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November 14, 2011

ASU slide leaves Pac-12 South up for grabs

Man, the Pac-12 South is a bad division.

Everyone had been focusing on the Pac-12 North showdown between Oregon and Stanford, and hadn't really noticed how bad the South has become.

Heck, the Pac-12 South makes the SEC East look like the AFC East.

Almost by default, USC has become the best team in the six-team Pac-12 South, but the Trojans are ineligible for the division title and the postseason. USC is 8-2 and has won five of its past six; its only loss in that span was an epic three-overtime setback to Stanford. USC has another chance to make some national noise next week, when it travels to play Oregon.

Arizona State's 43-22 win over the Trojans on Sept. 24 was supposed to signify that the Sun Devils had put their problems of the past few seasons behind them and were going to cruise to the division crown.

Indeed, Arizona State went on to win its next two games, over Oregon State and Utah, to sit at 5-1. But the Sun Devils have won just once in their past four games, with the lone victory coming over a bad Colorado team, and now are in a dogfight to win the division.

The latest setback came Saturday, a 37-27 loss to a Washington State team that came in on a five-game losing streak. But the Cougars bounced back in a big way, carving up the Sun Devils' secondary to the tune of 503 yards and four TDs. That came on the heels of last week's loss to UCLA, when the Bruins ran for 220 yards and three TDs in a 29-28 upset.

To make matters worse for Arizona State, the quarterback doing the carving Saturday was redshirt freshman Connor Halliday, who came on early in the first quarter and went the rest of the way.

Arizona State was supposed to have one of the best defenses on the West Coast, but injuries and subpar play have meant a mediocre showing. The Sun Devils are allowing 405.6 yards per game, and in their four losses, they've allowed a total of 124 points (31 points per game). The secondary has been torched on a regular basis, surrendering 262.1 yards per game and allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete almost 64 percent of their passes.

[ Related: Huguenin: Breaking down the BCS standings ]

The latest quarterback to have a big day against the Sun Devils was Halliday, who is 6 feet 4 but just 181 pounds. He was a three-star recruit out of high school in Spokane, Wash., and Washington State was the only Big Six school to offer a scholarship; he chose the Cougars over the likes of Hawaii and Idaho. He redshirted last season, then played sparingly in the first two games of the season. He didn't play at all in the next seven games, but came on early Saturday and looked tremendous from his first pass. That first attempt was an 85-yard catch-and-run to Marquess Wilson for a TD.

Halliday finished the night with 494 yards, second-most in school history to Alex Brink's 531 (in a loss to Oregon State in 2005). Halliday's total also is the sixth-highest nationally this season.

"We knew going into it we were going to give him the third series," Cougars coach Paul Wulff said afterward. "He throws the ball very well. We knew that, but there is always the concern with guys who haven't played very much. But when he gets in the game, he plays. Connor obviously did a great job."

The win keeps the Cougars' long-shot bowl hopes alive; they must beat both Utah and archrival Washington to become bowl-eligible. That's extremely unlikely to happen, but the Cougars look to have made enough strides this season for Wulff, who is in his fourth season, to keep his job. Washington State had won five games total in his first three seasons, but he took over a team devoid of talent along both lines. His staff has done a slow-but-steady job of rebuilding the lines, and the Cougars started just six seniors Saturday, lending hope that they can compete for a bowl slot next season.

As for Arizona State, the Sun Devils (4-3 in the league) close with two home games, against archrival Arizona this week and California on Nov. 25. UCLA (4-3) and Utah (3-4) also remain alive for the division crown. UCLA, which lost to Utah, finishes with Colorado and USC, while Utah has Washington State and Colorado. Thus, it's conceivable that there's a three-way tie at 5-4. In that scenario, assuming Arizona State beats Arizona, the Sun Devils would win the title because they would have the best division record.

Still, an Arizona State team that looked as if it would run away with the division now is sweating it out.

"I'm just tired of being in this situation time and time again," Sun Devils senior wide receiver Gerell Robinson told reporters afterward. "It's been like this for the past three or four years, and it's getting old. That's the bottom line."

Robinson also said Arizona State's record isn't an indication of its talent.

"I would definitely say so," he said. "Since I have been here, it has been like that. That is the problem, and I don't get it."


Going on the offensive
Two weeks ago, we talked about Houston being the overlooked unbeaten.

That's no longer the case.

The Cougars are one of just three undefeated teams, and they have the best chance of any non-Big Six school to get into the BCS - assuming they can remain unbeaten. They have SMU and Tulsa to close out the regular season, and if they win the West Division title of Conference USA, they would play the East champ - most likely one-loss Southern Miss - in the league title game.

It's all about offense for the Cougars, who have ramped up the offense of late, as if that's actually possible.

They mauled Tulane 73-17 on Thursday, the second time in three weeks they've scored 73 points. They're on a five-week run of scoring at least 56 points in each game, and they've reached that plateau six times this season.

Behind quarterback Case Keenum - this guy was a Heisman contender going into last season, so why isn't he one now? - the Cougars lead the nation in total offense (628.8 yards per game), passing offense (455.7 yards per game) and scoring offense (54.7 points per game).

The points-per-game average has them on a pace to shatter the NCAA single-season record for points. The 13-game record for points is 652 by Texas in 2005 (an average of 50.2 ppg); the 14-game record for points is 716 by Oklahoma in 2008 (an average of 51.1 ppg). Army holds the record for single-season average at 56.0 in 1944 (506 points in nine games).

The NCAA record for total offense is 7,978 yards by Tulsa in 2008 (Gus Malzahn was the coordinator), but Houston is on a pace to crush that record: At their current average, if the Cougars play in the C-USA title game, they would finish with 8,803 yards. If they don't make the league title game, they're on a pace to finish with 8,164.

The NCAA record for per-game average is 624.9, by the 1989 Houston team that was on NCAA probation. That team was quarterbacked by Andre Ware, who won the Heisman.

The Cougars also are on a pace to set the NCAA single-season passing mark; the record is 6,179 yards, by Texas Tech in 2003, and Houston is on a pace to have 6,380 if it plays 14 games.


Grid bits
Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger's final season isn't going as planned, to the point where he apologized to the likes of Bear Bryant after Saturday's 41-7 loss to archrival Florida International. FAU trailed 31-0 at halftime and dropped to 0-9 with the loss. "I have to apologize to Paul Bryant, Blanton Collier and Don Shula, those that taught me how to play this game," Schnellenberger said afterward. "I have to apologize to Florida Atlantic University for the first half of football we played here today, and live with it, as my team is going to have to live with it." It was FIU's first win in the series since 2005. FAU was penalized 14 times, including four personal fouls. FAU's remaining three foes - Troy, UAB and Louisiana-Monroe - have just seven combined wins, so there is a legit shot that Schnellenberger's final season won't be a winless one.

Virginia Tech won its 12th consecutive true road game with Thursday's key ACC victory over Georgia Tech. Road streaks of that length are rare, and there have been just seven such streaks since 1995: Boise State, Miami, Ohio State, Texas (twice), USC and Virginia Tech.

Rutgers junior WR Mohamed Sanu had 13 receptions for 129 yards in the Scarlet Knights' victory over Army. That gives him 94 catches this season, breaking former Pittsburgh star Larry Fitzgerald's Big East single-season receptions mark of 92.

Senior Ryan Lindley threw for just 154 yards in San Diego State's 18-15 win over Colorado State, but that was enough for him to become the Mountain West's career passing leader. He has 11,494 yards; the record had been held by former BYU QB Max Hall, who threw for 11,365 yards from 2007-09. Lindley's yardage total places him third among all active quarterbacks, behind only Keenum (17,537) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (13,416).

Barring a miracle (i.e., Kentucky beating Georgia), South Carolina isn't going to win the SEC East. But the Gamecocks set a school record by winning six SEC games this season. They got their sixth league win Saturday over Florida, which finishes 3-5 in the SEC. That's the Gators' first losing SEC record since 1986, when they went 2-4 in a 10-team SEC. Florida has lost nine SEC games in the past two seasons, their worst two-season stretch in league play since 1978-79.

SMU has hit the skids, losing three of its past four. And the latest loss has to really cut at Mustangs coach June Jones. Navy beat SMU 24-17 on Saturday despite not completing a pass; the Midshipmen attempted just two. Navy did rush for 335 yards.

NCAA stats show that the average game this season takes 3 hours, 13 minutes, Hawaii's games take the longest, at 3:42. Ball State and New Mexico State are the only schools whose games average less than three hours - and both are at 2:59.

This is why Memphis is Memphis: The Tigers led 35-17 going into the fourth quarter, but allowed UAB to score 24 points in a 12-minute stretch and lost 41-35.

Baylor mounted a big fourth-quarter rally to edge Kansas 31-30 and grab bowl eligibility. This will be the first time since 1991-92 that Baylor has gone bowling in consecutive seasons; it also would be just the fourth time in school history that Baylor has been to back-to-back bowls.

Tennessee is 0-6 in the SEC for the first time in school history. The Vols are 4-6 overall but still have a legit shot at bowl eligibility because, as usual, they close with their personal punching bags: Vanderbilt (the Vols have won 27 of their past 28 and 33 of their past 35 against the Commodores) and Kentucky (the Vols have won 26 in a row over the Wildcats).

Southern Miss edged UCF 30-29 after UCF scored on the final play of the game but then missed a two-point conversion. UCF now has lost five games this season by eight or fewer points. That's tied for the national lead with Louisville and Miami.

Eastern Michigan beat Buffalo on Saturday to move to 6-4. It's the first time EMU has won as many as six games in a season since 1995, when it finished 6-5. It's also just the sixth time since 1977 that the Eagles have won at least six games.

Valparaiso ended the longest Division I losing streak, beating Campbell 34-31 to snap a 29-game losing skid. Valpo is a FCS program.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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