October 18, 2007

Unlikely leaders must prove they belong

MORE WEEK 8 BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | SEC

Saturday's games
Cal 27, UCLA 14
USC 31, Notre Dame 10
Arizona 21, Stanford 20
Oregon 35, Washington 17

Overview: The second half of the season continues with two unlikely teams topping the Pac-10 standings. California's loss to Oregon State means Arizona State leads the league. The undefeated Sun Devils (4-0 in the league) have won more than four conference games just twice since 2000. And while UCLA flopped against non-conference foes Notre Dame and Utah, the Bruins (3-0) are the only other Pac-10 team undefeated in league play. The conference race and national picture could again be turned upside down when three ranked Pac-10 teams Oregon, Cal and USC - go on the road this weekend.

Best matchup: Cal pass offense vs. UCLA pass defense. DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan make up the Pac-10's best receiving corps, but UCLA has the ability to stop them. Bruins CBs Trey Brown and Rodney Van have four interceptions and 13 pass breakups between them, and DE Bruce Davis, with 6.5 sacks, can cause trouble for the Cal quarterback - no matter who it is.

The pressure is on: Oregon QB Dennis Dixon and TB Jonathan Stewart. The Ducks have a league loss, but still are a legitimate threat for the conference - and even national - title. They will have to do it with an offense decimated by season-ending injuries to receivers Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin and tailback Jeremiah Johnson. The onus is on Dixon and Stewart to carry the Ducks' offense.

Who's hot: Oregon DE Nick Reed had 11 tackles and 3.5 sacks against Washington State, marking the fourth consecutive game Reed has had a sack. USC TE Fred Davis has 11 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games. Washington State LB Andy Mattingly has six sacks in the past two games.

Who's not: Arizona has been held to less than 40 yards rushing in five of seven games this season. Arizona State QB Rudy Carpenter has been sacked 21 times in the past four games.

Keep your eye on: Will there be a new No. 1 receiver at Cal? DeSean Jackson is a game-breaker, but Lavelle Hawkins has been a more consistent performer. Jackson had only four catches for 5 yards in the loss to Oregon State, and has had more than 45 receiving yards in a game only once this year. Hawkins had nine receptions for a career-high 192 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Oregon State.

Numbers game: Arizona State has beaten three teams that went on to beat top-three teams: Colorado (who beat No. 3 Oklahoma), Oregon State (who beat No. 2 Cal) and Stanford (who beat No. 1 USC). USC's No. 13 ranking is the lowest the Trojans have been in the polls since Oct. 26, 2002. Washington QB Jake Locker accounts for 71.5 percent of the Huskies' offense with 1,395 yards of total offense.

Freshman to watch: USC TB Joe McKnight ignited the Trojans with a 45-yard punt return and a 59-yard run in the 20-13 win over Arizona last week. With QB Evan Sharpley starting in place of Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, it means a matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the class of 2007 will have to wait until at least next season. Clausen was No. 1, McKnight No. 2.

Arizona State4-07-0
Southern California3-15-1
Oregon State2-24-3
Washington State0-42-5
Injury update: USC TB Stafon Johnson, OT Sam Baker and LB Brian Cushing (ankle) expect to return against Notre Dame. LB Rey Maualuga (hip) is doubtful. C Kristofer O'Dowd and G Chilo Rachal also could return from injuries this week. Cal QB Nate Longshore's status is uncertain after he sat out last week's loss to Oregon State with a sprained ankle. UCLA QB Patrick Cowan may not play against Cal because of a partial tear of the MCL in his right knee. TB Chris Markey (turf toe) missed UCLA's last game against Notre Dame and has been limited in practice this week Arizona State TB Ryan Torain had an MRI on his left foot Wednesday. He was sidelined during the win over Washington last week. TE Brent Miller (knee) could return against Cal in two weeks. Stanford TE Jim Dray will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee. Cal K Tom Schneider is out for the season with a torn quadriceps muscle. He's 32 points shy of the school's career scoring record.

They said it:

"There seems to be an ebb and flow to this whole thing. Two weeks ago everybody thought we were good on offense, and now everybody thinks we are terrible. When you play good people, you are going to struggle. USC and Oregon State are the two best defenses in the Pac-10."
Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, to the Tucson (Ariz.) Citizen)

"It really hit hard. I didn't watch any ESPN, no college football shows, didn't listen to reports on the radio. There was just so much negativity. I actually turned my cellphone off."
California WR Lavelle Hawkins on the aftermath of the 31-28 loss to Oregon State, to The Los Angeles Times

"At times like this, you can't really tell right after a game if we're coming apart or not. ... It can definitely go both ways. That's the responsibility of myself and other seniors on the team to make sure we stay together in times like this. Nobody expects us to win another game, so we just have to keep practicing hard and playing hard."
Washington State receiver Michael Bumpus after the Cougars' 53-7 loss to Oregon, to the Seattle Times.

Etc.: Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State are off this week. A good week for Pac-10 punters last week: Arizona's Keenyn Crier kicked an 83-yard punt against USC, the longest in the Pac-10 since 1930. And Cal's Andrew Larsen averaged a school-record 55.8 yards on four punts against Oregon State. Arizona State freshman Thomas Weber has started his career by making his first 14 field-goal attempts. The 14 in a row is a school record. Stanford QB T.C. Ostrander lost his starting job to Tavita Pritchard after the upset of USC, but Ostrander returned in the loss to TCU as a no-huddle specialist. He was 3-for-3 for 23 yards but was sacked twice while running the no-huddle in the second quarter in the loss to the Horned Frogs.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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