The Ducks, Cardinal and Huskies have all been impressive early.
Oregon seemed to be the frontrunner in the preseason to host the first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game, but suspensions and a double-digit loss to SEC-power LSU in the opener raised questions. However, Chip Kelly’s Ducks have bounced back with three blowout wins in which they scored at least 56 points in each game.
Backup quarterback is leading the charge at Washington State
By Mitch Light
You can remove the name Paul Wulff from the list of coaches on the hot seat. For now, at least.
Wulff entered his fourth season at Washington State, his alma mater, with a 2–25 record in league games and an overall mark of 5–32. And the Cougars weren’t just losing — they were getting pounded, with regularity. Of those 32 losses, 15 came by at least 30 points. Washington State, simply put, was beyond bad.
The Cougs showed some signs of progress late last season, most notably in a 31–14 win at Oregon State in mid-November, but it was clear that Wulff needed to win some games in ’11 to save his job.
Consider his job saved. Washington State is now 3–1 after rallying from 10 down in the final minutes to knock off Colorado, 31–27, in Boulder on Saturday. The Cougs haven’t exactly faced a grueling slate — they own wins over Idaho State, UNLV and CU — but when you have averaged 1.7 wins over the previous three seasons, any win is a good win.
“Honestly, I think this was the best win of my life,” cornerback Daniel Simmons said after the game. “We’re moving in the right direction, and we’re very excited about what we’re going to do We kept working and kept believing, and that’s what it’s about. We worked so hard over the summer and this is the end result.”
The Cougars’ hot start is even more impressive when you factor in that they have been without starting quarterback Jeff Tuel for the last three games. Considered to be one of the few true Pac-12-quality players on the Washington State offense, Tuel suffered a broken clavicle in the opener against Idaho State. With Tuel sidelined, Marshall Lobbestael, who had six career starts heading into this season, has been sensational running the Cougars’ attack. He has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,335 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. In the win at Colorado last week, Lobbestael threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the final three minutes.
“Practice pays off, and you have to practice these types of situations like we’ve practiced these past two weeks and how we practiced fourth quarters,” Lobbestael said following the game.
Tuel has been cleared to return to action, but Wulff indicated earlier in the week that Lobbestael will remain the starter — for now.
“We’re just going to give (Tuel) some quality reps and let him work himself back into shape,” the coach said.
Lobbestael expects Tuel to regain the starting assignment in the near future. And the fifth-year senior sounds like he is more than okay with the move, when and if it happens.
“Wait until you see this offense with Jeff,” Lobbestael said. “I’m not ragging on what I’ve done … but I’m excited to see what he can do this year. Everyone else should be too. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just going to keep preparing like I have been and my goal is just to be ready to play, whether that’s the first snap or second or third string.”
Whether it’s Tuel or Lebbestael running the show, Washington State will need to scratch and claw to get to six wins and become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2006. This week, the Cougars are a 3.5-point underdog at UCLA, one of the weaker teams in the league. There is a chance that Washington State will be favored only one more time the rest of the season, when struggling Oregon State visits Pullman on Oct. 22.
AROUND THE PAC-12
• Keith Price is getting a lot of pub at Washington — and deservedly so — but tailback Chris Polk has also been a huge part of the Huskies’ success on offense. The one-time USC commitment has rushed for 100 yards in four of the five games this season, with a high of 189 yards on 29 carries in UWs’ 31–14 win at Utah.
• Stanford has won 12 straight games dating back to last October, and all but two of the Cardinal’s wins during that stretch have come by at least 10 points.
• Stanford has only committed one turnover all season. That ties Northwestern for the fewest in the nation.
• USC has given up 40-plus points in back to back games for the first time in school history.
• Oregon State has only scored seven touchdowns this season. Only UAB (six) and FAU (five) have scored fewer.
• USC’s Robert Woods leads the Pac-12 with 55 receptions, 23 more than the league’s No. 2 receiver, Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton.
• Arizona is the only team in the league that has given up over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. Opponents are averaging 7.3 yards per play against the Cats’ defense, by far the most in the Pac-12.
• Opponents are only converting 23.9 percent on third down against Arizona State. That number leads the nation.
We break down and predict week 2's standout games.
By Mitch Light
Notre Dame (-3.5) at Michigan
Brian Kelly’s second season at Notre Dame didn’t exactly begin as planned, with a 23–20 loss at home to South Florida. But please be advised: Don’t jump off the Irish bandwagon just yet. Notre Dame outgained USF 508 to 254 and was the victim of some bad luck (Jonas Gray was stripped at the 1-yard line and USF brought it back 96 yards for a touchdown) and some questionable officiating (borderline pass interference call in the end zone on third down early in the fourth quarter). The Irish were far from perfect — they did lose the turnover battle 5-to-0 — but this is still a very good team that will win a lot of games. Michigan took care of business in the first game of the Brady Hoke era, rolling past Western Michigan, 34–10, in a weather-shortened game in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame 31, Michigan 24
Arizona (+14.5) at Oklahoma State (Thu)
It was only one game — and the opponent was not very good (Louisiana-Lafayette) — but the high-powered Oklahoma State offense was as good as advertised in Week 1. The Cowboys rolled up 666 yards of total offense under first-year coordinator Todd Monken en route to a 61–34 win in Stillwater. The test will be more difficult this Thursday night when Arizona comes calling. The Wildcats struggled a bit in the first half against FCS Northern Arizona before flexing their muscles in the second half of a 41–10 victory. Their brand new offensive line paved the way for 487 total yards. We’ll find out this week if this group can get it done against Bill Young’s O-State defense. A player to watch for Arizona is Ka’Deem Carey. The gem of the Cats’ recruiting class rushed for 59 yards on nine carries in the opener. Oklahoma State 37, Arizona 24
Missouri (+7.5) at Arizona State (Fri)
Arizona State, a popular pick to play in the first-ever Pac-12 title game, has a huge non-conference test on a national stage Friday night. The Sun Devils are 15–21 overall in the last three seasons and need to make a statement that the ’11 club is, as many expect, good enough to be relevant on the national scene. Missouri was a bit lethargic in its 17–6 win over Miami (Ohio) last weekend. James Franklin, making his first career start, completed 17-of-26 for 129 yards and added 67 yards on the ground. He is a dynamic playmaker who can put pressure on the Arizona State defense with both his arm and his legs. It’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on one game, but we will find out a lot about both teams Friday night in Tempe. Arizona State 21, Missouri 17
Alabama (-10) at Penn State
This was one of the great intersectional rivalries of the 1980s, with the Tide and the Lions meeting every year in the regular season from 1981-90. Last year, Alabama handled Penn State with relative ease, cruising to a 24–3 in Tuscaloosa. The venue will be different this time around — Beaver Stadium in State College — but the result should be similar. Alabama, our pick at Athlon Sports to win the 2011 national title, boasts a dominant defense and a devastating running attack. We still aren’t sure about the quarterback position — it looks like AJ McCarron will get the start over Phillip Sims — but Alabama has proven it doesn’t need outstanding quarterback play to be an elite team. Penn State is solid, but not good enough to beat Alabama. Alabama 27, Penn State 10
South Carolina (-3) at Georgia
It’s the biggest game in the history of Georgia football. Well, that’s what many Bulldogs fans will tell you after their team was outclassed at the Georgia Dome by Boise State last Saturday night. It’s imperative that the Dawgs show marked improved in Week 2. Against Boise, the offensive line was suspect and none of the veteran wide receivers stepped up and made big plays. South Carolina fell behind East Carolina 17–0 in Charlotte before rallying for a 56–37 win in a game that was marred by nine turnovers. Stephen Garcia came off the bench for an ineffective Connor Shaw and led the comeback with his arm (one touchdown) and legs (two TDs). It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this game for both teams. Georgia didn’t do much in Week 1 to give us reason to believe they can beat a good team, but it’s a bit too early to give up on Mark Richt and his Bulldogs. Georgia 24, South Carolina 21
BYU (+7) at Texas
Right now, one of these teams is an Independent and the other is in the Big 12. Next year? Who knows? Both teams could be in the Big 12 or the Pac-16, or possibly both could be in the Independent ranks. BYU has to be feeling pretty good after stealing a win in Oxford, rallying from a 13–0 deficit to beat Ole Miss 14–13. But the Cougars have to be a bit concerned after totaling only 316 yards and scoring just one offensive touchdown against a Rebel defense that was among the worst in the nation last season. Texas struggled in the first half with Rice before putting the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter. The best news for the Longhorns was the play of true freshman tailback Malcom Brown, who rushed for 85 yards on 16 carries in his debut. UT will need consistent production from Brown this season. Texas 24, BYU 16
Mississippi State (-6.5) at Auburn
Auburn deserves credit for keeping its focus and rallying for 14 points in the final three minutes of its 42–38 win over Utah State, but there were far more negatives than positives. Led by a true freshman at quarterback, Utah State rolled up 448 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over once. And on the other side of the ball, Auburn managed only 364 yards against an Aggie defense that allowed 428.8 yards per game in 2010. It’s not necessarily time to panic, but it’s clear — as we all knew heading into the season — that the ’11 Tigers are a work in progress. Mississippi State, on the other hand, looks like a pretty complete football team. Yes, Memphis is one of the worst teams in the nation, but MSU was dominant in its 59–14 Week 1 win. Go with the Dogs over the Tigers, even at Jordan-Hare. Mississippi State 37, Auburn 24
Iowa (-6.5) at Iowa State
The Hawkeyes have won six of the past eight in this series, including the past three by an average score of 29–5. Iowa is a solid favorite to win its fourth straight over the Cyclones, but Kirk Ferentz’s club will need a better effort from tailback Marcus Coker. The hero of Iowa’s Insight Bowl win over Missouri last year with 219 yards on 33 carries, Coker was benched in the opener against Tennessee Tech after fumbling twice in the first half. He is back atop the depth chart this week, and he is a guy that will have to produce for this Iowa team to be successful. Iowa State, which edged Northern Iowa 20–19, will need new quarterback Steele Jantz to be more efficient in the passing game. The junior college transfer rushed for 75 yards and two scores but completed only 18-of-40 for 187 yards with three interceptions. Iowa 24, Iowa State 10
Cincinnati (+6) at Tennessee
Cincinnati rolled up 72 points in its Week 1 win over Austin Peay. Eight different Bearcats scored a touchdown and 10 different UC players rushed for at least 10 yards. Now, Butch Jones’ club must see what it can do against another, far more talented, team from the state of Tennessee. The Vols are also fresh off of a win over an FCS school, but a 42–16 win over Montana is a bit more impressive than a 72–0 victory over Austin Peay. The key for Cincinnati will be taking care of the ball. Two years ago, when the Bearcats won the Big East, they ranked 13th in the nation in turnover margin (+0.69). Last year, when they slumped to 4–8 overall and 2–5 in the Big East (and also lost coach Brian Kelly), they were 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.25). This team still has a ton of firepower on offense, led by quarterback Zach Collaros and tailback Isaiah Pead. Tennessee is in for a stiff test Tennessee 30, Cincinnati 27
Nevada (+27) at Oregon
The Ducks return home after a humbling 40–27 loss to LSU in Dallas. Oregon’s rushing attack, which churned out 286.2 yards per game in 2010, was held to 95 yards on 28 carries. Quarterback Darron Thomas did throw for 240 yards but was held to 4.4 yards per attempt — a number that Chip Kelly can’t be happy with. Nevada was one of only two FBS teams that didn’t play in Week 1 (UAB was the other). The Wolf Pack will be without Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, but Chris Ault still has some solid talent on both sides of the ball. The boys in Vegas don’t seem to think Nevada can keep this game close. I disagree. Oregon 40, Nevada 27