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October 29, 2008

Pac-10 Plus/Minus Report

Pac-10 Plus/Minus Report: Another Dark Month in the Evergreen State

The Huskies and Cougars play a nasty game of one-downsmanship all the way to the conference cellar.

If copies of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" were flying off DVD store shelves in Seattle and Pullman, Wash., would it be that much of a shock? After all, the fear-of-heights issue that Jimmy Stewart faced as the lead in Hitchcock's 1958 suspense classic - perhaps best described by part of the dictionary definition of "vertigo" used in the movie trailer: "a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror" - seems a fitting description of major college football in the northern-most reaches of the Pac-10.

In an odd - and often sympathy-inducing - game of brinksmanship, the 1-7 Washington State Cougars and the 0-7 Washington Huskies are redefining the lower limits of Pac-10 football thus far in 2008.

The undermanned and heavily injured Cougars have been stunningly, historically pounded, allowing more than 60 points to four of five Pac-10 opponents - and have only a defeat of championship subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) opponent Portland State keeping them from a winless season. Meanwhile, in Seattle, a brutal opening stretch that featured Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma left the Huskies shaken - and, since a broken thumb to all-everything quarterback Jake Locker on Sept. 27, they haven't stirred. In fact, the Huskies have been outscored in their past three contests - losses to Arizona, Oregon State and Notre Dame - 115-34. And then, on Monday, the university announced that Tyrone Willingham will "step down" (a.k.a. be fired) at the end of the 2008 campaign.

Though the Huskies will now play their final five games with a dead man walking in Willingham at the helm, it is the Cougs that are currently at the bottom of the Pac-10 standings, having played one more conference game to date - giving them an 0-5 conference mark to the Huskies' 0-4. Each week, it seems, one team tries to outdo the other when it comes to sinking deeper and deeper into that whirlpool. Which squad will take a bigger dive this weekend? That's a tough call as both head out on the road - Washington to face USC and Washington State to meet Stanford. The likelihood of a 0-10 (and 0-8 in the conference) Washington team facing a 1-10 (and 0-8) Washington State team for the Apple Cup on Nov. 22 grows greater by the week.

What's up - and down - with the rest of the Pac-10? Let's take a look in the second monthly installment of "Pac-10 Plus-Minus."

Arizona
Plus: The Wildcats are one win away from going bowling for the first time in 10 seasons - and their next game is at Washington State on Nov. 8. After allowing Cal 24 first-half points on Oct. 18, the Wildcat defense has allowed a total of 20 points in its past six quarters to the Bears and USC - teams that average 38 points per game each. Arizona's defense, which was a question mark due to youth and inexperience at the season's beginning, now ranks just behind national leader USC in total defense and scoring defense in the Pac-10. Against Cal, the Wildcats also found a new sensation at running back in true freshman Keola Antolin, who dominated the Golden Bears with 149 yards and three scores.

Minus: The Wildcats had an opportunity to make a big move to the top of the conference, but the Arizona offense was manhandled by the USC defense in a 17-10 Trojan victory on Saturday night. Arizona has now lost three games by a total of 16 points, and just can't seem to get over the top at the right moments. After what should be a gimme with the Cougars, the Wildcats have a road trip to revenge-minded Oregon on Nov. 15 and a home match-up with Oregon State remaining. Arizona needs to win at least one of those games to have an outside shot at making a Holiday Bowl appearance.

Arizona State
Plus: The Sun Devils have three very winnable games on the schedule in November - facing Washington, Washington State and UCLA - giving them a chance to salvage what has been a forgettable season. Even if ASU suffers a sixth-consecutive loss at Oregon State this weekend, there's still a very good chance the Devils could head to Tucson on December 6 with an opportunity to qualify for a bowl game. Arizona State's defense has forced eight turnovers in the past two games.

Minus: The problem with that seemingly exciting takeaway number? ASU has still lost those games by a combined score of 82-20. Why does it seem that every time the Sun Devils kick off the season with some hype and a pre-season ranking, they end up slinking home to a sub-.500 finish? Yet, every time they are discounted before a season, it seems that they rise up and stun observers? Obviously, this has been another ugly season that started with high expectations for the Sun Devils. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter has, again, been beaten to a pulp thanks to an offensive line that has struggled. The defense has been beaten both through the air and on the ground and ranks in the lower half of the conference.

California
Plus: The Bears bounced back nicely from their jarring second-half collapse in Tucson on Oct. 18, shellacking UCLA, 41-20. A healthy (or, at least, healthier) Jahvid Best clearly adds a dimension to the Cal offense that is necessary with Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore at quarterback. Cal ranks third behind USC and Arizona in scoring offense and scoring defense in the conference. And, if Cal beats Oregon this Saturday, the Bears get yet another crack at USC with the Rose Bowl on the line in L.A. on November 8.

Minus: For much of the game against the Bruins, Cal struggled to maintain any offensive consistency thanks to their questionable quarterback situation. The game was a tight 20-13 battle early in the fourth quarter before a blown fake punt by the Bruins and a gadget play by the Bears sent UCLA into its own late-game vertigo. If Cal is to defeat an Oregon team that looks like it is getting its bearings after suffering a slew of quarterback injuries early in the season, either Riley or Longshore will have to make some plays. Best can't do it by himself, especially with Oregon ranking third in the conference in rush defense.

Oregon
Plus: The Ducks' offense is back on track after being halted by USC on Oct. 4. Oregon ran wild in defeats of UCLA on Oct. 11 and Arizona State last Saturday. The 54-20 win in Tempe was one of the Ducks' most impressive displays of the season, with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli appearing to seize control of the starting job. Oregon leads the Pac-10 in rushing, scoring and total offense. At 6-2, the Ducks are tied for first place with USC (both 4-1 in the Pac-10), and re-entered the top 25 this week - just in time for what is a Rose/Holiday bowl elimination game at Berkeley on Saturday. Winnable home dates against Stanford and Arizona follow, so this weekend's game is a big one for Mike Bellotti's crew.

Minus: The Ducks are ninth in the conference in pass defense - a concern with Cal, Arizona and Oregon State (all in the top half of the conference rankings in pass offense) still on the schedule. Oregon's also eighth in the conference in pass offense, as the injury situation at quarterback has really removed any credible passing threat - unless Justin Roper returns as a regular starter. The Ducks still face Cal (No. 2 in rush defense in the conference) and Oregon State (No. 5). If either of those teams controls Oregon's rushing attack, the Ducks could be in trouble. Roper got some mop-up duty at ASU on Saturday, and if the Ducks' offense struggles with Masoli at the helm, don't be surprised to see Bellotti re-insert him.

Oregon State
Plus: The Beavers, thanks to that Sept. 25 upset of USC, control their own Rose Bowl destiny - even with a 4-3 overall record. Oregon State figures to be 4-1 in the conference after a visit from Arizona State on Saturday. The Beavers are consistent across the board, ranking in the top half of the conference in every major statistical category on offense and defense. They've really played stellar football for the past month-and-a-half, with only a late defeat at No. 10 Utah standing between them and five consecutive wins. Oregon State's offense is averaging more than 433 yards per game - a more than 60-yard per outing improvement over 2007.

Minus: If the Beavers are going to win out and go to Pasadena on New Year's Day, they will have to navigate a closing stretch that includes road games at UCLA (where they've historically struggled) and Arizona and home showdowns with Cal and Oregon. Oregon State will definitely have earned its first Rose Bowl appearance in 44 years if it does make it.

Stanford
Plus: Who could have believed two years ago that Stanford would be riding a four-game home winning streak and needing two wins to become bowl eligible at this point in the 2008 season? Not only that, but the Cardinal are almost certain to move to 5-4 this weekend with Washington State visiting the Farm, meaning one win in their final three games - no easy task considering they are road games at Oregon and Cal and a home game with revenge-minded USC - would send Stanford bowling. Stanford's defense has 26 sacks, good for second in the conference. The Cardinal are also second in rushing offense in the Pac-10, averaging more than 192 yards per game on the ground. And RB Toby Gerhart is on track to become Stanford's first 1,000-yard rusher since Tommy Vardell in 1991.

Minus: Outside of rushing offense and rushing defense, the Cardinal rank in the bottom half of the conference in every other major category - including last in pass offense. Yes, the Cardinal's passing attack is less potent than those of the Cougars and Huskies. With the Pac-10's top three rush defenses on left on the schedule, the Cardinal better hope something changes in their pass offense. Stanford's pass defense isn't much better - and its rush defense ranks so high mainly because of sacks. The Cardinal play a high-risk, high-reward defense that leaves them burned (see "UCLA 23, Stanford 20" on Oct. 18) almost as often as it helps.

UCLA
Plus: After the 59-0 defeat at BYU on Sept. 13, the Bruins have been able to, at least, hang around into the fourth quarter of every game since. Both Arizona and Cal used late scoring runs to take a seven-point margin out to a 21-point win. And the Bruins even used some late game heroics to stun Stanford in the final seconds on Oct. 18. Even though the Bruins have been devastated by injuries on both sides of the ball, UCLA's pass defense ranks third in the conference and the Bruins are fifth in total defense. Kick returner Terrence Austin has been spectacular.

Minus: UCLA has the worst rushing attack in the Pac-10 and ranks only ahead of Washington and Washington State in total offense. Quarterback Kevin Craft has been an interception machine, putting the Bruin defense in bad spots time and again. UCLA is the only Pac-10 opponent so far that has not scored at least 60 on Washington State (the Bruins notched "only" a 28-3 win on Oct. 4 in Pasadena). That troubled Bruin offense still has to face two of the conference's top defenses in USC and Oregon State. Bowl eligibility is a long shot in Rick Neuheisel's first year - and reaching even five wins might be tough.

USC
Plus: The Trojans are tops in the nation in total defense, allowing just 215 yards per game, and scoring defense (opponents have averaged a little more than eight points per outing). USC has allowed 20 points in its past four games. The Trojan offense has also put up solid numbers, ranking second in the Pac-10 in scoring and total offense, and first in pass offense. Quarterback Mark Sanchez leads the conference in pass efficiency and has thrown 20 TDs. USC has won four in a row, and doesn't have to leave the state the rest of the season, with three home games and road tilts at Stanford and UCLA.

Minus: The Oregon State loss on Sept. 25 appears more and more likely to haunt the Trojans' BCS title dreams every week. Penalties continue to hurt USC, as more than a few of the 10 flags thrown on USC at Arizona on Saturday night negated key plays. 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 Steve Sarkisian still struggles with getting a feel for the game now and again.

Washington
Plus: The season is more than halfway over! Ah … umm? What else? Oh, the Huskies rank third in Pac-10 home attendance. The Willingham announcement gives UW a head start on the rest of the college football world in attracting a new coach. And home games against struggling Arizona State and UCLA follow this weekend's likely bloodbath at USC, giving Willingham a puncher's chance to enter the Apple Cup game with at least one win.

Minus: Everything else. I mean, seriously, the Huskies are even ranked lower than their in-state rivals in rushing offense, pass defense and total defense. What the heck has happened to the conference's traditional No. 2 national power?

Washington State
Plus: The season is almost two-thirds over! The Cougs get to go to Hawaii on Thanksgiving weekend (for a likely final defeat to the Rainbow Warriors - but, still, Hawaii!). Wideouts Brandon Gibson and Jeshua Anderson have performed consistently under difficult circumstances.

Minus: Injuries? They've had plenty of 'em. Blowout losses? An average score of 54-9 against Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) opponents, and 58-6 against Pac-10 opponents. The final embarrassment? In a year where their bitter in-state rivals are 0-7, the Cougars are the team most often mentioned as, possibly, the worst team in conference history.

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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