Stanford Football: Washington State Cougars

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STANFORD, Calif. -- Yet another suffocating Stanford defensive performance led the way to a win for the home team on The Farm. Stanford beat Washington State 34-17, leading from start to finish. Stanford has now allowed fewer than 30 points in 29 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation. Louisville and Ole Miss, who own the second-longest streak, have done that in 12 straight games.

How the game was won: Stanford's defense made Washington State scratch and claw for every single yard, buying the Cardinal's inconsistent offense enough time to finally put the hammer down on the scoreboard. Following its least efficient offensive performance since 2006 (3.0 yards per play last week at Notre Dame), Stanford ran a new perimeter-oriented offense that loosened the middle of field and set up Kevin Hogan's early 39-yard touchdown throw to Eric Cotton (above). The Cardinal proved too much for Washington State's struggling defense, leading wire-to-wire.

Game ball goes to: On a night during which Stanford held Washington State's pass-happy offense to 3.3 yards per play, members of the Cardinal defense earn the game ball. We'll have nose tackle David Parry and defensive back Zach Hoffpauir share the honor. Parry frequently ruptured the Cougars' offensive line, and that allowed pressure like the kind Peter Kalambayi displayed to throw Connor Halliday out of whack a week after he comfortably threw for an FBS-record 734 yards (only 292 yards on Friday).

Stanford's cornerbacks delivered press coverage on the edges, and that left a ton of responsibility for Hoffpauir. He delivered in a big way, racking up 15 critical tackles in the open field to limit the Cougars' aerial attack. Stanford put on an open field tackling clinic.

What it means: The Cardinal's defense, which was already leading the nation giving up only 3.7 yards per play coming into the game, continues to assert itself as perhaps the nation's top unit. Stanford still has not lost back-to-back games under coach David Shaw, and the good feelings are back in their locker room behind a 4-2 record (only one conference loss) after a brutal setback against Notre Dame. Given the quality of their defense, the Cardinal certainly still have a shot at the Pac-12 North title, and this win was a mandatory step in that direction.

Washington State drops to 2-5, and that's a stomach punch to the Cougars' postseason chances. They'll now need to win four of their last five games to reach a bowl game again, and that's a tall order with Arizona, USC, Oregon State, Arizona State, and Washington remaining on the schedule.

What's next: For Stanford, all eyes will continue to be fixated on the team's offense as it moves on to ASU. The defense is a proven commodity -- and it's a championship-caliber unit. But the offense, despite showing improvement, continues to play inconsistent football even despite significantly altering its strategy to a more perimeter-oriented approach. The Cougars had great trouble with the Cardinal's broad array of weapons (12 different receivers combined for 23 catches), but penalties and hit-or-miss plays in the red zone kept this game closer than the final yards per play tally would indicate: Stanford 7.0, Washington State 3.3.

The Cougars won't face a defense as good as the Cardinal's the rest of the year, so that's the silver lining for them after a night during which every single one of their yards seemed tough to earn. The task ahead of coach Mike Leach's club is daunting, and the Cougars will only be able to deliver with significant improvements to their porous defense and kick/punt coverage units.
Here are five things to watch for in Friday night's Washington State-Stanford matchup:

Are the Cougars ready for Stanford's pass rush?

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
AP Photo/Dean HareGetting rid of the ball quickly will be key for Connor Halliday to avoid Stanford's pass rush.
Last year, they weren't, especially during the four-minute stretch of hell that Stanford imposed early in the third quarter. The score was a reasonable 17-3 when the flurry started. In the blink of an eye, Stanford hurt two quarterbacks, returned two interceptions for touchdowns and made it 38-3. The rout was on, and it all happened insanely quickly because Stanford's front seven had turned the Washington State offensive line into a sieve.

The Cougars think their line is better this year, and Cardinal coach David Shaw noted that WSU quarterback Connor Halliday is making his reads and releasing the ball more quickly this time around.

"I doubt we'll hit him as much as last year," Shaw said. "They were running a lot of deeper routes last year, and he was holding the ball longer. He's got a lot more confidence this year. He's on the same page as all of his guys now."

Shaw's analysis must be true for Washington State to have a chance in this game. Because a successful run game is the best way to neutralize Stanford's vicious pass rush, ground-averse teams like the Cougars are typically at a disadvantage against the Cardinal. That was certainly the case last year, and Halliday will have to be fast and perfect to make this go-around different.

Will the Stanford offense show signs of life?

The Cardinal posted their least efficient offensive performance of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era at Notre Dame on Saturday (3.0 yards per play, 1.5 yards per rush). They have already lost two games this season because of offensive ineptitude of some sort; against USC, Stanford scored only 10 points on nine trips to or past the Trojans' 35-yard line.

Long story short: Matters in the land that Andrew Luck used to roam have gotten really bad.

But Washington State's defense hasn't been good either, and the Cardinal see this game as potential offensive medicine. Cal racked up 60 points against the Cougars last week, and Stanford still remembers its excellent all-around performance against Wazzu last year (322 passing yards, 6.0 yards per carry).

If the Cardinal are finally able to establish a consistent running game (that's been an issue this year), the Cougars are in trouble. If not, Wazzu's aggressive pass rush can test a shaky Kevin Hogan (it sacked Marcus Mariota seven times), and that's where this game can become interesting.

The obvious matchup

Tonight's game features, statistically, the nation's best defense (Stanford allows only 3.7 yards per play) against a Football Bowl Subdivision record-setting Washington State offense, fresh off Halliday's historic 734-yard performance at Cal last week. Needless to say, this is a battle between two high-quality units that should make for a compelling watch.

Wazzu kick coverage

[+] EnlargeTy Montgomery
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's Ty Montgomery is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the country.
The 60 points the Cougars surrendered last week weren't all on their defense. Cal's Trevor Davis returned consecutive kick returns for touchdowns against Washington State, and that led Mike Leach to fire special-teams coordinator Eric Russell on Monday.

Wazzu is scrambling to assemble a competent plan in kick coverage this week, as Stanford's Ty Montgomery may be the best returner in the nation. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season and has come close to doing so on multiple occasions this year. As a two-touchdown underdog, the Cougars can't afford any more lapses in coverage.

Kickers

In the past, kicking failures have proved to be a painful Friday night theme, and both Stanford and Washington State have had issues in this phase of the game. Quentin Breshears' missed 19-yard field goal doomed Washington State in last week's 60-59 loss to Cal. Meanwhile, Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson has made only four of his eight attempts this season, and a poor snap in the rain last week proved extremely costly to the Cardinal.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5
9:00
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"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 viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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A look at Saturday's schedule in the Pac-12. All times ET.

4 p.m.

Colorado at California, Pac-12 Networks: Raise your hand if you expected Cal to be the Pac-12's biggest weekend favorite at some point this year. Well, that's the position the Bears (minus-14) find themselves in after having their hearts ripped out at Arizona last weekend. The general public certainly expects Sonny Dykes' team to bounce back, but be mindful of the explosive capability that Colorado's Nelson Spruce brings to the table. Oh, and Cal has outscored teams by 77 points in the first half before being outscored by 33 in the second half, the biggest differential (110 points!) in college football this season.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAfter a 4-0 start in nonconference play, Washington's Chris Petersen will coach his first Pac-12 game at home against Stanford.
No. 16 Stanford at Washington, Fox: Every year, Washington seems to have an early, massive measuring-stick game, and this is certainly one that will gauge the Huskies' ability to contend in the Pac-12 North. This contest might feature the best two defensive front sevens in the conference. But Washington's young secondary has struggled so far this season (475 passing yards and more than 10 yards per attempt given up to Eastern Washington). Can this unit contain Stanford's big, talented group of receivers? That is likely to be the critical question on what's expected to be a pristine afternoon in Seattle.

8 p.m.

Washington State at Utah, Pac-12 Networks: After seeing the scare that Washington State put into Oregon last week, Utah might not want to get too far ahead of itself against the Cougars. But it must be noted that this is a golden opportunity for the Utes: Win and they'll be undefeated heading into a litmus-test showdown with 4-0 UCLA at the Rose Bowl next week. Wazzu, though, desperately needs this game. Connor Halliday's numbers can make your head spin, but high-scoring losses are no longer enough for a team that has stumbled out of the gate at 1-3. There's some explosive playmaking ability on both sides of this one, so expect an entertaining game in Salt Lake City.

Oregon State at No. 18 USC, ESPN: USC has had two weeks to think about an abysmal defensive performance in which Boston College racked up 452 rushing yards. The Trojans' defense resembled a sieve while the Eagles' read-option rushing attack poured the water. USC returns to the comforts of the Coliseum but will face a different, yet equally dangerous, offensive threat. Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is less than 1,000 yards away from the Pac-12 all-time passing record, set by former Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley. Mannion's sharp performance last week against San Diego State should have USC's defense on alert to get its act together Saturday night.

Pac-12 lunch links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
2:30
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Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

Pac-12's lunch links

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
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Cinnamon. It should be on tables in restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime someone says, "Ooh, this is so good -- what's in this?" the answer invariably comes back, "cinnamon." Cinnamon. Again and again.

Pac-12's lunch links

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
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There was only one night game a year. On the 4th of July. The whole sky would brighten up with fireworks, giving us just enough light for a game. We played our best then because, I guess, we all felt like the big leaguers under the lights of some great stadium. Benny felt like that all the time.
Death. Taxes. Stanford wins the Director's Cup.

With the college sports season officially over, Stanford claimed its 20th consecutive Division I Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup award in 2013-14 as the top intercollegiate athletic department in the nation. Stanford finished with 1,482 points, with Florida (1,216,5), Notre Dame (1,128.25), Virginia (1,118.5) and Penn State (1,113) rounding out the top five.

UCLA finished seventh and USC eighth. The ACC and Pac-12 each had three institutions ranked in the top 10.

The Director's Cup is awarded based on each institution’s finish in up to 20 sports — 10 women’s and 10 men’s. It's the most highly regarded measure of the top-to-bottom success of an athletic program, though it also favors programs that sponsor a lot of sports. Stanford had nine scores omitted because of the maximum 10 allowed scores for men's and women's sports.

Here's how the Pac-12 stacked up, with the national ranking to the left.
1. Stanford
7. UCLA
8. USC
15. Oregon
20. California
26. Arizona
27. Arizona State
33. Washington
39. Colorado
72. Utah
75. Oregon State
149. Washington State
We're continuing our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

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

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

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

You can review last year's rankings here.

Tight end, typically a strength, is a position in transition in the conference. It feels a bit like we are grading on a curve here because there's a lot more "We'll sees" than A-list returning players, in some part because a handful of teams employ a big wide receiver instead of a true tight end.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon State: Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith are the best returning tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards last season and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Further, Kellen Clute hauled in 19 passes for 159 yards. Of course, the Beavers use both a tight end and an H-back, so they need numbers at the position. Those were reduced when fifth-year senior Tyler Perry, a solid run blocker, retired due to injuries, as did Hayden Craig, and incoming freshman Jake Knight opted out of football in favor of track. California transfer Jacob Wark, a part-time starter as a Bear, should work his way into the rotation, and incoming freshman Ryan Nall also might get a look.

Oregon: The Ducks seem certain to get good production at the position with some combination of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Each has experience and has flashed potential, and the position should be more important now with questions at receiver due to Bralon Addison's knee injury. Brown started five games last year, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game against Tennessee and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State.

GOOD SHAPE

USC: The Trojans lost Xavier Grimble early to the NFL draft, but Randall Telfer saw plenty of action -- though he caught only six passes last year -- and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has plenty of upside. Incoming freshman Bryce Dixon was a highly rated recruit.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins is gone, and that's a big hit, but the Huskies have talent and experience returning at the position. Senior Michael Hartvigson, who has labored in Seferian-Jenkins' considerable shadow, and Josh Perkins are a good combo, while promising youngsters Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu are competing for playing time.

Utah: The Utes lost starter Jake Murphy and big WR Anthony Denham to the NFL, but they get the promising Westlee Tonga back after he missed all but four games in 2013 due to injury. Tonga has seven career receptions for 79 yards and a TD. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup as a true freshman after Tonga went down, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time, as is Evan Moeai.

Stanford: With Stanford's quality and depth at receiver, it will be interesting to see if tight end returns as a top offensive option, which it wasn't in 2013. The potential for the Cardinal to use multiple tight ends again in the passing and running games is certainly there. Official returning starter Charlie Hopkins is back, as are a trio of redshirts -- Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he should compete for playing time immediately.

UCLA: The Bruins use a "Y" or "big" receiver instead of a traditional tight end, and Thomas Duarte is a heck of a big WR. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound true sophomore appeared in all 13 games last season and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost the productive Chris Coyle as well as his primary backup, Darwin Rogers. De'Marieya Nelson is an athletic option with a diverse skill set -- he's more a big receiver than a tight end at 224 pounds -- while redshirt freshman Grant Martinez ended up No. 2 on the spring depth chart.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin caught nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin saw the field as a freshman and is the top backup candidate. Freshman Connor Center played baseball, not football, in high school, but his 6-7 frame at least makes him intriguing.

Arizona: Terrence Miller operated as a big receiver/tight end last year, catching 40 passes for 467 yards, but he's gone. Former QB Josh Kern was his backup. While the position hasn't been a focal point of Rich Rodriguez's offense, it's notable that he signed two touted tight end-type players in his 2014 recruiting class. While the Wildcats are exceptionally deep at WR, the youngsters could become options in the passing game.

Washington State: Nick Begg, a 6-5, 246-pound incoming freshman, is the only player listed as a tight end on the Cougars roster, and Mike Leach has not traditionally used a tight end. Wonder if Begg said he'd sign if Leach agreed to call him a tight end and Leach said, "Sure, whatever."

California: As previously noted this spring, there is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was probably a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL and Wark's decision to transfer to Oregon State. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback

Running back

Wide receiver
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

But first, you now have a full bag of Twitter handles that are required reading.

You have mine here. You have Kevin Gemmell's brand spanking new 140-character depot.

And you have our veteran Tweeters and new Pac-12 blog insiders, Chantel Jennings -- here -- and Kyle Bonagura -- here.

That is 560 characters that nine out of 10 doctors recommend -- and this is the 10th doctor.

To the notes!


Nick from Sacramento writes: If Sonny Dykes wins 5 games this season, with a new AD, think he sees season 3?

Ted Miller: Short answer: Yes.

I also think that if he wins four or even three games and the Bears are far more competitive on both sides of the ball than they were in 2013, he deserves a third season, unless things go haywire off the field. While Dykes didn't inherit an entirely empty cupboard from Jeff Tedford, there were certainly issues, and then the Bears' injury woes last season were among the worst I've witnessed -- UCLA fans, you could equate it to your 1999 season, when Bob Toledo was practically walking around campus asking guys to suit up.

Dykes hasn't been perfect. Most notably his hiring of Andy Buh as defensive coordinator didn't work out. But he also deserves credit for making a handful of changes on his staff this offseason, including the hiring of Art Kaufman to run his defense.

Of course, when a football coach of a struggling team sees the athletic director who hired him depart, he knows he is losing an important administrative relationship. ADs and the coaches they hire in revenue sports are tied at the hip. When one suffers, so does the other. In this case, with Sandy Barbour leaving, Dykes is now less secure than he was last week. And it's notable that we rated him as the least secure Pac-12 coach even before this news.

The question now turns to the sort of AD Cal has in mind to replace Barbour. There are plenty of athletic director types out there. Some move deliberately. Some are more impulsive. I've been told by more than a few savvy ADs that it's important to hire your own football coach because you would rather be judged by what you have done than what your predecessor did.

Yet, as with most things in college football, there is an easy solution: Winning.

If Dykes goes 4-8 this season and gets back to the postseason in 2015 with quarterback Jared Goff as a third-year starter -- and his team is academically and behaviorally sound -- I suspect we'll see him around for a while.


Tom from Seattle writes: Saw your QB blog about the PAC-12 and the comments on Utah's QB Travis Wilson -- "When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. "Are we talking about the same Travis Wilson that is the 11th ranked PAC-12 QB in conference play two years running and leads the world in INT's? Still love your blogs, though!

Ted Miller: Yes.

First, Wilson, despite playing with an injury for three games, ended up grading out fairly well, ranking 47th in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR. Sure, that is only ninth in the Pac-12, but in the conference of quarterbacks, it's important to keep a national perspective when we are evaluating what might constitute a "solid performer."

Second, see if you notice anything in these numbers. Can you guess when Wilson got hurt? What you see is a pretty good quarterback through six games and the bottom falling out during the next three conference games. Again, "when healthy Wilson has been a solid performer..." When he was bad last season, he wasn't healthy (other than the UCLA disaster).

What about that "good upside" part? Well, let's not forget that Wilson was a true sophomore last season. He was thrust into service prematurely in 2012 and played fairly well considering the circumstances. When the Utes were 4-2 after beating Stanford, he looked like a guy who could lead the Utes into the South Division race.

For comparison's sake, consider that Oregon State's Sean Mannion had a 127.1 rating with 18 interceptions as a redshirt freshman starter. Wilson finished with a 129.7 rating last season.

But thanks for loving the blogs. Most awesome people do.


Paul from Albany, Ore., writes: Losing Brandin Cooks is going to be very difficult on the Oregon State offense and this fact has been pointed out numerous times. What has not been pointed out is that this same dialogue was stated the prior year when Markus Wheaton was lost to the NFL. Yes Cooks had a better year last than Wheaton did one earlier. But why has so little been written about the common denominator in both seasons -- Sean Mannion?? He is returning and yet all you folks write about is the losses he has sustained. How about digging into the idea that maybe he is a key factor in helping these receivers achieve their lofty status?

Ted Miller: Well, after passing for 10,436 yards and 68 touchdowns in three seasons, Mannion certainly merits a tip of the cap. And he has improved each year, which is a good thing.

I'd also contend he gets plenty of credit. For one, we ranked him fourth among Pac-12 quarterbacks, which is saying something when all four qualify as All-American candidates. And NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. knows who he is, ranking him the nation's No. 2 senior quarterback Insider.

But this will be a revealing year for Mannion. For one, he's a senior. This is his last chance to make a statement as a college quarterback and as an NFL prospect. Second, for the first time, he doesn't have a proven, NFL prospect at receiver.

NFL scouts are presently wondering if Wheaton and Cooks made Mannion look good. If Mannion is a more efficient player this season with a less stellar supporting cast in the passing game and, yes, wins a couple of big games, his stock will rise both when it comes to college kudos and NFL love.


Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: A few weeks ago, the PAC-12 announced a new start time window for football: 11:00am. A few stories circulated the announcement, but I have not seen anything since. Has there been much feedback regarding this start time? From my standpoint, while it provides needed content for that time slot on the PAC-12 Network, it's way too early for the fans, especially in a region where we are used to late afternoon and night games.

Ted Miller: We did a poll and 58 percent of 5,391 respondents were positive about the 11 a.m. window.

I generally agree with that result. While 11 a.m. isn't ideal, it's better than having four games kickoff at 7:30 p.m. PT. A lot of Pac-12 fans have been complaining about a surfeit of late kickoffs. This is a response to that complaint. My guess is those who will now complain about the early kickoff will be fewer in numbers.

It's important to note a few things about the 11 a.m. window.

Wayne, I notice you are from Arizona. If you are a fan of Arizona or Arizona State, you won't have to worry about an 11 a.m. kickoff, at least not until late October. The Pac-12 has no interest in fans melting into puddles in their seats.

It's also unlikely the 11 a.m. kick will be the day's marquee game. That still will almost always fall into primetime windows, be that on ET or PT.

I suspect the 11 a.m. kickoff will mean more TV eyeballs for what might seem like middling games. While some folks are worried about competing with SEC or Big Ten games at 2 p.m., I don't see that as an issue. Some viewers will tune in because they care more about the Pac-12. Some will tune in because they like to watch more than one game at once. Those who don't care about the Pac-12 wouldn't watch with any kickoff time.

Some don't like the 11 a.m. kickoff because it means waking up early to drive to the stadium, and it cuts into tailgating time. But I'm not sure if these party-hardy folks are looking at the big picture.

First, there will be some encouragement for fans to arrive Friday evening. That only means more fun. Then, on Saturday, you get the 8 a.m. bloody mary at the stadium with eggs and bacon and country ham from this guy. Yummy. Then you have a postgame tailgate and time for a dinner and -- potentially -- a nice evening to tool around the old college digs.

The socially creative among you will be emailing me at season's end telling me the 11 a.m. kickoff rocked.


Emily from Los Angeles writes: You want a heartbreaking loss? What about the 3OT game between USC and Stanford?

Ted Miller: You mean a game that featured big names, ranked teams, controversy, late heroics and three overtimes could be heartbreaking?

I was there. Really entertaining, strange game. Hated how it ended, though. Not in terms of who won, but that it was about a sloppy and unfortunate turnover rather than a dramatic play.


Trevor from Portland writes: We got an article about Pac-12 heartbreakers, and it left out the biggest heartbreaker of the decade. Cam Newton fumbled, he wasn't down by forward progress. Cliff Harris was in. Michael Dyer was down. I'm still not over it.

Ted Miller: I was there for that one, too.

The Ducks were so close to a national title. It was the only time I can recall that Chip Kelly expressed regret about his game plan and some in-game decisions, as that sort of navel gazing wasn't his thing.

That is the thing about close games. They are a thrill to win and excruciating to lose. They also are why we love sports. While we love the winning, there is also a masochistic side to us that enjoys the social aspects of wallowing in misery among friends.

(Thousands of fans from various, struggling Pac-12 outposts immediately go, "Who... us?")
While some like to gleefully dance around a raging bonfire in nothing but a loincloth with the heads of college football coaches on pitchforks, the Pac-12 blog is less demonstrative. And more empathetic.

It believes there is no glee in seeing someone fired, even if said coach is snarky, unavailable or arrogant. Let he who is not sometimes snarky, unavailable or arrogant cast the first stone! (Pac-12 blog starts sheepishly whistling.)

That's why the Pac-12 blog cringes every year when it acts as a reluctant prophet of doom by putting a thermometer to each conference coaches' stool and announcing a temperature. It gives us no pleasure to tell the coach to slide over a bit so we can scramble some eggs and rustle up some bacon (thick cut) on a portion of his seat.

Ah, but there is good news in 2014. The Pac-12 coaching stools range from comfortably chilled to slightly warm to the touch. There are no Will Muschamps, Mike Londons or Dana Holgorsens in the Pac-12 this year.

So while there's always going to be someone stuck at No. 12 when Pac-12 teams are ranked, there's good reason to believe the conference just might get through a season without a coaching change -- at least not one created by a boot and a slamming door.

1. David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw has won consecutive Pac-12 titles. He inherited a good thing from Jim Harbaugh and made it better. He's a Stanford graduate and he loves raising his family among family in Palo Alto. While many view him as a future NFL coach -- and you never say never in coaching -- he's the most likely guy on this list to be in the same place a decade from now.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJim Mora is 19-8 in two seasons at UCLA.
2. Jim Mora, UCLA: In just two seasons, Mora has built the Bruins into a Pac-12 and national contender. He has considerable positive momentum on the field and in recruiting. The most likely scenario for departure is him leaving on his own accord. UCLA can avoid that by continuing to invest in the football program -- read: coaching salaries and facilities upgrades.

3. Todd Graham, Arizona State: Mora and Graham are really 2A and 2B, as they have both turned so-called "sleeping giants" into potentially awakening giants. While some still believe Graham could eventually have a wandering eye, every indication -- including this -- is he is setting up for the long term in Tempe.

4. Chris Petersen, Washington: Petersen is not only secure because he's in his first season with the Huskies, he's also secure because he's Chris Petersen, who's widely regarded as an elite coach. Of course, if he's a 7-5 or 6-6 Chris Petersen in December, then the Sark II jokes will begin.

5. Mike Leach, Washington State: While Leach isn't great at avoiding controversy -- he feels no need to place a filter between his brain and mouth -- his team took a big step forward last year. Further, he seems like a great fit in Pullman and with Coug fans, who enjoy his quirkiness. Finally, he's got a good and supportive AD in Bill Moos, who has tirelessly worked to improve the facilities around the program.

6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona: Rodriguez has done a good job his first two years in Tucson, winning more than a few games he shouldn't have, as well as grabbing a pair of bowl victories. What knocks him down here is Graham's success in Tempe and Graham's 2-0 record in the Territorial Cup. Rich Rod can't afford for that to become a long-term trend.

7. Mike Riley, Oregon State: The notion that Riley could be terminated feels unlikely, but there is a faction of Beavers fans that is dissatisfied with the program, in large part because of Oregon's rise to national prominence. If those folks would write the athletic department a $68 million check, they'd have more legitimacy and a better chance of getting an audience with AD Bob De Carolis.

8. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado: MacIntyre's early returns are solid. Colorado improved in myriad ways last year. He seems like a good fit. But the Buffaloes are just 1-8 in conference games the past two seasons. You'd suspect fans are ready to show some patience, but a coach is never secure until he starts winning conference games.

9. Steve Sarkisian, USC: How can Sarkisian be all the way down here in his first year? For one, it's because his hiring wasn't overwhelmingly greeted with celebratory cheers. But it's also that USC fans have a small window for satisfaction: Pac-12 championships and national titles. You even can win a bunch of the former and not be loved if you're not competing for the latter.

10. Mark Helfrich, Oregon: Helfrich has some of the same issues as Sark, though he's in his second year leading a nouveau riche program as opposed to an old-school power. He won 11 games and was in the national title picture much of 2013 but some Ducks fans only know him for Not Being Chip Kelly. The Ducks are again Pac-12 favorites and top national title contenders. If they lose more than one regular-season game, though, some fans might become disgruntled. Not saying it's right, but it would happen.

11. Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Whittingham is the starting line on this list for where there's actually some real warmth, but he also has a strong track record with his program and a legitimate excuse: It ain't easy moving up from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Still, Utes fans are eager to gain some traction in the South Division. Whittingham should be safe with a return to the postseason, but a third consecutive losing record could tighten the screws considerably.

12. Sonny Dykes, California: Dykes is only in his second season, which typically would mean he's safe. The conventional wisdom is a coach needs at least three and preferably five years to be fairly evaluated. But college football has become far less patient with losing -- even academic bastions like Berkeley -- and Cal has spent a bunch of cash for fancy facilities upgrades. The expectation here is Dykes will be back in 2015 if his team wins three or four games and shows improvement in terms of soundness and consistent focus. But he can't afford another feckless 1-11 season.
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
Over on the SEC blog, Alex Scarborough decided to take a look at some heartbreakers in the SEC in recent years in honor of the U.S. soccer team’s heartbreaking finish on Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are more. Of course there are more. There are always more. And I'm sure you'll remind us of them. Ted would love to hear your thoughts.
You're not a wartime consigliere, Tom.

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