Kickoff Show (1 ET)

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
10:15
AM ET
Join ESPN.com reporters Edward Aschoff, Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and host Chantel Jennings as the discuss who should be in the top four when the College Football Playoff committee's first rankings come out next week. They will also preview Week 9's best games and take your questions.

Pac-12 Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
9:00
AM ET
Why Washington State will win: Washington State has been so, so close in so many games. The Cougars' record doesn't really speak to what kind of a team they are, and if the defensive line can get some pressure on Anu Solomon and limit Nick Wilson, then I think Connor Halliday is going to be able to put up enough yards to have the Cougars come away with this win. Halliday has been so sharp recently. In the last four games he has completed 173 of 263 passes (66 percent) and thrown for 1,879 yards, 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. That's 7.1 yards per attempt for Halliday. He's going to be able to get one of these wins if he does enough and the ball bounces their way just one or two times more. My bet is that day comes Saturday. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Arizona will win: Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez know how to engineer an efficient offense, so I think this game will be a close shootout. That’s why Arizona has the edge here. Aside from one missed field goal attempt to end their game against USC, the Wildcats have been absolute nails in the fourth quarter, while the Cougars have been the exact opposite. Since Washington State is desperate, this game will come down to its final few possessions, but Solomon is developing a reputation as a quarterback who comes through in those spots. -- David Lombardi

Why Washington will win: After losing their eleventh straight to the Ducks, the Huskies are certainly thrilled to be playing anyone but Oregon this weekend. Chris Petersen’s squad preys on turnovers; they can get back to forcing them in the electricity of their home environment. And although Washington’s offense ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12, I’m not yet sold on ASU’s defense. We need to see more than one solid performance against a struggling Stanford offense to believe the Sun Devils have turned the corner. Washington will move the ball enough to win. -- David Lombardi

Why Arizona State will win: Arizona State is going to go with the Oregon blueprint to beat the Huskies. Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici is going to be accurate and efficient in the air, and D.J. Foster is going to get work done on the ground. Defensively, the Sun Devils will frustrate Cyler Miles and force him into a turnover or two. Another road win is coming for ASU, and with it, look for the Sun Devils to sneak into the top 15 come Sunday. -- Chantel Jennings

Unanimous Pac-12 picks

Why Oregon wins: While I think Cal has the offense and receivers to tax the Oregon secondary a bit, the defense isn’t there (especially sans Brennan Scarlett) to slow the Ducks down. Oregon is getting healthier, while Cal is starting to lose some key players. Really like the improvement we’ve seen from the Bears. But I don’t see them at Oregon’s level yet. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Utah wins: At some point, home field has to count for something, right? Rice-Eccles is a hostile environment and the MUSS will be out in force. If the Utes can get even marginal quarterback play -- enough to give Devontae Booker more six-man boxes than seven -- then they’ll have the offense and defense to control the tempo and dictate the game. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Stanford wins: This is going to be a low-scoring affair, but expect Oregon State's score to be lower than Stanford's, because the Cardinal defense is going to be swarming. With three losses already, the Cardinal are going to want to show the conference what's up and that even though they might not be perfect, they're still competitive and know how to win games. They'll get the job done at home. -- Chantel Jennings

Why UCLA wins: UCLA turnovers are the only way this game stays remotely close. The Bruins just have too much explosive firepower on both sides of the ball, so this will be a struggle for the Buffs. Of course, UCLA kept Cal in the game with three costly turnovers last week. But they still won because of Brett Hundley’s explosiveness, and that’ll again be a nice safety cushion in Boulder. -- David Lombardi

Pac-12 morning links

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
8:00
AM ET
Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home.

Leading off

If you believe what Todd Graham has been saying all along -- that Taylor Kelly is his starting quarterback once he's back to 100 percent -- then you can expect to see Kelly at the helm for the No. 14 Sun Devils when they travel to Washington this weekend.

Speaking with the media on Wednesday after practice, Kelly said he feels 100 percent and is ready to go.

Here's an excerpt from Zach Buchanan's piece in The Arizona Republic:
Kelly insists he's capable of making all the movements required of playing quarterback, which in ASU's system also means a lot of running the ball on read options. If he's worried about anything, it's a bit of mental rust.

Kelly has been throwing in some capacity for a few weeks, but nothing prepares you for game action.

"The main thing I was worried about was my eyes, trusting my eyes and the game speed and stuff," Kelly said. "It's been a really great experience this week, and things are going to work great."

During Kelly's absence, Mike Bercovici led the Sun Devils to a 2-1 record with wins over USC and Stanford.

The flip side

ASU's opponent, may or may not have its starter back for Saturday's matchup. Cyler Miles is still day-to-day after suffering a concussion in the loss last week to Oregon. Redshirt freshman Troy Williams has been taking first-team reps. Here's what Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith told reporters after practice Wednesday:
I think he’s understanding and throwing the ball really accurately. That was the slight edge we thought Jeff (Lindquist)brought in the first game. And then we were really pleased at how Troy created some offense with his arm (against Oregon). He really has some arm talent, and that showed in the last month.

Williams was 5-of 10-for 37 yards against the Ducks. He rushed five times for 28 yards and a touchdown.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Andre Yruretagoyena talks about getting his ears pierced, running without pants and his kitten. Seriously.

You just knew it was going to make an appearance ...

#4Pac: Pick your Pac-12 South favorite

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
10:00
PM ET
video
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 trying to make sense of the Pac-12 South as we head into the home stretch. Who's your favorite the win the division?

David Lombardi/@LombardiESPN:

SportsNation

Who is your favorite to win the Pac-12 South?

  •  
    31%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    21%
  •  
    28%
  •  
    5%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,388)

As you may have noticed, "minefield" has been my description of choice for the Pac-12 South. So this is a dangerous question to answer.

Personally, I'm a "defense wins championships" guy, so I'll work with a process of elimination here: ASU hasn't yet proven they can consistently play sturdy defense (don't get too excited about shutting down Stanford's unimpressive 2014 offense), USC takes critical stretches off on that side of the ball (see their Hail Mary defense), Arizona has also been leaky, and UCLA has battled defensive discipline issues all season long.

That leaves me with Utah, a team leading the nation with 5.5 sacks per game and on pace for a record 71.5 sacks, as the only consistent defensive choice. Combine that with Devontae Booker's excellent running, and it becomes apparent that the Utes are the team with the necessary stability to be considered Pac-12 South favorites.

Chantel Jennings/@ChantelJennings:

I see it coming down to the winner of Arizona State-Arizona. And (drum roll please) in that matchup, I'd have to go with the Wildcats. I think Rich Rodriguez has enough talent on the field and trickery in his playbook to come away with a win in that game. The game is at Arizona so that would be going against the grain of road teams winning matchups, which makes sense. Arizona's defense has been suspect at times this season, but I think that group will begin making some major strides, but at the end of the day this is going to be about what offense is going to put the most points on the board. I think we're going to see a group of young players like Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson carry the banner for the Pac-12 South. It's going to be one heck of a rematch at Levi's Stadium when the Wildcats take on Oregon. That's a game I wouldn't mind seeing again.

Kevin Gemmell/@Kevin_Gemmell:

I mentioned this earlier in the week on our Spreecast. Utah reminds me a lot of Stanford in 2012. They are a team that isn't getting a ton of production out of the quarterback position, but they are winning on strength of a running game, good defense and efficient special teams play.

I know, I know. The upcoming schedule looks brutal. But we've seen that this year's Utes can handle the road -- something previous editions haven't been particularly good at. Booker's emergence (563 yards, five touchdowns in his last three games) has been enough to sustain an offense that has struggled in the air.

Defensively, this might be the best overall unit in the conference. Nate Orchard is a backfield menace and Gionni Paul has quietly been one of the best middle linebackers in the league. The secondary is hunting and the special teams are top notch. Tom Hackett has done an outstanding job flipping the field and anytime the Utes get in or around the 30-yard line, it's almost guaranteed points, courtesy of "Automatic" Andy Phillips.

The South is a mess right now. And you could easily make an argument for five teams to win the league. And you wouldn't be wrong about any of them. So why not Utah?

Kyle Bonagura/@BonaguraESPN

The fact that you can make a legitimate case for five teams to win the South means there isn't an obvious favorite. Best tie-breaker?

Remaining schedule ... and that clearly favors USC.

At 4-1 in conference play, the Trojans are two wins up on Arizona (2-1), Utah (2-1) and UCLA (2-2) and one on Arizona State (3-1). We've already established there are no easy games in the Pac-12, so that they're already at four is significant. And with that understood, their remaining slate -- at Utah, at Washington State, home against Cal, at UCLA -- is the most manageable.

Take Utah for example. The Utes have six more conference games -- USC, at Arizona State, Oregon, at Stanford, Arizona, at Colorado -- so while there's a good chance they beat USC on Saturday, their road to the division title is significantly more difficult. The other three teams face similar futures, which leaves USC with the best shot to emerge.

Pac-12 mailbag: South rising

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
9:00
PM ET
Welcome to the mailbag. I pray come and crush a cup of wine. And follow me on Twitter.

Arthur in Poulsbo, Washington writes: If the Sun Devils win the rest of their games (big if), do you think the UCLA game with Bercovici's first start, will hurt their chances in getting into the playoffs?

Kevin Gemmell: I think a one-loss Pac-12 champion is a lock, whether that's ASU, Arizona, Utah or Oregon.

But since you're talking about ASU specifically, let's look at the schedule: at Washington (a team that started the year ranked), vs. Utah (a top 20 team as of this week), versus Notre Dame (a top 10 team this week), at Oregon State, versus WSU and at Arizona (a top 15 team).

Combine all of that with the fact they have already beaten two ranked teams and their lone loss was at home to No. 11 (at the time), I think the Playoff Selection Committee would look very, very favorably on the Sun Devils for going 11-1.

Here's the catch, they probably won't. And Arizona and Utah probably wouldn't go 11-1, either (they all play each other, anyway). Oregon has the "easiest" road the rest of the way, so the Ducks might end up with just one loss. But would you be shocked if they didn't? I sure wouldn't be.

A one-loss Pac-12 champion is a sure-thing. Take it to the bank. It gets dicey with a 2-loss team. But even that I think might be safe -- if the committee members truly take depth of conference and strength of schedule into account.

This is a brave and scary new world we're entering. Year 1 will go a long way toward setting some precedents.




Derek in Cedar Rapids, Iowa writes: Well, that was a brutal display by the Cardinal offense on Saturday! My question has to do with the explanation that Stanford is lacking a 220-pound back to run between the tackles, and that is the reason that the offense is so poor. Yes, Tyler Gaffney always seemed to fall forward for an extra yard last year, but how much of this has to do with an offensive line that is not (yet) living up to its recruiting rankings? If the blocking is what it needs to be, shouldn't Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and company be able to hit the hole for nice, positive gains? In other words, how much of this struggle has to do with the revamped offensive line, rather than Gaffney joining Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart in the NFL?

Gemmell: The answer to your question is yes, and yes. Yes, the Cardinal have not found a reliable back to give them, at least, 15 carries a game consistently. And yes, the offensive line has not lived up to the considerable hype it garnered when these guys were first recruited.

Does that mean they never will? Of course not. Remember, Andrus Peat is the only returning starter of the bunch. The rest of them -- while having seen a little playing time in the past -- are first-year starters.

But it's not all on the line. Because in Stanford's scheme, pass protection is a huge responsibility for the backs. And none of them have excelled in that department. For as outstanding as Gaffney and Taylor were at carrying the load, they were also very good at reading defenses and picking up blitzes. This wouldn't have happened in those days. Or this.

It is a combination of everything all snowballing into an avalanche of offensive inefficiency. You take an inexperienced line, combine it with backs who haven't done a great job in pass protection/getting extra yards and a quarterback who hasn't played particularly well, and you have the worst offense in the conference.




Mark in Phoenix writes: It was a dominating weekend for the Pac 12 South over the North. Is it too soon to remove the justifier of "so far" and declare that the Pac 12 South is better than the North?

Gemmell: By my count, the Pac-12 South is 7-4 against the North in their 11 inter-division matchups this year. Advantage, South.

Five of the six Pac-12 South teams are ranked, compared to just one team from the North. Advantage, South.

Every team but Oregon in the North has at least two conference losses, while the South has four teams with one conference loss and another with two. Advantage South.

The North has Oregon, the league's highest-ranked team at No. 6 and likely the Pac-12's best chance at making the College Football Playoff. Advantage, North.

Yes, the South is clearly the dominant division right now. That will sort itself out in the coming weeks with showdowns like USC at Utah, Arizona at UCLA and Utah at ASU. And then there are the rivalry games at the end of the year.

But outside of the SEC West, I don't think there is another division in football that is as nasty as the South.

The North has a chance to right things in the coming weeks. Arizona travels to Washington State this week and ASU heads to Washington. UCLA at Washington and Oregon at Utah in a couple of weeks will be interesting.

A rising South, in one sense, is great for the conference. The USC-Stanford rivalry is at a tipping point, as is the Arizona-Oregon matchup. There has never been a better time to be a fan of Pac-12 football. On the flip side, the power shift makes the league that much more balanced, which leads to further criticism of the league nationally.

I think back to a quote Mark Helfrich gave me a couple of weeks ago, when he said the Pac-12 has a perception that parity equals mediocrity, but in other leagues, parity equals strength.

Hopefully when the music stops and the four playoff teams are named, the Pac-12's depth will be an asset, not a deterrent.

Recruiting class rankings: Oct. 22 update

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
5:00
PM ET
video

National recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert joins ESPN’s Phil Murphy to break down updates to the ESPN class rankings in the wake of updated player evaluations with the ESPN 300.

To read the full class rankings, click here.
videoSo maybe all the hubbub and Apocalyptic thoughts that came crashing down on Eugene and all of Interstate 5 and up through the Cascades a few weeks ago were a little bit of an overreaction, no?

But oh, how quickly the tide changes. Because in just two weeks, Marcus Mariota has led the Oregon Ducks from pandemonium to the Promised Land (with some help from a few other top teams being upset) and back into the good graces of the football gods. Not bad, Marcus, not bad -- just 16 days to go from a hopeless team to a heroic one.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota has helped Oregon stay in contention for the College Football Playoff by completing 70 percent of his passes.
“Ah, but [insert SEC West QB name here] could do it in 15,” someone argues. But, that’s fine. Because the SEC can do what the SEC wants to do.

At this point, the Ducks just need to insulate and take care of business because they’re likely in control of their own destiny. According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Oregon has a 21 percent shot to win out. That's third-best among one-loss teams, behind Ohio State and TCU, which both have a 26 percent chance.

And with one game to go until the College Football Playoff committee releases its first set of rankings, Oregon solidified itself as the Pac-12’s banner holder.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t major issues that could still be exploited, and coach Mark Helfrich is the first to admit that.

“There’s a ton we can improve upon, for sure,” he said on Sunday night after watching his team’s game film from its dominant win over Washington.

Such as ... tackling. That has looked better these past two weeks, but the Ducks are still giving up far too many big plays. Oregon has given up 119 plays of 10 or more yards so far this season. You want to know who else has given up that many plays of 10 or more yards?

Purdue and Toledo. In very few cases in college football -- when it comes to statistics -- do you want to be on the same list as those two teams.

As the weeks progress, the Ducks are doing a better job communicating and getting helmets to the ball. But still, of the 1,182 rushing yards the Ducks have allowed, 610 have come after contact.

So, you can decide whether it’s more worrisome that more than half of opponents’ rushing yardage has come after Oregon (tries to) tackle or the fact that through seven games, 572 rushing yards have come before an Oregon defensive player has even gotten to the ball. Or, everyone can just agree that it’s bad news when the Oregon defense allows other teams a 4.3-yards-per-rush average and a 65 percent conversion rate on third-down rushing attempts.

But, it can get better (well, at 120th in the country in third-down rushing defense, it can’t get much worse).

Defensive coordinator Don Pellum has been on this staff a long time, and he knows that this group can play much better than it has. Defenses always take longer to jell and with so many new faces on that side of the ball and D-lineman Arik Armstead hopefully healthy for good, maybe the learning curve will kick up a notch.

But the offense finally seems to be clicking. And though Helfrich wants to downplay the return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher, the skies have looked dramatically clearer for the Ducks since Fisher got back to bookending the left side of the line and protecting Mariota’s blindside.

In Oregon's games against Arizona and Washington State, with Fisher out, the Ducks' average rushing yardage was just about even with what those two teams had given up coming into those games. Meaning, it was average. An average team will not reach the playoff.

But when Fisher returned, the Ducks averaged 1½ times the rushing averages that UCLA and Washington had given up coming into those games. That’s the kind of performance the committee wants to see. It’s not all about statistics, but when Royce Freeman is rushing for 100 yards and Mariota is completing 70 percent of his passes, they’re a hard team to ignore.

And that’s exactly what the Ducks need to be: Hard to ignore -- and not just because their uniforms are flashy.

So, why not Oregon? That’s the question the committee will ask itself as it sits down to look at the résumés of the top 20 or so teams.

It’s a team that knows how to be nationally relevant, but it’s also a team that knows what it feels like to slip out of that conversation.

Two weeks ago, it seemed like that might happen. But the loss to Arizona doesn’t carry as much weight now, as there’s a certainty that at least two one-loss teams will be in the playoff.

Oregon is in the conversation. The Ducks are the ones who are going to decide whether they keep themselves there or not.
video
Seven games into the 2014 season, Connor Halliday's numbers border on the absurd.

He’s throwing 63 passes per game, the highest rate in NCAA history. His 478 passing yards per game are topping college football’s single-season mark. And anyone who has glanced at the box score from his record-smashing 70-attempt, 734-yard effort against Cal three weeks ago knows what it’s like to rub eyes and re-read in disbelief.

“If any of our quarterbacks threw half as many passes as him, they’d need to ice their arms,” Stanford coach David Shaw laughs.

Yet here Halliday is, coming off Washington State’s bye week, ready to resume firing away.

The senior is in the midst of a historic campaign. At his current rate, Halliday is on pace to throw for 5,733 yards through 12 games. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons -- another Mike Leach product -- owns the FBS single-season passing record set in 2003 with 5,336 yards through 12 games. Symons finished with 5,833 yards after the Red Raiders' bowl game.

Through little fault of his own, Halliday will likely only have 12 games to make his mark. The Cougars are buried in a 2-5 hole, and bowl eligibility seems to be a long shot. That has pushed Halliday’s flirtations with history out of the limelight.

“As a quarterback, I’m judged by how many points we score and if we win the game,” Halliday said after the Cougars’ latest setback, a loss at Stanford Oct. 10. “So I’ve got to figure that out.”

That’s a noble mea culpa; perhaps a vintage mark of a true leader. But there’s something patently unfair about it. After all, the quarterback position has most definitely not been Washington State’s fatal flaw in this disappointing campaign. The real blame here should lie with shoddy defensive and special-teams play, not Halliday’s blistering passing pace.

Perhaps the most unfathomable shame came three weeks ago in Pullman, when the unthinkable happened against Cal: Halliday threw for those 734 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions -- and lost 60-59. He drove the Cougars into position for the game-winning score, only to see a missed 19-yard chip shot field goal sully his all-time performance.

“It really doesn’t mean too much,” he said. “It’ll be fun to look back on it when I’m 30 years old.”

And just like that, in a moment emblematic of Halliday’s under-appreciated season, history was brushed under the rug.

The ingredients that made the record-breaker

[+] EnlargeConnor Halliday
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesWith 63 passes and 478 yards per game, it's a wonder Connor Halliday's right arm can still function, let alone excel.
As Halliday’s Cougars emerge from their bye week aiming to make one final surge toward bowl eligibility (they’ll need to win four of their last five to get there), it’s a good time to lift up that rug and appreciate all that’s under it. Years of development and fine-tuning have served as the cornerstones of Halliday’s assault on the record books. The eye-popping results of Leach’s Air Raid system may have desensitized college football fans, but make no mistake: It’s not easy to average nearly 500 passing yards per game, and the intricacies behind that ability are worth a closer examination.

Halliday began playing his position when he was just 5 years old, thanks in large part to his father, Duane, a former quarterback at Boise State. Halliday’s first record came his senior year of high school in Spokane, when he broke former Cougars great Mark Rypien’s league passing mark. Then came college football at Washington State. It wasn’t until Leach’s arrival on the Palouse in 2012, though, that Halliday’s full potential was unlocked.

“That first offseason (under Leach) was awful,” Halliday said, recalling that his new coach didn’t initially trust him. “I remember those practices. If something went awry, the offense immediately got 30 up-downs.”

Toward the end end of spring ball, though, Leach had begun to develop faith in his quarterback, and he communicated it in subtle ways. Halliday noticed that whenever there was offensive discombobulation, Leach would wait quietly and allow his quarterback to sort the situation out instead of stepping into the fray himself.

That trust was the foundation of the Air Raid’s multi-option approach at the line of scrimmage.

“Leach doesn’t put a guy out there as his quarterback until he trusts him,” Halliday said. “Because once [the quarterback’s] out there, [Leach] can only suggest stuff. Whoever is playing quarterback has the best look at the defense and the best look at the leverage.”

For all intents and purposes, Halliday is Leach’s offensive coordinator on the field. The head man only signals in one passing option. As Halliday approaches the line of scrimmage, the quarterback has three options based on the defense’s alignment: He can check to a run, he can stick with Leach’s pass play or he can design his own throwing option.

Halliday estimates that he breaks from Leach’s suggestion about 45 percent of the time.

That illustrates a remarkable amount of freedom and responsibility for a college quarterback. And along with his notably quick release, those are vital ingredients behind Halliday’s ability to frustrate opposing secondaries. Against Stanford, even though his offensive line faltered under the weight of the Cardinal’s ferocious pass rush, Halliday converted four consecutive fourth downs.

“We had the perfect defense called against him every single time,” Shaw said. “But that ball just came out so quick. We couldn’t stop it.”

The nation’s leading defense ultimately overwhelmed Halliday’s supporting cast, but even that unit was repeatedly flummoxed by the lanky senior who has become a living, breathing piece of a fascinating aerial assault.

A record chase and a season to salvage

Even as trust, precision, quickness and accuracy have taken Halliday’s game to new levels in 2014, he’s the first to admit that statistical success will fall on mostly deaf ears if the Cougars don’t start winning immediately. Arizona visits Martin Stadium this Saturday, and that kicks off a final five-game gauntlet that also includes dates with USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington.

It's clear the record chase takes secondary importance in Halliday's mind. This is a fifth-year senior who’s played through a five-inch laceration of his liver, and he’s not done scratching and clawing yet, even if a disappointing ending short of bowl eligibility may seem likely.

“The only thing you can do is lead the guys,” Halliday says. “I guarantee you I’m going to keep playing hard, and I can guarantee you that I’m not going to quit.”
Washington defensive lineman Danny Shelton is third in the Pac-12 with 7.5 sacks and is a huge part of what the Huskies have been able to do defensively this season.

His team is coming off a road loss to Oregon but welcomes No. 14 Arizona State to Seattle on Saturday. Shelton chatted with the Pac-12 blog earlier this week and took questions ranging from his Huskies to his husky (yes, he owns a husky).

Halfway through the season, what’s your grading of the Washington defense?

DS: B+. I feel like we just haven’t really dominated like we can. We’ve missed too many tackles in every game we’ve played. We let a lot of teams score. We’ve had a lot of mistakes and a lot of missed opportunities and that’s something that great defenses shouldn’t have.

[+] EnlargeJuicy and Moni
Danny SheltonWashington defensive lineman Danny Shelton's dogs Juicy and Moni.
Your team is coming off a loss to Oregon. At halftime, the Ducks led by 22 points and had amassed 380 yards of offense. What were the conversations like in the locker room at half?

DS: Just to keep our heads up. We had the second half to take over and we wanted everybody to focus on their job. We didn’t want people to be like super humans and do other people’s jobs, that just tears up a defense. I feel like if we would’ve kept playing like we did in the first half we would’ve had serious problems at the end of the game.

[Note: The Huskies allowed just 77 rushing yards and 97 passing yards in the second half, though they still gave up 17 second-half points.]

You’re balancing a lot (teaching, classes, an internship), what has that balance been like this season?

DS: Kind of tough, but I never really want to show that it’s tough. It gets stressful, but I find time in my day to relax and try to get my mind off everything. I like to have complete focus on what I’m doing at the moment so when I’m at football practice I’m going to be locked in and when I get home I want to be completely focused on my dogs, just relaxed. When I go to class, be focused on class and my internship. Just trying to stay consistent with focusing.

How do you relax?

DS: Watch movies. Take my dogs on a walk. Listen to music.

When you said “focused on your dogs,” I assumed you were referring to your Husky teammates. You mean you actually have four-legged friends?

DS: Yes. I have a husky (Juicy) and a pitbull (Moni).

How did you come to own two dogs as a college senior?

DS: Really, I just wanted more responsibility. … That’s when I got my pitbull. I got her leading into my junior year. I had a teammate that I was living with and we would switch of taking care of her. I got her when she was a baby, so it was a point in my life when I had to grow up and act more like an adult, eliminate distractions. … That was part of my change. And then late in my junior year I decided I wanted to get another puppy with my girlfriend. At the time it seemed smart, but it has been kind of tough. We’ve been doing great.

What’s the hardest part about owning two dogs as a student-athlete?

DS: It’s having the energy to take them out and play. I get home and I’m tired from my day and I take them out for a walk. They’re super hyper when they get back inside. They want to play but I’m too tired to take them to the park. They run around my whole house. My mom would probably not be proud of it. It’s a little messy.

You’re No. 5 in the nation in sacks. Your teammate Hau'oli Kikaha leads the nation in sacks. What’s practice like with you two?

DS: We always kid around. We just like having fun. I don’t know about Hau’oli, but I never really think about the national statistics. I just have fun competing against Hau’oli. Every Sunday or Monday when we meet up and go over game film we tally up who had better production. It’s always a competition between us. It’s just fun. It’s kind of like a brother rivalry.

Let’s play a word association game. I’ll give you a teammate or coach or yours, you tell me the first thing that pops to mind…

Coach Chris Petersen: Life changer
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski: Old school
Hau’oli Kikaha: Eight the great
Shaq Thompson: My son
Jaydon Mickens: Spontaneous
John Ross: Too fast
There’s nothing quite like the first time your newborn son evacuates all over a wall at 2 a.m. This is what Andy Phillips is currently dealing with. So no, a little crowd noise at the Rose Bowl or a little rain at the Big House isn’t really going to rattle him, thank you very much.

As Utah’s kicker grows into fatherhood – his son Maximus is now seven weeks old – he’s learned to put the things that matter in life into perspective. While his football career can be high-pressure/high-stress, it's -- for lack of a better pun -- child's play compared to the responsibilities he has at home.

[+] EnlargeAndy Phillips
AP Photo/Alex GallardoNothing seems to faze Utah kicker Andy Phillips.
“I’m only seven weeks into it, but nothing fazes me,” said Phillips, 25. “Whether it’s poop all over the walls or pee everywhere or waking up at 2 a.m. to give him a bottle, there is nothing more demanding than taking care of a child. I get to football and it reminds me how blessed I am to have an opportunity to play this sport. My wife, my family are all so supportive.”

By now, most people who follow the Pac-12 have heard the tale of how Phillips, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, became Utah’s kicker despite any previous football experience. After several video exchanges with former special-teams coordinator Jay Hill (now the head coach at Weber State), Phillips was invited to camp as a walk-on. He sent videos to every school in the state, but Utah was the only program that bit. Good call, Utah.

“He’s a great weapon for us,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s a big contributor for us week in and week out. He’s not your typical kicker.”

Indeed. Phillips was skiing competitively at 5 and internationally by 12. He was racing in Europe by 15 and at 17 he was named to the U.S. team, where he spent five years.

That competitive drive is alive and well on the football field. He ranks among the nation’s best kickers in almost every category and his field-goal accuracy has earned him the nickname “Automatic Andy.” He’s 13 of 15 overall and 9 of 11 from 40-plus yards. He ranks sixth in the nation in scoring at 10.8 points per game.

But it’s more than field goals. More often than not you’ll see Phillips flying down the field trying to make the tackle on kickoffs. A lot of kickers talk that talk, but few back it up. Here’s an example of Phillips backing it up.

“I don’t like to shy away from contact,” Phillips said. “I’ve got pads and a helmet on for a reason. I might as well use them. I’m an aggressive safety. If there’s a hole that opens up, it’s my job to fill that hole. I like to get in there and knock people around a little bit.”

He also knows his limitations. Kicking was the obvious choice, having grown up with a soccer background. Yet Whittingham said if Phillips wasn’t a kicker, there are several other positions he could play, simply based on his athleticism.

“I have to temper him and tell him to stay back and be the safety guy,” Whittingham said. “He would love to go in and get in the mix.”

Phillips isn’t cocky enough to think he could just stroll in and start playing, for instance, linebacker.

“Not growing up with the sport and competing at this level, I understand there are so many instinctual things these guys learn growing up with the sport,” Phillips said. “No one can jump in and be a ski racer at 18 or 19 because there are so many things you learn growing up, you can’t learn it all in a year. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what a linebacker has to learn his whole life or what a running back has to learn.

“… With my ski racing background, I learned my whole life how to be mentally tough. How to handle pressure situations. How to adapt to uncomfortable situations. I think that gives me a huge advantage in the kicking game.”

And that athleticism allows him to do something most other kickers can’t – the one-man onside kick, which he pulled off against UCLA a couple of weeks ago. It started as an idea he and Hill came up with last year. Phillips worked on it for a week before trying it live in practice.

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“We did it 15 times and I was able to recover it all 15 times without failure,” Phillips said.

Added Whittingham: “He’s not the first guy we’ve tried it with, but he’s the best guy at it, without a doubt.”

The Utes have a critical Pac-12 South showdown this weekend with USC coming to town. Then again, from here on out they are all critical as the Utes look to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011. They move forward with the confidence knowing they’ve got one of the best kickers in the country on their side.

“If you strive to the be the best at everything you do in life, whether that’s school, golf, religion, soccer or football, all of those translate to one another,” Phillips said. “If I’m in a pressure situation in football, if that’s something I’ve faced in another aspect of my life, I’m going to be able to overcome it.”

USC, Utah among most underrated units 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
11:36
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Cody Kessler and Utah defenseIcon Sportswire/USA Today SportsStatistics show the battle between USC's offense and Utah's defense will be one to watch.
One of the more intriguing matchups of the weekend takes place in the Pac-12 South, a showdown Saturday night between the USC Trojans and the Utah Utes. With a victory, USC would be the first Pac-12 team in either division to five conference wins. Utah looks to remain undefeated against the Pac-12 South division as it begins a brutal five-game stretch against the league’s best.

The game is intriguing from an advanced stats view, as well, a head-to-head battle between one of the nation’s best offenses and one of the best defenses. Traditional box score statistics might not recognize the matchup as particularly remarkable. USC’s offense ranks 28th nationally in points per game and 31st nationally in yards per game. Utah’s defense ranks 35th in points allowed and 55th in yards allowed per game. But those raw numbers don’t account for the strength of opposition faced or the context of play and drive efficiency.
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Several Pac-12 commitments and prospects saw some significant movement in the updated ESPN 300 rankings released Wednesday. Overall, the conference holds commitments from two of the top 22 prospects in the country and 26 of the top 300. With fewer than four months until signing day, let's take a look at where the Pac-12 stands in the ESPN 300.


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Top trap games remaining for contenders 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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Oregon didn't see Arizona coming. Baylor was blindsided by West Virginia. Now those teams' playoff hopes are damaged, if not totaled.

It's often the surprising losses -- the trap games -- that derail promising seasons. Just ask Oklahoma State (Iowa State) in 2011 or USC (Oregon State) in 2008.

As for 2014, here are the most perilous traps remaining down the stretch for the top six in the AP poll. That includes Mississippi State, FSU and Ole Miss, the three remaining undefeated Power 5 teams.

1. Ole Miss
Trap game: at Arkansas (Nov. 22)
When they go to Fayetteville, the Rebels will essentially be coming off two open dates (they play Presbyterian on Nov. 8). But Arkansas still presents a classic look-ahead scenario, because Ole Miss has the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State the following week. The "biggest Egg Bowl ever" chatter is buzzing now; just imagine what it will be like a week before the game. If the Rebels' focus is waning, Arkansas is good enough to punish them for it. Mark it down: The Razorbacks are going to end their 16-game SEC losing streak this season, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened in an impactful game. Mississippi State (Nov. 1) also should be on high alert. Arkansas will slow down the game. Even if Ole Miss isn't running as much up-tempo this season, pace is still something the Rebs want to dictate. The timing and matchup are as dangerous as it gets.


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Pac-12 morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
8:00
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4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

Leading off

It's depth chart Wednesday! All 12 teams are in action this week -- no byes. Actually, it will be like this for the next two weeks. So that's exciting! Here are the most current depth charts for all the teams in action this week, save UCLA, which doesn't post a weekly depth chart. As always, I'll note any significant changes below. Notes
Heisman updates

Usually in this space every Wednesday, we've been linking the straw poll from Heismanpundit.com. However Chris Huston, friend of the blog who runs that site, has put it on hold while he does some work for the official Heisman site. We wish him the best.

So today we'll update you with the ESPN.com Heisman poll. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota still sits behind Mississippi State's Dak Prescott. But he closed the gap last week with his performance against Washington.

Here's how the latest poll shakes out, followed by their total points:
  1. Dak Prescott (47)
  2. Marcus Mariota (42)
  3. Melvin Gordon (25)
  4. Tie: Amari Cooper (9)
    Jameis Winston (9)

Prescott and Mariota were the only players receiving first-place votes. Looks like it's a two-man race to the finish.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

A cool behind-the-scenes photo journal of UCLA's trip to Cal.

Bravo, Oregon fans. Bravo.



The Trojans will rock these shiny new lids on Saturday.

With more than a third of the votes in this week's Pac-12 Blog Play of the Week vote, Oregon receiver Dwayne Stanford's 16-yard touchdown catch stole the show.

It's not really surprising considering how ridiculous of a play it was. Yes, it might not have been a game-winner like Devontae Booker's was, and he used both hands, unlike Cal receiver Chris Harper. But Stanford managed to jump, turn, go over two Husky defenders, spin some more and then come down with the TD to give the Ducks a 35-6 lead.

Not bad for his first touchdown against an FBS opponent.

"I told Marcus to put it up to where only I can catch it," Stanford told The Oregonian. "That's what we got to do. When we have the opportunity to make plays, we got to take advantage."

And did he ever. For that advantage and that play, Stanford gets the nod for the Week 8 winner for the Pac-12 Blog's Play of the Week.

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