Originally Published: July 29, 2010

Ducks Determined To Remain Pac-10's Top Dog

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

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.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesLane Kiffin is looking forward to the Trojans finally getting to concentrate on football.

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.

"It's always a question mark when you lose your quarterback," Kelly said. "We have two competent players in Nate Costa and Darron Thomas who will battle it out in preseason camp."

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

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

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

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

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.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Don RyanJacquizz Rodgers is determined to lead the Beavers to the Rose Bowl.

"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

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

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

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

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.

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