QB play critical to Pac-10 success

8/25/2009 - College Football

In the not-too-distant past, the Pac-10 was widely known as a high-flying conference of quarterbacks, other than USC, which was Tailback U.

That's changed. While USC has adopted a tailback-by-committee approach, the last four Trojans quarterbacks have been NFL draft choices -- three were selected early in the first round -- while the rest of the conference has become Quarterback Who?

Take last season.

USC's Mark Sanchez and Arizona's Willie Tuitama were the only quarterbacks to join the Pac-10's 39-man list of 3,000-yard passers, and both only did so with huge bowl game performances -- 413 yards for Sanchez and 325 for Tuitama -- numbers that wouldn't have counted before 2002, when the NCAA started including bowl games in official statistics.

Sanchez and Tuitama also were the only two conference quarterbacks to rank in the nation's top 47 in passing yards. In 2002, six Pac-10 quarterbacks ranked among the top 18. In 2004, six ranked among the top 38.

High-flying offenses? Try 3 yards and a cloud of dust: In 2008, six Pac-10 running backs eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and five are back for another go this season.

What in the name of Troy Aikman and John Elway is going on?

"There was a time when the Pac-10 was just a throwing conference. It isn't like that anymore," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "I think balance is better. It's more difficult [to defend]. Teams that are heavily weighted for passing or running give you a better chance to defend them. We've always maintained a philosophy of being balanced. So I think you're seeing more well-rounded offenses."

So teams are running the ball more.

Only Arizona State and UCLA threw more than they ran last year. The previous two seasons, three teams passed more than they ran. In 2002, four teams passed more than they ran.

In 2008, Pac-10 teams averaged 386 passes and 462 runs. In 2002, they averaged 471 passes and 427 runs.

In fact, at Pac-10 media day, more than a few coaches talked about how a league once known for its finesse has become more physical, with USC setting the example with an emphasis on defense and offensive balance.

Last year, USC, Oregon State, Arizona and California ranked among the top 26 in the nation in total defense, ahead of such defensive stalwarts as Miami, Auburn, LSU, Texas and Oklahoma. Six conference teams ranked in the top 50.

In 2002, just three Pac-10 defenses ranked in the top 50.

Arizona State and UCLA also could have Top 25 defenses this fall.

"It's a different style of play," new Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "This is a much more physical conference than people think. There's a lot of structure around defense. There's a lot of structure around the running game -- shortening games, taking care of the football. It's paid dividends for everybody. It's not as wide open now as other conferences. The stats aren't as gaudy."

Of course, this is the warm/snuggly side of the quarterback question. There's another explanation for the decline in passing numbers: a decline in quarterback quality.

"I was going to allude to that," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, tiptoeing around the question like most of the coaches did.

"We've had some good quarterbacks, but not those NFL guys like in past years."

While the Pac-10 is still the pre-eminent conference in terms of producing NFL quarterbacks -- eight Pac-10 quarterbacks were ranked among the top 38 of ESPN.com's latest fantasy rankings -- the assembly line has been slowing of late.

At one point early in their careers, Tuitama, Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter and California's Nate Longshore were thought of as elite quarterbacks. None of the three, however, was drafted this year.

The national discussion doesn't include any Pac-10 quarterbacks this fall. All-American teams are dominated by Florida's Tim Tebow, Texas' Colt McCoy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead.

Of course, there's always interest in who might become USC's new starter. And the way Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli finished last season raised some eyebrows. Oh, and some folks have tipped their caps to the return from injury of Washington's Jake Locker.

But it's unlikely any Pac-10 quarterback will win any national awards, earn All-American honors or become a first-day pick in the 2010 NFL draft.

Part of the reason is only three teams -- and maybe two -- will start a senior quarterback: Arizona State (Danny Sullivan), Oregon State (Lyle Moevao) and Washington State (Kevin Lopina).

And therein lies future hope. There's intriguing youth at the position.

California (Kevin Riley), Washington (Jake Locker) and Oregon (Masoli) expect much better passing numbers with experienced junior quarterbacks. Arizona will start a sophomore (Matt Scott) and Stanford will start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Luck) with no game experience. Same for USC, which will turn to a sophomore (Aaron Corp) or true freshman (Matt Barkley).

Before USC started dominating the conference, a senior quarterback was considered almost a prerequisite for success. From 1992 to 2002, eight of 11 Pac-10 champions were quarterbacked by seniors, while two others were fourth-year players.

That said, Tuitama, Carpenter and Longshore were young-gun starters, and only Tuitama looked better as a senior than he did as a sophomore.

Rick Neuheisel was Washington's coach when Cody Pickett set a conference record with 4,458 yards passing in 2002. Now leading UCLA, Neuheisel no longer believes throwing the ball 47 times a game is a good thing.

"I think, in retrospect, we got a little bit out over our skis when we started throwing so much with Cody," he said.

The Bruins this season, Neuheisel has said, will run or die trying.

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has one of the conference's brightest passing prospects in redshirt freshman Andrew Luck, but the former Michigan quarterback is one of the prime proponents of emphasizing a physical style of play.

"You don't have to throw for 3,000 yards to be a great quarterback," he said.

But are there any great quarterbacks in the Pac-10? That's a critical question for the conference this season and moving forward.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the Pac-10 for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.