It’s Tuesday and the Cougars are back to practice. We have our report on the link, followed by our Pac-10 notebook. Read on.
• Jeff Tuel was the man today at practice. So just how did his first practice go as the Cougars’ starting quarterback? Well, he seemed to be doing a good job of delivering the ball to the right spot at the right time, especially during the team scrimmage portion at the end. One pass, to Jared Karstetter, really stood out. Karstetter had run a deep out against the defense’s zone (as far as I could tell from a bad angle). Tuel bought time with his feet, then threw a perfect ball over linebacker Myron Beck and in front of the deep coverage. It was a throw that not every collegiate quarterback can make and it arrived at precisely the right time. … The Cougar receivers did struggle a bit Tuesday catching Tuel’s passes. There were more drops than normal. … During his press conference Tuesday, Paul Wulff said Tuel’s performance at USC told him Tuel can handle the Autzen Stadium experience. Wulff feels, right now, Tuel gives WSU the best chance to win, citing his ability to avoid the rush, his strong arm and his personality. By the latter, Wulff said he meant Tuel never gets too high or too low, just goes about his business and makes plays. … Wulff did say Tuel’s performance against USC brought an energy to the sidelines. Part of that, Wulff said, was no one knew what he would do. When he took the team right down the field, it charged up everyone. … Which play did Wulff single out? “His very first throw that he made was a third-down lay for a first down, an out route to Tony Thompson, and he was really not very open,” Wulff said Tuesday. “He threw a very nice ball into a small window and was able to make the play for a first down.” When I looked back at the SC game for Monday’s paper, that was the play I picked as the game’s highlight.
• The physical nature of the USC game took its toll on WSU. We’ll get into the injuries in a second, but receiver Daniel Blackledge, safety Xavier Hicks and tight end Zach Tatman were all in yellow. Of those, only Tatman won’t play Saturday. … But he’s not alone. Guard Steven Ayers was on crutches, his sprained ankle in a boot. Guard Brian Danaher did not practice after getting dinged up last Saturday. Grayshirt freshman Alex Reitnouer, a Golden Knight from the storied program of St. Francis High in Southern California, took his spot. (Trivia question: Which high school did this writer attend?) Defensive tackle Josh Luapo came out to practice late, using crutches, his season done due to a torn ACL against the Trojans. Thompson and safety Eric Block were ill, with Thompson not at practice and Block in street clothes. Backup quarterback Kevin Lopina was not at practice, still out with his calf problem. … The good news: Both Zack Williams and Kevin Kooyman were moving much better, though neither are expected to play Saturday. Williams actually did quite a bit of straight-ahead running. … Wulff addressed two areas that hurt Saturday: the third consecutive slow start and Nico Grasu’s two misses. As for the latter, Wulff said he thought having to rush the first kick played a part not only on that attempt but also on the missed extra point, as Grasu seemed to be thinking about the earlier attempt. The slow starts is problematic, with the offense, defense and special teams guilty last week. “We’ve got to start faster,” he said.
• One of the main elements of the Pac-10 coaches’ conference call was the conference’s evolution toward a defense-dominated league. “Don’t you love it,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh asked. Most of the coaches expressed the feeling the conference has more speed on that side of the ball. “Almost everyone in this conference is improved,” is how Rick Neuheisel put it. … Cal coach Jeff Tedford said Saturday’s big loss at Oregon was as simple as “they executed, we didn’t.” … Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson appreciated the play of freshman middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict against Georgia. “He’s playing like I thought he would.” … Arizona coach Mike Stoops got a winning performance out of new quarterback Nick Foles against Oregon State. Stoops said something that sounded familiar. What Stoops likes about Foles is he’s so even-keeled. He never gets too high or too low. He just does the job. The fact he’s got a Nolan Ryan-like arm doesn’t hurt either. … The freak weight-lifting injury suffered by USC running back Stafon Johnson was discussed in depth. Caoch Pete Carroll said Johnson was awake and communicating non-verbally after undergoing seven hours of surgery on his throat.
• One last note. Washington State’s homecoming game against Arizona State next Saturday will be at 2 p.m. It will not be televised. … OK, another note. It’s a link to this story on the two newest committments WSU has earned for next year, giving the Cougars 14.
• That’s that. Now here’s our Pac-10 story and game …
PULLMAN – This was supposed to be “Showdown Saturday” in the Pac-10. When the schedule was released, it was obvious the conference’s really, really big game was set for the Bay Area this week.
Well, there’s still a big game in the area. It just isn’t Cal hosting USC.
It’s across the bay in Stanford, where the 3-1 Cardinal, atop the Pac-10 standings at 2-0, host the undefeated UCLA Bruins, making their conference debut.
“The only one I’m concerned about is the one in Palo Alto,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said on a conference call Tuesday when asked if his game or the USC vs. Cal game is the biggest game in the area this week.
And Neuheisel has his concerns. The Cardinal are playing as well as anyone in the conference.
The biggest concern every opponent has with Stanford is Toby Gerhart, the 6-foot-1, 237-pound running back who leads the Pac-10, averaging 129 yards a game.
“You better put on your big-boy pads,” Neuheisel said about facing the Cardinal running game. “They come at you. They make no bones about it. They’re coming at you and they’re going to say they can win in the trenches.
“We’ve been fairly stout in the early portion of the season … but this is going to be the biggest test so far.”
“We’ll yes, I believe so,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said when asked if Gerhart should be in the Heisman race. “He means so much to our team. He’s the shining star on our team and I think that’s kind of what a most valuable player is.”
But Gerhart was special last season. And the Cardinal finished 5-7. Part of the problem was they were missing a game-breaker.
They have one now. Chris Owusu has already tied the conference record with three kickoff returns for touchdowns – his first came against Washington State – and is averaging 59.2 yards on his six kickoff returns.
“He’s an unbelievable threat,” Neuheisel said. “It’s a huge field position concern. … It’s an incredible weapon they have in Chris.”
Harbaugh has his own concerns, especially about a UCLA defense that gives up just more than 250 yards a game.
“You can go right through it,” Harbaugh said. “This is the best defensive line we’ve played, there’s no question about it. This is the best three linebackers we’ve played against. And this is the best secondary we’ve played against.
“So, without a doubt, this is the best defense we’ve played against.”
Saturday’s winner may establish itself as the Pac-10’s best team. In Stanford’s case, it will already have three conference wins. And UCLA, which will play with much-maligned reserve quarterback Kevin Prince at the controls, will have have picked up a big road win.
In a big game. Even without USC involved.
Game of the Week
UCLA (3-0, 0-0 in Pac-10) at Stanford (3-1, 2-0)
12:30 p.m. Saturday; ABC
Just how good is UCLA, the last of the Pac-10’s unbeaten teams? And how about Stanford, atop the conference standings but with wins over Washington State and Washington? We all should find out Saturday, when the Bruins, coming off a bye week, travel north, trying to become the first team to corral Toby Gerhart and the Cardinal rushing attack. Gerhart rushed for a career-high 200 yards in last week’s rout of UW, helping the Cardinal ascend to the top of the Pac-10 rushing statistics with 233.8 yards per game. The Bruins will have Kevin Craft at quarterback, replacing the injured Kevin Prince, but that’s isn’t all that bad. Craft led the Bruins to a 23-20 win over Stanford last season.
• That’s it for tonight. We’ll be back in the morning. Until then …