October 16, 2006

Swami's post-USC mid-season Pac-10 report

Alright, Sun Devil fans, it's time to take a breath and see where we are.

Let me start out by stating the conclusions prior to giving you the reasoning. The 2006 Sun Devils are on track to finish fourth in the Pac-10 conference with a 5-4 record, which could be a 6-3 conference record if all of the cards fall correctly. That would mean either an 8-4 or 9-3 record and a possible Sun Bowl appearance. Optimistic? Let's see.

After exhausting myself looking at the conference composite schedule, taking into account what I saw from my vantage point in the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday evening and the rest of everything I heard, read and discussed this past weekend, here is how the rest of the conference will fare the remainder of this season.

First/Second: At this point, the conference championship appears to be a toss-up between USC and California, and I give this one to Southern Cal, but only by the width of a piece of cigarette paper. Which is only slightly less high, by the way, than I can jump. For me, the swing game comes on November 18th when California visits Southern Cal in Los Angeles. Ever since the loss to Tennessee, Cal, led by Nate Longshore in particular, has been playing efficient, effective and winning football. I would expect DeShaun Jackson to be a load for the USC defensive backfield to cover and while Marshawn Lynch hasn't shown, yet, that he's the best back in the conference this season, he should do enough to take a lot of pressure off of the Cal passing attack. Nevertheless, the Coliseum mystique will likely catch up to the Bears, giving USC just enough of an edge to wander off the field dazed but victorious. Cal in second place in the conference. That would put Southern Cal in the BCS Championship Bowl, leaving the Rose Bowl for Cal.

Third: I think Oregon has a clear path to the Holiday Bowl with what's left on their season. Barring something shocking, like a late-season loss to Washington or, even less likely, Arizona, the Ducks will round out their season with a 7-2 conference record (10-2 overall). There is very little standing in their way of that result, actually.

Fourth/Fifth/Sixth: Other than the Southern Cal vs. California scrap at the top of the heap, this is really where all the action is in the final half of the conference season. Three Pac-10 teams stand to make some real hay in what's left and we'll discuss each briefly. Washington State, UCLA and Arizona State, given their respective schedules, appear to be in a dogfight for the fourth spot in the conference and a likely Sun Bowl appearance against a Big-12 opponent or even, if the chips fall, Notre Dame.

The Cougs appear to have little chance to finish the rest of their conference slate better than 2-3, with games against Arizona and the Apple Cup being their likely wins, Oregon, UCLA and ASU the probable losses. While the Cougs have been featuring a stout defense, the offense has fallen on extremely hard times and defense alone will not be enough to beat either UCLA or Arizona State on the road.

The Bruins and the Sun Devils appear to be on a collision course to play an important swing game in Tempe on November 18th. Prior to that time, UCLA probably loses to Notre Dame in South Bend, beats the Cougs at home, loses to Cal on the road and wins against the Beavers in the Rose Bowl. If the Bruins can leave Tempe with a "W", they will likely finish out losing to USC, leaving them with a conference mark of 5-4.

The Sun Devils have likely wins against Stanford, Washington (especially now without Isaiah Stanback for an undetermined length of time due to a sprained foot), Oregon State and Washington State ahead of them. I have listed the UCLA and Arizona games as HUGE swing games for the Sun Devils. With a loss in either, the Sun Devils will finish the season with a 5-4 conference record, facing a tie-breaker situation with the Bruins. Win both and the Sun Devils finish a clear fourth in the conference at 6-3. Win neither and wonder at 4-5. Regardless, I see the Sun Devils finishing the season bowl-eligible anywhere from 9-3 to 7-5.

While it is unlikely that the rest of the conference will mount much of a challenge to the top-six, there could be a peep of resistance from Washington, if one of its current backup quarterbacks can take command of the position. I don't see that as extremely likely. For one thing, it's about to get much more difficult to operate a passing game in Seattle, as the weather has now turned and late fall and winter has reached the Pacific Northwest. For another, Tyrone Willingham designed the offense, such as it was, around Stanback, a true double-threat quarterback. No one on the roster even approaches his versatility. If he is lost for a good chunk or the remainder of the season, as may be the case, the Huskies are in a world of hurt.

For the rest of the conference, the only dramas will be seeing if Arizona can save a measure of pride by winning the Territorial Cup (highly likely unfortunately) and if Stanford can finish as the only non-winner in the conference (also highly likely).

I know, the Devils are winless in the conference at the moment. In their previous three conference encounters they have looked 1) confused and overmatched, 2) confused and disinterested, and 3) game but overmatched. So what have I seen that gives me any idea that the Sun Devils will have success the remainder of the season? After all, the 2006 Devils have shown weakness in all phases of the game.

On offense, the passing attack is anemic, to say the least. Whatever the reason - inexperienced receivers, turmoil along the offensive line due to injuries, sloppy quarterback play - there hasn't been much to be excited about to this point. I would point out that I expected much more from Rudy Burgess and Jamal Lewis to this point, given that they have had significant experience in this offense. That has failed to materialize, however, leaving Zach Miller to shoulder the receiving load while still being responsible for sealing the outside on running plays. The rushing attack was showing signs of life - signs, that is, until running headfirst into an obviously stout Trojan defense.

There are other signs, however. The Sun Devils were able to sustain one long drive against the Trojans and in fact, the Devils' third-down conversion rate was actually better than that of their hosts. Their opponents from here on out, other than perhaps UCLA and Arizona, haven't been showing me much defensively.

On defense, the Sun Devils have been exposed. There again, though, there are signs of life from the USC game. The loss of Michael Marquardt for the USC game was probably felt the most during the Trojans' fourth-quarter run-only drive over a nearly 7-minute span. Had Marquardt been available to help stuff the Trojan running game, it might have been enough to require the USC coaches to call a pass-play or two during that drive. Instead, they were happy reducing Booty to a hand-off machine and winning with smash-mouth football. With Marquardt back to help out, perhaps as early as a sure-win Stanford game, the Devils are in better position to control the line of scrimmage.

In addition, to this point, while they've been playing their guts out, since the start of conference play the linebackers have left something to be desired. Too many opponents' running plays were getting to the second level or getting to the edge without there being sufficient Sun Devil contain or run support.

And the tackling…

Perhaps that's why we saw so much of Travis Goethel and Gerald Munns against USC and perhaps we saw their emergence as linebackers of the present as well as the future as both played well for long stretches of the game. The defensive backfield is one cornerback away from being respectable. Number 4 is fine and of course number 19 and number 5 are fine, but there is a hole at the other corner. The kiddy corps at linebacker give a ray of hope for the remainder of the season, though.

Special teams are simply too inconsistent to be relied upon. In the past I have resisted talking in depth about special teams and will continue to resist, but special teams have simply GOT to stop contributing bone-head play after bone-head play.

Head Coach Dirk Koetter admitted that he might have blundered in the final moments of the USC game by not calling timeout to assess the possibilities of going for it on fourth down with 1:30 or so left in the USC game. Thanks for being honest, Coach, and we know you'll have learned that lesson. What's of more concern is the maddeningly consistent habit that the entire team has of throwing away good plays by making stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes as in penalties at highly inappropriate moments, etc. I feel that these are coaching issues which must be addressed going forward.

Nevertheless, I think the Sun Devils will make a nice little run to finish the conference season and will find themselves traveling to a bowl game in December.

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I would like to make a comment about discipline and attention to detail, neither of which Swami has. Seriously, though, like it or not, the University of Southern California Trojans are one of the premiere programs, if not THE premiere program in all of college football at the moment. The Trojans set the bar for success and the manner in which they are doing it is instructive. I will give you an example which, simple as it might seem, I believe to be systemic in the USC program.

I was able to find my seat at the LA Coliseum in time to watch the Sun Devils and Trojans come into the stadium for early warmups. It was amusing to watch the Trojan student section abuse Rudy Carpenter as he played catch along the northeast sideline (chants of "Keller's better…Keller's better…"). It was instructive to note the differences in the two teams as they got loose. By my rough estimate, about 40% to 50% of the Sun Devils warming up on the field over an hour before the game were wearing headphones plugged into IPods or disk players. Most wore the same warmups I would imagine they wore from the hotel to the game on the buses. One Sun Devil wore a battered, straw cowboy hat. By contrast, not a single Trojan player had an IPod anywhere visible and every player on the field was wearing his uniform pants, socks and cleats and a white UnderArmour undershirt. In other words, each Trojan was dressed exactly like his teammates and they were engaged with one another, not engrossed in their own music. At least not in public. Yeah, I know, this is the 21st century and we're enlightened and all of that. Teams probably rarely travel wearing ties and blazers anymore.

However, one of the two teams is undefeated heading into its bye week. The other is the definition of mediocre at .500.

You be the judge


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