Pac-12: Eric Decker

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.

California tries to buck road woes at Minnesota

September, 17, 2009
9/17/09
1:59
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


A rough road game experience? Shoot, Syd'Quan Thompson can tell his California teammates all about that. The humbling the Bears took at Maryland last year? That was nothing.

In 2006, Thompson was a redshirt freshman thrust into duty because starting cornerback Tim Mixon had suffered a season-ending knee injury. Thompson, sporting a bulbous cast on an injured hand, walked out in front of 107,000 orange-clad fans at Tennessee and looked across the line at future NFL first-round draft pick Robert Meachem.

Yikes.
James Lang/US Presswire
Since 2006, Jeff Tedford's Bears are just 5-11 on the road.

And Meachem just flat cleaned Thompson's clock as the Volunteers jumped ahead 35-zip. The 35-18 final count doesn't do justice to just how horribly wrong the day went for what turned out to be a good Cal team, one that finished 10-3 and then would stomp the Vols the next year in Berkeley.

That game, however, is Point A of Cal's road woes.

In coach Jeff Tedford's first four seasons -- 2002 to 2005 -- the Bears were 14-9 on the road. Away from the West Coast, they were 5-2.

But, including that ill-fated date in Knoxville, the Bears are 5-11 on the road since 2006, including a pair of beatdowns in the (cue shower scene music from "Psycho") Eastern Time Zone.

In both 2006 and 2008, the Bears' only defeats came on the road.

Now might be a good time to mention that No. 8 Cal visits Minnesota on Saturday, which is in the Central Time Zone, but the kickoff time -- noon EST -- means it will feel like breakfast for the Bears.

Yikes.

That "yikes" is not about the game time. That's about asking Tedford about what appears to be his least favorite topic this week.

"I think whatever the announcers say on TV gets on everybody's mind," he huffed.

Tedford doesn't buy the notion that his team struggles on the road or the idea that the Bears were still asleep at kickoff against Maryland, a 35-27 defeat that wasn't as close as the score suggests.

"We got down 14 points early and it must have been because we were sleeping," he said. "We were sleeping, but it wasn't because of when we flew in. I don't believe that."

Ah, but Tedford isn't stubborn. The Bears will fly into Minneapolis on Thursday in order to get an extra day to adapt to the mysterious effects a couple of hours difference on a clock can make on a Pac-10 team.

"I don't want to be hard-headed about it," Tedford said. "I want to give it a shot and see what that's all about and see if it's better."

Thompson is fairly chill about the whole thing. In fact, Thompson is fairly chill about nearly everything. That goes a long way toward explaining why he shook off that horrible debut and became a 41-game starter, a first-team All-Pac-10 player and an All-American candidate.

"Playing that first game -- that was the loudest place I've played in -- but having that experience helped me a lot," he said. "Now I have the ability to cancel the fans out and concentrate on my technique and my assignments."

Experience helps on the road. Cal has seven starters back on offense and eight back on defense as well as both specialists. So there will be no excuse if they go splat against the Golden Gophers.

"We’ve just got to focus," running back Jahvid Best said. "We’re not going to have our crowd backing us, and it’s not going to be our atmosphere, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters is what happens on the field. It shouldn't be too much of a difference for us.”

Minnesota is an experienced team, too. It welcomes back 17 starters, including Eric Decker, who is one of the best receivers in the country.

Thompson figures to see plenty of Decker, who, at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, has a big size advantage on the 5-foot-9, 191-pound senior. In fact, Meachem and Decker are almost exactly the same size.

Hmm.

Thompson didn't seem too worked up.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said.

Thompson, now a wily veteran, understands road woes. So do his veteran teammates. It remains to be seen whether they can avoid them and live up to the high expectations that surround their team.

A quick look at this week's games

September, 15, 2009
9/15/09
9:43
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Lining up this week's action.

No. 3 USC (2-0) at Washington (1-1)

USC beat the Huskies 56-0 last year ... USC leads the all-time series 49-26-4 ... USC is riding a 12-game winning streak ... Washington ended a 15-game losing streak vs. Idaho last weekend ... Washington coach Steve Sarkisian spent seven years on the USC staff, while Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt also held the same post at USC before being hired by Sarkisian ... USC ranks 14th in the nation in scoring defense (9 points per game) ... Huskies quarterback Jake Locker is 14th in the nation in total offense (321.5 yards per game).

No. 8 California (2-0) at Minnesota (2-0)

California leads the all-time series 3-2, last beating the Golden Gophers 42-17 in 2006 ... Minnesota welcomes back 17 starters from a team that went 7-5 in 2008 ... Cal is riding a five-game winning streak, but the Bears have lost four in a row on the road ... Minnesota is showcasing a brand new stadium, and the Bears will be the first BCS conference foe to play there ... The Bears have yet to turn the ball over ... Cal leads the Pac-10 in sacks with 10 ... Gophers receiver Eric Decker ranks third in the nation with 296 receiving yards in two games ... Running back Jahvid Best ranks sixth in the nation with 140.5 ypg and is averaging 10.4 yards per carry ... Linebacker Mychal Kendricks leads the conference with 13 tackles per game.

No. 18 Utah (2-0) at Oregon (1-1)

Oregon leads the all-time series 17-8, but Utah won the last meeting 17-13 in 2003 ... Utah owns the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games ... Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews ranks second in the conference with 11 tackles per game ... Utah welcomes back 12 starters from last year's 13-0 team ... Oregon ranks last in the conference in rushing offense, passing offense, total offense and is ninth in scoring offense ... Utah has rushed for 242 yards per game ... Ducks DE Kenny Rowe leads the conference with 2.5 sacks.

No. 17 Cincinnati (2-0) at Oregon State (2-0)

They've met only once, with Cincinnati rolling 34-3 in 2007 ... Oregon State has won 26 consecutive nonconference home games dating back to 1996, and coach Mike Riley has never lost a nonconference home game ... The Beavers have not turned the ball over ... Cincinnati is fifth in the nation with 571 yards per game ... Quarterback Sean Canfield ranks 14th in the nation in passing efficiency. He has completed 79 percent of his passes so far ... Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency. He's completed 77 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception ... Jacquizz and James Rodgers have combined for 597 rushing/receiving yards and six touchdowns ... Cincinnati has only one returning starter on defense ... The Beavers have only one sack this year, while they have surrendered five. In 2008, they ranked second in the conference and fifth in the nation with 39 sacks, while they yielded only 21 sacks.

Arizona (2-0) at Iowa (2-0)

Arizona leads the all-time series 6-5 and last beat Iowa 35-11 in 1998 ... Wildcats running back Nic Grigsby is No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 162.5 yards per game ... The Hawkeyes welcome back 16 starters from last year's 9-4 team ... Both head coach Mike Stoops and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops played safety at Iowa and started their coaching careers with the Hawkeyes ... Arizona's four-game winning streak is its longest since 2000 ... Iowa has give up five sacks in its first two games ... The Wildcats rank first in the conference and fifth in the nation with 305.5 yards rushing per game.

Louisiana-Monroe (1-1) at Arizona State (1-0)

This is their first meeting ... Arizona State had a bye last weekend and now plays 11 consecutive Saturdays ... After dominating Idaho State in the opener, the Sun Devils rank first in the conference is rushing, passing, total and scoring defense ... Louisiana-Monroe beat Alabama 21-14 in 2007.

Kansas State (1-1) at UCLA (2-0)

This is there first meeting ... UCLA's win at Tennessee was the Bruins fourth consecutive victory vs. the SEC ... Kansas State welcomes back 14 starters from a team that went 5-7 last year ... Bruins QB Kevin Prince is out 3-4 weeks with a broken jaw ... The Wildcats lost at Louisiana-Lafayette last weekend ... Bruins safety Rahim Moore is No. 1 in the nation with five interceptions ... The Wildcats have recorded only one sack this season ... Bruins defensive tackle Brian Price leads the conference with five tackles for a loss ... The Wildcats have totaled 36 points against UMASS and ULL.

San Jose State (0-2) at Stanford (1-1)

Stanford leads the all-time series 48-14-1, last winning 23-10 in 2008 ... San Jose State lost to USC 56-3 and Utah 24-14 .... The Cardinal has not allowed a first-half touchdown in two games ... The Spartans rank last --120th -- in the nation in total defense ... Stanford's redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck is fourth in the conference in pass efficiency ... Stanford ranks ninth in the Pac-10 in rush defense.

SMU (2-0) at Washington State (0-2)

This is their first meeting ... Washington State ranks last in the conference in total, scoring, rushing and passing defense as well as scoring offense ... SMU broke a 17-game Conference USA losing streak with a win at UAB last weekend ... Cougars punter Reid Forest leads the Pac-10 with a 47-yard average ... SMU, which is 2-0, welcomes back 16 starters from a team that went 1-11 last year ... The Cougars are second in the conference with just 38 penalty yards per game.

SPONSORED HEADLINES