Ducks Determined To Remain Pac-10's Top Dog
PASADENA, Calif. -- It's one thing to beat out USC for the Pac-10 title. It's another to change perception. Oregon did the first in 2009, and it opens 2010 seemingly doing the second by earning the top spot in the preseason Pac-10 media poll.
For the first time in seven years, a team other than USC is the favorite.
But there's a third step for Oregon: replacing the now-wounded Trojans as the lead dog -- lead Duck? -- in the Pac-10 pecking order. To do that, the Ducks need only repeat as champs in a conference that features seven teams that at least one reporter deemed worthy of a first-place vote.
The Ducks can't motivate themselves by trying to prove their doubters wrong, an approach many coaches and players adopt when they are unhappy with their perch in media polls. They can't claim they are being disrespected. They are the favorites.
"What do you say when you're on top?" defensive tackle Brandon Bair said with a shrug.
Oh, but you know what they do say: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Or not.
"Preseason rankings don't mean anything to us," coach Chip Kelly said.
Thing is, Oregon might have been an overwhelming favorite instead of nipping USC by just three points and three first-place votes -- one pollster even dumped the Ducks into ninth place. If Jeremiah Masoli hadn't thrown what had been an outstanding career into a Dumpster, he would have been hanging out in New York this week with the other Pac-10 quarterbacks, answering a hundred questions about his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
As it is, the Ducks still have 18 starters back, and appear deeper and faster than any other team in the conference. But quarterbacks are, you know, important.
Bair said the Ducks are treating Masoli's, er, departure like a graduation -- next guy steps up. But Bair rejected the notion that it's "Rose Bowl or bust" for the new conference front-runners. Sort of.
"I'm not going to say Rose Bowl or bust -- I'm shooting for Arizona," Bair said. "If we can be the best that we can, the Rose Bowl is the worst that can happen to us."
Arizona, by the way, is the site of this season's national title game.
Bruins Hope Pistol Plan Adds Offensive Punch
NEW YORK -- UCLA has switched to the pistol offense employed so well by Nevada to find a way to run the ball and to make the defense work harder. The Bruins went 4-2 when they rushed for 100 yards last season, 3-4 when they didn't.
"It reminds me a lot of what we did at Washington," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. In 1999, the first of Neuheisel's four seasons there, the Huskies began the season 0-2. And then, "we found the elixir."
Quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo had run the Veer in high school. Neuheisel incorporated Tuiasosopo's ability to run into the offense. The Huskies won 18 of their next 22 games, finishing No. 3 in the nation in 2000.
"They had to defend it every play," he said. "The pistol is Veer from the shotgun. If you have the proclivity, and we're working towards it, it can be a real weapon running the football. Defensively, you have to plan for it. That simplifies the whole defense for our offense."
Neuheisel guarantees nothing.
"Hopefully we can make good use of it. I hesitate to tell you how much. I have to see it," he said. "But it's been a worthwhile investment."
Kiffin Keeping Expectations High For Trojans
PASADENA, Calif. -- They amassed two deep around the table of the new coach of the team that finished tied for fifth in the Pac-10 last season. And they waited. And waited. Other coaches were available. Chip Kelly, leader of the defending Pac-10 champions and 2010 conference favorites, stood off to the side, casually chatting with a couple of reporters.
But USC coach Lane Kiffin seems like a controversial story waiting to happen. You don't need to add water. You just wait and listen.
"You better say something interesting for as long as we've waited," one reporter said as Kiffin sat down.
"We've made up a bunch of quotes for you," another said.
It was all in fun for the most part, but everyone knows the media mantra "if it bleeds, it leads," and the perception -- with justification -- is Kiffin and the Trojans are bleeding. There are severe NCAA sanctions. There are transfers that have left the Trojans with just 71 scholarship players. There's an NFL team filing a lawsuit against Kiffin and the program.
Kiffin acknowledges that some view USC as a dynasty in decline. The term he uses to describe the perception is "crumbling." But he also doesn't make any effort to plead for patience or to warn USC fans that tough times might be ahead.
"I cannot imagine USC fans ever lowering their expectations," Kiffin said. "And we like it that way. I'd be shocked if they ever lowered their expectations. I hope they don't. We didn't come here just to make it through this. We came here to play at a championship level, regardless of the sanctions."
Yes, Kiffin was surprised by how severe the NCAA sanctions -- 30 scholarships over three years, a two-year bowl ban -- were. But, yes, he still believes USC is his dream job.
As for the controversies that seem to seek him out like moths to a flame, Kiffin repeatedly returns to a simple and mostly meaningless phrase that amounts to a "whatever": "It is what it is."
What he really wants to do is direct. Everything, he said, will feel much better when he and the Trojans return to the field next week and a tumultuous offseason gets pushed to the background as practices begin. Perhaps the football part of football will offer an escape.
"It will be exciting to get to next week so we can get to football and get on the field," he said.
Rodgers Ready To Take Care Of Business
PASADENA, Calif. -- Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers didn't seem too bent out of shape that the Pac-10's East Coast swing featured only quarterbacks. The Rose Bowl is the place he'd rather be anyway.
"It was a great deal to just be out here, to see everything at the Rose Bowl," he said after Pac-10 media day. "That symbolizes where everybody is trying to reach."
Rodgers has piled up 2,693 rushing yards and 34 TDs in two seasons in which he earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors. He's not only the best running back in the Pac-10, he might be the best running back in the nation, which makes him a Heisman Trophy candidate. Rodgers is glad to play along with that sort of talk, but when he says he's not focused on it, you believe him. Rodgers isn't too into frills.
Take the Beavers' Sept. 4 marquee opener in Cowboys Stadium against TCU (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET), a sure top-10 team. While the game is a homecoming for the Texas native, and it will be fun to play in front of family and friends, it's still a serious business trip. Rodgers is tired of Oregon State's pattern of slow starts over the past four seasons (he's presumably fine with the fast finishes).
"For me, it's about going into that first game and starting the season on the right note," he said.
Rodgers' career is transitioning. He's gone from the good story -- the 5-foot-7 true freshman who came out of nowhere to make a touted USC defense look silly in 2008 -- to a junior All-American candidate and legitimate NFL prospect.
"I feel like I'm hungrier now," he said. "You know what you need to accomplish to make it to the next level, which is the long-term goal for me."
Rodgers met another diminutive running back at the ESPY Awards who made the transition from the Pac-10 to the NFL: former UCLA star Maurice Jones-Drew, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Still, Rodgers wasn't sure whether a comparison of the two was completely accurate.
"You can sort of say that. He's got the height," he said. "But that guy is wide. He's probably two times bigger than me [208 lbs versus 191]. We both run with power, but I like to shake people. I don't see that too much in his game."
Foles Found Comfort Zone In Arizona Desert
NEW YORK -- Arizona junior quarterback Nick Foles has come a long way from his freshman year at Michigan State. He doesn't sound like the prototypical unhappy transfer. He called Spartans coach Mark Dantonio "a great man." Foles went to San Antonio from his Austin home in January to see the Spartans play in the Alamo Bowl.
"I have a lot of close friends there," Foles said of the Spartans' team.
But ask why he transferred, and Foles unreels a string of woes.
Weather: "When I visited, there was snow one day, and that was cool. Then I went to live there, and it was cold for four months."
Injury: "I had shoulder surgery, and I spent the year building back the strength." That led to "a lack of confidence."
Sadness: "Both my grandmothers died that year."
Homesickness: "My dad came up and rented an apartment near campus."
Three years and 2,000 miles removed from East Lansing, Foles might lead the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl in 32 years of Pac-10 membership. It would complete the circle if Arizona arrived in Pasadena and found Michigan State waiting.
Sarkisian On Locker, Pac-10
One Good Thing
Arizona: The big question for Arizona is replacing three linebackers, but coach Mike Stoops isn't worried. "Our young players are going to have to step up and be players for us," Stoops said. "That will be a key element to our team but we just need to get out there and see what we have. It's different in practice than going out and making a big play on third down on a Saturday." But Stoops concluded with a reason he's optimistic: "We have always had a good defense, and I don't see that changing."
Arizona State: Coach Dennis Erickson said the QB competition between Brock Osweiler and Steven Threet is ongoing. "Brock Osweiler is probably as talented as I've had at that position," Erickson said. "Steven Threet played in big games when he was at Michigan." Osweiler probably led at the end of spring practices, but Erickson doesn't know how long it will take to announce a starter. "It's going to be a feel thing with [new offensive coordinator] Noel Mazzone and myself," Erickson said. "You'd like to name one before the first game, but you never know."
California: Expectations have changed for Cal, which is both a credit and burden to coach Jeff Tedford. The definition of a successful season for the Bears has changed during his tenure. "A success will be going to the Rose Bowl," he said. "That is what we are here for. It used to be eight or nine wins was a good season. People were satisfied with that. But that is not good enough anymore. We have to get over that hump. We have a burning desire to go to the Rose Bowl. Our fans do, our coaches do, our players do."
Oregon: Washington's Steve Sarkisian wore a solid purple tie Tuesday night in New York. Stanford's Jim Harbaugh wore a solid cardinal tie. Oregon State's Mike Riley wore orange, and Cal's Jeff Tedford wore gold. Oregon's Chip Kelly looked down at his olive tie. It was not highlighter yellow. "Hey, it matches my suit," he said (which it did). "And we may have a uniform this color, anyway."
Oregon State: Coach Mike Riley said he is excited about sophomore QB Ryan Katz. "Ability-wise, he has a wonderful arm," Riley said. "He can throw all the passes. He is pretty much unflappable, so I don't think he'll be intimidated by anything. He has two years of experience in the program." That said, Oregon State's system isn't easy to pick up for a new starting QB. Said Riley, "The transition always provides a mystery."
Stanford: Jim Harbaugh announced that Owen Marecic has no longer switched from fullback to linebacker. No, Marecic will be a full-time, two-way starter at both positions. "He is the perfect football player," Harbaugh said. "He is a tremendous worker." Of course, Harbaugh pointed out there are pluses and minuses to a two-way starter. "The idea is to get him on the football field as much as possible," Harbaugh said. "That decision is big. If Owen was to be hurt, we would have two starters lost." Harbaugh was asked why more teams don't play guys two ways. "Other teams don't have a guy like Owen Marecic," he said.
UCLA: The Bruins' special teams feature the 2009 Groza Award winner, kicker Kai Forbath; preseason All-American long snapper Christian Yount; All-Pac-10 punter Jeff Locke; and a suddenly conservative, very happy head coach. "Defensively, we play to that," Rick Neuheisel said, "not to be conservative but to have an advantage. You don't take unnecessary chances. You're going to get points there. You're going to make it. No question, you've got an ace in your pocket."
USC: It's no surprise that Trojans coach Lane Kiffin believes that NCAA sanctions against his program are too severe. But Kiffin did make a good point about a ruling the NCAA made that allows upperclassmen to transfer from USC at any time to another program without penalty. "The difficult thing was, with these sanctions, we created free agency in college football," Kiffin said. "We've dealt with free agency, [and] there's no salary cap on. Our players can leave at any time, and there's no penalty with it. The penalty is supposed to be a postseason ban, but the guys that left, when I talked to them, they weren't leaving to go somewhere and be in a bowl game. They were going to get more reps."
Washington: While the Huskies took some heat for immediately signing freshman LB Josh Shirley, who was kicked off UCLA's team, it's also clear Shirley addresses a need position. Coach Steve Sarkisian announced that Alvin Logan's career is is over due to chronic knee problems, according to the Seattle Times. Logan converted from safety during spring practices to strongside outside linebacker, where he was competing with Victor Aiyewa and Matt Houston.
Washington State: The Cougars remain hopeful that running back James Montgomery, a California transfer who was slated to start in 2009, will be able to return to action this season. Montgomery got hurt last year and then suffered what became a life-threatening condition on his leg. "He has been running around and is really looking good," coach Paul Wulff said. "We think he will be able to come back and play, which is a miracle to be honest. Don't think he will be in tip-top shape at the beginning of the season, but he will grow into it."
Oregon State: Jacquizz Rodgers
Tracking Pac-10 Media Days
Stanford: Jim Harbaugh
ESPN Los Angeles
Best Of Pac-10 Media Days
Best evaluation of New York City: "Damn," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "There are a lot of people there."
Longest opening statement: Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, according to the official transcript, greeted the media with a 364-word intro that was nearly seven minutes long. But, by the way, Harbaugh is never boring.
Kiffin no mythbuster: USC coach Lane Kiffin was asked whether he wanted to debunk any myths about himself. The question seemed to catch him off guard. "Wow. Where's my SID? He didn't prepare me for that. It wasn't in our notes," he said. After noting he beat QB Matt Barkley in a bench press contest, he gave up: "I don't know. There's a lot of them out there."
Best passing attack: UCLA's All-American safety Rahim Moore was asked which passing attack was toughest to defend in the conference. He said Arizona and Washington. "They blend well," Moore said. "They are like a family when they run their offense."