October 25, 2007

Ranked teams square off in Pac-10

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Saturday's games

Overview: The Pac-10 race gets more interesting Saturday when all four of the league's ranked teams play each other. Oregon, ranked fifth in the BCS, and Arizona State - ranked fourth - are in position to end USC's run as conference champion. Only a few weeks ago, the Trojans and the Cal Golden Bears appeared to be in position for the Pac-10 title. However, recent upsets have knocked them down a notch. The Ducks and Sun Devils can swoop in to take their places this week.

Best matchup: Oregon's run offense vs. USC's run defense. Injuries have left USC's offense in shambles despite a 38-0 win over Notre Dame last week. Shutting down Oregon's rushing attack of Jonathan Stewart and Dennis Dixon will be critical. The Ducks gouged Washington for 465 rushing yards and 39 first downs last week even without Jeremiah Johnson. Despite struggles elsewhere for USC, the Trojans' defense has remained stout, especially the front seven. Behind DT Sedrick Ellis and LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers, USC is fourth in the nation in run defense.

The pressure is on: Arizona State TBs Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance. The season-ending toe injury to Ryan Torain couldn't have come at a worse time for the Sun Devils. Arizona State starts the toughest stretch of its season Saturday against Cal. The speedy Herring and the physical Nance will try to strike a balance in the absence of Torain. After sitting out all season with an injury, junior college transfer Jarrell Woods could make his Arizona State debut Saturday as well.

Who's hot: Oregon TB Jonathan Stewart is averaging 149.2 yards per game against Pac-10 teams, boosted by a 251-yard performance last week against Washington. UCLA QB Patrick Cowan has won five consecutive Pac-10 starts, including wins over Cal and USC. Arizona LB Spencer Larsen has 20 solo tackles and five tackles for losses in his past two games. USC freshman TB Joe McKnight has emerged in the past two games, with 20 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown to go with 11 yards per punt return. Washington State LB Andy Mattingly has 26 tackles, six sacks and nine tackles for loss in his past two games.

Who's not: After throwing 15 touchdown passes in the first five games, Arizona's Willie Tuitama has thrown just one in the past three to go with four interceptions. Cal has allowed 100-yard rushers in each of the past three games and 175.7 rushing yards per game over that span. Washington State has allowed 500 yards of offense in three of the past four games.

Keep your eye on: UCLA. The USC-Oregon and Cal-Arizona State games mean the most in the national picture, but the Bruins' trip to Washington State is just as critical to the conference race. UCLA is 4-0 in the Pac-10, but a trip to Pullman could be cause for concern. The Bruins were outscored 23-0 in the second half to lose 37-15 to the Cougars last season. Washington State QB Alex Brink is 2-1 in his career against UCLA, completing 65 percent of his passes for 759 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Numbers game: For the first time since Nov. 17, 2001, USC will be an underdog in a Pac-10 game. Oregon is a three-point favorite. The last time it wasn't favored in any game, USC was an 2.5-point underdog to Michigan in the Rose Bowl in January. USC won 32-18. Arizona State's No. 7 ranking is its highest since 1996. Stanford is averaging a Pac-10-worst 24.1 points per game, but that's still two touchdowns better than last year's 10.6 points per game. Stanford has been outgained by 316 yards in its two Pac-10 wins (224 by USC, 92 by Arizona last week). UCLA averages 39.8 points per game against Pac-10 teams, but has averaged only 13 points per game in non-conference games against BYU, Utah and Notre Dame - the Bruins' three-lowest scoring games of the year. In 21 conference games, the visitor has won 11 times.

Arizona State4-07-0
Southern California3-16-1
Oregon State2-24-3
Washington State0-42-5
Freshman to watch: Arizona hasn't had any consistency running the ball under embattled coach Mike Stoops. TB Nicholas Grigsby, though, might be able to change that. He has two 100-yard games this season, including 126 yards in last week's loss to Stanford.

Injury update: USC coach Pete Carroll is in no hurry to make an announcement about whether QB John David Booty (broken finger) will return against Oregon. OT Sam Baker (hamstring) and G Chilo Rachal (knee) hoped to play this week against Oregon, but both suffered setbacks. C Kristofer O'Dowd returned to practice. Stanford TB Jason Evans will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Starting TB Anthony Kimble (shoulder) isn't expected to be available Saturday, and freshman backup Jeremy Stewart (shoulder) is questionable. Washington State WR Brandon Gibson (heel) is expected to return against UCLA. UCLA LB Christian Taylor (concussion) and DT Jess Ward (knee) are doubtful for the Washington State game. Cal WR Robert Jordan (shoulder) is expected to return against Arizona State.

They said it: "I've never been around a stretch like that, but I knew that going into the season. We knew what we were getting into and we knew how the schedule was. That's not going to change. That won't change at all."
Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson on his team's final five games: against Cal, Oregon, UCLA, USC and rival Arizona

"This may be the best offense we've ever seen. Nobody's been able to slow them down. We've got to find a way. I think we're ready to turn the corner. You can just feel it. We're getting better, we're getting stronger."
USC coach Pete Carroll on Oregon

"We've got five games left. There's a lot of football to be played. A decision will be made after that. Any kind of other talk is distraction to what the coaches and players are trying to do. They are trying to finish strong, so the best thing everyone can do is cheer for the Cougars on Saturdays."
Washington State athletic director Jim Sterk on the future of coach Bill Doba, in the Seattle Times

"I am pleased with our overall progress when you look at the big picture. The little picture doesn't look so great, but there are a lot of positives in what our kids are doing."
Arizona coach Mike Stoops, who is under heavy criticism after a 2-6 start.

Bowl implications: The Pac-10 championship is a long way from being decided, with one game separating conference leaders Arizona State and UCLA and one-loss Oregon and USC. This weekend could determine if the Pac-10 will have a spot in the national-championship game, with Arizona State facing its first test of the season and Oregon and USC playing in a likely elimination game. On the other side of the spectrum, two-win teams Arizona and Washington know this week is a must-win situation if they want to play in the postseason.

Etc.: Saturday's game between No. 9 USC and No. 5 Oregon will be the first meeting of top-10 conference teams in the 41-year history of Autzen Stadium. Oregon State starting OT Tavita Thompson has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for undisclosed reasons. USC senior TB Chauncey Washington is likely to remain the starter despite Stafon Johnson's return to health and Joe McKnight's emergence. Seven of Stanford's past nine victories have come on the road. California scored 42 first-half points en route to a 49-21 victory over Arizona State last season.

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

MORE WEEK 9 BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | SEC


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