Don't be surprised if ... run defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Twelfth in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.

Don't be surprised if ... the ranking of run defenses is roughly equivalent to the conference standings.

Right, right ... we know. Every coach says you've got to be able to run the ball and stop the run to win. Yawn. Welcome to the world of gee-whiz observations.

Yet here's the situation: Six Pac-10 teams ranked among the nation's top 50 in rushing last year. All of those teams scored 21 or more rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.1 yards or more per carry.

Five running backs who eclipsed the 1,000-yard benchmark in 2008 are back this fall. And that doesn't include any of USC's stable of thoroughbreds or running quarterbacks like Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli or Washington's Jake Locker.

While there are many questions on offensive lines -- other than USC and, perhaps, California -- there are plenty of reasons to believe the conference will be as good running the ball again in 2009.

Ergo: Stop the run, win the ring.

Here's how run defenses stacked up last year.

Run Defense 2008
1. USC... 87.4 ypg (2.7 ypc)
2. Oregon... 119.4 ypg (3.1 ypc)
3. California... 122.2 ypg (3.2 ypc)
4. Arizona State... 126.5 ypg (3.5 ypc)
5. Arizona... 131.1 ypg (4.1 ypc)
6. Oregon State... 131.2 ypg (3.8 ypc)
7. Stanford... 152.9 ypg (4.3 ypc)
8. UCLA... 169.8 ypg (4.4 ypc)
9. Washington... 240.6 ypg (5.7 ypc)
10. Washington State... 247.6 ypg (5.8 ypc)

Notice how it stacks up much like the conference standings. Oregon State at sixth? That's a bit of a fluke. Before the Civil War, the Beavers ranked second and were giving up just 112 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.

Then something happened in the Civil War -- 385 yards of something, which any Oregon State fan will tell you it's absolutely pointless to regurgitate.

So who's looking good to stop the run this fall? While it's an over-simplification to hand all run-stopping responsibility to a front-7, that's what we're going to do.

Front-7 returning 2009
Washington... 7 (4 DL, 3 LB)
Arizona... 5 (4 DL, 1 LB)
Stanford... 5 (3 DL, 2 LB)
UCLA... 5 (3 DL, 2 LB)
Arizona State 4 (2 DL, 2 LB)
California... 4 (3 DL, 1 LB)
Oregon... 3 (1 DL, 2 LB)
Oregon State... 3 (1 DL, 2 LB)
Washington State... 2 (1 DL, 1 LB)
USC... (1 DL)

So, blending together past performance and what's coming back, what conclusions can we reach?

My first thought: Washington State ... gosh. Among many areas of concern, run defense probably ranks first.

Second thought: Anyone think USC's run-D is going to implode? Sure, the only returning starter is tackle Christian Tupou, who is expected to be a backup this fall. But little happened during spring practices to suggest a massive drop-off. While it seems almost certain that the Trojans won't hold teams to less than 90 yards per game, my guess is the rushing totals won't elevate over, say, 115 ypg, though teams figure to be reluctant to rely on the pass vs. the nation's best secondary.

Third thought: The Huskies should improve dramatically. Not only is everyone back, but E.J. Savannah's return from suspension is a massive upgrade at linebacker. Of course, dramatic improvement -- lopping 50 or 60 or even 70 yards off last year's total -- won't give Washington a great run defense. But the Steel Curtain wasn't built in a day.

Fourth thought: Hmm. Lots of "hmm," in fact.

It would seem that Arizona, Stanford and UCLA should feel fairly good about where they are.

Among the returning starters, UCLA tackle Brian Price is the only one who earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Toss in second-team all-conference linebacker Reggie Carter, and that's a good start for the Bruins' run-D, which was probably better than its numbers indicate from last year -- see an anemic offense that didn't help much.

While Arizona isn't deep at linebacker, it's front-7 should be strong. In contrast to most conference teams, Stanford's biggest concern is a secondary that was overmatched last year.

Arizona State and California also probably feel good about where they are. The Sun Devils boast tackle Lawrence Guy and end Dexter Davis and a deep crew of linebackers. The Bears' three-man defensive front should be outstanding -- perhaps among the best in the nation -- and don't expect too much drop-off at linebacker, despite the departure of three quality starters.

Oregon and Oregon State both have legitimate questions in terms of lack of experience and production, though neither program seemed to be wringing its collective hands at the end of spring practices.

The Ducks' defensive line played well during the spring and their linebackers will be more athletic than in past years.

Oregon State and coordinator Mark Banker have earned the benefit of the doubt, which is easier to provide when the lone returning defensive lineman is manimal Stephen Paea and the LB is second-team All-Pac-10 performer Keaton Kristick.

Is there a sure thing here? Probably not. But just about everyone has reason to hope it can be strong against the run.

And how strong probably determines where everyone finishes in the standings.