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#4pac: Players to watch this weekend

9/3/2014

Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what will be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question or one topic, or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet, and all contribute our thoughts.

Sometimes we'll be playing devil's advocate for a specific team, player or idea.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're identifying the Pac-12 player we're each most interested in seeing perform in either of the league's marquee Week 2 matchups: Michigan State at Oregon and USC at Stanford.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota

Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: Not to go out on a limb here, but the most important player in the Oregon-Michigan State clash is the guy with the biggest name on the marquee: Mariota. Players and coaches will often tell you that big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Mariota is a big-time player and this is a big-time game, so he needs to make big-time plays in Autzen Stadium to lead his team to victory.

Mariota is the Pac-12’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Some might call him the national favorite for the award. In the last two seasons, he’s put up huge numbers. He’s produced consistently against an unquestionably tough schedule. But what he lacks is a true signature performance. Sure, he was the MVP of the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, but his numbers there were more efficient than spectacular. He led fourth-quarter charges last year against Washington, UCLA and Oregon State, but he’s also been muted twice by Stanford with national title hopes on the line.

This is his national moment. Oh, there will be plenty of nationally ranked challenges ahead in Pac-12 play, including that dastardly Cardinal defense looking to shut him down for a third consecutive year. But if Mariota shines against a dominant Spartans defense, not only would he jump to the fore of the Heisman discussion, the Ducks would become College Football Playoff favorites and worried fans would suddenly feel much more comfortable with second-year coach Mark Helfrich.

Stanford QB Kevin Hogan

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: Through nearly two years as a starting quarterback, Hogan has developed a reputation as a big-game player. Before last season's Rose Bowl, he was 10-0 as a starter against ranked teams -- including his first four career starts in 2012 -- often coming up with key plays in crucial situations.

However, during that span the Cardinal weren't as reliant on Hogan as they figure to be this season. This will be his first real test without an established running back to carry the load and he will need to play much better than he did against the Trojans a year ago. In USC's 20-17 victory in Los Angeles, Hogan completed 14 of 25 passes for 127 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns -- arguably the worst game he's had since taking the reigns from Josh Nunes.

It would be a waste of time to put too much stock in how the Stanford offense looked against UC Davis last week, but it's still worth noting that the Cardinal's passing game looked decidedly more advanced than its rushing game. If that trend continues against the Trojans, it should be a telling sign for the rest of the season.

USC DE Leonard Williams

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: The Cardinal thought they were going to get out of the Coliseum last year without having to see Williams, who was nursing an injured shoulder at the time. But he played, posting seven tackles and a fumble recovery along the way. We all know what happened last year. Now Stanford hosts USC with four new starters on the offensive line. Williams was as huge force in last Saturday's victory over Fresno State with seven tackles, an interception and two pass breakups.

“Leonard really sets the tone for us up front,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. “It’s a great thing when arguably your best player plays with the most effort. It sends a real message to the rest of your defense.”

We need to see how this high ankle sprain will impact his performance. But even at 80 percent, Williams is one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country.

It’s going to be fun to see if Justin Wilcox keeps him on Stanford’s All-American offensive tackle Andrus Peat, or if he shifts him from side to side. Stanford certainly will account for him, but they’ll also work their game plan regardless of where he lines up.

Oregon RB Byron Marshall

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I’m interested to see Byron Marshall play because I think this game will truly give a picture of his role in the offense throughout the season.

While he might not end up leading the Ducks in rushing yards, hey could well lead them in receiving yards. He did against South Dakota (eight receptions, 138 yards, two touchdowns). But that was a blowout; the game against Michigan State likely won’t be. So Is Marshall really going to be targeted as much in the passing game, or were the coaches just trying to get his sea legs under him? Was it all a rouse so that the Spartans would have to plan for that kind of a wrinkle? He’s definitely one of the Ducks' most valuable players and they want to keep him on the field, but in what capacity?

I think Oregon’s game against Michigan State will give us a much clearer vision.