Pac-12: Central Michigan Chippewas

Myth vs. reality: Defense in the Pac-10

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
2:40
PM ET
During the games Saturday I noticed something while participating in ESPN.com's Virtual Pressbox: A lot of college football fans are walking around in the dark.

We're here to turn on the light.

Today's blubbering from the darkness: "The Pac-10 doesn't play defense!"

Hey, look, trash talk is fun. The great thing about it is it doesn't have to be correct -- it just has to be annoying.

For example: "Alabama is terrible. If the Crimson Tide played in the Pac-10, it would finish, er, sixth. No, seventh!"

That's silly.

And about as accurate as the myth of poor Pac-10 defense.

Now, some folks like it in the dark. Ignorance is comforting. So those folks shouldn't read further.

Warning! Facts ahead!

On Sept. 20, five Pac-10 defenses ranked among the nation's top-25.

Why is that date important? Because at that point, only five of 30 total nonconference games remained on the schedule.

So those defensive numbers were almost entirely based on Pac-10 defenses playing against non-Pac-10 offenses.

At the end of the regular season, only two Pac-10 defenses ranked among the top-25 -- Arizona State (12) and Arizona (21).

Why the slip? Well, the most obvious conclusion is those Pac-10 defenses were more challenged in conference play.

Or you can look inside the box scores.

LSU ranked 28th in the nation in total defense this year, giving up 327 yards per game. But at Washington, LSU yielded 487 yards.

The Huskies offense averaged 355 yards per game in Pac-10 play.

LSU, in fact, knows all about Pac-10 offenses.

In 2004, Oregon State outgained LSU 315 yards to 302 in a 22-21 defeat. That Tigers defense ended up ranked third in the nation, surrendering 257 yards per game.

In 2005, LSU also finished third in the nation in total defense, giving up 267 yards per game. But it was outgained 560-434 in a win at Arizona State.

Five hundred and sixty yards! The Sun Devils finished 7-5 that season and averaged "only" 519 yards per game.

This year, Tennessee's defense shut down UCLA in a 19-15 defeat in Knoxville, holding the Bruins to just 186 total yards. But the Bruins, owners of the Pac-10's eighth-ranked offense (339 yards per game), held the Vols to 208 yards. Tennessee averaged 395 yards per game.

Georgia outgained Arizona State 334 yards to 204 -- the Sun Devils had no answer for receiver A.J. Green, who accounted for 153 of those yards -- but it's hard to believe Bulldogs fans walked away from that 20-17 win not respecting the Sun Devils defense.

USC outgained Ohio State 313 to 262. The Buckeyes averaged 365 on offense and 262 on defense.

Iowa outgained Arizona 338-253, the Hawkeyes eclipsing both their average offensive (331 yards) and defensive (287) numbers, but it's fair to at least note that Nick Foles didn't start at quarterback that afternoon in Iowa City.

Central Michigan averaged 419 yards this season. It gained 182 at Arizona. Kansas State averaged 349 yards on offense; it got 268 at UCLA.

This isn't intended to proclaim the Pac-10 the dominant defensive conference. It's just to make sure that everyone knows that when gadflies bark, "The Pac-10 doesn't play defense!" said individuals don't know what they are talking about.

And there are real-world issues with this.

The "no defense" silliness is being raised to hurt Stanford running back Toby Gerhart's Heisman Trophy chances, particularly vs. Alabama running back Mark Ingram.

Ingram is a great back. He's topped my ESPN.com weekly Heisman vote much of the year. If he wins the trophy, he's deserving.

But he has not faced the defensive competition that Gerhart has.

That's not my opinion. It's a statistical fact.

The Pac-10 features six rushing defenses ranked among the top-42 in the nation, despite the conference boasting five backs who eclipsed 1,000 yards, none of whom are named Jahvid Best, who finished with 867 yards in eight-plus games.

Gerhart faced all six of those run defenses and still finished the season averaging 145 yards per game.

The SEC features four rushing defenses ranked among the top-45 in the nation. Just four -- of 12, remember -- teams featured 1,000-yard rushers, though it beats the hell out of me why Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster (985 yards) didn't get more touches.

Ingram faced two of those run defenses. Three, if you toss in South Carolina's No. 46 run defense. Ingram averaged 119 yards per game.

Of course, these bothersome numbers and facts won't sit well with some. That's fine. The intention here isn't to end the trash talk.

It's only to makes sure that everyone knows that it's trash.

Midseason report: Arizona

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
11:45
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Arizona is a foot away from elite status.

(No, stop. Thanks ... no ... you're great. Thanks! Please. OK, keep clapping).

Arizona began the season by physically dominating Central Michigan, which is now 6-1 with a victory over Michigan State. It then lost at Iowa, which is unbeaten and ranked sixth in the BCS standings.

Then the Wildcats changed quarterbacks from Matt Scott to Nick Foles, and Foles has been a revelation.

He led Arizona to a nail-biting win at Oregon State, which hasn't lost since then. He passed for over 400 yards in a nail-biting win over Stanford.

Ah, but that pass that bounced off receiver Delashaun Dean's foot into a Washington defender's hands on Oct. 10, which was then returned for a game-winning touchdown -- that is preventing the Wildcats from being tied for first in the Pac-10 and nationally ranked.

Though, notably, Arizona sits at No. 22 in the BCS standings.

Still, at 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the conference, despite a quarterback change and numerous injuries, the Wildcats appear headed to a second consecutive bowl berth. And maybe more.

Offensive MVP: Foles isn't playing like a sophomore first-time starter. He leads the Pac-10 in pass efficiency and has averaged 351 yards passing per game in three starts. He's tossed nine TD passes with just two picks, one of which was the freak play at Washington. His 73.9 completion percentage is on pace for a school record. The Wildcats now rank first in the conference and 14th in the nation in total offense and have adopted more of a Texas Tech spread scheme to best accommodate Foles' skills.

Defensive MVP: Junior defensive end Ricky Elmore has carried the pass-rushing load with opposite end Brooks Reed nursing a sprained ankle. He ranks fourth in the conference with 5.5 sacks and has 24 tackles overall.

Blogger debate: UA-Iowa & Cal-Minnesota

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
9:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller and Adam Rittenberg


Holy Rose Bowl! It's another Big Ten-Pac-10 weekend, with No. 8 California visiting Minnesota and Arizona headed to Iowa. All four teams are 2-0. Seems like a good time for another blogger debate.

Ted Miller: You again! Adam, we need to stop meeting like this. Or at least the Big Ten should stop meeting like Ohio State did with USC. Perhaps there will be some redemption on Saturday when California visits Minnesota and Arizona takes a gander at Iowa.
Icon SMI/US Presswire
Golden mascots square off in the Twin Cities on Saturday.

Let's start with your game Saturday in fancy pants TCF Bank Stadium. (Nice job, Minnesota.)

I look over Minnesota's particulars and I can't get a good vibe about what Cal should expect, particularly after the Gophers struggled to beat Syracuse and Air Force. Who are these guys ... and whose mascot is more golden?

Adam Rittenberg: Ted! Buddy! Good to be with you again. OK, full disclosure here. I grew up in Berkeley, attended pretty much every Cal home game between 1994 to 1999. Witnessed the one Mariucci season in '96 (still have nightmares about the Pat Barnes fumble at Washington State) and the insufferable Tom Holmoe era. But I was never a huge Oski the Bear fan. Too subdued of a mascot. Looked like a glum professor who hadn't had his sweater ironed in 50 years. And he doesn't wear pants, which is perfect for Berkeley (I grew up there, so I can say that!) So Goldy Gopher gets my vote. He's goldier.

As for Minnesota, they did struggle against the Cuse, but the Air Force win is pretty solid in my book. The defense has been the big plus so far, especially the three linebackers (Nate Triplett, Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence). Triplett has gone from special teams all-star to major playmaker. The offense has struggled quite a bit, as Minnesota incorporates a new pro-style system under Jedd Fisch. It's a pretty dramatic departure from what they did the last two seasons, and it has taken a bit of time to click. Quarterback Adam Weber has loads of experience and can be effective when he limits interceptions, and Eric Decker is a freaking stud. Might be the best wide receiver in America that no one talks about. The problem is Minnesota hasn't found many weapons other than Decker. The Gophers need to spark their rushing attack behind Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge and hope a No. 2 wide receiver emerges, possibly speedster Troy Stoudermire.

I saw Cal is flying in Thursday for the game. Will the Bears be ready to play this time around for a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff, and can anyone slow down Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen? How has Kevin Riley looked so far?
Paul Jasienski-US PRESSWIRE
Cal QB Kevin Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency.
TM: Gosh, Cal coach Jeff Tedford HATES being asked about the 9 a.m. PT kickoff, because that was the prime excuse for the Bears' terrible effort last year at Maryland, an excuse, by the way, that Tedford has rejected from the get-go. Still, it's obvious he's doing everything he can to get his team ready for the early start, changing his previous plan and flying in on Thursday.

As for Best and Vereen, they are a great combination for sure. Best is going to make a play or two, mostly because he always does. The question is whether he can be such a bothersome threat that he forces Minnesota to load up the box. If that happens, a much-improved Kevin Riley and a receiving corps that has grown up could make big plays down field. Riley ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and has yet to throw a pick, so he's started off as a completely different quarterback from the guy who was so inconsistent last last season.

The big issue for Cal is playing on the road: They've lost four in a row on the road. Moreover, they've not been challenged by a team so far that can approach them physically. Minnesota will be a far tougher test, and we just don't know whether Riley and the Bears can maintain their cool efficiency away from Berkley.

As for the other game: Iowa seems to have righted itself with the big win over Iowa State. But Arizona has a fast defense. Can quarterback Ricky Stanzi and running back Brandon Wegher lead an effective attack against the Wildcats?

AR: As I like to say, Stanzi is the Manzi. Actually, Stanzi has been inconsistent throughout his time as the starter, mixing big plays with too many picks. But he has more targets this year with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Tony Moeki, Trey Stross and Marvin McNutt. The running game has been a bit messy this year because of departures (Shonn Greene) and injuries (Jewel Hampton, Jeff Brinson). Brandon Wegher likely would have redshirted but stepped up big last week. He and another freshman, Adam Robinson, will get most of the carries Saturday. It's rare to see Kirk Ferentz play so many young players, but these guys seem up to the task. The offensive line could be without star left tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness) again, so those two speedy Arizona pass-rushers will have their ears pinned back for sure.

Let's talk about the Wildcats offense. How good is Nic Grigsby and does Arizona have a passing game to complement the nation's second leading rusher?

TM: Grigsby is off to a fast start, but the Iowa defense will offer a far tougher test than Central Michigan and Northern Arizona. Also, Grigsby had some fumbling problems a year ago -- he got benched a couple of times and capable back Keola Antolin took over -- but that has yet to be an issue in 2009. My guess is the Hawkeyes load the box, gang up on Grigsby and will dare Arizona's new quarterback, sophomore Matt Scott, to pass, which is never easy on the road.
Gronkowski

And therein lies a huge issue for this game. Arizona's best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is out with a back injury. Gronkowski is a beast. More than a few folks in the Pac-10 believe he's every bit the player that Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham is. Think having a 6-foot-6, 265-pound safety valve would help a young QB? It also doesn't help that No. 1 receiver Delashaun Dean has been slowed by a hamstring injury, though he will play.

So, the Wildcats passing game, with Scott making his first road start, is a huge question.

Speaking of road games, seems like all the Big Ten owns home field advantage in all these matchups with the Pac-10 ... no fair. But, seriously, which place will be more difficult for a visitor from the West Coast? I love Minnesota's new digs but I've heard a lot about pink bathrooms and the nutty horde at Kinnick Stadium.

AR: Well, you guys do have this game called the Rose Bowl. If memory serves, it's in Pac-10 country. Like in USC's backyard. That reminds me, Ted, can you find a way to make sure the Trojans don't go to Pasadena this year? The Big Ten would like a break from the Trojans after all these years of punishment. I stayed on the same floor as Pete Carroll last week in Columbus but forgot to ask him myself. Let me know what they say over at Heritage Hall. Thanks, dude.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Ricky Stanzi has passed for 439 yards and five touchdowns so far this season.

TCF Bank Stadium is pretty freaking awesome, and I'm excited to see the finished product in person. But I'd have to go with Kinnick Stadium as a tougher place right now. Iowa always sells it out and the fans are right on top of the field. It's a tremendous atmosphere, one of my favorites in the league. The early start time at Minnesota could be tougher for a Pac-10 team, but Kinnick definitely is less hospitable.

OK, prediction time. Who you got in Minnesota-Cal? Arizona-Iowa?

TM: Rose Bowl in Detroit, which is beautiful in midwinter!

I don't think anyone wants to see USC in the Rose Bowl again -- even USC's fans and players. The Trojans, however, wouldn't mind being in Pasadena again this January, if you catch my drift (nudge, nudge).

As for the predictions: For folks who read the Pac-10 blog, they know I've been advocating Cal as the team that might challenge USC's seven-year run atop the conference. They also know that for weeks I've been ranting about how underrated Arizona is.

So I've got pick a road warrior weekend for the Pac-10.
Let's say: Cal 35-21
And: Arizona 24-21.
Now, for the pick you should take to Vegas ...

AR: Call me a homer, but I've got to go with Cal. Minnesota has really struggled to make plays on offense, and while the Gophers' defense looks much improved, it'll be hard to contain Best and Vereen for 60 minutes and keep Cal off the scoreboard. Minnesota will have its crowd going and should keep things relatively, close, but I have Cal winning by 11, 34-23.

We'll probably see a defensive struggle at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa's defense is always solid under Norm Parker, and the front seven should prevent Grigsby from going nuts. I think Iowa got its mojo back last week and pulls this one out, 21-17 Hawkeyes.

Scott needs to step up for Arizona to move up

September, 17, 2009
9/17/09
6:45
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


A good way to make a young quarterback's life easy is to rush for 318 yards per game.

That success on the ground, however, makes it difficult to reach any conclusions about Arizona quarterback Matt Scott. He's made some good plays with his feet -- his 65.5 yards rushing per game ranks ninth in the conference. And bad plays with his arm -- see two picks and just one touchdown.

While his coaches seem generally satisfied, a visit to Iowa should provide a better measure than home games vs. Central Michigan and Northern Arizona. There's no direction attached to the Hawkeyes.
 
 Chris Morrison/US Presswire
 Matt Scott (4) has made plays with his feet, but Arizona needs its QB to improve his passing.


"I don't think we'll be able to rush for 300 yards," Wildcats offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes said. "So our passing game is going to get tested this week."

Scott has completed 66 percent of his throws, but has rarely looked downfield. Part of that isn't his fault. His two best receivers, Delashaun Dean and tight end Rob Gronkowski, have battled injuries. Gronkowski, who led the Wildcats with 10 touchdowns last year, will miss the Iowa game because his back is still bothering him.

"I've been really impressed with his poise and his leadership skills," coach Mike Stoops said. "He's managed the team very well. I think he's made good decisions for the most part. He can make a lot of big throws. We just missed on a couple of them. He throws the ball well and he's been very accurate for the most part. I don't see anything I don't like in Matt at this point. Obviously, the competition will get much stiffer as we move through the season."

What Scott hasn't been able to do is cement his status as the starter. Backup Nick Foles is still in the picture. Foles looked sharp completing 6 of 8 passes for 44 yards and a touchdown against Northern Arizona, and he may see spot action at Iowa, particularly if the Wildcats offense stalls against a rugged Hawkeyes defense that welcomes back eight starters from a crew that ranked ninth in the nation last year against the run (94 yards per game).

It's worth noting, however, that Iowa State rushed for 190 yards against the Hawkeyes last weekend, with five interceptions doing in the Cyclones in during a 35-3 defeat.

It's unlikely the Wildcats will be able to go into rowdy Kinnick Stadium, run Nic Grigsby 40 times and win the game. They will need to throw. Scott, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound sophomore, believes that won't be a problem. He said his offense has a few more tricks up its sleeve and a lot more plays in the playbook.

"We haven't really opened much stuff up yet," he said. "We've been relying on the run game. We're really close on a lot of passes. We're going to get it done."

This will be Scott's first road start, and Kinnick isn't the most hospitable environment. It will be a challenge to communicate with his team, and the Wildcats offense requires a fair amount of communication due to a variety of checks the quarterback is responsible for at the line of scrimmage.

Scott said he's not worried about crowd noise.

"I'm good at blocking that stuff out," he said. "I don't worry about fans or stuff around me. I just worry about stuff on the field."

Scott also said he's fine if he has to share time with Foles.

"Whatever works for the team, that's alright for me," he said. "As long as we get that W, it doesn't matter to me who goes in or how long they go in."

One of the big stories of the week has been the return of Stoops and his brother Mark, Arizona's defensive coordinator, to their alma mater. Both played defensive back for the Hawkeyes and then-coach Hayden Fry.

Stoops has waved away the sentimental angle for the most part. "I'm not real nostalgic about it," he said.

That's because the Wildcats could make a big leap forward as a program with a win.

While they won eight games last year and won their first bowl game since 1998, Pac-10 media picked the Wildcats eighth in the conference's preseason poll.

Some apparently still have doubts about the trajectory of the program.

Winning at Iowa would earn the Wildcats national attention -- perhaps a national ranking? -- and would build up confidence as they head into the conference schedule.

Said Scott: "If we can pull this out, we can send a message to everybody that we can do a lot more than what we have in the past. I think we have the team to do it."

Pac-10 power rankings

September, 8, 2009
9/08/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Oregon falls and Washington gets a hard look but stays put in this week's Pac-10 power rankings -- the idea is a team probably should win before it gets a promotion.
  1. USC: The Trojans looked dominant in a 56-3 bludgeoning of San Jose State, with freshman quarterback Matt Barkley not looking like a freshman and a rebuilt defense looking not unlike the 2008 crew. Of course, a visit to Ohio State should be more revealing of whether the Trojans are again national title contenders.
  2. California: A blowout 52-13 victory over Maryland, which beat Cal a year ago, was impressive, particularly because quarterback Kevin Riley was sharp while throwing four touchdown passes. Coupled with Oregon's defeat at Boise State, the Bears now are the clear top challenger to USC's supremacy.
  3. Oregon State: Hard to make much of the Beavers 34-7 win over Portland State, an FCS team. The Rodgers brothers, Jacquizz and James, looked good, as did quarterback Sean Canfield. The rebuilt secondary yielded some yards but only a single TD. We'll get a better measure of the Beavers, who are trying to avoid another slow start, this weekend at UNLV.
  4. Arizona: While the offense struggled to get into the endzone with quarterback Matt Scott, the Wildcats defense was dominating and looked very fast, according to the Chippewas themselves. The big question is will tight end Rob Gronkowski be ready to play on Sept. 19 at Iowa?
  5. Oregon: The 19-8 embarrassment at Boise State -- and all that happened afterwards -- was terrible. But if the Ducks bounce back over the next two weekends at home against Purdue and Utah, a lot of that sting will go away before Cal comes to town.
  6. Stanford: The Cardinal whipped Washington State, as expected. They can make a big step forward as a program with a win at Wake Forest, which fell to Baylor over the weekend.
  7. UCLA: The Bruins whipped San Diego State, as expected. They can make a big step forward as a program with a win at Tennessee, which will be out for revenge after losing at UCLA last year. How will the young Bruins handle one of the nation's toughest stadiums?
  8. Arizona State: The Sun Devils dominated Idaho State, but Idaho State is an FCS team -- and a bad one at that. Still, they played well enough, particularly on defense, to stay ahead of Washington. ASU is off this weekend before Louisiana-Monroe comes to town, a game the Sun Devils shouldn't take lightly. The WarHawks won at Alabama in 2007.
  9. Washington: The Huskies lost impressively to LSU, piling up 478 yards against a super-ferocious SEC defense. Still, as new coach Steve Sarkisian said, there are no moral victories. The Huskies should end their 15-game losing streak on Saturday against Idaho.
  10. Washington State: It says a little about where the Cougars are as a program -- baby steps to respectability -- that a 39-13 loss to Stanford is mostly billed as progress. Of course, they lost 58-0 to the Cardinal a year ago. The Cougars play Hawaii in Seattle on Saturday, one of the few games this year in which they won't be a huge underdog.

Pac-10 helmet stickers

September, 6, 2009
9/06/09
1:57
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Lots of big performances in the Pac-10 this weekend:

USC quarterback Matt Barkley: The touted true freshman completed 15 of 19 for 233 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in the Trojans' 56-3 win over San Jose State. Barkley didn't look like a true freshman while leading a Trojans offense that, after a slow start, was dominant.


California quarterback Kevin Riley: Riley started slowly but exploded much like the Bears offense. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 298 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in Cal's 52-13 victory over Maryland. Guess not having Nate Longshore looking over his shoulder helps.

Washington coaching staff: The Huskies didn't win but they fought like crazy and played with fire against LSU. Not only that, the Huskies dominated statistically -- they decisively outgained and outrushed the Tigers -- though they were decisively beaten 31-23 on the scoreboard. Head coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt deserve credit for transforming the Huskies, a team that quit on coach Tyrone Willingham. After Sarkisian's tutelage in a pro-style offense, quarterback Jake Locker passed for 321 yards and two touchdowns

Arizona's defense: Central Michigan and touted quarterback Dan LeFevour only managed 182 total yards and 11 first downs in a 19-6 loss at Arizona. With a dominant defense, the Wildcats don't need to worry so much about who plays quarterback or whether tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy.

Arizona State linebacker Mike Nixon: Nixon became the first Sun Devil in 20 years to intercept three passes in one game, returning one for a touchdown in an easy 50-3 victory over Idaho State. Nixon, who also blocked a punt, tied for the Pac-10 lead with five interceptions last year.

Pac-10 lunch links: How will Washington cope with LSU's speed?

September, 4, 2009
9/04/09
2:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Pac-10 lunch links: California has a new kicker

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
2:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning. It's about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn't one more thing you could've done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman -- you're perfect!

Gronkowski likely out for opener

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
9:51
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski is doubtful for the opener against Central Michigan because he hasn't participated in any practices this week due to a back injury, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

Gronkowski didn't dress for Wednesday's practice, according to the newspaper, and has not yet been cleared to play.

Gronkowski, a leading candidate for the John Mackey Award, strained his back during the offseason and aggravated the injury at the beginning of preseason camp, which he missed almost entirely.

Coach Mike Stoops has called Gronkowski's condition "week to week."

LeFevour will challenge Arizona's no-name defense

August, 31, 2009
8/31/09
7:32
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


While Arizona's opener against Central Michigan isn't the marquee game of the week, it might be called the sneaky-interesting game of the week.

That's because it matches Chippewas star Dan LeFevour, one of the nation's top quarterbacks, against the Wildcats' no-name defense.
Dale Zanine
Dan LeFevour has already passed for over 9,400 yards in his career.

LeFevour, a senior leading a spread-option offense for a third consecutive season, piled up 3,376 yards of total offense last year and accounted for 27 touchdowns. He's a potent threat both running (592 yards) and passing (2,784 yards). Think Jake Locker but as a more refined passer.

"Dan's a great player," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "He deserves all those accolades. He's one of the best we'll see all year at the position."

Speaking of accolades, at what point does Arizona's defense start to get some?

Arizona welcomes back seven starters from a unit that ranked third in the Pac-10 in both scoring (21.3 points per game) and total defense (313 yards per game), and when you talk to different coaches across the conference, there is widespread admiration for the soundness of the Wildcats' scheme.

"They have had a really disciplined scheme for years," USC coach Pete Carroll said before playing Arizona last year. "They are basically a zone team and they mix their pressures nicely. A lot of zone pressure, not too much man to man pressure, but they just have a real good sense of playing zones and they fill up the field and make it look like the field is too small. There's not a lot of spaces and they break up the ball well and they position and anticipate beautifully. They are going to keep you in front of them. They are not going to give you any big plays which is a good idea in this conference. They are real disciplined at it. So they show real consistency and when their playmakers start to grow up in their system like they have had in the past, they are able to make a lot of things happen."

Carroll can BS with the best of them, but that is clearly a thoughtful, respectful answer.

And guess what? Those playmakers are growing into their system, which means it might not be a no-name defense for long. Defensive end Brooks Reed, safety Cam Nelson, cornerback Devin Ross, strong safety Robert Golden, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and linebacker Vuna Tuihalamaka each could become all-conference-type players.

But coordinator Mark Stoops isn't eager to celebrate individuals.

"We're not overwhelming at any one position, but we have good players across the board. We're pretty solid," he said. "But if you don't play within the system, for each other, with your hair on fire, you're very average. I don't care if you're Miami, Oklahoma or USC."

Mark Stoops made the point that the only time the defense got blown up in 2008 was the first half against Oregon when the Ducks scored 45 points.

"It was embarrassing," he said. "That was the only time last year that was pure frustration."

Number of Arizona adjustments at halftime? Zero. It was merely a case of reminding players to take care of their technique and responsibilities within the scheme.

After the break, Oregon scored only 10 points, and the Wildcats nearly came back from a 28-point halftime deficit before falling 55-45.

Central Michigan, which is breaking in three new starting offensive lineman, won't likely be able to run the ball consistently. LeFevour has two good receivers in Antonio Brown and Bryan Anderson, so this likely will be a strength-on-strength matchup with the secondary, with LeFevour's scrambles also challenging the Wildcats.

The Chippewas are favored to win their third MAC title over the past four seasons, and LeFevour is looking to make a national statement.

This is far from a gimme for the Wildcats, who have blown nonconference games against inferior foes the past two seasons.

"They're not going to be awestruck by the environment," Mike Stoops said.

Best case-worst case: Arizona

August, 7, 2009
8/07/09
1:33
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Sixth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Up next: Arizona

Best case

Many touted Central Michigan as a potential upset special at Arizona in week one, in large part because NFL teams are high on Chippewas' quarterback Dan LeFevour. But a quarterback can't do much when he's flat on his back.

Wildcats end Brooks Reed records three of the Wildcats seven sacks, while sophomore quarterback Matt Scott is steady in his first start, throwing for a touchdown and running for another in a 38-10 victory.

After dispatching Northern Arizona, the Wildcats head to No. 15 Iowa, which is far more salty on the offensive line. But the Hawkeyes have no answer for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who catches 10 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns as the Wildcats make a statement that they will be a Pac-10 contender.

Still, there are skeptics. Just about everyone projects a loss at Oregon State.

And just about everyone is wrong. Arizona, playing perhaps its most complete game of the Mike Stoops era, shocks the Beavers 35-17 in Reser Stadium, with Nic Grigsby rushing for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

TV folks also finally scrap the "Stoops Cam," which in past years had picked up the emotional coach acting, well, emotional. "He's the new Tom Landry," notes one scribe. "He just stands there in his visor. Buy the guy a fedora."

Scott looks more like Washington's Jake Locker in a 41-20 victory over the Huskies, passing for 210 yards and rushing for 78, but the momentum ends with a second-consecutive heartbreaking loss to Stanford, this time when Cardinal strong safety Delano Howell returns a Scott interception for a late touchdown in a 24-20 defeat.

The Wildcats bounce back with wins over UCLA and Washington State and they carry a 7-1 record and No. 12 ranking into Berkeley for a showdown with the No. 8 Bears.

The Rose Bowl -- Arizona has never been and Cal hasn't played in one since 1959 -- is still up for grabs.

While the Wildcats had won two out of the past three from the Bears, this time there's just a little too much Jahvid Best, who rushes for 135 yards and turns a screen pass into a 68-yard touchdown in a 28-24 win.

The Wildcats trudge home, but 15,000 fans meet them at the airport, which inspires them in a 42-35 overtime victory over Oregon.

Reed, now a frontrunner for the Ted Hendricks Award, records two sacks in the 28-17 victory over Arizona State, giving him 15.5 for the season, a total that is second only to Tedy Bruschi's 19 in 1993.

The Wildcats head to Los Angeles to play spoiler for unbeaten USC, which is a win away from the BCS title game, but the Trojans offensive line takes control in the fourth quarter in a 31-20 decision.

Still, an invitation to the Holiday Bowl isn't too shabby, though Stoops isn't sure what to think of a date with big brother Bob and Oklahoma.

As often seems to happen in the Holiday Bowl, the team that wishes it were someplace else -- in this case, Oklahoma -- struggles. The Wildcats grind out a 24-20 win, sacking Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford four times.

The Wildcats finish 10-3 and ranked 10th. Tucson columnists opine that Stoops is "probably off the hot seat. For now."

Worst case

Sometimes the pessimistic projections prove true.

The quarterback tandem of Matt Scott and Nick Foles -- neither managed to separate himself during preseason practices -- is no match for Central Michigan's NFL prospect Dan LeFevour, who throws three touchdown passes in a 28-24 upset of the Wildcats.

After beating Northern Arizona, the Wildcats fall at Iowa and Oregon State. With a bye week before heading to Washington, coach Mike Stoops announces that Matt Scott will be the quarterback. Scott then leads a conservative offensive effort in a win over the Huskies.

That's the good news. The bad news is tight end Rob Gronkowski suffers a season-ending thumb injury.

Scott, who's clearly more comfortable running than throwing, rushes for 95 yards in a win over Stanford, but that approach isn't as effective against UCLA's fast defense, which holds the Wildcats to just 220 total yards.

Foles takes over, and throws for 285 yards and two touchdowns in an easy win over Washington State. But California's secondary is a bit more athletic, and the Bears intercept Foles three times in a 30-17 win.

When Foles can't get it done in a 40-20 loss to Oregon, Scott earns the start against arch-rival Arizona State.

Scott plays well, but the Wildcats fall when Sun Devils kicker Thomas Weber breaks a 20-20 tie with a 57-yard field goal with no time left on the clock.

The dispirited Wildcats are no match for USC in the season-finale, falling 44-10, a four-game losing streak capping a disappointing 4-8 season.

"Stoops seat couldn't be hotter," the headlines read.

Four Pac-10 teams in preseason coaches poll

August, 7, 2009
8/07/09
9:16
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

USC at No. 4 tops the four Pac-10 teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll, which was released Friday.

California is 12th, Oregon 14th and Oregon State is 25th.

UCLA and Arizona both received votes.

Also, Pac-10 nonconference foes are scattered throughout the rankings: No. 6 Ohio State (USC), No. 9 LSU (Washington), No. 13 Georgia (Arizona State), No. 16 Boise State (Oregon), No. 18 Utah (Oregon), No. 21 Iowa (Arizona) and No. 23 Notre Dame (Washington, Stanford, USC).

Also, Cincinnati (Oregon State), Wake Forest (Stanford), Central Michigan (Arizona), Maryland (California), Tennessee (UCLA) and Minnesota (California) received votes.

The Associated Press preseason Top 25 will be released Saturday, Aug. 22.

Five scariest nonconference games

July, 13, 2009
7/13/09
10:28
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Five scary nonconference games favored Pac-10 teams shouldn't overlook:

Central Michigan at Arizona (Sept. 5): Arizona was excited about winning eight games last year. The Chippewas have won at least that many three years in a row. They've got 16 starters back -- including 10 on defense. And, in contrast to the Wildcats who will be breaking in a new quarterback, Central Michigan can lean on Dan LeFevour, who's 14th on the NCAA career list for total offense.

Purdue at Oregon (Sept. 12): Purdue shouldn't be fast enough to keep up with the Oregon, but it made things quite difficult for the Ducks last year. Moreover, this game is sandwiched between the marquee season opener at Boise State and a visit from Utah. Even though Purdue has been sliding of late and changed coaches, the Boilermakers are still a Big Ten team worthy of respect.

Oregon State at UNLV (Sept. 12): Oregon State is a notoriously slow-starting team -- see three consecutive 2-3 starts. UNLV welcomes back 15 starters from a team that won at Arizona State a year ago. The Beavers are (again) rebuilding their defense, particularly their secondary. UNLV is talented and experienced at wide receiver. The Rebels are thinking bowl game. And even though this is an 8 p.m. kickoff, the guess here is it will be fairly toasty in Vegas, at least significantly more so than in Corvallis.

California at Minnesota (Sept. 19): Some folks have been touting California as a team that is talented enough to unseat USC (who, me?) But this game should get the Bears' full attention, and not just because they fell flat on a trip east to Maryland in 2008. Minnesota is clearly trending up in the Big Ten under coach Tim Brewster, who is a first-rate recruiter. The Gophers also are one of the Big Ten's most-experienced teams with 17 starters back. Moreover, Cal will be the Gophers' first BCS conference foe in their fancy new stadium, so the atmosphere should be frenzied against the visitors from Berkeley.

USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 17): It's almost impossible to imagine Notre Dame besting the Trojans if you watched last year's game, a 38-3 throttling that wasn't even as close as the 35-point spread suggests. However, recall that the year before losing to 41-point underdog Stanford in 2007, USC rolled the Cardinal 42-zip. At some point, Notre Dame is going to beat the Trojans in this national rivalry. The Irish will be playing at home, where they last challenged the Trojans in 2005, and they also have 17 starters back to help save Charlie Weis' job.

Pac-10 lunch links: Locker talking to Angels

June, 24, 2009
6/24/09
2:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?

  • A preview of Arizona-Central Michigan from a Chippewas perspective (Wildcats fans: Know that I am "Lost in Space" Robot flapping my arms going, "Warning! Warning! Warning, Mike Stoops!" on this one).
  • Arizona State has shuffled its 2010 schedule.
  • For you X's and O's folks: Detailed analysis of California's Emerald Bowl vs. Miami.
  • More on Oregon's new uniforms. Poll: Pick your favorite Oregon uniform, present and/or past.
  • Some Oregon State notes, including one on a couple of players doing something that I think is spectacularly cool in the "just because I play football doesn't mean I can't be intellectually curious" sort of way.
  • Stanford recruiting notes, including a really, really early commitment.
  • UCLA picks up two commitments, including one from a quarterback.
  • Interesting note on USC recruiting.
  • Football remains No. 1 but Jake Locker is talking to the L.A. Angels, who obviously are willing to wait for a special athletic talent. This is Steve Sarkisian's YouTube page. Some of the videos are interesting, but I also found myself often grinning over the soundtrack selections.
  • The WSU Football Blog concludes its 2009 Cougars schedule preview with a look at the beloved Huskies. The folks over there should be generous to their rivals, considering that Apple Cup comeback saved them from losing a bet.

Ranking the nonconference slates

June, 10, 2009
6/10/09
10:10
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

This is a ranking of the Pac-10 nonconference schedules from toughest to easiest.

Got to be honest, though: After switching these around for 30 minutes or so, I just threw them into the air.

Because just about every conference team plays at least one traditionally challenging foe, it's hard to differentiate.

Is it more difficult to play two mid-level BCS teams -- say Maryland and Minnesota (California) -- or one against a nationally ranked foe, say Georgia (Arizona State) or Iowa (Arizona)?

And what about the home-road variable? For example: Would you rather play at Ohio State (USC) or have LSU (Washington) come to town?

Anyway... away we go.

1. Oregon (at Boise State, Purdue, Utah): Boise State and Utah will be ranked in the preseason. Boise State never loses at home on the Smurf Turf. Purdue is a BCS foe. And there's the added element of Boise State and Utah being non-BCS, which puts further pressure on the Ducks.

2. USC (San Jose State, at Ohio State, at Notre Dame): Two road games against BCS foes, including the Buckeyes, likely a preseason top-10 team.

3. Washington (LSU, Idaho, at Notre Dame): It was really stupid for Huskies administrators to invite LSU to town, but... oh well. The upside is the nation's longest losing streak (14 games, then 15 after the Tigers pack up for Baton Rouge) ends against Idaho.

4. UCLA (San Diego State, at Tennessee, Kansas State): Tennessee and Kansas State are breaking in new coaches (or new-old, in K-State's case), but they are still legit BCS foes. And it's never easy to play in front of 110,000 orange-clad crazies.

5. Stanford (at Wake Forest, San Jose State, Notre Dame): This slate nips California's because San Jose State is FBS team. That visit to Wake should be particularly interesting -- it might define the Cardinal's season.

6. California (Maryland, Eastern Washington, at Minnesota): None of these teams figures to earn a preseason ranking, but Maryland and Minnesota will be good test for a Bears team with big goals. The Terrapins embarrassed Cal last year, while the Golden Gophers are breaking in a fancy new stadium.

7. Arizona (Central Michigan, Northern Arizona, at Iowa): While most will look at the visit to Iowa as a measuring stick game for the Wildcats -- and, perhaps, the Pac-10 -- I'd advise the Wildcats not to overlook a good Central Michigan team.

8. Arizona State (Idaho State, Louisiana-Monroe, at Georgia): The Sun Devils scheduled themselves a 2-0 start with at least a puncher's shot Between the Hedges.

9. Oregon State (Portland State, at UNLV, Cincinnati): Hardly easy. There's a road game and Cincinnati is the defending Big East champion. Still, the Beavers should get a rare fast start vs. this slate. 

10. Washington State (Hawaii in Seattle, SMU, Notre Dame in San Antonio): This is a solid schedule for the Cougars, who could win two of these games.

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