September 21, 2011 in Sports

Pac-12 Conference shifts focus to running backs

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

After running past Nevada, Oregon’s LaMichael James blistered Missouri State for almost 17 yards per carry.
(Full-size photo)

Game of the week

UCLA at Oregon State

Teams: Bruins (1-2, 0-0), Beavers (0-2, 0-0)

Time: 12:30 p.m. Saturday

So how can a contest pitting teams with losing records be considered the game of the week? When the visiting team is coached by Rick Neuheisel, who, after his team’s lifeless effort in a 49-20 home loss to Texas last week, was written off by the L.A. media and seems to be sitting on a stove top. And the home team has looked even less inspiring in a home loss to Sacramento State, an FCS school, and a road blowout at Wisconsin. Both coaches came this close to admitting Tuesday it’s a must win, though OSU’s Mike Riley put it best when he said, “It would really be a big thing for this team to win a game.”

PULLMAN – The conference of quarterbacks is in danger of morphing into the conference of extraordinary running backs.

But there is a good reason for it.

Before getting to that, however, how about checking out these performances?

• Oregon’s LaMichael James runs for 204 yards on 12 carries – an almost unfathomable 17 yards per carry – against Missouri State.

• Utah’s John White, who leads the conference in rushing, gains 179 on 22 against rival BYU.

• Stanford’s Stephan Taylor runs over Arizona in the second half, pounding the Wildcats for 153 yards on 22 carries.

• And Washington’s Chris Polk tops the 100-yard mark for the fifth consecutive game with 130 yards on 22 carries in Nebraska.

Eight of the Pac-12’s top 10 rushers are averaging more than 5 yards a carry. Nine of the teams are averaging more than 4 yards.

What is this, the Big Ten?

No, it’s just the Pac-12, circa 2011, in which the two best teams are Stanford, a two-tight-ends, power-running group, and Oregon, a spread, speed-based rushing team. Everyone else is just trying to keep up.

“You establish your mentality, you establish your offense, you establish the offensive line, you let those guys come off the ball,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who learned his running strategy from former NFL coach Jon Gruden. “You run the ball and stop the run. That’s where football starts.”

The Cardinal offense is a chicken-and-egg argument, with quarterback Andrew Luck and the power running game, keyed right now by Taylor, complementing each other.

“It’s a two-fold problem,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said of such a balanced attack. “One way is always easier to defend.”

It’s also a big reason why Luck’s receivers always seem to be running free.

“It starts with the running game,” Shaw said. “We’re going to force teams to activate their safeties, and activate their secondary players, (to defend) in the running game.”

That’s exactly what Oregon does, though in a different manner. The Ducks’ speed – James bolted to two touchdowns of more than 50 yards Saturday – forces defenses to play run first.

“Balance is key,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “The defenses are very good in this league, if you are just one-dimensional they can gang up on that.”

But it’s not just the Ducks and Cardinal sprinting their way to success. Utah’s White is rushing for 126.7 yards per game in an offense that is at the bottom of the conference’s total offense list.

That should pay dividends down the road.

“As an old defensive coach, I firmly believe you have to be able to have a run game in order to set up everything else you’re doing,” Utah’s Kyle Whittingham said. “If you can’t run the football and become one-dimensional on offense, you’re going to struggle.”

By the way, despite all the eye-catching rushing performances last weekend, quarterback Matt Barkley of USC was the conference’s offensive player of the week after throwing for 324 yards and five touchdowns in the Trojans’ 38-17 rout of Syracuse.

Quarterbacks, especially USC quarterbacks, are still trump in the Pac-12.

Four from the Pac-12

1. Oregon’s rebuilt defense will receive its sternest test this week when the Ducks travel to Arizona to face Nick Foles and company. Despite having to replace seven starters, the Ducks are still near the middle of the conference statistics. So how does this group compare to last year’s defense? “Our defensive line has developed, we lost three good players there,” Kelly said. “We’re a little thinner at linebacker. I think we’re comparable in the secondary. That would be my early assessment after three games.”

2. Fifth-ranked Stanford will be without it’s best defensive player the remainder of the year. Junior linebacker Shayne Skov suffered a season-ending knee injury at Arizona last Saturday and will have to change roles with the Cardinal. “Anytime you take a great player out of an offense or defense, you’re going to miss him,” Shaw said. “He’s still an emotional leader. I talked with him this morning … and he said, ‘Coach I’m going to be there. I’m going to be in the meetings, making sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.’ ”

3. Arizona State has already lost a handful of defensive players and now will be without Junior Onyeali, the 5-foot-11, 245-pound defensive end who was the conference’s freshman defensive player of the year last season. Onyeali was injured in the Sun Devils’ 17-14 loss to Illinois and will have surgery Thursday on his torn meniscus. “The issue is where he’s at when they get in there,” ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. “For sure it’s going to be six weeks and depending on where it’s at and what’s done with it when they get in there, it could be a season-ending injury.”

4. There is only one team in the conference that has given up more yards after three games than Washington and coach Steve Sarkisian believes he’s pinpointed why. “We’re not playing football with the tenacity and relentlessness needed to be a great defensive team,” he said. “We’re not letting loose and letting go. You can’t play defense that way.” Despite having played 0-3 Eastern Washington and 1-2 Hawaii, the Huskies are yielding 378.7 yards per game.

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