Pac-12: Patrick Cowan
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
With first-year coach Rick Neuheisel's relentless optimism spurring them on, UCLA's surprising victory over Tennessee in the opener briefly lit a flame of hope among Bruins fans for the 2008 season, but, in retrospect, things were pretty much lost even before preseason practices began.
Most prominent: Quarterbacks Patrick Cowan, who already had been promoted to No. 1 on the depth chart, and Ben Olson, who'd started 10 games in his star-crossed career, suffered season-ending injuries on the same day at the end of spring practices.
Moreover, the chief concern even before that was keeping the quarterback safe because of questionable depth and talent on the offensive line. Said line then lost two projected starters to injuries: Aleksey Lanis and Sean Sheller.
The job of leading this rag-tag offense then dropped on the head of JC transfer Kevin Craft, who went on to throw 20 interceptions.
So Neuheisel and company were in a battle with few weapons. A solid defense kept the Bruins in some games, but one of the nation's worst offenses wasn't able to put up enough points -- or stop giving the ball away.
Turning point: Twelve days after soaring into the stratosphere of hope -- and the national rankings -- with the Tennessee win, the Bruins dramatically crashed to the ground by losing 59-zip at BYU. That was a harsh reality pill. And any idea that perhaps two flukes to start the season meant the Bruins were actually somewhere in the middle was mostly dashed by the consecutive defeats to Arizona and Fresno State that followed.
Offensive MVP: Kicker Kai Forbath was the Bruins best weapon this fall. He ranked 10th in the nation with 1.58 field goals per game, connecting on 19 of 22 field goals -- he hit 13 in a row to conclude the season -- with a long of 53 yards.
Defensive MVP: Sophomore defensive tackle Brian Price demanded attention from opposing offenses, which often assigned two blockers to neutralize him. It often didn't work, see 14 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks among his 35 tackles. Price also had a forced fumble, grabbed an interception and blocked a kick.
What's Next: UCLA played a lot of young players in 2008. The hope is they will get better in 2009 and Neuheisel & Co. will haul in another elite group of recruits.
As it is, nine starters from the final depth chart will be back on offense, seven on defense. And Forbath's foot will be back in 2009. So the Bruins should improve.
The initial question this spring will be at quarterback: Is Craft the man going forward or will a youngster step in, such as touted incoming freshman Richard Brehaut?
Most fans gave Neuheisel a pass this season because he didn't inherit much talent. Expectations will be higher going forward.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Five things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.
Jahvid goes for the rushing title: There are a couple of reasons California shouldn't be yawning before facing Washington. For one, the Bears were humiliated by the Huskies last year, 37-23, in Seattle, surrendering an eye-popping 334 yards rushing. Second, tailback Jahvid Best needs 171 yards rushing to win the Pac-10 rushing title, meaning the Best player on the field should get plenty of touches. That also won't bode well for the Huskies -- will they even show up? -- keeping things reasonably close.
Any chance Craft can create art? UCLA's only chance against USC is a near-perfect day. The distance, however, between "perfect" and what the Bruins have been doing on offense this season -- particularly embattled quarterback Kevin Craft -- is a Grand Canyon-like chasm. Craft has thrown 12 interceptions in his last four games. Touchdowns? Zero. Three of his picks were returned for scores in the 34-9 loss to Arizona State, and his fumble led to a fourth touchdown. And yet ... what if the Craft from the fourth quarter of the Tennessee or Stanford games shows up against the Trojans? Two years ago, expectations were low for sophomore Patrick Cowan, but he pulled a rabbit out of his helmet and led the Bruins to a 13-9 victory that knocked the Trojans out of the national title game.
Can Arizona win a close one? Arizona has won six games this year. Smallest margin of victory? 15 points (vs. California). The Wildcats have lost five. Largest margin of defeat? Ten points (Oregon). When Arizona wins, it rolls. But when the screws tighten, it goes belly up. In fact, the Wildcats are 5-16 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past four seasons under Mike Stoops. Two of those defeats are included in their three-game losing streak vs. rival Arizona State. The home-standing Wildcats are favored by 10 1/2, so there's the potential for this not to be close. But, if things stay tight, will there be worried looks or set jaws on the home sideline?
Will Sarkisian's dance with Washington be a distraction? While the Trojans defense has been reliably dominant in every game save one this season, the offense has been decidedly inconsistent. Some fans, in fact, have been impatient with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, even though the Trojans rank second in the conference in both scoring (38.4 points per game) and total offense (451 yards per game). News broke Thursday evening that Sarkisian is the next Washington head coach. Two potential negatives for the Trojans: 1. Has Sark been able to focus on game planning against a good UCLA defense; 2. Will his imminent departure distract his players, particularly quarterback Mark Sanchez?
Rudy vs. Willie, take four: Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter hasn't had the season most imagined for him. Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama hasn't put up huge numbers like many thought he would. But Tuitama has been more consistent and statistically impressive than Carpenter. Ah, but Carpenter is 3-0 vs. Tuitama in Territorial Cups. No ASU quarterback has gone 4-0 against UA. After the 5-6 Sun Devils' desperation to earn bowl eligibility, this is the lead item of this year's game. Carpenter has outplayed Tuitama in the series -- see his 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio compared to 4:3 for Tuitama. Will their finale be different or more of the same?
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
How does the Pac-10 bounce back after Black Saturday?
1. Georgia is a road warrior: Everyone is now aware that Georgia hasn't been to the West Coast since 1960 or even west of the Mississippi for a regular-season nonconference game since 1967. But the Bulldogs don't figure to be blown away by their trip to Arizona State. In coach Mark Richt's eight seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs are a 26-4 on the road and are 9-2 against ranked teams. Of course, the Bulldogs are 1-5-1 in games west of the Mississippi since they started playing football in 1892.
2. Autzen Stadium is no place to start your first road game: Boise State, 0-12 vs. BCS teams on the road and 0-7 in Pac-10 stadiums, will try to take down Oregon on Saturday with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Kellen Moore, and four new starters on the offensive line. The Broncos offense has mostly been its regular proficient self thus far, scoring 69 points and averaging 461 yards in two victories. But Oregon isn't Idaho State and Bowling Green and Autzen is different than a home game. Moore and his green line won't be able to communicate. That's a problem when the Ducks high-pressure defense is trying to force a QB to make quick decisions against one of the nation's best secondaries.
3. Rudy isn't afraid of the blitz: Richt must be on the ESPN.com research team's e-mail list, too. He noted repeatedly this week that pressuring ASU QB Rudy Carpenter with extra rushers hasn't been the best defensive tactic. Carpenter actually seems to play better when he has less time to think about where he wants to go. His totals in two games against FBS opponents:
4. We'll find out who the real UCLA is against Arizona: The Bruins likely will be down five starters from their preseason depth chart Saturday, and, no, that doesn't include QBs Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan. One word: ouch. This isn't a terribly deep team in the first place. Of course, that's only two more injured starters than the shocking Tennessee victory, when three went down, so maybe there's more smoke-and-mirrors with Rick Neuheisel and his crack coaching staff. If the Bruins do beat the Wildcats to open Pac-10 play after going down 59-zip at BYU, it will establish them as a peculiarly dangerous team and -- egad! -- a crew that might scrap out of the bottom third of the conference.
5. We'll find out who the real Arizona is against UCLA: This title should have been "The return of TE Rob Gronkowski will give Arizona a big boost", but we wanted symmetry with our UCLA entry. Gronkowski will provide a huge lift for the Wildcats offense, particularly QB Willie Tuitama, who threw two interception and fumbled twice against New Mexico. Arizona is mostly healthy, which is good, and completely desperate, which is could be good or bad. A loss puts coach Mike Stoops' job in serious jeopardy, while a victory puts him back on track for a breakthrough season. An overstatement? Perhaps. But that's life in a "What have you done for me lately?" business, and Stoops knows that.
6. Tavita Pritchard needs to step up to remain Stanford's QB: Stanford ranks 116th in the nation in total offense (242.3 yards per game) and 112th in passing offense (111 ypg). Not many ways you can dress that up and make it look good, and when an offense is sagging, the QB takes most of the blame. That's why word out of The Farm is true freshman Andrew Luck has been getting more reps with the first-team in practices and may doff his redshirt against San Jose State. If the Cardinal musters any passing threat, that will help a good offensive line create cracks for RB Toby Gerhart, the offense's best weapon. This could be Pritchard's last stand.
7. Expect some fancypants from Boise State and Oregon: Boise State's Chris Petersen and Oregon's Mike Bellotti are two of the best offensive-minded head coaches in the nation. And they like to get cute every once and a while. Everyone saw what the Broncos did to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, so it's not like they're afraid to take risks in big games. Meanwhile, even though Bellotti is down two QBs and is splitting the ball between first-year players Jeremiah Masoli and Chris Harper, he intimated strongly this week that he and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly may have some tricks up their sleeves, too. Heck, The Oregonian wrote an entire story this week about trick plays.
8. Washington State will take a step forward vs. Portland State: Unless Portland State decided to reinvent itself this week and no longer use the pure run-and-shoot -- highly unlikely
-- then Washington State's beleaguered, nation's-worst run defense will get a break. The pass probably looks good for a team that gives up 330 rushing yards per game. And a FCS opponent also probably looks good to the Cougars, who are still trying to break in first-year coach Paul Wulff's no-huddle spread offense. On the other hand, there's a lot of pressure on them to win Saturday because a loss could suggest a winless season is possible. Don't count on that happening, though. There's too much pride in Pullman for a complete flop.
9. Erickson is a streak buster: Georgia has won 10 games in a row, dating back to last season, the second-longest active streak among FBS schools (BYU, 13). That's the Bulldogs longest streak since winning 11 straight with Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in 1982. But a 10-game win streak shouldn't intimidate Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson. While head coach at Miami, his teams stopped a 14-game streak by Florida State(1990), a 16-game streak by Florida State (1991) and a 23-game streak by Notre Dame (1989).
10. Can the Pac-10 redeem itself? There are only five games this weekend involving Pac-10 teams, and only Arizona State is an underdog. What if the conference wins all five -- it has to win one with UCLA and Arizona playing! -- beating quality opponents like Boise State and Georgia? Will that restore the conference's luster in the college football nation's eyes? We're not even going to ask about another weekend of egg laying.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
As expected, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel named junior Kevin Craft the Bruins' starting quarterback for the opener against Tennessee on Sept. 1 in the Rose Bowl.
"He's earned it with his consistent play and he has the best mastery of the offense at this point," Neuheisel told reporters after practice.
Craft, a transfer from Mt. San Antonio Junior College, beat out redshirt freshman Chris Forcier. Craft started his career at San Diego State and in 2006, as a redshirt freshman, he played in nine games started five for the Aztecs. He completed 69 of 121 passes that season for 737 yards with four touchdowns and six interceptions.
Craft is the Bruins' third option. During spring practices, shortly after being designated as No. 1 on the depth chart, Patrick Cowan suffered a season-ending knee injury. Ben Olson, the former starter and No. 2 on the depth chart, hurt his foot during the same practice but was cleared to play before preseason camp began. Olson then re-injured the foot and will be out until at least mid-October.
This from the school:
Craft would become the first Bruin quarterback to start a season-opening contest in his initial season following a transfer since Troy Aikman, who came to UCLA from Oklahoma, took the first snap in the 1987 opener against San Diego State (Aikman redshirted in 1986). He is also the first junior-college transfer to start a season-opening game in his initial season since Mark Harmon in 1972.
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