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September 17, 2008

Pac-10 Report: Little Plus, Lotta Minus

Pac-10 Report: A Little Plus and a Whole Lotta Minus

After the worst conference weekend in recent memory - and that's with USC beating a top-5 team by more than four touchdowns - the first of a monthly look at the conference's ups and downs.

"Ouch!"

Outside of the area surrounding downtown Los Angeles and certain parts of Oregon, that one word could sum up the third full weekend of the 2008 college football season around the Pac-10 Conference.

From UCLA's historic 59-0 drubbing at the hands of a BYU team that needed the helping hand of Pac-10 officials to escape Washington with a one-point win a week before … to heavily favored Arizona State's embarrassing overtime loss in Tempe to UNLV … and from Albuquerque to College Park, Md., Sept. 13, 2008, will go down as a day that will live in conference infamy.

No day in recent memory has better illustrated the recent gap between USC and the rest of the Pac-10. The top-ranked Trojans humiliated No. 5 Ohio State, 35-3, at the Coliseum - while seven of their conference brethren took it on the chin, mostly against sub-par competition. Four Pac-10 squads lost games to Mountain West Conference opponents and, of the seven losers, only Washington's hammering at the hands of now-No. 2 Oklahoma is even remotely explicable.

However, the fallout has provided the perfect timing to debut a new monthly column I've decided to write under the working title of "Pac-10 Plus-Minus." It's an opportunity for a brief look at each conference school - who's up, who's down and who's hanging on for dear life.

So, with no further ado, let's get it started.

Arizona
Plus: The Wildcats got off to a great two-game start, pummeling Idaho and Toledo by a combined count of 111-16. Willie Tuitama leads the conference with eight TD passes, RB Nic Grigsby leads the Pac-10 with six TD runs and WR Mike Thomas leads the conference with 26 total receptions. Even the defense, expected to be the trouble spot this season, has performed well, allowing just four touchdowns and an average of 230 yards through three games. With the upcoming schedule featuring games at UCLA and Stanford sandwiched around a home tilt with Washington, the ingredients are there for the Wildcats to get back on track after last Saturday's stunner at New Mexico.

Minus: Questions about Mike Stoops' job security are on the rise again after Arizona laid a five-turnover egg in Albuquerque last Saturday, losing 36-28. UNM had been 0-2, losing to TCU and a down Texas A&M squad, before upsetting the Wildcats. While Tuitama put up big numbers, he remained turnover prone, tossing three interceptions. If the Cats want Stoops around in 2009, they better take advantage of that upcoming three-game stretch.

Arizona State
Plus: The Sun Devils have the conference's top passing attack after three weeks, averaging nearly 325 yards per game. They've also done a better job of protecting QB Rudy Carpenter thus far, allowing just five sacks through three games after watching him get beat on repeatedly in 2007.

Minus: UNLV? I know No. 3 Georgia visits this weekend, and the Devils were likely looking ahead. But … UNLV? At home? The Rebels connected on a freakish fourth-down play to tie the game with 18 seconds left and then blocked a Sun Devil FG attempt in the first OT to win it. But what were they doing within a touchdown in the final minute to begin with? Talk about taking the luster off of what was supposed to be a big test for the conference. Still, the Devils have the firepower to hang in with the Bulldogs if they can continue to protect Carpenter. On the other hand, ASU is staring a 2-4 start square in the face with road trips to Cal and USC following the Georgia game.

California
Plus: After three games, the Bears are allowing just 93 yards rushing per game - impressive considering they faced Michigan State sensation Javon Ringer in the opener. Jahvid Best has garnered more than 200 all-purpose yards in all three games, including a 200-yard rushing effort at Washington State. Cal is home for four of its next five.

Minus: Cal is very lucky that UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State all suffered more embarrassing defeats, because that stinker they laid against a Maryland team that had barely survived Delaware and lost to Middle Tennessee was something else. The Bears' offensive line couldn't keep QB Kevin Riley off his back, and though he threw for 423 yards, much of that came after Cal trailed 28-6 and 35-13 in the fourth quarter. That's right - 35 points allowed to a team that scored a combined 28 in its first two games.

Oregon
Plus: The Ducks moved to 3-0 by gutting out a 32-26 double overtime win at Purdue. Oregon was far from its peak performance, but was still able to rally from a 20-6 third-quarter deficit in a hostile environment. Kicker Matt Evensen nailed four field goals in heavy winds, while JC transfer running back LeGarrette Blount notched 132 yards on the ground for the second consecutive game. That's helped the Ducks rank fourth nationally in rushing with more than 323 yards per game. They are also averaging 47.3 points per game.


Minus: Oregon lost its second quarterback this season to a knee injury, when Justin Roper went down in overtime at Purdue. Roper is expected back in 2-4 weeks (projected starter Nate Costa was lost during fall camp), but will definitely miss this week's home game against Boise State and could also miss the Oct. 4 battle at USC. Sophomore JC transfer Jeremiah Masoli and true freshmen Chris Harper and Darron Thomas are competing for the nod as latest starter.

Oregon State
Plus: The Beavers had a get-well game on Saturday, becoming the final Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division I-A) team to play a home game - and getting woeful-on-the-mainland Hawaii in the process. The resulting 45-7 win was predictable. QB Lyle Moevao has seized the starting job, averaging more than 300 yards passing per game. True freshman running back Jacquizz Rodgers became the first Beaver true freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in a game since Steven Jackson in 2001.

Minus:Oregon State blew its season opener at Stanford, making a number of mistakes and turnovers in a 36-28 loss. The Beavers also couldn't stop what had been an anemic Cardinal rushing attack a season ago. Then, OSU continued their run of embarrassing non-conference road losses in a 45-14 demolition at the hands of Penn State. With a home contest against USC next, followed by a trip to Utah, Oregon State appears headed for a 1-4 start. Mike Riley appears to have his hands full if he is to oversee the Beavers' annual second-half turnaround.

Stanford
Plus: The Cardinal's season opening win against Oregon State seemed to signal a new beginning. RB Toby Gerhart had a big night, and has continued since, averaging nearly 90 yards rushing per game and accounting for four of Stanford's eight touchdowns in 2008. The Cardinal have also been solid on punt returns, averaging more than 17 yards per, and CB Kris Evans has two picks and is the conference's sixth-leading tackler through three games. Upcoming games against San Jose State and Washington could allow the Cardinal to enter October above .500.

Minus: Stanford's two-game road trip after that home opener showed just how far Jim Harbaugh's club still has to go to rebuild. Losing by 24 at Arizona State and 17 at TCU, the Cardinal now rank eighth in total defense, ninth in pass defense and seventh in scoring defense. Stanford is also dead last in the conference in pass offense. Harbaugh's team is progressing, but it's still clearly a part of the bottom half of the Pac-10.

UCLA
Plus: Though it may be hard to remember after this past weekend, the Bruins' season-opening 27-24 overtime upset of then-No. 18 Tennessee got the Rick Neuheisel era off to an exciting start. Bruin fans had to be excited about the new coaching triumvirate's efforts in the opener, as DeWayne Walker and Norm Chow both put together stellar second-half efforts, while Neuheisel was an inspiring presence on the sideline. A three-game homestand against Arizona, Fresno State and Washington State presents the opportunity for UCLA to make a little headway before heading into the real meat of its schedule.

Minus: However, reality hit like a ton of bricks last Saturday, in the form of BYU's historic 59-0 shellacking of UCLA in Provo, Utah. The Bruins were outmanned, outcoached, out-everythinged. UCLA's reliance on a number of freshmen in their two-deep, continuing injury problems that seem to only get worse by the week and a rushing attack averaging just 0.8 yards per carry and 19 yards per game do not bode well. The Bruins coaching staff will earn its pay and then some if they can milk a bowl bid from this group.

USC
Plus: Two games against BCS-conference foes, including a 2,500-mile trip east and a home opener against a top-5 opponent, resulted in a combined total score of USC 87, Virginia/Ohio State 10. The Trojans are a near-consensus No. 1, quarterback Mark Sanchez has gone from a question mark as a new starter coming off a training camp knee injury to Heisman frontrunner, and the USC defense is being mentioned as among the best of all time. Many have the Trojans penciled into the BCS title game in Miami already. The question: Is this Carroll's best Trojan team?

Minus: The answer: There are still 10 games left where any number of things can go wrong - injuries and the lack of focus that cost USC in three big-time upsets the past two years being the biggest possible issues. A road trip to Corvallis, where a 6-0 USC team was upset on its last visit in 2006 is next. Oregon, which toppled a Sanchez-led Trojan team in 2007, comes to the Coliseum after that. If USC is being discussed in the same terms a month from now, then look out.

Washington
Plus: Umm … let's see here. Looking for something. Oh, ok - the Huskies' opponents so far are a combined 9-0 and are ranked No. 2, No. 14 and No. 17 in this week's AP poll. The next three opponents are a combined 4-5 and nowhere near ranked, so UW could snag its first win or two of the season between now and Oct. 18. Another bright spot: Washington State appears to be in even more dire straits than Washington.

Minus: After a drubbing by the Ducks in Eugene, the Huskies put out a great effort against BYU in Seattle on Sept. 6. I'm not sure if that heartbreaking 28-27 loss hurt Jake Locker or Ty Willingham more. The Huskies were absolutely decimated by Oklahoma last weekend, never really in the game for a second. It's looking more and more like the Willingham Era in Seattle has less than three months left.

Washington State
Plus: The Cougars are second in pass defense in the conference. Wideout Brandon Gibson is having another solid year, and their kickoff return duo of Chris Ivory and Chantz Staden has been a bit of a revelation. Portland State visits this weekend.

Minus: The Paul Wulff Era is off to a brutal start, as the average score in the first three games is 50-11 in favor of the opposition. Anytime you can lose to Baylor by four touchdowns, you know things are a mess. The reason WSU has done "well" against the pass is because teams are running wild on them - to the tune of 330 yards per game. The Cougars rank ninth or tenth in the conference in every offensive category, as well as in scoring, total and rush defense.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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