PULLMAN – If you look at the Pacific-10 Conference as a train, then the two diesels up front have usually been the Los Angeles schools.
USC is the brawn, pulling the rest of the conference into the national consciousness forever, but most prominently the past decade. UCLA is the flash, the beach school, the sun-dappled campus sold to the folks back East as the face of the conference.
Two weeks into this season, however, the two engines seem to have come off the tracks a bit.
The Trojans, under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin are 2-0, but just might be the most unimpressive 2-0 school in America. The Bruins, in the third year of the Rick Neuheisel Show, are 0-2 and, what’s worse, aren’t even entertaining.
In the opener, USC gave up 588 yards of total offense to Hawaii before winning 49-36 in Honolulu. The Trojans defense, once a dominating force, looked slow and overmatched. Then last week, facing a Virginia team expected to finish in the lower half of the ACC, the offense disappeared. Still, Southern Cal held on for a 17-14 win.
“The positive out of that is we know we can play well on both sides of the ball,” Kiffin said Tuesday during the Pac-10 coaches’ conference call. “If we had gone through two games and one side of the ball was playing well and the other side hadn’t played well in either game, you would start to have some concerns.
“We want our offense to play like we did in week one and our defense like it did in week two and put a full game together for the first time this year.”
That the Trojans are 2-0, not the problems they’ve had, is the biggest surprise to Kiffin, USC’s former offensive coordinator who coached a year with the Oakland Raiders and another at the University of Tennessee.
“Our standards are so high because we are at SC, and because we have high standards in general,” he said, “everyone, including ourselves, forget that it’s our first year. We do sometimes forget that because we expect our guys to play great and never make mistakes in our new schemes.”
The Bruins’ problems are more systemic. The offense has been largely impotent the first two games, partly because starting quarterback Kevin Prince has been hurt much of the season, limiting his practice time. Throw in an offensive line that has been wracked by injuries and defections and it’s easy to see why Neuheisel thinks they have no rhythm.
“We have to continue to try to develop as an offense and see if we can gain some measure of balance,” Neuheisel said. “A year ago the balance was we had to find a running game. Now it’s 180 degrees from that. I know we know how to throw it, now we just need to marry the two so we can go out and put a good product on the field.”
And it doesn’t get any easier for UCLA this week. The Bruins host No. 23 Houston on Saturday night.
“Given where we are as a football team right now, it is a tremendous challenge,” he said.
But there is one saving grace.
“The most important thing to realize,” Neuheisel said, “is that we are only two games into a 12-game season. While it’s discouraging to find ourselves at 0-2, we can fix it as soon as this week.”
Around the conference
With the Arizona offense averaging more than 500 yards a game, Wildcats coach Mike Stoops gives much of the credit to the improvement of quarterback Nick Foles. “He’s played 13 or 14 games and he continues to improve every time,” Stoops said. “Nick has a long way to go, but he’s improved a great deal from where he was a year ago.” Foles has completed 49 of his first 59 passes this season. … Arizona State is among the conference leaders in total offense, but much of that has been courtesy of Steven Threet’s arm. The Sun Devils are still having trouble moving the ball on the ground, even though they’ve opened with two FCS foes. Coach Dennis Erickson lays the running woes at the feet of the offensive line. “When you don’t run it very successful, obviously you’re not doing the job up front like you would want to,” Erickson said. “Without question we have to try to run it more and with more consistency.” … California opens play this week, facing Nevada on Friday night in Reno. The Wolf Pack’s pistol offense worries Bears coach Jeff Tedford. “It’s scary,” he said. “They really know what they’re doing. They get you in space and keep you spread out over the field.” Cal leads the Pac-10, giving up just 44.5 yards a game on the ground. … The Oregon offense makes a lot of headlines, and deservedly so, but it’s the Ducks’ defense that wins games according to coach Chip Kelly. “I said last year we won the Pac-10 championship because of our defense,” Kelly said, “and I think this year’s defense is better than last year’s.” … There are three games this weekend matching Pac-10 schools with Big Ten teams, four if you want to count Big Ten-bound Nebraska. Are the conferences still as dissimilar as they were years ago? “I think (they) are much more similar,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose team plays a Big East school, Louisville, at home. “People still have that perception in their mind about how certain conferences play, but the reality of it is … if you look team to team you see a lot of variety in every conference.” … The Stanford defense posted the school’s first shutout on the road since 1974 when it defeated UCLA 35-0 Saturday. That came about through mental improvement, said coach Jim Harbaugh. “They understand the scheme, they believe in it and they’re really growing in their confidence,” he said. … Last year in the season’s third game, UW upset then-No. 3 USC at home. This year in week three the Huskies get No. 8 Nebraska in Seattle. Is it a chance for a signature win? “It would obviously be a nice win for us,” said coach Steve Sarkisian. “Now I don’t know if it’s a signature win, I don’t know how to grade all that.”