Pac-12: Connor Halliday

Has this been the greatest season in Pac-12 history? The jury is still out on that front, as the league's bowl slate remains to be played, and Oregon is tasked with carrying the conference flag into a playoff battle with the nation's big boys. But after a captivating regular season, the conference is undoubtedly in strong position entering this final foray.

The 2014 ride -- usually unpredictable, frequently stunning, always entertaining -- has been bathed in a downright surreal aura throughout (see #Pac12AfterDark). We want to commemorate the Paction, so we've assembled a list of the top 15 moments that defined this bizarre Pac-12 campaign while impacting its eccentric, memorable course.

We'll be counting down in increments of three throughout this entire week. Here's the first installment:

No. 15 -- Mannion sets conference passing record

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Oregon State's season -- and Mike Riley's tenure in Corvallis -- ended in a 5-7 disappointment. That means senior quarterback Sean Mannion has reached the end of his prolific collegiate journey. But the Beaver certainly didn't exit with a whimper. Aside from setting every single career passing mark in the Oregon State record books, Mannion also etched his name into conference history. With a 15-yard fourth quarter pass to Connor Hamlett on Nov. 1 against California, Mannion surpassed USC's Matt Barkley to become the top passer in Pac-12 history.

This individual accomplishment did not alter the wild conference race in any way, but it did provide a powerful symbol of just how much talent the league has amassed in its meteoric rise, particularly at the quarterback position. Heading into 2014, there was a heavy dose of hype regarding what was anticipated to be Year of the Signal-caller in the Pac-12. Between Marcus Mariota's Heisman exploits, Connor Halliday's absurd statistical production, and the fine campaigns of players such as Brett Hundley, Cody Kessler, and Jared Goff, there was plenty to enjoy in the 2014 aerial show. Mannion is the one who grabbed the lasting career mark.

Of course, Mannion's record likely won't last forever -- Goff may have a great shot to break it if he sticks around Berkeley for a full four years -- but it was a testament to a steady, accurate, and poised Pac-12 passer in a season that featured a true gold mine of talent at the position.

No. 14 -- Wazzu missed field goal against Cal ruins Halliday's record night

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It seemed as if Halliday couldn't catch a break over the course of his tragic Washington State career, but he kept fighting until he could fight no more, and that valiant effort left him with a place in the national record book. Halliday's injury-riddled career in Pullman included a game played with a lacerated liver and finished with a gruesome leg break this season against USC. The misfortune that may best encapsulate his tough luck, though, came on Oct. 4 against Cal.

In a dizzyingly precise passing display, Halliday shredded the Bears' defense to the tune of an NCAA single-game record 734 yards. He completed 49 of his 70 passes and tossed six touchdowns without a single interception. With the Cougars trailing 60-59 as time wound down, Halliday even led his team on a 68-yard drive to the California 2-yard line. With only 19 seconds remained, Washington State was an extra point-length field goal away from winning on Halliday's historic night.

But kicker Quentin Breshears missed the 19-yard attempt, and Halliday looked on in dazed, losing disbelief on the night during which he had made history. Football can be a cruel sport, and Halliday got a particularly vicious dose of it. This was a truly stunning dichotomy. Halliday was the victim of one of the Pac-12's 2014 Twilight Zone finishes -- one that featured a mind-numbing seizure of defeat from the jaws of victory.

No. 13 -- USC stuffs Stanford

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Stanford entered 2014 having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, but it didn't take long for alarms to sound on the Farm. The first disturbing exhibit of offensive decay came in Week 2, when a short-handed USC defense delivered a bend-but-don't-break performance for the ages. The Cardinal reached scoring territory (at least the Trojans' 35-yard line) on all nine of their possessions, but managed to score only 10 total points throughout all of those chances. USC won the game 13-10, delivering a psychological gut punch that Stanford's offense never fully recovered from. The Cardinal's 119th-place national finish in red zone efficiency was a primary culprit in their tumble to 7-5, and this was the game that set them firmly on that disappointing course.

The slide's seminal moment might have arrived late in the third quarter on Sept. 6. Stanford led 10-7, and they faced a fourth-and-one from the USC 3-yard line. In the championship years of the past, this is where the Cardinal had always brutally asserted their control of the proceedings.

Not this time.

Without Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor, or Tyler Gaffney to hand off to, Kevin Hogan fed true freshman Daniel Marx the ball, and USC stuffed him short of the first down marker behind an excellent torpedo play from Su'a Cravens. The tables had turned: The Cardinal were not the bullies up front they used to be. They could no longer stomp on their opposition the old-fashioned way, and the resulting Pac-12 power shift was in full effect.
Luke Falk will always be referred to as a former walk-on.

It's accurate, but deceiving, and after the redshirt freshman threw for 471 yards and five touchdowns in his debut as Washington State's starting quarterback, there are probably plenty of coaches around the country wondering how they missed on him.

There was a time when it was hard for Falk to understand, too. Especially after the way the recruiting process began.

When he boarded a plane from Utah headed for Tallahassee, Florida, during the summer of 2012, Falk was anxious to get back on campus at Florida State. A year prior, he sat in the office of Dameyune Craig, the Seminoles' quarterbacks coach at the time, and received his first scholarship offer.

"He told me, ‘We want to be the first to offer you,'" Falk said. "I thought the offers would roll in after that."

[+] EnlargeWashington State's Luke Falk
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesLuke Falk completed 44 of 61 passes for 471 yards with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions in his debut as Washington State's starting quarterback.
But because Falk played in just two games as a junior after transferring from Logan (Utah) High to Oaks Christian in Southern California, and then back to Logan, they didn't. He was off the recruiting radar.

It was disappointing for Falk, but at least he had Florida State. Or so he thought.

"I went down for the camp thinking I still had the offer and they pretty much said, ‘No, you don't have the offer anymore. You didn't have junior year film,'" Falk said. "It was kind of surprising. It was a bad plane ride for me back home, but it only motivated me more."

The junior season is without question the most important for a quarterback looking to get recruited, so even after Falk threw 3,618 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior, most schools were already set. He received offers from Idaho and Wyoming, but those weren't as appealing as the opportunity to receive an Ivy League education and play without an athletic scholarship at Cornell. He settled on the Big Red, but things changed once coach Kent Austin left to become the coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League.

His options remained limited.

"I kind of got my offer pulled from Idaho with the new staff, so that's kind of embarrassing," Falk said. "Recruiting was real rough."

Luckily Washington State coach Mike Leach came into the picture late with an offer to walk on with the Cougars. Falk liked that Logan ran a similar system to Leach's Air Raid and felt comfortable after meeting with Leach that he'd have a fair chance to compete with the Cougars' scholarship quarterbacks.

"When I first came up [to Pullman] on that visit as a walk on, I met with Coach Leach," Falk said. "He said, ‘I promise you, we'll give you an equal opportunity to compete for the job.' Really right there, looking in his eye, I knew he was telling me the truth and he stayed true to his word. I got equal reps and equal opportunity."

Falk arrived in the same class as Tyler Bruggman, the country's No. 22-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2013, but largely outplayed him during the spring. His emergence played a role in Bruggman's decision to transfer in July, leaving Falk as the primary backup to Connor Halliday after last year's No. 2, Austin Apodaca, also transferred in February. Shortly before the season began -- more than three years after Florida State offered -- Falk was put on scholarship.

He'd have preferred that his opportunity for playing time came under different circumstances, but once Halliday, WSU's all-time leading passer, was lost for the season with a broken ankle on Nov. 1, Falk stepped in without any noticeable drop-off.

That came as no surprise to Leach, who'd seen enough in practice to expect as much.

"I thought he definitely would [succeed right away]," Leach said. "We saw that in camp, but then I also think that mentally he was probably further along than we expected even."

In that department, Leach said Falk stacks up well against the long list of high-profile quarterbacks to play in his system.

"As far as being calm and taking the reigns of things, he might be ahead of all of them," Leach said. "He's way up there with that."

Color Oregon State coach Mike Riley impressed, as well. The Beavers had no answers as Falk played his way to Pac-12 Player of the Week honors.

"I thought he was really poised and very, very sharp," Riley said. "He got the ball out of his hands quickly so his reads were decisive and he put the ball in a great location. Very efficient. I thought he ran their offense really, really well for a guy that hadn't played too much."

Leach stopped short of calling Falk the Cougars' starting quarterback of the future, citing other talented players in the program, but if one start is any indication of what's the come, the Cougars have no reason to worry.
Connor Halliday’s broken ankle sent shock waves through the Pac-12 over the weekend when it became clear his career as a quarterback at Washington State was over. The consensus: It’s not fair.

The injury’s not fair. The timing’s not fair. Halliday’s whole career, really, wasn’t fair.

In an excellent piece on Grantland last week, Halliday summed it up pretty succinctly: “To be honest, the timing of my college career just kind of sucks.”

And that was before he went down against USC, three games before he could officially move on from a career that will be defined by stats, not wins. For Halliday, the NFL was the light at the end of a long tunnel in bumper-to-bumper traffic and just when he was almost out … another road block.

It’s impossible not to feel for the guy, even more so after reading this tweet he sent out at 3:47 a.m., following surgery.


Washington State coach Mike Leach said Halliday is “disappointed, but knows it’s important to move forward,” and forecasted success at the next level for the player who finished his career as the school's all-time leader in passing yards (11,308) and touchdown passes (90). Had Halliday not gotten injured, he would have likely finished No. 2 on the Pac-12’s all-time lists for touchdown passes and passing yards.

“I can’t think of anyone in the country I think is better,” Leach said of Halliday’s NFL prospects.

Considering the circumstances, we’ll forgive Leach for maybe a hint of bias, but he’s not the only Pac-12 coach who sees more success to come for Halliday.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesHalliday had a prolific, yet frustrating career at Washington State.
“His mental and physical toughness is obviously very evident. He can make all the throws,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian, who has been watching Halliday since high school. “I think his release has gotten quicker. I think he’s going to translate fine [to the NFL].

“I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him. We wish him a very healthy and speedy recovery.”

Leach gave no time frame for Halliday’s expected recovery, so it was not immediately clear at what point he’ll be able to resume his pursuit of a professional career.

He’s been a phenomenal player. He’s a tough guy,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s done a great job in that system of not just putting up yards and points, but looking like he’s been a great leader for them, too. So I’m sure right now he’s upset, but when he looks back at his career and what he’s accomplished and helping that program -- it’s been phenomenal.”

The Spokane, Washington, native’s statistical accomplishments are the stuff of video games played on an easy setting.

He threw for 300 yards or more in a game 21 times, and more than half those games (12) he went for 400-plus. Over the past two seasons, when Halliday was the Cougars’ clear starting quarterback, he put up an FBS-best five 500-yard games; nobody else has had more than two.

His FBS single-game record 734 yards against Cal should have been celebrated, but thanks to a questionable non-call at the goal line in the final minute and a missed field goal, it only served as a source of frustration for the fifth-year senior. Unfortunately, that was the story of his career.

Washington State left tackle Joe Dahl said most the team dropped by the hospital to visit with Halliday in the days after the injury.

"Obviously, he's upset, but I think that's expected,” he said. “It's a tough time for him; it's a tough time for all of us. We all feel for him."

The Pac-12 blog feels for him too. Here are a few Haikus to help celebrate one of the Pac-12’s best:

Halliday Haikus

Warrior QB
He threw the ball a lot
Halliday celebrate
-Ted Miller

Pirate coach, can’n arm
Air raid, hard played, deep fade
Lives to throw once more
-Chantel Jennings

On the record pace
Hurt three games from history's place
Halliday, QB ace
-David Lombardi

Toughness is his trait
Brought Wazzu to a bowl game
Best is still to come
-Kyle Bonagura
And just like that, we have Pac-12 clarity. Or potential clarity, which some fussbudgets might insist is nothing like clarity.

[+] EnlargeCharles Nelson
AP Photo/Ryan KangCharles Nelson and No. 5 Oregon still have to face Utah, Colorado and Oregon State this season.
After impressively exorcising its Stanford demons a day after All Hallows' Eve, Oregon owns a decisive lead in the Pac-12 North Division and is likely to earn a promotion Tuesday into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings. If the Ducks win out, they are all but certain to earn a berth in the inaugural four-team playoff.

Meanwhile, the nutty South emerged from the fog with a new leader: Arizona State. The defending South Division champion, left for roadkill after yielding a 62-27 drubbing at home to preseason division favorite UCLA on Sept. 25, now stands as the South's highest-ranked and only one-loss team. If the Sun Devils win out -- which would include a victory over No. 10 Notre Dame on Saturday -- they also are all but certain to earn a berth in the playoff.

Oh, but fans of these teams should stop leaping into the air and clicking their heels together, particularly the Sun Devils. While Oregon has what amounts to an insurmountable three-game lead in the North with three games to play, the same can't be said for Arizona State and neither has much -- if any -- margin for error in the national framework. If the Sun Devils slip, then Arizona, UCLA, USC and Utah could climb back into the picture, perhaps forcing the South into one of those complicated tiebreaking tangles.

And if the Ducks let up, starting with what might be a tricky trip to Utah on Saturday, their playoff hopes could go poof and all that post-Arizona loss hand-wringing would recommence in Eugene.

So not surprisingly, winning continues to be the best recipe for remaining in a happy place.

If we contract from the inexorably forward-thinking nature of college football analysis, however, we see two teams asserting themselves in ways that just a few weeks back seemed unlikely. Recall: Oregon's offensive line was once a shambles and Arizona State couldn't stop anybody with a rebuilt defense.

Oregon yielded 12 sacks in back-to-back games against Washington State and Arizona and struggled to run the ball, but since Jake Fisher returned from injury at left tackle, the O-line has transformed. Against Stanford, the Ducks surrendered just one sack and rushed for 267 yards. On a down note, RT Matt Pierson hurt his knee against the Cardinal. His status, as well as the potential return of Andre Yruretagoyena, remains uncertain.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsTaylor Kelly and the No. 14 Sun Devils have four games left on their schedule, including a matchup Saturday against No. 10 Notre Dame.
Utah's defensive front is outstanding, particularly on the edges with ends Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick. So, yeah, don't start celebrating a playoff berth just yet, Ducks.

As for the Sun Devils, the defense that was young, sloppy and overwhelmed while giving up 580 yards to the Bruins has held its last three foes to an average of 12 points per game. While Stanford, Washington and Utah have been struggling to score points, there's no question a defense that replaced nine starters from 2013 has become more confident, aggressive and sounder in terms of scheme. After the game, coach Todd Graham admitted he's never had a unit improve as much in a single season.

It will be interesting to see how ASU responds against Notre Dame. The Sun Devils lost at Notre Dame 37-34 last season in an oddly flat performance. While losing to the Fighting Irish won't affect the Sun Devils' position in the South, it probably would eliminate them from the national discussion, even if they went on to win the Pac-12. Losing to Notre Dame, which has already beaten Stanford, would also hurt the Pac-12's overall Q-rating while bolstering the Irish's chances to take a coveted playoff spot.

As for the South race, the Sun Devils have a far more forgiving schedule ahead than Arizona and UCLA. The Wildcats have four remaining conference games, including a visit to Utah, and UCLA has Washington, USC and Stanford on the slate. USC, which lost to the Sun Devils on a Hail Mary pass, has only two remaining conference games -- California and at UCLA -- before concluding with a visit from Notre Dame.

Will the Irish be going for a Pac-12 sweep that final weekend? That would be pretty galling for a conference that views itself as every bit the rival of the SEC for the nation's top conference.

Yet the present is newsworthy enough for the Pac-12. On a weekend when Oregon and Arizona State made conference and national statements, including Ducks QB Marcus Mariota establishing himself as a solid Heisman Trophy favorite, it still shouldn't be overlooked that Washington State lost QB Connor Halliday to a season-ending leg injury against USC and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion eclipsed Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards in Pac-12 history (12,454).

Halliday, a brash, swashbuckling battler, was on pace to challenge a number of passing records before he went down, while the Beavers' struggles this fall shouldn't reduce Mannion's career achievement.

In the end, however, the winners get the headlines, and Oregon and Arizona State have made themselves the Pac-12's headlining teams. Now, can they get to a Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 without suffering another blemish, thereby making the title game, in effect, a national quarterfinal that also crowns a Pac-12 Coach of the Year?

Say the Ducks and Devils (hopefully): "We're just focused on Utah/Notre Dame."
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Seven games into the 2014 season, Connor Halliday's numbers border on the absurd.

He’s throwing 63 passes per game, the highest rate in NCAA history. His 478 passing yards per game are topping college football’s single-season mark. And anyone who has glanced at the box score from his record-smashing 70-attempt, 734-yard effort against Cal three weeks ago knows what it’s like to rub eyes and re-read in disbelief.

“If any of our quarterbacks threw half as many passes as him, they’d need to ice their arms,” Stanford coach David Shaw laughs.

Yet here Halliday is, coming off Washington State’s bye week, ready to resume firing away.

The senior is in the midst of a historic campaign. At his current rate, Halliday is on pace to throw for 5,733 yards through 12 games. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons -- another Mike Leach product -- owns the FBS single-season passing record set in 2003 with 5,336 yards through 12 games. Symons finished with 5,833 yards after the Red Raiders' bowl game.

Through little fault of his own, Halliday will likely only have 12 games to make his mark. The Cougars are buried in a 2-5 hole, and bowl eligibility seems to be a long shot. That has pushed Halliday’s flirtations with history out of the limelight.

“As a quarterback, I’m judged by how many points we score and if we win the game,” Halliday said after the Cougars’ latest setback, a loss at Stanford Oct. 10. “So I’ve got to figure that out.”

That’s a noble mea culpa; perhaps a vintage mark of a true leader. But there’s something patently unfair about it. After all, the quarterback position has most definitely not been Washington State’s fatal flaw in this disappointing campaign. The real blame here should lie with shoddy defensive and special-teams play, not Halliday’s blistering passing pace.

Perhaps the most unfathomable shame came three weeks ago in Pullman, when the unthinkable happened against Cal: Halliday threw for those 734 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions -- and lost 60-59. He drove the Cougars into position for the game-winning score, only to see a missed 19-yard chip shot field goal sully his all-time performance.

“It really doesn’t mean too much,” he said. “It’ll be fun to look back on it when I’m 30 years old.”

And just like that, in a moment emblematic of Halliday’s under-appreciated season, history was brushed under the rug.

The ingredients that made the record-breaker

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesWith 63 passes and 478 yards per game, it's a wonder Connor Halliday's right arm can still function, let alone excel.
As Halliday’s Cougars emerge from their bye week aiming to make one final surge toward bowl eligibility (they’ll need to win four of their last five to get there), it’s a good time to lift up that rug and appreciate all that’s under it. Years of development and fine-tuning have served as the cornerstones of Halliday’s assault on the record books. The eye-popping results of Leach’s Air Raid system may have desensitized college football fans, but make no mistake: It’s not easy to average nearly 500 passing yards per game, and the intricacies behind that ability are worth a closer examination.

Halliday began playing his position when he was just 5 years old, thanks in large part to his father, Duane, a former quarterback at Boise State. Halliday’s first record came his senior year of high school in Spokane, when he broke former Cougars great Mark Rypien’s league passing mark. Then came college football at Washington State. It wasn’t until Leach’s arrival on the Palouse in 2012, though, that Halliday’s full potential was unlocked.

“That first offseason (under Leach) was awful,” Halliday said, recalling that his new coach didn’t initially trust him. “I remember those practices. If something went awry, the offense immediately got 30 up-downs.”

Toward the end end of spring ball, though, Leach had begun to develop faith in his quarterback, and he communicated it in subtle ways. Halliday noticed that whenever there was offensive discombobulation, Leach would wait quietly and allow his quarterback to sort the situation out instead of stepping into the fray himself.

That trust was the foundation of the Air Raid’s multi-option approach at the line of scrimmage.

“Leach doesn’t put a guy out there as his quarterback until he trusts him,” Halliday said. “Because once [the quarterback’s] out there, [Leach] can only suggest stuff. Whoever is playing quarterback has the best look at the defense and the best look at the leverage.”

For all intents and purposes, Halliday is Leach’s offensive coordinator on the field. The head man only signals in one passing option. As Halliday approaches the line of scrimmage, the quarterback has three options based on the defense’s alignment: He can check to a run, he can stick with Leach’s pass play or he can design his own throwing option.

Halliday estimates that he breaks from Leach’s suggestion about 45 percent of the time.

That illustrates a remarkable amount of freedom and responsibility for a college quarterback. And along with his notably quick release, those are vital ingredients behind Halliday’s ability to frustrate opposing secondaries. Against Stanford, even though his offensive line faltered under the weight of the Cardinal’s ferocious pass rush, Halliday converted four consecutive fourth downs.

“We had the perfect defense called against him every single time,” Shaw said. “But that ball just came out so quick. We couldn’t stop it.”

The nation’s leading defense ultimately overwhelmed Halliday’s supporting cast, but even that unit was repeatedly flummoxed by the lanky senior who has become a living, breathing piece of a fascinating aerial assault.

A record chase and a season to salvage

Even as trust, precision, quickness and accuracy have taken Halliday’s game to new levels in 2014, he’s the first to admit that statistical success will fall on mostly deaf ears if the Cougars don’t start winning immediately. Arizona visits Martin Stadium this Saturday, and that kicks off a final five-game gauntlet that also includes dates with USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington.

It's clear the record chase takes secondary importance in Halliday's mind. This is a fifth-year senior who’s played through a five-inch laceration of his liver, and he’s not done scratching and clawing yet, even if a disappointing ending short of bowl eligibility may seem likely.

“The only thing you can do is lead the guys,” Halliday says. “I guarantee you I’m going to keep playing hard, and I can guarantee you that I’m not going to quit.”

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 1

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Football is back. That means helmet stickers are back! Here’s who gets one of college football's most coveted honors for Week 1.

Kaelin Clay, KR, Utah: The Pac-12 blog is always hesitant to dole out too much praise for victories in FCS games. But Clay went above and beyond in Utah’s 56-14 win over Idaho State. He returned a punt 46 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona: Not a bad night for the new guy. He threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start (also adding 50 yards on the ground) as the Wildcats totaled a school record 787 total yards in their 58-13 win over UNLV.

Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: This is getting to be a troubling trend. Halliday has a monster game, but the Cougs lose in the fourth quarter. Sort of how we ended last year. Still, he threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns against a Big Ten team, a 41-38 loss to Rutgers. That has to count for something.

UCLA’s defense: While the offense significantly underwhelmed, the defense kept the Bruins alive with three defensive touchdowns in the second quarter, which was ultimately the difference in their 28-20 win at Virginia. Interception returns by Ishmael Adams and Eric Kendricks, with a Randall Goforth fumble return in between, gave the Bruins a big enough lead.

Jalen Jefferson, LB, Cal: Been a while since we tapped a Cal defensive player for a helmet sticker. Feels weird. Feels good. Jefferson led all players with 16 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a critical 11-yard sack on Northwestern’s penultimate offensive play of the game. On the final play, it was Jefferson who snagged an interception, sealing a 31-24 win. He was Eh-vre-where.

Cody Kessler, QB, USC: I know, I know. We could do three or four quarterbacks every week. And just an FYI, we probably will, because they’re that good this year. Kessler picked up where he left off against Fresno State last year and posted a career high 394 yards on 25-of-37 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the 52-13 win over the Bulldogs.

Cougars crumble in fourth again

August, 29, 2014
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Washington State had the lead over Rutgers and a key fourth-quarter defensive stop. All it needed to do was to close the deal with poise. It didn't.

With an ending that surely had more than a few Cougars fans recalling the fourth-quarter collapse in the New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State, Washington State dropped a 41-38 decision to Rutgers, an eight-point underdog, because it couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead. Again.

And it couldn't hold that lead because of a critical turnover -- again -- this time a fumbled punt return from typically sure-handed receiver River Cracraft.

Instead of taking over at midfield with a four-point lead, the Cougars handed the ball back to Rutgers, which drove for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.

Even with that, WSU had plenty of time -- 3:18 left on the clock -- to drive for the winning points. QB Connor Halliday and the passing offense had been outstanding most of the night.

But a sack put the Cougars in a hole, Cracraft couldn't haul in a pass on fourth-and-13, and the Scarlet Knights celebrated on Seattle's CenturyLink Field.

The loss was a hit for the Pac-12 on the opening weekend, while Rutgers immediately pleased its new Big Ten brothers. For the Cougs, it probably lowered preseason expectations that they might take another step forward in the North Division. It would be fair to call a Friday visit to Nevada on Sept. 5 a must-win for bowl hopes.

As for the good, Halliday completed 40 of 56 passes for 532 yards with five touchdowns, shaking off a bad early interception. The bad? Other than fumbling away a chance for an opening victory, the Cougs couldn't run the ball -- they had just six yards rushing -- nor could they stop the run. The Scarlet Knights rushed for 215 yards. Those are not unfamiliar problems.

As fumbling away a lead in the fourth quarter isn't.

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
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Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”
The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Connor Halliday

School: Washington State

Grade: Senior

2013 passing stats: Completed 449 of 714 pass attempts for a 62.9 completion percentage and 4,597 yards. Threw 34 touchdowns to 22 interceptions with a raw QBR of 47.8 and an adjusted QBR of 58.2.

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Jesse Beals/Icon SportswireFollowing three seasons in the same offense, Connor Halliday appears primed to lead the Cougars in 2014.
Career passing stats: Completed 660 of 1,108 pass attempts for a 59.6 completion percentage and 7,435 yards. Has thrown 58 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. Has a raw QBR of 43.7 and an adjusted QBR of 51.9.

2013 rushing stats: 50 rushing attempts for minus-177 yards and zero touchdowns.

Career rushing stats: 83 rushing attempts for minus-361 yards and zero touchdowns.

Halliday on Twitter

What you need to know about Halliday: His legend started when he played through a lacerated liver against Utah in 2011. It hiccupped when he played quarterback roulette with Jeff Tuel in 2012. And while he was far from perfect in 2013, he showed that he's more than capable of leading Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. His 4,597 passing yards were a WSU single-season record and the second most in league history. His 34 touchdowns matched Ryan Leaf (1997) and he had nine multi-touchdown games. He's tough, he's a leader (voted a team captain for all 13 games) and he's got a ton of experience.

Career high point: A six touchdown performance in a losing effort? Nah, Halliday will tell you (and he has) that being named the offensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl last year doesn't mean squat since the Cougars lost to Colorado State 48-45. However, he was sharp in WSU's 49-37 win against Utah, which gave the Cougs that critical sixth win to make them bowl eligible for the first time since 2006 and eventually sent them to a bowl game for the first time in a decade. Halliday threw for 488 yards and four touchdowns without an interception -- his only game last year without at least one pick.

Career low point: A six touchdown performance in a losing effort? Oh wait, we covered that one already. His three interceptions against Auburn in the season opener last year (to just one touchdown) wasn't exactly a standout performance. In fact, the Cougars were in position to tie the game in the fourth quarter with less than five minutes to play when Halliday was intercepted in the red zone. Granted, going to SEC country to open the season is tough. But think of how the entire college football landscape would have been different if not for an interception or two.

When he was a recruit: Halliday didn't move the needle much when it came to Washington State's 2010 recruiting class, as the 6-foot-4 quarterback was ranked No. 168 in the country at his position and was the lowest-ranked member of the class. But there was some considerable excitement surrounding Halliday's potential when Drew Bledsoe comparisons were thrown around. "Connor has a big upside," then-head coach Paul Wulff said. "Connor has the intangibles in the passing game, he is very competitive, and he has a bright future at Washington State and could play early in his career." Halliday also received offers from Eastern Washington, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana, but the decision to commit to the in-state Cougars was an easy one for him, as well as one that would play out well when Mike Leach took over as head coach. The first lines of Halliday's ESPN Recruiting Nation scouting report reads like a manual for the quarterback position on Leach's Air Raid offense: "Halliday is a pocket passer in the shotgun spread offense and is an efficient player in the short and intermediate passing game. He is a touch and timing passer with good rhythm and displays solid overall accuracy."

Opposing head coach's take: "He still has work to do to a certain degree. But any given day he can throw for 350 and five touchdowns. Any given time he can be player of the week in the conference because he can hurt you. The scheme does help to a certain degree. But the bottom line is he'll stand in there and he took a lot of hits in a lot of games. But he always pulls himself back up and gets back at it on the next play."

What to expect in 2014: Numbers. Lots of big, beautiful, eye-popping, scoreboard-light-bulb-draining numbers. This is what Leach has been waiting for -- a quarterback who has experience in his system that he's been grooming for a couple of years. Halliday knows the scheme inside and out. And he's got the talent around him to put up jaw-dropping statistics. With all of that said, there is still work to do. His completion percentage is still too low for Leach's liking (62.9 last year) and, as previously mentioned, he only had one game last season where he didn't throw an interception. Six times he had multi-interception games. It's worth noting, however, that in his final five games, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 16-5, so the potential for improvement is there. Above all else, Leach values accuracy and decision-making. But then again, what coach doesn't when talking about his quarterback. If Halliday can clean things up, he and the Cougars will light up scoreboards.

Erik McKinney contributed reporting.
The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.

Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.

OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.

The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12's $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox has been followed by an influx of big-name coaches like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steele ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.

Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.

"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."

Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.

While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.

There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.

"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."

That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.

Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.

So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?

The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.

No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Eric GayOregon's Marcus Mariota is part of an impressive group of returning QBs in the Pac-12 this season.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."

What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.

"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."

The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.

But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.

The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Pac-12 media days start Wednesday at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, and your entire Pac-12 gang -- we're going by either #4pac or #pac4, we haven't decided yet -- will be there soaking in the evasive and clichéd quotes while plumbing for revealing and interesting nuggets to share with you.

There are plenty of topics to cover, from the perhaps unprecedented quality and experience at quarterback, to two new coaches who have familiar faces, to the new four-team College Football Playoff.

Arizona, California, USC, Oregon, Washington State and Utah will appear on Wednesday, while Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Stanford and Colorado follow up on Thursday. You can see the players on hand and the schedule here. This is the first time the Pac-12 has spread out its preseason media event over two days.

The preseason media poll will be released Wednesday, and the Pac-12 blog is going out on no limb guaranteeing you that Oregon will be picked to win the North and UCLA will be picked to win the South.

As a public service, we've provided you with a cheat sheet so you can contemplate the world as a reporter might. Below are questions for each of the conference's 12 teams that are sure to be asked, less warm-and-fuzzy questions that should be asked, and idle bits of whimsy that the Pac-12 blog wishes would be part of the proceedings.

(Unless otherwise noted, the questions are intended for the head coach.)

Arizona Wildcats, coach Rich Rodriguez
What will be asked: Can you give us an idea of your pecking order at quarterback?
What should be asked: What did Wildcats fans say to you this summer about being 0-2 against Arizona State?
Whimsical interlude: If Todd Graham and Donald Sterling were being attacked by wolves, whom would you save?

Arizona State Sun Devils, coach Todd Graham
What will be asked: Who will step up on your rebuilding defense?
What should be asked: You turn 50 in December: Do you expect to retire as the Sun Devils' coach?
Whimsical interlude: If Rich Rodriguez and Justin Bieber were being attacked by wolves, whom would you save?

California Golden Bears, coach Sonny Dykes
What will be asked: What's your team's attitude after going 1-11 in your first season?
What should be asked: What are specific mistakes you made last season that contributed to your team's struggles?
Whimsical interlude: Compare and contrast your hometowns of Big Spring and Lubbock, Texas, to Berkeley.

Colorado Buffaloes, coach Mike MacIntyre
What will be asked: Is your team ready to take the next step in the Pac-12?
What should be asked: What is your program's chief deficiency, and how are you addressing that in recruiting?
Whimsical interlude: Just thinking out loud here, but -- Ralphie, are you certain she has no remaining eligibility?

Oregon Ducks, coach Mark Helfrich
What will be asked: How will quarterback Marcus Mariota be better this season than last?
What should be asked: What were some of the challenges and transitional pains you've learned from after replacing a larger-than-life coach in Chip Kelly?
Whimsical interlude: Marcus, here are five loaves and two fishes. There are a lot of hungry reporters here. So, you know, do your thing.

Oregon State Beavers, coach Mike Riley
What will be asked: How does the offense change without wide receiver Brandin Cooks?
What should be asked: Is it possible for the Beavers to catch up to Oregon without the kind of support the Ducks get from Nike founder Phil Knight?
Whimsical interlude: Sean Mannion, please re-create for us the worst temper tantrum you've ever seen Coach Riley throw.

Stanford Cardinal, coach David Shaw
What will be asked: Who will step up to lead your rebuilding defense?
What should be asked: The media have again picked Oregon, the two-time defending Pac-12 North champions, to eclipse you. Is that a slight to your program, and if not, how do you interpret it?
Whimsical interlude: Jordan Richards, you are a public policy major. Please compare and contrast the deontological perspectives of Kant, Mill and Rawls.

UCLA Bruins, coach Jim Mora
What will be asked: How do you manage all the hype and high expectations that surround your team and quarterback Brett Hundley?
What should be asked: What do you need from the UCLA administration to maintain and build on your present advantage in your rivalry with USC?
Whimsical interlude: Jim, what does your dad think of the new college football PLAYOFFS?

USC Trojans, coach Steve Sarkisian
What will be asked: How will your up-tempo offense work while you have depth issues due to scholarship limitations?
What should be asked: What mistakes did you make at Washington that you'll avoid at USC?
Whimsical interlude: Steve, what would be the most interesting revelation if you, Pete Carroll, Jim Mora and Lane Kiffin went out for drinks?

Utah Utes, coach Kyle Whittingham
What will be asked: Explain how your quarterback situation sets up with Travis Wilson and transfer Kendal Thompson and how each fits in new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense.
What should be asked: Have Utah fans underestimated how difficult it would be to move up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12?
Whimsical interlude: You've had six offensive coordinators in six years. Please match each with one of Snow White's seven dwarfs, assuming that this stupid question automatically makes you Grumpy.

Washington Huskies, coach Chris Petersen
What will be asked: What was it about Washington that lured you away from Boise State?
What should be asked: What did quarterback Cyler Miles tell you about his role in two separate fights that occurred after the Super Bowl?
Whimsical interlude: OT Ben Riva: You are the only offensive lineman here. There are eight quarterbacks, three receivers and a bunch of defensive guys. First, what's the worst prima donna behavior you have witnessed? And second, is this pretty much an offensive lineman's seventh level of hell?

Washington State Cougars, coach Mike Leach
What will be asked: With a veteran quarterback and a deep corps of receivers, what are your expectations for your offense this fall?
What should be asked: Did your job get more difficult or easier with the hiring of Chris Petersen at Washington?
Whimsical interlude: Connor Halliday and Darryl Monroe: Here is a 10-question quiz on your coach's book about Geronimo, which I'm sure you've read. You have two minutes. Go!
Over on the SEC blog, Alex Scarborough decided to take a look at some heartbreakers in the SEC in recent years in honor of the U.S. soccer team’s heartbreaking finish on Sunday.

The Pac-12 is no stranger to last-minute agonies. They might not have fancy names like “The Kick-6” or "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare." But whether it’s nonconference or in-conference, the last few years have provided Pac-12 fans with plenty of tears in their tea (or tears of joy, depending on which colors you wear).

Here are a few in that last few years that come to mind.

[+] EnlargeKivon Cartwright, Tanner Hedstrom, Theron West, Joe Dahl
AP Photo/Matt YorkA second-half New Mexico Bowl collapse, where it squandered a 22-point lead to Colorado State, ended Washington State's 2013 season with a thud.
Misery in New Mexico: Colorado State was down by eight points with less than two minutes left in last year's New Mexico Bowl. But they were able to capitalize on a pair of late fumbles from Washington State as the Rams went on to erase a one-time 35-13 deficit. Lost was a sensational six-touchdown, 410-yard effort from Connor Halliday. Remembered is a meltdown so inconceivable, the Pac-12 blog still can’t fully comprehend it.

Busted in South Bend: Did he or didn’t he? Stanford fans will swear up and down that Stepfan Taylor crossed the goal line with a second effort. Notre Dame fans are convinced the play was dead and the Fighting Irish had stopped Taylor on fourth down in overtime, sealing a 20-13 victory. The review judge agreed with the Irish. If it’s any consolation, the Cardinal went on to win eight straight games and the Rose Bowl. But that one was a stinger.

Apples and apples: Washington State has been on the good side of a few close Apple Cups. Therefore, by definition, Washington has been on the bad side. There was the 2012 game where Washington let an 18-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter. And, of course, the famed 2008 "Crapple Cup", where winless Washington fell 16-13 in overtime to 1-11 Washington State.

Masoli mastery: Oh ‘Zona Zoo ... you were so ready to storm the field in 2009. Then Jeremiah Masoli hit Ed Dickson on an 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left to tie the game at 31-31 before his 1-yard touchdown locked up a 44-41 win in double overtime. Cheers for the Ducks, heartbreak for the Wildcats.

Another Ducking: This one was as slow burn. After California pulled to within 15-13 against the Ducks in 2010, the hurry-up Oregon offense slowed down. The Ducks went on a grinding 18-play, 65-yard drive that even David Shaw would have to fist bump. It lasted 9 minutes and 25 seconds to run out the clock and prevent the Golden Bears -- who put forth a stellar defensive effort -- from ever getting the ball back.

Double Ducked: Oregon wasn’t on the cheery end of all the close games in the last few years. Field goal misses in 2011 and 2012 put Oregon on the sour side of a couple close games. In 2011, it was a missed 37-yard field goal at home against USC that would have tied the game at 38-38 as time expired. The kicking game cost the Ducks again in 2012 at home against Stanford, where a missed 41-yard field goal set up Jordan Williamson’s 37-yard game winner for a 17-14 Cardinal win.

Territorial blues: We can’t mention close games without bringing up the 2010 Territorial Cup. First, Arizona State's James Brooks blocked a PAT that would have given Arizona a 21-20 edge with 27 seconds left in the game. Instead, the game went to two overtimes. And with ASU leading 30-23, David Douglas scored on a 9-yard run for 'Zona. But the PAT was blocked again, by Brooks, again, giving the Sun Devils a 30-29 victory.

Seattle thriller: I can’t think of a single instance of the Pac-12 blog second-guessing a coach’s decision to go for two and end a game. This isn’t one of them. It’s gutsy. So first, I say bravo to Mike Riley. That said, a failed 2-point attempt was the difference in Washington’s 35-34 2OT win in 2010. As it turns out, the Beavers would go on to lose four of their next six and miss the postseason. Washington would finish with seven wins and advance to the Holiday Bowl.

There are more. Of course there are more. There are always more. And I'm sure you'll remind us of them. Ted would love to hear your thoughts.
It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.

It’s only the middle of June, but the familiar sound of the Heisman buzz has already started.

The Pac-12 is no stranger to preseason Heisman buzz. Andrew Luck had it. So did Matt Barkley. Marcus Mariota had it for a while last season. And, along with reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston, Mariota is again in the spotlight.

Earlier this week ESPN.com Insider Phil Steele started looking at potential Heisman candidates for the 2014 season. And Mariota’s name is at the top of his list.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota accounted for more than 4,000 yards last season, even as he was hampered by a knee injury.
Steele made his case for the Oregon quarterback Wednesday when he wrote:
Last year, Mariota became the first Oregon quarterback to top 4,000 yards of total offense (4,380) while accounting for 40 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. He accomplished this despite wearing a knee brace for much of the second half of the season, which limited his mobility. With added rest for the bowl game against Texas, he ran for a season-high 133 yards. Now 100 percent healthy, he has a solid shot to top last year's remarkable statistical totals while leading a Ducks team that figures to play a huge role in the first College Football Playoff.

If you’re an Oregon fan, all of those things have to make you feel awful giddy. But Mariota isn't the only Pac-12 quarterback getting some love. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley should also see his fair share of hype, and he checks in at No. 6 on Steele’s list of top-10 candidates.

Writes Steele:
It is dangerous putting Hundley this low, as I think the Bruins have a great shot at making the College Football Playoff. Last year, despite playing behind a questionable offensive line that allowed 36 sacks, Hundley threw for 3,071 yards, completed 67 percent of his passes, posted a 24-9 TD-INT ratio and became the first UCLA QB to lead the team in rushing (748 yards) since 1964. This year, Hundley has a healthier offensive line and a strong supporting cast with 16 returning starters that not only has Bruins fans thinking Pac-12 title, but also their second Heisman in school history (Gary Beban in 1967).

Steele also looked at the top-15 quarterback units in college football, examining the depth of the position groups. One-third of his teams come from the Pac-12, including UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State. This should come as no surprise. The conference is as quarterback-heavy as it's been in recent memory -- maybe ever.

Here’s what Steele had to say about the Cougs’ QB depth.
Last year Connor Halliday set Pac-12 single-season records for completions (449), attempts (714) and passing yards (4,597) while leading the Cougars to their first bowl game since 2003. He also tied a NCAA bowl record with six touchdown passes and had a solid 16-5 TD-INT ratio in his last five games. Now in his third year of head coach Mike Leach's pass-happy offense, he could even top last year's outstanding numbers. His backup Tyler Bruggman (PS No. 29) was highly regarded coming out of high school and Lucas Falk had a solid spring.
In 2012, Washington's offense averaged 24 points per game, and quarterback Keith Price had a horribly disappointing season. In 2013, the Huskies averaged 37.9 points per game and Price redeemed himself.

The Huskies' friends to the east, the Washington State Cougars, averaged 20.4 points in coach Mike Leach's first season, his Air Raid offense pretty much grounded. In 2013, the Cougars averaged 31 points per game. Much better.

Every season, offenses and defenses improve or regress. Oregon and Arizona each scored fewer points in 2013 compared to 2012.

In 2011, UCLA ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense with a measly 23.1 points per game. Oregon State was even worse, ranking 11th with just 21.8 points per game. In 2012, both made huge improvements on offense and continued to trend up in 2013.

So who is poised to make a big jump this fall? We're breaking it down by division. We looked at the South on Wednesday -- predicting a USC renaissance. Today, it's the North.


Obviously, Stanford and Washington State didn't have bad offenses in 2013. The Cardinal offense, which ranked 45th in the nation in scoring, is about ball control and physical play, not piling up huge numbers. The Cougars, who ranked 52nd in the nation in scoring, owned one of the nation's best passing attacks.

Heck, even Cal moved the ball well, averaging 453.6 yards per game. It just couldn't convert passing yards into points.

All three appear poised to improve in 2014.

Stanford, with third-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan and a talented, veteran crew of receivers, is likely to throw the ball more in 2014 than it has the previous two seasons, thought it's probably wrong to think it will abandon its run-first, smash-mouth mentality. It had that even when Andrew Luck played behind center. The Cardinal running game, however, is a question, as four starting offensive linemen and running back Tyler Gaffney must be replaced.

Washington State's question also is the O-line. With veteran quarterback Connor Halliday and a deep, experienced crew of receivers, the Cougars could light up the scoreboard if the line holds up.

The same could be said for Cal. Quarterback Jared Goff will be a second-year starter and he has a strong crew of receivers, too. He didn't get much help from an inconsistent, constantly changing line last year, and that unit remains uncertain.

It wouldn't be surprising if all three of these teams added a touchdown to their points-per-game average in 2014. Washington State, however, looks like the most likely candidate to move up a class -- from decent to good -- in 2014.

While Cal has the most room to improve, we're projecting the Cougars to approach or even cross the 40-point threshold this fall.

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