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Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Internal affairs: Big week for Pac-10

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

A look inside the Pac-10 this week.

Pac-10: This week defines the conference, with eight of 10 nonconference opponents having played in bowl games last year and five representing other BCS conferences. It's more than USC trying to defend its No. 1 ranking against visiting Ohio State, ranked fifth. It's UCLA at No. 18 BYU. It's No. 16 Oregon at Purdue. It's Arizona looking for revenge at New Mexico. It's Washington playing host to No. 3 Oklahoma. It's California at Maryland, Stanford at TCU, Hawaii visiting Oregon State and Arizona State trying not to look ahead to Georgia while playing UNLV. The Pac-10 is 7-3 so far in nonconference games, and two of the losses came against ranked opponents. If the conference were to have a big weekend -- say go 8-2 or 9-1 -- it would send a message to the rest of the nation.

USC: Coach Pete Carroll sometimes can be difficult -- in a pleasant way, of course -- with reporters. Ask him a question that has a negative turn, and he'll reject it in favor of something positive. But when asked about linebackers Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga nursing wrist and hand injuries this week, he admitted that, yes, those types of injuries make it harder to tackle. Harder to tackle, say, 240-pound speedsters like Ohio State RB Chris Wells. Maualuga has practiced all week, but seems to favor his hand. Cushing missed half of practice Tuesday, but because of a hip bruise, not his wrist. If Cushing is limited, DE Clay Matthews, a pass-rush specialist, would slide over at strongside LB. It's hard to believe that one of these injuries won't become an issue Saturday.

Washington: It's hard to imagine Washington beating Oklahoma, so that means an 0-3 start for the Huskies with the screws tightening on coach Tyrone Willingham. The question, really, then is whether the Huskies play hard the entire game and keep things interesting. Would a respectable performance mollify fans, with a string of more manageable games ahead after a bye week (Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State and Notre Dame)? After school president Mark Emmert -- who held the same post at LSU and loves his football -- went public with a request for patience, it seems like even a blowout loss wouldn't cost Willingham his job before the end of the season. If the Huskies gut it out and put a scare into the Sooners, it's not unreasonable to project them winning a couple of their upcoming games and possibly building some momentum. Still, finding six wins over the remaining nine games feels extremely difficult, and the general feeling is six wins is a minimum standard for Willingham to survive.

UCLA: Is UCLA ready to refocus after a bye week? BYU will come at the Bruins with a far more sophisticated -- and balanced -- offense than Tennessee, so the week off to game plan likely will help. Washington barely touched Cougars QB Max Hall, who looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate while completing 30 of 41 passes for 348 yards and three TDs, so figuring out ways to apply pressure will be the biggest task for defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker. This will be the second consecutive veteran offensive line Walker has schemed against, and the Cougars may be even better than the Vols. On the other side of the ledger, the Cougars' secondary is vulnerable -- it will not be able to match the athleticism of the Bruins WRs. But QB Kevin Craft needs time to throw, and it's still uncertain how well the Bruins OL will hold up. The BYU front seven won't be as athletic as the Vols, but it's still a strong crew. Further, will "Leaky" Craft or "Jet" Craft show up? Guess is OC Norm Chow is hoping for the Craft of the second half of the Tennessee game, not the one who threw four interceptions in the first half.

Oregon: With Oregon, it's almost always about the Ducks' potent spread offense, which is fancy. But the visit to Purdue figures to be more of a test for the defense. Purdue QB Curtis Painter has started 33 consecutive games and has thrown for a lot of yards in the Boilermakers' version of the spread. In other words, he knows most of the tricks in the book. The Ducks' defense focuses on stopping the run first and relying on an experienced and talented secondary to win one-on-one matchups in the back-half. So this one figures to turn on how the touted Ducks' secondary does against Painter. Will the front seven help by pressuring Painter into mistakes? Or will Painter find seams in the secondary and earn the Big Ten a statement victory?