Pac-12 North recruiting roundup 

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
5:00
PM ET
At the halfway point of college football's regular season, there is still plenty to be decided both on the field and on the recruiting trail. The Pac-12 placed six programs among the top 40 recruiting classes in Wednesday's updated class rankings and conference recruiting classes contain as many as 24 -- Arizona -- and as few as nine -- Stanford -- verbal commitments. This update offers a look at where each Pac-12 North program stands with its 2015 recruiting class, including its top prospect and position of strength, as well as a look at where things are going well, and not so well, for each class.

Cal

Total number of commitments: 10
The preseason narrative in the Pac-12 was all about the quarterbacks, and with good reason. With 10 starters coming back, there was considerable hype that this might be the best collection of quarterbacks in league history.

We had no idea...

Through the first half of the season, the league’s quarterbacks have collectively exceeded expectations statistically and internally.

“Coming in I thought it was going to be the best in the country,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “Halfway through, that’s still holding true.”

First, let’s get some numbers out of the way:

  • Three FBS quarterbacks have attempted at least 100 passes without throwing an interception and they are all from the Pac-12: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (155 attempts), Washington’s Cyler Miles (129 attempts) and Utah’s Travis Wilson (101 attempts).
  • UCLA’s Brett Hundley leads FBS football with a 72.2 completion percentage.
  • Washington State’s Connor Halliday set an FBS record with 734 passing yards (and lost!)
  • Cal’s Jared Goff and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau combined for 14 passing touchdowns in a game with seven each.
  • We’ve seen six 500-yard passing performances, 12 400-yard passing performances and 26 300-yard performances.
  • Three of the six most efficient quarterbacks through the first half of the season reside in the Pac-12 -- Mariota, Hundley and Goff. Six more are in the top 50. And in ESPN’s advanced QBR metric, Mariota is No. 1 in the country with Goff and Hundley in the top 10 and USC’s Cody Kessler at No. 17.

“We have, in my opinion, without a doubt, the best group of quarterbacks in the country,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Halliday with his total offense, 460-plus a game and the efficiency of Mariota. He’s up in the 190s. And Hundley with all he brings to the table. It goes on and on. [Sean] Mannion, who we’re facing this week is a different animal. He’s more of a pocket guy. All of them are very effective and all of them present a very big challenge for you.”

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsWashington State's Connor Halliday leads the nation in passing yards (3,344) and touchdowns (28).
And that’s barely mentioning the newcomers or the backups. Miles and Arizona’s Anu Solomon are a combined 10-2 as starters with one loss each. UCLA’s backup, Jerry Neuheisel, was carried off the field in Arlington after engineering a game-winning drive against the Longhorns. ASU’s Mike Bercovici has nine touchdowns and nearly 1,100 passing yards in two games in relief of the injured Taylor Kelly. What the Utes would have given in the past for a quarterback to be interception free through the first half of the season. Now Wilson might get benched in favor of Kendal Thompson.

“It’s a grind,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. “That aspect has not been surprising at all how good and efficient they have been … the quality and depth in the conference has borne out exactly how we thought it would in the preseason.”

And that’s led to some phenomenal moments through the first seven weeks. We’ve seen Marys of the Hail, Jael and Hill variety. We’ve seen a 60-59 game. We’ve seen a 59-56 double-overtime game. We’ve seen 36 points scored in the fourth quarter.

The only logical explanation is that no one in the Pac-12 plays defense … so says the stereotype that circulates East of the Rockies. Ironic, then, that the No. 1 defense in the country belongs to Stanford and that five of 11 defenders on the ESPN.com midseason All-America team are from the Pac-12 (and the Pac-12 blog can think of one or two more names that should have been on that list, cough, Hau'oli Kikaha, cough, Nate Orchard). But we digress.

It hasn’t been perfect up and down the board. Mariota and Hundley – despite outstanding statistics – have been hampered by offensive line injuries and issues. Stanford’s Kevin Hogan – while still putting up respectable numbers, has already taken 12 sacks after being put down 14 times all last season. And the Cardinal have the worst scoring offense and red zone offense in the conference. Halliday is among the nation’s leaders in interceptions with eight (to go with his nation-leading 28 touchdowns). For all of Wilson’s grit and moxie, he’s still struggled with accuracy, completing 57.4 percent of his throws. That’s a big reason why we might see Thompson Thursday night.

Still, the sensational has far outweighed the shortcomings.

“It’s lived up to the hype,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes. “When you look at all the guys, everyone is playing at a high level and performing well. I think that’s why there is so much parity in the league right now because there are a lot of good quarterbacks and a lot of points getting scored. If you’ve got a good quarterback and can score some points, you’ve got a chance to be anybody. That’s been the story this year. Even the young quarterbacks, the guys who were unproven, have played well and made this a very solid league.”

For all the unpredictability and craziness that has gone on through the first seven weeks, the only constant has been stellar quarterback play. Don’t expect that to change in the second half of the year.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham stuck to the coaching handbook this week and opted against publicly naming a starting quarterback headed into Thursday night’s game at Oregon State.

“It's not a huge strategic move,” he said. “But why tip your hand if you don't have to? And we don't have to.”

In theory, that would leave those outside the program -- and more importantly, in Corvallis -- to speculate: Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson?

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
AP Photo/Alex GallardoKendal Thompson has earned the start against Oregon State on Thursday.
 Except it’s hard to believe there’s much of a decision to make. Not after what happened in Utah’s past two games.

In a 28-27 loss to Washington State on Sept. 27, Wilson failed to lead the Utes into the red zone, and Whittingham later admitted that, in hindsight, Thompson “should have probably gotten a couple series.” Those comments are partially why it came as no surprise when Wilson got the hook after starting with three consecutive three-and-outs at then-No. 8 UCLA the following week. And after Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer, went on to lead Utah to a 30-28 win and into the AP Top 25 for the first time since joining the Pac-12, it’s hard to find logic that points back to Wilson.

Regardless, Oregon State coach Mike Riley said the Beavers will be prepared for either guy -- which likely would have been the case even if Whittingham went public with his decision.

“Obviously, we have to prepare for both if they’re not going to name the starter, and they certainly have two good players to pick from,” Riley said. “We played against Travis last year, and he gave us all sorts of fits and [Thompson] has come in there and done a nice job, so probably a good problem for Utah to deal with.”

In Oregon State’s 51-48 overtime win against Utah last season, Wilson completed 19 of 33 passes for 279 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions and ran for 142 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries.

Despite what Wilson did against the Beavers in that game, it’s what Thompson can do with his legs that could ultimately give him the edge. By no means did he set the world on fire against UCLA, but he carried 19 times for 83 yards to go along with a 10 for 13 passing night with 95 yards, a touchdown and no picks.

Riley is no stranger to dealing with unsettled quarterback situations. He benched returning starter Ryan Katz in favor of Sean Mannion early in the 2011 season, and after Mannion went down with an injury the next year, he split time with Cody Vaz when he returned. Then the duo waged a long quarterback competition before Mannion emerged at the end of training camp last season.

“We were into that about a year and a half ago, and it’s a little bit challenging, probably,” Riley said. “Coaches trying to decide what’s best to do and players are up in the air a little bit, but I think in the bigger picture, the competition creates the best in people most of the time and you want to find that out at that position.”

Utah has been in a similar situation to what it'll be facing Thursday, too, just not for how it relates to quarterbacks. Last fall, the Utes beat No. 5 Stanford 27-21 to move to 4-2, but five straight losses followed, taking them out of the bowl picture.

"We have had that conversation, how we didn't capitalize on a big win last year vs. Stanford," Whittingham said. "The timing of the game is almost identical -- I think Stanford was in Week 6 last year, rather than Week 5, which the UCLA game was. It's a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but we hope to have a better result throughout the second half of the season than we did last year."
The introduction of Chris Petersen to the Washington-Oregon rivalry comes as quite a relief to the ink-stained wretches who write about college football. Redundancy and predictability are the sworn enemies of the scribbling class, and the Huskies-Ducks rivalry has been a model of redundancy and predictability for a decade, with the boys in green -- or, you know, whatever -- owning the purple team by at least 17 points in the last 10 matchups.

With Petersen now fronting the Huskies, that's an item of interest that a journalist can wrap a lead around. He or she doesn't have to immediately recycle the droning, "Is this the year Washington breaks through?" One can observe that Petersen not only was once a Ducks assistant -- from 1995-2000 under Mike Bellotti -- when he started a longstanding friendship with second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, but he also was 2-0 against Oregon while heading Boise State, where he was 92-12 and was universally esteemed for his Huge Football Brain.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images"I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff," Huskies coach Chris Petersen said, "but that's not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."
"Huge Football Brain"? That hints at Chip Kelly, which means Huskies fans have stopped reading and now have thrown themselves on their prayer rugs and begun wailing to the college football gods that Washington really, really would like Petersen to become Washington's version of Kelly. Or, even better, Don James, Take 2.

With Huskies fans duly distracted by their invocations, we'll note to the tittering Oregon fans that the Ducks will be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of an obscure moment in their team's history on Saturday. While video of Kenny Wheaton's pick-six interception against Washington in 1994 is as difficult to find as a white peacock, it does exist, and there's a quiet minority of Ducks fans who believe it was a meaningful moment in the transformation of the program.

Those Oregon fans obsessed with such esoterica will be glad to know the Duck will don throwback uniforms to honor the occasion, of which at least one Oregon administrative Twitter feed observed this week: "Prior to 'The Pick' Oregon all-time had a .495 Win% (359-366-34). Since that game, Oregon is .731 (177-65)."

So, yes, call us a wee bit sarcastic when we poke fun by minimizing the impact of "The Pick," unquestionably the Ur-moment in Oregon football history, a highlight that plays immediately before every Ducks home game.

And the reason it is the definitive before-after line for the program's rise to West Coast and national prominence is not only that it was the key play in a run to the program's first Rose Bowl since 1958, it was that it happened so dramatically against the Huskies, the established Northwest power that Ducks fans most hated.

Which brings us back the rivalry and the two head coaches. Both know the rivalry well. That means they will at least acknowledge its biliousness, unlike Kelly, who seemed to enjoy telling reporters how much he liked former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, knowing it would inspire forehead slaps among the Ducks faithful.

"Do I understand the rivalry as a native Oregonian? Absolutely," Helfrich said. "I know the history of that very well and what it means to our fans."

And yet, it's all about an established winning process with the Ducks, and that centers on preparing the same every week for a "nameless faceless opponent."

Echoed Petersen, "I know about the Oregon-Washington stuff, but that’s not my focus, getting them fired up. To me, this needs to be about us."

That carries over to Helfrich's and Petersen's friendship. Both insisted in the preseason it would overcome them being at professional loggerheads in the Pac-12's North Division, though they admitted this week they hadn't talked thus far this season. Both also insisted this week that it has no impact on their emotions or preparation for the game. Which, you know, is as it should be.

Petersen, while at Boise State, handed the Ducks their last nonconference loss at home in 2008, and then spoiled Kelly's head coaching debut in 2009. While that's an interesting factoid, it's also far less relevant than how well the Ducks offensive line, which recovered nicely in a win at UCLA with offensive tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, will play against the Huskies stout front-7, led by nose guard Danny Shelton, defensive endHau'oli Kikaha and linebacker Shaq Thompson.

What Oregon showed last week while redeeming itself after flubbing around in a home loss to Arizona is that when the offensive line is playing well, the offense hums along like in days of old. Petersen knows his team can't allow QB Marcus Mariota to feel comfortable.

"He might be the best player in college football, so that’s a problem right there," he said.

Another interesting factoid: Neither QB has thrown an interception this year. Because Cyler Miles isn't the playmaker that Mariota is, it's probably more critical for him to maintain his clean sheet Saturday.

So here we are, back at the redundancy: Is this the Huskies year? Maybe. Stranger things have happened this season. A lot stranger. But all the history and emotions don't hold a lot of weight with either coach. Whether the Huskies break through or the Ducks make like Spinal Tap's amplifiers and go up to 11, the coaches just view the game as X's and O's either doing what they want them to do or not.

Noted Petersen dryly, "So it doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything in the past. It comes down to playing good football."

Kickoff Show: Week 8 (1 ET)

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
10:23
AM ET
Join ESPN.com reporters Andrea Adelson, Heather Dinich, Jake Trotter and host Chantel Jennings as they discuss this week's news, preview the weekend slate and answer your questions live on screen.

Pac-12 Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
9:00
AM ET
Why Utah will win: Duh, the Utes are on the road. Is any further explanation needed? I like the confidence Utah is playing with. I like that they are a three-phase team. And I really, really like the sack-happy Utah front seven against an Oregon State offensive line that hasn't fully come together yet. The Utes have established a strong running game that will exist regardless of who is handing off the ball. OSU's offense is yet to really come together. And unless you've got a defense like Stanford's, averaging fewer than 30 points per game will eventually catch up with you. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Oregon will win: Oregon has won 10 in a row in this bitter rivalry, and each of those victories came by at least 17 points. That’s dominance. Last year, the Huskies challenged the Ducks for three quarters at home before being overwhelmed in the fourth quarter in a 45-24 Ducks win. While Washington is closing the gap, and the Chris Petersen hire adds an intriguing wrinkle to the series, the Ducks seemed to regain their footing last weekend at UCLA. They’ll particularly need that improved O-line play to neutralize Washington’s tough front seven. But don’t despair Huskies: Marcus Mariota won’t be around when the Ducks come back to Husky Stadium in 2015! -- Ted Miller

Why Stanford will win: Stanford is just a bad matchup for Arizona State. The Cardinal's physicality on defense caused problems in both games last year and there's not much reason to indicate that won't be the case again Saturday. Stanford's offense has struggled, but there were enough schematic changes against Washington State to sense improvement is coming. -- Kyle Bonagura

Why Arizona State will win: Because there’s no way that if all five of us picked all five of the same teams this week, that we’d all be perfect. My gut says one of these games doesn’t happen the way we all believe it will. The Sun Devils are the more highly ranked team and they’re playing at home which in the Pac-12 this year means they should lose, right? So, I’m going to say they’re going to win. Despite Stanford’s tough defense, I think Arizona State has enough success against them to sneak out with a win. The Pac-12 this season has made little sense and for some reason everyone thinks Stanford is going to come in and crush ASU, so I say, what the hey, let’s pick ASU because no one else did. -- Chantel Jennings

Unanimous picks

Why UCLA will win: Don't get us wrong, Cal has a very real shot to win this game. Their offense is still explosive, and UCLA's defense has not shown that it's anywhere near Washington's caliber, the Bears' last opponent. We're still waiting for evidence that Cal's defense can stop Brett Hundley & Co. -- David Lombardi

Why USC will win: It's clear that the Trojans are significantly better than Colorado, and they're at home. Despite its inconsistency this season, USC just has too much size, athleticism, and skill to reasonably think they'll lose this game. -- David Lombardi

Pac-12 morning links

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
8:00
AM ET
Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark!

Leading off

Get a good look at as many Pac-12 players as possible over the second half of the season. Because for a lot of them, this will be their last year. The league is loaded with NFL potential this season, and ESPN's Todd McShay recently updated his Top 32 players. There's a new No. 1 -- USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. But he's just one of 10 Pac-12 players who could go in the first round in the next NFL draft.

Here's what McShay has to say about Williams:
Williams moves up to the No. 1 spot in this week's rankings, as we've had more of an opportunity to watch his performance; this adjustment is mostly just an acknowledgement of what a complete game he has and how he has been playing up to that level so far this season. He possesses excellent strength and speed for his size, and has the versatility to create mismatches all along the D-line. His best projection is as a 5-technique defensive end, but he has the quickness and point-of-attack skills to perform inside as a 3-technique (especially in pass-rushing situations), and enough athleticism to occasionally line up as a traditional left defensive end. As a pass-rusher, he isn't going to gain the edge with pure speed, but he has good initial quickness and a wide array of moves. He possesses an above-average motor and plays with an edge.

The rest of the article is Insider, so you'll need to decipher a series of clues hidden within some of the greatest Renaissance works of art to get full access. But I'll give you a hint at No. 2 ... he's a quarterback and he wears green.

Who's the Q for the U?

We have football tonight when Utah travels to Oregon State. And the big storyline surrounding this game is whether it will be Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson at quarterback for the No. 20 Utes. So far, coach Kyle Whittingham has kept things close to the vest.
"It's not a huge strategic move, but why tip your hand if you don't have to, and we don't have to. It's not like the NFL where you have to declare what's going on," Whittingham said. "They've handled themselves very well in practice. You'd expect both of them to work hard like they have all year long. There is really no change in our approach in that regard."

The irony, of course, is that the Utes have wished upon many a star to have a starting quarterback make it through the season -- pretty much ever since Brian Johnson. Now they have two. Tonight's game is a 7 p.m. PT kickoff on the Pac-12 Networks.

News/notes/practice reports
Just for fun

ASU created a stick-figure video to remind over-zealous boosters not to be over zealous.

Mailbag: Bowls, Beavers and Bears

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
9:00
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag, where home-field advantage actually means something. Feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Peter in Denver writes: The OSU vs. Utah game seems very pivotal. They are both 4-1 and the loser of this game may miss a bowl game (Utah's schedule is brutal). While the winner could be a dark horse to win their respective division (either would control its own destiny with a win). What do the Beavers need to do to win this game?

Kevin Gemmell: Oregon State is already in the hole since it's playing at home. Nothing the Beavers can do about that, though.

This is a huge swing game we were targeting several weeks ago that could make or break the postseason hopes of either team. Let’s start with the Utes. After this week they’ve got USC, at Arizona State, Oregon, at Stanford, Arizona and at Colorado. If you would have asked me in the preseason if the Utes would go into the Rose Bowl and win, I’d probably say no. Then again, I didn’t think they’d lose at home to WSU, either. If Utah beats Oregon State, it’s hard not to imagine them finding at least one more win from that bunch.

As for the Beavers, I wouldn’t say it’s that much easier. At Stanford before three straight home games against Cal, WSU and ASU before closing on the road at Washington and then home for the Civil War.

So what does OSU have to do to win? First, start by containing Nate Orchard. If they can do that, it will lead to step No. 2, run the football successfully. When they do that, they can set up the pass. The hope is that Victor Bolden is closer to 100 percent. The off week helped in that regard. I’d also avoid kicking to Kaelin Clay. But that’s just me.


Derek in Portland writes: Can you guys take a look at these 2 plays of OSU and USC and review them impartially? You guys seem to like Coach Sark, but he looks like a Snake Oil Salesman to everyone who's not a fan of whatever team he's coaching. Obviously he doesn't coach the offensive line, but in the end he's responsible for the actions of his team. OSU is now without 2 DT's which is a difficult position for us small guys to recruit. It also took away the season (and maybe the career) of a kid trying to better his life from a small island in the middle of the pacific. Jalen Grimble Injury; Noke Tago Injury.

Kevin Gemmell: Neither of those are fun to watch because you know what the end result is going to be. But at the same time, I’ve seen plays like that dozens of times each week -- from pretty much every school in the conference, and guys bounce right back up.

Mark Banker questioned the technique of the blocks. And I would tend to agree with him -- especially on the Max Tuerk block where he goes helmet first into Tago’s knee, who appears to be planting his right foot exactly at the point of impact. With the guard pulling behind him and the play flowing in the opposite direction, you can argue whether a chop block was really necessary.

The question on situations like this is always intent. And I’d like to believe that Tuerk, who I’ve talked to many times, wouldn’t intentionally go after a player. The Grimble injury appears to be a normal football play. One guy gets pushed into the other in the trenches. Those are big bodies flying around and collisions like that happen all the time.

The result is unfortunate. But from my understanding of the rules, neither was illegal.

I’m not going to defend the Trojans, nor am I going to make any accusations that their offensive line was hunting. Injuries are an unfortunate part of a violent game. And maybe the legality of one-on-one chop blocks is something that could/should be reviewed in the offseason.


Raj in Bear Territory writes: After the video game numbers, Cal's offense came crashing down to Earth, struggling with UW's athletic front. It could be argued, however, that Cal plays very emotionally and never really mentally recovered from the first Goff fumble. Coming into the meat of their schedule, do you see Cal's offense struggling as much as they did against Washington or will they get back on track?

Kevin Gemmell: I don’t think there is any argument at all. The Bears’ confidence was 100 percent shaken by the Shaq Thompson fumble return. Psychologically, that is a massive swing. Instead of a 7-0 lead early in the game to cap a great nine-play, 79 yard drive, you’re looking at 7-0 hole. From there it was five punts, two more turnovers and two stops on fourth down.

Now let’s give credit where credit is due. Washington has one of the best front sevens in the country and they did what they do best, rattling an offensive line that has a couple of sophomores on it and a sophomore quarterback. Outside of Stanford, the Bears probably won’t see a collection of seven defenders up front as good as the one they saw last week.

I think the offense gets back on track. But there’s a stipulation to that. I don’t think “on track” refers to the obscene numbers they were putting up in the first half of the season. For starters, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State and USC will also present their own set of defensive challenges.

I’m not so much worried about the offense as I am the defense, which is allowing almost 39 points per game. I get that if you score 40 and the other team scores 39, you still win. But there are going to be games where the offense struggles -- like last week -- and the defense will need to pick up the slack a little. That’s all part of the growing process toward becoming a complete team.

#4Pac: Judging the state of California

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
7:45
PM ET
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 examining the state of California. Each of the state's four teams -- Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA -- sits at 4-2. Which will finish the regular season with the best record?

David Lombardi/@LombardiESPN:

[+] EnlargeStanford defense
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezStanford's stellar defense is one reason the Cardinal should emerge with the best record of the California Pac-12 teams.
This is simple: Stanford has, by far, the best defense in the Pac-12. The Cardinal are allowing only 8.8 points per game and 3.6 yards per play. Both of those marks lead the nation, and they’re leaps and bounds ahead of what the other conference teams -- all giving up more than 20 points per game -- have to offer.

That makes Stanford the least volatile choice the rest of the way. Regardless of how poorly their offense performs, the Cardinal will constantly be just a big play or two away from establishing a stranglehold on a game. Heck, they only lost by three points to USC despite delivering one of the most putrid red-zone performances in conference history. Cal certainly can’t say it has that kind of margin of error, and both defenses down in Los Angeles have been far too inconsistent to supply the same security that Stanford enjoys.

This question might ultimately come down to the final day of the regular season, when UCLA hosts the Cardinal at the Rose Bowl. Remember that the two-time defending champs have beaten the Bruins six straight times. There’s a reason for that, so don’t bet against a championship-caliber defense.

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings:

Stanford. I just believe in that Cardinal defense too much to think that they’ll hit too many unmanageable road bumps. I see Stanford closing out the season 5-1 with its one loss coming to Oregon, or possibly UCLA in the regular-season finale. But I just don’t see USC, Cal or UCLA closing out their schedules in the same way. Yes, the Cardinal offense is far from a high-scoring juggernaut and I don’t think they’ll knock anyone’s socks off. But I do think they’ll get better throughout the rest of the season. And at the end of the day, I don’t see many teams being able to put up that many points on their defense.

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell:

I’m going to lean toward one thing that we know is tried and true in college football – defense. And Stanford, for whatever shortcomings it has on offense, still has the best defense in the conference and arguably the country. That’s going to keep the Cardinal in games and give them the best chance to win.

Bold? Maybe. The schedule is daunting with trips to ASU and Oregon before closing out back-to-back games on the road against Cal and UCLA. However, slowly but surely we’ve seen the offense make a little progress. Much like a close loss at Notre Dame was a galvanizing moment in 2012, I think we’re going to see a similar Cardinal team in 2014.

SportsNation

Which team from the state of California will finish the season with the best record?

  •  
    37%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,264)

They held the Cougars to fewer than 300 yards of offense (no easy task -- just ask Oregon, Utah or Cal) and their return games will put them in good field position more often than not. Obviously, what’s happened once the Cardinal get inside the 20 gives me pause, as does the kicking game.

But it’s unlikely the Cardinal will be out of a game in the fourth quarter because of how good that defense is. And -- as we know in this league -- if you can make it to the fourth quarter with a fighting chance, anything can happen.

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN

There are really three options here: Stanford, UCLA and USC. Cal has been a nice story to the start of the season, but the Bears aren’t ready to seriously challenge their in-state rivals over the full course of a season. There isn’t a game left they can’t win, but to expect more than a few wins the rest of the day seems like a reach.

After that, it’s pretty much a guessing game.

ESPN’s Football Power Index projects a win-loss range for every team in the country and gives the current edge to UCLA, albeit slightly. According to the FPI, these are the approximations of how the three remaining California schools will finish: UCLA (8.4-3.8), USC (8.3-4.2) and Stanford (7.6-4.6). Obviously, how much trust that should be put in those projections will vary significantly, but after going through each team’s remaining schedule, the ranges look about right.

So at the risk of looking like I’m not answering the question, I’ll go ahead and settle on a three-way tie: UCLA, USC and Stanford will all finish 8-4.
Tags:

Pac-12

Throughout the season, ESPN.com has been taking an inside look at some coaches' offices throughout the country.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen office
Floto + WarnerChris Petersen's office is sleek but sparse in memorabilia.
This summer, I had the chance to go up to Seattle to see Chris Petersen's office and have him explain a few of the different artifacts and pieces that he had already moved in to his space overlooking Husky Stadium. If you picked up a copy of ESPN The Magazine's college football preview, then you got a preview of what's on the website on Thursday.

Petersen's office was interesting because so many of the coaches that have been featured on this project have offices that are filled to the brim with memorabilia and papers and stuff they've accumulated over the years (e.g. Bob Stoops' office or Steve Spurrier's office). But since Petersen was still moving in, his office was quite sparse. But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of good stories in the few pieces that were in his office.

You must check out the story behind the H.A. Award (which sits behind his desk and is a golden horse's rear end atop a column of flames) or his thoughts on having a television in his bathroom or his favorite part of the office (hint: it's not something that he brought with him nor is it something that will ever leave).

To see the full feature, click here.

Class Rankings Oct. 15 update

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
3:30
PM ET
video

National recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert breaks down Micah Abernathy's addition to Tennessee's class and compares the Notre Dame and Florida State classes ahead of their matchup.

To read the full class rankings, click here.
It'd be easy to take a passing glance at the box score from Stanford's 34-17 victory last Friday and discount the offensive improvement on it with a simple dismissal: "They were playing Washington State's defense."

Yes, that would be the same lower-tier Cougars' unit that was less than a week removed from bleeding 60 points at home against Cal.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsKevin Hogan and the Cardinal offense are working to improve on their 26.3 points per game average by capitalizing on a perimeter rushing game plan.
But chalking up Stanford's season-high 477-yard (7-per-play) performance to weak defensive competition involves ignoring promising changes in an offensive approach that the Cardinal employed.

The problem

Stanford's attack was a jumbled mess throughout the first half of the regular season. The Cardinal lost a game against USC because they managed only 10 points in nine trips to or past the Trojans' 35-yard line. They dropped another contest to Notre Dame because the offense mustered only 3.0 yards per play and 1.5 yards per rush, the worst marks of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era.

A once-vaunted power running game looked decidedly average, quarterback Kevin Hogan's play suffered as a result of a heavier throwing workload, and the Cardinal found themselves on the outside looking in to the College Football Playoff discussion despite featuring the nation's top defense (8.8 points per game, 3.6 yards per play).

The main problem seemed to be Stanford was slow to adapt to its new offensive reality: Though they no longer had a 220-pound power back and road-grading offensive line, the Cardinal kept trying to preserve their backbone around the interior run. Notre Dame's defense exposed Stanford in this way: That game's anemic 47-yard rushing production suggested the Stanford offense was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

When the run failed in blustery, wet South Bend, Hogan fell out of his comfort zone. A mobile quarterback who had fed off play-action and the ability to make plays with his legs looked like a fish out of water having to emulate the pocket-maestro role of a thrower much like Peyton Manning. Stanford receivers dropped passes, too. Hogan finished 18-for-36 for 158 yards, his worst career performance in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt.

Stanford's adjustments

This much is clear: Hogan needs the basis of a consistently successful running game so that he can play his style of football from the quarterback position. His average passing attempts per game have increased from 15 to 21 to 28 in three seasons, all while Stanford's red zone efficiency numbers have taken an inversely related dive. The Cardinal scored on 100 percent of their red zone possessions after Hogan took over in 2012, but that number is down to 68 percent (119th in the nation) this season.

Those are symptoms of an offense cracking at its core. In Stanford's case, that core is the running game. And that's exactly what the Cardinal showed promising signs of fixing their last time out against Washington State. The final box score read 33 carries for 193 yards (5.8 per carry), but the film showed much more than that.

Stanford's first run between the tackles did not come until the final play of the first quarter -- a massive departure from the old phone booth strategy of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. The Cardinal ran a heavy dose off-tackle instead, avoiding the scrum inside and maximizing the new strengths of their running backs on the outside. Barry Sanders immediately racked up 50 yards on two runs that bounced to the perimeter, and the running game was back.





Combine Stanford's smaller, shiftier running backs with their massive wide receivers (Devon Cajuste weighs 228 pounds while Ty Montgomery checks in at about 225 -- both over 40 pounds heavier than the average Pac-12 cornerback they typically block), and it's clear the Cardinal is a team built to exploit matchups on the perimeter. The table above supports that: Though the offense has rushed outside the tackles 36 fewer times than it has inside the tackles, it's racked up more total yards, more touchdowns, more 10-plus yard rushes, and more 20-plus yard rushes on those outside runs.

The perimeter-oriented game should be the basis of Stanford's new offensive identity, and a shift to it was apparent against Washington State. While the backs worked the perimeter, the passing game did the same thing, setting up numerous quick screen passes to athletic receivers in space. In that way, Stanford further exploited its blocking advantage outside and utilized talents such as Christian McCaffrey, who's at his electric best when the scheme gives him space.

That's also the way that Hogan rediscovered his comfort zone. With a firm rushing threat to work with, the entire field opened up for a Stanford passing game featuring plenty of weapons. On Friday, Hogan completed 23-of-35 passes for 284 yards -- to 12 different receivers.

That's a true sign of a healing offense. And though Stanford still sits in the Pac-12 cellar averaging only 26.3 points per game, there's a strong chance it'll rise in those rankings in the season's second half. It should just take a firm commitment to Friday's adjustments down the stretch.

Video: College Football Playoff roundtable

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
12:14
PM ET
video

Working off the 2008 season results, Travis Haney, Ivan Maisel, and Ryan McGee took part in a mock selection process for the college football playoff. They share what they learned from the process and what types of issues the real selection committee will have this fall when picking teams for the playoff.
The home field used to be a sanctuary -- a safe haven for teams looking to gain an edge on their opponents with the support of a noisy and raucous student body.

In the old days, there was a word for that: Advantage.

But the 2014 Pac-12 season has taken that advantage and blown it all to Hades. Through 18 conference games this season the road warriors hold a decisive 14-4 edge over the home team. And the audible antics of Autzen, the ringing reverb of Rice-Eccles or the tympanic torture of Husky Stadium haven't been immune.

[+] EnlargeArizona
AP Photo/Steve DykesCelebration scenes like the one Arizona held at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2 have been extremely common in the Pac-12 this season.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian’s response echoed the sentiment of nearly all of the Pac-12 coaches, who could find neither rhyme nor reason as to why the Pac-12’s home cooking this season has tasted more like week-old leftovers.

“It’s a crazy year in the Pac-12,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team once held the nation’s longest home winning streak at 17 games, only to see that snapped in Week 2 against USC . “It’s just shaping up that way. It’s hard to explain it any other way. Every week is tough. Every game is hard. It’s tough to win on the road. And then the road teams are winning in crazy fashion. Everything is up for grabs this year.”

There are two ways to look at this -- depending on how full or empty your glass is. Either the Pac-12 has the worst home conference record in college football, or the best road record. In conference-only games, the Pac-12 ranks last among all FBS conferences with its 22.2 winning percentage at home. The Big 12 (6-7) is the only other league below .500.

One fairly sound theory, presented by Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, is that with so many veteran quarterbacks, environment isn’t a factor because experience is winning out. Sounds logical -- except for the fact that his quarterback, in his second career road start, won at Autzen. Or that Mike Bercovici, Arizona State’s backup, won at The Coliseum in his first career road start.

UCLA coach Jim Mora actually tried to talk through an explanation, only to come up with nothing.

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Mora said. “I can’t put my finger on anything. I wish I could, obviously, as do I’m sure the other coaches. I’ve actually given it a lot of thought the last week or so. I can’t come up with anything quite yet. Other than maybe there’s a psychological element to when you go on the road you close ranks a little bit and that sense of mission. Maybe? Maybe that helps you a little bit? But that doesn’t seem logical to any of us who are used to the home-field advantage.

“I wish I knew.”

One word the coaches kept coming back to was “parity.” With every Pac-12 team sitting on at least one conference loss and all but Colorado with a league win, the congruity within the conference has all but eliminated the concept of home-field advantage.

While that’s fun for the fans, it creates national problems while trying to lobby for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

“I think our conference has this perception of parity equals mediocrity,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “There are a couple of conferences where parity equals strength. I think it’s the strongest it’s ever been top to bottom.”

Helfrich did offer one other explanation: “It’s a non-leap year? I have no idea.”

This might help: Through the first 18 conference games, the home team has a minus-11 turnover margin and the average margin of victory (or defeat) has been slightly more than four points. When you consider one home game was won on a Hail Mary, another was lost on a Hail Mary, and three more home games were lost on missed field goals, one or two plays could significantly swing the win/loss total.

That’s why league newcomer Chris Petersen isn’t putting too much stock into the trend -- at least not yet. Having only played two conference games, his Huskies fit the trend so far -- losing at home to Stanford and winning at California.

“I think this will play out,” he said. “If the records are that skewed by the end of the season, there’s something to it. We’re only two games into it so I don’t know. It will be interesting to see at the end [of the] season where everybody is.”

Every coach in America will say his school has the best fans in the country. Even if he doesn’t believe it, there’s probably a tiny footnote somewhere in the Mayflower Compact that requires him to say so. But that doesn’t mean their minds aren’t in overdrive trying to make sense of what has already been a season short on logic.

“It’s been the exact opposite in year’s past,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I can’t explain it other than maybe it’s the matchups ... the hardest thing to do is win on the road.”

The record suggests otherwise. And for now, most of the coaches are just chalking it up to another unexplained phenomenon in the continued zaniness that is the Pac-12.
EUGENE, Ore. -- For as much praise as Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal gives cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu when it comes to the football field, he gives him just as much grief when it comes to his golf game.

“He has hit balls with me before. He’s awful,” Neal joked. “Let me put it this way: He has a lot of work to do.”

It’s easy to give his All-American corner a hard time when it comes to golf because most sports are easy to pick up for Ekpre-Olomu.

Golf, according to Neal, isn’t one of those.

[+] EnlargeIfo Ekpre-Olomu
Scott Olmo/USA TODAY SportsIfo Ekpre-Olomu has connected with DBs coach John Neal over golf and the lessons it can bring to his play on the football field.
Ekpre-Olomu had never played until he moved to Eugene from Southern California for college. Though golf is popular in his hometown, he was always too busy with other sports.

Neal, on the other hand, picked up clubs for the first time two decades ago. But he didn’t take his first lesson until three years ago. Now, he mostly plays in the offseason, but even so, he estimates he has hit at least 50,000 shots in that time.

As a freshman, Ekpre-Olomu was a little taken aback when his coach began comparing football to golf. The man who coached former Oregon defensive backs Jairus Byrd and Patrick Chung couldn’t possibly be making this kind of a comparison, right?

But Neal made his case -- the pressure to get the right shot in golf and the right shot in football as a DB, the different thought processes that are happening simultaneously, the importance of the details.

“When you start talking about a sport when you have to calculate all those things in one instant and then you can turn around and apply it to football, it makes clear sense,” Neal said. “If you can detail football or any other game you play, like these guys do [for] golf, you’ll be better than most people.”

So Ekpre-Olomu began taking a few trips to the driving range.

His first time, he showed up in baggy cargo shorts and running shoes. He was worried about where his ball might land. "There were houses right on the side of where you’re teeing off. You’re worried about, ‘Oh, I don’t want to hit a house,’” Ekpre-Olomu said. He was learning from friends who also had only recently picked up the game.

Then it started making sense.

“I started realizing a lot that it does relate a lot,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “It takes a lot of repetition and a lot of confidence and patience because you’re not going to be as good as you want at first, but it’s how much repetition you do and how much work you put into it.”

At this point in Ekpre-Olomu’s career, Neal says his star cornerback has all the shots in his arsenal. But -- like any top golfer -- that doesn’t mean he’s perfect all the time.

Wazzu scored twice on Ekpre-Olomu. Arizona freshman running back Nick Wilson tore through an Ekpre-Olomu tackle as if it were tissue paper.

But Ekpre-Olomu stores those memories. He doesn’t want to be beat the same way twice. Off the top of his head he can count six times in his career that he has made a mistake in coverage in which the other team scored. But he also remembers the high points, reminding himself not to let the bad shots affect the next shot.

He remembers his first interception at Oregon (“I didn’t know what to do after. I just kept running around like a chicken with its head cut off”) just like he remembers the first time he really connected with a golf ball the right way (“Now you know that you can do it every time”).

And though football will likely be the way Ekpre-Olomu makes a living, he has a feeling he might always use the links as a way to relax, and more often than not, help him work on his football game.

Right now neither Ekpre-Olomu nor Neal has much time for golfing, but Neal believes that if Ekpre-Olomu ever decides to commit himself he could move from the “lot of work to do” category to becoming a good golfer.

And when that happens, Neal will be ready to for some head-to-head competition.

“I hope next year when he makes a lot of money,” Neal said, referencing Ekpre-Olomu’s future salary in the NFL, “he pays for me to go to his country club.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Friday, 10/24
Saturday, 10/25