojans have allowed only one touchdown in their last five games and that came on a 15-yard drive by Arizona following a turnover. They have held their last four opponents to less than 200 yards of total offense. So the odds of Stanford just lining up and playing smash mouth in the run game, particularly with running back Toby Gerhart hobbled with a hamstring injury, fall somewhere between zero and none-at-all. The image of last year's upset victory, in fact, were well-thrown, clutch passes from Tavita Pritchard. Last week at Oregon -- in a persistent rain -- Pritchard completed 15 of 22 for 138 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Not spectacular numbers, but they suggest the Cardinal might have a larger offensive inventory now than they showed during the first half of the season.
The stars are rising for Arizona State: The Sun Devils will take one more step in the milquetoast portion of their schedule Saturday by trouncing Washington State. Expect to see more from some of the familiar names who created high -- and misguided -- expectations during the preseason. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter will make his nation-leading 41st consecutive start, and he's finally getting some help on offense as his skill position cohorts get healthy. Receiver Michael Jones, muted much of the season with a variety of injuries, hauled in 11 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend's trouncing of Washington. Running back Keegan Herring, who's been limited much of the season with a hamstring injury, had 22 carries for 144 yards, giving the offense a one-two, lightning and thunder punch at tailback with burly Shaun DeWitty. Meanwhile, on the defen
se, underrated safety Troy Nolan has helped the offense by scoring two touchdowns over the previous two games -- a 41-yard interception return against Oregon State and a 44-yard fumble return against the Huskies.