USC (8-2, 5-2 Pac-10) @ Arizona State (9-1, 6-1 Pac-10)
Kickoff: 5:00 PM, PST (Thursday Night)
Stadium: Sun Devil Stadium (71,706)
Arizona State has dropped seven straight games to Southern Cal. In many of those contests, the games weren’t even close. However, in 2005 and 2006 the Sun Devils gave the Trojans all they could handle before eventually losing. This season, ASU looks to turn the tide and end the Trojans’ six-year reign atop the Pac-10. Unfortunately, they may be catching USC at the wrong time and it’s not because USC’s Pete Carroll is a perfect 22-0 in November, but because the Trojans look to be the closest to full strength as they’ve been since their second to last practice leading into the season. On that fateful day, LB Maualuga put a violent hit on WR Turner, which left both battling nagging, season-long injuries brought on by that collision. Both schools are coming off bye weeks, which have enabled them to fully prepare for their Thursday tilt that brings with it major consequences. For ASU, a victory keeps them in the driver’s seat to win the conference and represent the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997. For USC, a victory keeps their Rose Bowl hopes alive as they’ll need to then beat UCLA on Dec. 1 and hope for an Oregon loss either at UCLA or against in-state rival, Oregon State. The Sun Devils, if the stars properly align, also may find their way into the BCS Title Game assuming the teams ahead of them in the BCS standings happen to lose. Regardless, the implications don’t stop there as the already muddied Pac-10 standings could become even more unclear with a USC loss. If the Trojans fall and UCLA finds a way to upset Oregon this weekend, four teams (Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and USC) will have three conference losses with the Arizona Wildcats only one game back with four. That would make for an incredible upcoming rivalry week with bowl assignments not decided until the final snap of the season.
USC will rely heavily on RB Washington who gained a career-high 220 rushing yards against Cal nearly two weeks ago. Unlike Cal, ASU presents a formidable DL that is not banged up. They’ll need to contain Washington to take away from the one thing that USC QB Booty does do well, which is set up the play action pass with great ball fakes. If this were a month ago, I’d expect ASU to blitz Booty until he was blue in the face but now that USC is a lot healthier on the OL, I don’t think ASU’s blitz packages will produce the desired results. Still, ASU has one of the best secondaries in the country so they won’t be afraid to leave their cornerbacks on an island if and when they do blitz on key downs. For ASU, they’ll be challenged on offense trying to negate the effectiveness of USC’s stingy front seven. With all of USC’s LB’s now healthy, and with a DL that’s one of the best in the business, ASU will be forced to take to the air in order to set up their own running game. The good news for ASU is USC’s secondary is nothing to write home about. If ASU can keep Trojans like Maualuga, Rivers, Cushing, Jackson and emerging freshman DE Everson off of QB Carpenter, then the Sun Devils may be able to exploit USC’s only defensive weakness.
Although USC is more fallible this season than at any other time during their unprecedented six-year conference run, I think their big game experience will prove to be the difference. It won’t be easy and the game could really go either way, but I see USC barely edging ASU in a game that’s decided in the final minutes. USC 24, ASU 23.
Notre Dame (2-9, 1-3 away) @ Stanford (3-7, 2-6 Pac-10)
Kickoff: 12:30 PM, PST
Television: ESPN 2
Stadium: Stanford Stadium (50,000)
Regardless of the records, this is always an enjoyable game to watch. This season adds additional intrigue as Stanford head coach Harbaugh is a guy who’s scratching and clawing to improve his team while Notre Dame’s Weiss is a smug, sore loser who’s doing everything he can to avoid the reality that his team is regressing under his leadership. Even in a win over Duke last week, Notre Dame looked anything but impressive. Similarly, despite unexpected victories over USC and Arizona, Stanford has failed to sustain any sort of momentum as they’ve now dropped three in a row since upending the Wildcats in Tucson. Even though Notre Dame is down, a victory over the Irish will again give the Cardinal something to try and build on. Stanford has dropped five straight games to Notre Dame since beating the Irish at home, 17-13, in 2001. Last season, Notre Dame used a balance attack (204 rushing, 232 passing) to win 31-10 in South Bend. They held the Cardinal to just 226 yards of total offense while sacking QB Ostrander five times. This time the Irish will have to pick on QB Pritchard as Ostrander is not expected to play on Saturday. For the year, Notre Dame is ranked 119th in total offense, making Stanford’s ranking at No. 97 look respectable. Where things really get ugly is despite each teams below average offenses, each as a whole cannot find the end zone in any facet of the game as Notre Dame only averages 16.0 points a game while the Cardinal don’t fair much better in only putting up 20.1 points per game. Playing in Palo Alto should give the Cardinal the edge, but they’ve only won one home game since opening their new, state-of-the-art stadium last year. Still, I like Stanford to win this game because of QB Pritchard’s mobility in the pocket and the Cardinal’s proven ability to beat a quality opponent. While the Irish did find a way to beat UCLA this year, they did so while only gaining 140 yards of total offense while capitalizing on the Bruins’ own offensive ineptness that night. Unlike Weiss who’s looking to blame everyone associated with the program except himself, Harbaugh has assumed the responsibility for his team’s on-field performance and because of that, his players will play harder for him on Saturday afternoon. Stanford 20, Notre Dame 13.
Oregon (8-2, 5-2 Pac-10) @ UCLA (5-5, 4-3 Pac-10)
Kickoff: 12:30 PM, PST
Television: ABC Regional Coverage
Stadium: Rose Bowl (91,500)
The Thursday night loss to Arizona was tough. The loss of their QB Dixon was outright devastating as the Ducks learned the hard way that it’s not so easy to replace a Heisman candidate of Dixon’s caliber. The good news for Oregon is QB Leaf will have had eight days to fully prepare to lead the Ducks into battle with the Bruins, as opposed to being thrown to the Wildcats, unexpectedly. The preparation will allow Oregon to adjust their offensive scheme to better suit Leaf’s ability as Leaf is more of a traditional drop back passer. Against Arizona, Leaf was forced to run an offense that maximized Dixon’s abilities and was literally eaten alive early until the Ducks could make some minor adjustments at halftime. Now, those minor adjustments should be major adjustments and Leaf should have much more time in the pocket to make more accurate throws. Still, that’s much easier said than done as UCLA’s DL, led by senior DE Davis will be on all-systems-go in applying pressure on Leaf. How well UCLA can get to Leaf will be the difference in the game as they, like ASU and Arizona, have a great secondary that can turn games around with big plays. What also works to UCLA’s advantage is their special teams. I can’t remember a Pac-10 team more efficient in putting up points on special teams than UCLA this season. In fact, if it wasn’t for outstanding special teams play the Bruins’ overall record would be much, much worse. Oregon knows this and will have to find a way to neutralize UCLA’s return men. While they did a good job against Arizona in limiting the effectiveness of Arizona’s Thomas last week, they did a poor job in punt coverage as UA’s Cason returned a punt for a score that all but ended the Ducks’ chances of winning that game. Oregon RB Stewart will have to shoulder the load against UCLA but it’s not his shoulder that’s in question as he too hobbled off the field late in the Arizona game with a slight lower leg injury. He’s expected to be at full speed this weekend but if he’s not, this could be a long and upsetting day for the Ducks. That said, UCLA remains extremely banged up and seems to be heading south fast. Losers of three straight, the Bruins are no match for an Oregon squad that’s had more than a week to cope with both the Dixon loss and the setback to Arizona. If the Ducks can stop sulking long enough to figure out that they’re still a high-caliber team that’s competing for a Pac-10 title, they should walk out of the Rose Bowl with a well-deserved win. Oregon 31, UCLA 23.
Washington State (4-7, 2-6 Pac-10) @ Washington (4-7, 2-6 Pac-10)
Kickoff: 4:00 PM, PST
Television: All FSN Channels (DirecTV Channel – 649, 651, and 652)
Stadium: Husky Stadium (72,500)
Saturday will mark the 100th meeting between these in-state rivals, but will only be their 46th time competing for the coveted “Apple Cup.” To celebrate the occasion, this will be the first time the game’s been played over Thanksgiving weekend since 1978. Washington has won seven of the last nine meetings but has lost two of the last three. For WSU, despite their recent success against UW, the Cougars have suffered many heartbreaking losses as they have led or been tied with the Huskies at halftime in each of the past five “Apple Cup” games. Last week, WSU was embarrassed by OSU, losing 52-17. Conversely, UW dominated Cal in beating the Bears 37-23. With momentum on their side, I love the Huskies in this game. With RB Rankin leading the ground attack, an attack the produced 334 rushing yards against the Bears, UW won’t have to rely on back up QB Bonnell having to do too much in replacing season starter Locker. That, of course, is if he indeed does see action as Locker is now expected to return to the lineup. If the sophomore QB does play then forget about it. UW will run the Cougars ragged and just about the time the Cougars sneak eight or even nine in the box to shut down the run, the Huskies will catch them in a play action pass that’ll have them chasing any number of Husky WR’s into the end zone. For Wazzu, senior QB Brink has been hung out to dry this season by a team that can only muster points when he’s involved in the play. Unfortunately, opposing defenses have recognized this and have blitzed Brink all season long, from the opening kick off until the final knee was taken from a Victory Formation. While Wazzu ranks ninth in the passing game, they rank 100th in the rushing game and that won’t cut it against their biggest rival. Washington, much like Arizona, is looking for a strong close to their season. A victory over WSU will give them three wins in their final four conference games and with a host of key players returning, could catapult the Huskies back into the top-tier of Pac-10 teams in 2008. Head coach Willingham thrives on opportunity and has been waiting for this moment. He has a stud QB in Locker and a team that’s playing with tremendous confidence. In recent seasons, the Huskies have had enough setbacks to last a lifetime. It’s time for them to take a giant step forward. Washington 41, Washington Sate 26.