September 8, 2011

Week 2 preview in the Pac 12

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It's not like Utah hasn't won big games against big-name opponents before.

There was that Fiesta Bowl victory in '04. And the Utes trounced No. 11 UCLA 44-6 in '07. They won at Michigan in '08 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the end of that season. They opened last season by knocking off No. 15 Pittsburgh.

Saturday, though, the Utes face perhaps the biggest game in the program's history as they appear in the first-ever Pac-12 conference game against USC, the historic big dog of the Pacific time zone.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
Arizona at Oklahoma State, 8 p.m.
FRIDAY
Missouri at Arizona State, 10:30 p.m.
SATURDAY
Oregon State at Wisconsin, noon
Nevada at Oregon, 3:30 p.m.
Stanford at Duke, 3:30 p.m.
Hawaii at Washington, 3:30 p.m.
California at Colorado, 3:30 p.m.
UNLV at Washington State, 5 p.m.
Utah at USC, 7:30 p.m.
San Jose State at UCLA, 10 p.m.
Yes, Oregon has won the past two conference championships, but no team west of the Mississippi carries more mystique than USC, which won at least 11 games from 2002-08 and is the only team west of the Rockies to have won an outright national championship since BYU in 1984.

"We have a great deal of respect for USC," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "They're one of the most storied programs in all of college football. We're out west with them - just a couple of states away, but certainly close enough to have followed their great run."

USC's great run ended with NCAA sanctions and probation stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal, Pete Carroll's departure to the NFL, the hiring of Lane Kiffin and a disastrous (for USC) eight-win season in 2010.

Still, there remains an aura about USC. Beating California, which Utah did in the '09 Poinsettia Bowl, or beating Oregon State, which Utah did in '08, was great. But beating USC would provide a measure of validation and show the Utes really do belong in their new conference.

Although a newcomer to the league, Utah appears capable of at least winning the South Division, especially with USC ineligible because of the aforementioned NCAA sanctions.

The first step in winning the division would be beating USC. That the game will be played in the Los Angeles Coliseum makes Utah's prospects even more difficult.

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Or so it may seem. Whittingham doesn't really buy that.

"We have been in the 'Big House' [Michigan], Notre Dame, Autzen Stadium, Kyle Field at A&M ... a lot of good places," he said. "Obviously, everyone on our team hasn't been to those places, but through the years as a program.

"Aside from that, not getting too hyped up and getting to the point where players are pressing and trying to do too much - I think that's more of a concern than being awed or wowed by any environment. It's just another venue, another arena to play in."

Utah has other issues to deal with, too.

Quarterback Jordan Wynn had shoulder surgery in the offseason, and while the shoulder has healed, there are questions about whether he's psychologically recovered. He passed for just 101 yards in last week's 27-10 victory over FCS member Montana State.

After that game, junior defensive lineman Ron Tongaoneai's wife, Janelle, died in a car accident.

"That's a black cloud hanging over our program," Whittingham said. "It put things in perspective. That's been the focal point for our team - giving our support and love to Ron and helping him through this time has been our main priority.

"At the same time, the game was not cancelled. The season marches on and we'll do our best."

Utah's best has been sufficient to post big victories in the past. They're hoping it will be enough to notch one of their biggest victories ever Saturday.

BEST MATCHUP: Utah OTs Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen vs. USC DEs Wes Horton, Nick Perry and Devon Kennard. Bergstrom has all-conference credentials and is an All-America candidate. Meanwhile, Cullen, who expects to contend for honors, is back in the lineup after sitting out last week's game with a concussion. They form one of the best tackle pairings in the country, but they have a tough task against USC's big and talented defensive ends. Perry, a junior, has 13 career sacks and picked up one last week against Minnesota. Horton and Kennard can apply pressure, too.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Arizona CB Shaquille Richardson. He had a tough first game against Northern Arizona. That's bad enough, but on Thursday night he'll be covering Oklahoma State All-America WR Justin Blackmon, last year's Biletnikoff Award recipient as the nation's premier receiver. Blackmon had nine catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns in last season's 36-10 Alamo Bowl victory over Arizona.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Arizona. The next month will determine just how successful their season will be. Arizona's next three games are against top-13 teams - No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 6 Stanford and No. 13 Oregon. They follow up that stretch with a road game at USC, which may be ranked by the time that game comes around Oct. 1.

NUMBERS GAME: Washington's pass defense goes from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. One week into the season, the Huskies rank last in the nation in pass defense after allowing 473 yards to FCS member Eastern Washington. Now, they face Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz, who last season led the nation in passing with 5,040 yards and 39 touchdowns. Moniz was held to a mere 178 yards in a 34-17 victory over Colorado last week. He was harassed by a Colorado pass rush that produced five sacks. Washington had only one sack against Eastern Washington.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"We try not to talk about it or think about it. We try to keep everyone's mind on this being a family." - UCLA TB Jonathan Franklin, on the Bruins' quarterback situation

"I felt like I should be more physical. I need to start doing 'me.' The coaches tell you where to run a lot of times, but I need to start running where I want to run and do what I do. I think it will benefit me better than thinking where the play's going to go." - Oregon RB LaMichael James, on his disappointing performance against LSU

"Honestly, not good. It kind of sucked, to be honest." - Stanford G David DeCastro, appraising the offensive line's run blocking in the opener, a 56-3 win over San Jose State

POLL WATCH: Stanford and Oregon are the only Pac-12 teams currently in the AP top 25 and they don't figure to fall out soon. There are several games that could potentially vault Pac-12 teams into the national rankings. Arizona could reap a lot of votes with an upset of No. 9 Oklahoma State. The same goes for Arizona State, which faces No. 21 Missouri. The winner of USC and Utah likely will enter the rankings.

ETC.: USC TB Marc Tyler, the Trojans' leading rusher last season, missed the opener after he was suspended for inappropriate comments made during the offseason. He has been reinstated for this week's game. ... Washington DE Hau'oli Jamora will be facing family when the Huskies play Hawaii. Warriors star LB Corey Paredes is his brother-in-law. ... Washington State QB Jeff Tuel is out at least six weeks with a broken collarbone. Senior Marshall Lobbestael, who has had injury issues of his own in the past, will take over. ... Cal WRs Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen both had 100 yards receiving in the Bears' opener. Cal hadn't had two 100-yard receivers in the same game since 2006. ... Colorado WR Toney Clemons, who started his career at Michigan, now has played in three conferences - the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. ... Oregon TB LaMichael James entered the season listed among the leading Heisman candidates, but managed just 54 yards on 18 carries in a 40-27 season-opening loss to LSU. He's certainly not out of the running for the award, but if James doesn't have a big performance against Nevada, he could fall out of contention early. ... Oregon State true freshman RB Malcolm Agnew, who debuted with 223 rushing yards, strained a hamstring in practice this week and his status for the game with Wisconsin is uncertain. ... Stanford's Chris Owusu had a 59-yard kickoff return last week, the seventh return of his career that covered at least 50 yards. ... UCLA QB Kevin Prince remains questionable after sustaining a concussion and a sprained shoulder in a loss to Houston. Even if he can play, the Bruins figure to start Richard Brehaut, who played well in place of Prince. ... Arizona State starting OT Aderious Simmons sprained an ankle in the opener and is questionable for Missouri. If Simmons cannot play, senior Dan Knapp will shift to the right side and sophomore Evan Finkenberg will start on the left side. ... Utah RB John White, a junior college transfer, rushed for 150 yards in the first game for the best debut for a Utah running back since 1998. ... Washington RB Chris Polk is coming off the 12th 100-yard game of his career. ...Winning streaks haven't come easily for Washington State in recent seasons, but on Saturday the Cougars face UNLV with a chance to post back-to-back victories for the first time since defeating San Diego State and Idaho in the second and third games of the 2007 season. ... Oregon State DT Kevin Frahm, who sat out the Beavers' opening loss to Sacramento State, will be back in the lineup this weekend. The Beavers also were without WR James Rodgers and TE Joe Halahuni last weekend and are expecting them to return for the Sept. 24 game against UCLA. ... Arizona State's Jamal Miles has returned kickoffs for touchdowns in consecutive games. He scored on a 98-yard return in the opener and on a 99-yard return in last season's finale. ... There has been no change in the status of suspended Oregon CB Cliff Harris. ... UCLA may have G Jeff Baca back in the lineup. He broke an ankle during spring drills, but is ready to return to action. ... USC QB Matt Barkley set a school record with 34 completions a week ago. At one point, he completed 16 consecutive passes.

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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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