When Todd Graham first arrived at Arizona State, among the first things he asked his football players to do was think of a person who had been a major influence in their career. Then he told each player to find a picture of that person and hang it on the front of their locker, offering a daily visual reminder of who it as they were playing for.

Not too long ago, as news swirled about Ray Rice and other incidents of domestic violence, quarterback Taylor Kelly looked around the locker and noticed a trend – the vast majority of his teammates had hung a picture of a woman.

“A mom, a grandma, a sister,” Kelly said.

It got Kelly, and a group of other seniors that serve as the Sun Devils’ leadership council, to thinking: What if they took Graham’s idea and tweaked it to send a message?

So began a simple yet powerful stand against domestic violence -- Arizona State’s version of #ItsOnUs .

Each football player was given a piece of paper that read at the top: I pledge to stop domestic violence because … Each player filled in the blank.

Some took their messages back to their dorm rooms or left them in the locker room. But many took the pledges a step further. They stood before a camera, pledge in hand, and then posted the pictures on various forms of social media.

Some are on players’ personal Twitter and Instagram accounts. Many are on the team’s Twitter page, @footballasu.



Kelly said the players were all eager to participate, recognizing not only their ability to impact others, but also the importance of putting meaning to their private testimonies.

“The more you hear something, over and over, the more of an impact it has,’’ he said. “We figured, why not take it a step further and write it down? Then you really own it."

The Sun Devils are hoping that the idea catches on, not just with other teams on campus, but hopefully with other programs across the country.
The College Football Playoff picture became much cloudier after Week 6. Four days later, the Heisman Trophy race is suddenly wide-open.

Nothing had stopped Todd Gurley this season. The Georgia running back either ran past or through anyone in his way, racking up 773 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. While Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, Notre Dame's Everett Golson and others started making their moves, there was a sense nothing would stop the Bulldogs running back from hoisting the Heisman in December.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDak Prescott could make a leap in the Heisman Trophy race with another big game against a top opponent, Auburn.
Unfortunately for Gurley, he might have stopped himself. Gurley's indefinite suspension for alleged NCAA rules violations means that at least for now, he is out of the Heisman picture. Regardless of the reason for the suspension or whether it's justified, national awards aren't given to those who don't play.

It's a situation nobody wants to see as Gurley has been not only one of the nation's most exciting players, but one of its best. The games go on, however, and the spotlight now shifts to other stars.

Prescott's stock is soaring after Mississippi State's win against Texas A&M, and he has another national showcase opportunity this week against Auburn, which has its own Heisman contender in quarterback Nick Marshall. Golson played hero last week against Stanford, firing his 13th touchdown pass of the season with 1:01 to play to beat the Cardinal. Oregon's Marcus Mariota backslid in last week's loss to Arizona, but Gurley's suspension gives him another chance.

Gurley had headlined a running back renaissance in the Heisman race this season, but others now must carry the baton. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has 693 rushing yards in his past three games and should have another huge day Saturday against Illinois. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah struggled last week against Michigan State, but shouldn't be written off.

As for Gurley, unless the suspension is brief, he'll fall behind quickly in the Heisman picture. Georgia begins life without No. 3 by playing arguably its most important game of the season Saturday at defending SEC East champion Missouri. The Bulldogs will have to push the pass more and rely on younger backs such as Nick Chubb.

Gurley had the name recognition, the highlights and the production to become just the second nonquarterback since 1999 to win the Heisman. There's no longer an alpha Dawg in the race, and other candidates are now poised to make their moves.

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

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This week provided easy selections for the top three visit weekends in the Pac-12, as there are only three conference games on Saturday. All eyes in the conference will be focused on Oregon's visit to UCLA, and recruits are no different, as there will be an impressive group at the Rose Bowl. Elsewhere, Arizona and Cal host statement games against USC and Washington, respectively. Tucson will be home to a huge recruiting weekend, while Cal will have a key recruit in attendance as well.

1. UCLA

[+] EnlargeSoso Jamabo
Tom Hauck for Student SportsOne of UCLA's top prospects, Soso Jamabo, will be in Los Angeles to watch the Bruins take on Oregon.
ESPN 300 running back Soso Jamabo will be on an official visit to Westwood this weekend, as the No. 32 overall prospect likely ranks as the most important official visitor the Bruins have hosted this season. Though Jamabo has several Texas schools hot on his trail, he is taking a long look at Pac-12 programs such as Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. The Bruins will have the first opportunity among conference teams to make an impression on Jamabo, and the 6-foot-2, 206-pound versatile back would be one of the biggest recruiting wins during Jim Mora's UCLA tenure.

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 7

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

Friday, 6 p.m.

Washington State at No. 25 Stanford, ESPN

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

Saturday

12:30 p.m.

Oregon at UCLA, Fox

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

3 p.m.

Washington at Cal, Pac-12 Network

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

7:30 p.m.

USC at Arizona, ESPN2

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

Pac-12 morning links

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Happy Friday!

Leading off

Sooooo... about our picks last week. Ahem, cough, cough. The Pac-12 blog would like to take this opportunity to apologize to you and any loved ones we might have hurt or offended with our whifferific predictions from last week. And for those overflowing with schadenfraude, bring it. We deserve it.

But it's a new week with a new set of picks. And as we do every Friday morning, here's a look at some of this week's picks from folks who cover the conference. The Pac-12 blog's picks went up Thursday morning.

Here's a sampling of what some other folks have to say:

Jacob Thorpe of the Spokesman Review is also looking to rebound from a bumpy Week 6. Here's his take on the UCLA-Oregon game:
Somehow, this battle of the Pac-12’s most mobile QBs could end up being the conference game with the most overall sacks. The Ducks take the first step toward getting back in the college football playoff picture. Oregon 43-31

Christian Caple of the News Tribune likes the Wildcats to keep rolling.

The Athlon folks are all in agreement that Stanford will win.

Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel of FoxSports both like the Bruins.

New top Bear?

Thursday marked 100 days since former California Athletic Director Sandy Barbour stepped down. And Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News saw a good opportunity to look at how the search for a permanent athletic director is going.

Wilner lays out six possible names, with the stipulation that these are just his opinion and he does not believe Cal has contacted any of them.

Kevin Anderson -- sitting AD at Maryland

Tom Bowen -- current Memphis AD

Chris Del Conte -- current TCU athletic director

Solly Fulp -- current Cal deputy athletic diretor/COO

Mark Stephens -- former Cal player and associate AD

H. Michael Williams -- current interim AD

Wilner's take on Williams:
Upon being named interim AD in June, Williams indicated that he was not a candidate for the permanent job. Suffice it to say, things have changed. Williams wants the job and is viewed as a strong contender (such that there is a strong contender at this point). Remember: Barely a year into his tenure, chancellor Nicholas Dirks handed the interim gig to Williams. It would be easy for Dirks to stay the course, especially with football on the rebound on the field and in the classroom.

Make sure to read the whole piece. Some good theories in there.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

The USC Song Girls explain some football rules. And let's be honest, we could all use a little brushing up.

Mike Leach and the Cougars had a special visitor at last night's team dinner.

1. Which Pac-12 quarterback will have the most impressive game this weekend?

  • Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I’m going with Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon. I’m guessing he looks even better than he did last Thursday against Oregon. USC’s defense has struggled mightily at different moments against the pass and run this year, and I think Solomon -- even though he’s just a redshirt freshman -- is going to be able to exploit the Trojans defense and put up some big numbers. But, the quarterback I’m most intrigued to see is Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday against the vaunted Stanford defense. Halliday threw for 184 yards, no touchdowns and one interception last season against the Cardinal. Interested to see how much further along this offense can be against this Stanford defense in just one year.
  • Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: When we're talking most impressive, the caliber of the opponent and significance of the game plays a big role. I fully expect Oregon's Marcus Mariota to help the Ducks rebound from last week's disappointing loss to Arizona with a big game at the Rose Bowl. Using logic or stats to project what happens in the Pac-12 these days has become somewhat of an exercise in futility, so I'm not even going to justify the Mariota pick beyond calling it a gut feeling.
2. Of all the nonconference games we saw this season, which would you want to be replayed in Week 7?

  • Jennings: I was going to say Michigan State-Oregon because I think the Spartans defense has finally come into its own (it’s hard to be totally jelled as a defensive unit in Week 2) but with the state of Oregon’s O-line right now, I just don’t know about that matchup. So I’ll go with UCLA-Virginia. That was just such a bizarre opening game for the Bruins and I’d like to see what that kind of a matchup would look like in Week 7.
  • [+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
    AP Photo/Dean HareAgainst Stanford, how will Connor Halliday follow up his 734-yard performance?
    Bonagura: Washington State vs. Rutgers is a game every Pac-12 fan should want a do-over from because of the effect it could potentially have on the perceived strength of the conference. Washington State nearly had the game on ice against the Scarlet Knights before a botched punt return breathed life back into Rutgers, which now stands at 5-1. If Rutgers goes on to finish with a respectable Big Ten record, Washington State -- like last year against Auburn -- can only play the only-if game.
3. Which team ends Arizona’s undefeated streak?

  • Jennings: Wazzu.
  • Bonagura: Colorado ... and only because that would be the fitting game for it to happen.
4. Who has your midseason vote for coach of the year?

  • Jennings: This is tough. For me, it’s between Sonny Dykes and Rich Rodriguez. If we’re just talking about the midway point, Rodriguez is the only coach in the conference who has led his team to an undefeated season so far. He has the Wildcats ranked 10th in the country, the highest of any Pac-12 team. But I also think we can’t overlook the job that Dykes has done with Cal. To take a one-win team and have them within a Hail Mary of being undefeated right now? That’s just crazy. The Bears are without a doubt the most improved team, so, I’m going to have to tip my hat to Dykes. But Rich Rod is a close second.
  • Bonagura: Yeah, it has to be Dykes. To go from where they were to where they are is nothing short of remarkable.
5. Of all the Pac-12 road wins last weekend, which do you think -- going forward -- will mean the most to that team?

  • Jennings: Utah. With all of the other road wins, there was a bit of talk that it could happen. Maybe Arizona State would take down a Jekyll-and-Hyde USC. Arizona had beaten Oregon before. But Utah over UCLA? Please. No one saw that coming. The Utes had already proven they could win on the road, but this was a national statement win. And that’s huge for Kyle Whittingham’s program, which needed a signature win. This was it.
  • Bonagura: Arizona's victory at Oregon, arguably the toughest place to play in the conference, vaulted the Wildcats from the obscurity of the AP poll's "others receiving votes" to No. 10 in the country. Arizona might have beaten Oregon last year, but because it was so late in the season, that win didn't carry the same turning point type of feel this one has the potential to have.
6. What's the Pac-12's theme song this year?

  • Jennings: "Thriller,: Michael Jackson. A) First line: “It’s close to midnight” -- that’s when a bunch of Pac-12 games feel like they start. B) “They're out to get you, there's demons closing in on every side” -- Some Pac-12 quarterbacks know how that feels. C) And to describe this season as anything other than thrilling is selling it short.
  • Bonagura: "Surprise," Gnarls Barkley. I've never heard this song before today, but the lyrics include "don't be surprised" 14 times. One for each of the mostly unpredictable 14 conference games this year.
Saturday's showdown between UCLA and Oregon will feature playmakers galore. From Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley to Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Eric Kendricks (and Hroniss Grasu and Myles Jack and Arik Armstead and Eddie Vanderdoes, etc., etc.) there won’t be a lack of future NFL talent at the Rose Bowl.

They say big players make big plays in big games. OK, but football games are rarely won by one player. Sometimes it’s the under-the-radar guys who make the biggest impact. Here are three players from each team who might not be as well known, but could end up making a big difference in the outcome.

OREGON

WR Darren Carrington: With just nine catches for 172 yards, the speedy Carrington is yet to have a breakout game. This could be it. Devon Allen has drawn plenty of attention. And with Byron Marshall listed as a wide receiver this week, it could open the door for Carrington to have some one-on-one coverage. Remember, we’re looking at someone under the radar, and that’s exactly where Carrington is flying right now. He has a ton of explosive potential and if he’s not accounted for, he could bite the Bruins.

WR/Splt: Charles Nelson: We’re tapping Nelson not for what he does in the receiving game (just three catches for 27 yards), but for what he does on special teams. He leads the Ducks with an average of 15 yards per return … including a 50-yard touchdown in the win over South Dakota. But he’s also one of Oregon’s best gunners in coverage -- and that’s going to be of note against a dangerous return team like UCLA. Nelson is one of those guys who could quietly help dictate the field position battle, having already posted a team-high 10 special-teams tackles.

S Tyree Robinson: He stepped up big in the Michigan State win with five solo tackles. And it looks like he’s the new option ahead of Dior Mathis when Oregon goes into its nickel package. Erick Dargan moves over to corner and Robinson steps in at safety alongside Reggie Daniels. He’s already seen significant playing time and is being rewarded with more by the coaching staff. UCLA isn’t shy about spreading things out offensively, so the Ducks will likely be in nickel several times throughout the game. Look for Robinson to make an impact in both ground and air defense.

UCLA

NT Kenny Clark: Already with 27 tackles on the year, including two for loss, the sophomore is emerging as one of the top defensive linemen in the country. But nose tackles don’t always get the ink. At 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, he has the size and power to command multiple blockers in UCLA’s odd-front scheme. Given the state of Oregon’s offensive line, he could be the difference-maker in the trenches. Fun sidebar to this game will also be watching Clark and Grasu when it’s straight up, one-on-one. One will be playing on Sundays next year, the other won’t be too far behind.

WR Thomas Duarte: He’s officially listed as a receiver, though he’s a hybrid tight end, which is why he’s on the Mackey Award watch list. There are more explosive receivers, but few as reliable. Duarte has been targeted 15 times this year and hauled in 13 of those – including a pair of touchdowns. And of his 265 receiving yards, 110 have come after the catch. The Ducks will certainly be keeping an eye on him. He caught the only touchdown against Oregon in their meeting last year. Look for him on third downs and in the red zone.

DB Anthony Jefferson: Ishmael Adams gets plenty of recognition for what he does in the secondary. But Jefferson, the old man of the group, is the guy who keeps the youngsters in line. So far he’s posted 20 tackles on the year, including an interception in the ASU game. Oregon ranks first in the conference in pass efficiency, with Marcus Mariota completing 71.1 percent of his throws for 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. His accuracy will put a strain on UCLA’s defensive backfield, so the Bruins will look to Jefferson to hold things together.
Little more than a decade ago, the Oregon football program grabbed attention from across the country thanks to a number of large, and not entirely inexpensive, billboards. From Joey Harrington in New York City to Rashad Bauman in San Francisco to Maurice Morris in Los Angeles, the Ducks were looking for a way to make an impression on the impressionable -- namely, high school football recruits.

The Ducks double-dipped in Los Angeles, following up the Morris billboard one year later, in 2002, with another one that depicted three Oregon wide receivers -- Keenan Howry, Samie Parker and Jason Willis -- on the side of the Figueroa Hotel, less than three miles from the USC campus.

Fast forward 12 years and the idea of Oregon needing to rent advertising space in Southern California -- or anywhere in the country, for that matter -- to make an impact with recruits seems laughable. Instead, the Ducks found a way to become a billboard in 2006, unleashing an astounding 384 possible uniform combinations -- a number that would balloon to 512 by the end of the season. Opposing fans couldn't take them seriously. Recruits couldn't get enough. And with that, the Ducks had their hook with every prospect in the country.

"I heard about Oregon mainly because of the jerseys," said 2015 Oregon quarterback commit Travis Waller. "It's all about the jerseys and the flash, but kids these days are attracted to that. [Oregon doesn't] need to explain itself. Everyone knows who Oregon is now."

Five-star quarterback Torrance Gibson, the No. 12 prospect in the country and someone who has not been heavily recruited by the Ducks, was recently asked via Twitter, which college team had the best uniforms.

"Hands down 'Oregon,'" Gibson tweeted.

But while the uniforms served as an icebreaker for virtually any prospect in the country, Southern California has always been the point of emphasis for Pac-12 programs, including Oregon. The Ducks' run to the top of the Pac-12 came largely on the back of Southern California prospects, and specifically those who were overlooked by UCLA and USC. Standouts such as Terrence Whitehead, Terrell Jackson, Patrick Chung, Walter Thurmond, Jerome Boyd, Jeremiah Johnson and Brian Paysinger all joined the Ducks from 2003-05 and were lightly, or not at all, recruited by the hometown Bruins and Trojans. Of course, there were occasional recruiting victories over the then-Pac-10 powers, as Oregon beat both for A.J. Tuitele in the 2003 class and topped the Trojans for Jaison Williams and the Bruins for Geoffrey Schwartz in 2004.

Starting in 2007, when Chip Kelly took over as offensive coordinator and the Blur Offense was installed, it was no longer just the uniforms that had recruits' attention. Speed became synonymous with the Ducks and Oregon became a coveted offer nationwide. While the Ducks continued to pluck under-recruited prospects from Southern California, they began connecting on a larger percentage of Southern California prospects sought by UCLA and USC, headlined by the signing-day steal of De'Anthony Thomas from the Trojans in 2011. On the roster that will head to the Rose Bowl this weekend, for every Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- who didn't receive an offer from either Los Angeles program -- there's a Royce Freeman -- offered early and coveted by both. Hroniss Grasu, Derrick Malone, Darren Carrington, Rodney Hardrick, Tony Washington and Joe Walker all signed with Oregon without offers from the local schools. Tyree Robinson, Glen Ihenacho, Cameron Hunt and Austin Maloata -- along with Arik Armstead, Byron Marshall from Northern California -- were all important recruiting victories for the Ducks over either the Trojans or Bruins, or both.

There is some chatter in the area that Oregon's national focus is taking them away from Southern California a bit, but others are quick to point to defensive coordinator Don Pellum's long history at Oregon and recruiting the area as a sign that the Ducks will never stray too far.

The 2015 class is a fairly strong illustration of where the Ducks likely see themselves sitting comfortably as far as recruiting nationally. Their top two commitments are from Missouri and Georgia, both coveted by virtually every program in the country. But five of the Ducks 13 commitments are from the Southern California area and two ESPN 300 commitments -- guard Zach Okun and athlete Malik Lovette -- were significant targets for the Bruins and Trojans, respectively. Beyond the commitments, Oregon is swinging for the fences with the rest of its targets. Defensive tackle Rasheem Green, defensive end Keisean Lucier-South and inside linebacker John Houston Jr. -- the Nos. 4, 5 and 9 players in the state -- will all take official visits to Eugene this year, while safety Marvell Tell, the No. 12 prospect, has already visited.

Oregon's annual trip to Southern California will take place Saturday, and recruits in the area will flock to the game -- of course, UCLA's rise and recruiting prowess has plenty to do with that as well. But a visit from the Ducks is akin to the circus coming to town, billboards and all.

A number of recruits in the 2015 and 2016 classes who plan to attend the game said they are looking forward to the possibility of seeing something a little bit different than other Pac-12 visitors when the Ducks take the field.

"Speed is mandatory to be offered there," said Washington State commit Dominic Davis, who will attend the game and holds offers from UCLA and USC. "Seeing them in person versus on TV will probably give me an idea of just how fast they are. On TV, everybody looks fast. But you can't hide speed in person."

"I love watching Oregon play," said David Long, a 2016 recruit with an early offer from UCLA. "It speeds up the pace of the game and they have a lot of guys that have great ability in space."

Waller said Oregon has an opportunity to make a statement against UCLA, which would give the Ducks coaches even more ammunition as they continue to make themselves comfortable recruiting the best of the best in the region.
Most freshmen are like children's birthday presents.

They are the best, most wonderful, super duper, fantastic thing you’ll ever ever EVER have … until you have it. And then you realize that it’s mostly overrated and your old computer game or old board game or old toy is actually better. And within a few days or weeks, you go back to what you had been doing before. Translated to football, the senior and junior running backs or receivers or defensive backs take their rightful spots atop the depth charts.

Yet every year, a few freshmen come along who truly lives up to their billing. And though the Pac-12 Blog might not buy into the preseason hyping of the true freshmen (because yes, every fall there are 40 freshmen who will “definitely” make an impact according to their teammates, coaches, etc.), halfway through the regular season there are a few guys we really need to acknowledge as the Frosh Phenoms of the Pac-12.

Your top five Pac-12 freshmen heading into Week 7:

[+] EnlargeNick Wilson
AP Photo/Steve DykesArizona freshman running back Nick Wilson is already among the Pac-12 leaders.
RB Nick Wilson, Arizona - 90 rushes, 574 yards, 6 TD | 8 receptions, 67 yards, 1 TD
Wilson already has accounted for three 100-yard rushing games in just five appearances for the Wildcats, and through those five games he has become Arizona’s leading rusher. Wilson is second in the conference in rushing yards per game (114.8) and seventh in the conference in all-purpose yards per game (128.2). Through four games he has already accounted for 16 rushes of 10-plus yards (tied for 25th in the country).

  • What ESPN.com scouts said: “Wilson is a home run hitter with the playing strength and speed needed to wear down opponents and shorten the game in the fourth quarter. Early playing time at the BCS level is a definite possibility, especially if route-running and ball-catching skills keep improving and catch up to his running skills.”
RB Royce Freeman, Oregon - 67 rushes, 346 yards, 5 TD | 3 receptions, 33 yards
Freeman is Oregon’s leading rusher through five games and leads the Ducks with five rushing touchdowns. Freeman is seventh in the conference in rushing yards per game (69.2). And that number is even more impressive when considering how the Ducks have been trying out several options at running back, in addition to what quarterback Marcus Mariota can do with his feet. It hasn’t just been the Freeman show since Day 1 in Eugene, he has worked his way into that top spot by beating out players such as Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.

  • What ESPN.com scouts said: “This is more of a tough, carry-the-load type of back who is going to wear on a defense with inside carries and yards-after-contact production. Is the ultimate pile pusher who keeps his legs driving and will carry defenders who come in high on arm tackles. Low center of gravity and thick, powerful thighs that will absorb a low, heavy blow and keep downhill momentum.”
CB/WR Adoree' Jackson, USC - 4 receptions, 32 yards, 1 TD | 1 punt return, 10 yards | 7 kick returns, 195 yards | 9 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 passes broken up, 2 passes defended
Jackson has played in all three facets of the game for the Trojans and done well in each, and perhaps if he didn’t divide his practice time among all three, he could be a big star in one. But he’s still a contributor everywhere and his overall impact for the Trojans is huge. He started his first career game for USC against Oregon State and had a huge pass deflection in the end zone that led to a Leon McQuay III interception.

  • What ESPN.com scouts said: “One of the more explosive and electric athletes in this class, Jackson comes from a program that has produced its share of playmakers, including USC standout Marqise Lee, and Jackson is cut in that same mold. De’Anthony Thomas type of skill set on offense and would likely be used in a similar role if he plays on that side of the ball. Overall, Jackson's slighter frame is a small concern and he relies on natural ability at times more than refined skill set, but all that should come at the college level when he concentrates on one position.”
S Budda Baker, Washington - 26 tackles, 3 passes broken up, 3 passes defended
Baker has started every game for the Huskies and is the No. 4 tackler on the team (behind Danny Shelton, John Timu and Shaq Thompson). He’s just one of three players to have accounted for at least three pass break-ups and three passes defended for the Huskies and has come close to an interception more than once.

  • What ESPN.com scouts said: “Baker is a fast-pursuing, athletic safety prospect with a lot of productivity around the football in both run and pass support. If Baker can continue to fill out while improving his flexibility and man coverage skills, we see a very productive safety at the next level.”
WR Shay Fields, Colorado - 2 rushes, 14 yards, 1 TD | 33 receptions, 257 yards, 2 TD
Though it’s Nelson Spruce who gets most of the attention as the go-to receiver for the Buffs, Fields has done a pretty good job making a name for himself as well, becoming the No. 2 receiver. He’s a big reason why the Buffs are halfway to their 2013 win total just four games into the 2014 season, with close losses to Cal and Oregon State.

  • What ESPN.com scouts said: “Fields is also productive running the jet sweep, returning kickoffs and as a defensive back. He shows good plant-and-cut ability when running of the edge. He's effective returning kickoffs, flashing the vision needed to locate and get into creases for good yardage. A strong wrap tackler on defense indicating potential as a special-teams player. Displays good route awareness and discipline as a zone coverage defender. He could earn early situational playing time if a redshirt year isn't necessary.”
Honorable mention: RB Kalen Ballage, Arizona State; DB Jaleel Wadood, UCLA; CB Armand Perry, Arizona State; RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford; WR JuJu Smith, USC; QB/WR/RB Luke Rubenzer, Cal.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Even with new faces on defense -- from Don Pellum calling plays on the sideline to the front seven to the defensive backs -- there was an expectation that Oregon would take a step forward in the post-Nick Aliotti era.

Last season, there was -- as there is in every fan base -- discontent. And it was understandable.

[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsIfo Ekpre-Olomu and the Ducks know they need to play better on defense to get back on the national radar.
Though the Ducks' defense finished the 2013 season allowing just 4.6 yards per play (ninth nationally) and forcing opponents into 70 three-and-outs (15th nationally, which is even more impressive when you consider how much the Oregon defense is on the field), it faltered in key moments and big games.

There weren't enough halftime adjustments, the players had to deal with too many changes and the adjustments weren't good anyway. The defensive line didn’t get enough pressure. The defensive backs weren’t good enough in man coverage. And so on and so on.

Because the Ducks had an offense powered by a player they called Super Mariota, the defense didn't have to do much, right?

As we near the midpoint of the 2014 season, the Oregon defense still faces plenty of criticisms (and rightfully so).

The past few weeks haven’t exactly been good. It gave up 436 passing yards to Washington State, and quarterback Connor Halliday targeted All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu twice in the end zone for touchdowns.

Last weekend, the defense sputtered against Arizona, giving up 495 yards of offense to a team led by a redshirt sophomore QB and a true freshman running back. In that game, the Ducks’ best pass-rusher, Arik Armstead, exited the game early. He was seen wearing a walking boot on his left foot this week.

Fans can debate whether these are old or new issues, but one fact remains: Statistically, the defense has taken a major step back post-Aliotti.

From 2009 to 2013, Oregon's defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards per play, turnovers and efficiency. Five games into the 2014 season, those numbers have dropped -- significantly. Oregon ranks 79th nationally in yards per play, is tied at No. 41 in turnovers forced and is No. 74 nationally in efficiency.

It’s always hard to compare seasons. But it’s pretty obvious that the Ducks aren’t just dealing with a small drop.

From 2009-13, the Ducks played 62 FBS opponents. Those 62 teams, in the seasons in which they played Oregon, finished with a 380-360 final record. So finishing second in efficiency and turnovers and seventh in yards allowed per play is impressive.

This season, the Ducks’ four FBS opponents have combined for a 14-7 record. However, that number will likely finish closer to the 50-percent win percentage mark as the season progresses and Oregon's and its opponents' schedules get tougher.

As the numbers change, the one that needs to improve most is the defensive efficiency rating.

On Monday, coach Mark Helfrich pointed to mental mistakes as the main reason the defense is underperforming and giving up big plays.

“Usually, the genesis of it is communication,” Helfrich said. “Your communication happens with your eyes and your hands. There’s no verbal communication on defense, and we practice that way -- there’s very little verbal communication in practice.”

Helfrich said that on one occasion against Arizona, the defense checked to a coverage that wasn’t in the game plan for the Wildcats. He also said that two of Arizona’s touchdowns came on plays Oregon had practiced last week “1,000 times.”

“We had two out of the three guys communicating great,” Helfrich said. “And one of the three [did] not. And that’s a touchdown.”

Helfrich said that this has been “the bane of existence for defenses” everywhere so it’s not as though this is a new problem for Oregon, or any team.

There is a good chance those miscommunications are occurring because the Ducks have some young players on defense and are moving them in and out of the lineup to try to find the best fit.

“They’re still trying to figure out the best guys -- who should be on the field and who shouldn’t,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “We’re 4-1. Most teams in the country aren’t 4-1. … We’re really just trying to look and see how we can improve the team any way we can whether it’s switching guys out, putting new guys in, playing more DBs, playing less DBs, doing whatever we can do.”

Like Helfrich, Ekpre-Olomu isn't worried that the Ducks are still trying to find the right personnel heading into Week 7. He understands that the defensive shuffle has contributed to communication errors.

As Oregon hits the road to face No. 18 UCLA, the Ducks know they’re facing a possible elimination game from the College Football Playoff. The offense still has its stud quarterback who has pulled a rabbit out of a hat more often than not.

But can the defense do the same? It might take that kind of leap to keep the Ducks on the national radar.

Young Arizona QB/RB duo thriving

October, 9, 2014
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Solomon/WilsonCasey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsArizona's offense has been just fine in the hands of QB Anu Solomon, front, and RB Nick Wilson.
Conventional wisdom says the younger a player is, the more likely he is to fold in high-pressure situations for the simple fact that inexperience will win out. Makes sense in theory.

Yet Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson have flipped the script and are performing with the poise and confidence of third-year starters. Theories and conventional wisdom need not apply.

The youngest backfield tandem in the Pac-12 -- Solomon is a redshirt freshman and Wilson is a true freshman -- is also the most successful pairing in the league heading into Week 7. Wilson ranks second in the conference in rushing yards (574), rushing yards per game (114.8), yards per carry (6.4), and is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (6). Solomon commands an offense that ranks fourth in the league in scoring (39.8 PPG) and second in total offense (574 YPG). He is completing 63.6 percent of his throws with 14 touchdowns to four interceptions.

"Cool under pressure," is the way Oregon coach Mark Helfrich described the duo in the wake of Arizona’s 31-24 win against Oregon last week at Autzen.

Coach Rich Rodriguez said he saw Solomon's ability to handle tense situations when he was locked in a quarterback competition coming into the season. From there, he continued to lay on the pressure to see just how much the redshirt freshman could take. For Wilson, it was simply a matter of throwing the true freshman into the fire and seeing how he responded.

"We try to make practices more difficult than games, so I think that’s really helped their development," Rodriguez said. "...We thought (Wilson) was special when we signed him. What you don’t know is how quickly they learn the system when they get here. He’s a quick learner. And when he gets in the game, he’s competitive and strong. He’s giving us some good play, which is not totally surprising. But the fact that he’s learned so well and been so composed out there as a true freshman is really good to see."

Said Solomon: "It’s all about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. And the coaches put us in a lot of uncomfortable situations in practice. A lot of times we fail. And that’s where we learn from it so we don’t make those mistakes in games. I think that’s helped us be calm and poised."

Now 5-0 and ranked 10th in the country, the Wildcats return home this week for a South Division showdown with USC. The expectations have never been higher.

"We can’t get caught up in all of that," Solomon said. "It’s impossible not to hear it when you’re getting so much acknowledgement. We just have to nod our heads and forget it. Everything we’ve accomplished is in the past. This is USC week. We can’t let the Oregon win or the Cal win influence us in any way.

"Hungry and humble."

Humility is something Solomon learned at a young age. In 2009, he was named the starting quarterback at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. All he did was compile a 57-3 record as a starter and win four state championships. But he had to learn to bark orders at seniors while also earning their respect.

The same holds true now. At 19 years old, he’s telling guys who will be in the NFL this time next year what to do and how to do it. That takes a certain kind of personality.

"I try to pay attention to their leadership first," Solomon said. "I know what’s going through their minds. 'You want my respect, you have to earn it.' But it’s part of the job. Everything you do is earned."

Four of the Wildcats five games this season have been determined by a touchdown or less. The past two have included a fourth-quarter tie or deficit. So they are already used to playing in tight games.

"We came into this season as underdogs, and we’ve worked hard for everything we’ve earned," Solomon said. "We want to be relevant. We want the nation to know what we’ve done during the summer and the offseason. We worked our tails off. We just have to keep doing what we do and stay humble."

Pac-12 Week 7 predictions

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Why Oregon will win: The Ducks haven't lost consecutive games during a season since 2007, so despite how shaky the offensive line has looked there's not much precedent to expect another loss. Brett Hundley versus Marcus Mariota is intriguing, but look for Mariota to keep his Heisman campaign alive. And playing on the road apparently isn't a tough thing to overcome anymore either -- in Pac-12 games the road team is 11-3 so far this season. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why UCLA will win: Both offensive lines have dealt with injuries -- and thus both quarterbacks have taken the brunt of that issue. But I like UCLA's defensive line against Oregon's offensive line better than Oregon's D-line against UCLA's O-line, especially if Arik Armstead is limited. This is a coin-flip game, but with both teams coming off of emotional losses, I like the team that doesn't have to rebound on the road. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Washington will win: Cal's only conference game against a team with a winning record this season came against Arizona, and that foray into the desert didn't end well for the Bears because they couldn't put together four quarters of consistent defense (the Wildcats scored 36 points in the final frame). Though Jared Goff (22 touchdowns, three interceptions) has been spectacular and there's every reason to believe he'll be good again Saturday, an athletic Husky front seven will pressure him, and this will likely be a game in which Cal will need at least some help from the defense to win. Washington's Cyler Miles struggled mightily his last time out against Stanford's vaunted defense, but the Bears haven't demonstrated the same ability to slow an opponent down (they're surrendering more than 40 points per game). -- David Lombardi

Why Cal will win: I'm a big fan of Washington's defense. But I'm not sure the offense can go blow-for-blow with the Bears right now. Cal is running the ball effectively enough to keep teams off balance and they are winning in the “explosive play” department. This is by far the toughest front-seven Cal has seen this season. And Washington will get its stops and probably a few sacks. But they are going to need at least 35-42 points on the road to win. That's a tough sell. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why USC will win: The reason I picked USC is because Arizona is undefeated and that's not allowed in the Pac-12 this season. Yes, I love the way the Wildcats have played thus far: opportunistic and mentally tough. That's two things you can't say about USC. But there you have it. What seems like it should happen, won't. The Trojans are going to win this game because the college football gods will not allow any sustained happiness within a Pac-12 fan base this season. -- Ted Miller

Why Arizona will win: Bowl eligibility and a perfect 6-0 start is on the line at home for Arizona. You can guarantee Arizona Stadium will be bumping. I'm expecting a big Wildcats offensive output because, let's be serious, USC has some major defensive deficiencies. They've proven you can throw against them after giving up 510 passing yards to Mike Bercovici. They've proven you can run against them, after giving up 452 rushing yards to Boston College. And guess what, Arizona can both run and throw the ball. If it's the struggling run defense that shows up against the Wildcats, then you can expect Anu Solomon, Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby to show out. If it's the struggling pass defense that shows up, you can expect Solomon to connect with Cayleb Jones, Austin Hill and Nate Phillips. Arizona's offense is going to be stellar and its defense, a week after holding Oregon to just 144 rushing yards, is going to do enough to get the win. -- Chantel Jennings

Unanimous decision

Why Stanford will win: Washington State hasn't seen anything like Stanford's defense this year and while the same could also be said about Stanford facing WSU's offense, recent history says this is the Cardinal's game to lose. The real story will be what happens when Stanford's offense is on the field.

Pac-12 morning links

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I am Jack's complete lack of surprise.

Leading off

It seems so long ago that the Josh Shaw story of heroism captured the country's hearts, only to find out two days later that it was fabricated. New USC coach Steve Sarkisian was left to put out the fire before he'd even coached his first game. And he was down a senior defensive back to boot. So what's the latest with Shaw? Michael Lev of the Orange County Register is asking that question.

Per Lev, Shaw remains suspended indefinitely, and still has to go through several administrative layers before it would even reach Sarkisian. The LAPD is continuing to investigate, though there haven't been any updates from detectives since last month.

Sarkisian told Lev he'd like to have Shaw back in the lineup, especially given some of USC's defensive breakdowns in two of their last three games.
When you have a senior DB, you’d love to have him out there, especially in our conference where there are so many people throwing the ball. We haven’t even gotten to the meat of it yet. We still have Washington State and Cal to come, and these guys are unbelievable with what they are doing throwing the ball. We would love for that to occur.

Shaw was projected as a starter and team captain before the season started.

Breaking out

Athlon Sports looked at some of the top breakout players in college football through the first six weeks. And their list has some strong Pac-12 representation. Here are the conference players who made their list. Their take on Spruce:
No Paul Richardson? No problem. Spruce has emerged as a capable replacement for Richardson and is the favorite target for Colorado’s rising star quarterback Sefo Liufau. Spruce leads the nation with 62 receptions and ranks third with 732 receiving yards. The junior also leads the nation with 10 touchdown receptions and has caught at least 10 passes in three games this season. Coming into 2014, Spruce had just seven career touchdown catches.
News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Football pump-up videos + Gladiator references = awesome. (Though there's an Airplane joke in there somewhere).

Here's a neat photo essay of sorts of life on the road with Oregon State.

Great pic!

In the wake of a tumultuous couple of weeks for Pac-12 officials, the league's coordinator of football officiating has resigned.

The Pac-12 announced Tony Corrente's resignation in a release Wednesday night, citing personal and professional reasons.

"Under Tony's leadership, our program made great strides in improving the quality, accountability and consistency," Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. "While it's unfortunate that Tony has decided to leave us at this time, I want to express my appreciation for his contribution, and for leaving our officiating program strong and headed in the right direction."

Pac-12 officials have come under fire the last couple of weeks following a series of high-profile, questionable calls and non-calls in several games. It spilled over last Saturday in Colorado when coach Mike MacIntyre was seen screaming at officials and following them off the field following the Buffs 36-31 loss to Oregon State. The tirade earned MacIntyre a $10,000 fine and a reprimand from the league earlier this week.

Jim Blackwood, who has more than 20 years as a college conference coordinator and a 10 years as an NFL replay official, will serve as interim coordinator for the remainder of the season. The league will conduct a search for a permanent replacement after the season.

#4Pac: Most underrated Pac-12 player?

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Andy Phillips, Scooby WrightGetty ImagesUtah K Andy Phillips and Arizona LB Scooby Wright are among the Pac-12's underrated players.
Your humble #4Pac welcomes you to another installment of what will be a regular feature on the Pac-12 blog. Here's how it works: We take one question or one topic, or maybe it's some other really cool format that we haven't even thought of yet, and all contribute our thoughts.

Have a suggestion for something we should address in a future #4Pac roundtable? Go ahead and send it to our mailbag.

Today, we're identifying the most underrated player in the Pac-12 so far this season.

Ted Miller/@TedMillerRK: Cal RB Daniel Lasco.

Cal RB Daniel Lasco has been around a while. In fact, his 2014 Cal bio notes that he “has played in more games than any other current Cal running back (20) with one start over the last two seasons of his three campaigns with the program.” That is not exactly something that would appear on his campaign poster for the Doak Walker Award, but the reality is things have been pretty meager for the Bears during Lasco’s career, so there hasn’t been much individual glory to go around.

And Lasco isn’t likely to win All-Pac-12 honors this winter. There are running backs with better name recognition and, yes, better numbers. But Lasco’s numbers are quite good at midseason: 81.6 yards rushing per game, which ranks sixth in the conference, with three TDs and a stout 6.2 yards per carry average. He also has caught nine passes for 151 yards with two more TDs.

While most folks think passing when they think of Sonny Dykes’ spread offense, the Bears have hit a nearly 50-50 balance this year with Lasco becoming the lead dog. Last year, while Cal went 1-11, that ratio was nearly 2.75/1. That improved balance, led by Lasco, might be a significant part of the reason Cal is no longer a North Division doormat.

David Lomardi/@LombardiESPN: Arizona LB Scooby Wright III.

Raise your hand if you expected Oregon to rack up an obscene amount of points and yards against Arizona’s defense last Thursday.

Lo and behold, that didn’t happen. The Wildcats held the Ducks in check to the tune of only 24 points. Suddenly, the Pac-12 was confronted with yet another new reality: Rich Rodriguez’s defense isn’t a paper-thin unit anymore. This is an underrated bunch that can hold up in gut-check situations.

That ringleader is Scooby Wright III. Arizona sophomore's linebacker has become a tackling machine for the Wildcats. He’s tied with UCLA’s Eric Kendricks for the Pac-12 lead at 58 tackles and he's gobbling up opposing ball carriers at a frightening level: He followed a 14-tackle performance against Nevada with a remarkable 18-stop game against Cal. Of course, that second effort was drowned in the Hail Mary hoopla following Austin Hill's game winning catch against the Bears.

Wright would have to wait until Eugene for his skills to get more notice and he took full advantage of the opportunity. His sack and strip of Marcus Mariota robbed Oregon of its last, desperate chance to tie the game. That big-time play, featuring a perfect mix of speed, brute force, awareness, and a devastating ability to rip the ball free, cemented Wright in his position as one of the top defensive players in the Pac-12. It’s now time for him to get his deserved acclaim.

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell: Utah K Andy Phillips.

I’m sure within the kicking community, Andy Phillips is not considered underrated. But if you want to pinpoint a player who has quietly done more for his team than possibly any other player in the league, it’s Phillips.

Let’s start with the obvious. He’s 10 of 12 on field goal conversions -- including a long of 50 yards -- and he’s 24-of-24 on PATs. His 54 points are second in the conference only to Arizona’s Casey Skowron (another fantastic kicker, by the way, with a great backstory). He’s perfect from inside 40 yards and 5-of-7 beyond 40.

Now, the not so obvious. He leads the Pac-12 with 24 touchbacks. And given the kick-returning talent in this league, that’s an awfully important club to have in your bag. He can pull off the one-man onside kick. He did it last week against UCLA -- a duplicate of the kick, slide, recover he pulled last year against Utah State. (Every opposing special teams coach left on Utah’s roster is going to be paranoid).

Kickers often get forgotten in these types of discussions. And that’s a shame. Because whether it’s a 50-yarder at the Big House in a storm or a 29-yard game-winner at the Rose Bowl, Phillips delivers. And chances are, Utah is not 4-1 without him.

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN: Washington State receiver River Cracraft.

When Washington State receiver River Cracraft breaks the Pac-12 career receptions record in the 2016 season, it’ll be hard to imagine there was ever a time when he was underrated. But in the here and now, Cracraft isn’t usually mentioned right away in conversations about the best receivers in the conference.

Not that it’s hard to understand -- Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong, Stanford’s Ty Montgomery and USC’s Nelson Agholor are potential first-round picks and Nelson Spruce has made it easy to forget Paul Richardson at Colorado. Even at WSU, Cracraft ranks just third on the team with 43 receptions behind Vince Mayle (51) and Isiah Myers (45), but ask those around the program which guy is the most important to the team’s success, the answer is usually Cracraft.

In Mike Leach’s offense, receiving stats are naturally inflated compared to other schools, but Cracraft’s rise over the past four weeks deserves extra attention. After missing the Cougars’ game against Nevada due to injury, he’s finished each game since with more catches and more yards than the one before it: Portland State 7-88, Oregon 8-107, Utah 9-126, Cal 11-172.

Let’s have some fun with numbers. If Cracraft keeps this season’s reception-per-game average (8.6) over the rest of this season and the next two (assuming 12 games in each), he’d finish his career with 346 catches – or 87 more than Arizona’s Mike Thomas, who holds the conference’s current receptions record (259).

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