Pac-12: Tony Pike

Pac-10 roundup, Part 1

September, 20, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Wow. What a day.

Washington broke through. USC went splat. California proved it can win on the road. Oregon put the loss at Boise State behind it by ending the nation's longest winning streak. Washington State posted a comeback victory.

Here's a look at the early games. Will come back with a post for the three late games.

Washington 16, USC 13: The Trojans were sloppy and quarterback Aaron Corp didn't play well stepping in for the injured Matt Barkley. Washington played well on both sides of the ball and won the critical turnover battle 3-0. All three of USC's turnovers happened deep in Washington territory. A year after finishing 0-12, the Huskies and new coach Steve Sarkisian are 2-1 and 1-0 in the Pac-10. Up next: USC plays host to Washington State; Washington visits Stanford.

California 35, Minnesota 21: Minnesota challenged Cal, tying the game 21-21 in the third quarter, but the Bears responded and won going away. That broke a four-game road losing streak. Jahvid Best scored five touchdowns and rushed for 131 yards, which should establish him as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. With USC's loss, the Bears now become the Pac-10 front-runner. Of course, they've got another -- tougher -- road test coming up. Up next: California visits Oregon.

Oregon 31, Utah 24: Reports of the Ducks' demise apparently were wrong, as they ended Utah's 16-game winning streak and improved to 2-1. While quarterback Jeremiah Masoli continues to struggle -- and Oregon had four turnovers -- the running game got back on track, with LaMichael James rushing for a career-high 152 yards and a touchdown. Safety John Boyett, who stepped in for an injured T.J. Ward, had a pick deep in Ducks territory to keep the Utes from tying the game. Up next: Cal comes calling.

Cincinnati 28, Oregon State 18: The Beavers just couldn't stop Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike, who threw for 332 yards, and receiver Mardy Gilyard. Oregon State continues to struggle to both pressure the quarterback -- just one sack -- and protect its quarterback -- the Bearcats had five sacks. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, though bothered by a sprained ankle, rushed for 73 yards on 20 carries. Up next: The Beavers open Pac-10 play by hosting to Arizona. Both are coming off nonconference losses.

Iowa 27, Arizona 17: Arizona only managed eight first downs at Iowa, and it's clear the Wildcats are still looking for answers at quarterback. Matt Scott and Nick Foles only combined for 105 yards passing, but Foles outplayed Scott, completing 6 of 11 for 55 yards with a touchdown. Scott was 4 of 14 for 50 yards with an interception. The receivers didn't help -- Delashaun Dean dropped what would have been a big pass play. Arizona was 2 of 12 on third down; Iowa was 10 of 19. The Hawkeyes were able to push around a smaller Wildcats defensive front. Up next: Arizona heads to Oregon State to open Pac-10 play.

Washington State 30, SMU 27 OT: The Cougars showed some guts, fighting back from a 24-7 third-quarter deficit to win over overtime. They grabbed four interceptions, including one by Chima Nwachukwu to stop the Mustangs on their first overtime possession. The Cougars' best offense, in fact, was its defense. Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis returned one interception 52 yards for a touchdown, while linebacker Myron Beck grabbed one and went 67 yards for a score. While new starting quarterback Marshall Lobbestael wasn't terribly sharp, he led the Cougars on an 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game with 28 seconds left in regulation. SMU outgained the Cougs 504 yards to 276, but the Cougs found a way to get their first win of the season.

Who's going to win? Week 3 Pac-10 picks

September, 17, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

Pac-10 had a good week; I did not, going 6-3 with the picks, which makes me 13-4 for the season.

Huge weekend for the conference in terms of national perception, as a number of writers have noted.

The Pac-10 is 13-4 in nonconference games so far and 6-2 vs. BCS teams, but the lineup this week features visits from two ranked teams and pair of road games at Big Ten destinations.

California 35, Minnesota 21: This game should make Cal fans nervous, if only because the Bears have not of late been the same team on the road. Minnesota is experienced, with 17 starters back from a crew that went 7-6 in 2008 and the Gophers are playing in their new stadium in front of what figures to be a raucous crowd. Still, you look at Cal's roster and the Bears have such a speed advantage it's hard to pick against them.

Arizona 24, Iowa 21: I'm on-record believing that many are underestimating Arizona. That take, of course, included the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, one of the Pac-10's biggest difference-makers, but he will be out again with a back injury. Too bad. Arizona's defensive speed, however, should hold the Hawkeyes in check, and if sophomore quarterback Matt Scott doesn't make any big blunders, the Wildcats should figure out a way to score enough to win.

USC 30, Washington 17: The Huskies are much improved but, unlike many, I don't expect the Trojans to have a letdown after the win at Ohio State. For one, the players recall what happened last year at Oregon State. Second, they know that their former coaches, Steve Sarkisian and Nick Holt, are standing on the opposite sideline. Finally, the Trojans' veteran offensive line and speed at the skill positions are a terrible matchup for the young and beaten-up Husky defense.

Oregon 27, Utah 24: These aren't the same Ducks as last year. Yet. And these aren't the same Utes as last year. Yet. But here's a guess that Oregon takes another step forward after the Boise State debacle.

Cincinnati 34, Oregon State 30: The Bearcats have a veteran quarterback in Tony Pike and they like to spread the field with four and five receivers. The Beavers haven't generated much of a pass rush yet and are rebuilding their secondary. Oregon State should be able to score, but Cincinnati is built for a track meet, even away from home.

UCLA 21, Kansas State 17: This one will be a grind. The Bruins will be missing starting quarterback Kevin Prince because of a broken jaw and are down two cornerbacks due to injury and suspension, as well as three other offensive players due to suspension. They will survive but barely.

SMU 38, Washington State 30: Is this the Cougars' last chance for a win in 2009? Will they draw a line in the sand, dig deep and get the W? Maybe, but scrap and claw as they might, the guess here is they again fall short against a run-and-shoot offense.

Stanford 30, San Jose State 13: Stanford gets the ball back in running back Toby Gerhart's hands, which sets up a couple of big plays in the passing game, and the defense regroups after a poor second-half showing at Wake Forest.

Arizona State 24, Louisiana-Monroe 17: The Warhawks, who won at Alabama in 2007, have athletes. This is not a gimme, but the Sun Devils likely learned last year against UNLV that there are no gimmes.

What to watch in the Pac-10

September, 17, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

"Measuring Stick Saturday" is two days away. With two nonconference games on the road at Big Ten sites and two home games against ranked teams, the Pac-10 can make a statement that could reverberate in December when it's time to see which conference gets two BCS bowl teams. Or it could flop.

This week, what to watch is like Jeopardy. It's posed as a question.
  1. Can California win on the road? The Bears are riding a four-game road losing streak. Their lone road victory last year came at Washington State, which doesn't count. The last time they faced an early a.m. PDT start, such as they face Saturday at Minnesota, they sleepwalked through the first three quarters at Maryland. If Cal wants to take the next step and move up from a Top-25 program to a top-10 program, it must learn to consistently win on the road.
  2. Is Arizona a Top-25 team? A victory at Iowa and a 3-0 start would clearly demonstrate to the Pac-10 and the country that last year's eight-win season was just a start and that Arizona is a program on the rise. It also would make it hard to leave the Wildcats out of the nation's Top 25. Moreover, doing it with a sophomore quarterback, Matt Scott, making his first road start and without their best player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, would be even more impressive.
  3. Can Oregon State's rebuilt defense thwart Cincinnati's challenge? The Bearcats arrive in Corvallis with an offense that averages 571 yards and 59 points per game. The Beavers counter with just three returning starters on defense. Yikes. Of course, the Beavers only had three returning starters on defense last year and that unit pitched a shutout in the Sun Bowl. The big question here is can Oregon State's pass rush, muted in the first two games, get to Bearcats quarterback Tony Pike?
  4. Does Steve Sarkisian have secret knowledge that can trip the Trojans? Sarkisian has said all week that he won't over-analyze what he knows about USC's coaching staff and players based on his tenure as a Trojans assistant coach. It may not matter because talent wins most of the time and the Trojans have way better talent. But if Washington is going to keep this one close and even, perhaps, pull the upset, let there be no doubt that part of that will be Sark and defensive coordinator Nick Holt exploiting some area where they believe the Trojans are vulnerable.
  5. Is Washington State's season on the brink? The answer is yes. It's not just that SMU, which went 1-11 last year, is the Cougars' best chance for a win this year. It's that the program is presently in a fragile state. Paul Wulff inherited a huge rebuilding job, but fans feel like they are owed more than they are presently getting out of the program. If the Cougs get drubbed at home by the Mustangs' run-and-shoot, it will take a heck of a coaching job for Wulff to hold this together.
  6. Will Jeremiah Masoli and the Oregon offense break through? The Oregon offense improved substantially from Week 1 to Week 2, but it certainly wasn't vintage Ducks spread-option under Chip Kelly, and it certainly didn't approach the magic Masoli produced over the final three games last year. Utah probably can identify. While the Utes are 2-0, they haven't exactly been a finely tuned machine. They needed a big fourth quarter to beat San Jose State, and the defense gave up 221 yards rushing to Utah State.
  7. Will Stanford remember Toby Gerhart is a dominating RB? Gerhart only got six carries in the second half at Wake Forest, and that shouldn't sit well with the coaching staff. Enter San Jose State, which ranks 119th in the country in run defense. It's good that redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck gives the Cardinal a boost in the passing game, but Gerhart is the guy who sets the tone and grinds down foes. Give him the rock.
  8. Can UCLA maintain its focus and win with a backup quarterback? The Bruins are coming off a big win at Tennessee, but they followed up a big win over Tennessee last year with a 59-0 loss at BYU. What's more, the Bruins face Kansas State without quarterback Kevin Prince, who broke his jaw in the waning moments against the Vols. His likely replacement is true freshman Richard Brehaut. While true freshman QBs suddenly seem all the rage, most coaches get nervous seeing one breaking the huddle. Moreover, four players were suspended this week, including a cornerback who was only starting because the starter is hurt. In other words, the Bruins have a lot going on.
  9. Will Arizona State take Louisiana-Monroe lightly and get embarrassed? Louisiana-Monroe infamously beat Alabama in 2007 and inspired Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to compare the loss to Pearl Harbor. The Sun Devils should win this one comfortably, but only if they show up focused, intense and ready to play. If they need any reminders of what can happen when you don't do that against an underwhelming nonconference foe, they only need to look back a year ago at what happened when UNLV visited.
  10. If the Pac-10 rolls this week, will pundits notice? Know that if the Pac-10 flops this weekend in these marquee nonconference games, the gadflies will cackle and swarm. But in the event of a string of victories, it will be interesting to see how the polls react. If Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona all win, do they jump into the AP poll? And what about UCLA? Will such success lay the groundwork for a second BCS berth for an 11-1 or even 10-2 team? Don't expect a rolling thunder of a weekend and a sweep of these contests, but none of these tilts is out of reach. Which also means, of course, that all of them are losable.

Oregon State defense will be tested by Cincinnati

September, 15, 2009

Posted by's Ted Miller

The sample size is too small -- two games, one vs. an FCS foe -- to know whether Oregon State's rebuilt defense will be up to program standards in 2009, but a stress test rolls into Corvallis on Saturday that should be quite revealing.

No. 17 Cincinnati runs a no-huddle spread that presently ranks second in the nation in scoring (58.5 points per game) and fifth in total yards (571 yards per game).

"It's basketball on grass," Beavers defensive coordinator Mark Banker said.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Oregon State's defense will have its hands full stopping Tony Pike, who has thrown for 591 yards and six touchdowns so far.

Oregon State welcomes back only three defensive starters from the 2008 unit that ranked near the top of the Pac-10 in most categories. Of course, the situation was exactly the same -- just three starters back from an outstanding 2007 unit -- in 2008.

So many Beavers fans are counting on a reload rather than a rebuild, in large part because Banker's gap-cancellation scheme has been so consistently productive in recent years.

The early returns are cautiously optimistic.

Banker is happy with the play of his defensive tackles and linebackers. Both ends are new, and Kevin Frahm has played well. Ben Terry and Gabe Miller are still learning the position.

Just one quarterback sack so far for a team that thrives on pressuring the quarterback is a concern.

The secondary has four new starters and there have been some good moments. And bad moments.

"We're OK -- this week will be a better overall evaluation," Banker said. "We need to play with more confidence, and if they do that I think you'll see guys make more plays on the ball."

The Beavers got their first pick -- from safety Lance Mitchell -- in their 23-21 win at UNLV.

The Bearcats should offer a stout challenge because quarterback Tony Pike, a 6-foot-6 senior gunslinger, has been outstanding thus far. He ranks fourth in the nation in pass efficiency and has thrown for 591 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception. He picked apart Big East favorite Rutgers in a 47-15 road victory, establishing the Bearcats as the conference's team to beat.

"I think Pike is as good a quarterback as there is," Banker said. "He's accurate. He's got great vision. The ball is out quick."

Pike does get flustered under pressure at times -- he tossed 11 interceptions last year -- but a defense is playing a high risk-reward game if it blitzes against the Bearcats' four- and five-receiver sets.

"With that gun, you better get there quick because he's going to see you coming and get it off," Banker said.

Then Pike's capable receivers -- Mardy Gilyard is one of the best in the Big East -- take over with the ball in space and a defender is forced to make an open-field tackle.

While the Bearcats pass first, they also are averaging 197 yards rushing per game. If the Beavers can't stop the run, they are in trouble.

And if Pike gets time to throw, it could be a long afternoon.

"No. 1, we've got to match their tempo," Banker said.

On the plus side, the Beavers have won 26 consecutive nonconference home games. Coach Mike Riley is 17-0 in such games.

On the footnote-to-that side, Cincinnati is the first ranked team not presently in the Pac-10 to visit Corvallis since 1977, when the Beavers beat No. 13 BYU.

And what might Oregon State do with a fast start?

If the Beavers defense is, indeed, reloading and the offense has its way with a rebuilding Bearcats defense -- just one returning starter -- then Oregon State will be 3-0 after starting the previous three seasons 2-3.