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September 22, 2011

Week 4 preview in the Pac-12

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There is pride. There are bragging rights. And there always is the pleasure of reminding rivals you're still in charge.

Those motivators must suffice for the USC Trojans, who don't have championships or bowl trips as added incentives this season.

THE SCHEDULE
California at Washington, 3:30 p.m.
Colorado at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m.
UCLA at Oregon State, 4:30 p.m.
Oregon at Arizona, 10:15 p.m.
USC at Arizona State, 10:15 p.m
The NCAA took away those carrots for sins committed by Reggie Bush in 2004 and '05. And it makes perfect sense that players who had nothing to do with that - some of whom were actually in junior high at the time - should be punished for those transgressions, right?

Couldn't USC have been allowed to pursue a championship and a bowl game, but not share in revenues created by them? Wouldn't that have punished the school, but not the innocent victims?

Alas, that argument is moot. But USC has the opportunity to make a strong argument (and maybe even put an end to one) that it is the strongest team in the Pac-12 South.

The Trojans are the only unbeaten team in the division. They already have beaten Utah, which was seen a top contender in the division. This week, they face Arizona State, which was a trendy preseason pick to finally break out of a four-year slump of mediocrity and win the division.

So, if USC beats Arizona State for the 12th consecutive season, the Trojans would go a long way toward establishing themselves as the best team in the South. That could be reason to be psyched up for a trip to Tempe - but it doesn't really seem to be.

"They're the next team on the schedule," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "All that stuff of the preseason and who ranks where doesn't matter. It's all about getting better every week."

Then he added, "We're obviously playing a great team - one that easily could be undefeated right now and a top-10 or top-15 team in t he country."

Describing Arizona State as a "great" team is a stretch. The Sun Devils did post an overtime victory over Missouri, but last week they lost at Illinois.

Furthermore, defensive end Junior Onyeali is out for at least six weeks because of a knee injury - the fourth defensive starter Arizona State has lost to injury in the past five months.

Arizona State has been boosted by the play of quarterback Brock Osweiler, who has been impressive. But USC quarterback Matt Barkley is better. In three games, he has passed for 892 yards and nine touchdowns while completing almost 70 percent of his attempts and throwing just one interception.

"It's that next step," Kiffin said. "The next step is to limit forced balls, errors and frustration and make better decisions. We're excited about it.

"It's good to see him playing so well this year with so many new pieces - a brand new tight end, brand new starting receivers, a fullback that hadn't played and an offensive line that's relatively new. It's great to see him play so well so far."

Last season, Barkley passed for 215 yards and three touchdowns but also had two interceptions in a 34-33 victory over Arizona State. He'll need to play better to beat the Sun Devils this time, but if he does, there will be little doubt that USC is the best team in the Pac-12 South.

That won't get the Trojans a trophy or a bowl bid, but at least it will give their fans something to brag about.

BEST MATCHUP: Arizona's pass offense vs. Oregon's secondary. The Ducks typically are strong in the secondary and this season doesn't appear any different. Oregon is at full strength now that CB Cliff Harris is back and FS John Boyett is returning from injury. The Ducks will have to be at their best against Arizona. Foles is second in the nation in passing, WR Juron Criner is a big-play threat, WR Dan Buckner has 18 receptions and three other receivers already have at least 10 catches.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Oregon State QB Sean Mannion. The backup quarterback typically is adored. But now that Mannion officially has been named the starter, he'll come under increased scrutiny, especially if the Beavers (0-2) continue to struggle and especially if they have difficulty against a UCLA defense that has allowed 104 points in three games.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Cal WRs Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. They may be the most underrated receiving duo in the country, and both are off to fast starts. Allen has 20 catches for 301 yards and two touchdowns, while Jones has 17 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns. At least one has had 100 receiving yards in each of Cal's games. They will test a Washington secondary that has had problems in the early going. The Huskies are 115th in pass defense.

NUMBERS GAME: Colorado senior TB Rodney Stewart has been a productive runner for four seasons, but he's become even more productive as a receiver on screen passes. Coming into this season, Stewart never had had more than 29 catches in a season. But he already has 18 catches and is averaging 15.4 yards per catch. Though he still is the Buffaloes' leading rusher, he's actually averaging more receiving yards per game (92.3) than rushing yards per game (74.3).

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

"You deal with it. You live with it. I see where Stanford just lost their best [defensive] player, who is a tremendous player. You just have to adjust." - Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, on the rash of injuries suffered by his defense

"The sky is the limit with this kid with his age, and he's going to get great experience early on, which is unique. The only thing he is lacking is game experience, which is what we're trying to get him as fast as we can." - Oregon State offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, on redshirt freshman QB Sean Mannion

"We need to get better. We need to play better. And we will." - Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, on the Huskies' poor defensive performances

POLL WATCH: No. 5 Stanford and No. 13 Oregon are the only Pac-12 teams ranked in the latest coaches' poll. With an open date, Stanford isn't in jeopardy of falling, but Oregon could drop out of the top 20 if it loses at Arizona. Arizona State fell out of the rankings after last week's loss to Illinois, but could re-enter with a victory over USC, which is 23rd in The Associated Press poll but ineligible for the coaches' poll.

ETC.: Arizona FS Adam Hall, LB Jake Fischer and RB Greg Nwoko are reportedly making significant strides in recovering from ACL injuries sustained in spring drills and could return to action. Hall could be available as soon as Oct. 1, when the Wildcats face USC. ... Arizona State DE Junior Onyeali needs surgery on his left knee and could miss the rest of the season. He's the fourth defensive starter the Sun Devils have lost since the start of spring drills. Sun Devils SS Eddie Elder suffered a concussion last week and is questionable for this week's game. ... Stanford star LB Shayne Skov (knee) will miss the rest of the season. Sophomore Jarek Lancaster and redshirt freshman A.J. Tarpley will share the role of replacing Skov. ... With last week's victory over Presbyterian, Jeff Tedford became the winningest coach in Cal history. He has a 75-42 record in 10 seasons in Berkeley. ... USC DL Armond Armstead, who has not played this season because of an unspecified medical condition, will redshirt. ... Richard Brehaut will start at quarterback for UCLA this week. ... Oregon State's offense should get a boost with the return of TE Joe Halahuni, who hasn't played this season because of a shoulder injury. But TB Malcolm Agnew (hamstring) is doubtful and WR James Rodgers (knee) is questionable. ... Oregon RB Kenjon Barner (lower leg), WR John Huff (lower leg) and FS John Boyett (knee) have been out with injuries, but are expected to return this week. LB Michael Clay (lower leg) remains questionable, while G Ramsen Golpashin is out with a knee injury and could miss the rest of the season. ... UCLA, which travels to face Oregon State, is 2-11 in conference road games under coach Rick Neuheisel. ... Washington State QB Jeff Tuel's fractured left clavicle appears to be healing quickly and he will resume light throwing. ... Utah is open this week, then will play nine consecutive weeks. ... Washington QB Keith Price is slowed with sprains to both knees, but still practiced this week. ... Arizona QB Nick Foles has thrown 126 consecutive passes without an interception. ... Cal already has had 24 plays that covered at least 20 yards. Last season, Cal had just 39 plays of at least 20 yards for the entire season. ... Oregon QB Darron Thomas has thrown for 501 yards and nine touchdowns in the past two games. ... Colorado is one of nine teams in the nation to have committed just one turnover. The Buffaloes have gone eight quarters without one. ... USC WR Robert Woods leads the nation with an average of 11 catches per game. ... Arizona K Alex Zendejas has regained the starting job. He lost the job in fall camp to Jaime Salazar, but will resume kicking duties after Salazar missed two field-goal attempts in last week's loss to Stanford. ... Cal NT Aaron Tipoti missed last week's game with an ankle injury, but has returned to practice and should play Saturday against Washington. ... Washington TB Chris Polk has rushed for 100 yards in all three games this season and in five consecutive games dating to last season.

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Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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