What to watch in the Pac-10

With four teams still legitimately contending for the Pac-10 title, there are plenty of reasons to watch.

1. Will Foles bounce back after struggling at Cal? Arizona sophomore quarterback Nick Foles wasn’t terrible at California last week, but he wasn’t as good as he has been — read: really good — running the Wildcats offense since he took over the starting job, and his surprising decision to try to throw the ball a second time after a deflection was sort of, well, not smart. He admitted that the loss and his performance — and that odd play — stuck with him for a bit. So how does he respond against a fast, aggressive Oregon defense? Does he bounce back or does he again struggle?

2. Toby Gerhart vs. the Cal run defense. Since giving up over 400 yards rushing against Oregon and USC, Cal’s run defense has been stout, holding both Oregon State and Arizona — good rushing teams — under 100 yards. But Stanford’s rushing attack is a whole different challenge. There’s no finesse. It’s just a physical offensive line, a physical fullback and a physical Gerhart, who’s trying to earn himself an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. If the Bears can’t at least slow Gerhart, it could be a long afternoon.

3. Will Samson topple the pillars of UCLA bowl hopes? UCLA needs one more win to become bowl eligible, and a home game vs. Arizona State seems a better chance to pick up that win than a visit to an angry USC team coming off a bye week. The Sun Devils’ quarterback situation is unclear, but it appears sophomore Samson Szakacsy is likely to make his first career start. The Sun Devils need to win their final two games to become bowl eligible. Will Szakacsy’s mobility — he will be as fast as anyone on the field — add a wrinkle for a struggling ASU offense?

4. Does Washington State have any chance? The obvious conclusion is Washington State has no chance against Oregon State. The Cougars are bad and they are beaten up. But everyone knows that monumental upsets happen every year in college football. If the Beavers think they can just yawn their way through Pullman, they might get taught a lesson about playing one game at a time and taking every opponent seriously.

5. Will the Wildcats defense approximate the first half or the second half of 2008 vs. the Ducks? Oregon scored 45 points in the first half of last year’s game with Arizona. And the Ducks scored only 10 points in the second half as the Wildcats came roaring back. The word in Tucson was the Wildcats came out unfocused and didn’t do their assignments in the first half, but that changed for the better in the second half. The Arizona defense probably won’t start slowly playing at home. Or will it?

6. Kevin Riley‘s big chance: The Cal quarterback has been mostly solid this year but he still doesn’t have that breakthrough moment. The junior could create a lot of momentum for the Bears if he turned in a sharp afternoon in the Big Game against a hot Stanford squad. A win would bolster the Bears’ bowl positioning and probably would get them back into the national rankings. It also would bode well for 2010.

7. UCLA’s O-line vs. Arizona State’s D-line: UCLA’s offensive line, a huge question entering the season, has played well of late. But Washington and Washington State can make an O-line look good. Arizona State’s D-line is as good as any in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils rank 21st in the nation against the run. The Bruins will seek balance and try not to put the entire weight of the offense on quarterback Kevin Prince. The Sun Devils will want to achieve the opposite.

8. Big numbers for Rodgers and Canfield: Assuming that Oregon State is going to pound Washington State early and often, a big question will be how long Beavers coach Mike Riley plays quarterback Sean Canfield and running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Both are candidates for All-Pac-10 honors and maybe more. The Cougars defense will offer a good chance to pad some stats. Not Riley’s style exactly, but those postseason honors are valuable to programs.

Kyle Bunch

Partnerships for R/GA Ventures. Raised in California, adopted by Texas. Opinions expressed here are mine and they are fantastic.

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