Pac-10 internal affairs: Will quarterback play decide the Civil War?
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Getting deep into this week's games.
Stop the run, get the quarterback -- times two: Oregon and Oregon State play different defensive schemes but both are predicated on stopping the run first and then aggressively pressuring the quarterback. That might sound like every team's basic recipe, but the Ducks and Beavers have the numbers to back it up. They rank second (OSU) and third in the Pac-10 in run defense and second (UO) and third in quarterback sacks. The Civil War will feature four of the top seven quarterback sackers in the conference. The difference in the defenses this year is the Ducks have struggled against the pass (254 yards per game, 10th in conference) -- particularly play-action passes -- while the Beavers' defense is all-around suffocating (178 yards, fourth). Moreover, Oregon State, despite using two quarterbacks the latter third of the season, is a far better at passing -- No. 1 in the Pac-10 -- than the Ducks (7th). On the other hand, only USC has been able to stop the Ducks' run game. What do all of these numbers seem to indicate? That if it comes down the quarterbacks, Oregon State has an advantage, even though we don't know yet who will be the starter between Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield.
A reappearance of Sanchez 07 vs. Notre Dame would work nicely: Last year, USC whipped Notre Dame 38-0, the Trojans' first shutout in South Bend and their most decisive victory in the 79-game series. Mark Sanchez, making just his second career start for the injured John David Booty, threw for 235 yards and four touchdown passes. The Trojans' offense has played it fairly close to the vest of late, with Sanchez throwing for 238 or fewer yards in each of the last four games, and twice throwing for less than 170 yards. That makes sense when the nation's best defense has your back. Maintaining that plan this week also makes sense, considering Notre Dame is far better vs. the pass -- the Irish rank 14th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and have yielded only 10 touchdown passes -- than the run. And the Trojans did rush for 227 yards in 2007. Still, with an extra week to prepare, it wouldn't be surprising if the Trojans opened things up for Sanchez in the interest of posting an impressive all-around performance, not that Pete Carroll would ever -- EVER! -- think about BCS positioning.
Kevin Craft vs. Kevin Craft (and a peeved Rick Neuheisel): UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft "leads" the Pac-10 with 16 interceptions, much to the consternation of his animated coach. He even threw three vs. Washington, which had collected just three interceptions in its previous nine games. Craft's tendency to lock on to his intended receiver and still throw into a naturally reacting coverage will be of interest to Arizona State, particularly linebacker Mike Nixon and safety Troy Nolan, who have combined for seven interceptions. The Bruins and Sun Devils own identical records, and the winner of their matchup Friday keeps their bowl hopes alive. The biggest difference between the teams is at quarterback. While Rudy Carpenter hasn't dominated this season, his 15 TD passes vs. seven picks is far better than Craft's 7 and 16, which largely accounts for the Bruins' stark minus-eight turnover margin -- vs. plus-two for ASU.
Is the Cougs' visit to Hawaii a vacation or a business trip? Escaping Eastern Washington this time of the year for a trip to Hawaii sounds like a great plan (though, honestly, it was beautiful -- crisp and mostly sunny -- last week in Pullman). Of course, there is this little matter of a football game. It is not inconceivable that if the Cougars put together an inspired effort they could win -- even as a 29 1/2-point underdog. Hawaii (6-5) did lose to 2-9 Utah State, 30-14, on Nov. 1. And this is certainly not the offensive juggernaut of the June Jones Era -- see 25 points and 344 yards per game. Still, despite the win over Washington, the Cougars are severely undermanned on both sides of the ball. Moreover, it's hard to imagine them being able to wipe away the euphoria of their double-overtime win and focus on a new game plan. But if they do, it could signal some substantial traction for first-year coach Paul Wulff as he heads into the offseason trying to sell recruits on his rebuilding project.
Special teams come to the fore in special games: Let's just say that Oregon and Oregon State both get their licks in, with the usual suspects making plays on both sides of the ball. What, then, might tip the scales? Special teams, right? In last year's game -- a 38-31 Beavers win in double overtime -- both teams missed field goals to win in regulation, and OSU kicker Alexis Serna missed two other field goals. Last week at Arizona, Beavers kicker Justin Kahut was first the goat -- missing a potential game-tying, fourth-quarter PAT -- and then the hero when he booted the game-winning field goal as time expired. Kahut actually has an edge on Ducks veteran Matt Evensen, who's only hit on 11 of 18 field goals this year, or the less-experienced Morgan Flint, who's taken over kicking duties of late. Moreover, Oregon's Jairus Byrd and Oregon State's Sammie Stroughter are two of the Pac-10's more dangerous punt returners, and the Beavers' James Rodgers returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season. Oregon has a 4-yard advantage in net punting, with Josh Syria far more consistent that Johnny Hekker. In hard-fought rivalry games, it's often miscues and play-making on special teams that swing the final margin.