Week 4 Pac-12 notebook

BY foxsports • September 19, 2012

There has already been one major upset so far this season in Pac-12 play with Stanford knocking off USC, who until last Saturday was a BCS Championship favorite. With a nearly full slate of Pac-12 play this week, a lot will be revealed. Here are a few of the storylines heading into Pac-12 Conference play.
Are these teams for real?
UCLA has managed to do what many had never even considered three weeks ago: upstage the cross-town rival that began the season as the No. 1 team in the nation. A team that featured a brand new head coach with no previous head coaching experience at the college level and a quarterback who had never taken a Division I snap has now found itself ranked 19th and in the So Cal spotlight. That same quarterback scored on that very first D-I snap and that same coach has led the team to a perfect 3-0 record, which includes one big win over then-No. 16 Nebraska.
On a week when quarterback Brett Hundley and senior running back Johnathan Franklin looked only human, the Bruins defense locked down Houston, nearly shutting the Cougars out, putting together another piece of the puzzle for UCLA.
The Bruins are playing an exciting brand of football and could finally meet their match in Oregon State this week.
The Beavers (1-0) are arguably the biggest question mark in the conference. After a hurricane wiped out their first game, they knocked off a Wisconsin team that was ranked No. 13 and then got another break with a bye week. It’s difficult to tell whether or not this team is an aberration or a contender, but the one game is an interesting case study.
Wisconsin’s Montee Ball was held to just 61 yards and no touchdowns. The Badgers netted only 207 total yards while Oregon State sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion threw for 69 more yards alone. Mannion connected with eight different receivers but did only manage one touchdown.
Oregon State’s offense is primarily run-first, which wasn’t exactly the case last season when the Beavers finished dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. But for a team that runs, they have yet to do much of it in their one game. It’s the defense that took center stage running the more complex schemes that has UCLA head coach Jim Mora both excited and nervous about Saturday’s game between No. 19 UCLA and Oregon State.
“Oregon State is a football team that offensively, defensively and special teams they are very, very sound,” Mora said. “It will be one heck of a game Saturday at the Rose Bowl. It will be a gut-grinder.
“It will be the kind of game that you want to be involved with.”
No. 22 Arizona (3-0) is another team that faces questions around its fast start. Head coach Rich Rodriguez is leading the revival project with his spread option offense built on speed and it showed in a week two win over then-No. 16 Oklahoma State.
Matt Scott is just as much of a threat in the air as he is on the ground and also provides senior leadership. Scott has already amassed 1,185 total yards this season, is efficient on the pass and Arizona also has tools like running back Ka’Deem Carey (344 yards, five touchdowns) at its disposal on the ground.
But this weekend, the Wildcats will clash with an Oregon team that also runs a similar spread attack. So similar, in fact, that it has long been thought that Rodriguez influenced Oregon head coach and spread guru Chip Kelly while he was a young coach at New Hampshire.
"I don't think it would be way off (to say they are similar),” Rodriguez said. “We are probably closer, philosophically, to Oregon than most teams out there that run a shotgun spread type of system."
Ahead of the Pac
No. 3 Oregon (3-0) appears poised to lead the Pac-12 again this season after a 3-0 start. Although the Ducks have played a considerably light schedule, the running back nicknamed, “The Fastest Man in College Football”, has led Kelly’s vaunted spread offense.
De'Anthony Thomas averages more than a first down per carry and has totaled four touchdowns. His pure speed has allowed him to out-run his defenders by a mile and his toughness has helped him plow through opposing defenses. The Ducks posses one of the best running games in the conference and with two viable quarterback options in Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett, the Ducks are once again the favorites for a Rose Bowl or possibly even a BCS National Championship appearance.
But No. 13 USC (2-1) is hungrier than anyone after serving a two-year bowl ban. The team was loaded this season with a veteran defense and a trio of Heisman Trophy candidates in receivers Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and quarterback Matt Barkley. Running back Silas Redd made an already-loaded offense even more stacked after transferring from Penn State. But its more than likely that USC’s title hopes came crashing down after last weekend’s loss to Stanford, the one team that continues to foil the Trojans. The loss makes USC's Nov. 3 game against Oregon even more important and anticipated than before.
Many left the Cardinal (3-0) for dead after Jim Harbaugh departed before last season and downgraded Stanford even more so after the departure of Andrew Luck. But a powerful, jam-it-down-your-throat game has helped Stanford to a 2-0 start. Physicality at the line of scrimmage has helped fuel the running game and possibly the Cardinal title hopes as well. Head coach David Shaw has made a seamless transition and it seems as though quarterback Justin Nunes is doing the same.
Identity crisis
Arizona State’s comeback against Missouri showed the potential of this young team. But the team is too raw right now to really gauge what level it’s playing at right now and the Sun Devils (2-1) are clearly missing the presence of quarterback Brock Osweiler in the pocket. A two-quarterback system led them to two season-opening wins over Northern Arizona and Illinois but the system was less effective against the Tigers. However, head coach Todd Graham insists that this system is the route the Sun Devils will continue to go, using Taylor Kelly as the primary quarterback and bringing in Michael Eubank for specific packages.
“I think it’s unusual that we have as much talent at that position as we have,” Graham said. “With experience, (Kelly) is going to be a great quarterback, as well as Mike Eubank.”
In a big matchup between Cal (1-2) and then-No. 12 Ohio State last week, Brendan Bigelow threw himself a coming out party scoring on runs of 81 and 59 yards and rushing for 160 yards. Bigelow had rushed only six times in his career prior to Saturday’s 35-28 loss and wasn’t even a featured back in that game only touching the ball four times. His 81-yard touchdown run was one of last Saturday’s highlights.
Bigelow’s emergence brings up questions about the Golden Bears. Why hasn’t he been more involved? Will they put the ball in his hands or will they be a pass-first team and let Zach Maynard air it out? Cal played solidly against a tough Ohio State team but a sloppy win over Southern Utah and a season-opening loss to Nevada leaves much to be desired.
Washington (2-1) pulled out all of the stops in preparing for then-No. 3 LSU, even bringing in a live Tiger to practice. But the Tigers were clearly far superior to the Huskies in a 41-3 loss, and Washington is still looking to sort out some issues going into conference play. Junior quarterback Keith Price has been inconsistent and the running game hasn’t been there. Freshman safety Shaq Thompson, billed as one of the best in the nation, has lived up to his billing and should be a big boost for Washington on defense.
From the ground up
These three programs are all facing unique rebuilding issues: Colorado (0-3), Washington State (2-1) and Utah (2-1).
Now in his second season at Colorado, head coach Jon Embree has found a quarterback in Jordan Webb. But Webb transferred from Kansas after two seasons in which he was simply the quarterback by default and his performance in a new system thus far hasn’t been successful. The Buffs have suffered three bad losses to three very bad opponents, capping off non-conference play with a 69-14 loss to a rebuilding Fresno State squad. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and it appears that Embree has the full support of the CU administration in what is now looking to be a massive rebuilding project.
Utah suffered a big blow early this season when quarterback Jordan Wynn announced that he would be retiring due to a shoulder injury. The oft-injured Wynn was replaced by a senior that was never even recruited by a Division I school, beginning at a junior college before playing for Division II Nebraska-Omaha. After the elimination of football at UNO, Hays landed at Utah. He should benefit from a unit that plays strong on the other side of the ball, as the Utes still have one of the toughest defenses in the conference.
Washington State is off to a good start under new head coach Mike Leach, but the Cougars have yet to play a formidable opponent and won’t until next week when they face No. 3 Oregon in Seattle. So far, Leach has gotten more attention for his stance on disclosing injuries than the team’s performance. Leach also declines to discuss prospective starters so it is unknown whether Jeff Tuel of Connor Halliday will be at the helm of the Cougars’ offense this season.