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November 21, 2008

Pac-10 Plus/Minus Report


Pac-10 Plus/Minus Report: Rivalry Weekend? Another BCS Casualty

The third Saturday in November used to be special in the Pac-10, but the money train that brought you conference championship games and the BCS has turned it into just another weekend on the schedule.

The litany of abuses foisted upon the college football landscape by the moneyed classes that control the Bowl Championship Series is long. The TV networks, college presidents and conference commissioners all account for their share of the blame for creating the one major team sport in the world with an overall championship not officially settled on the field. The creation of the BCS, heavily dependent on the leaders of the Southeastern Conference a decade ago, is now rivaled in ridiculousness only by its continued protection by - of all people - the Pac-10 and Big Ten conferences and the Tournament of Roses committee. That's right; three groups that were the final holdouts against the BCS during the now all-to-short 1990s era of the "Bowl Alliance" can now be counted among the key leaders protecting the status quo.

Of course, as part and parcel of this system, those fans outside of the Big XII, SEC and ACC have had to stomach the out-and-out sham of "conference championship games." Anyone who believes that these events created by the dawning of the "mega-conferences" is anything more than a giant money grab by those conferences and universities involved in creating them is either intellectually dishonest or a flat-out moron.

The result of these added "championship" games has been the extension of the regular season into the first week of December. That extension has allowed university presidents to continue to peddle the lies that "there are already too many games" and "our student athletes are at risk if forced to play during final exams" - all while the NCAA's biggest cash cow, its Men's Basketball Tournament (a.k.a. March Madness), takes place right in the middle of mid-term season at colleges on the semester system and during finals for colleges on the quarter system. I guess those student basketballers aren't quite as "at risk" as their football-playing counterparts.

But another issue has also arisen as a side effect of these games. Conferences that still decide their champion during "sport's most electrifying regular season" (apparently it's not electrifying enough if Dr. Pepper wants to sponsor an extra game at a neutral site), have been left with a tough choice: What do we do with the third Saturday in November? For decades upon decades, almost every major regional, conference, in-state (or in-city, for those of us in L.A.) rivalry was played on that third Saturday in November.

This was especially true in both the Pac-10 and the Big Ten. Generations of kids in the Midwest and on the West Coast remember the thrill of waking up in the morning to watch Ohio State face Michigan in a wintry, smashmouth match-up, before the scene suddenly shifted to sunny Southern California, where vivid colors of USC and UCLA filled the screen on a warm late-fall afternoon.

But now? Well, these two conferences show you the options this Saturday. The Big Ten has chosen to maintain its Rivalry Weekend through this new era. This Saturday, you'll see Ohio State vs. Michigan, Purdue vs. Indiana, Northwestern vs. Illinois … all the rivals face off. But, ask any Big Ten fan what they payoff has been down the line in bowl season, and they'll surely wax poetic about the problems Big Ten teams have had in recent years dealing with a longer layoff from competitive football than most of their bowl opponents.

In the Pac-10, it's gone the other way. Rivalry weekend is no more. While the Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State and the Big Game between California and Stanford will take place this weekend, there is only one other game on the conference slate - a very traditional showdown between Oregon State and Arizona. Consider this, as well - while any team's biggest rivalry game used to always be the final game of at least the conference slate, Cal and Washington will play each other on Dec. 6, while Washington State goes to Hawaii next week.

The other four conference teams are off this weekend. The Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State is next weekend, while USC-UCLA and the Arizona-Arizona State game will wait until "Championship Saturday" (ugh, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth from using that term) on Dec. 6. In fact, this is the fifth straight year that the USC-UCLA game has been moved to December for TV purposes after being played in November for decades.

What a great system we've got in college football! If this is really what they mean by creating an electrifying regular season, consider me shocked to death.

Meanwhile, what's up - and down - as the Pac-10 heads into the final weeks of the 2008 campaign? Let's take a look in this monthly installment of "Pac-10 Plus-Minus."

Arizona
Plus: The Wildcats are going bowling for the first time in a decade, and with two home wins against Oregon State and Arizona State will post a solid 8-4 mark. Arizona is second in the conference in scoring offense (39.7), after last week's crazy 55-45 defeat at Oregon. Mike Thomas has had four 100-yard receiving games in 2008 and has caught a pass in 34 straight games, tied with Washington State's Brandon Gibson for the longest current streak in the conference. Tight end Rob Gronkowski continued his monster season last weekend with 12 catches for 143 yards.

Minus: The heretofore solid Wildcat pass defense was torched for 298 yards by heretofore struggling passer Jeremiah Masoli of Oregon. The Ducks' passing attack had become nearly non-existent before last weekend, and it's unconscionable for Arizona (which still ranks third in the conference in pass D and second in pass efficiency D after the disgrace) to have allowed a breakout game. Coach Mike Stoops must have his defense doing a lot of soul searching this week, as Oregon State's conference-leading pass offense will present a difficult challenge this Saturday.

Arizona State
Plus: Is there no ill the Washington schools cannot cure for other Pac-10 teams? The Sun Devils, fresh off a horrific six-game losing skid, hammered the Huskies and Cougars the past two weekends to a combined tune of 70-19. The 31-0 shutout of WSU last weekend brought back a great Sun Devil memory, as ASU's last shut-out was the historic 19-0 win over two-time defending national champion and then-No. 1 Nebraska in 1996. More good news? The Devils get a week off before hosting fellow disappointment UCLA in a game that will leave one team still standing in a quest for a bowl bid. (Is there a better argument against the proliferation of bogus bowl games than 4-6 UCLA at 4-6 Arizona State on Thanksgiving Weekend being "important"?)

Minus: Rudy Carpenter's Sun Devil career is just about over. This kid is one tough son-of-a-gun, having started 41 consecutive games at quarterback despite taking a pounding on a weekly basis because of ASU's consistently inconsistent O-line and running game. Watch him play and you'll note that he can talk as good a game as he can play, yet the respect level he gets for his toughness from defenders around the conference is immense. His three TD passes a week ago moved him into third on the all-time Pac-10 list with 80. Trust me, the end of Carpenter's career in Tempe will definitely be a huge minus for the Sun Devils and their fans.

California
Plus: Cal gets a pair of very winnable home games to close out the 2008 season, against Stanford and Washington as they try to avoid a season-ending funk similar to the one that ruined their 2007 campaign. If Cal can finish 8-4 and win a bowl game, the Bears would have to consider this transitional season a reasonable success. RB Jahvid Best has had a solid, if injury-riddled, season. His 65-yard TD run at Oregon State was a thing of beauty. The Bear defense notched its conference-leading 18th interception last weekend.

Minus: Why reference the 2007 slide? Because Cal has lost two straight after rising to 6-2 earlier in the month. Road losses at USC and Oregon State have pointed out some glaring weaknesses in the Bear attack, and quarterbacks Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore have really been knocked around. With Stanford's sack-happy defense coming to Strawberry Canyon, Jeff Tedford's offense needs to make some adjustments if the Bears are to wrest the Axe from the Cardinal.

Oregon
Plus: The Ducks have quietly amassed an 8-3 record in a season that many thought would be a major struggle. While Oregon started the season with serious injury problems at quarterback, Masoli has become a leader. His running ability has helped Oregon lead the conference and rank fifth nationally in rushing offense. And, with his breakout passing game a week ago against Arizona, the Ducks now appear to be much more of a threat to the Beavers next weekend, especially if their third-in-the-Pac rush defense can somehow slow Jacquizz Rodgers.

Minus: What did I say about being a threat in the Civil War? Well, not if the Ducks' worst-in-the-conference pass defense has anything to do with it. After Oregon built a 48-14 lead against Arizona, that pass defense allowed the Wildcats to close within 48-45 early in the fourth quarter. Unless they suddenly shore up their deficiencies - and perhaps control the clock a bit with their rushing offense - the Beaver pass attack could chew up a ton of yards and points.

Oregon State
Plus: Oregon State in the Rose Bowl? Yes, the Beavers are just two wins away from their first appearance since New Year's Day 1965. And Oregon State looks to be picking up closing momentum after thumping Cal, 34-21, last weekend. Jacquizz Rodgers is having an unbelievable campaign, and with 1,233 yards is a near-lock to become the first freshman to lead the conference in rushing. Add to that a gelling defense that has risen to a clear-cut No. 2 behind USC in the conference rankings, after holding Cal to one yard in what started as a tight fourth quarter, and the Beavers really are beginning to catch a whiff of those roses.

Minus: Oregon State still has to face two of the conference's most potent offenses in Arizona and Oregon. The road tilt in Tucson Saturday is the one most prognosticators are pointing at as the speed bump in the Beavers road to Pasadena, mainly because the Wildcats have a recent history of November upsets in the desert. Still, don't discount an Oregon team looking for revenge for the Beavers' 2007 win in Eugene. Both teams have enough playmakers to cause trouble for the Oregon State defense and should the Beavers start to feel the pressure of trying to close out a conference crown, either of these teams is fully capable of pouncing on them.

Stanford
Plus: In Saturday's season finale, the Cardinal are playing for a bowl bid just two years after posting an embarrassing 1-10 mark. And, no matter the outcome of the Big Game against Cal, that is big progress. The Cardinal offense took a major step in confidence during Stanford's 45-23 loss to USC last Saturday, rolling up 367 yards, easily the most the Trojans have allowed in 2008. RB Toby Gerhart became Stanford's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tommy Vardell in 1991, and could break his school single-season record with 52 yards vs. Cal.

Minus: Stanford has had two golden opportunities already to secure that bowl bid, yet has come up frustratingly short. Two weeks ago, the Cardinal took a 28-27 lead into the final seconds at Oregon before the Ducks pulled out a win. Then, last Saturday, Stanford stormed to a 17-10 second-quarter lead over USC before the first sellout crowd in the short history of the reconfigured Stanford Stadium. But, 35 consecutive USC points later, the Cardinal were left with one shot - at rival Cal - to earn a chance to play some holiday football. A loss to Cal would equal big frustration and a sense of unfinished business that will last an entire off-season in Palo Alto.

UCLA
Plus: Here's to those Washington schools! The Bruins defeated the Huskies, 27-7, a week ago in Rick Neuheisel's return to Seattle, keeping their scant bowl hopes alive. UCLA's Pac-10 No. 2 pass defense held the Huskies to just 39 yards in the air in an ugly affair, as UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft had another rough outing, tossing three more interceptions. But, no matter! Kahlil Bell had a season-high 97 yards on the ground at UW. And, let's not forget Aaron Perez! As the punter for Neuheisel (who famously averred earlier this season that "punting is winning"), Perez has punted an incredible 62 times. Amazingly, with all that practice, he leads the conference with a 44.5-yard average.

Minus: I'm not sure which is more painful - watching Craft helplessly overthrow another receiver and hitting a wide open defensive back, or watching Neuheisel berate him like a third-grader on the sidelines. While Craft's decision-making and throwing ability are fair game for questions, it's not like a constantly makeshift offensive line and the conference's worst rushing attack have helped him. The Bruins face a road game at Arizona State before hosting USC on Dec. 6. If the Bruins finish better than 4-8, it will be a surprise.

USC
Plus: Even after a shaky first half on the Farm last weekend, the Trojans remain tops in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 8.3 points per game, and second in total defense, giving up just more than 222 yards per game. With remaining games against offensively challenged Notre Dame and UCLA, the Trojan defense has an opportunity to finish with some historic numbers. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian finally located his inner jones for pounding the football on the ground last weekend, as USC rolled up 243 rushing yards (at better than eight yards per carry) in the second half at Stanford. C.J. Gable's kickoff return for a touchdown and Ronald Johnson's two long returns have placed the Trojans at the top of the national charts in kickoff returns.

Minus: Note: the following is a virtual re-run of last month's column. The Oregon State loss on Sept. 25 continues to haunt the Trojans' BCS title dreams. Penalties continue to hurt USC. The Trojan offense is still going through fits and starts at times, as Sanchez gains maturity in his first full season as a starter and offensive coordinator Sarkisian still struggles with getting a feel for the game now and again.

Washington
Plus: The 0-10 Huskies are a 7.5-point favorite on the road. How is this possible? You and I know there's just one answer: the Washington State Cougars. Welcome to the Bizarro BCS Championship, where two teams battling for the very bottom of every meaningful statistical ranking in major college football face off in a heated rivalry game.

Minus: How is a 0-10 team in a lose-lose situation? Well, because Washington State is historically bad - allowing more points than any Pac-10 team in history. Yet, the Cougars are the team with a "1" in the win column, thanks to that SEC-style scheduling of I-AA Portland State. If the Huskies win, well, they should because the Cougars have looked like a below-average high school team for much of the season. If they lose, it basically means eternal shame.

Washington State
Plus: If Paul Wulff needed extra motivation for his team in the Apple Cup, what better than being a home underdog to your winless in-state rivals? What if the Cougars can't pull the upset? Well, there's always that season-ending trip to Hawaii for Thanksgiving to make everybody feel better. Here's a tip, Paul - let the kids sit on the beach for a couple days and enjoy themselves. They can't play any worse than when they practice all week.

Minus: Recruiting season is coming. And even when the Cougars were good, that's never gone all that well. Does anyone envy Wulff's task of trying to coax athletes to the middle of nowhere to play for a team that's just put in one of the worst seasons in major college football history? Good luck!

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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