Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16
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It's time to start sorting out the weekend mayhem in the Pac-12, starting with a look at standout players.

Nelson Agholor, WR, USC: Last season, Agholor torched California as a punt returner. This time, he etched his name into Trojans history as a wide receiver. Agholor grabbed 16 Cody Kessler passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first USC wide receiver ever to amass 200 receiving yards in consecutive games, in a 38-30 USC victory. Agholor has teamed with Kessler and Javorius Allen to form quite the three-headed monster on top of the USC offense, and that unit will take aim at UCLA with plenty on the line next weekend.

Su'a Cravens, DB, USC: Cravens' versatility on defense has been essential to USC's success this season, particularly after the Trojans lost physical cornerback Josh Shaw. Since then, Cravens has thrown his powerful 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame all over the field, and he did more of the same against Cal Thursday night, racking up a team-high 10 tackles, 1.5 tackle for loss, and a pass break-up. Cravens leads USC with 14 TFL and two interceptions this season. He's also broken up eight passes. It's about time he earned a helmet sticker.

Casey Skowron, K, Arizona: Call it poetic justice. Five weeks after a Steve Sarkisian icing timeout nullified his potential game-winning field goal against USC, Skowron missed his first try at the gun against Washington -- except Chris Petersen's icing timeout gave him a second chance. This time, Skowron nailed the 47-yard game winner on his second chance, sending Arizona to 27-26 victory. Demons exorcised.

Henry Anderson, DL, Stanford: The Cardinal defense showed up on Senior Day, but the team's offense again failed to deliver in a 20-17 double-overtime loss to Utah. Anderson did his job, though. The fifth-year senior registered the best game of his career in his final home game, notching three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, both career bests. The numbers Anderson put up Saturday surpassed those that he had posted in the previous nine.

Tom Hackett, P, Utah: The Utes and the Cardinal engaged in an ugly three-hour, evenly matched defensive brawl. Stanford ran the ball more effectively, but Utah made up for that through Hackett's sensational punting. He racked up an astonishing 402 yards on nine punts -- an average of 44.7 per boot -- and pinned the Cardinal inside their 20-yard line six times. Thanks primarily to Hackett, Stanford's average starting field position was its 18, while Utah started from its 32. That was a significant difference in this defensive struggle.

Nate Orchard, DL, Utah: If Anderson earns a helmet sticker, Orchard deserves one too: He racked up a team-leading 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks to help push Utah's national lead in sacks to 47. The Utes actually struggled against Stanford's run game, but it seemed like Orchard constantly made a huge plays at critical junctures to stymie the Cardinal.

Terron Ward and Storm Woods, RB, Oregon State: The Beavers' dynamic backfield duo punched Arizona State's defense in the face with two long first-quarter touchdown runs, and that set the tone for Oregon State's 35-27 upset win. Ward finished with 148 yards on 19 carries (7.8 yards per carry) while Woods racked up 125 yards on only 11 carries (11.4 ypc). At the end of the first quarter, both backs were averaging over 35 yards per carry. Keep in mind that this all came against a Sun Devils defense that had been smothering the run for several weeks, and it set up Sean Mannion and Jordan Villamin (four catches, 127 yards) for passing success down the stretch.
A few things we learned this week in the Pac-12.

The South is a mess, again: UCLA is now the front-runner in the division following Arizona State's 35-27 loss to Oregon State. The tiebreaker scenarios now start to get a little confusing. Luckily, Kyle Bonagura broke it all down earlier this week. You can click here to check it out. The simplest scenario would be for UCLA to win out and face Oregon (which has already locked up the North) in the Pac-12 title game. But this league doesn't do simple. It mocks simple. It laughs at you for even beginning to hope that anything will ever be simple again. So expect more chaos in the final couple of weeks.

[+] EnlargeTerron Ward
Brian Murphy/Icon SportswireFollowing its upset of No. 6 Arizona State, Oregon State has now gone 5-5 at home as an unranked team playing a top 10 team since 2000.
But the South is also awesome: Even though the league's best chance at landing a team in the College Football Playoff comes from the North (see below), the South continues to assert itself as the dominant division. It entered the week 11-6 against its northern brethren, and picked up three more wins along the way. Victories from Arizona over Washington, Utah over Stanford and USC over Cal improved the mark to 14-7. OSU's stunner over ASU prevented the sweep. The South is plenty deep and plenty talented. David Lombardi wrote about that last week, as a matter of fact.

And then there was one: We've been saying for quite some time that a one-loss Pac-12 champion gets into the College Football Playoff. That hope is still alive with the Ducks, who were on a bye this week. The optimal scenario of Oregon and a one-loss ASU team meeting in the Pac-12 championship game -- in essence a playoff elimination game -- is gone. Even if a South team does win the conference, it will be tough for a two-loss team to get in. Not saying it's impossible, but it will be hard. So the Ducks, once again, are carrying the league's postseason hopes.

Consider Kessler: Coaches will no doubt start penciling in their all-conference teams soon, if they haven't started already. I think it's safe to assume that Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota is a sure thing for first team. But how about second team? Something to ponder: USC's Cody Kessler is completing 70.2 percent of his throws with 29 touchdowns to just three interceptions. While the Trojans have had a fairly up-and-down season, Kessler has mostly been steady. He probably deserves a lot more national recognition than he's getting.

Home warriors: Something amazing happened this week: The home teams actually did pretty good! Coming into the week, the road team was 26-13 in conference games. But with home wins from Arizona, Oregon State and USC, the visitors “fall” to 27-16. Of course, the one team that lost at home -- Stanford -- once held the nation's longest home win streak. Chalk it up to more Pac-12 lunacy this year.

Rivalry implications: The first round of rivalry games kicks off next week with UCLA and USC squaring off at the Rose Bowl and Cal hosting Stanford in the Big Game. Lots of intrigue surrounding both games. USC is coming off a win against Cal, while the Bruins were on a bye. As noted above, this is a huge game for the South Division standings. And if the Bruins win, they can lock up the division a week later against the Cardinal. For Stanford and Cal, the winner is bowl eligible. Given that one team is offensively challenged and the other is defensively challenged, it's the tale as old as time of weakness on weakness.

Coming back fresh: Four teams had a bye in Week 12: Colorado, Oregon, UCLA and Washington State. All four have varying degrees of importance for which to play. Oregon, as noted above, is looking for a spot in the playoff. Colorado can go all Skynet and blow everything up, locally and nationally. WSU got great production last week out of Luke Falk, who is auditioning to be WSU's quarterback of the future. And UCLA, of course, only has to worry about a rivalry and a division title. Given all that happened this week nationally and within the conference, probably a good week to take a breather.

A day for redemption: A couple of Pac-12 players who starred in the role of goat in previous weeks had their moments in the sun. First, Arizona kicker Casey Skowron -- who caught his share of social media bullying after missing a game-winning 36-yard field goal against USC last month -- was the hero in Tucson for nailing a 47-yarder as time expired in the Wildcats' 27-26 win over Washington. And last week, Utah's Kaelin Clay was a national punchline for his unforced fumble against the Ducks. But Saturday, he caught the first touchdown for Utah in overtime in the Utes' 20-17 win over the Cardinal. Pretty good timing by both guys to come up big.

Corvallis, the city of broken dreams: There are trap games. And then there are trap games at Reser Stadium. Since 2000, Oregon State has the best home record in FBS football as an unranked team going against a team ranked in the AP top 10 (minimum 10 games), improving to 5-5. Chantel Jennings broke down a few of those for you earlier this week.

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 12

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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Four teams have bye weeks and California-USC was on Thursday, so it's a lighter Saturday for the conference. Here's a rundown of the action.

12:30 p.m. PT

Washington at Arizona, FOX

[+] EnlargeShaq Thompson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsCan converted linebacker Shaq Thompson produce enough firepower to help Washington upset No. 14 Arizona?
The Huskies' offense has finally found a pulse with Shaq Thompson at running back. The problem is that the team's once-vaunted defense seems to be running out of steam. The dismissal of cornerback Marcus Peters decimated the secondary, and now injury problems in the front seven (Hau'oli Kikaha exited early last week) have compounded issues. Washington seems vulnerable entering Tucson, and the Wildcats still have plenty to play for: If they can win out in conjunction with one more USC loss, they'll win the Pac-12 South. Those scenarios are still a bit down the road, though, so enjoy the matchup of the nation's two leaders in tackles for loss: Kikaha has 22.5, while Arizona's Scooby Wright III is right behind him at 20.5.

3:00 p.m. PT

Utah at Stanford, Pac-12 Network

The over-under number here stands at 42.5, and that's interesting because this is a matchup of the Pac-12's two most efficient defenses. Statistically, the Cardinal's body of work this year is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference (16.1 points per game, 4.1 yards per play), but Utah is second in the latter category, surrendering only 5.1 yards per play. Earlier this week, I wrote about the intriguing similarities between this 2014 Utah team and the 2012 Stanford squad that won the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal have changed since then, but like the Utes, they've seen up-and-down play from the quarterback position. Will Kevin Hogan or Travis Wilson have a better game here? The team that puts its signal-caller in better position to succeed will likely win Saturday.

7:45 p.m. PT

Arizona State at Oregon State, ESPN

The Sun Devils are riding high, and now the goal is to avoid a letdown in a spot that has some history of being conducive to them. Four top 10 teams have gone down at Reser Stadium since 2000. Oregon State is facing a world of difficulty, though: The Beavers have hit the roughest stretch of Mike Riley's tenure. They're 1-10 in their last 11 Pac-12 games, and that lone win came against Colorado, a team that's winless in conference play. While this is certainly an opportunity for Oregon State to play spoiler and bring some good vibes to a sliding season, ASU clearly has more firepower going in. The Sun Devils flashed greatness in stretches on both sides of the ball last week against Notre Dame, and they now have a chance to solidify their spot atop the Pac-12 South. Watch as Taylor Kelly continues to ease back into his comfort zone following injury.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
8:00
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

#Pac12AfterDark almost made an appearance last night ... almost. While the California Golden Bears were able to mount a late semi-comeback against the Trojans, it wasn't enough as USC prevailed 38-30 behind a big night from quarterback Cody Kessler and wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

Kessler tossed four touchdowns and an interception on 31-of-42 passing for 370 yards. Agholor hauled in 16 balls for 214 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first USC player to ever record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games.

Cal made a late charge with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Quarterback Jared Goff was 29-of-46 for 279 yards with three scores. A failed onside kick attempt after Cal cut it to one possession turned out to be the difference.

You might have noticed more than a few flags on the field during the course of the game. USC coach Steve Sarkisian addressed that ... sort of ...



Here are a few recaps from the game: Getting picky

The Pac-12 blog is off to a good start with its picks this week. All five of us picked the Trojans to win at home. In fact, the only game we differ on is the Stanford-Utah game, with unanimous picks across the board for the other games. As we do every Friday, here are some picks from national writers and folks who cover the conference: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

If you were at the game last night and wondering why Josh Shaw was on the cover of the gameday guide, here's why.

If you're in LA on Sunday and looking to kill time, hang out with Brett Hundley for a good cause.
2011-2012: The days of Northern rule

In the first three seasons after the conference's expansion to 12 teams, the Pac-12 North ruled the league. Oregon's annual November matchup with Stanford went further toward determining the league champion than the official Pac-12 championship game held a week later.

This was most apparent in 2011, the first year of the two-division, title-game format. USC, still on postseason probation that season, had the firepower to give the Cardinal and Ducks all they could handle (they took Stanford to triple overtime and beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium). But the Trojans' postseason absence took any true bite out of the South: The rest of the division was puny, and its top qualifying option for the title game was 6-6 UCLA -- a team that had already fired its head coach in Rick Neuheisel.

When the Bruins visited Eugene for all the marbles in December that season, the game was mocked as more of a ritual sacrifice on the path to Oregon Rose Bowl glory than a legitimate championship game.

In 2012, the Pac-12 South hadn't gained much tangible ground. USC was back from its probation, but the Trojans were a significantly worse team than they were the year prior. No team from the South finished the season in the AP's Top 25 rankings (three clubs from the North did), and UCLA again packed its bags for the conference title game. This time, it came against Stanford and was more competitive (27-24) than a year prior, but the closeness may have been attributed to the fact the two teams had played just six days prior (the Cardinal drubbed the Bruins 35-17 in that one).

Simply put, very little indicated the Pac-12 South was catching up to its Northern brethren. The North owned a 17-9 record in head-to-head matchups with the South in 2011 and a 16-9 mark in 2012. Four teams from the North finished with better records than the South's title-game representative in 2011, and that number only decreased to three -- still indicative of a staggering amount of imbalance -- in 2012. The heavyweights commanded this conference, and they resided in Eugene and Palo Alto.

2013: Subtle indications of a shift

The first signs of a power tilt came last season, and that initial shift has turned into a full Pac-12 South surge here in 2014. For the first time in the Pac-12's short history, the South finished the season with as many ranked teams as the North in 2013. The rise of Arizona State, the continued improvement of UCLA, and the post-Lane Kiffin resurgence of USC gave the South three 10-win teams last year, beating the North's final tally of two (Oregon and Stanford, the usual suspects).

In terms of overall record, the North's once-wide head-to-head edge was cut to just one game, 13-12. The stage was set for a Pac-12 South statement in the Pac-12 championship game, but Stanford put those thoughts on hold when they waltzed into Sun Devil Stadium and whipped Arizona State, 38-14.

The Pac-12 North was still king, but not for long.

2014: The cataclysmic change

[+] EnlargeAnu Solomon
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriArizona freshman QB Anu Solomon should help the Pac-12 South keep trending up in future seasons.
Oregon may well successfully wave the North's flag again this year -- in fact, they're favored to again win the Pac-12 title -- but, outside of Marcus Mariota's empire in Eugene, there isn't much to write home about in the division. The South, meanwhile, has seen surges from Arizona and Utah this season to enjoy unprecedented parity. Five teams have been legitimate contenders in that division this season, all while the North has completely melted away outside of Oregon.

The Ducks have clinched the Pac-12 North with two games -- more than 20 percent of the schedule -- still remaining. Stanford, suffering through its worst season this decade, is in a fight just to become bowl eligible. Washington, which won nine games last year, has struggled to replace the firepower Keith Price and Bishop Sankey brought to the offense. Oregon State, a formidable nine-win component just two years ago, is 1-10 in its last 11 conference games. Washington State has regressed to 3-7 following a year of bowl eligibility, while California has lifted itself out of the doldrums but is still hindered by the Pac-12's worst defense.

It's all added up to this: For the first time since the conference's expansion, the Pac-12 South has a winning record over the North. It stands at 11-6 right now. Stanford, the North's second-place team, has a 5-4 overall record that would be good for sixth-best in the South, better than only bottom feeder Colorado -- and it should be noted that the Buffs are showing progress, too.

This nugget is perhaps the most staggering of all: No Pac-12 North team except for Oregon has beaten a ranked opponent in 2014.

2015 and beyond: Projecting the future

Of course, numerous variables will determine the balance moving forward. But the South looks like it'll remain strong. USC's recruiting remains excellent, and the last remnants of NCAA sanctions will soon wear off. Graham has shown to be a reliable winner at ASU (the Sun Devils have won 13 of their past 15 conference games), while in-state rival Arizona is succeeding with freshmen Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson at key positions. Utah seems to have finally rediscovered its rugged identity after a rough transition to the Pac-12, and UCLA has the talent and recruiting punch to remain formidable.

Oregon will have to successfully absorb Mariota's loss, or else the Pac-12 North will be in big trouble. Stanford's prospects are a big question mark at this point, and it's unclear if Chris Petersen will have the firepower necessary to immediately improve Washington. Cal's rise is promising, but the struggles of Oregon State and Washington State are both disconcerting for the division that once ruled the Pac-12.

Only time will tell what ultimately happens, but the South has the definite overall upper hand now.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
8:00
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I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Leading off

Thursday night football is back in the Pac-12 after a four-week hiatus. Remember what happened during the last Thursday night Pac-12 game? We had double overtime. You'd be wise to tune in. If you read our poll yesterday on #Pac12AfterDark, you'll note that Cal and USC -- the two teams playing this evening -- have featured prominently this year in the league's nocturnal nonsense.

There is plenty at stake when the Bears and Trojans kick off at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN. The Trojans are trying to keep pace with ASU and UCLA in the South Division race. Cal is trying to lock up a postseason spot after failing to beat an FBS team last year. Pretty remarkable turnaround.

Here are some stories heading into Thursday night's showdown.

Jeff Faraudo writes that line play is going to be critical for both teams. And Cal defensive lineman Mustafa Jalil is confident his group can hang with USC:
We’ve got to bring the fight to them. It’s a big challenge for the offensive and defensive lines. I’m 100 percent confident in our team. We’re ready to come down and get some of that Trojan.

A few more stories about tonight's matchup. Bowl math

How many Pac-12 teams are going bowling? Too soon to tell. As of this morning, six Pac-12 teams are bowl eligible for seven league-affiliated bowl games. As noted above, Cal can become bowl eligible tonight with a win at USC.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News breaks down all of the league's bowl scenarios here.

Should nine teams go bowling, it would be the second year in a row.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Were you at the ASU-Notre Dame game last week? Find and tag yourself. And if you're curious, zoom in on the pressbox, right above the "T" in Sun Devils Stadium and you'll see ESPN's Ted Miller and Ivan Maisel trolling my stories with snarky comments.

#Pac12AfterDark is amazing theater

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
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#Pac12AfterDark means different things to different people. It’s a warm kiss goodnight, or a swift kick to the shin (among other places). It’s the perfect Christmas present, or a stocking soaked with lighter fluid, burned to ashes, put in a blender and then burned again. Still for others, it’s simply mainlining Red Bull to stay awake to watch their favorite team.

But everyone can agree on this: #Pac12AfterDark means chaos.

The popular hashtag has become as much a staple on Saturday nights as SNL. And sometimes on Thursday and Friday nights, too.

It represents the far-out finishes, the freakish fumbles, the mind-melting marys and the prayers -- some answered, some not -- of the teams that clash under the lights. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Other times, it’s simply a beautiful disaster.

#Pac12AfterDark has provided college football fans – even those brave enough to endure the 11 p.m. ET kickoffs -- with some of the most exciting and dramatic moments of the 2014 season.

Here now are some of the top #Pac12AfterDark moments of the season.

The most recent -- and clearly most bizarre -- was Kaelin Clay’s unforced fumble at the 1-yard line last week against Oregon. We all know the story by now. Instead of going up 14-0, Joe Walker returned the fumble 100 yards to tie the game at 7-7. That one play perfectly encapsulated everything that #Pac12AfterDark is all about.



Arizona State is sixth in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings. But the Sun Devils wouldn’t be there had it not been for the “Jael Mary,” a 46-yard touchdown pass from Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong as time expired to give ASU a 38-34 win over USC at the Coliseum. The Sun Devils trailed 34-25 with 3:02 left. Then the chaos really started.

Perhaps the origins of #Pac12AfterDark can be traced to a 10 p.m. ET start on Sept. 20, when Arizona scored 36 – 36! – points in the fourth quarter to erase a 15-point deficit and top the visiting Cal Bears 49-45 on the #HillMary. Anu Solomon aired out a 47-yard bomb to Austin Hill, who came down with it as the clock ran out. But #Pac12AfterDark can be fickle. A couple of weeks later, trailing 28-13 going into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats battled all the way back against the Trojans, recovered an onside kick, but lost 28-26 when Casey Skowron missed a 36-yard field goal with 12 seconds left.

SportsNation

What was the craziest #Pac12AfterDark moment this season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,817)

As we just learned from the Wildcats, #Pac12AfterDark can taketh away, but can also giveth. A couple of weeks after suffering the excruciating loss to the Wildcats, Cal found itself in a shootout against the Cougs in Pullman. That was a 10:30 ET kickoff, by the way. Connor Halliday threw for a record 734 yards and six touchdowns. And with 3:18 left in the game, trailing 60-59 (yeah, it’s the Pac-12), he drove his team down to the Cal 4-yard line. After failing to find the end zone twice (though replay might tell a different story on Gerard Wicks’ run, #Pac12officials), Quentin Breshears missed a 19-yard field goal with 15 seconds left that would have given the Cougs a 62-60 win.

Another late kick, another game involving USC. It started with Utah’s Davion Orphey returning a backwards pass 53 yards for a touchdown (a pass that everyone but Orphey and the officials, yay #Pac12officials, thought was a forward pass). There was Adoree’ Jackson’s 100-yard kick return and his strip of Tim Patrick at the goal line. Plenty of weird. But the dramatic crescendo was Travis Wilson connecting with Clay on a 1-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left to lock up a 24-21 win.

And so we come full circle from Clay to Clay. One week #Pac12AfterDark is your best friend. The next, your arch rival. It cannot, will not be contained. If you’re kicking off in the Pac-12 after the sun goes down, all you can do is hope the drama is minimal.

But no promises.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
8:00
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Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.

Leading off

It's depth chart Wednesday! Four Pac-12 teams are on bye this week -- Colorado, Oregon, UCLA and Washington State. Here are the updated depth charts for the remaining eight teams. As always, some notes are listed below. Notes

At Cal, a little bit of movement in the front seven with Tony Mekari moving from backup defensive tackle to defensive end. Also, Jalen Jefferson and Jake Kearney have an "or" between them at linebacker. Kearney did not play against Oregon State with a shoulder injury.

At Stanford, safety Zach Hoffpauir is expected to return after missing the Oregon game. And though defensive tackle David Parry was never off the depth chart, he should be back this week after also missing the Oregon game.

Along the offensive line at USC, Khaliel Rodgers is listed at left guard with Toa Lobendahn at left tackle. Defensively, John Plattenburg is challenging Leon McQuay for the strong safety spot.

At Utah, the battle between Brandon Cox and Conner Manning to back up Travis Wilson will be interesting to follow. Also, with the season-ending injury to receiver Tim Patrick, Kenneth Scott moves to the X receiver and Kenric Young moves in at Z. The Utes will look to get a medical redshirt for safety Tevin Carter, which puts Marcus Williams as the primary free safety.

At Washington, former wide receiver John Ross is listed as a starting cornerback in the spot previously filled by Marcus Peters (for more, see the link below).

Ranking reaction

The latest College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday and a pair of Pac-12 teams are looking pretty good. The Oregon Ducks moved all the way up to No. 2 (clearly, the committee has a lot of respect for Utah) and the Arizona State Sun Devils jumped up to No. 6.

Here's what selection-committee chair Jeff Long had to say about the Sun Devils:
They've got two Top 25 wins, and then they have two additional really quality wins against USC and at Washington, so that certainly factored into their body of work. And yes, (the loss to) UCLA, our No. 11 team, it was without their quarterback (Taylor Kelly). That was a factor in our determination of how strong we feel Arizona State is at this time.

Here are a couple of more reactions: News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Don't you know Cody Kessler's loco?



Game on!

Pac-12 enjoying many happy returns

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
11:00
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If you play in the Pac-12, there’s never been a better time to be a return man. Because business is booming.

Already with 19 kicks returned for touchdowns -- punt and kickoff -- the Pac-12 is the leading conference in FBS football this season when it comes to taking it to the house. The SEC -- with two additional teams -- is next with 16.

This is by far the greatest season for returners since the Pac-12 became the Pac-12 in 2011. That year, the conference saw 14 kicks returned for scores. The number declined the next two years (13 in 2012 and 12 in 2013) before a massive spike this season. In fact, the Pac-12 this season has the highest rate of kicks returned for a touchdown per game than any other league since the SEC in 2011.

[+] EnlargeKaelin Clay
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsUtah's Kaelin Clay is tops among Pac-12 returners with four touchdowns (3 on punts, 1 on kickoffs).
Asked for any sort of rhyme or reason for the special teams spike, almost every Pac-12 coach pointed to one common element: Great returners.

“Returns start with returners that have a knack for making people miss and hitting those creases,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team has a league-high four returns (three punt, one kick). “It’s either something you have or you don’t have. It’s tough to train a guy to become a great returner. The No. 1 factor would be that there are a bunch of athletes in this conference that have that capability to miss the first guy, make the next two or three miss as the case may be and finding those creases in the coverage and hitting them.”

Whittingham’s guy, Kaelin Clay, has been the class of the league when it comes to returns. With three scores on punt returns and another on kickoffs, he leads a very talented group. But he’s not the only one with multiple scores. California’s Trevor Davis (two kick returns), Oregon’s Charles Nelson (two punt returns), Stanford’s Ty Montgomery (two punt returns) and USC’s Nelson Agholor (two punt returns) are also in the multi-TD club.

Players with one touchdown include Arizona’s Cayleb Jones (kick) and DaVonte' Neal (punt), Oregon State’s Ryan Murphy (kick), UCLA’s Ishmael Adams (kick), USC’s Adoree' Jackson (kick) and Washington’s John Ross (kick) and Dante Pettis (punt, Washington's first since 2003).

One can argue the flip side, being that kick coverage in the Pac-12 is down. Only Arizona, Oregon and Washington haven't yielded a special teams touchdown. Washington State has the dubious honor of allowing a league-high six returns for touchdowns this season.

“In our case, I think we need more of an identity on defense and our lack of that has hurt us on special teams,” said head coach Mike Leach, who swapped special teams coaches midseason. “I think individual effort (plays a role), we’ve had some young guys out there. I feel like we should be playing better on special teams across the board.”

Funny thing, those special teams touchdowns. Sometimes they play out exactly as they are drawn up. Other times it’s simply outstanding athleticism from a return guy that makes the difference.

“You can put the film on and there are times when you don’t block anybody and the guy runs it back 100 yards for a touchdown, and there are other times if you don’t have a special return guy, you block everybody and he still gets tackled,” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. “There are so many skilled athletes in this league and guys that are capable of big returns. I think it starts there.”

We can all pretty much agree that having an outstanding crop of returners is by far the most important element of the equation. But there are a few other factors to consider. For starters, scoring in the league is up. The Pac-12 leads all conferences with 34.1 points per game. That’s the highest it’s been since the league expanded to 12 teams and the highest scoring average in at least a decade. More points means more kickoffs. There are also lots of sacks and tackles for a loss, which creates more punts.

Additionally, most teams use younger players on special teams to give regular defensive starters a rest. You throw talented returners into the mix and you have return touchdowns trending up.

“When you don’t have depth, the No. 1 part of your team that gets hurt is special teams,” Dykes explained. “There’s more kickoffs and it’s a wide-open league. Everyone is going through what we are. You’re kicking off a lot, and then having to play young players on those coverage units, and the combination of really good returners is usually the recipe for disaster.”

Well, only if you’re on a coverage team.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
10:00
AM ET
video
There wasn't much movement on the Pac-12 recruiting scorecard this weekend, but Utah was able to bounce back from a tough loss to Oregon by scoring a commitment, and Arizona State might have set the stage for one of the conference's stronger runs toward signing day with a big win against Notre Dame. Elsewhere, Stanford is looking to gain some recruiting momentum after some time without a commitment, and several Pac-12 targets are headed out of the area this weekend.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
8:00
AM ET
Ray, if someone asks if you are a god, you say, "Yes!"

Leading off

As we hit the final stretch of the 2014 regular season (seriously, can you believe it's already Week 12?), The Eliminator grows more and more hungry for teams on the out. Another Pac-12 team was claimed when the Utah Utes fell to Oregon on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

That leaves four Pac-12 teams still in the conversation. Oregon and Arizona State are considered "in contention," while UCLA and Arizona qualify as "on the fence." Here's what The Eliminator has to say about the Bruins.

Were we too quick to completely write off the Bruins? Since losing consecutive home games against Utah and Oregon in early October, UCLA has won four straight games, including a 44-30 win Saturday at Washington. The Bruins trail Arizona State by one game in the loss column of the Pac-12 South standings, and they have remaining home games against rival USC on Nov. 22 and Stanford on Nov. 28. The Bruins certainly seem to be peaking at the right time, and they have two impressive victories: 62-27 at Arizona State on Sept. 25 and 17-7 over Arizona on Nov. 1.


Worth noting, too, is that of the 17 teams still in the mix, the Pac-12 has the second most. The SEC has five, the Bigs have three each, and the ACC has two. And if I might editorialize for a moment (it's my links column, so I can), this should serve as further evidence that, for all the self-inflicted wounds the Pac-12 causes itself, it's deep and talented, and its champion deserves a seat at the table. A one-loss conference champ should be a lock. But a two-loss is probably just as deserving.

More playoff chatter

ESPN has The Eliminator, Sports Illustrated has Bubble Watch. SI's Colin Becht breaks down the ins and outs for all the bubble teams, including Oregon and Arizona State. The case for the Ducks is a fairly easy one. But Becht notes Arizona State has a tougher road ahead. From his story:

Compared to the other one-loss teams, Arizona State’s resume looks pretty pedestrian for now. Its strength of schedule is the second worst; its wins, while respectable, aren’t as strong as Oregon’s, Baylor’s or TCU’s; its loss isn’t as understandable as TCU’s or Alabama’s. Basically, every team except for Ohio State can point to a reason it’s more deserving of a playoff spot than the Sun Devils.


While we're on the topic of one-loss teams, here's a question to ponder...

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Where in the country does college football resonate most? An interesting, interactive chart from the New York Times paints the picture.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 10, 2014
Nov 10
8:00
AM ET
Dear God, it's me, Jonah Hill... from "Moneyball."

Leading off

Well, this is shaping up nicely for the Pac-12, isn't it? Two teams are ranked in the top 10, one from the North and one from the South -- seemingly on a collision course in the Pac-12 championship game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line. Oregon and ASU both overcame tremendous hurdles this past weekend, with the Sun Devils knocking off the visiting Notre Dame Irish and the Ducks coming out of #SackLakeCity with a victory.

The AP and coaches poll rankings reflect the significance of the wins. Kyle Bonagura has the breakdown here for the Pac-12.

Here are the league's ranked teams (AP poll first, followed by the coaches poll).
  • Oregon 3-4
  • Arizona State 7-8
  • UCLA 14-15
  • Arizona 17-18
  • Utah 25-N/R

You can see the complete rankings here.

As always, here's how a few folks who cover the league voted in the AP ballot. The latest College Football Playoff rankings will be released Tuesday night. The return of Orgeron?

Coach "O" might not be done with USC just yet. Ed Orgeron, who did a splendid job pinch-hitting as the Trojans' head coach post-Lane Kiffin, told Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times that he wouldn't be against a possible return to USC as an assistant coach.
I will be a USC Trojan forever, and, I don't know what they're thinking, but the door to come back there is always open in my mind. If the right situation comes up this year and they ask me to go back, I'd be more than happy to listen.

As you may recall, Orgeron was hoping to have the interim dropped from his title and be named USC's next head coach full-time. But following a loss to UCLA, athletic director Pat Haden informed Oregeron he would not get the gig. New head coach Steve Sarkisian offered Orgeron an assistant job, but he declined.

The Trojans (6-3) were on bye last week and close the year with Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Did you like the ASU Desert Fuel unis? Learn a little more about them here.

Sometimes it is what it is ...

Let’s say you’re a hot, up-and-coming head coach in a Group of 5 league. You have job opportunities in every one of the Power 5 conferences. If you’re picking solely based on title path -- the fastest way to the College Football Playoff -- which conference do you choose?

Here's my ranking of every division in the major conferences, going from the most ideal to join as a new coach to the most difficult. Easiest to hardest. (I’m counting the Big 12 as one 10-team division. It’s a reasonable way to view it since, as with the divisions in the other four leagues, everyone plays everyone.)

1. Big Ten West

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Pac-12 morning links

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
8:00
AM ET
Happy Friday!

Leading off

It's Friday pick time. The Pac-12 blog released its weekly picks Thursday morning, and there's some dissension in the ranks. Ye of little faith Ted Miller likes the Fighting Irish in the desert. Ye of too much faith Kyle Bonagura likes the Cougars in Corvallis and ye who likes to be different, Chantel Jennings, likes the Huskies at home.

The Pac-12 blog is rank-and-file in our belief that the Ducks pull out a win in Utah. But Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports isn't convinced. His thoughts:
The Ducks have had issues defensively, and while the Utes don’t have the most dynamic offense, they do have a much more powerful rushing attack, led by Devontae Booker, than Stanford did last week. Whether Nate Orchard and the Utes’ disruptive defense can slow down Marcus Mariota and Royce Freeman is debatable, but we’ve seen enough Rice-Eccles field stormings in recent years to think this game might deliver the upset that shakes up the entire playoff picture.

As we do each Friday, here are some picks from national folks and writers who cover the conference. Marcus Peters out

The big news Thursday was Washington dismissing standout cornerback Marcus Peters after yet another clash with the new coaching staff. Here's our news story and some thoughts from Mel Kiper Jr.

video
  • Adam Jude of the Seattle Times, who broke the story, looks to Washington's next move in the secondary.
  • Christian Caple of the News Tribune weighs in.
  • The Seattle Times has the full video and transcript of what coach Chris Petersen had to say.
COY convo?

About time to start talking about national coach of the year? Lisa Horne thinks so. The brains behind pigskingrind.com lays out 15 potential candidates -- and it goes beyond the typical top team = top coach mentality. Mark Helfrich is up there, and rightfully so. Todd Graham, whose team has the inside track in the Pac-12 South, is on her list also. But she also has Sonny Dykes up there. And you can't argue with her rationale:
Cal needs one more win to become bowl eligible. That is an incredible turnaround for a team that went a combined 4-20 in the previous two seasons.

The Pac-12 will announce its coach of the year at the end of the season, as voted on by the other coaches in the league. All three of those guys will likely get conference consideration. Nationally will be tougher unless Oregon or Arizona State gets into the playoff. But it's a good conversation to start having.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Stay away from mayhem.

Pac-12 morning links

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5
8:00
AM ET
Why y'all gotta waste my flava? Damn!

Leading off

It's depth chart Wednesday! You're one click away from knowing everything there is to know about your team. You might as well be right there in the coach's office making personnel decisions.

There are three teams on bye this week, with California, Stanford and USC going fishing. One nonconference game with Notre Dame coming to Tempe to face the Sun Devils in a game that almost wasn't. Here are the updated depth charts for the remaining teams (except UCLA, because if you don't know by Week 11 that the Bruins don't do a weekly depth chart, then you haven't been reading the Pac-12 blog enough.)

As always any notable moves are below.
Notes:
  • At Arizona, Parker Zellers is officially listed as the starting nose tackle.
  • At Oregon, Arik Armstead again has an "or" between him and Sam Kamp. Armstead left the Stanford game early. Aidan Schneider is listed as an "or" at kicker with Matt Wogan. After missing the California game, Wogan handled kickoffs against Stanford and Schneider was 2 for 2 on field goals, including a 40-yarder.
  • At Utah, some speculated changes are reflected on the offensive line with Isaac Asiata moving to left guard and Salesi Uhatafe moving up at right guard. Tim Patrick is officially listed as the starting receiver for Dres Anderson (who was still on the depth chart last week) and Sese Ianu is listed as the starting defensive tackle with Lowell Lotulelei moving to nose tackle. Oh yeah ... there's an "or" at quarterback again ... but you probably could have guessed that.
  • At Washington, Dante Pettis is listed ahead of John Ross at receiver, though there's been chatter about Ross playing some nickel corner (see link below). Travis Feeney is back atop the depth chart at linebacker. Deontae Cooper and Lavon Coleman are still listed as "or" starters at running back. After Shaq Thompson's performance last week, we'll see how long that lasts, if at all.
  • At Washington State, just to make things official, Luke Falk is listed at starting quarterback, with Peyton Bender backing him up.
News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Some sites and sounds from the Cal-OSU game.

Who has the best student section? For Utah fans, this video is a MUSSt-see. (Yuck, yuck)

A look at ASU's unis for the Notre Dame game.

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