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Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Pac-10 internal affairs: Ducks upset alert is no play action

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Getting deep into this week's games.

Mustain must trust the surrounding USC talent more than his arm: If Mark Sanchez is forced to sit out Saturday's visit from Arizona State, backup quarterback Mitch Mustain needs to realize one basic fact: His walking orders are not to win the game; his role is to avoid losing it. He's a caretaker who needs to carefully and conservatively distribute the ball to his highly skilled supporting cast. This needs to be noted because Mustain too often during practices sees a small space in which he believes a big play lives and he tries to force the ball. Sometimes he produces a "wow" moment. Too often he doesn't. That's why he was beaten out in the preseason for the backup job by Aaron Corp and had coach Pete Carroll reacting with exasperation after some practices. Even when he came off the bench for the injured Sanchez against Oregon with the game well in hand, he tried to force a play in the end zone on a third-and-2 from the Ducks 32-yard line and tossed an interception. That stands out almost as much as his strong overall numbers (5 of 8, 111 yards, TD).

Even with QB Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State's only chance is winning the turnover battle: It would be nice to write an inspirational story -- either Carpenter pulls a Willis Reed and limps onto the field to pilot the Sun Devils to an improbable victory. Or backup Danny Sullivan comes off the bench and throws for a bunch of yards and touchdowns and leads a shocking upset. But Arizona State is going to need gifts from USC -- such as a few forced throws from Mustain. The problem for the Sun Devils is they aren't doing a good job of forcing turnovers. Last year, they ranked third in the Pac-10 with a plus-3 turnover margin. This year, they are tied for seventh at minus-4, and that number is largely due to only four total takeaways. Heck, they are the only conference team without a recovered fumble. Considering there's an element of randomness in turnovers, perhaps the Sun Devils are due for some luck. Or perhaps a guy like safety Troy Nolan or cornerback Omar Bolden or defensive end Dexter Davis will take matters into his own hands.

Arizona should take a pass at Stanford: Of course, all offenses strive for balance. Blah, blah, blah. One ironclad certainty that has revealed itself this season is Stanford can't defend the pass. The Cardinal ranks last in the conference in pass defense, surrendering 274 yards per game and a 66.2 completion percentage. Enter Arizona, owners of perhaps the most refined passing scheme in the Pac-10. Quarterback Willie Tuitama has thrown just two interceptions in 158 pass attempts and is 16th in the nation in pass efficiency. There is no way Stanford can adequately cover the Wildcats receivers, led by "Money" Mike Thomas, and also sufficiently account for touchdown-making tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Wildcats have run the ball well this year with Nic Grigsby, but they can best secure a critical win Saturday by relentlessly attacking the Cardinal secondary.

There's nothing fun about play action for Oregon's defense: Oregon's first priority on defense is stopping the run. That's long been defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's prime directive. And with the talent in the Ducks secondary, it seemed like forcing teams to pass this season would reap dividends. But following the 44-10 loss at USC, the Ducks, to a man, talked about how their failing the prime directive made the defense particularly vulnerable to basic play-action passes. Once the Trojans established they could run against the Ducks best run defense, things got dicey in the secondary. The good news with UCLA coming to town is the Bruins offensive talent isn't in the same league as USC's, and Autzen Stadium crowd noise figures to limit how much adjusting quarterback Kevin Craft can do at the line of scrimmage. Play-action fakes probably won't be as distracting this weekend.

Oh, but Ducks, be on upset alert: Coaches often say after an emotional loss, "Don't let them beat you twice," but it's a message that sometimes doesn't get through. On paper, UCLA has no business going into Autzen Stadium and beating a far more talented Oregon squad that should be focused on getting back on track after getting bullied at USC. For one, UCLA is typically terrible on the road (see a 59-zip loss at BYU). But for anyone who's watched Rick Neuheisel function through the years, this is exactly the sort of game he wins. For all the criticism he's faced -- fair and unfair -- no one with a lick of sense would claim Neuheisel isn't an elite game-day coach. And it helps to have coordinators Norm Chow and DeWayne Walker in his corner, too. Oh, by the way, Neuheisel is 4-1 vs. the Ducks. So, Ducks fans, consider this your "Danger, Will Robinson!" moment because our little robot arms are madly flapping.