Issues to consider heading into the ninth week of games.
USC must disrupt Thomas' rhythm: There seem to be a few basics to slowing down Oregon's offense, starting with having a good defensive line that can defeat blocks, as well as enough team speed to close before the Ducks get into space. The second is having a good plan -- see Boise State and Ohio State last year and Arizona State this year. At this point in the season, Ducks QB Darron Thomas has exceeded expectations and shown remarkable poise. He's become a good QB, not just a game manager who gets the ball to playmakers, such as LaMichael James. He has yet to get rattled, though the Sun Devils did force the Ducks to punt 11 times. The Trojans have had an extra week to prepare: Do they have a plan that taxes Thomas, both physically and mentally?
Which Cal shows up in Corvallis? Cal has good players. It's not the most talented team in the Pac-10, but it has top-25 talent. But it doesn't -- duh -- always play like that. The team that got blown out by Nevada and USC wasn't the same team that rolled Colorado, UCLA and Arizona State. So far this year, the common denominator is the road -- Cal is 0-3 away from Berkeley; 4-0 inside Strawberry Canyon. But, really, it's mostly about showing up with a good plan and playing with focus and intensity. The Beavers are beaten up with injuries, but they will show up on Saturday and play hard. It's what they do. If the Bears match their motivation, they've got a good shot to win. If they don't, they'll get rocked.
Locker vs. Luck: Washington QB Jake Locker and the Huskies have not lived up to high preseason expectations. While Locker is still a likely early-round NFL draft pick, his decision to return for his senior year now, obviously, doesn't seem like a good one, considering he was likely a top-10 pick last spring. Meanwhile, Stanford's Andrew Luck has often looked like the best QB in the nation -- a sure-thing in the NFL. The press box at Husky Stadium will be overflowing with NFL scouts on Saturday. The matchup is an opportunity for one -- or both -- to make a statement.
Will UCLA rally? Little is going right for UCLA at present. A team that a few weeks ago looked like it had turned a corner when it beat Houston and Texas on back-to-back weekends, is now floundering after blowout losses to Cal and Oregon. Moreover, QB Kevin Prince is out for the season with a knee injury, and two other offensive starters -- left tackle Sean Sheller and leading receiver Ricky Marvray -- have been suspended for the Arizona game. Still, one thing that Rick Neuheisel has done throughout his career is rally his team when it is down. Will he get a rally from his Bruins? Or are they ready to raise a white flag on the season?
Sun Devils are on upset alert: This is easy. Arizona State looked bad at Cal, and QB Steven Threet is coming back from a concussion. How inspired will the Sun Devils be against Washington State? The Cougars? They fought until the bitter end against Stanford. Each week it seems like the Cougs' confidence takes an uptick, even in defeat. Their visit to ASU seems like a prime opportunity to break through with a conference win.
Can USC and Matt Barkley protect the football? Barkley is the top-rated QB in the Pac-10. He's only thrown four interceptions this year -- against 20 TD passes. Oregon's defense is No. 1 in the conference in passing efficiency and it has grabbed 13 interceptions, five more than any other Pac-10 team. Last year, Barkley ran into problems when he tried to force passes into small spaces. That hasn't been the case of late. But in a big game when Barkley feels pressure to make plays opposite the Ducks high-powered offense, it could become an issue. Oregon, by the way, is No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin.
Can the Beavers block the Bears? Two Oregon State offensive linemen are banged up -- center Alex Linnenkohl and guard Grant Johnson. The Beavers have struggled at times in pass protection, and the running game has been inconsistent. Cal's front seven is strong. The Bears rank second in the conference in run defense, and have recorded 19 sacks, which is tied for second. If the Bears control the line of scrimmage, they have a good chance to notch the road upset.
Which D makes a stand in Seattle? Stanford's defense has been OK this year, but it looked bad against Oregon and lost focus late versus Washington State. It ranks in the middle of the conference in most categories. The Huskies' defense ranks toward the bottom in nearly everything, but it should at least benefit from the home crowd. If the UW defense looks like it did last week at Arizona, the Huskies have no chance. Or if the Stanford secondary gets exposed by Locker, then an upset is possible.