- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Will Cal be able to keep coach Jeff Tedford? Will USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow get a shot a head-coaching job? What will be Oregon State's game plan against the top-ranked Trojans? Our Pac-10 notebook addresses those questions and provides looks at Stanford's struggling offense, Washington's lame-duck coach and much more.
While Mike Stoops feels for Washington coach Keith Gilbertson, who announced this week that he will resign at the end of the season, he's got his own problems, namely the same sorry state as the Huskies. Or at least the records 1-7 overall, 0-5 in the Pac-10 are the same.
The difference is Arizona has been competitive in every game, save the 38-0 loss to California. While the Huskies' average margin of defeat is 17 points, the Wildcats' is 11 points.
"We've made a great deal of progress over the last 11 months," Stoop said.
The Wildcats' last conference victory one of two in the past 21 games came against Washington last year, and a win in Husky Stadium likely would keep them out of the conference cellar.
"Not next year, we're playing for this year," Stoops said.
Stoops has rightfully lamented his team's offensive woes, but it seemed like redshirt freshman quarterback Richard Kovalcheck started to find his rhythm in the second half against Oregon State. He ended up completing 19 of 38 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown, including four passes for 102 yards to junior Biren Ealy.
Kovalcheck's yardage total was nearly 100 yards more than the season average for the man he replaced, Kris Heavner. Stoops said he likes Kovalcheck's toughness against an aggressive pass rush intended to rattle him and believes he sees the field better than Heavner.
"It seemed like he gained some confidence," Stoops said. "But we're only two games into his young career."
One thing that has happened this year for Stoops, a former Big Ten player at Iowa and long-time Big 12 coach at Kansas State and Oklahoma, is he has developed a healthy respect for the Pac-10.
"I think the Pac-10 is better than I anticipated," he said.
Finally, let's establish the nation's toughest schedule. By the end of the season, Arizona will have faced: No. 1 USC, No. 4 California, No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 7 Utah and No. 23 Arizona State.
It's abundantly clear that Arizona State will have to settle for, at best, the top-third instead of the top-fifth of the conference after losing to USC and California by a combined count of 72-7. It seems like the Sun Devils saved their worst for the best, but it's apparently not a topic coach Dirk Koetter is eager to chat about.
When asked what his team needs to do to get back on track, he snapped, "You go back to doing things that helped you get six wins." The problem is they haven't finished strong the past three years, going 0-5, 1-4 and 1-4.
Koetter did opine that he doesn't think that tailback Loren Wade will be able to return this season from a suspension during an on-going NCAA investigation into a possible extra benefits violation. That means the return of Hakim Hill is doubly important. Hill had 104 yards on nine carries against the Bears' rugged defense, including a career-best 57-yard run.
"My only charge for Hakim will be consistency," Koetter said.
Koetter might have a right to be a little irritable, and not just because his team lost four fumbles against the Bears (after losing zero in the previous seven games), or that he suffered his first shutout defeat in his 81-game career as a head coach against Cal, or that his kicker Jesse Ainsworth has missed three of his last five field goals.
That's not it. Look at the polls. At No. 23 Arizona State, ranked eighth in the Sagarin ratings, is three spots behind Iowa. Both teams have two losses and the Sun Devils whipped the Hawkeyes 44-7.
It's begun. California coach Jeff Tedford, who probably will be a rumored candidate for every major job this winter, was asked about vacancies at Florida and Washington this week. He provided a neutral, generic answer that won't make Cal folks comfortable.
"I've made it clear that I'm very happy at Cal and hope everything works out here," he said.
He added that he will talk to administrators about delayed facilities improvements when the regular season ends. It seems likely Washington will at least test the waters with Tedford.
One coaching change Tedford was pleased to talk about was the return of offensive coordinator George Cortez, who missed the last two games after undergoing a pair of eye surgeries for a detached retina. Tedford has said that Cortez and he split the play-calling duties.
"That tends to be a security blanket," he said. "It was a little odd not talking to anyone between series."
Cal will play host to Oregon this weekend, and revenge will surely be on the Bears minds after the Ducks turned the lights out on them last year. Cal led 17-7 in the fourth and it appeared Oregon was headed for its fifth defeat in six games, but a 23-minute power outage at Autzen Stadium apparently electrified the Ducks, who rallied for a 21-17 victory.
A late Aaron Rodgers interception ended a comeback attempt. But Tedford wasn't blaming the delay or making excuses this week about one of the few games the Bears have blown on his watch.
"I don't think we let up," he said. "They made a couple of plays at the end and we didn't finish the job."
If Cal maintains its current No. 4 ranking in the BCS standings (which matches both major polls), it will be guaranteed a BCS bowl berth, which almost certainly will be the Rose Bowl. Of course, now the Bears have an outside shot of slipping into the national title game if three teams ahead of them lose, which is not outside of the realm of possibility. As it is, Cal's ranking in both major polls is its highest in 52 years.
Oregon's new thing appears to be the "turning point game." This year, facing a potentially disastrous 1-5 start, the Ducks rallied for 27 fourth-quarter points to beat Washington State. It was the first of four victories that reverse the tide of the season (conversely, the Cougars went into the tank).
Last year, Oregon trailed California 17-7 in the fourth quarter at Autzen Stadium and appeared headed for its fifth defeat in six games, but quarterback Kellen Clemens came off the bench and rallied the Ducks after a 23-minute power outage for a 21-17 victory.
It was Clemens' coming out party. He led the Ducks to three consecutive victories to end the regular season, and turned in a masterful performance in a losing effort against Minnesota in the Sun Bowl.
"(The Cal game) certainly provided a boost of confidence for us and was a turning point in our season," coach Mike Bellotti said. "All of the sudden, something clicked, and it wasn't just because of the lights going out."
This is a much different Cal team, though, one that has its sights on a Rose Bowl berth. But if the Ducks pull the upset and run the table, they could end up in the Holiday Bowl and relegate the Bears to the Sun Bowl. Of course, that would cost each Pac-10 team about $450,000, the payout for earning two BCS bowl berths. It's also worth noting that the Ducks four game winning streak has come at the expense of teams with a combined 3-17 record in the conference.
Oregon has some injury issues, too. Receiver Demetrius Williams, who appeared to be hitting his stride two weeks ago, is still struggling with turf toe, and he may have to give way to Marcus Maxwell, who was last seen letting an easy touchdown pass bounce off his chest into the arms of a Washington defensive back.
The Ducks also will need catches from rising freshman Cameron Colvin and sophomore Kyle Weatherspoon. Colvin caught six passes equaling his previous season total for 89 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskies.
Not everything is making Bellotti happy these days, most noticeably his irritation with fans booing at Autzen Stadium when the Ducks' offense stymied in the second half against the hated Huskies.
Bellotti told the Eugene Register Guard: "That is utterly irresponsible toward the players on the field. I don't care if they boo the coaches, and that's maybe what they thought they were doing, but It's disrespectful, it's irresponsible, it's whatever you want to call it. I try to figure out if you beat the Huskies 31-6 in your stadium that any time booing is needed. Call and boo on my telephone. Don't do it for the players. That's a very jaded fan, when you've won four in a row."
Sometimes the rules of football don't apply. There is no point to Oregon State trying to establish the run against top-ranked USC. The Beavers own the Pac-10's worst rushing offense; they had just 61 yards on 37 carries against Arizona. The Trojans own the nation's fourth-best rushing defense. Sometimes trying to run the ball is just a waste of time.
"It would be really important if they weren't leading the world in run defense," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said, appearing to agree.
But Riley, at least according to his public comments, doesn't want to get into the type of frenzied shootout that happened last year, when quarterback Derek Anderson passed for a school-record 485 yards with two touchdowns, but also threw four interceptions in a 52-28 defeat.
"I don't want to throw 50 or 60 passes like last year," Riley said.
Anderson became the school's career passing and total offense leader last week, and his 9,876 yards passing ranks fifth on the Pac-10's career charts. He figures to become the conference's fifth quarterback to eclipse the 10,000-yard mark, but statistics have never been the problem. The issue is can Anderson lead his team to a marquee victory by making plays and not making mistakes against perhaps the top defense in the nation?
"He's going to have to read the defense very well and very fast," Riley said.
That's for sure. The Trojans lead the league with 35 sacks, nine more than any other team (and more than twice as many as four teams).
Oregon State, which has won three in a row to reach .500 for the first time this season, has beaten a No.1-ranked USC team before. Tagged the greatest upset in school history, the Beavers bested John McKay's Trojans on Nov. 11, 1967. Of course, USC leads the series 56-8-4.
A few weeks ago, Stanford looked like it was surging toward its first bowl game since 2001. But after being shut out by a UCLA defense that had given up 93 points to its previous two opponents, the Cardinal again look adrift under third-year coach Buddy Teevens.
It's hard to imagine that there are two wins remaining in a schedule that starts with No. 23 Arizona State on Saturday, and then includes Oregon State and No. 4 California.
Stanford couldn't run against one of the nation's worst rushing defenses, and quarterback Trent Edwards looked completely out of sorts, tossing three interceptions. It appeared that he hadn't fully recovered from injuries that knocked him out of the Oregon game.
"He struggled a little bit," Teevens said. "He would be the first to admit that it wasn't his sharpest game He was forcing things a little bit."
Tight end Alex Smith may be making a bid for all-conference honors. For the second consecutive weekend, he set career highs with 10 receptions for 136 yards against UCLA. He's had 19 reception for 246 yards in the last two games. His third overall in the conference in receptions (44), tops among tight ends.
For the third consecutive week, Teevens said that junior Brian Head, who sat out the previous two weeks, will be ready to go Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter still needs two touchdown passes to break John Elway's Pac-10 career record, but the Cardinal have surrendered a league-low four touchdown passes.
UCLA coach Karl Dorrell has patiently tolerated the doubts about his team, particularly the predictions of a late-season slide after a blown fourth-quarter lead against Arizona State. But the 21-0 shutout victory over Stanford seemed to beacon better times for a program that had lost its bearings for a few years.
Now the Bruins, picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 during the preseason, are a victory away from a bowl game.
"No question, we feel good that a lot of our progress has started to show," Dorrell said. "This team has been different all along."
Of course, it could fall apart at home this weekend if they don't take care of business against a reeling Washington State team. The Bruins will be underdogs at Oregon and against No. 1 USC to conclude the season, so this one feels like a must-win.
The defense, which notched its first shutout against a Pac-10 opponent since 1987, has dramatically improved. It's surrendered just over 200 yards rushing over the past two games combined Stanford's 83 yards was a season-low and lowered its average per game by nearly 40 yards to 218. The past two games, UCLA has intercepted six passes and doubled its meager sack total from five to 10.
One big explanation is improved health. Junior linebacker Justin London played his best game of the year against Stanford and may finally be healthy, while sophomore end Justin Hickman also is on the mend.
Another good move: Coordinator Larry Kerr opted to move from the sidelines to the press box, allowing linebackers coach Brian Schneider to signal in the plays.
"It made a difference," said Dorrell, who said Kerr came up with the idea. "He was able to do the necessary adjustments with a better feel."
Sophomore tailback Maurice Drew's 68-yard punt return was his 10 touchdown of 40 yards or more in his career. While Reggie Bush gets most of the attention, it's worth noting that Drew is first in the conference and second in the nation in all-purpose yards (179.8 yards per game).
While he might not make a dynamic first impression, there is no better offensive football mind in the country than Norm Chow. It's about time he gets the right type of opportunity to be a head coach.
"Absolutely," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "He'll be a great head coach He's done everything you could do in college coaching."
While his candidacy might be a long shot, it's possible that he might be contacted by Washington after the regular season ends, and he could even end up at Utah if Urban Meyer bails on the Utes (he interviewed before Meyer was hired two years ago). If Chow leaves the Trojans, the rest of the Pac-10 will let out a sign of relief, though not as much if he takes over another conference team.
One of the great myths in the Pac-10 is how hard it is for teams from the Southwest to take on teams from the Northwest. For one, the Northwest teams are primarily made up of athletes from Southern California. Second, it just doesn't matter witness USC's visit to Washington State last weekend. The cold? The sleet?
"I didn't bother us a bit," Carroll said. "It was kind of fun because it was hailing so hard. Guys got a kick out of it."
There's some worrisome and optimistic news on the injury front. Guard John Drake's ankle continues to give him problems and he may miss Saturday's game at Oregon State. If Drake can't go, freshman Jeff Byers will make his first start. On a positive and surprising note, receiver Steve Smith could return to action next week when the Trojans play host to Arizona. Smith has made a quick recovery from a fractured leg.
When a new football coach is hired it almost always brings an injection of enthusiasm into a program, a cresting wave that the coach gets to ride for at least a year or two. Keith Gilbertson never got that when he was hired at Washington, and that's a big reason his two-year tenure ended with what amounted to a force resignation this week.
"I never, never felt I was anything but interim," he said.
Hired just days before 2003 practices began, he was dropped into the tumultuous and controversial aftermath of the Le Affair de Neuheisel, and it was a nearly impossible situation. That said, the Huskies dramatically underachieved his first year, and the existing talent is far better than the 1-7 record indicates. The Huskies won't be a major overhaul. With the right coach, a .500 record wouldn't be too ambitious next year, followed by a return to contention by 2006.
Among the potential top candidates: Utah's Urban Meyer, Cal's Jeff Tedford, Boise State's Dan Hawkins, Missouri's Gary Pinkel, Oklahoma State's Les Miles and USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
Despite throwing four interceptions against Oregon, junior Casey Paus will remain the starting quarterback this weekend against Arizona. Gilbertson said he saw the bad like everyone else but he also saw a lot of good.
"I told him that was the most alive our passing game looked for a while," he said.
Gilbertson appears to be sticking to his word, given last week, that Paus would start the remainder of the season, a highly unpopular decision with fans. Gilbertson did say that Isaiah Stanback and or Carl Bonnell could play.
It's possible senior receiver Charles Frederick, the Huskies' only true playmaker, could return against Arizona after sitting out two games with a hamstring problem.
While they're in-state rivals, Washington State coach Bill Doba called Washington coach Keith Gilbertson on Monday to tell him to buck up. He then called back a few minutes later after discovering that Gilbertson was about to be fired to make sure he didn't sound like a jerk, seeing that he'd just found out that Gilbertson had been fired.
"I was genuinely concerned about him," Doba said.
He's also concern about the Cougars' first winless October since 1998. Few of the present Cougars can even remember the struggles of just a few years ago. Most are probably pretty used to winning and are shocked by losing. But Doba said they wouldn't tank because a bowl berth now only seems a remote possibility.
"They've got pride," he said. "These guys aren't going to quit."
The Cougars might get some long-awaited good news. The highly touted tight end combo of Troy Bienemann and Cody Boyd might reappear at UCLA on Saturday. Both were expected to be key offensive weapons, and neither has contributed much this year. Bienemann has struggled with a deep shin bruise, while Boyd has been out since separating his shoulder. Both figure, however, to have only limited availability.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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