State of the Pac-12: Disappointing Opening Weekend

September 5, 2011

The newly-formed Pacific 12 Conference's NCAA debut Saturday proved to be less than stellar, as several teams suffered embarrassing non-conference losses that diminished some of the league's early-season national standing.

Despite those setbacks on the field, the conference's prestige could be receiving a long-term boost thanks to the chaotic state of the Big 12.

With Texas A & M looking to jump to the SEC, and with Texas' television network deal causing the rest of the Big 12 to re-evaluate their future, football powerhouse Oklahoma is now threatening to jump ship too.  And one of OU's most logical destinations would be to join the Pac-12 and form a potential 16-team super-conference.

For Oklahoma, the benefits are clear -- the Sooners enhance their academic prestige by joining a superior scholastic league occupied by Stanford, UCLA, and Cal, while also expanding their recruiting base.

Not only would the Sooners be able to maintain their reach into Texas, but they would also benefit by having a permanent recruiting foothold in highly-desired, talent-rich California.

If Oklahoma were to make the jump, expect Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and perhaps Texas to follow suit, provided some arrangement could be worked out with the conflicting television contracts between the Longhorns' network and the Pac-12's new 2011 Fox deal.

As for the games on the field, the conference had mixed results. Several teams are in a transition period, trying replace veteran stars at key positions.

In fact, the Pac-12 was not the only premiere league experiencing difficulties.  The SEC also had some hiccups, with Georgia getting ran off the field by mid-major Boise State, and Ole Miss falling late to BYU.

Here is our assessment of the Pac-12's play this week:

UCLA: 38-34 Loss to Houston

  • It seemed like the Bruins returned to the Bob Toledo era -- the offense was rolling, but the defense looked horrific.  With the exception of CB Sheldon Price, UCLA couldn't cover anyone, as Houston QB Case Keenum completed 30 of 40 throws, for 310 yards, and 2 TD's.
  • The Bruin D also failed to pressure Keenum, as he got rid of the ball quickly. Worse yet, UCLA did an atrocious job of tackling, as the Cougars backs and receivers benefited from countless missed tackles all afternoon.
  • The graduation of kicker Kai Forbath will be an issue all season. Replacement Kip Smith shanked a 32-yarder in the second half, missed a PAT, and was shaky on the extra points that he did make. The Bruins also did a poor job executing a late onside kick.
  • UCLA's offense was balanced and explosive, amassing 554 total yards.  Jonathan Franklin ripped off huge chunks of yardage, gaining 128 yards on 16 carries. QB Richard Brehaut was excellent, throwing for 264 yards, 2 TD's, and no picks, while running for 87 yards as well.
  • Tight end Joseph Fauria had a star-making performance Saturday.  The 6'8" Fauria was a matchup nightmare, catching 6 balls for 110 yards. Wideout Nelson Rosario finally looks like he is cashing in on his tremedous upside, as he had caught three passes, two of which were spectacular, highlight-reel grabs.
  • QB Kevin Prince suffered yet another injury setback, as he sustained a concussion in the first quarter and did not return to the game.

STANFORD: Luck Throws Down the Gauntlet in the Heisman Race
  • The likely top overall pick in the NFL Draft further solidified his reputation as the nation's best football player, as Andrew Luck threw to 7 different receivers, and completed 17 of 27 throws for 171 yards.  He also threw 2 TD's and ran for another in Stanford's 57-3 victory over San Jose State.
  • Luck's veteran presence, coupled with Oregon's opening week loss, has Stanford looking like the  team to beat in the conference thus far.

CAL: Maynard Makes Debut in 36-21 Win Over Fresno State

  • The Bears have been blessed with great backs and receivers over the years, but have been hindered by mediocrity and inconsistency at the quarterback position. This year coach Jeff Tedford welcomes in Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard at QB, who at the very least should prove to be more mobile than the pocket passers of the recent past.
  • Maynard opened the game with a pick on his first pass, but then settled down and threw for 266 yards and 2 TD's.  He also showed his mobility with a 48-yard run in the second half.
  • The Bears' D also was impressive, sacking Fresno State  QB Derek Carr 6 times, and limiting the Bulldogs to only 218 total yards.
  • Although the game was played on a neutral field in the Bay Area, Fresno State had the overwhelming fan support inside of the stadium.  Essentially, Cal got some good experience in a quasi-hostile environment that should help them down the road.

OREGON STATE: Humiliating 29-28 OT Loss to Sacramento State 
  • The Beavers whiffed at home against 24-point underdog Sacramento State of the Big Sky Conference. The Beavers trailed 21-6 in the fourth quarter, and had to get two TD runs from frosh Malcolm Agnew just to send the game into overtime.
  • Sacramento State coach Marshall Sperbeck rolled the dice in OT and elected to go for two and the win, rather than the tie. His gamble paid off when QB Jeff Fleming hit Brandyn Reed for the two-point conversion and the win.
  • Freshman Agnew was the lone bright spot for Oregon State, as he ran for 223 yards and 3 TD's. He appears to be a capable replacement for the departed 'Quizz Rogers.

Arizona, Arizona State, and Washington State Take Care of Business
  • The Wildcats, Sun Devils, and Cougars did what they were expected to do: annihilate their cupcake opponents.
  • Arizona had a sluggish first half, but then star QB Nick Foles took over. He looked in midseason form, throwing for 412 yards and 5 TD's.
  • Washington State, the conference doormat the last few years, finally enjoyed a blowout victory with a 64-21 win over Idaho State.  Unfortunately, any celebrations were somewhat muted because of the broken left clavicle suffered by starting QB Jeff Tuel.
  • Arizona State crushed UC Davis 48-14, as expected. Starting QB Brock Osweiler made his home debut and looked the part, throwing for 2 TD's and 262 yards on a hot night in the desert.

Narrow Wins for 'SC (19-17) and Washington (30-27)
  • USC let an inferior Minnesota team hang around and nearly lost at home.  The Men of Troy jumped out to an early 19-3 lead in the first half, but failed to score again.  A botched 'SC snap gave the Gophers an opportunity to rally before the Trojan D closed the door with a late pick.
  • Coach Lane Kiffin's questionable decisions nearly cost 'SC the game when he elected to go for two on two separate occasions, both of which failed.  Instead of finding themselves up 21-17 in the final minutes, 'SC only held a two-point lead.
  • Despite the close call, USC's defense looked better than last year's inconsistent, shaky unit.
  • QB Matt Barkley and wideout Robert Woods may be the best pitch-and-catch duo in the country.  Woods had a school-record 17 pass receptions for 177 yards and 3 TD's.  Barkley also set a school record with 34 completions. He threw for 304 yards and 3 TD's. 
  • The Washington Huskies apparently will have a learning curve as they transition away from the Jake Locker era.  Washington narrowly beat defending FCS champs Eastern Washington, 30-27.  The victory was not secure until Washington's Desmond Trufant made a late pick in the end zone with 29 seconds left.
  • UW's Chris Polk ran for 125 yards, and new QB Keith Price threw 3 TD's and no picks. Price, however, only had 102 yards passing.

Newcomers Utah, Colorado Do As Expected
  • Colorado figured to be the among the favorites for the Pac-12's worst team, and its opening 34-17 loss to Hawaii did nothing to change anyone's opinion. Saturday's game was the Buffs 18th-straight road loss.
  • Utah, on the other hand, projects to be competitive in the Pac-12 this year, and opened with a 27-10 victory over Montana State.
  • JUCO transfer John White had a very impressive debut at running back for the Utes, running for 150 yards and 2 TD's.  He starred at LA Harbor College in 2010.
  • Any joy from the win was quickly erased however, when the team received the tragic news that defensive lineman Ron Tongaonevai's wife was killed in an automobile accident last night.

OREGON:  Ducks Fail to Show Up for Showdown with LSU 
  • An otherwise competitive game turned into a second-half cruise for the LSU Tigers when Oregon imploded with several turnovers. Oregon's highly-recruited freshman De'Anthony Thomas committed two of the errors, when he fumbled deep in his own territory on back-to-back possessions.
  • The Ducks looked like a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time team, as they are breaking in several new players along the offensive line, the defense, and the skill positions. 
  • Darron Thomas had a so-so game, completing 31 of 54 attempts for 240 yards and one TD.  He also had one pick, and failed to complete any deep balls of significance.
  • The silver lining for Chip Kelly's national title aspirations is that if you are going to lose, its better to do it early.  When the Ducks get into the thick of weekly conference play, expect their offensive production to increase, as teams will not have the added weeks of preparation for Oregon's hurry-up offense that LSU enjoyed.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for The Daily Sports Herald

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