Pac-12: Oregon Ducks
It was the date they'd have a chance to hit the field again against the team that derailed their 2012 season. But the 2013 date would have the same result -- that circle would make no difference in the end -- it'd be another loss to Stanford, another New Year's Day spent not playing in the Rose Bowl.
"We can't make it a bigger game than it is," Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. "That's what I feel like we did last year. We were just focusing on that game way too much."
So perhaps in this game, one of the biggest benefits for Oregon will be one of its biggest questions marks -- its youth.
Though Allen and Carrington saw the effects of this game last year during their redshirt seasons, they weren't in that game seeing exactly how everything went down.
Now, their ignorance could be Oregon's bliss.
In any other game that type of inexperience might be considered a deterrent. But here, in a game in which the history has messed with the present players more and more, perhaps inexperience will be one of the Ducks' greatest strength.
"I feel like it's a little bit easier for those guys to be able to play this game," Grasu said. "Because all we can tell those young guys is treat it like you perform in practice. They do an unbelievable job at practice and it has been showing on the field every Saturday. They just have to keep doing that -- don't get too hyped up just for this game."
"Maybe that is a good thing," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said about his young playmakers. "Those guys are a little bit fresher in their perspective."
The youth certainly has been fresh for Helfrich this season, especially of late as the learning curves have really picked up.
But to him, he really doesn't think of his players in terms of grades. He looks at each of them as a player going into Week 9 of the season, and so far, all of these 18- and 19-year olds have looked like very talented Week 9 players.
"We have so many [young] guys playing prominent roles on both sides of the ball and on special teams," Helfrich said. "If they're in the game, they're our best guy doesn't matter what grade they're in."
It might not matter to Helfrich, but it could, in fact, be a help to the coach come Saturday.
Mariota is again a Heisman frontrunner and one of the most accomplished quarterbacks ever to grace the green. Yeah, but those Stanford games …
Hogan has led the Cardinal to a couple of Rose Bowls, but has had his struggles with consistency. Yeah, but those Oregon games …
Hogan’s legend was born on Nov. 17, 2012, at Autzen Stadium. Still in a post Andrew Luck haze and unsatisfied with the results of Josh Nunes, Stanford turned to Hogan to make his first career start at home against Oregon State. A week later, he made his first road start in Eugene and helped engineer an unlikely 17-14 overtime win over the No. 1 Ducks. It was not a game the Cardinal were expected to win.
A year later at Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal knocked off the No. 2 Ducks 26-20. Again, Oregon was the favorite.
“Kevin has played probably two of the best games of his career against us,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
Against Oregon, Hogan is completing 65 percent of his throws with one touchdown, one interception and a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Conversely, Mariota has completed 57 percent of his throws against the Cardinal with three touchdowns, one interception and zero rushing touchdowns. Stanford -- the only Pac-12 team Mariota hasn’t beaten in his decorated career -- has been his Great White Buffalo (said in a whisper).
“Last year Marcus certainly didn’t play his best game, nor did everybody around him contribute to his best game,” Helfrich said.
Fair to assume, too, that his knee injury had something to do with it.
The quarterbacks once against take center stage this weekend as the No. 5 Ducks look to move up in the College Football Rankings. Stanford, the two-time defending league champs, is looking just to stay in the North Division race.
“It goes without saying our game plans are completely geared around Marcus,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We have that much respect/fear of him. It is respect. He is the focal point of what we do and the focal point of what they do. At times we’ve been able to contain him. We’ve been able to harass him.
“But in every game, there’s a streak where you can’t do anything about it. He gets out of the pocket and takes off. He makes a couple of great throws. He moves the team down the field in three plays and scores a touchdown. It’s understanding that that’s going to happen at some point during the game. And when it does happen, we give respect to a great player and we come back and try to get after him again.”
Stanford’s best weapon against Mariota the last couple of years has been its offense’s ability to sustain drives and the defense’s ability to get off the field. In the two previous meetings, Stanford converted 52 percent on third down, while the Ducks converted just 25 percent.
It’s that same consistency Hogan has shown the previous two years that Shaw is hoping for out of him on Saturday.
“I think the biggest thing is being opportunistic,” Shaw said. “If something was there he was getting the ball out of his hands and throwing it. If nothing is there pulling it down and running it. Being very decisive. Converting on third-downs. Controlling the ball and controlling the clock. It’s hard to separate Kevin from the entire offense. But that’s pretty much what’s been good about what we’ve done.”
Meanwhile, Mariota has gracefully answered all Heisman questions before and during the season, though he has made it quite clear that the stiff-arm is the furthest thing from his mind. Still, many voters -- both of the Heisman and Selection Committee variety -- will look to this game to see if he and the Ducks can cure their recent Stanford woes.
And when we look back on this era of Pac-12 football in a couple of decades, Mariota’s accomplishments won’t be whisked away. Nor will Hogan’s Rose Bowl appearances be redacted. Question is, will we still be saying, “Yeah, but ..."
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet.
At this point in the season, any injury to a starter can be crippling. And in the ridiculously competitive Pac-12 South, it can be downright devastating. Earlier in the week we learned that USC would be without left tackle Chad Wheeler for the rest of the season. Wednesday, another impact player was lost for the year when Utah announced that wide receiver Dres Anderson would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
“We feel bad for Dres. It’s heartbreaking for that kid. He’s a fifth-year senior. He’s poured everything he had into this program for five years,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters after practice on Wednesday. “Nobody’s outworked him. Nobody’s done more for us than Dres during that period of time. He’s taken care of business on and off the field. He’s got his degree already in hand.”
Here are some reactions:
- From The Associated Press.
- Matthew Piper of the Salt Lake Tribune has some player reactions.
- And for some pod reaction, our own Ted Miller was on ESPN Radio 700 in Salt Lake City.
The Utes, very much in the thick of things in the Pac-12 South -- and even the playoff conversation -- enter one of the toughest stretches in the country. After this week's trip to ASU, they are home to Oregon, at Stanford, home to Arizona and at Colorado to close out the season. According to FPI, the Utes have the second-toughest remaining schedule of the 25 ranked teams and the eighth toughest in the nation.
Catching you up on the Heisman race, which could take a turn this weekend with Stanford heading to Oregon, Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota is nearly neck-and-neck with Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. In the latest ESPN.com poll, Prescott leads Mariota by a single point.
Here’s how it shakes out (followed by total points):
- Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State (45)
- Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (44)
- Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (18)
- Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama (13)
- Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (11)
No other Pac-12 players are receiving votes. Here’s guessing that if Mariota can finally get over his Stanford hump, he’ll enjoy a nice bump.
- The Wildcats don't mind some of the negativity they hear on the road.
- Todd Graham is confident heading into the Utah game.
- Cal's football team is getting all brainy.
- Mike MacIntyre still has confidence in Sefo Liufau.
- An Oregon practice report.
- Some Oregon State news and notes.
- Stanford will have to face Oregon with a defense that isn't full strength.
- Eddie Vanderdoes says it's do or die for the Bruins.
- Despite the wear and tear, Leonard Williams is living up to the hype.
- Lots of potential bowl landings for Utah.
- A couple of Washington post-practice videos.
- The Cougs got a little inspiration from a former coach.
I guess yesterday was National Cat Day? To which my beagle says, meh. The tweet is still funny, though.
ASU running back DJ Foster gets in a question for teammate Taylor Kelly. pic.twitter.com/gnIygvvhVC— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) October 29, 2014
Welcome to the mailbag. Please stay for the punch and pie. And if you feel like it, follow me on Twitter.
Emily, who was formerly from L.A., writes: Unhappy Trojan here, but I have to admit Utah was a really good team. Question that calls for speculation: if Utah beats Oregon - assuming both teams win this coming weekend (yes, I know that's a lot to assume) - do you think the Playoff Committee would recognize Utah as a team worthy of the playoff? Or would taking down Oregon completely knock the PAC-12 out of the running?
Kevin Gemmell: I think the same train of thought that applies to Oregon also applies to Utah, Arizona and Arizona State. A one-loss Pac-12 team will not be left out of the College Football Playoff. This is why we have people now and not computers. At some point, someone in that room will stand up and say it’s absurd for a one-loss Pac-12 champion to not be included. Question is, will there be one?
Since you’re asking specifically about the Utes, let’s break them down. They already have wins over two ranked teams. If they win out, they will have beaten ASU, Oregon and Arizona -- all ranked, and all in the top 15. Two of their wins would also be against Michigan and Stanford. The Michigan win doesn’t carry the weight it used to, but at least one person in that room will be swayed by a win at Stanford.
Now, what’s the likelihood this actually happens? Pretty slim. The Utes have the second-hardest remaining schedule of the 25 teams according to FPI (8th nationally) and their chances of winning out are .8 percent. And things got a lot tougher with the news this morning that receiver Dres Anderson would miss the rest of the year with a knee injury. That taxes a passing game that already had issues.
But whether it’s Utah, Oregon or one of the desert schools, any of them would have a more-than-presentable résumé to make a case for playoff inclusion with just one loss.
Jeff in Sacramento writes: When is the last time Oregon lost 3 straight to the same team? For instance, if Oregon were to lose to Stanford, this would be the third year in a row. When is the last time that happened?
Kevin Gemmell: It took a ton of sleuthing and cross-referencing and spreadsheets, but I have your answer.
Actually, I popped open the Oregon media guide and found it in two minutes because it’s more recent than you’d think.
Before Oregon had a Stanford problem, it had a -- wait for it -- CAL PROBLEM! That’s right, the Bears were the thorn in Oregon’s side in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Before Oregon picked up its sixth-consecutive win over the Bears last week, it was Oski owning Puddles. In those three years, two of the wins were by double digits. Two wins came in Berkeley and one at Autzen.
Here are the links to the three games so you can relive the heroics of Nate Longshore and DeSean Jackson and wallow in the shortcomings of Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Johnson. 2006, 2007, 2008.
An anonymous Huskie in Cougar Land writes: Why can't Pac-12 teams schedule good opponents? Other than Oregon playing Michigan St and UCLA playing Texas, I can't count another Pac-12 team playing a team from a power five conference with a winning record. Why do we have to be such wimps? It's quite simple why nobody thinks the Pac-12 can compete with the SEC: they don't play anyone good! Imagine Oregon playing Alabama. Or Stanford playing LSU. If they played tougher opponents, they would not only get the credit they need - and want - but could also vault themselves into national prominence.
Kevin Gemmell: You might notice a trend … and that’s other schools ducking out of their obligations to play Pac-12 teams. It takes two to dance, otherwise you're just pulling a Billy Idol. The Pac-12 has been willing. But their partners haven’t been.
Like, for example, Texas A&M recently leaving Oregon at the altar, or Georgia pulling out of its Oregon game a few years ago. Or Notre Dame trying to get out of its obligation at ASU. By the way, this is the second year in a row that three teams from the Pac-12 play Notre Dame. Wouldn’t consider them wimps. And for what it's worth, Rutgers and Virginia are a couple of Power-5 teams that look bowl-bound.
But to ease your concerns, here are a few matchups we have to look forward to in the coming years (all information via fbsschedules.com):
- Arizona: Mississippi State in 2022 and 2023.
- Arizona State: Michigan State in 2018 and 2019; LSU in 2022 and 2023.
- Cal: Texas in 2015 and 2016; North Carolina in 2017 and 2018; Auburn in 2019 and 2020; TCU in 2020 and 2021.
- Colorado: Michigan in 2016; Nebraska in 2018, 2019, 2023 and 2024.
- Oregon: Michigan State in 2015; Nebraska in 2016 and 2017; Ohio State in 2020 and 2021.
- Oregon State: Michigan in 2015; Ohio State in 2018.
- Stanford: Notre Dame annually.
- UCLA: Texas A&M in 2016 and 2017; Oklahoma in 2018 and 2019; LSU in 2021 and 2024; Michigan in 2022 and 2023.
- USC: Notre Dame annually; Alabama in 2016, Texas in 2017 and 2018.
- Utah: Michigan in 2015.
- Washington: Michigan in 2020 and 2021.
- Washington State: Wisconsin in 2022 and 2023.
So as you can see, there’s not a single Pac-12 team that doesn’t have a notable Power-5 opponent (or independent Notre Dame) coming up on the schedule. Some are immediate, some are a few years away. Schedules are made years in advance. Sometimes they turn out to be great showdowns. Sometimes they are clunkers. And sometimes they just fizzle. But you can't accuse the Pac-12 of not being aggressive in its scheduling.
This first year of the College Football Playoff is going to be interesting, because we’ll see how much the selection committee really takes strength of schedule into account. And we’ll likely see teams adjust future schedules accordingly.
But the pain still grows;
It's no stranger to you and me.
(I know you totally just did the drums in your head!)
It's depth chart Wednesday! And the people rejoiced. All 12 teams are in action again, so here are the most current depth charts for each team (except, as you know by now, UCLA, which doesn't do a weekly depth chart). As always, I've made some notes below.
- Arizona State (page 17 of the game notes)
- California (page 10 of the game notes)
- Oregon (page 11 of the game notes)
- Oregon State (page 28 of the game notes)
- USC (page 17 of the game notes)
- Utah (page 11 of the game notes)
- Washington (page 9 of the game notes)
- Washington State (page 11 of the game notes)
Notes (lots this week)
- At ASU, not too significant, but this is the first time since his injury that Taylor Kelly doesn't have an "or" by Mike Bercovici. Also encouraging that there doesn't seem to be any lingering effects of the helmet-to-helmet hit he took against Washington (see link below).
- Lots of movement at Oregon. For the first time this season, there's no longer an "or" at the running back spot. Royce Freeman is listed as the starter and Thomas Tyner is listed as the backup. Tyner, you recall, did not make the trip to Santa Clara last week against Cal because of an injured shoulder. Sam Kamp is listed as an "or" with Arik Armstead at defensive end. Armstead also did not travel last week. Kicker Matt Wogan didn't travel either, but is listed as the Ducks' kicker this week. Joe Walker, who started the last three games, is listed as the starting inside linebacker ahead of Derrick Malone.
- At OSU, the offensive line shifts continue because of injuries. Fred Lauina is listed at left guard and Roman Sapolu is at right guard.
- At Stanford, Kyle Olugbode will start for the injured Zach Hoffpauir at safety. DT David Parry is questionable, so Harrison Phillips might get the start.
- At USC, with LT Chad Wheeler out for the year, Aundrey Walker is officially listed as the starter. Though per reports, Toa Lobendahn got some work at LT. Darreus Rogers is listed ahead of George Farmer, who missed the Utah game, and Scott Felix is in at rush linebacker for the injured J.R. Tavai.
- At Washington, either Deontae Cooper or Lavon Coleman will start at running back. Cory Littleton is listed ahead of Travis Feeney at linebacker.
- At WSU, receiver Kristoff Williams is no longer on the roster (see link below). Taylor Taliulu is listed as the starting strong safety and Pat Porter is listed as one of the starting cornerbacks. Also, Vince Mayle is listed as a kick returner.
- Arizona is preparing for an unhappy UCLA squad.
- Good news for the Sun Devils as Todd Graham describes Taylor Kelly as "fine" after hit.
- Some Cal news and notes.
- The Buffs are leaning on some young safeties.
- Putting the Oregon-Stanford game in perspective.
- An interesting look at the contract of Mike Riley.
- New-look Stanford hoping for same results against Oregon.
- Some post-practice video of Jim Mora talking Arizona prep.
- Steve Sarkisian pointing the finger at himself for USC's lack of a killer instinct.
- Utah is preparing for Kelly, but ready for Mike Bercovici.
- Is a linebacker change coming to clear the way for Shaq Thompson on offense?
- Kristoff Williams is done at WSU.
Happy birthday, coach.
This week, it's freshman Charles Nelson with his 58-yard punt return for a touchdown in Oregon's 59-41 win over Cal last Friday. He took the top spot with 41 percent of the readers' votes.
On Tuesday, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich referred to Nelson's recent play as "phenomenal" and the readers agree as this play seemed to be nothing short of that … especially since we're talking about a true freshman. In 2013, Bralon Addison returned two punts for touchdowns against Cal, so the Bears' special teams were certainly going to be ready for this kind of an attack. But not even with that kind of a warning were they able to stop Nelson.
I have a feeling this is not the last we hear of this phenomenal frosh.
As always, some viewer reaction.
First, a Cal fan:
@ESPN_Pac12blog It made me feel feelings I've never felt before. Words can't explain what I felt about it.— Kenny (@BigKOR) October 28, 2014
@ESPN_Pac12blog Wowee Zowee! Especially after Ayele Ford's full handspring over a Cal Bear in the endzone.— Owl Jolson (@OwlJolson_) October 28, 2014
Oregon freshman Royce Freeman (748 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 13 rushing touchdowns) and LSU freshman Leonard Fournette (657 yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 7 rushing touchdowns) first made their names known on the recruiting scene, and they’ve been able to back up their hype at the college level with just half a season under their belts. Pac-12 writer Chantel Jennings and SEC writer Edward Aschoff got together to debate which player is the leader for best freshman running back in the nation.
Jennings: Edward, I hear there's this pretty good freshman running back in the South. And guess what, there's another good one out here on the West Coast, and I'd bet dollars to donuts that by the end of the season, Royce Freeman is going to be the most well-known (and rightfully so) freshman running back in the nation.
Aschoff: Freeman has been impressive this season. His play has people all over the country buzzing about him. He's a player, for real, but I will say this: By season's end, the country will be more excited about LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette. Bet whatever you want on that one. It took a little while for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound chiseled man-child to get going, but he's been very impressive of late. Did you see how many Florida Gators defenders he threw around like rag dolls a couple of weeks ago? Did you see how he tortured Ole Miss defenders with punishing run after punishing run? Florida and Ole Miss currently rank 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in the nation in run defense, but were nuzzled up with the best of them before facing Fournette. The Gators allowed just 103 rushing yards a game and one rushing touchdown heading into the LSU game, but Fournette ran for a season-high 140 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Against Ole Miss, which allowed 97.1 rushing yards per game, he ran for 113 yards and caught two passes for 41 yards. He breaks tackles with ease. He can hit the home run play. He's starting to live up to the preseason hype, and he doesn't need a face mask to make plays. Fournette is heating up, but can Freeman keep his momentum?
Jennings: Oh Ed, that's cute. Did you see how Freeman ran against Washington's front seven (5.8 yards per carry, 4 TDs)? Or what he did against UCLA's defense (6.7 yards per carry, 2 TDs)? Or were those games too late for you and the rest of the East Coast? If so, you most certainly managed to stay up for the Oregon-Michigan State game in Week 2 when he averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns, no? Those numbers make Fournette's stats against Florida and Ole Miss (yes, 5.2 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively) look … meh. But please, let's talk some stats, Ed. Specifically, let's look at what these guys have done versus Power 5 opponents (because if you're really about to include Fournette's season-high 7.1 yards per carry against Sam Houston State in these stats then you're not nearly the competitor I thought you were)… Freeman has 651 rushing yards against Power 5 opponents; Fournette has 391. Freeman averaged 5.4 yards per rush against Power 5 opponents; Fournette averages 4.3. Freeman has 10 rushing touchdowns against Power 5 opponents; Fournette has three. Freeman has 18 rushes of 10 or more yards against Power 5 opponents; Fournette has 10. Is there really a need to go on? Didn't think so.
Oh, also (and did you really think as a Michigan graduate I'd miss this), let's not forget that Freeman knows how to carry himself on the field and isn't about to strike the Heisman pose against an FCS school...
Aschoff: I mean when your Power 5 teams include just one team -- Michigan State -- that ranks in the top 30 in rush defense, I guess that's respectable. Cal and UCLA both rank outside the top 50 nationally in scoring defense, while Fournette has already faced four rush defenses inside the top 25. You know what else is impressive about the rise of Fournette? He's sharing a backfield with two other running backs who both have more than 400 rushing yards and have totaled nine touchdowns. They've also carried the ball a combined 153 times. Fournette has had to battle his way through two other running backs who could start in the SEC to get his team-high 131 carries, 657 yards and seven touchdowns. He's been able to average 73 yards a game with two other studs taking carries here and there. Again, Freeman has been great, but Fournette is surging. He's pounding folks. He's dragging kids through the turf. We're heading into the last month of the season, and he's gaining speed -- and strength.
Fournette is a physical specimen, who is about to have his way with some approaching defenses. Fournette doesn't need all that space to work with, like the Ducks afford Freeman. No, he works well in tight spaces, parting a sea of linemen with ease. He embraces contact. When he starts pumping those legs, watch out, or just grab on and hold tight. He's barely behind Freeman when it comes to stats, but the Tigers have brought him along slower than Freeman. He's getting used to the speed and chaos in the SEC, so expect a special last month for Fournette.
Jennings: Hey, stats are all relative, right? Maybe Freeman's numbers are monstrously better than Fournette's with a slightly worse schedule, but don't bring that top 30 in rushing defense stuff in here. You know who else is on that list … Boston College, Virginia, Toledo, Michigan. Freeman would run for miles on those teams. So yes, we can only go so far with stats. And the statistics conundrum is one that won't be solved until the end of the season. So we can leave it at that.
But you can't act like Fournette is the only one sharing a backfield. Freeman came in behind Byron Marshall, who had a 1,000-yard season last year, and Thomas Tyner. On top of that, he shares carries with quarterback Marcus Mariota, who averages eight carries per game. So, Freeman has definitely had to come from the back of the pack to make his presence known. The 18-year-old battled through some serious competition to be the starter. I think we can agree on the fact that both of these guys are special players, and in the years to come not only are we going to be debating which is the best in his respective class, but which is the best back in the entire nation. And the rest of the debate right now? Well, let's agree to disagree.
"We have an Oregon problem," he said.
But a new Stanford defense was born in the aftermath of Oregon's dominance, and the tables soon turned in shocking fashion. Just one season later, the unit had gone from Oregon's punching bag to the Ducks' kryptonite.
Suddenly, two straight Cardinal wins later, Oregon had a Stanford problem.
The Cardinal won the annual matchup 17-14 in overtime in 2012. They then opened up a 26-0 fourth-quarter lead in 2013 before withstanding a furious Ducks rally to win 26-20. So Mark Helfrich faces the challenge of reversing Oregon's fortunes against Stanford.
Here are the primary ingredients of the Cardinal's success against the Ducks over the past two seasons, along with a look at how these key puzzle pieces might apply to this 2014 renewal of hostilities.
Defense: Dominant play from the line
Oregon has averaged over 45 points per game each of the past two seasons, but Stanford has held the Ducks to an average of 17 points per game in the two meetings in that span. The formula for the Cardinal's defensive success has actually been relatively simple: It's been been rooted in commanding play along the defensive front.
In 2012 at Autzen Stadium, Stanford enjoyed exemplary performances from nose tackle Terrence Stephens and fellow defensive lineman Henry Anderson, whose positional versatility allowed him to shuffle between spots on the line and keep the Cardinal's big boys fresh. They, in turn, blasted the line of scrimmage, and that hit Oregon's explosive offense where it hurt. Stanford was able to limit the Ducks' running game and pressure Marcus Mariota without blitzing, and that allowed the second and third levels of the Cardinal defense to stay honest against the pass. The result: Stanford won despite losing the turnover battle 3-1.
In 2013, the Cardinal hoped to follow a similar formula, but their defensive line came in decimated by injury. Anderson and nose tackle David Parry both played at less than 100 percent, while Ben Gardner was already out for the season. Stanford responded by applying an effective Band-Aid: It worked to funnel all the Ducks' offense to the middle of the field. This put a massive added burden on inside linebackers Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley to make plays, and they gobbled up their chances. Skov registered the game's signature play when he stripped De'Anthony Thomas at the 1-yard line to keep Oregon off the board and shift momentum to the Cardinal sideline.
So how does this all apply to 2014? Well, Stanford's defensive line again looks to be wounded this time around. Aziz Shittu will miss the game, and Parry -- the unit's centerpiece -- is questionable with a leg injury. If Parry doesn't play, it will be a challenge for Stanford to execute its past formula. Oregon may enjoy more daylight in the running game against the Cardinal reserves, a unit that includes 255-pound true freshman Harrison Phillips. That's potential mealtime for bruiser Royce Freeman, and his success can open things up for Mariota's arm.
Offense: Drive-sustaining success
In 2012, Stanford somehow beat Oregon on the road despite going scoreless on 10 straight possessions of its own. The injured 2013 Stanford defense needed a little more help from its offense and got that through a mauling ground performance. The Cardinal rushed 66 times and threw the ball only 13 times. Tyler Gaffney racked up a school-record 45 rushes, and that helped Stanford finish 14-for-21 on third down and control the clock for nearly 43 minutes of game time.
The Cardinal don't have a big power back like Gaffney anymore, and that deficiency is good news for an Oregon defense that used the offseason to get stronger in an attempt to avoid repeating its 2013 fate. Stanford will have to sustain drives in different ways this time around, and its radical new offensive approach last week will be put to the test.
Defense: Speed and discipline on the back end
Before 2012, Stanford didn't have the athleticism to catch Oregon if it made a mistake near the line of scrimmage. That's why points for the Ducks would always burst through the floodgates after strong Cardinal defensive starts. Since 2012, though, Stanford has developed elite athleticism throughout its linebacker corps and secondary. This was readily apparent when reserve safety Devon Carrington ran down Mariota on a diagonal to save a touchdown two years ago.
Elite meets elite: 2014 marks the first time in the Stanford-Oregon rivalry that the nation's most efficient defense (Stanford is allowing an FBS-best 3.7 yards per play) meets the nation's most efficient quarterback (Mariota's 192.1 rating is the best in college football). Mariota should certainly be champing at the bit after reports claimed a knee injury slowed him down at Stanford last season.
In 2012, overtime came down to field goals: Alejandro Maldonado's try clanged off the upright, while Jordan Williamson overcame struggles to nail the game winner. That came after Stanford punter Daniel Zychlinski enjoyed the game of his career, repeatedly reversing field position for his team's defense. When it comes to Stanford-Oregon, don't discount the importance of special-teams plays. After all, they made a significant difference in the Cardinal's favor in 2012, and they kept Oregon in the game in 2013 (blocked field goal returned for a touchdown).
The Pac-12 saw a new commitment and a flip on Sunday, while Stanford and Utah took advantage of important recruiting weekends and focus is already shifting toward a huge upcoming visitor list for Oregon.
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Which coach has done the best job so far this season?
Travis Haney: Rightful homage is being paid to the coaches in Mississippi, but I want to go a different direction. Kyle Whittingham has Utah 6-1 after some doubted whether he could handle the Pac-12 transition. The Utes' offense isn't great at all -- 84th in yards per play -- but that further illustrates the job Whittingham has done to make Utah a complete team on defense and special teams. The win over Stanford in 2013 didn't look fluky, and neither did wins over UCLA or USC in 2014. The Utes will be a headache for Oregon in a couple of weeks, especially coming off the Stanford game
Tom Luginbill: Nobody was talking about Utah prior to the season, and all the Utes have done is take care of business with average QB play (plus an injury) and stellar special-teams performances. Utah is the one team that can truly throw a wrench into the Pac-12 playoff picture.
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The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.
It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.
Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”
With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:
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Time for our weekly check-in with The Eliminator, everyone's favorite (or not) weekly segment. The latest victim is USC, which dropped its third game of the season on the road at Utah. Per the folks at ESPN Stats & Information, USC has now lost 15 in a row when trailing going into the fourth quarter.
So who is left? As the first batch of playoff rankings are set to be released Tuesday night (4:30 p.m. on ESPN for us West Coasters), the Pac-12 still has five teams that are either in contention or hanging on. Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State still qualify for the "In Contention" category, while Utah and UCLA are "On the Fence." Some thoughts on the Utes:
OK, it's time to call the Utes a legitimate contender in the Pac-12 South. Utah became bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons by knocking off No. 20 USC 24-21 at home Saturday night. The Utes scored the winning touchdown on quarterback Travis Wilson's 1-yard touchdown pass to Kaelin Clay with eight seconds to play. If the Utes keep winning against their upcoming schedule, they'll be a legitimate playoff threat (and they'll have earned it).
Should be much to debate when these folks release the first rankings.
All those going after USC head coach Steve Sarkisian need to slow your roll, so says Chris Dufresne of the L.A. Times. For whatever blame you want to throw on the Trojans' first-year head coach, Dufresne is quick to remind us that the blame can sometimes fall on the players not performing an otherwise acceptable decision from the coach. From his column:
No one weeps for Steve Sarkisian because he makes a fortune, yet the first-year coach does have the misfortune of presiding over a whiny, entitled franchise in the shameless era of dingbat social media. He also is chopping wood, well under the scholarship cap, in a Pac-12 that has never been better. Not every Trojans fan wants Sarkisian sacked for being 5-3 through eight games, but even one is too many.
He's not wrong, especially when you consider the Utah game and the fourth-and-2. Even though there's altitude, it still would have been a 40-plus-yard kick into the wind. And it only would have tied the game. Every coach has their own metrics for when to go on fourth down. I'm guessing most of the league's coaches would have done exactly what Sarkisian did.
- Anu Solomon is looking out for his receivers.
- ASU's defense is stepping up.
- Handing out grades for Cal.
- Every game is must-win for Colorado.
- The Ducks can't waste opportunities against Stanford.
- OSU turns its attention to Cal.
- Handing out grades for Stanford.
- Some post-practice video with Brett Hundley.
- From one play, Max Browne picked up valuable experience.
- Troll alert: Does BYU have a Utah complex?
- The Huskies are looking for some answers on offense.
- WSU needs to cool down.
Baby announcements have become quite the rage. Last week at practice, Cal assistant coach Pierre Ingram and his wife Dani found out they were having a boy through the magic of colored cupcakes. Pretty cool video.
Some highlights from Arizona's win over WSU. (Look away, Cougar Brian, look away.)
Andrew Luck threw a pair of touchdowns and the Cardinal beat the No. 7 Ducks 51-42, igniting what has become one of the best intra-division rivalries over the past half-decade.
As the teams prepare to square off this week, here’s a look back at how things have played out over the last five games.
Nov. 7, 2009
- Final score: Stanford 51, No. 7 Oregon 42
- The setup: The freshman Luck was already turning heads with wins against No. 24 Washington, UCLA and ASU. The Ducks, in their first year under Chip Kelly, were riding a seven-game win streak and were coming off a 47-20 thumping of No. 4 USC.
- Key play: Uh, every time Toby Gerhart touched the ball? He rushed for a school record 223 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries.
- Remember this? It was offense galore as the teams combined for 49 first downs and 1,075 offensive yards.
- Quotable: "We got beat by a better team," Kelly said. "If you say we got caught looking behind or looking ahead, it takes away from Stanford. Stanford is a heck of a football team."
- Final score: No. 4 Oregon 52, No. 9 Stanford 31
- The setup: The revenge-minded Ducks blasted their way through the season (including Stanford), in what would be a run to the national title game. This was Oregon’s first game of the season against a ranked team, and the defense had posted two shutouts in its first four games. Stanford was coming off a road win at Notre Dame the week before. This would be the first time the schools met as ranked teams.
- Key play: Darron Thomas had just scored on a 6-yard rushing touchdown to tie the score at 31 early in the second half. But the momentum swung when Chris Owusu fumbled and Eddie Pleasant returned it 51 yards to the Stanford 3-yard line. LaMichael James scored on the next play, giving Oregon its first lead after trailing 21-3 early.
- Remember this? With the Cardinal trailing 45-31 late in the game, Cliff Harris intercepted Luck at the Oregon goal line for a touchback. Three plays later, LaMichael James scored on a 76-yard touchdown run.
- Quotable: "Wasn't our day today,” said Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.
- Final score: No. 6 Oregon 53, No. 3 Stanford 30
- The setup: It had been building to this. The Cardinal had essentially trucked every team they played, save a dramatic 56-48 triple-overtime win at USC. Oregon had recovered nicely from its season-opening loss to LSU and had won eight in a row. Luck was the Heisman front-runner and new coach David Shaw had pushed all the right buttons so far. The Cardinal were riding a 17-game home winning streak.
- Key play: Trailing 29-16, the Cardinal were still in striking distance early in the second half. Stanford had just forced a three-and-out, but on their first play of the ensuing drive, Isaac Remington sacked Luck, forcing a fumble, and Brandon Hanna returned it to the Stanford 12. On fourth-and-2 at the Stanford 4, James delivered a 4-yard touchdown/knockout blow, putting the Ducks ahead 36-16.
- Remember this? The Cardinal couldn’t keep their feet. Part of it might have had something to do with the slippery James, who rushed for 146 yards and three touchdowns. But, per reports, the Cardinal hadn’t cut the grass for four days with the hopes it would slow Oregon. Instead, you had Stanford receivers and defenders who couldn’t keep their feet.
- Quotable: "We were slipping. They were slipping. I just ran fast," said James.
- Final score: No. 14 Stanford 17, No. 1 Oregon 14 (OT)
- The setup: The Ducks were rolling with new quarterback Marcus Mariota kid at the helm. They had won 10 straight to start the season and nothing, it appeared, would stand in their way of reaching the BCS title game -- let alone a Stanford team it had beaten twice with Luck. And who was this Kevin Hogan guy, making his first career road start in Eugene? The Cardinal had already dropped games at Washington and at Notre Dame. A third-straight win against Stanford, by another big number, was the probable outcome.
- Key play: Where do you start? The Jordan Williamson game-winner in overtime? The controversial Zach Ertz touchdown catch? The hustle play by Devon Carrington to bring down Mariota on his 77-yard scramble? Or the missed block by De'Anthony Thomas on Carrington that would have sprung Mariota? (Oregon would fail to score after going for it on fourth-and-2 at the Stanford 7). Take your pick.
- Remember this? Oregon was riding a 13-game winning streak, the longest in the country. Further, the Ducks had scored at least 42 points in all 13 games.
- Quotable: "It hurts, and as I told them, you'd like to have some words that would take the pain out of it, but there aren't," said Kelly. "We'll feel bad for a little bit of time and we'll bounce back from it."
- Final score: No. 6 Stanford 26, No. 2 Oregon 20
- The setup: For the second-straight year, Oregon was undefeated heading into the Stanford game. And again, the Ducks were putting up big numbers under new coach Mark Helfrich, having scored at least 50 in six of their first eight games. Stanford’s lone smudge was a loss to Utah in Salt Lake City. National championship hopes were high for both teams. Little did we know, however, that a week earlier in a win against UCLA, Mariota had injured his knee. His lack of mobility would be a major talking point after this game.
- Key play: On Oregon’s second possession, the Ducks were turned away on fourth-and-goal at the Stanford 4 when Mariota missed Bralon Addison. Early, yes, but Stanford then marched 96 yards on 12 plays, eating up 5:59 and capping the drive with a 2-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown. He carried the ball nine times on that drive, and it set the tone for the rest of the game.
- Remember this: Much like Gerhart in 2009, Gaffney was the workhorse this time around, carrying a school-record 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown. Though he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, he earned every one of them.
- Quotable: "We rode him like Secretariat," said Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren.
The bread basket: Washington at Colorado
Mike MacIntyre is still looking for that critical, confidence-building upset win in conference play. Victory against heavily-favored UCLA this past Saturday would have been a true milestone for his team, but the Buffs fell 40-37 in double overtime. Still, there were moral victories in Boulder: Colorado out-gained the Bruins in regulation, stayed close despite losing the turnover battle, and erased 17-0 and 31-14 deficits to force the extra frame. The Buffs just ran out of gas near the finish line. But they may be smelling blood with their next chance, as wounded Washington is coming to altitude. The Huskies have dipped below five yards per play offensively on the season (worst in the Pac-12) after a 24-10 home loss to Arizona State. If Colorado is going to win a conference game in 2014, this looks like their best chance.
The appetizer: USC at Washington State
There's been a close-but-no-cigar vibe at both schools this season, so perhaps it's fitting that both the Trojans and Cougars enter this game coming off losses. But while USC's 24-21 setback at Utah came in the final seconds, Washington State never had a realistic shot of winning in its 59-37 home loss to Arizona. Though Connor Halliday passed for 489 more yards (yes, that continues his NCAA record pace), the Cougars couldn't find their offensive footing until the second quarter, and they already trailed 31-0 at that point. So, Mike Leach's 2-6 club now must win out to just to reach bowl eligibility. Maybe their pass rush will find some room to work against a Trojan offensive line that'll be without starting left tackle Chad Wheeler (torn ACL), but it's really hard to see this Wazzu defense dealing with USC's bevy of athletes over 60 full minutes.
Entree no. 1: Stanford at Oregon
A week ago, the Big One had lost much of its luster. That's what happens when one of its participants can't score. But Stanford's radical offensive adjustments (gasp, no huddle!) made for a dominant 38-14 win over Oregon State, and that re-infused the Pac-12's great war of the past half decade with some real buzz. The Ducks, meanwhile, did what we expected them to do in their 59-41 Levi's Stadium waltz over Cal. We'll keep a close eye on the status of Stanford defensive tackle David Parry (leg) this week, as he may be the determining factor when it comes to the extent of Oregon's rushing success. That variable plays right into the main event, a showdown between nation's best defense (Stanford's at 3.7 yards per play) and its best quarterback (look at that 24:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio for Marcus Mariota). Don't forget the flip side: The Cardinal's attempt to sustain offensive success may be the hinge point here.
Entree no. 2: Arizona at UCLA
It's tempting to write the Bruins off following yet another uninspiring performance. Brett Hundley's unit stalled with big leads in Boulder, and the defense surrendered 500 total yards to Colorado. But UCLA has found a way to survive and advance the past two weeks, so they're still very much in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title -- at least mathematically. There's no margin for error, though, and Arizona will test the numerous cracks in the Bruins' armor to no end. Aside from being unstoppable offensively in the Palouse, the Wildcats continued to receive critical defensive contributions from Scooby Wright III. He forced a remarkable three fumbles in that game (five now this season, no Arizona player has forced more since 1973), and we can see more of the same Saturday against turnover-prone UCLA. Wright (78 tackles) trails only the Bruins' Eric Kendricks (93 stops) in the Pac-12 tackle category, so the two conference leaders square off at the Rose Bowl.
A cold beverage on the side: Cal at Oregon State
This game may slip by the wayside while the other three with Pac-12 title implications rage on, but there's a high chance of solid entertainment value here. The Beavers' Sean Mannion needs just 194 passing yards to break Matt Barkley's career Pac-12 record, so he'll almost certainly eclipse that against Cal's porous defense at home. The Bears, meanwhile, continue to impress with their explosive capabilities on offense. Jared Goff is only a sophomore, but he's already looking like a player who can break Mannion's future passing record just two years from now. Oregon State's defense may have lost much of its early season confidence in this past weekend's thrashing at Stanford, and that's never good news before a gunslinger like Goff comes to visit.
Delicious dessert: Utah at Arizona State
It's nearly impossible to pick one Pac-12 game this weekend that has the biggest College Football Playoff implications, but this sucker holds that distinction, simply because it's the only contest in which both teams still have a realistic shot of qualifying amidst the madness at season's end. A week after Utah pushed USC aside, this a pivotal battle for South supremacy. The Utes are on cloud nine after their defining win, one that earned them bowl eligibility while simultaneously answering the massive question at quarterback (when push came to shove, Travis Wilson was the determinant). But the road only becomes more treacherous for Utah (Oregon and Stanford loom after this), and ASU is an opponent that's truly coming into its own. It's tough to judge the Sun Devils' offensive progress since Taylor Kelly was shaking off rust in Seattle's howling winds, but it's clear that Todd Graham's squad is building considerable confidence -- particularly on the defensive side of the ball. ASU must show their best performance against the run of the season to win on Saturday, because Utah's Devontae Booker has been consistently productive, even when the Utes have struggled to pass.
1:00 PM ET Washington Colorado 4:30 PM ET USC Washington State 7:30 PM ET Stanford 5 Oregon 10:30 PM ET California Oregon State 10:30 PM ET 12 Arizona 22 UCLA 11:00 PM ET 17 Utah 14 Arizona State