Thursday, October 15, 2009
What to watch in the Pac-10
By Ted Miller
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Just four games again this weekend, with No. 6 USC's visit to Notre Dame for its annual showdown with the Fighting Irish leading the slate. The three Pac-10 games, however, may establish season trajectories for teams trying to moving up in the conference pecking order. All three games are interesting because they are matchups of teams entering under similar circumstances, ergo some of the redundancy in our "What to watch."
1. Barkley vs. Clausen on the big stage: Both were the No. 1 quarterbacks of their respective recruiting classes. Both entered school early in order to participate in spring football. Both became starters as true freshmen. And they are friends who, while growing up in southern California, shared a quarterbacks coach. Clausen's career didn't get off to as fast a starter as Barkley's, but that was mostly because his supporting cast didn't approach the talent that presently surrounds Barkley. Clausen is now a leading the Heisman Trophy candidate. If he beats USC, he might become the leading Heisman Trophy candidate. And Barkley would like nothing more to steal the stage from his buddy, which would inspire talk about Heismans in his future.
2. Stanford back on track: Stanford suffered a dispiriting loss at Oregon State, falling behind 31-7 before rallying to make things respectable in the second half. The Cardinal seemed overwhelmed with the Beavers team speed, particularly the Rodgers brothers. Arizona is a fast team, but it doesn't have any offensive playmakers comparable to the Rodgers brothers, particularly with running back Nic Grigsby nursing a shoulder injury. Will the Cardinal, once on the cusp of a national ranking, recover their mojo?
3. Arizona back on track: Arizona suffered a dispiriting loss at Washington, allowing a 12-point lead with just over four minutes left disappear, the game-winning TD scored controversially on a fluke deflection. The Wildcats dominated the game but struggled to convert in the redzone, which left an opening for the stunning finish. The Wildcats may get a number of starters back -- Grigsby, defensive end Brooks Reed, receiver Bug Wright, among others -- which should help the cause. Will the Wildcats, once on the cusp of a national ranking, recover their mojo?
4. Wounded California looks for some offense: California, once No. 6 in the country, has lost two consecutive conference games by a combined count of 72-6. The Bears haven't scored a touchdown in nearly a month. Oregon and USC ganged up along the line of scrimmage to thwart running back Jahvid Best, and UCLA is sure to do the same. That means Cal needs quarterback Kevin Riley to recover his early-season sharpness following a bye week. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine the Bears scoring many points.
5. Wounded UCLA looks for some offense: UCLA, once poised to jump into the top-25, has lost two consecutive conference games by a combined count of 48-26. No, it doesn't sound as emasculating as Cal's numbers, but the Bruins don't have any impressive early-season performances they can point to as proof that the offense is capable of clicking. Quarterback Kevin Price played in his first game since breaking his jaw at Tennessee but was benched for a spell in favor freshman Richard Brehaut. Prince remains the starter, but he needs to be sharper against a Bears defense that has plenty of talent but has underachieved this year.
6. Jake Locker vs. the Sun Devils D: Arizona State ranks third in the nation in total defense and it solved pass rush problems last week at Washington State by piling up 12 sacks. Washington quarterback Jake Locker leads the conference in total offense with 270 yards per game. His offensive line figures to struggle against the Sun Devils front, so Locker's charge will be to get the ball off quickly or to create plays with his feet. The winner of this game is thinking bowl berth. The loser probably falls short.
7. How good is this USC defense? The rebuilt Trojans defense ranks among the national leaders in just about every statistical category. It doesn't seem like replacing eight starters from 2008 has caused much of a drop-off. But Clausen and Notre Dame will offer the best offense the Trojans have faced. The Fighting Irish rank 10th in the nation with 470 yards per game, and Clausen has been particularly good in the clutch. If this one stays close, will the Trojans D or Clausen make the final statement?
8. It's time for Danny Sullivan to step up or step aside: Some Sun Devils fans have been agitating almost since last spring for true freshman Brock Osweiler to replace senior Danny Sullivan. Sullivan has done little thus far to quiet his critics. He ranks eighth in the conference in passing efficiency after throwing three interceptions last week at Washington State. The Huskies defense is a bend-but-don't break unit that has been solid in the red zone. If Sullivan doesn't lead his team to victory -- it shouldn't take too much scoring with ASU's defense -- he might sit down and Osweiler might take over.