Pac-12: Cal Bears

Planning for success: Cal

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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Needing two wins in its remaining four to reach a bowl game, Cal’s game at Oregon State on Saturday is the closest thing to a must-win game as there has been in the Pac-12 this season -- at least in terms of bowl eligibility.

A loss in Corvallis means the Bears (4-4, 2-4 Pac-12 ) would need to take two of three from USC, Stanford and BYU down the stretch. Doable, but unlikely. Cal’s clearest path to the postseason is through Oregon State and BYU, which have combined to lose seven of their past eight games.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Lasco
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsDaniel Lasco and the Cal running game soared against Oregon last Friday night.
What a bowl would mean for the fans of a program coming off a one-win season, is pretty well understood. It ceremoniously represents the reversal of fortunes, spikes morale, and all that good stuff, but the prize isn’t the game in this scenario. The potential program-changing currency is the extra practices that bowl teams are awarded in the lead up to the game.

It’s kind of a backwards system if you think about it -- the good teams get to get better, while the teams that definitely need the practice aren’t allowed to -- but that’s a discussion for a different day. For Cal, a young team with plenty of room for growth, bowl practices can provide a jump start on next season -- when offensive coordinator Tony Franklin believes the offense “has a chance to be great.”

But first it’s the Beavers (4-3, 1-3), for whom the game carries nearly the same weight. With five games left, Oregon State’s most likely path to six wins is through Cal, then Washington State the following week. No. 15 Arizona State, Washington and No. 5 Oregon remain after that. With the way the Pac-12 has shaken out so far, it’d be silly to say the Beavers couldn’t win one of those final three, but, as things sit, they’d be underdogs in those games. If the Beavers don’t beat Cal, their postseason odds drop drastically.

Saturday’s game will pit strength against strength and weakness against weakness.

Despite having quarterback Sean Mannion, who is 194 yards short of breaking Matt Barkley’s Pac-12 career passing yardage total (12,327), the Beavers have largely sputtered offensively under first-year coordinator John Garrett. Losing Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks early to the NFL was a tough blow, but they’re seven games in and still don’t have an identity. The Beavers rank 11th in the Pac-12, averaging 309.2 yards per game in conference play, but those numbers figure to rise at home against the conference's worst defense. Cal is allowing 601.7 yards and 48.3 points per game in conference play, which both rank worst among Power 5 schools.

Conversely, Cal ranks No. 7 among Power 5 schools in points per game in conference play (41.0), No. 10 in total offense (506.8) and it's the Oregon State defense that measures up better statistically. The Beavers are fourth in the conference in total defense, but have allowed 4.76 yards per rush, which ranks 10th.

With the Bears' top four receivers at least somewhat affected by injuries, expect Cal to try to build off of last week's success on the ground against Oregon (38 carries, 193 yards). Running back Daniel Lasco and change-of-pace quarterback Luke Rubenzer have both been reliable running options, but Vic Enwere had somewhat of a coming out party in his five-carry, 57-yard night against the Ducks. Like Lasco, he gives the Bears a physical back -- as displayed on his 19-yard touchdown run on Friday.

Then again, Jared Goff might just go out and throw for 400 yards. Either way, a sense of urgency is required -- the Bears are getting close to literal must-win territory.
1. How much will Oregon get some targets to its less experienced receivers?

The Ducks spent the early part of the season relying heavily on Devon Allen and Keanon Lowe, though of late we've seen players like Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford have the opportunity to make big plays. Having that kind of a receiver arsenal is only going to improve Oregon's chances for the playoff, and the more chemistry quarterback Marcus Mariota can build with those receivers now -- in games in which the passing defense isn't quite as strong -- the more it will pay off down the road when the passing defenses are a bit more intense.

2. How will the Ducks' secondary hold up?

Cal has the No. 3 pass offense in the nation, averaging 372 yards per game, and Oregon's secondary has been less than stellar. Opposing quarterbacks average a 63.4 percent completion rate against the Ducks' defense (103rd nationally). And on third-down passing plays, opponents have converted 44.9 percent of the time. So, Oregon's defense hasn't been stout and it really hasn't been stout in crucial situations. Jared Goff is a much improved quarterback. Given the opportunity, he's going to air it out against Oregon and the Ducks are going to need to respond.

3. What kind of numbers will Royce Freeman put up?

Oregon's freshman running back is on quite the kick. He came in with a lot of hype and he has more than backed that up. In the past two games he has tallied six rushing touchdowns and 290 yards at 6.2 yards per carry. Those aren't freshman statistics. And those numbers were put up against two pretty good rushing defenses in Washington and UCLA.

Now enters: Cal. The Bears have a good rushing defense, giving up just 133.4 rushing yards per game at 3.8 yards per rush. But those numbers are a bit skewed considering how much more teams pass against the Bears than run (teams are averaging 53 pass attempts per game as opposed to just 35 rushing attempts per game). Could Freeman have a third consecutive 100-yard game? It seems silly to bet against him at this point.

4. How long will Cal keep pace?

When things are clicking, Cal's offense can be nearly as dangerous a unit as any in the country. The Bears rank No. 10 in the country in scoring (41.6 points per game) and are built to play in shootouts, but with minimal depth on defense, those types of games also are tougher on Cal than other teams the later they go. For Cal to make a game of it, its rotational guys on defense have to give them a chance.

5. How will Levi's Stadium fare as a college venue?

Fans at Cal had mixed reactions to moving a home game to the South Bay, to the new home of the San Francisco 49ers. On one hand, it's an impressive stadium that has all the amenities a fan could want. On the other, it's not Memorial Stadium, and playing a game off-campus changes both during and leading up to the game. There's also those pesky San Francisco Giants, who are playing in the World Series on Friday night, which will undoubtedly hurt the game's attendance.

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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video (All times Pacific)

Friday, 7 p.m.

Oregon at California, Fox Sports 1

[+] EnlargeMariota
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota and Oregon figure to be in a shootout against California.
This is a matchup between the two Pac-12 leaders in scoring offense: The Ducks average 43.6 points per game, and the Bears are at 41.6. The difference on paper -- and likely on the field, too -- comes on defense. Cal sports the conference's second-worst unit (38.4 points per game), and the Ducks have upped their defensive play to reach fourth in the conference rankings (23.6 points per game). This will be the first college football game at Levi's Stadium and comes on a massive sports night in the San Francisco Bay Area: Game 3 of the World Series will be happening there, too.

Saturday, 11 a.m.

UCLA at Colorado, Pac-12 Network

It's turned into another long season for the Buffs, and the journey certainly doesn't become any easier with UCLA's explosive bunch coming to town. Turnovers, though, have been a major issue for the Bruins this season. Cal scored 21 points off UCLA miscues to keep the game close last week, and that might well be Colorado's formula to have a puncher's chance at Folsom Field. For Brett Hundley's squad, this should be a chance for a tuneup before a challenging finishing stretch: vs. Arizona, at Washington, vs. USC, vs. Stanford.

12:30 p.m.

Oregon State at Stanford, ESPN2

The Beavers will certainly be sniffing upset in Palo Alto. Stanford is a very vulnerable team right now: The offense is faltering, and that supersonic defense has taken two gut punches with injuries to linemen David Parry and Aziz Shittu. That being said, the Cardinal have been excellent when faced with adversity in the David Shaw era. The fourth-year coach has yet to lose consecutive games in his tenure, and Stanford is desperate to right the ship at home.

3 p.m.

Arizona at Washington State, Pac-12 Network

The Cougars won 24-17 in Tucson last season, but we will likely see more points this Saturday in Pullman when Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach resume battle. Arizona and Washington State are the Pac-12's two top teams when it comes to total offense. They are averaging a combined 1,091 yards per game. Since both defenses are ranked in the conference's bottom half, expect fireworks and an intriguing duel between senior Connor Halliday (who is on an NCAA record-smashing pace) and freshman Anu Solomon.

7 p.m.

USC at Utah, Fox Sports 1

This Utah squad reminds our Kevin Gemmell of the 2012 Stanford squad that won the Pac-12 championship, and I agree with him: The Utes don't ask for much out of their quarterback (62 pass yards last week), they run the ball with vigor (229 yards from Devontae Booker last week) and they set up frequent shop in opposing backfields (nation-leading 5.5 sacks per game). Both teams have also established a hashtag for their pass rush: 2012 Stanford had #PartyInTheBackfield, and 2014 Utah has coined #SackLakeCity. So USC is tasked with beating this rugged Ute team in a raucous road environment. This game is a significant step in figuring out the convoluted Pac-12 South puzzle.

7:45 p.m.

Arizona State at Washington, ESPN

There is a 70 percent chance of rain in Seattle. They call that "Dawg Weather" in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington hopes that will aid in its quest to win the turnover battle -- the Huskies are ranked second nationally in turnover margin even after last week's substandard performance at Oregon. Taylor Kelly returns to the quarterback role for Arizona State, but Todd Graham expects Mike Bercovici will also get snaps. Washington's offense has sputtered this season (league-worst 5.0 yards per play), and it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand in its matchup with the Sun Devils' unremarkable defense.
1. The popular knock on Utah stems from the fact that they only had 62 passing yards last week, but they keep finding other ways to win. Will the Utes’ formula be enough in a big showdown against USC this Saturday?

  • Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I say yes. Utah’s defense is going to be stout and Nate Orchard is going to have a monster game, getting after Cody Kessler. The Utes have the highest sack percentage (12.1 percent) of any team in the nation, and if we’re doing over/under for 3.5 sacks from the Utes in this game, I’m going with the over. And with Kessler struggling, the Trojans will try to lean more on Buck Allen, but bad news for Buck. The Utes have the best run defense in the conference, allowing just 2.85 yards per rush (Stanford is in second with 2.89). They’ve given up just three rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth in the country). On top of that, Utah’s special teams are going to ball out. USC has given up 13.3 yards per punt return (112th nationally) and have allowed almost one-fifth of kickoffs to be returned at least 30 yards. Kaelin Clay? Go for it … just leave out the Heisman pose this time. As long as Utah’s offense is good enough (and with Devontae Booker coming off that Oregon State performance, I’m not super worried), the Utes take care of business.
  • Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: This will be a very close game, and although this whole Travis Wilson/Kendal Thompson quarterback shuffle isn't ideal (Wilson will start this week), Utah can succeed even with an anemic passing attack. That's because a strong rushing attack and a powerful defense form a potent combination. Booker has eclipsed the 150-yard mark in three consecutive weeks (he hit 229 yards his last time out), and that forms an intriguing matchup with a USC defense that has actually been good against the run since its debacle at Boston College. No discussion of Utah's chances is complete without an acknowledgement of #SackLackCity, the location of Saturday's game. Chantel mentioned Orchard; his 10.5-sack effort this season trails only Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha nationally. On a team-wide level, no one in the nation is even close to matching Utah's sack production, which stands at 5.5 per game. Second place is 4.0 sacks per game, and the Utes are on pace to post a staggering 71.5 sacks this season. The Trojans do have the athleticism to potentially burn Utah's ferocious pass rush, but it's really tough to bet against Kyle Whittingham's unit in its raucous home environment.
2. Rich Rodriguez vs. Mike Leach: How great offensive minds square off in the Palouse. How many points will we in Arizona-Washington State?

  • Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I don’t think it’ll be quite as crazy as Cal-Wazzu, but, I think we’ll see at least 49 points combined.
  • Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: Well, Cal-Wazzu is an insane standard to live up to (119 combined points), but I think we're going to see some offensive madness in the Palouse. Both the Arizona defense (allowing 5.9 yards per play) and the Washington State defense (allowing 6.0 yards per play) rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in that statistic, so that'll leave Leach and Rodriguez room to score. I have a feeling both teams will hit the 40s in this one.
3. Conversely, how few points will we see at Stanford-Oregon State? The Cardinal’s defense had great success against Oregon State last year, but Stanford's offense is the Pac-12’s worst in terms of scoring now, and the Beavers are playing solid defense.

  • Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Twenty-eight or fewer. I bet we’ll see three touchdowns and maybe a field goal.
  • Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: Stanford is favored by 13 points here, and some jokesters on Twitter have asked if the number 13 is the spread or the over/under for this one. I think we'll see more points than people expect: The Cardinal will have receiver Devon Cajuste back, and they'll be missing key defensive linemen David Parry and Aziz Shittu. That should count for at least a few Oregon State points.
[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressRoyce Freeman has a bright future at Oregon.
4. Which freshman or sophomore in the conference will be an All-American by the time he graduates?

  • Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Oregon running back Royce Freeman. He’s an absolute man-child. I saw him wearing a backpack one day and I thought it was a mini backpack because it looked so small on him. But then when I looked more closely I realized it was a normal backpack, it just looked mini-sized on him. But it’s not just his physical size that makes him great. He’s elusive. He’s fast. His vision is improving. And if you look at the progress he has made from Game 1 to Game 7 of the Ducks’ season, imagine what he’ll do in the next two or three years.
  • Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: I like Chantel's pick. I also think that Arizona running back Nick Wilson is doing a heck of job carrying the freshman torch. His 6.4 yards per carry leads the the top Pac-12 running backs. And even though he's not as big as Freeman, Wilson still packs a physical punch -- just ask Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
5. Statistically, Cal has the worst defense in the conference. If you could take any defensive player in the Pac-12 and put him on the Bears, who would you pick and why?

  • Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Initially I considered Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha, because any team would be better with him in its front seven. But I’ve decided to go with Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. He doesn’t lead the conference in tackles (that’s Scooby Wright III), but he makes things happen on defense. And what I think Cal needs more than a stout pass rusher is a straight playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. The Bears have forced just nine fumbles and of those nine they’ve only recovered three. Thompson has forced and recovered three fumbles alone. I think he could make things happen for the Bears.
  • Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: The most valuable asset for a defense is a dangerous body that can attract and swallow multiple blocks, and no Pac-12 player provides more value in this regard than an athletic fire hydrant Danny Shelton: 339 pounds, 7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss. I'll let David Shaw's father Willie defend my position: "If you give me a choice between a great cornerback and a great defensive lineman, I'll take the great defensive lineman. Because a great defensive lineman can make an average corner look great."
6. Word/phrase association.

Jennings/@ChantelJennings:

a. Pac-12 South: Ultimate chaos

b. December 6: Anyone’s guess

c. Wazzu: So close yet so far

d. Andy Phillips: Money

e. Hau'oli Kikaha: I’m glad I don’t play quarterback in the Pac-12

f. Buck Allen: Tank

Lombardi/@LombardiESPN:

a. Pac-12 South: Minefield

b. December 6: Talking scoreboard (Bay Area radio listeners understand)

c. Wazzu: Poor Connor Halliday

d. Andy Phillips: Automatic

e. Hau'oli Kikaha: A name fit for a sack master

f. Buck Allen: So why didn't Lane Kiffin play him?
Levi's StadiumAP Photo/Tony AvelarThe San Francisco 49ers are working to bring several high-profile events to Levi's Stadium.
If things work out the way the San Francisco 49ers are hoping, Friday’s game at Levi’s Stadium between Cal and Oregon will be the first of many college football games to take place at the new venue.

Levi’s will also host the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 and the San Francisco Bowl on Dec. 30, but a few years down the line the lineup could potentially include an early season, neutral-site game and the College Football Playoff championship. At least that’s the goal.

The College Football Playoff championship sites are set through the 2016 season, but when the request for proposal process begins for the three games after that, the 49ers plan to participate, according to the team’s director of business operations, Chris Giles.

"Myself and the leadership over at the playoff group have had multiple discussions," Giles said. "I think we can make a very compelling case that the national championship should be at Levi’s Stadium."

Located about an hour south of San Francisco in Santa Clara, the stadium is to host Super Bowl 50 following the 2015 NFL season, WrestleMania in February 2015, and is actively pursuing other high-profile events, including international soccer matches and concerts, to fill the rest of the calendar.

"The intention all the way to completion [of construction] was to make the venue a 365-day-a-year venue," 49ers chief revenue officer Ethan Casson said. "We absolutely wanted the focal point to be on our football team and the 49ers, but we just believe a venue like this with what we are doing specific to technology, green and fan experience, it would be phenomenal to program this building with high-profile events above and beyond the NFL games. That’s where college football has really resonated."

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who is on the Board of Managers for the College Football Playoff, said part of the criteria for the championship game is to rotate it among several sites and the West region "will get its fair share of games." This year’s game will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, followed by University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, next season and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, after that.

"All the fan amenities really do distinguish Levi’s as a special place to play," Scott said. "It’s a new venue that a lot of people will want to see. Media, sponsors, alumni of our schools ... it’s a big attraction, and undoubtedly it would be highly successful in the championship game mix."

Scott was impressed enough with the venue’s offerings to ditch the conference’s home-hosting model for the Pac-12 championship game and move it to Santa Clara for at least three seasons.

For Giles, who worked closely with Scott at the Pac-12 before going to work for the 49ers, the pairing between Levi’s and the Pac-12 seemed like a natural fit.

"The game is worthy of being played on the biggest stage, and now it is. It’s not just another home game," he said. "It allows us to build a festival atmosphere. Having run that game for the Pac-12 before coming here, it’s very difficult to do things that are typically associated with a game of that magnitude from a fan-engagement and auxiliary events standpoint."

The Pac-12 had operations teams on site for at least two 49ers games this season, and Scott said it will have a large contingent present on Friday. He said they also expect feedback from both Cal and Oregon to be helpful for the game’s planning process.

An announcement of a title partner for the San Francisco Bowl, which was known as the Fight Hunger Bowl last year, is expected to be made in the next couple weeks, according to Casson.

Casson, who has worked closely with the San Francisco Bowl Game Association to find a title sponsor, said the bowl’s move from AT&T Park in San Francisco, where the game has been played since 2002, and its new pairing with the Big Ten has helped drum up significant interest. He said there were about six companies that seriously looked into the title partnership and either made a bid or wanted to.

The bowl will get the fourth pick among Pac-12 teams -- after the Rose/Playoff Group, Alamo and Holiday Bowls -- and at least five different Big Ten teams will play in the game over a six-year period.

The 49ers are also interested in developing an early season series -- comparable to the Cowboys Classic in Arlington -- that would ideally create an intriguing nonconference game early in the year, but it’s unclear what the timetable is for that to become a reality.

"I’m talking with [athletic directors] on a weekly basis, and lot of what we’re talking about is 2019, 2020, 2021," Giles said.

Because of how far in advance teams schedule nonconference games, Giles said it’s easier -- at least for now -- to have a team relocate one of its home games to the stadium. That was the case for Cal-Oregon, which came about after discussions to bring this year’s Big Game between Cal and Stanford broke down late last August.

Giles said potential home games at Levi’s aren’t limited to the Bay Area’s three FBS schools -- Cal, Stanford and San Jose State -- but he wouldn’t pursue a home-game relocation from a school that wasn’t a "reasonable driving distance from the stadium."

That presumably leaves Fresno State, which is about 150 miles away, as another option. The Bulldogs played Cal at the 49ers' previous home, Candlestick Park, in 2011.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
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So, last Saturday wasn't boring or anything. Let's do it again.

Friday, 6 p.m.

Washington State at No. 25 Stanford, ESPN

In one four-minute stretch of fury against the Cougars last year, the Cardinal turned a 17-3 lead into a 38-3 advantage. Stanford's ferocious pass rush hurt two Washington State quarterbacks and delivered a pair of pick-sixes in that span. There's hope coming out of Pullman that the offensive line has improved for this go-round, and that optimism will certainly be put to the test in this Friday rematch. Tune into see how Connor Halliday, fresh off an FBS-record 734-yard game, fares against Stanford's No. 1-rated defense (the Cardinal are allowing a nation-best 4.4 yards per play). Also, keep an eye on that struggling Stanford offense, which is desperate to get back on track.

Saturday

12:30 p.m.

Oregon at UCLA, Fox

This is obviously the weekend's marquee matchup, and it promises to be entertaining. Both the Bruins and the Ducks feature playmaking quarterbacks, struggling offensive lines and inconsistent defenses. That's a formula for absolute mayhem on the hallowed turf of the Rose Bowl. There will be an air of desperation here, too, as both teams are coming off losses. This may not technically be a College Football Playoff elimination game, but the loser will certainly feel like a long shot to make the inaugural four-team tournament. That puts the onus on Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota to deliver in this heavyweight fight. Of course, unheralded players will play a key role, too.

3 p.m.

Washington at Cal, Pac-12 Network

Now the Bears have a chance to test the extent of their resurgence. At 4-1 overall, Cal is in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 North. Their two conference wins, though, have come against the league's lower tier (Colorado, Washington State). A victory against 4-1 Washington marks the clear next step in Sonny Dykes' plan to bring the Bears along. Jared Goff (22 touchdowns, three interceptions) has been fantastic, and he should be able to find leverage against a Husky secondary that gave up 475 passing yards to Eastern Washington. But Chris Petersen's athletic front seven will ensure that this won't be a cakewalk for Goff. The Dawgs will bring the heat. On the other side of the ball, both the Washington offense and Cal defense are desperate to show improvement. Does one of those units win that battle, or does this turn into yet another shootout that short-circuits the scoreboard?

7:30 p.m.

USC at Arizona, ESPN2

This season's second Hail Mary victim meets its first Hail Mary beneficiary to conclude Saturday night in the desert. At 5-0, the Wildcats are the Pac-12's only remaining unbeaten team, and they have a chance to attain bowl eligibility with a win. USC's defense, meanwhile, should be eager to earn redemption following a late collapse and breakdown against ASU. That sets up an intriguing battle for Arizona youngsters Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson, who both played well beyond their years in last Thursday's 31-24 road win over Oregon. A week ago, many might have expected a deluge of points from this game, but Scooby Wright is the leading the charge of an underrated Wildcats defense, so perhaps that side of the ball will ultimately determine the flow of this one.
If it was humanly possible to forget the past and look at each season as its own individual entity, Cal sophomore quarterback Jared Goff would be just as prevalent in the Heisman Trophy discussions as any player in the country.

Of course -- right, wrong or indifferent -- that’s just not how things work. The Golden Bears’ spectacular departure from relevancy a year ago means it will take much more than an impressive five-game stretch before the country takes notice.

In Berkeley, they’re just fine with that. With a 4-1 record, the Bears have more important things to worry about, more important things to fix.

[+] EnlargeGoff
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesCal quarterback Jared Goff has passed for 1,875 yards and 22 touchdowns in just five games this season.
For Goff, that starts with consistency -- more specifically, his completion percentage. He's connecting on 64.6 percent of his throws but wants to be closer to 70.

“That could really improve our scoring,” he said.

But, Jared, your team is averaging 50 points per game, the second most in the country.

“I know that’s hard to say because we’re scoring so much right now,” he said. “But I really think we can improve.

“There’s a lot of stuff we saw on film that we’d like to fix. Missed some shots early at Washington State, and watching it on film you see that and hopefully we don’t miss it again.”

And despite those so-called missed shots, Cal still dropped 60 on WSU in Pullman as Goff (527 yards) and WSU’s Connor Halliday (734) combined to throw for 1,261 yards, a new single-game FBS record.

The consensus around the Pac-12 is that Goff was good as a true freshman, but now that he’s in Year 2 and the supporting cast (read: offensive line) has improved, he’s not only taken the next step but skipped a few.

“He’s really good in the pocket. Strong arm, ball comes out really, really rapidly,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, whose Huskies travel to Berkeley this week. “He can throw the ball with the rush around him. He’s not looking for checkdowns in those situations. He can still throw ball down the seams.

“He’s mobile, and although he’s not a ‘runner’ he does a really good job of creating things when things do break down. Very impressed with him. He’s probably the best guy we’ve seen so far.”

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez agreed. The Wildcats needed 36 fourth-quarter points and a Hail Mary to beat Cal at home in a game Goff completed 18 of 30 passes for 380 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

“He played pretty well, I thought, as a freshman. Now, you can always make a leap from your freshman year to your second year in college. He looks like he’s bigger and stronger,” Rodriguez said. “He’s certainly got a good command of the offense having his second year in it. He can make all throws, and he will make all the throws.

“I was really impressed with him a year ago, but I really think he’s better now.”

Goff threw 18 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last season and has already eclipsed the touchdown total this year. With 22 touchdown passes and three picks, he ranks second nationally in touchdown passes behind only Halliday (26) and has done so with less than half as many attempts (181 for Goff, 369 for Halliday).

Among the 97 quarterbacks in the country who have attempted more than 110 passes, Goff’s QBR (89.6) ranks No. 1. He ranks No. 7 in passing yards (1,875), and 53.3 percent of his pass attempts (including sacks) on third down have gone for first downs, the third-best rate in the country.

In every way a quarterback can be evaluated -- wins, stats, physical ability, leadership -- Goff measures up well.

“I think more than anything he’s understanding what it takes to play quarterback at this level,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “Maturing that way and coming full circle and realizing it takes a lot of work and takes some ups and downs. When things are going good you have to keep a level head, and when things aren’t you have to keep a level. He’s done that.”

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota might be the best player in the country, but against two common opponents -- WSU and Arizona -- there wasn’t anything that indicated he was that much better than Goff. In fact, looking at those two games in a vacuum, it’d be hard not to give the edge to Goff.

Of course, there are other factor in play there (again, read: offensive line), and Goff was quick to shift the focus to his teammates when asked to explain how he’s made such strides this season.

“I think the offensive line doesn’t get enough credit,” he said. “So far this year a lot of the attention has been on me, the receivers, the running backs, but the offensive line ... they’ve improve so much. They’re starting to gel now, and without them we can’t do anything and we know that.”

Now only if they could do something about that defense.
The Pac-12 has been blown to smithereens. Forget everything you thought you knew. We're starting from scratch. It'll be tough to match the madness that Week 6 brought to the West Coast, but perhaps Week 7 can deliver an entertaining sequel. It's time to begin the transition.

Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: No. 12 Oregon at No. 18 UCLA

Both the Ducks and Bruins lost for the first time this past weekend, so some many think their highly anticipated showdown has lost some of its luster. The pair of setbacks, though, may have added even more intrigue to Saturday's battle at the Rose Bowl. It's now abundantly clear that both Oregon and UCLA must address potentially fatal weaknesses (Utah sacked Brett Hundley 10 times in its 30-28 win while Arizona wore the Ducks' defense into submission in a 31-24 triumph), and neither team has much time to make the necessary improvements and adjustments.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCan Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal rebound from its second loss of the 2014 season?
For that reason, expect Saturday's showdown to be a dogfight between two vulnerable conference powers, both hungry to get back on track and re-assert themselves as favorites in this Pac-12 race. A second loss on either squad's resume could easily cripple College Football Playoff hopes a week after they took a punch to the stomach, so eyes out West will be on the Rose Bowl to see how the two preseason favorites react to adversity.

Team with the most to prove: No. 25 Stanford

Speaking of adversity, the Cardinal's catastrophic downturn on offense has created its fair share of it in the Bay Area. Stanford's 3.0 yards per play and 1.5 yards per rush in Saturday's gut-wrenching 17-14 loss at Notre Dame were both low marks of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. Statistically, Stanford hadn't been that inefficient on offense since Walt Harris coached the team to a 1-11 record in 2006 (one game during that miserable season featured only 52 yards of total offense).

The Cardinal's new-look offensive line, stocked with formerly touted blue chip recruits, has been a disappointment so far. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is struggling in the absence of the bona fide power rushing threat that used to be a Stanford staple, and -- to make matters worse -- receivers are dropping many of his good passes.

Are the Cardinal balanced enough to win the Pac-12 again this season, or is this team's rugged defense providing unsustainable life support for an erratic offense that has ranged from inconsistent to inept this season? Stanford must prove its attack can carry at least some of the load, and that task begins on Friday against Washington State's struggling defense.

Most desperate team: Washington State

Connor Halliday threw for an FBS-record 734 yards Saturday, yet the Cougars still found an unfathomable way to lose 60-59 at home to Cal. This time, the knockout punch came courtesy of a missed 19-yard field goal as time wound down. Yes, from the Washington State perspective, it would be impossible to write a more nauseating script. There's no way to sugarcoat it: Wazzu snatched defeat from the jaws of what would have been a much-celebrated victory on Saturday.

For Mike Leach, the problem is his team has already blown a handful of opportunities this season. The Cougars are 2-4 now, and if they're intent on making a bowl game, they'll have to find at least four more wins in this slate: at Stanford, vs. Arizona, vs. USC, at Oregon State, at ASU, vs. Washington. If last season's 55-17 whipping is any indication, the Cougars' high-flying attack is not well-equipped to handle Stanford's rugged defense because it can't establish a running game capable of neutralizing ferocious pass rushes. The 2014 window of opportunity is closing for Leach's team, which will have to scratch and claw its way into a shot on the road this Friday.

Diamond in the rough game: Washington at Cal

The Bears, who did not beat a single FBS opponent in last season's miserable 1-11 campaign, are in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 North. Let that stunning factoid settle in as you ponder the parity that has turned this conference into a weekly roller coaster ride. It all means that Cal will return home to an energized Memorial Stadium crowd this Saturday for an anybody's-guess matchup with fellow 4-1 foe Washington.

Jared Goff has supercharged Cal in his second season. He's thrown 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions. That presents an intriguing test for a young Husky secondary that surrendered 475 passing yards to Eastern Washington in Week 2. Can Chris Petersen's havoc-inducing defensive front seven put a damper on Cal's ebullient vibes? Will the Bears' struggling defense be the cure for Washington's sputtering offense? Will both of the above happen and create a fourth straight heartrending game for Sonny Dykes? Those will be Saturday's money questions.

Oh, and keep an eye on the Bears' Trevor Davis. He returned consecutive kickoffs for touchdowns on Saturday in the Palouse.

This week's top chance at redemption: USC at No. 10 Arizona

It looked as if the Trojans would be undefeated in conference play heading into next Saturday's showdown at fellow unbeaten Arizona, but that will no longer be the case. The Trojans blew a 34-25 lead in the final three minutes Saturday, and that doesn't even begin to illustrate how demoralizing their 38-34 loss to ASU was. Jaelen Strong's Hail Mary reception at the final gun shocked the Coliseum and turned USC victory into defeat. Steve Sarkisian's squad must now rush to right the ship before it drops out of the conference race. In that regard, a test in the house of the Pac-12's only remaining unbeaten team is a golden opportunity. Of course, the undefeated Wildcats see a big-time chance here, too.

Arizona's debut at No. 10 in the latest AP poll is a historic one.

Fresh off their 24-17 win at previous No. 2 Oregon last Thursday, the Wildcats became the first team since the poll went to 25 teams in 1989 to move from unranked to the Top 10. Arizona (5-0) is one of 10 undefeated teams left in the country and was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation on one ballot (by ESPN's Brett McMurphy).

Arizona has not been in the Top 10 in consecutive weeks since 1998, when it moved up a spot in each of the final seven weeks to finish No. 4.

The Wildcats are the highest ranked of six Pac-12 teams in the Top 25, followed by No. 12 Oregon, No. 18 UCLA, No. 20 Arizona State, No. 24 Utah and No. 25 Stanford. USC and Cal also received votes.

Following its win at previous No. 8 UCLA, Utah is ranked for the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The Utes were ranked for most of the 2010 season, their last in the Mountain West, but dropped out after losing to Boise State in their bowl game.

Oregon and Stanford are in unfamiliar spots after losing in the same week of the regular season for the first time since October 2008.

The Ducks have been ranked lower than No. 12 just once since the beginning of the 2010 season -- and that came in Week 2 of the 2011 seasons, when they were ranked No. 13. Stanford at No. 25 matches its lowest ranking since debuting in the poll's final spot in Week 2 of the 2010 season.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5
9:00
AM ET
"Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?"

The Pac-12 has been blown to smithereens. Forget everything you thought you knew. See you guys next week. We’re starting from scratch.

Words cannot do justice to the insanity that was Week 6 in the Pac-12. Arizona waltzed into Autzen Stadium and won, but that was just the appetizer. Another Hail Mary finish, a new FBS passing record, and multiple instances of end-game missed field goal drama later, Cal is now alone leading the Pac-12 North while Arizona is at the top of the Pac-12 South. So, in the midst of insanity, it's time to give out helmet stickers.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: The youngster racked up 92 rushing yards on only 13 carries (7.1 per touch). He also caught a critical 34-yard touchdown pass from Anu Solomon that proved to be the difference in Arizona's 31-24 win. During that emblematic play, Wilson turned Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu into "a fly on a windshield" -- if I'm allowed to steal the TV broadcast's perfect description. It's rare to see a true freshman lay the wood like that.

Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona: Wright has posted more impressive games statistically, but his performance at Autzen Stadium enters Wildcat lore because of one last, iconic play. With Arizona nursing a one-score lead, Wright hunted down Marcus Mariota and ripped the ball away with one powerful swoop, sealing a massive win and evoking memories of Desert Swarm in the process.

Terron Ward and Storm Woods, RB, Oregon State: The Beavers have been laboring to establish a consistent run game that complements quarterback Sean Mannion's efforts, and they got a solid ground effort from their tandem in Boulder on Saturday. Ward rolled up 102 yards (8.5 per carry), while Woods added 69 of his (5.3 per carry) to fuel a 36-31 win over Colorado.

Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State: He caught a game-winning 46-yard Hail Mary from Mike Bercovici to silence the Coliseum as time expired. Is there anything else that can be said about Strong's sublime 10-catch, 202-yard performance? This guy is an NFL talent, and his efforts led the Sun Devils to a 38-34 stunner against USC.

Connor Halliday, QB, Washington State: We'd already mentioned that Halliday was on pace to break the NCAA single-season passing record. Well, now he's on track to absolutely shatter it. Halliday's 49-for-70, 734-yard, six-touchdown performance set a new FBS record for passing yards in a single game. Houston's David Klinger held the previous mark (716 yards in 1990). The most astounding piece of this story: Halliday put on that aerial display without throwing a single interception, yet his team still somehow lost. Cal edged the Cougars 60-59.

Jared Goff QB, Cal: The sophomore's 527 passing yards combined with Halliday's 734 to make 1,261 total, also an FBS record. Goff's combination of pinpoint floaters and laser beams was spectacular and it was also efficient -- he averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt against a Cougars' defense that was actually coming off a solid performance at Utah the week prior. Most importantly, Cal escaped with a win. Memorial Stadium will be rocking next Saturday to welcome home Goff and his 4-1 first-place Bears. Yes, you read that correctly.

Utah defense: The Utes completely exposed UCLA's offensive line en route to a massive bounce-back 30-28 victory at the Rose Bowl. Whenever a defense combines for 10 sacks and 13 tackles for loss against a team with a mobile quarterback like Brett Hundley, the entire unit deserves helmet stickers. So we're mailing a whole bunch of them to Salt Lake City, where the Utes are again sitting pretty in the midst of total chaos at 4-1. Remember, this is a team that had won only two road games over the past two seasons entering 2014. This defense has been an integral part of this season's 2-0 road start.

Devontae Booker, RB, Utah: Though the Utes' defense terrorized Hundley all night, Kyle Whittingham needed a bell cow to crank out yardage and move the chains in critical situations. That would ensure that kicking stud Andy Phillips was set at crunch time. Booker assumed that role, rumbling for 162 yards on 33 workmanlike carries.
"This was supposed to be a boring college football weekend," our own Ted Miller tweeted. "But of course, 'Boring College Football Weekend' is the unicorn of sports."

Those simply don’t exist, especially in the modern inception of the Pac-12, where substantial conference depth has translated into frequent drama. USC manhandled Oregon State to finish this past Saturday’s action, but before that, only eight total points separated the three earlier games at the end of regulation.

Though there wasn't much hype entering Week 5, it ultimately blossomed into a fantastic Saturday of down-to-the-wire finishes. That means the sky’s the limit for Week 6, which features a truly robust six-game slate. Let's set the table.

Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: Stanford at Notre Dame

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCoach David Shaw and Stanford face a crucial test against Notre Dame.
Bad news: Stanford’s Week 2 home loss to USC immediately erased much, if not all, of the Cardinal’s margin for error in the quest for a College Football Playoff berth. Good news: Saturday’s 20-13 road suffocation of Washington made it readily apparent that David Shaw’s program can still make up lost ground. The cold-blooded Cardinal defense that has made a name for itself stifling explosive Pac-12 offenses hasn't gone anywhere, and now it's returning to South Bend looking to purge controversial 2012 memories of Stepfan Taylor struggling at the goal line in overtime.

Stanford is in the midst of what is widely considered to be the toughest two-game stretch of its schedule. A win Saturday means a road sweep of the only two trips that derailed the Cardinal when they faced a similar slate in 2012, so there is obviously a lot of stake entering this classic showdown (heck, in 2012, this game ultimately determined a spot in the national title game). One juicy battle is already set, and it pits Stanford's top-ranked pass defense (which has allowed only a single 100-yard passer in four games) against vastly improved Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson (25 straight completions against Syracuse). The Cardinal defense is giving up only 4.7 points per game.

Team with the most to prove: Utah (at UCLA)

Coming off a muscle-flexing win in the Big House, Utah was enjoying life on cruise control against Washington State. The Utes jumped out to a 21-0 lead in front of their raucous home crowd, and the stars seemed to be aligning for a Week 6 Pac-12 South showdown between the undefeated Block U and fellow unbeaten No. 8 UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

Not so fast, shouted Mike Leach's crew.

Wazzu roared back late, overcoming a fourth-and-14 paired and a 27-14 deficit in the final quarter to win 28-27. And, just like that, Utah had returned from its big early season splash to the dreaded land of questions.

Was the Utes' early season offense really that good, or was it just picking on very shoddy Idaho State and Fresno State defenses? After winning just two road games in two seasons prior, did Utah's victory at The Big House actually signify a turnaround, or was Michigan just a corpse of a football team?

Utah will enter the Rose Bowl with a chance to push aside the Wazzu loss and prove its impressive start was no fluke. The Bruins are bubbling with confidence after hanging 62 points on Arizona State, so this is a true litmus test for the Utes.

Most desperate team: Colorado (vs. Oregon State)

There is no pleasant way to lose in double overtime, but the Buffs took an especially gut-wrenching route in Strawberry Canyon. First, they blew an early 21-7 lead. Then, they wasted a sensational late Bryce Bobo touchdown catch that forced extra time in the first place. And in a game dominated by a severe lack of effective defense -- Cal and Colorado became the first teams in FBS history to both throw seven touchdown passes in one game -- the Buffs were, ironically enough, ultimately denied by the Bears’ defense in a second overtime goal-line stand.

Colorado is now 2-3, but most sobering is the fact that this 59-56 loss dropped them to 4-25 in Pac-12 play since entering the conference in 2011. Oregon State visits Boulder next weekend after mustering only 181 yards of total offense in a disheartening 35-10 loss at USC.

A glance at the Colorado schedule calls for intense urgency now: At least on paper, this coming contest against the Beavers looks like the Buffs' best chance to rack up another win this season. The Los Angeles schools loom after the bye, and there is also a trip to Autzen Stadium waiting in late November.

Diamond in the rough game: California at Washington State

Consider the dazzling offensive display that Cal and Colorado flashed this past Saturday: the aforementioned 14 touchdown passes (tying an FBS record) and the 913 passing yards. Then consider the mind-boggling numbers that Washington State quarterback Conor Halliday is on pace to post this season: After Saturday's 417-yard performance, he has a nation-best 2,318 yards and 20 touchdown passes in just five games. Assuming Washington State makes a bowl game, Halliday is on pace to become the first college quarterback to surpass 6,000 passing yards in a single season.

So if anyone is familiar with the results of mixing gasoline and fire, this game might be the football equivalent. It features two high-scoring offenses coming off confidence-building wins, a pair of shaky defenses, and two coaches hungry to capitalize on an opportunity to make a valuable dent in the Pac-12 standings. Though Leach has a chance to return to .500, Cal's Sonny Dykes can move to 4-1 as his team nears the meat of its schedule.

The true hidden intrigue here might come from Wazzu's defense, which tightened the screws down the stretch at Utah. How will the Cougars fare against explosive Cal youngster Jared Goff?

The week’s top chance at vengeance: Oregon (vs. Arizona)

The spotlight almost always focuses on Oregon’s loss to Stanford last season, but it’s important to remember that it was the Ducks’ later stumble at Arizona Stadium that ultimately derailed the team’s BCS train and rerouted it to the Alamo Bowl. After the Cardinal’s 2013 loss to USC, Oregon had a golden opportunity to again smell Roses, but the Wildcats quashed those by administering a humiliating 42-16 beatdown in the desert.

The Ducks say that catastrophe has helped them develop valuable perspective when it comes to preparation, and Thursday night's rematch offers a chance for Oregon to put November 23, 2013 in the past.

Remember that this is a showdown between undefeated teams. Arizona is still buzzing after Austin Hill snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with his Hail Mary catch against Cal. The Wildcats have proven they can score in bunches season, but keeping pace with the Ducks in that regard presents an entirely unique challenge.

This week's top chance at redemption: ASU (at USC)

One can be sure that Arizona State players and coaches will wince more than a few times this week. They will be watching film from their brutal 62-27 home loss to UCLA, a game highlighted by the Sun Devils' atrocious tackling against Brett Hundley and the Bruins' potent offense.

A trip to the Coliseum always offers a shot at redemption, but No. 16 USC is coming into this game bristling with confidence after smacking Oregon State, 35-10. The Trojans performed exponentially better defensively against the Beavers than they did in their previous game at Boston College, but ASU -- fresh off a 622-yard performance against UCLA -- will provide a new challenge for USC, even if quarterback Taylor Kelly (questionable) is not yet ready to return from injury.

Saturday offers two potential outcomes for these teams: ASU will either re-emerge in the Pac-12 South race following that ugly loss to the Bruins, or USC will further entrench itself alongside its crosstown rival as one of the firm leaders of that division.

Pac-12 vs. SEC: quarterback play

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
5:20
PM ET
It's widely accepted that the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC among the Power Five conferences. ESPN The Magazine wondered whether the Pac-12 could narrow that gap in 2014 by examining how the two conferences stack up according to four factors, conveyed through an infographic: quarterback play, defensive line, recruiting and coaching.

First up is a quarterback comparison. From The Mag:

If ever there was a year for the Pac-12 to sneak past the SEC, it's 2014: A&M loses a Heisman-winning QB (Johnny Manziel), Alabama a two-time titlist (AJ McCarron) and Georgia its all-time leader in passing yards and TDs (Aaron Murray). "Compare them apples to apples and the Pac-12 is what the SEC was a year ago -- with even more upside," Huard says. "It's mass productivity across the board." ASU's Taylor Kelly (4,243 total yards in one year), OSU's Sean Mannion (400 completions) and WSU's Connor Halliday (five games with four-plus TDs in '13) prove there are stars beyond Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Brett Hundley (UCLA) and Kevin Hogan (Stanford). Advantage: Pac-12.

The Pac-12 blog has spent the week highlighting the league's incredible depth at the quarterback position. The future looks pretty bright, too.

The West region is stocked with quarterback talent in the 2015 class. Ten ESPN 300 quarterbacks reside there, in addition to four other four-star quarterbacks. That's enough talent to stock the Pac-12 for years to come. How is the league faring at that position in the 2015 class?

Final analysis

Biggest gets: Darnold, Rosen, Town, Browning, Waller, White
Biggest misses: Zach Gentry, Barnett, Jones, Lewerke

Holding onto six of the 10 ESPN 300 quarterbacks is a significant number, especially when it’s taken into account that the four schools that earned commitments from the other ESPN 300 prospects -- Alabama, Florida, Michigan State and Texas -- aren't exactly recruiting lightweights. While there are undoubtedly some Pac-12 programs still looking to take advantage of the fact that recruiting can be fluid all the way until signing day, the majority of teams are likely content with the way things have played out thus far.

Ultimately, the conference has done well, given the level of local talent at such an important position.
Cal football coach Sonny Dykes wasn't completely caught off guard when Sandy Barbour's 10-year run as the athletic director at Cal came to an abrupt end in late June. Not because he sensed a change was coming, but because of the nature of the position.

"It's always a surprise when there's a change of leadership, to an extent," Dykes said. "[Barbour] was here for a long time. [Athletic directors] with her tenure aren't very common. As someone hits six, seven years, you can almost put a countdown clock on it.

"I was a little surprised by the timing, maybe, but I'm happy that she obviously landed on her feet [as the new AD at Penn State]. She'll do a great job there."

When Barbour was pushed out the door, Dykes lost a staunch ally. She hired him, she sold the Cal community on him and was professionally vested to his success. The two had a good working relationship and, by several accounts, Barbour remained confident the football program was headed in the right direction despite the monumental woes of 2013.

Without her in the AD chair, there will be change. That's only natural.

To what extent that affects Dykes' job security remains to be seen, but the common thought process when it comes to new athletic directors is that they want to hire their own coaches — especially for the high-profile sports. That's not a hard-and-fast rule, but the coaches that stick around under new administration are also generally the ones who win.

Michael Williams, a former Cal wrestler, was selected by chancellor Nicholas Dirks to step in to Barbour's old job in an interim basis as the school starts what is expected to be a lengthly search for her permanent replacement. Williams committed to the role for a year, but there isn't an official time frame for how long he'll remain in place.

"The chancellor put me in not to keep the seat warm, but to actually be the athletic director," Williams said. "I'm interviewing coaches, making coaching decisions, signing contracts all the thing that's go along with the job."

That, of course, includes evaluating where things stand with the football program, and so far Williams likes what he sees from a foundation standpoint.

"I knew [Dykes] only as a fan and I thought, from afar, he was a good high-character person. And now our relationship as colleagues has proven that that's what he is," Williams said. "He's been very open and honest with me. I've noticed that he doesn't complain. He was dealt a pretty difficult hand and you really haven't heard him complain about it.

"He's very much focused on the future, he's very optimistic. He's already made some great changes in the academic profile of our student-athletes in football, which we're pleased with."

As for how Williams will evaluate the on-field product, that's still to be determined.

"I don't have any metrics yet. For me as an observer, we'll know progress when we see it," Williams said. "I don't in my mind have a certain number of wins [that constitutes success]. If we see ourselves competing. If we see the system is working and we see some entertaining football -- those are some things -- but I don't have anything really specific."

Williams' wait-and-see approach is really the only rational course to take. Even with an improved team this year -- which Cal has to be -- that might not mean much in the Pac-12 North standings, which is as difficult a division as there is in college football. Dykes is still the same coach several FBS programs tried to hire less than two years ago, and needs at least two more seasons before the direction of the program can be fairly judged.

"I'm optimistic about Sonny and excited to see what he does on the field this year," Williams said. "Anything I can do to help him, I will."

Cal opens training camp Monday and begins the season Aug. 30 at Northwestern.

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