Is USC chasing a 10-0 start?

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
Everyone knows it’s coming at some point, and now it’s here.

We’ve officially arrived at what has become nearly an annual tradition in college football: USC is Back Week.

Since 2008, the last year the Trojans won a conference title, we’ve been told that it’s only a matter of time before USC returns to glory. That Oregon and Stanford’s reign as the conference’s elite will only be short-lived. That once free of NCAA sanctions, USC and its treasure chest of five-star recruits will again be without West Coast equals.

History is hard to ignore.

There never seems to be simply a good win for USC these days. Each one needs some kind of deeper significance -- is this the turning point? Are the Trojans back?

And for the past few years the answer to those questions should always have been no. They weren't always answered that way, but they should have been.

This week, however, feels a little different. And not because the Trojans are back -- that's premature.

It's because their 13-10 win against two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford on Saturday has them in a pretty good spot to chase a 10-0 start before traveling to rival UCLA on Nov. 22. ESPN's Football Power Index, which predicted a slight USC win over Stanford, favors the No. 9-ranked Trojans in every game between now and their trip to the Rose Bowl, including this week's trip to Boston College.

The way the schedule worked out, USC misses Oregon and Washington, gets No. 16 Arizona State, Oregon State, Colorado and Cal at home, leaving road games against Arizona, Utah and Washington State. It's as easy a road as the Trojans could have hoped for in such a loaded conference.

In six of those eight games, the FPI gives USC at least a 73.7 percent chance at winning. The numbers say Arizona (61.7 percent) and Utah (64.9) will be a little tougher, but as things sit, those are games USC should also expect to win.

However, just because USC grades out as a favorite in each of its games between now and UCLA, that doesn't mean a 10-0 record should be an expectation. In fact, while the FPI is high on the Trojans on a game-by-game basis, it's only giving them a 17.8 percent chance at taking an undefeated record to UCLA.

Too soon to look that far ahead?

Only if you have a game plan to prepare each week.

On the Pac-12 coaches call on Tuesday, UCLA coach Jim Mora was asked about sharing Los Angeles with USC, and like a true coach, he couldn't have been more dismissive.

"It would be silly for us to think about anything other the opponent that we're playing this week, which is Texas this week," he said. "[The rivalry is] always there because this city is so divided and our locations are so close to each, but our focus is always on the team we're playing and when we get to them, we'll focus on them."

Safe to say USC is Back Week isn't celebrated in the Mora household.

Pac-12 morning links

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
Smelly cat, smelly cat,
What are they feeding you?
Smelly cat, smelly cat
It's not your fault.

Leading off

Depth chart day! Here are the updated depth charts that are available. As always, I'll point out some moves or changes of note heading into Week 3. Note that three teams are on bye this week -- Cal, Oregon State and Utah -- so we'll have an updated depth chart for them next week.
Not a lot of notes/changes to report this week. It seems like a lot of those lingering position battles that spilled over into the start of the season have been ironed out. But there are still a couple. Here are some changes from Week 2 to Week 3.
  • At Colorado, Christian Powell is listed as the starting tailback in front of Michael Adkins. Though they've been split pretty evenly thus far with Powell carrying 24 times and Adkins carrying 21 times.
  • At Oregon, Tyrell Crosby is officially in at right tackle following the injury to Andre Yruretagoyena during the Michigan State game. Crosby played the bulk of the second half. Also on special teams, Devon Allen is now listed as a primary kick returner along with Keanon Lowe. Last week it was listed as Lowe and Thomas Tyner. Allen returned three kicks for 69 yards against MSU with a long of 26 yards.
  • Though he's officially listed as the starter, USC linebacker Hayes Pullard will have to sit out the first half after being ejected for an illegal hit in last week's game against Stanford. Michael Hutchings will get the start.
  • At Washington, Ben Riva is "officially" back at at right tackle, though he was back in EWU game. Darrell Daniels or Michael Hartvigson will start at tight end for the injured Joshua Perkins. Marcus Peters, who has been suspended for this game, is still listed first on the depth chart. Travell Dixon, Naijiel Hale or Sidney Jones will likely rotate.
  • Last week Wes Concepcion and Jordan Dascalo were separated by an "or" as WSU's punters. No "or" this week with Dascalo on top. He punted three times in the loss to Nevada with two of the three inside the 20 and an average of 40.3 yards per kick. In other special teams news, Quentin Breshears gets the nod over Erik Powell at kicker. Powell made a 25-yard kick in the second quarter against Nevada, but missed from 37 and 38 yards in the third. Breshears connected from 38 yards in the fourth.
Heisman chatter

The Heisman Pundit has updated its weekly straw poll, and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is back on top. That's what happens when you throw for 318 yards and three touchdowns against a top 10 team that won the Rose Bowl last year. The poll consists of 10 Heisman voters from across the country and Mariota had seven of 10 first-place votes.

Here are this week's results:
  1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon — 24 (7)
  2. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia — 18 (3)
  3. Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M — 9
  4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama— 4
  5. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State — 3
  6. (tie) Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame — 1
    Javorius Allen, RB, USC — 1

Allen certainly deserves to represented on this list so far after another strong performance in USC's win over Stanford. Though he only has one rushing touchdown through two games, he's averaging a hearty 6.4 yards per carry.

And in more #SuperMariota news, Dennis Dodd of CBS explains why Mariota should be the Heisman front runner through the first couple of weeks.

Road to playoff

Checking in on the playoff hunt, our Heather Dinich says the Pac-12 has a "great chance" to land a team in the first College Football Playoff. Writes Dinich:
If the Pac-12 follows the script, the title game will feature USC and Oregon, but as one of the most balanced and deepest conferences in the country, it could also cannibalize itself.

As we know all too well, the Pac-12 is fond of cannibalism. See 2011, 2012 and 2013 as prime examples. The Pac-12 blog believes -- and has stated numerous times -- that the Pac-12 champion deserves a spot in the playoff, be it Oregon, USC, UCLA, Stanford or any other wild card. Because whoever wins this league will have gone through a harsher grinder than any other team in the country.

And speaking of playoffs, let's check in with Joey Galloway and his four teams this week:

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

If you saw the links yesterday, you saw a considerably stoked Utah group reacting to their new white helmets. Here's a closer look:

What about the rest of Pac-12?

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
A lot the Pac-12 focus through Weeks 1 and 2 were on Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC. The reason for that was preseason hype and big games, as well as off-field issues (USC).

But, as some of you have pointed out, there are eight other Pac-12 teams. Though these teams have mostly played under-the-radar games that haven't been terribly revealing, it still seems reasonable to take a measure of the Pac-12 teams that have yet to play a marquee matchup.

Arizona (2-0): The Wildcats actually got plenty of preseason and early-season coverage for two reasons: 1. Interesting QB competition; 2. They've played FBS teams on Friday and Thursday nights so far, which means more ownership of the available window. The Wildcats are receiving votes in both polls. The visit from Nevada on Saturday could be tricky. Ask Washington State.

What we've learned: That QB Anu Solomon can look great. And not so great. Same with the defense. The Wildcats might be a dark horse in the South Division. Or they might not be. Keep in mind, this team could be 4-0 and potentially ranked as it heads into a bye week before visiting Oregon on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona State (2-0): Sun Devils fans are probably the most annoyed with their lack of attention after winning the South Division last year. The biggest reason for the lack of coverage is the opponents: An FCS team in Week 1 (Weber State) and New Mexico, a team that has gone 10-53 over the past five-plus years. At this time last year, ASU already had a win over Wisconsin, with Stanford, USC and Notre Dame the next three games. And, curiously, Arizona fans were complaining about all the attention the Sun Devils were getting.

What we've learned: Nothing. Zero. We already knew the QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong and RB D.J. Foster would be good. We also haven't learned much about a rebuilt defense. While the visit to Colorado could be somewhat revealing, the Buffaloes already lost to Colorado State. No, the Sun Devils won't take center stage, despite a national ranking, until UCLA visits on Thursday, Sept. 25.

California (2-0): Cal fans, just look at that record. Let it flow over you like warm sunshine. Your Bears already have doubled their 2013 win total! ESPN reporter and College Football Playoff guru Heather Dinich ranked you 25th! While neither win -- Northwestern nor Sacramento State -- rates as earth-shattering, the Wildcats are a Big Ten team and, well... 2 and Oh!

What we've learned: Probably a lot. For one, Cal is no longer a patsy. That doesn't mean it surges to bowl eligibility in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes, but this is clearly a vastly superior team compared to the hapless 2013 version. The Bears played better in their first two games than they did at any point last season. Welcome back to the living, Cal. The Pac-12 blog again awaits those joyous 12,000-word sabermetrically sound breakdowns of why Stanford might have the same red zone futility it had against USC in the Big Game.

Colorado (1-1): It wasn't just that the Buffaloes lost to Colorado State in the opener, it was that they lost because the Rams owned the line of scrimmage. Not good. The performance at UMass, which went 1-11 last year, also was pretty mediocre, though there was some flint shown in a comeback victory. Buffs bowl hopes feel pretty remote.

What we've learned: It might be another slog for Colorado. The preseason hope for Season 2 of Mike MacIntyre's rebuilding job was a strong 2-0. That would give a young team confidence. But, based on the early returns, this team could take a step back compared to 2013. Even the visit from Hawaii, which challenged both Washington and Oregon State, looks like a tossup. Of course, if the Buffs go nose-to-nose with the Sun Devils on Saturday ...

Oregon State (2-0): Bottom line is 2-0 is good for a team that has been notoriously slow out of the gate, even during good years. While things got a little testy with Hawaii in the second half, there's reason for optimism as the Beavers head into the bye week before playing host to San Diego State.

What we've learned: Not too much. We don't yet know what to make of Hawaii, which is obviously much improved over the program that won four games over the past two-plus years. It appears the Beavers rushing offense is much better, as it is averaging 170 yards per game compared to 94 last year. A trip to USC on Sept. 27 could be a major reveal.

Utah (2-0): The Utes looked good over the weekend on both sides of the ball while whipping Fresno State, but they've been outstanding in nonconference games as a member of the Pac-12, going 10-1. It's the conference games that will measure Utah's improvement.

What we've learned: There have been some hints that this might be Utah's best Pac-12 team, and that starts with quality behind center in QB Travis Wilson. Seeing that Michigan got pounded by Notre Dame, there's no reason Utah can't go into the Big House and get a win after their off week. At 3-0, Utes fans would be thinking about more than just any old bowl game. Still, the visit from Washington State the following weekend is more important than the Ann Arbor jaunt.

Washington (2-0): The Huskies have been pushed to the brink by Hawaii, which went 1-11 last year, and an FCS team, as Eastern Washington scored 52 points against a struggling pass defense. The offense looked much better with QB Cyler Miles behind center, but the defense -- the perceived preseason strength -- has been mediocre-to-bad so far.

What we've learned: We've learned new coach Chris Petersen didn't bring a magical formula to make the Huskies dominant on both sides of the ball, at least not immediately. This team started off in the Top 25 but tumbled out after an unimpressive opener, and the battle with Eastern Washington didn't help the team's image. Still, Washington should open 4-0 before playing host to Stanford on Sept. 27. That's when we take a true measure of the Huskies.

Washington State (0-2): No team has been more disappointing than Washington State. Just about every projection had the Cougars at 2-0, but they are the opposite. It's possible that Rutgers and Nevada will prove to be quality bowl teams, but that doesn't help a program that saw itself rising in the Pac-12 North.

What we've learned: Learned? That the defense and the offensive line still have issues, and those issues create problems for a team that can only pass the ball. Of course, it's possible the Cougs will be better when they get back to familiar Pac-12 terrain. The test of the season probably will come with back-to-back games at Utah and against California on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. The Cougs probably must win both to have bowl hopes.
As the season progresses, USC could potentially end up with one of the more balanced offenses in the Pac-12. Not just from a run-pass standpoint, but also in terms of the who it’s able to spread the ball to.

While the Trojans are light numbers-wise and on the young side, their collection of skill players on offense still stacks up favorably. Theoretically, the Trojans should be able to throw it or run it with a lot of success. And against Fresno State in Week 1, the results -- 16 players touched the ball to combine for 701 yards of total offense -- backed that up.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Tony Avelar/Associated PressNelson Agholor (pictured) and Javorius Allen got the majority of the looks and touches for USC against Stanford.
However, against a much more formidable defense in Stanford on Saturday, that wasn’t the case.

If it felt like quarterback Cody Kessler had two jobs: receive the snap and A) hand the ball to Javorius Allen or B) throw the ball to Nelson Agholor, there’s good reason. Those two scenarios accounted for 61 percent (36 of 59) of the plays USC ran against Stanford.

Most of the credit should go to the Cardinal for limiting what USC felt comfortable doing, but USC coach Steve Sarkisian knows moving forward there needs to be a better recipe for success.

“I’d prefer it to be spread out more -- I think we saw some of that in the first week against Fresno -- but like I’ve said before, every game takes on its own personality and games go in different directions for a variety of reasons,” he said. “And this game was one where [Allen] carried the ball a lot for us out of the backfield and [Agholor] got the ball thrown his way quite a bit.”

“I don’t foresee it being like that every single week, but this game happened to go that way, and it was good enough for us to win with.”

Despite being relatively predictable, Sarkisian had his reasons for sticking with Allen and Kessler had his for continuing to target Agholor.

“Probably stubbornly at times, we ran the ball more than people anticipated. We just had to hang with it,” Sarkisian said. “We knew what type of game it was going to be, especially at halftime with the number of plays and possessions that Stanford had, [it] was going to become a possession game."

Allen finished with 23 carries for a career-high 154 yards, which is particularly impressive when looked at in a historical context. Since David Shaw took over as the Cardinal’s head coach in 2011, only one player has run for more yards in a game, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin (194) in 2012.

After some preseason speculation that this could be a backfield by committee, all signs point to Allen being the Trojans’ feature back, filling the role Bishop Sankey did for Sarkisian at Washington the past two seasons.

“I think for [Allen] is he's starting to get a feel for this system,” Sarkisian said. “It's a little bit different than what he ran a year ago. He's just starting to get going.”

On the 13 passes Kessler targeted Agholor -- nine of which were completions -- he averaged 7.0 yards per attempt. On his other nine pass attempts, Kessler averaged 4.9 yards per attempt. Through two games Agholor has been targeted 21 times and has more receptions (14) than anyone else has targets.

Shaky line play a Stanford rarity

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
These days, it's mea culpa en masse on The Farm.

How the Cardinal were able to so efficiently move the ball, and yet come away with just 10 points in their 13-10 loss to USC on Saturday, isn't exactly a mystery. Just the opposite, in fact. It was a breakdown. And it was glaring.

Anyone who watched came away thinking the same thing ... that just didn't look like Stanford. Stanford doesn't self-destruct. Stanford doesn't take aim at its toes. The Cardinal, so precise and disciplined in what they do, failed to live up to that standard against the Trojans -- specifically in the red zone and along the offensive line, where the Cardinal have four new starters.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Mike Bloomgren
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports"We're an undisciplined group right now and we need to work really hard to change that," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said.
There were missed assignments, mental errors and penalties big and small. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who also coaches the offensive line, said any finger pointing should start with him and then trickle down.

"Anytime you point a finger, there are four pointing back at you," Bloomgren said. "The blame, if anybody wants to blame anybody, they should even the blame out pretty fairly. I heard [head coach David Shaw] after the game, he said the red zone is on him. I think that's untrue. I agree with the boss 99.9 percent of the time. But I disagree with him on this one. I think the blame has to go on every coach and every offensive player that had any part in that game on Saturday."

So it's back to the film room, where Bloomgren will try to bring this group of highly-touted recruits into one unit as an offensive line. It certainly wasn't all bad. The Cardinal tallied 413 total yards and kept USC's up-tempo offense in check by extending drives. Which is exactly what they wanted to do.

But once they got into the red zone, the Cardinal converted on just 1 of 5 opportunities.

"The film showed a very inconsistent group," Bloomgren said. "A group that's unbelievably talented and can take a great defensive front and move them all around the field but was still making too many errors for our offense to be successful and end drives in the end zone. Whether those errors are penalties or missed assignments or snapping the ball over someone's head, those have to be eliminated."

Last year, Stanford offensive linemen were flagged three times for holding -- for the entire season. A 14-game season. They already have two this year in two games, to go with a couple of false starts and one game-changing illegal block that took a touchdown off the board against the Trojans.

"Penalties are such a component of lack of discipline and that's something these guys don't lack in their lives and I never would have thought we would lack on the field," Bloomgren said. "But two games in, we are who we are. And that's who we are. We're an undisciplined group right now and we need to work really hard to change that."

Shaw was quick to praise the good things the young group did -- like solid pass protection that allowed quarterback Kevin Hogan to complete 22 of 30 passes for 285 yards. He was just as quick to point out the inconsistencies.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a really good group. Before we ever started playing games, I know Game 4 and Game 5 they are going to be better than they were in Game 1 and 2. And we're counting on that."

The hope for Bloomgren and Co. is that the linemen can take this game as a learning experience. While a loss in Week 2 certainly doesn't eliminate the Cardinal from competing for a third-straight conference title, it puts them in the position of having to play catch-up.

"For them having to watch this film and know that in a ball game decided by three points, there are 25 snaps where if someone does one thing different, we score a touchdown or move the sticks one more time and in a game that's decided by three points, you realize how critical those one or two mistakes that you made are," Bloomgren said. "And then you compound them with the one or two mistakes the guy next to you made, you see why this offense struggled to score points. We moved the ball fine. We just didn't find a way to score points."

Pac-12 by the numbers: Week 3

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
Here's another look at random stats pertaining to the Pac-12.

Wyoming at No. 2 Oregon
  • QB Marcus Mariota's yards per pass attempt (12.19) ranks No. 4 in the country, and he is one of three quarterbacks nationally with at least six touchdown passes and no interceptions.
  • The Ducks rank second in the country in points (108) and sixth in total offense (582 yards per game) among teams that have played two games.
  • DB Troy Hill is tied for fifth nationally with three pass breakups.
Illinois at Washington
  • RB Lavon Coleman ranks No. 4 in the Pac-12 with 196 yards rushing.
  • Washington is 45-44-2 all-time against Big Ten teams.
  • Washington DT Danny Shelton ranks No. 1 in the nation with six sacks.
Army at No. 15 Stanford
  • Stanford has gone three-and-out just once in 23 drives.
  • In 11 trips to the red zone, Stanford has scored three touchdowns.
  • The Stanford defense has faced 25 opposing drives and has allowed points on three -- with one being a touchdown.
Portland State at Washington State
  • QB Connor Halliday leads the nation in pass attempts (113), completions (78) and passing yards (921).
  • Among teams without a win, WSU has scored the second-most points in the country (52).
  • Only two teams -- SMU and Central Florida -- average less yards per rush than WSU (1.38).
No. 12 UCLA vs. Texas in Arlington
  • UCLA is one of four teams in the country with at least five red-zone drives that has scored a touchdown on each one.
  • The Bruins have nine players on their roster from the state of Texas.
  • Only two teams in the country -- Oregon State (26) and Texas Tech (25) -- have committed more penalties than UCLA (21).
No. 9 USC at Boston College
  • WR Nelson Agholor (14 catches, 148 yards) has been targeted on 21 of USC's 63 pass attempts.
  • USC's 56.3 percent third-down conversion rate ranks No. 10 nationally.
  • RB Buck Allen is No. 10 in the country in carries (45) and rushing yards (287).
No. 16 Arizona State at Colorado
  • Through two games, the Sun Devils have averaged 7.78 yards per play, which ranks No. 5 nationally.
  • ASU QB Taylor Kelly's 90.7 raw QBR ranks No. 5 nationally.
  • ASU RB D.J. Foster has three carries for 40-plus yards. Last year no one at ASU had more than two such carries.
  • Colorado WR Nelson Spruce leads the Pac-12 with 249 receiving yards.
  • In five games in this series, Arizona State holds a 5-0 lead.
Nevada at Arizona
  • Among running backs in the country with two or fewer career games, Nick Wilson ranks No. 3 with 278 rushing yards.
  • The Wildcats rank No. 3 in the country in total offense (620.5 yards per game) among teams that have played two games. They rank No. 1 among teams that have only played FBS schools.
  • Nevada has allowed just one touchdown its opponents' seven trips to the redzone this year.
Past weeks

Week 1

Week 2
The Pac-12 typically has great quarterbacks and good depth at the position, but the 2014 season is particularly stacked behind center. With 10 returning starters, including a handful who are expected to be All-American candidates and early NFL draft picks, it’s almost difficult to keep up with who’s doing what to whom’s secondary.

No worries. We’ve got you covered. Each week, we will provide you a top-five ranking of the Pac-12 QBs.

Now, it won’t always be a 1 to 5 ranking according to the expected pecking order at season’s end or NFL draft lists. It will react heavily to the preceding week. And we’ll try to spread some love. If our ratings seem inconsistent and they frustrate you at times, well, we just feel so horrible about that.

Honorable mention: Sefo Liufau, Colorado, almost made the list for picking up a win for Colorado. He completed 26 of 42 passes for 318 yards and threw three touchdowns and one pick. That alone is really darn impressive. However, his adjusted QBR was 57. Wilson was at 68 and Mannion was at 75. This list isn’t just about the QBR scale but it is taken into consideration. Congrats, Liufau and the Buffs on the win, but you just missed the power rankings this week. Have that kind of a performance against a conference foe and you’ll see your name on this list for sure. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly completed 11 passes for 192 yards and threw two touchdowns in the Sun Devils' win over New Mexico, which is impressive, but not enough to warrant a place on this week's list.

To see last week’s rankings, click here.

Campaign trail: USC Trojans

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Ultimately, the selection committee will decide. Until then, there will be a lot of campaigning. Each week we'll unveil what we think one team's campaign message should be.

USC made a statement in Week 2, taking down Stanford 13-10. But the storyline of the game was the Trojans' beef with the officials -- most notably, coach Steve Sarkisian's decision to call athletic director Pat Haden to the sideline for backup. Haden's confrontation with the refs went viral, but for USC fans, the only thing that matters is the Trojans' playoff path -- one that looks considerably easier now that Stanford is out of the way.

USC posterIllustration by Sam Ho

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
video Oregon made the most noise on the field and the recruiting trail this past weekend, posting a win against a top-10 team in front of a number of potential impact recruits in the 2015 and 2016 classes. Elsewhere in the conference, USC made a statement with a big win and UCLA did the same with a big offer.

Planning for success: Oregon

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
Outside of quarterback Marcus Mariota, the only position group on nearly the entire Oregon roster that came into the season with the fewest question marks was the offensive line. It had five returning starters. It had gained more than 100 pounds as a unit. Last year's shortcomings had lit a fire and they were ready to play for the national title this season.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesAs the Ducks' offensive line continues to be a work in progress, which players will protect QB Marcus Mariota in Week 3?
Then, starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone tore his ACL. So the Ducks moved senior Jake Fisher over to left tackle (he had been at right) and Andre Yruretagoyena, who had taken Johnstone's reps in the spring when he was nursing his previous injury, took over at right tackle.

Then, redshirt freshman Jake Pisarcik beat out Cameron Hunt for the starting right guard position prior to the South Dakota game. Hunt, who had started the final seven games of last season, had become the first true freshman to start on the Ducks' O-line in 16 years and gave fans hope he was a part of a foundation that other players could build upon, not usurp. Against Michigan State, he'd return to the starting line up before more question marks were added.

Early in the third quarter against Michigan State, Yruretagoyena was carted off the field and Oregon put freshman Tyrell Crosby on the right side.

And suddenly, the wall that's supposed to protect Mariota and create a run game for the talented trio of Ducks' backs was seemingly falling down as question marks popped up.

Can the Ducks deal with these kinds of transitions just a few weeks before the start of conference play? Will the young players on the offensive line have a steep enough learning curve that when Oregon plays teams such as Stanford and Arizona -- teams that pushed them around a bit in the trenches in 2013 -- that there won't be any hiccups? Can this O-line, even with the early season shake-ups, be enough to help the Ducks find success in 2014?

Center Hroniss Grasu says yes. And why?

"It's our attitude, it's our mindset we have going in," Grasu said. "It's a mindset of being the best offensive line that we can be and just go out there, if we play together as a unit -- all five guys, one heartbeat -- good things will happen. That's all we think about."

Grasu said it's not even as important as to which five guys it is because the coaches have done a good job of grooming the "next man up" mentality, which is evident in the Crosby and Pisarcik cases. And looking forward to Wyoming, maybe the best question to ask isn't can Oregon's offensive linemen answer the questions, but which Oregon offensive linemen will answer those questions?

The Ducks don't talk about injuries, but even if Yruretagoyena is ready to go for the Wyoming game, it's likely to be a bit of a competition for the starting right guard spot considering Crosby's performance last weekend.

Next to him will likely be Hunt -- though Pisarcik shouldn't be ruled out -- and then the left side remains secure with Grasu at center and Hamani Stevens and Jake Fisher at right guard and right tackle, respectively. But with the amount of shuffling that has happened with this group in the past three weeks, it's hard to say anything is written in permanent marker rather than pencil.

Certainly, no one thought the offensive line would be the group with the greatest question marks at the Week 3 mark. But with the way the running backs, tight ends and wide receivers have played and grown, it's starting to seem that the group that was once considered the most sturdy is the one that has the most to prove.

And that's the one that could have the greatest effect on the Ducks' success.

Pac-12 morning links

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
Oh, look what you've done to this rock'n roll clown.

Leading off

For as well as USC is doing on the field, the Trojans just can't seem to get out of their own way off of it (or at least off the sidelines). And that's not to say the whole Pat Haden thing is being blown waaaaayyyy out of proportion. Because it is. But still, news is news. And news came down that the USC athletic director has been fined $25,000 for his involvement in a brief sideline "discussion" with officials during USC's 13-10 win over Stanford.

Following a public apology Sunday night from Haden, who is also a member of the 13-member playoff selection committee, the Pac-12 issued its reprimand and fine Monday. Which in turn drew statements from USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff.

From Sarkisian:
“I regret putting Pat in the situation I put him in on Saturday. It is my job to manage the game, not Pat’s. For the good of the game, I will be better on this in the future.”

From Hancock:
"Emotional outbursts at games are not a matter for the playoff selection committee to deal with. This does not affect Pat Haden's capability as a committee member. We recognize that athletics directors cannot be dispassionate about their own teams, and that's why we have the recusal policy."

Joey Galloway and Danny Kanell discuss the situation here:

video Playoff chatter

If you haven't seen The Eliminator yet, you should. It's awesome. Our Mark Schlabach takes a look at all 128 FBS teams to see who is still in the hunt for one of those four spots, who is on the fence and who is out. Five Pac-12 teams are still "in contention" -- Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and USC. California, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah and Washington are "on the fence."

USA Today is taking a similar approach with its weekly "Played in/Played out" segment. Lots of good Pac-12 stuff in there this week.

Finally, some thoughts from Jon Wilner in his Week 2 recap. Writes Wilner:
Oregon’s victory over Michigan State had a twofold effect, at once vaulting the Ducks into the heart of the playoff picture while undermining the Big Ten’s quest for a spot in the four-team event -- which could, potentially, open the window for a second team from the Pac-12.
News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Utah players are really, really fired up about their white helmets.

Hey Cal? Are you going to play spoiler on Nov. 29?

Step up, ladies. The line starts at the right.

An illustrated look at Week 2 in the Pac-12

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
Each Sunday during the season, will highlight four storylines that had an impact on the College Football Playoff race. Week 2 victories from Oregon and USC were selected this week.

Oregon vs. Michigan StateChris Morris for ESPNOregon raced past Michigan State in the second half in a 46-27 win.
USC-StanfordChris Morris for ESPNUSC needed a late field goal to see itself past Stanford.
Oregon got a much-needed win against Michigan State on Saturday. But even more, it grew up in a way that wouldn’t have happened against a subpar team.

In so many regards -- which will be of importance to the College Football Playoff committee -- a W is a W. And so, the Week 1 win against South Dakota and the Week 2 win against Michigan State are both wins, both positive things for the Ducks’ playoff resume.

But what Oregon took away from MSU is something so different than what it took away from South Dakota. The Spartans were able to put pressure in different ways on a young squad in Week 2 of a crucial season for the Ducks. They sent Oregon into the locker room at halftime with a deficit, with all the momentum turning green and white.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesRoyce Freeman and several other young Ducks showed their mettle against Michigan State.
Many young teams -- even at home -- could have shrunk under that pressure. And yes, even with a Heisman-leading quarterback in Marcus Mariota, the game could have turned out differently considering the youth at wide receiver and the reliance on freshman at running back, right tackle and on defense.

"The biggest thing I think we can take away from this is that our team really grew up in the second half," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "We’ve got a lot of young players and a lot of them haven’t been in a game like that before. I think it really showed their character that they were able to respond the way they did."

"We thought we had a pretty mature group of young players," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich added. "I think that was very evident in the second half."

Helfrich said that at halftime he noticed the young players were composed, which could have been tough given the moment, the stage, the opponent.

"There was no panic," Helfrich said. "There was no element of fear."

That kind of attitude would be expected out of Mariota or cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or center Hroniss Grasu, any of the guys who have been apart of these games before.

But the fact that it was coming from players like wide receivers Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, running back Royce Freeman and defensive back Tyree Robinson, who were playing in just their second collegiate football game ever, says way more than a 40-point blowout win over an FCS school.

This experience is going to pay dividends going forward. Allen, Freeman and Robinson are going to be huge contributors for the Ducks this season and thanks to Michigan State, they really aren’t freshmen anymore. They are top targets in the run and pass game who proved themselves worthy of Mariota’s attention in tight situations. They are top tacklers on the team. They are guys who went from untested youth to valuable experience in about 30 minutes.

And that could be the difference between later W’s and L’s this season.

The Ducks have talent and experience, high power and big names. Now, they just need consistency, and a lot of it is going to come from guys whose age wouldn’t necessarily dictate that kind of play.

But age is just a number, and the Ducks don’t care about numbers, just W’s.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, USC defensive end Leonard Williams and USC kicker Andre Heidari are this week's Pac-12 Players of the Week.

Mariota completed 17 of 28 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns in the Ducks' impressive 46-27 win against then-No. 7 Michigan State Spartans. The Hawaii native also ran for 42 yards on nine carries.

Williams was limited by a sprained ankle, but still finished with a game-high 11 tackles in USC's 13-10 win against Stanford that vaulted the Trojans to No. 9 in this week's AP poll. After Williams looked shaky testing the ankle in warmups, it wasn't clear how much of a factor he would be. However, as the game progressed those concerns died down.

"He obviously wasn't 100 percent," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "In the end, Leonard at 70, 80, 85 percent is better than a lot of people. And his presence just helps us.”

Heidari hit a pair of field goal for the Trojans, including a career-long 53-yard attempt -- tied for third-longest in USC history -- with 2:30 left that was the eventual game winner. The senior also kicked a field goal to beat Stanford last year.

Full list of nominees:

Offense: Nick Wilson, QB, Arizona; D.J. Foster, RB, ASU; Jared Goff, QB, Cal; Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado; Terron Ward, RB, Oregon State; Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA; Javorius Allen, RB, USC; Travis Wilson, QB, Utah.

Defense: Jared Tevis, S, Arizona; Laiu Moeakiola, LB, Arizona State; Joe Walker, LB, Oregon; Michael Doctor, LB, Oregon State; Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA; Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah, Danny Shelton, NT, Washington

Special Teams: Casey Skowron, PK, Arizona; Bryce McGovern, ST, Cal; Will Oliver, PK, Colorado, Ishmael Adams, DB, UCLA; Tom Hackett, P, Utah

Big Ten plummets in conference rankings

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
The Big Ten’s struggles in Week 2 have been well documented. The conference lost all four of its games against opponents ranked in the top 50 of the Football Power Index, and its top win according to FPI came when Minnesota defeated No. 73 Middle Tennessee at home.

The next tier of Big Ten teams struggled too, as Nebraska, Iowa, Maryland, and Illinois all were tested into the fourth quarter against teams they were favored to beat.

The Big Ten is now 11-7 against non-conference FBS opponents, by far the lowest win percentage (61 percent) of any Power Five conference. Against other Power Five teams and Notre Dame, the Big Ten is 1-5 with an average point margin of -12 points per game.

The Big Ten’s difficulties begin at the top of the conference. The highest ranked Big Ten team in the Football Power Index is No. 22 Michigan, who lost 31-0 at Notre Dame on Saturday. Every other Power Five conference has at least two teams in the top 20 of the FPI, and the SEC has nine teams.

In the AP Poll, the other component of the conference power rankings, three of the four Big Ten teams ranked in the poll last week fell at least six spots.

As a result of the Big Ten’s dreadful weekend, the conference fell 17.3 points in the conference power rankings, the largest single-week plunge of any conference in the last three years.

On the flip side, the ACC rose by 7.2 points and jumped over the Big Ten for fourth place. The ACC went 11-0 in non-conference games in Week 2, bringing its non-conference win percentage to 87 percent in the first two weeks. Only the SEC (95 percent) has a higher non-conference win percentage.

The Pac-12 barely budged in the conference rankings, but Oregon's win against Michigan State may end up being the biggest win for a conference in terms of national perception this season. The Ducks showed that they could play a physical style of football against one of the toughest defenses in the nation.

Next week is a big one for the Big 12 as the conference has seven non-conference games against Power Five opponents. Oklahoma hosts Tennessee (8 ET, ABC), Iowa State travels to Iowa (3:30 ET, ESPN) and Texas Tech faces off with Arkansas (3:30 ET, ABC) in games that could help solidify the conference as the third-best in the nation.

The conference power rankings are a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP Poll and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the country. For more information on the rankings and FPI, click here and here.



Saturday, 9/20