Jim Mora acknowledges that UCLA's trajectory of improvement this season has been complicated.

"For us, if you were going to do a graph, it’s been rather jagged, but always trending upwards, even when it didn’t seem like it," he explains.

The entire gamut of feelings and evaluations have checked in with the Bruins over the course of 10 games so far -- lofty hype, bitter disappointment, maddening inconsistency, and mercurial play all come to mind.

Ultimately, the smell of success is lingering even as the dust of the chaos begins to settle. UCLA is 8-2, and with only two games remaining, they have traversed the Pac-12 South minefield well enough to control their own destiny -- not only for a conference crown, but also (potentially) for a College Football Playoff berth.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJim Mora and UCLA will have their progress on defense tested when rival USC visits the Rose Bowl.
Whether the Bruins finish the job relies heavily on their defense. Can that unit harvest the fruits of its up-and-down labor? USC is coming to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, so UCLA has its chance to answer that question against the likes of Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor, and Javorius Allen.

A topsy-turvy campaign

For painful stretches of this season, struggles were prevalent for the Bruins. They were mainly rooted in the inability to generate a consistent pass rush; through eight games, UCLA had logged only 10 sacks.

The low point came on October 11, when Oregon ran the Bruins out of the Rose Bowl in a 42-30 game that wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate. Boneheaded penalties damaged any promising efforts, and there weren't many of those to begin with, as UCLA didn't reach Marcus Mariota a single time. After matters quickly escalated, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich tried to turn in his play card to Mora on the sideline during an embarrassing "I give up, you do it" moment caught by national television cameras.

"All the pressure was on us, and we let it get the best of us," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "We got back to the fundamentals, counted on each other, and began trusting one another to do the job."

Quarterback pressure arrived the following Saturday at California. The Bruins sacked Jared Goff three times. One of those takedowns marked the coming out party of 6-foot-4 sophomore defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley, a player whose emergence has spurred the critical improvement of UCLA's pass rush.

Though the Bruins again failed to register a sack their next time out during an ugly double-overtime squeak-by at Colorado, the upward trend had begun -- even if the ascending line on that graph was jagged.

"We would see things that -- to us -- showed we were making progress," Mora said. "But I think the last couple weeks, we’ve just been a more consistent football team in all areas."

He's right. After the near-debacle at Colorado, UCLA has racked up three sacks apiece in consecutive wins against Arizona and Washington. Six of the Bruins' 16 sacks have come during the past two games. With McKinley bringing his heat, the contributions of physically imposing stalwarts Kenny Clark, Owa Odighizuwa, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Deon Hollins have begun to overwhelm opposing fronts.

A positive effect

This Bruins' defense is loaded with talent, and the development of a rigid backbone up front has allowed this stockpile to truly shine. Outside linebacker Myles Jack might generate the most hype, but Kendricks' play on the inside has been UCLA's most spectacular element. His 110 tackles trail only Arizona's Scooby Wright for the Pac-12 lead, and his sensational sideline-to-sideline play was essential in the Bruins' biggest defensive statement of the year, a 17-7 suffocation of the Wildcats. The Bruins held Arizona to just 2.4 yards per rush and 3.6 yards per pass.

"We started knowing where we fit, trusting one another to do our job, and relying on our teammates," Kendricks said. "When we did that, you saw the outcome: We played excellent football."

Ulbrich, a first-year defensive coordinator, has indicated that he is finding a comfort zone when it comes to fine-tuning the intricacies of the defense and the best ways to maximize UCLA's abundance of talent. This development is obviously helping the entire unit, but it's led specifically to improved play from cornerback Fabian Moreau and less of a reliance on the secondary in general. The defense banked heavily on the work of top cornerback Ishmael Adams (two interceptions) earlier in the season, but now the load is more evenly spread out across the entire unit.

That comes just in time for the Bruins. They have been fortunate enough to see explosive Brett Hundley performances bail them out time and time again, but that's not a sustainable winning formula -- especially with a multidimensional USC team coming in, hungry for vengeance. If UCLA is, in fact, going to rise from the ashes to make good on the preseason hype, its defense will have to carry its recent balanced success into the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

"[USC] does a little bit of everything: Tempo offense, a good quarterback, running back, offensive line, wide receivers," Kendricks said. "There are good athletes everywhere. It’ll challenge every aspect of our defense."

This test comes at the most telling time, with UCLA finally encountering the moment of truth. The can cannot be kicked any further down the road; it's time to find out if these Bruins were worthy of preseason expectations.

"If we just handle our job and our end of the bargain, everything will handle itself," Kendricks said. "That’s what we continue to do. That’s what we continue to preach."

Watch: Herbstreit breaks down USC-UCLA

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Expect drama from Utah-Arizona

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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The following is a public service announcement from the ESPN.com Pac-12 blog.

Those planning to attend Saturday’s Utah-Arizona game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, or watching the 12:30 PT kickoff on ESPN, are advised to bring the following items:

  • Blood pressure medication
  • A defibrillator
  • A shoulder to cry on
  • A comforting beverage of your choice (the Pac-12 blog doesn’t judge)
Given the erratic and unpredictable nature of both teams, the Pac-12 blog thanks you for your consideration.

[+] EnlargeAustin Hill
Darin Wallentin/Getty ImagesThe Wildcats have made close, nail-biting finishes the norm.
Think we’re being too dramatic? We’re not. More nails have been bitten to the nub between watching Utah and Arizona than any other teams in the conference. That they meet Saturday in a game with Pac-12 South implications only adds to the pulse-racing dramatics these two teams have practiced in 2014.

Each team has played in six games decided by seven or fewer points -- that’s tied for the second most in FBS. The Wildcats are 5-1 in those tight games while the Utes are 4-2. Utah has also played three overtime games, going 2-1 in bonus football.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez prepped his team in the preseason for the fact that his Wildcats would likely participate in several barn burnings. And thus they were ready when things got close in Week 2 on the road at UTSA.

“We’ve got some talent, but (we knew) we’re not overloaded where we can dominate anybody,” Rodriguez said. “Plus the schedule that we play, there are a lot of quality teams with a lot of quality players. We got into that mindset that we’re ready to battle. I think it’s helped us when we’ve faced some adversity. Whether we’ve gotten down early or been on the road, our guys said hey, let’s make some plays and keep playing and see what happens.”

What happened was some of the most dramatic football in the country this season. Among Arizona's thrillers are a 36-point, fourth-quarter, time-expiring Hail Mary against Cal; a win over No. 2 Oregon on the road; a missed field goal in the loss to USC; and most recently, a successful last-second field goal to beat Washington.

If Arizona has been the Cardiac 'Cats, then Utah has certainly been the ulcer-inducing Utes. During a stretch from the end of September to the beginning of November, the Utes played in five straight games decided by six or fewer points. The highlights include a two-point win over UCLA, a double-overtime win over Oregon State and a last-minute touchdown against USC. The lowlights are an overtime loss to ASU and blowing a 21-0 lead to WSU.

Most recently, Utah won a double-overtime game last week at Stanford.

“I’d say it starts with our leadership and the senior leadership on this team,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s a great group. It’s as good of leadership as I’ve been around during my time at Utah and I think that’s a main factor in the mentality of the team and the way they are able to persevere.”

Winning these close games is unfamiliar territory for the Utes. But playing in them isn’t. Last season Utah also played in six close games, but lost in overtime to Oregon State, by a touchdown to UCLA and by a point to ASU.

“I think we’re a better football team personnel-wise across the board,” Whittingham said. “We’ve upgraded and that obviously has a lot to do with it. But between that, the experience we may have gained and the leadership, I think those are probably the main factors.”

While Utah has relied on its experience, Arizona has relied on its conditioning. You might recall way back in 2012 when Rodriguez was first hired, he famously (infamously?) called his players weak. Now it’s that physical strength that he’s banking on to get his guys through tough times.

“I think our team knew back in August, we talked about it, we knew we would probably be in a lot of tight games that would go the full 60 minutes and if anything else, we’re going to be a pretty conditioned team,” Rodriguez said. “We control what we can control and we talk about playing as hard on the last play as we do the first play and I think our guys really believe that plays a role in every game. There’s a little luck involved, too. But we’ve been in nine straight games that have gone down to the fourth quarter and our guys, to their credit, they are still playing as hard as they did at the beginning.”

Utah's specialists are people, too

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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This has been a pretty special year for Pac-12 special teams. We wrote last week about the abundance of kick and punt returns, and several kickers have enjoyed the thrill of kicking game-winners.

Utah is widely regarded as having the best special teams in the country. Punter Tom Hackett is a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award and has been honored three times as a star of the week.

Kicker Andy Phillips leads the conference in field goals made and is second in accuracy (82.6 percent). He is also a Groza Award semifinalist.

And long snapper Chase Dominguez -- well -- I don’t think I’ve typed his name once this season. If you’re the long snapper and no one knows your name, that means you’re doing a good job.

But the trio recently showed off their skills, while also looking for a bit of respect. The following Vines show a display of their accuracy, followed by a brief message that specialists are in fact people, too.

Enjoy.

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Tags:

Utah Utes

Latest Dish: Five things I learned

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Here are five things I learned in college football this week:

1. Might Georgia Tech end up being the fly in the ointment in the race to the inaugural College Football Playoff?

The No. 18 Yellow Jackets (9-2, 6-2 ACC) have won four games in a row, and they captured the ACC's Coastal Division after Duke lost to North Carolina 45-20 on Thursday night. Georgia Tech will play No. 3 Florida State in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 6, and might end up being the last big obstacle for the Seminoles in their quest to reach the playoff.

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Daniel Shirey/Getty ImagesWith Duke's loss Thursday night, Justin Thomas and the Yellow Jackets won the Coastal and are slated to play FSU in the ACC championship game.
After Duke lost, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson wrote on Twitter: “Proud to see hard work our team has put in all year pay off with Coastal title!! Lots of work to do next 2 weeks!!”

Before playing the Seminoles for the ACC title, the Yellow Jackets will play at No. 10 Georgia on Nov. 29. The Bulldogs are still trying to reach the SEC championship game, but need No. 20 Missouri to drop one of its two remaining SEC games (at Tennessee on Saturday or home against Arkansas on Nov. 28) to win the SEC East.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher might be happier if his team was playing the Blue Devils instead for the ACC championship. The Seminoles beat Duke 45-7 in the 2013 ACC title game, and Tech’s triple-option spread offense isn’t much fun to prepare for on short notice. FSU already has won the ACC's Atlantic Division title and hosts Boston College on Saturday and intrastate rival Florida next week.

Tech’s triple-option spread offense also can take a toll on an opponent’s defensive line because of its use of cut blocks. The Seminoles lost three defensive linemen -- Eddie Goldman, Nile Lawrence-Stample and reserve Justin Shanks -- after they suffered lower-leg injuries in the first half of a 37-12 win over The Citadel on Sept. 6. The Citadel also runs the triple-option and uses cut blocks, which are designed to knock down defensive linemen by hitting them at the knees.

“Those guys that cut and chop like this, it’s crazy,” Fisher said after that game. “I’d rather play more conventional teams. Just because of the chance of injuries that occurred.”

Of course, Florida State, assuming it reaches the College Football Playoff, would have about a month to recover from playing Georgia Tech before its semifinal game.

2. FSU quarterback Jameis Winston's student conduct-code hearing is still scheduled for Dec. 2, and his attorney, David Cornwell, continues to plead his case on Twitter.

On Friday morning, Cornwell tweeted four times, apparently in response to the accuser’s attorney, John Clune, filing a legal brief to FSU officials. Under the school's student conduct code rules and procedures, Clune and Cornwell will be able to attend the hearing and counsel their clients, but won’t be allowed to speak on their clients’ behalf.

Winston and the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her in December 2012 will be required to present evidence, question witnesses, and answer questions posed by retired Florida State Supreme Court Chief Justice Major Harding, who will hear the case.

Under the rules and regulations in place, Winston isn’t required to answer any or all of Harding’s questions. Winston faces four potential student conduct code violations, including two related to sexual misconduct.

On Friday morning, Cornwell tweeted:

3. There seems to be a possibility that Texas and Texas A&M could meet in a postseason bowl game because of where they currently sit in their respective conference standings.

The rivalry was one of the biggest casualties in college football’s realignment, and the best chance for a meeting would be at the Dec. 29 AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl in Houston.

Earlier this week, Chip Brown of HornsDigest.com reported that the Aggies and the SEC would block a postseason matchup against the Longhorns.

But Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said the SEC will determine the bowl lineup, and he insists the Aggies won’t try to duck the Longhorns. Under the SEC’s new bowl selection process, schools rank the available bowls, and bowls rank the available teams, in order of preference, and then the league slots its teams.

“Quite frankly, that’s a decision made by the conference,” Hyman told the Houston Chronicle. “The configuration is so different than it’s been in the past.

“It doesn’t matter if I speculate about playing this team or that team in a bowl. It’s out of our control . . . Wherever they tee us up, we’ll play.”

4. A Georgia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would make it an aggravated misdemeanor to jeopardize the eligibility of a college student-athlete by providing him or her with illegal benefits.

Under the terms of House Bill 3, anyone who causes a student-athlete to lose his or her eligibility would face a potential $5,000 fine.

State Rep. Barry Fleming told the Athens Banner-Herald that he introduced the bill for consideration next year at the request of House Speaker David Ralston. In October, University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley was suspended four games for improperly accepting $3,000 to sign autographs.

“A 20-year-old in college is not a child, but that 20-year-old is [vulnerable], particularly if they are from a humble background, if someone waves hundred-dollar bills in front of his face,” Fleming told the Athens Banner-Herald.

The bill, if it passes, wouldn’t take effect until next year, so the memorabilia dealers who paid Gurley couldn’t be punished.

5. UCLA had to cancel Thursday night's bonfire at a pep rally.

The Bruins play USC on Saturday, but the annual rally was shut down by students protesting a proposed tuition hike at the school.

That didn’t stop UCLA coach Jim Mora from, uh, fanning the flames. (Warning: His language might not be suitable for all ages.)

Pac-12 viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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After two weeks on a diet, a jam-packed Pac-12 slate is back Saturday. Here's the rundown:

10 a.m.

Washington State at Arizona State, Pac-12 Network

One word: early. This game kicks off at 11 a.m. local time, but keep in mind that the Cougars' body clocks will still be set to the Pacific time zone. Mike Leach said that Washington State's hotel pregame routine will start between 5 and 6 a.m. It'll be a chance for fans to watch the Pac-12 while munching on pancakes, French toast, or -- my favorite -- crab Benedict. And it'll be a chance for ASU to wash away the horrible memory of last week's 35-27 loss at Oregon State as quickly as possible.

12:30 p.m.

Arizona at Utah, ESPN

By lunchtime, there should be a craving for a good dose of backfield pressure. #SackLackCity should be a fun place for the Wildcats' Scooby Wright to visit: He's ranked in the top three nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, so why not put him on the same field as the Utes' Nate Orchard, who's currently at the top of the sack heap? Defensive star power is the name of the game here, but keep an eye on Arizona's Anu Solomon: He must step up to the challenge of the Rice-Eccles crowd.

1 p.m.

Stanford at Cal, Fox Sports 1

Stanford's offense has been bad, but the Cardinal have found a way to score against shaky defenses this season (they've been terrible in games against ranked teams, averaging only 11.4 points per regulation in those contests). Well, good news for the Cardinal: The Golden Bears are worse than shaky on defense (39.2 points, 518 yards per game). Bad news for Stanford: Cal is at home, and it is smelling blood. Let's see what gives in the 117th Big Game. Oh, and that matchup between Jared Goff and Lance Anderson's top-ranked Cardinal defense isn't too shabby, either.

1:30 p.m.

Colorado at Oregon, Pac-12 Network

The best team in the conference meets the worst team in the conference. Prediction-wise, that's about all that needs to be said about this one. Some extra, slightly unrelated food for thought: Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre asserted that the Pac-12 South was the best division in college football, better than even the SEC West. Imagine how absurdly strong the South would be if Oregon were in it, too (I bring this up only because the SEC's top team, Alabama, happens to reside in the powerful West).

5 p.m.

USC at UCLA, ABC

Statues have been vandalized, airports have received photogenic lighting decorations, and statues have been arguably vandalized some more by duct tape (intended to protect them, but still, that's going to be a pain to remove, right?). The pregame rituals of rivalry week were fun, but it's time for some actual football with Pac-12 championship hopes on the line. The matchup of Brett Hundley and Cody Kessler is fascinating one, as is the battle between USC's frontline explosiveness and a UCLA machine that appears to be peaking at the right time.

7:30 p.m.

Oregon State at Washington, ESPN

The Beavers need one more win to earn bowl eligibility for Sean Mannion in his senior season. It's amazing what one good week (paired with a bad one) can do: Both of these teams have lost four of their past five games, but the feeling surrounding Oregon State is much more positive than the one in Seattle. The Beavers notched a huge 35-27 upset win over ASU last weekend, while the Huskies dropped a bitter 27-26 decision to Arizona. Both have a chance to finish forgettable seasons on a high note.

Pac-12's top recruiting visits 

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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The penultimate weekend of the regular season is upon us, and that means some serious recruiting weekends in store for several Pac-12 programs. A look at the top three recruiting visits in the Pac-12 includes one staff taking advantage of hosting its rivalry game and two others bringing in recruits to witness their final home games of the regular season.

USC at UCLA

Pac-12 morning links

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Happy Friday!

Leading off

As we do every Friday, we focus our attention on some picks. Only two weeks left (not counting the bowl games). Six are already bowl eligible, two more will punch their ticket this weekend (the winners of the Stanford-Cal and Oregon State-Washington games becomes bowl eligible). So we'll have at least eight. But nine or 10 are still mathematically possible. But we'll worry about that when we have to.

The Pac-12 blog released its picks Thursday morning. Chantel Jennings went against the grain in a couple of picks and Kyle Bonagura likes the Trojans. Other than that, pretty unanimous.

As we do every week, here are some predictions from folks who cover the conference and college football nationally.

The Fox Sports tandem of Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel both like the Bruins in a tight game. Here's what Feldman had to say:
Brett Hundley wrecked the Trojans last season with his legs and arm, and he was very sharp in carving up USC two years ago. Despite how well Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen are playing, my hunch is the Bruins have enough athletes on defense to contain them to get away with a win. UCLA 31, USC 30.

Here are some other thoughts: Halliday update

Injured Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday spoke about the specifics of his injury for the first time Thursday. We had one report here on the blog. He also shared his frustration over the injury and the hope that he'll be playing football again within five months, which would put him in line to participate in WSU's pro day.

Here's a quote from Halliday from a story in the Spokesman-Review:
I think the hardest thing was just how close I was to being healthy throughout the year, going to the combine, getting to do all that stuff. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about since I’ve been able to dream so that was the frustrating thing: I was just three games away from that.

Halliday was putting up monster numbers. We know this because he's still leading the Pac-12 in passing with 3,873 yards and 32 touchdown passes. Here's the full transcript of Halliday's conference call with the media.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

The Cal band continued its annual tradition of invading the San Francisco Chronicle, which is kind of funny.



I don't know what this is or what it does ... but I think I want one.

A 6-pac of questions for Week 13

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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Every Thursday two of our writers gather ‘round the water cooler to discuss six pressing issues in Pac-12 football, aptly named the #6pac. Today, Ted Miller and Chantel Jennings debate…

1. The Arizona-Utah game has a lot on the line in regard to the South race. How is that game won?

[+] EnlargeSolomon/Wilson
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsThere's no question that Arizona-Utah comes down to Anu Solomon (12), but how he performs involves a battle of wills.
Miller: Utah isn't going to transform offensively, so it wins the way it has won all year: With its defense and special teams. For Arizona, it needs to approximate a draw at the line of scrimmage, which it didn't do against Washington, even though it got a W. Yet it might come down to whether the Wildcats get good Anu Solomon -- Washington State and Colorado -- or bad Anu Solomon -- UCLA and Washington -- which we've seen alternate over the past four weeks.

Jennings: I'm with Ted on this one. Only, I don't think the Solomon that shows up is dependent on Solomon. I think it's got to do much more with what the Utah defense makes him. And I believe they're going to make him very uncomfortable. The Utes' defense is closer to a UCLA or Washington type, so I think Utah will get to him and, like so many other games this year, the game will be won by Utah won with some serious defensive intensity.

2. Oregon State is playing for bowl eligibility at Washington this weekend. Do the Beavers get it?

Miller: I like the Huskies at home. I think the Washington defense gets good pressure on Sean Mannion, and the offense, which took a step forward versus Arizona, is at least adequate.

Jennings: Why not Oregon State? The Beavers' defense looked good against Arizona State and Sean Mannion has found chemistry with receivers. Terron Ward isn't playing but I think Storm Woods is going to have a big game on the ground. Bowl eligibility is on the line and though OSU delivered a huge upset at home against Arizona State, I don't think it'll happen against Oregon. Mannion knows this is his best chance at bowl eligibility and I think he's going to get it.

3. Thanksgiving is creeping upon us, what are you most thankful for in the Pac-12 this year?

Miller: I am most thankful for #Pac12AfterDark. No other conference has produced more nuttiness than the Pac-12. Things are rarely predictable, and even when they are, they aren't boring.

Jennings: Backup quarterbacks. Guys like Jerry Neuheisel, Mike Bercovici, Kendal Thompson (or Travis Wilson, depending on how you look at it) and Luke Falk have all made this season's group of quarterbacks even better and deeper than we could've imagined.

4. At this point it looks like Oregon is the league's best chance at a national title. What team would the Ducks not want to face in a semifinal?

Miller: The only team I don't like as a matchup is Alabama. The Tide is big and physical on both lines of scrimmage. They remind me of Stanford when it was still Stanford, and we know how that gave the Ducks trouble before. Oregon certainly could use some good injury news on its lines, particularly on offense.

Jennings: I agree that a tough defense is a worry, but I think what would be more worrisome for the Ducks is actually a high-powered offense. Basically, what team could beat Oregon at its own game? The Ducks have scored 62 touchdowns this season but three other schools who are in playoff talks aren't too far behind -- Ohio State (59), Baylor (59) and TCU (58). Of those teams, the one that has accounted for the most plays of 10 or more yards is Ohio State. So I'll agree with Ted on Bama, but I also have to throw the Buckeyes in the ring.

5. We've got a few rivalry games this weekend, what has been the most exciting rivalry you were ever a part of?

Miller: Well, I covered Auburn way back in the day and those Iron Bowls were something to behold, even though the Tide and Tigers weren't doing too much when I was down there in the mid-to-late-1990s. I also can remember more than a few thrilling Apple Cups, including a time I was among the poor fools getting pelted by bottles and other random objects during a near-riot at Martin Stadium.

Jennings: I'm going way back to my high school days -- not to a game I covered, but to one of those small-town rivalries that movies are made about that I was actually a part of. My high school was only good at boys' cross country (which isn't exactly riveting to cheer for) so my senior year, when our boys' basketball team was actually kind of good, it was the thing to do on Friday nights. We played our rival (essentially the exact same town just 10 miles up the road) and it was this heated, intense, spiteful type of games. We ended up winning by two on a last-second floater in the lane. Everyone tried to rush the court (fail) but it was one of those movie moments that I actually lived through. Very cool. Very John Mellencamp-ish.

6. We're three weeks from the championship game -- what team does Oregon face?

Miller: I'm going to say UCLA, and I think there's still a strong possibility it becomes a "play-in" game for both teams with the College Football Playoff.

Jennings: I'm also saying the Bruins. But at this point, I think the only Pac-12 team with a chance to get in the playoff is Oregon.

WSU QB Connor Halliday has broken leg

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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SPOKANE, Wash. -- Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday broke his lower leg against Southern California, not his ankle as was widely reported.

Halliday, the nation's passing leader, said Thursday that he broke his tibia and fibula when a USC player fell on his leg early in the Nov. 1 game. He says the break was closer to his ankle than his knee.

Coach Mike Leach had told the media that Halliday's ankle was broken.

Halliday said doctors predict he will be running in three months and should be fully recovered in about five months. He plans to try out for the National Football League, which has long been his dream.

Freshman Luke Falk has filled in for Halliday, and will lead the Cougars in this Saturday's game at No. 13 Arizona State.

In nine games this season, Halliday completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,873 yards, with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He threw for an NCAA record 734 yards in a loss to California, and was on pace to set other national records when he was injured.

Halliday said he and Falk have been teammates for two years, and that he is pleased by Falk's stellar performance in relief.

"It's such a cool feeling to see a guy you feel you helped along the way play so well," Halliday said.

Halliday said he expects to be ready to work out for NFL teams in the spring.

"I will do everything I can to make this a reality," he said.

He is grateful for the support he has received from Washington State fans.

"It means the world to me that people take time out of their day to say a couple of kind words to me," Halliday said. "It shows how strong Cougar Nation really is."

Halliday put up some astonishing numbers in Leach's Air Raid offense, including an NCAA record 89 pass attempts against Oregon last year. He expected Falk will break some of those records.

But the perpetually rebuilding Cougars never had a winning record with Halliday at the helm, and he expects his passing stats to be his legacy.

"It shows I was an explosive quarterback," Halliday said. "When we got rolling there was not too much other people could do to stop it."

Halliday said he knew as he was being tackled that he would likely break his leg. He was twisting away from the tackler, a position he had been in many times in his career. His brain was telling him to move his foot, but he could not because the foot was trapped.

"I heard it happen," he said of the break.

The break is not too painful now, except when he rehabs.

"There's nothing I can do about it now," he said. "I've got to get ready to hopefully have a career at the next level."

Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
Scooby WrightMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsScooby Wright on being a two-star recruit coming out of high school: "It definitely fires me up."
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Scooby the Underdog wasn't supposed to be a five-star recruit.

His story still could have turned out well, perhaps really well, if such a rating had been bestowed upon him. Phillip Wright III still had enough drive, enough work ethic, enough "Humble Scooby," as Arizona teammate Will Parks says, to be great if everyone thought he would be great.

But would he be this great? Would Arizona's sophomore linebacker be a front-runner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year, a guaranteed All-American, and a finalist for the national defensive player of the year (Nagurski Trophy) and the Lombardi Award, if he heard how good he would be in recruiting? Would he be the face of an overachieving team, ranked 15th nationally, filled with similarly overlooked players?

"I told our staff," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said, "we've got to find as many Scooby Wrights as we can. Whatever he was so-called out of high school, you can't say he wasn't a five-star for us."

Wright was a two-star recruit, as his Twitter handle, @twostarscoob, reminds everyone, especially the Pac-12 coaches who viewed him that way coming out of Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, California. A recruiting process that brought more angst and anger than enjoyment didn't light the fire inside Wright, but it fans the flames every time he plays.

Cal didn't want him. He recorded 18 tackles, including four for loss and two sacks, and a forced fumble in Arizona's win against the Bears.

Washington dragged its feet. Scooby's answer: 11 tackles, 1.5 for loss, in last Saturday's win.

"He plays with that chip," said Matt Dudek, Arizona's director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel. "Like, 'I wasn't good enough for you. Now I'm going to have 19 tackles against you. I'm going to steal the ball three times.'"

When Arizona offered a scholarship in June 2012, Wright had been scheduled to attend camps at Oregon and UCLA. He thought: They never gave me the time of day. Why would I go?

He ended an upset of Oregon on Oct. 2 with a sack-strip-recovery against star quarterback Marcus Mariota. Arizona lost to UCLA, but Wright recorded 19 tackles, 4.5 for loss and three sacks. His numbers against the Pac-12: 84 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and five forced fumbles.

"It definitely fires me up," said Wright, who leads the nation in tackles for loss per game (2.1) and forced fumbles (5), and ranks third in sacks per game (1.2). "I went to all those combines and stuff. People always questioned my athleticism. I had one of the highest SPARQ scores in the country, like 112.

"It definitely motivated me more, being overlooked."

The overlooked label seemed to suit Wright, even before it was attached. With some exceptions, those told they are great don't approach football like he does.

[+] EnlargeScooby Wright III
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsArizona's Scooby Wright has terrorized Pac-12 foes this season, totaling 84 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and five forced fumbles.
As an eighth grader, Wright woke up his father, Phil, at 5:30 a.m., four times a week to get a ride to the high school. He would lift weights with the varsity players for an hour, hop back in the car, shower at home, and then head to the other side of town to his middle school for classes.

While at Cardinal Newman, Wright was the last player off the practice field. When he did leave the field, he and defensive coordinator Matt Di Meola would work on pass-rush techniques in Di Meola's backyard, or watch film. They spent many Sundays together, too. By the eighth game of Wright's sophomore year, he was Newman's best player.

"I don't know if we've ever seen a kid attack it like that," Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. "Scooby was just fanatical. You just think if someone works that hard, it has to work out."

Maybe Wright would have had the same drive as a four- or five-star recruit. But the snubs sharpened him.

"That stuff just ate at him, killed him. That stuff makes him work harder," said his dad, Phil, who coaches softball at Santa Rosa Junior College. "It seems crazy, but he wants to keep proving himself. I don't think it’s because he's mad and upset. He wants to prove people wrong.

"We always laugh and call him 'The Waterboy,' with tackling fuel."

Pac-12 opponents always will be lit matches for that fuel, but Wright's fire burns for Arizona.

He's the team's most recognizable player, both because of his game and his name. The quick backstory: Phil Wright, hoping to avoid the confusion he endured with his own father, started calling his son "Scooby" at a young age. It stuck.

"Ninety percent of people in his high school didn't know his name," Phil Wright said. "The only thing that says Phillip Wright is his driver's license."

He will always be Scooby at Arizona Stadium, where more fans are donning "Scooby's Crew" T-shirts. The T-shirts started with family and friends, but the increased demand led Phil to make several hundred more, and different versions.

Scooby has the fame he never had in high school, although he is not totally comfortable with it. Two days after the UCLA game, he was informed he had won his second consecutive Pac-12 defensive player of the week award. His response: "I don't care. We lost."

Still, he takes nothing for granted.

"He walks up to me after every game and says, 'Thanks for believing in me,'" Dudek said. "He doesn't want to be anywhere else."

Former Wildcats assistant Tony Gibson, now West Virginia's defensive coordinator, first identified Wright in spring 2012. The staff loved his high school highlights, but Rodriguez, aware of Wright's few suitors, wondered, "What are we missing?" He concluded the others were missing out and offered Wright, hoping no one would pick up the scent.

Wright committed June 21, his parents' anniversary.

"It really happened within a week," he said. "I never looked back. There was no gray. They were super straightforward, like, 'I want you.'"

Three days after graduation, Wright arrived at Arizona's campus. He started at outside linebacker as a true freshman and recorded 83 tackles, 9.5 for loss, but "played kind of blind." He wasn't used in pass-rush situations with four down linemen.

So he kept working.

"He was like a young Marine," said Parks, a Wildcats safety. "Most young guys come in timid. He's just got that energy, that Scooby mentality."

Wright is now a fixture in Arizona's third-down package, playing both defensive end and linebacker, as he did in high school. He's the only FBS player in the top 25 averages for tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.

"It's just something he has a knack for," safeties coach Matt Caponi said. "He's not the most mobile guy, but he's got that nonstop in him."

Wright corresponds with Tedy Bruschi, who, like Wright, was a lightly recruited player from Northern California who landed at Arizona. Bruschi became a two-time consensus All-American, leading the "Desert Swarm" defense.

"Tedy Bruschi was Scooby Wright before Scooby Wright," Rodriguez said.

Bruschi played on good teams, but Wright wants to lead a great team.

The two-star underdog wants to take Arizona to a five-star resort where it has never been: the Rose Bowl.

"That'd be the ultimate goal," he said. "Nobody's going to come back in 20 years and say, 'Oh, you had 20 tackles in this game.' If your team wins, that's all that matters in the end."
Oregon State redshirt freshman receiver Jordan Villamin knows not to waste opportunities.

After all, he spent all of last season as a non-qualifier at Oregon State after believing he would be eligible. But the rug was pulled out from under him shortly after he got to campus and learned that an online class he had taken in high school wouldn’t count in the NCAA’s guidelines.

Because of this, Villamin spent last fall, last winter and last spring training by himself. He would watch every single practice to get mental reps, but he promised himself that when he finally got a chance to be on the field, be a part of the team, he would make an impact.

[+] EnlargeJordan Villamin
Steve Conner/Icon SportswireJordan Villamin has totaled 479 receiving yards and four TD receptions over the past five games.
"It was tough," Villamin said. "At most points, I didn’t feel like I was a part of the team, like I was an outcast. ... It didn’t feel like I was a part of the team because I wasn’t out there grinding with them. I wasn’t out there going through the hardships that they were going through. I was just sitting back and watching. That was really, really tough."

At the beginning of the 2014 season, those opportunities were few and far between as he was behind junior wide receiver Richard Mullaney, who accounted for 788 receiving yards the previous season.

But that all changed when Mullaney went down in the Utah game with an elbow injury. Mullaney is unlikely to return in 2014.

"It took me a little bit to realize that I was actually in," Villamin said. "But then I was like, 'OK, I have to help the team.'"

Though offensive coordinator John Garrett doesn’t want anyone to crown Villamin as anything too quickly ("He has a long way to go," Garrett said. "We don’t need to declare him James Lofton just yet."), Villamin's numbers since the Utah game have been outstanding.

"He just embraced the opportunity," Garrett said. "I think the biggest thing for him was that he didn’t get awed by the situation and freak out like 'Oh my gosh, I’m now a starter in the Pac-12, I wasn’t even eligible last year.' He just said, 'Hey, the ball is coming to me, I’m going to catch it.'"

And with the Pac-12’s all-time leader passer, Sean Mannion, throwing balls his way, catch it he has.

His 479 receiving yards since Oct. 16 place him ninth in receiving in the FBS during that span (though some receivers have only played four games in that time frame) and there are only nine receivers who have scored more touchdowns that Villamin's four during that span.

Villamin has two 100-yard receiving games in those five appearances and is averaging 18.4 yards per catch.

It is pretty impressive for a guy who is essentially a true freshman. What has been the biggest difference for him?

"I’m a lot more confident," Villamin said. "I went through a lot of early growing pains in those games gaining the experience of actually going out there and doing it. ... I’ve come out a lot more confident and feel like I can play in the Pac-12, and just when my number was called, I tried to make the play."

Coach Mike Riley agreed. He said, "It’s really just getting a chance to play. ... He has played more and more, and he has made some plays. He’s getting I just think more used to the competition that he’s up against in our league. That’s probably the biggest key for him."

Now Villamin and the Beavers face another tough test. After finding a way to upset No. 6 Arizona State last weekend -- Villamin tallied one touchdown and 127 yards on four receptions -- Oregon State now heads to Seattle to try and secure bowl eligibility.

The Washington defense has been strong this season, but it has struggled against the pass, giving up 274.7 passing yards per game. If the Beavers can find a way to the postseason, it might be in the hands of a Villamin, a guy who really has been making the most of his shot.
When they met a year ago, Cal and Stanford stood at polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Golden Bears were mired in a season of 1-11 despair. They didn't beat a single FBS team throughout their entire 2013 journey.

The Cardinal, meanwhile, were again shooting toward the Pac-12 pinnacle. Arizona upset Oregon on the day David Shaw's team walloped Cal 63-13. The 50-point obliteration represented the largest margin in Big Game history. It catapulted Stanford into the Pac-12 championship game and eventually the Rose Bowl.

A lot can change in less than a calendar year.

Cal and Stanford are ready to renew hostilities for the 117th time, and though the Cardinal are still the favorite Saturday, their 5-5 record suddenly stands in a dead heat with the Bears.

[+] EnlargeStanford axe
AP Photo/Tony AvelarPlayers celebrate with The Stanford Axe in 2013 after beating Cal for the fourth consecutive year.
In the 362 days since one of the biggest mismatches in their rivalry's history, Cal and Stanford have zoomed in opposite directions. Sonny Dykes' program has made significant strides under sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, while Shaw's fragile post-Andrew Luck success has vanished on the offensive end. The Bears still struggle mightily on defense (last in the Pac-12) while the Cardinal still excel on that side of the ball (best in the Pac-12), but both teams' overall complexions have driven them to the same late November spot: a .500 record.

Objectives moving forward

The next goal for Cal involves clinching bowl eligibility, and the Bears can kill two birds with one stone by winning Saturday, as that would also restore some balance to a Northern California war that Stanford has commanded this decade. This much has been documented: The Cal offense built around Goff and Daniel Lasco is good. But the Bears must show meaningful improvement defensively to get this job done, as they made Stanford's mercurial offense (8.6 yards per play) look like the 1994 San Francisco 49ers last season. Cal has given up 39.7 points and 518 yards per game this season, last in the Pac-12. But the Cardinal's offense has regressed significantly this season, and Dykes seems confident that his defense has improved enough to meet the challenge this time.

"We're a better football team, and we're certainly better defensively," he said. "The numbers haven't necessarily been where we want or need them to be, but we're a lot better than we were. ... Last year we had to commit extra guys to the box and we were susceptible to a lot of big plays. We're constructed differently now. Our ability to hold up against the run will give us a better opportunity this year."

While Stanford is reeling, they're also viewing this game through a lens of opportunity --with a seasoning of desperation. Nose tackle David Parry acknowledged the Cardinal's season -- one that started with College Football Playoff aspirations -- would be a failure without at least one win in the final two games. Receiver Jeff Trojan was more forgiving -- "It's tough to say anything is a failure when you've grown with so many people in the program," he said -- but the senior recognized that a chance to play for the prized Big Game trophy overlapped with Stanford's desire to salvage this forgettable season.

Perhaps Trojan's comments before last year's contest, which also came after a brutal loss, best illustrate the Cardinal's approach heading to Memorial Stadium.

"We aren't very fond of [Cal]," he said. "They stole our Axe and I don't like them for that."

So, because bitterness remains because of an 1899 theft that has been part of rivalry lore in three separate centuries now, it's safe to say that Stanford -- the wounded bully -- relishes a 2014 opportunity to show its cross-Bay nemesis that it's still in charge.

With Goff on an upward trajectory as he approaches his junior season, Cal is expected to continue its charge upward -- especially if defensive challenges are at least partially answered. For Stanford, then, there's a real sense of urgency to circle the wagons and make a rigid stand now, when talent and depth advantages both still favor them. The Cardinal have their own explosive offensive stockpile maturing for next year and beyond -- perhaps along the lines of Christian McCaffrey -- and setting the table for the upcoming wave is of utmost importance.

The winner of this contest earns bowl eligibility, and the extra preparation time associated with that is a big first step in the foundation of the future. Regardless of any potential bowl destinations, this is the type of game that can set a tone for the long offseason of work ahead for both programs. They're on opposite trajectories now, and this Saturday's clash can either hasten or alter the directions of both shifts.

Cal and Stanford have reached the tipping point, and there's more than an Axe at stake.
Each week, Adam Rittenberg takes you inside coaches' conversations in Inside Access , but we can't fit everything everyone said in one place. So here are some nuggets that didn't fit in the column, but are too good to be ignored. In today's notebook: Brett Hundley's growth, BC's defense, Missouri's Shane Ray and Colorado State's Rashard Higgins.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley's performance this season has been overlooked, but his numbers are impressive.
Hundley’s continued growth at UCLA
You don’t hear Brett Hundley’s name in the Heisman Trophy conversation, while his primary preseason competitor, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, is the favorite to win it. Hundley’s numbers are excellent -- 72.1 percent completions, 24 touchdowns (17 pass, 7 rush) and 3,111 yards (2,547 pass, 564 rush), but there’s a perception that he leveled off this season.

Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone doesn’t buy it. Just because some of the more common Hundley images this fall show him harried or on his back -- he has been sacked 29 times, tied for 12th most nationally -- the junior has continued to develop.

“You hear he’s holding the ball, he’s taking too many sacks,” Mazzone told Inside Access

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Brett Hundley, Cody KesslerAP PhotosBrett Hundley and Cody Kessler will be fighting for individual awards and the Pac-12 South title.
It's safe to assume that when the postseason awards are handed out, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will once again be holding top honors as the league's first-team all-conference quarterback.

Second team, however is still up for grabs. And this weekend's rivalry game between USC and UCLA might move the debate. There are only two quarterbacks in the conference who are completing more than 70 percent of their throws -- UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley (72.1) and USC quarterback Cody Kessler (70.2).

And while there are plenty of dynamic players on both sidelines, it's the quarterbacks who typically take center stage in this rivalry.

"I think a big part of deciding that stuff will be in this game," Kessler said. "Brett has played really well this year. He's one of my good friends and he's done a great job. I'm happy for him. This game will probably help define that. Not just the all-conference stuff. But some of the other awards and the Battle of L.A. thing. This game has a lot of emphasis on the quarterbacks and it's going to be a fun competition."

The league's two most accurate passers took different routes to get to where they are heading into Saturday. Hundley had a "competition" in the spring of 2012, but easily emerged as the starter before the season began and hasn't looked back since. Kessler's road has been more serpentine, as he had to win over two different coaching staffs (and multiple head coaches) along the way.

No one is going to confuse the two. They play very different styles, run different schemes and bring unique skill sets to their teams. But coaches who have seen both this season agree on the same thing: Both are very good at what they do.

"Very different style, but equally effective," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who was on the winning end of both games against the L.A. schools this season. "Both of them are tremendous talents. I believe both will play a long time in this sport beyond college. Kessler is more of a traditional, pocket, NFL-type guy. Hundley is very dynamic and can run the football as well as throw it. They are both great leaders and do a great job in their respective systems. Should be a great matchup."

Even the way they handle pressure is a contrast in styles. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kessler is completing 57.4 percent of his throws when he's under duress, which is tops among Power 5 quarterbacks. Conversely, Hundley ranks second among Power 5 quarterbacks with 391 scramble yards. One sticks in the pocket, the other uses his legs to make plays downfield.

"I think that Kessler is really doing a nice job executing that offense and taking care of the ball and not making mistakes," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who dropped both games to USC and UCLA. "Hundley can make a lot of plays with his feet. In some ways, he's probably at his best when he can freelance a little bit. But he's certainly capable of being a pocket guy and he does that well. I think his talent really comes out more when he's forced to make some plays with his feet and sustain some plays. They are very different that way, but they are both playing at a high level with two different styles. But both are good at what they do."

It's also worth noting that both have very strong run games supporting them. USC's Javorius "Buck" Allen leads the conference with 1,184 rushing yards. UCLA's Paul Perkins is right on his heels with 1,169 yards.

And yet for as much credit as Kessler gets for staying in the pocket and Hundley for leaving it, both aren't too bad when the roles are reversed. Kessler will never be a tuck-and-run guy, but he can improvise if needed.

"He has that in his arsenal," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "… He probably doesn't get enough credit for being as good of an athlete as he is. But I think we'd all prefer for him to stay within the system and utilize his reads and throws."

And Hundley -- who leads all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage -- has to be a good pocket passer for those kinds of numbers. And when the Bruins throw on first down, he's completing nearly three out of every four passes (74.8 percent).

Of course, these two aren't alone in the quest for all-conference honors. Cal's Jared Goff and Arizona's Anu Solomon will get strong consideration. Even injured Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday still leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and 3,873 yards.

But neither is all that concerned with that right now. Both teams are still fighting for the Pac-12 South title and a date with Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.

"There is always going to be a lot riding on this game," Hundley said. "It's the end of the season and typically both teams are doing well. This is usually the game where the South is decided and this year it's no different. We respect them as a team. They've put together a good season. We've done the same. It's two well-respected teams and we're going to go out there and put on a show."

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