November 4, 2010

Week 10 preview in the Pac-10

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THE SCHEDULE
Washington at Oregon, 3:30 p.m.
Cal at Washington State, 4 p.m.
Oregon State at UCLA, 7 p.m.
Arizona at Stanford, 8 p.m.
Arizona State at USC, 10:30 p.m.

All the apprehension that surrounded Oregon's quarterback situation last spring now seems so long ago - and so incredibly unnecessary.

Who knew that when Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team, the Ducks actually would upgrade at the position?

Yet that's been the case with Darron Thomas, who has added a bona-fide passing threat to Oregon's high-octane rushing attack.

"I surprised a lot of people," Thomas said. "I just tried to come out and do a good job. I'm just trying to get better.

"A lot of people were saying there would be problems with the offense because of the quarterback position, and I wanted to show I could come in and do the job."

Thomas has done the job so well that he's a legitimate candidate for postseason honors despite playing in the quarterback-heavy Pac-10, which also claims Stanford's Andrew Luck, USC's Matt Barkley, Arizona's Nick Foles and Washington's Jake Locker among its passers.

Not that Thomas expects to earn any all-conference recognition.

"I'm kind of the newer guy on the scene," he said. "Those guys have been around a while. Eventually - maybe next year - my name will be up there."

The stretch run
Key game the rest of the way
Oregon at Oregon State, Dec. 4. The "Civil War" between Oregon and Oregon State has helped determine the Pac-10 champion the past two seasons and could do so again this season. At the least, the Beavers could play a spoiler's role if Oregon's national championship hopes remain intact. As they say, anything can happen in a rivalry game. And Oregon State has a knack for knocking off No. 1 teams in Corvallis.
Offensive player of the year watch
Honors probably are going to Oregon RB LaMichael James, who is one of the top Heisman contenders; he rushed for more than 200 yards against Stanford and USC. Stanford QB Andrew Luck would be a strong choice should James falter.
Defensive player of the year watch
Among the top candidates is Washington LB Mason Foster, who leads the Pac-10 in tackles and has three forced fumbles. Arizona DE Ricky Elmore leads the conference in sacks and is third in tackles for loss. Oregon CB Cliff Harris leads in interceptions and pass breakups, but he has started only two games.
Newcomer of the year watch
The top candidate might be Washington State freshman WR Marquess Wilson, who has 46 catches and is averaging 19.2 yards per grab. USC WR freshman Robert Woods is second in the Pac-10 in all-purpose yardage, and Arizona State junior QB Steven Threet, a transfer from Michigan, is leading the conference in passing.
Thomas may be underestimating himself. Stanford's Luck is a Heisman contender and, barring a collapse of historic proportions, will be the first-team All-Pac-10 selection.

But Thomas will have to be heavily considered for a place on the second team. Actually, Thomas arguably outplayed Luck, when he compiled 355 yards of total offense and accounted for four touchdowns in the Ducks' 52-31 victory.

He definitely outplayed Barkley by throwing for 288 yards and four touchdowns in last week's 53-32 win in L.A.

So, far Thomas has passed for 1,827 yards. He's also rushed for 311 yards and ranks third in the Pac-10 in total offense. He shares the Pac-10 lead for touchdown passes with Barkley with 21.

Thomas realizes his passing ability might have caught some by surprise.

"I was trying to tell people I like to throw and I'm more of a passer than a runner," he said. "Most people would say I'm a runner just because of my athleticism, and anytime you have an athletic quarterback, they think he's a runner."

Skeptics may argue that any decent quarterback could be an effective passer if opposing defenses have to key on a Heisman-contending running back. Thomas, who has explosive LaMichael James in the backfield with him, agrees with that sentiment.

"He and the offensive line are the keys to why I'm successful," Thomas said. "It's easier getting the ball to our receivers because of his presence. You'll improve if you have a player like LaMichael James."

Yes, but James was in the lineup in last season's Rose Bowl, when Oregon was held to 179 rushing yards by Ohio State. The Ducks couldn't compensate, as Masoli passed for just 81 yards.

This Oregon offense has scored at least 42 points in every game and has shown no signs of slowing down with Thomas leading it. But perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise, either.

When Thomas was a true freshman in 2008, he came off the bench in the fourth quarter against Boise State because Masoli had suffered a concussion and backup Chris Harper was ineffective. Boise State led 37-13 going in the fourth quarter, but Thomas nearly rallied the Ducks by throwing three touchdown passes to close the gap to 37-32.

He redshirted last season, and this season, he has proved himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-10.

Who's the best?

"Hopefully, it's me," Thomas said. "But I won't worry about that until the end of the year. If we keep winning, it's all good."

Key matchup: Stanford offensive line vs. Arizona defensive line. Led by DE Ricky Elmore, Arizona has 27 sacks. Mounting a consistent pass rush will be crucial against Stanford QB Andrew Luck, who can pick defenses apart if given time. But pressuring him isn't easy. Stanford's line is powerful and experienced, and has allowed just three sacks.

Player on the spot: California QB Brock Mansion. Mansion, a junior, moves in as Cal's starting quarterback after senior Kevin Riley sustained a career-ending knee injury last week. Mansion takes over an offense that has been inconsistent and a team that is winless on the road. The Bears travel again this week, but it's to face 1-9 Washington State, which has lost 15 consecutive conference games. You don't want to be the quarterback that loses to Washington State.

Numbers game: Oregon has scored 439 points through eight games, which is more than Oklahoma scored at the same point in 2008, when the Sooners set an NCAA record for points in a season with 716 points. The Ducks are averaging 54.9 points per game and would need to average 55.6 points in their remaining games to exceed Oklahoma's point total.

What they're saying

"Honestly, I don't think my life is very interesting." - Stanford's Luck, on why he turned down an offer from ESPN to do a day-in-the-life segment on him

"Doctors said I was super-lucky. Looking at the film, they thought my whole knee was gone. When it happened, the first thing that popped into my head was, 'This is my last play in football.' A wave of emotion came over me." - Cal's Riley, on his knee injury

"It's a great offense and may be one of the best ever to play college football." - USC coach Lane Kiffin, on Oregon's offense, which scored 53 against the Trojans

Etc.: Arizona QB Nick Foles has taken over the nation's lead in passing accuracy even though he hasn't played in the past two weeks. While sitting out, his completion percentage stayed at 75.26, while Northwestern's Dan Persa's completion percentage dropped to 74.36. Foles is listed as probable for the Stanford game after sitting out those games with a dislocated knee cap. Arizona DT Justin Washington is also expected to play after missing two games with a sprained knee. ... Washington QB Jake Locker (cracked rib) is out Saturday. He'll be replaced by redshirt freshman Keith Price. Locker said he hopes to return by Nov. 18, when the Huskies play UCLA. ...

Cal is looking to end a six-game losing streak away from Memorial Stadium. ... Oregon RB Kenjon Barner, who has been sidelined because of a concussion sustained on Oct. 9, is cleared to play on Saturday. ... Arizona State is trying to end a 10-game losing streak to USC. ... This week's game against Cal may be more special than most to Washington State RB James Montgomery. He started his career at Berkeley and transferred to Washington State after the 2007 season. ... Oregon has outscored opponents 180-36 in the second half and still has allowed just seven points in the fourth quarter. ... Oregon State QB Ryan Katz has some extra motivation against UCLA this week. He grew up a UCLA fan, attended games at the Rose Bowl and was recruited by UCLA, but never was offered a scholarship. ...

Oregon sophomore RB LaMichael James has set a school record with 15 career 100-yard rushing games. ... Oregon State has 16 sacks in the past four games. ... Stanford's defense held Washington to 107 total yards last week. That was the Huskies' lowest offensive output in 37 years. ... Junior Jacquizz Rodgers has become Oregon State's career receptions leader for running backs. He has 125 career catches. ... UCLA QB Richard Brehaut and WR Randall Carroll hooked up on a 68-yard touchdown pass last week. It was UCLA's longest touchdown pass since 2007. ... USC coach Lane Kiffin has blasted the Trojans' offensive line play. G Butch Lewis appears in danger of losing his starting job to Michael Reardon. ... Arizona WR Juron Criner has caught 16 passes for 235 yards in the past two games. He has four 100-yard receiving games this season. ... Last week, Arizona State QB Steven Threet ended a dubious streak of four consecutive games with at least one interception. ... Cal DB Marc Anthony is coming off a 10-tackle performance against Oregon State. He had a total of 29 in the Bears' previous seven games. ... Oregon WR Jeff Maehl has 14 touchdown catches in the past 13 games. ... USC sophomore LB Devon Kennard is coming off a career-high 13 tackle performance and now leads the Trojans with 57. ... Washington LB Mason Foster has posted double-digit tackle totals in every game this season.

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




 

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