Headlining one of the last Saturday Six-Packs of the 2012 season is a BCS championship implicated (championshimplicated?) showdown in Oregon. The Ducks are in firm control of their BCS dreams with Stanford coming into Autzen Stadium. It’s pretty simple — win, and you’re in.
Stanford has a lot to play for as well, though. A Cardinal win puts Stanford in position to represent the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game and accomplish in this season what it couldn’t the previous two: reach the Rose Bowl Game. For that to happen, Stanford must first do something else it couldn’t in 2010 or 2011 and beat Oregon.
The winner in Eugene would likely host the winner of another match-up in this Saturday Six-Pack, a jaunt down the Pacific coastline in Los Angeles. The USC-UCLA game is for the Pac-12 South berth into the conference title game, and a nice way to renew a long dormant rivalry. The Bruins and Trojans have played every season, sure; but at the end of the 1980s, the Crosstown Showdown went the way of ALF and Cyndi Lauper. UCLA dominated throughout the ’90s, and USC has owned the Victory Bell almost every season of the 21st century.
Saturday’s installment should usher in a genuine rivalry worthy of this game’s rich history, and one that will establish Pac-12 South supremacy.
STANFORD at OREGON
This Oregon team is Chip Kelly’s all-around best since he succeeded Mike Bellotti in 2009. I said as much in my evaluation of the Ducks’ pursuit of perfection for Athlon Sports earlier this week. Oregon twice routed Stanford teams that were better — at least offensively — than the current incarnation.
That said, every Saturday is its own story. Stanford may not be the offensive juggernaut it was under Andrew Luck’s guidance, but the Cardinal defense is among the nation’s very best. At 17.2 points per game allowed, the Cardinal rank No. 12 in the FBS.
A stout front seven led by Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov has also resulted in the stingiest rush allowance of any time, anywhere. Impressive, especially given the Cardinal regularly see high-tempo Pac-12 competition.
None is more high tempo than Oregon, though. Slowing the Ducks is crucial, especially given Stanford’s offensive struggles. The Cardinal cannot engage in a shootout or deluge the Ducks early like USC when it won in Autzen a year ago. Stanford’s defense is the Pac-12′s closest to one from the SEC, thus the Cardinal must shut down UO in the manner Auburn and LSU were able in recent seasons.
Auburn and LSU each countered the uptempo Oregon style with a bullying pursuit of the rush. Each had blitzing defenders with the speed to track down Duck ball carriers. To wit, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner averaged 3.8 and 2.9 yards per carry against AU; LSU limited James to 3 yards per carry. Thomas, Skov and defensive end Trent Murphy head a front that rivals any in the SEC.
The question then becomes if Stanford can limit the pass. Cal employed a similar game plan to stifle the Oregon rushing attack, but Marcus Mariota dissected the Golden Bear secondary at 27-34 with six touchdowns. Mariota is a superior passer to Darron Thomas, who quarterbacked the Duck offenses that faced Auburn and LSU. Also of note is Stanford’s worst defensive performance came in a narrow defeat of Arizona, 54-48.
Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense bears similarities to Chip Kelly’s, and UA quarterback Matt Scott bombarded the Cardinal for three touchdowns and nearly 500 yards. Arizona could have been a necessary test to ready the Cardinal for Oregon…but it could also be an ominous sign of what’s to come under the Autzen lights. If Stanford lets Oregon go off like it did Arizona, even an injury-depleted Duck defense won’t allow Kevin Hogan, Stepfan Taylor and Co. to score anywhere near 54 points.
USC at UCLA
The Crosstown Showdown has been more notable for shenanigans than game play in recent years. Sure, there was UCLA’s upset in 2006 that denied USC a bid to the BCS championship game. And in 2005, the Pac-10 championship (and for USC again, the BCS title game) was at stake. Otherwise? Poor sportsmanship has been more noteworthy than any actual game play.
Make no mistake, the vitriol is still there. Whether insinuations about the safety or USC’s campus, or a Trojan drum major stabbing the Rose Bowl field, and most recently UCLA students maybe (or maybe not) spelling out a vulgar message with dorm lights, the hostilities persist. However, they’ve manifested little on the field with USC winning 12 of the last 13.
This season should usher in a transition to a more competitive rivalry. This season’s winner advances to the Pac-12 championship game and a shot at the Rose Bowl, and there are no indications that couldn’t be the case for seasons to come. Both programs have recruited extraordinarily well in recent seasons, and should continue to in the upcoming signing class.
USC’s monopoly on Southland supremacy is slipping, the result of NCAA sanctions via scholarship reductions. UCLA will benefit, giving Jim Mora and his staff even more to work with. Saturday’s contest could prove meaningful on the recruiting trail.
Focusing on this season’s implications, UCLA’s improvement since losing at Cal on Sept. 29 is one of the most under-appreciated storylines of 2012. Since that debacle, UCLA isn’t just unbeaten, but winning in impressive fashion. The Bruin offense is humming along with Noel Mazzone’s brand of well-varied and balanced play calling producing 37.7 points per game.
UCLA has beaten opponents with all three pahses: the defense and Johnathan Franklin slapped down Arizona in a 66-10 rout; Brett Hundley threw four touchdowns against Arizona State; and special teams powered a 37-7 start at Washington State. That proved pretty critical though, as WSU came roaring back in the second half on the arm of Connor Halliday.
In Halliday’s five-touchdown effort, USC has a game plan to extending its winning ways in this series. Matt Barkley has hardly lived up to the sky high expectations levied on him before the season, but his 33 touchdown passes still rank among some of the nation’s most prolific passers. Heisman candidate wide receiver Marqise Lee poses a major challenge to the Bruin secondary.
Curtis McNeal was used more in the second half of last week’s win over ASU. Expect to see McNeal called on early to pack in the Bruins and set up Lee for big games. Rendering the Trojan rushing game ineffective to allow for multiple defensive back formations is paramount for the UCLA defense; establishing both Franklin and Hundley on the rush early is the offense’s key, as both Arizona and Oregon were successfully opening the field with two-pronged ground attacks.
ADMIRAL ACKBAR TRAP OF THE WEEK:
UTAH STATE at LOUISIANA TECH
Louisiana Tech has an unlikely, but realistic path to a BCS bowl despite carrying a loss. The Bulldogs need to reach the top 16 and surpass an automatic qualifier in the BCS standings. Fortunately for La. Tech, its schedule finishes with two opponents sporting eight wins. The first of those opponents is Utah State, with which Louisiana Tech occupies No. 1 in the WAC.
Saturday is a juxtaposition of styles. Louisiana Tech employs an uptempo offense that has produced 53.4 points per game — second most in the nation behind only Oregon, and it’s a thin margin. Sonny Dykes’ version of the spread is thriving thanks to quarterback Colby Cameron, wide receiver Quinton Patton and running back Kenneth Dixon, three of the best skill position players at their respective positions across the FBS.
Conversely, Utah State excels via an elite defense. USU is allowing just 13 points per game. Former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen keys the Aggie pursuit via a tenacious pass rush. Nine Aggies have multiple sacks; 16 have at least one. Linebacker Zach Vigil and defensive end Connor Williams set the tone with five sacks each.
USU’s ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks can lead to turnovers, something teams have not been able to extract from Louisiana Tech. Cameron has yet to throw an interception, but USU cornerback Will Davis will look to be No. 1. Davis has three interceptions this season and broken up another 14. The offense capitalizes on the defense’s performance with a multifaceted rushing approach.
The upset alert is on because the Aggie style clashes so starkly with La. Tech’s. The Bulldogs have also been pulled into some closer-than-anticipated finishes recently, which Dykes credits partially to looking ahead for this game:
“[The team has] known for really the last month where we have been in terms of understanding this is a big football game,” he said in his weekly press conference. “I think we probably have not played as well over the last month as we would have liked to in some ways, but I think our guys have known this has been coming for a long time.”
Nervous build-up to one game can cost a team dearly, even at home — just ask Houston in last season’s C-USA championship.
OHIO STATE at WISCONSIN
So here’s how the circle of football life works: Wisconsin edged Utah State in September. USU plays La. Tech on Saturday. La. Tech has an outside chance of BCS bowl eligibility, but needs wins over USU and San Jose State to be particularly meaning for computer point purposes. USU’s improves with a Wisconsin win over unbeaten Ohio State.
*whew!* That’s a lot of connections to make. And, oh yeah, Wisconsin is gearing up for its second straight trip to the Big Ten title game and third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance. That’s sort of important, too.
UW blasted Indiana last week to sew up the Leaders’ division, which is something of an empty distinction. The Badgers are tied with Penn State at 4-2 in Big Ten play, and two full games behind Ohio State. A Wisconsin win and Michigan knocking off the Buckeyes in the season finale to force a two-loss tie would give UW some vindication of its divisional crown.
The Badgers have shown recovery from a sluggish start, particularly 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist running back Montee Ball. Ball’s overcome initial struggles for 16 touchdowns and 1226 yards. A suspect passing game puts the onus on Ball, but Ohio State has been excellent against the rush.
The Buckeyes have plenty to play for — in this contest, they might have more on the line than Wisconsin. Undefeated BCS leaders Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame all face significant challenges in the remainder of the regular season, as well as bowl games. All three could potentially lose, which would open the door for an unbeaten Ohio State to gain enough supporters in the Associated Press poll to split the national championship.
With national attention on his match-up, this is also an opportunity for Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller to garner more Heisman attention. Miller has been one of the best and most consistent play makers in college football. Ohio State’s lack of truly marquee games has somewhat diminished his impressive dual threat production. An eruption against the two-time defending conference champion could provide Miller that all-important Heisman moment.
RUTGERS at CINCINNATI
Both Rutgers and Cincinnati suffered losses to MAC opponents, yet either could realistically play in a BCS bowl. In fact, RU controls its own destiny with an unblemished Big East record and fellow conference front runners Cincinnati and Louisville still to come.
The Scarlet Knights typically haven’t won pretty. The offense sputters at times, evidenced in Rutgers scoring below 30 points seven times this season. Gary Nova has been great at times, mediocre others. The rushing game has never quite emerged to the potential it has with Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins.
Rutgers makes its bones with great defense, and it has one of the best in the game anchoring that side of the ball. Linebacker Khaseem Greene is a turnover-forcing machine, and an X-factor against the Cincinnati offense. The Bearcats gave away two interceptions in their loss to Toledo, and three to Louisville. With the Cincy defense playing well much of the season — opponents are averaging just 18.8 points per game — ball protection becomes of the utmost importance for both teams.
KENT STATE at BOWLING GREEN
Northern Illinois pulled away in the second half vs. Toledo to likely sew up the MAC West. The Huskies should meet the winner of this East division tilt in Detroit. Kent State holds the MAC East lead with an undefeated mark in the conference, and one of the nation’s longest win streaks.
Bowling Green has improved steadily through the season, the culmination of which came in a midweek upset of Ohio last week. The Falcons have just one conference loss, and would gain both the divisional tiebreaker and control of their destiny with a defeat of Kent State. The name of this game is field position.
The Falcons have been very good defensively behind the stellar line play of Chris Jones. He’s among college football’s premiere pass rushing presences with 11.5 sacks. He must get to Spencer Keith and disrupt his ability to effectively pass, particularly because forcing turnovers will prove difficult for BGSU.
Kent State is so good at winning the field position battle in part because the Golden Flashes enjoy the second best turnover margin in FBS, behind only Kansas State.
BGSU kicker Anthony Farinella becomes one of the game’s most important players, because another driving force for Kent State’s regular winning of field position is returner Dri Archer. The explosive Archer averages 40 yards an attempt, and has taken back three to the house. After setting up the Golden Flashes on favorable fields, Archer then takes over as a dual threat ball carrier and pass catcher.