Beyond the Box Score: Pac 10 Edition (Part One)

USC (7-2)

Or for all intents and purposes...

Game-Changing Stats

  • 1st Down Defense
  • Overall Defense, close games
  • Q4 Rushing Offense
  • Q1 Overall Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Offensive EqPts+, Defensive EqPts+
#1: Defensive S&P+
#1: Offensive S&P+ (close games), Defensive S&P+ (close games)
#1: Defensive Line Yards+ (close games)

They were #1 in 8 categories overall (also: Defensive Non-Passing Downs S&P+, Defensive Q2 Line Yards+).

Bottom Ranks

#102: Offensive Q2 Passing S&P+
#96: Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#95: Offensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#75: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+

Did you ever beat Mike Tyson (or in my case, see it done) in Punch Out?  Tyson would come out and throw haymaker after haymaker...if he landed one, you hit the ground.  If you dodged enough of them, though, he was handcuffed and you could outpoint him.  Most teams--from Idaho to Arizona State--crumbled quickly, but occasionally you see somebody you didn't expect (Oregon State/UCLA in 2006, Little Mac Stanford with Doc Harbaugh in 2007) weather the uppercuts.  The problem with being superior in athleticism and talent is that...well...you don't really get used to playing close games in the fourth quarter.  So when you do find yourself in that situation, you don't necessarily respond well.

In 2007, when USC faltered it was probably on the offense.  Passing in Q2 and rushing in Q4 tightened up a bit at times.  I don't know if USC's (occasional) lack of Q2/Q4 offensive success disproves (or is the exception to) my "Q1/Q3 = gameplan, Q2/Q4 = talent" theory, or if it just proves that, like Mike Krzyzewski, Pete Carroll's loose style needs the absolute best (not just very good) offensive talent for ultimate success, but either way USC faltered at a couple key times in 2007 with John David Booty, Chauncey Washington, Patrick Turner, etc., and they didn't do that with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett, etc.

2008 will be an interesting test for USC.  Joe McKnight could turn into Reggie Bush his sophomore season, Mark Sanchez could turn into Leinart, and any one of the 127 5-star WRs on the roster could turn into Mike Williams or Jarrett.  But until it happens, this is a team that could once again smoke good teams, then turn around and lay an unexpected egg.

But let's not play around here--USC might have the best defense in the country, and they still have as much or more pure offensive potential as anybody as well.  With this crew, the worst-case scenario is 10-2, and they're clearly one of the 3-4 most loaded teams in the country.  Of their 22 projected starters, 15 were in the Top 25 of their position according to Phil Steele's recruiting rankings, including #2 QB Sanchez (backed up by #1 Mitch Mustain if last week's injury ends up more serious than once thought), #3 RB Stafon Johnson, #3 WR Patrick Turner, #1 OL Jeff Byers, #1 DE Everson Griffen, #1 LB Rey Maualuga, #5 LB Brian Cushing, and #1 S Taylor Mays.  That's simply insane.  But it appears that the guys to watch may be the Sanchez-Johnson-Turner triumverate.  Carroll's system requires big individual plays from the talent positions, and those guys (plus Joe McKnight, Vidal Hazelton, Ronald Johnson, etc.) have to come up big.

Verdict: An offense loaded with potential...the single scariest, most hard-hitting defense in the country...I don't know if USC can avoid that random slip-up, but those slip-ups are impossible to predict...and I'm not even going to try.  The only scary road trip is to Corvallis, and I doubt they lose there again.  USC's one of my Top 2 teams in the country, and provided they get past Ohio State on 9/13, they should be in the national title game.

Arizona State (7-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Defense, close games
  • Non-Passing Downs Rushing Offense
  • Defensive Points Per Play
  • Non-Passing Downs Passing Defense

Top Ranks

#3: Defensive Passing Downs S&P+
#3: Defensive 2nd Downs S&P+
#3: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#5: Defensive Q4 Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#107: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+
#102: Offensive 1st Down Rushing S&P+
#100: Offensive Q1 S&P+
#97: Offensive Redzone Rushing S&P+

They were great defensively in the talent quarters, they'd leverage you into passing downs, then completely shut you down, their overall rushing defense was solid...and they couldn't run block for crap (pass blocking was also a problem--see: 55 sacks allowed).  Despite the blocking, and despite the fact that their QB is not very likable, Dennis Erickson was able to walk in the door (ditching Idaho after one year) and institute Erickson Special, an immediate 3-game improvement.

Most of the key cogs from 2007 return--Rudy Carpenter, RB Keegan Herring, WRs Chris McGaha and Michael Jones, DEs Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez, LB Travis Goethel, CB Omar Bolden, FS Troy Nolan, and perhaps most importantly, unbelievable sophomore K/P Thomas Weber.  Plus, a few cogs on the O-Line don't return, which could be a good thing as well. 

So their success in 2008 depends on how legitimate you consider their sudden 10-win prowess.  The Sun Devils were 3-0 in games decided by a TD or less, and they were only 6-7 against the spread, which suggests that, I dunno, their schedule was really freaking easy (they were favored by 11 or more 7 times).  They played four ranked teams--they lost to #4 Oregon (by 12), #11 USC (by 20), and #17 Texas (by 18) and only beat a free-falling #18 California (it was Cal's third straight loss).

In other words, they had a good season, but they didn't prove just a whole helluva lot.  The defense should be improved across the board, and the offense should at least be as good as it was in '07, so ASU certainly can duplicate 2007's success.   But with trips to Cal, USC, and Oregon State, plus a non-con home game against Georgia, let's just say that if ASU reaches 10-3 this year, they'll have proven much more. 

Verdict: Second place in the Pac 10 is up for grabs, and ASU has as good a shot at it as anybody, but this isn't as dominant a team as last year's 10 wins would suggest.

Oregon State (6-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Rushing Offense
  • Offensive Points Per Play
  • 1st Down Offense
  • Redzone Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Non-Passing Downs Rushing S&P+
#1: Defensive Rushing S&P+ (close games)
#1: Defensive Rushing S&P+
#1: Defensive Q1 S&P+, Defensive Q1 Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#126: Offensive Q2 Passing S&P+
#123: Offensive Q3 Passing S&P+
#120: Offensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#120: Offensive Q2 S&P+

Raise your hand if you knew that Oregon State finished 3rd in the Pac 10 last year.  You in the back with your hand raised: you're a liar.  Nobody benefitted from the late-season stumbles of Cal and Oregon more than the Beavers, who won 6 of 7 to finish the season, kick-starting Cal's collapse with a road upset of the Bears, and finishing off Oregon's collapse with an OT win in Eugene.  For a rather unimpressive team, they sure accomplished a lot in the end.

It's pretty easy to see where OSU's strengths and weaknesses lied in 2007.  They had the best run defense in the country (not only were they #1 in all my numbers, but their 2.1 yards per carry allowed was, according to Phil Steele, the best YPC of the 'modern era', whatever that constitutes), and possibly the worst passing offense in the country (it was so consistently bad that Rushing Offense was their #1 'game-changing stat'...without a good rushing output, they didn't have a chance).

There was no smooth transition from 2006 starting QB Matt Moore to 2007's Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao.  The 2007 duo combined to complete about 56% of its passes for a decent 2500 yards...and a horrid 11-21 TD-INT ratio.  For better or worse, Canfield and Moevao (both juniors) both return, and they'll have to move the ball without their best RB (Yvenson Bernard) and 2007's leading receiver (Anthony Brown).  The good news is, 2006 Sun Bowl hero Sammie Stroughter returns after an injury-filled and tragic 2007, as does sophomore RB/SL James Rodgers, who put up 784 yards rushing and receiving, with 4 TDs. Combine that with potential stud freshman (and 1st-team All-Name) RB Jacquizz Rodgers, plus a healthier O-Line, and you should see at least a reasonably improved offense.

The question, though, comes on defense.  The Beavers' success lied with their rushing defense, and well...they lose their entire front seven on defense.  OUCH.  They do return their leading sackers in DEs Victor Butler and Slade Norris, plus three starters from a decent secondary, so if they can leverage teams into passing downs, they should be fine.  But they won't do that very well, and that will be this team's fatal flaw.

Verdict: I must like Oregon State...they beat Mizzou in the '06 Sun Bowl despite at least three, maybe four unbelievably bad calls, and that's usually enough to earn my eternal scorn.  But I find myself rooting for the Beavers a bit.  Sammie Stroughter had such an unbelievably hard 2007, plus OSU gritted out 9 wins despite numerous fatal flaws, and I respect that.

That said, the offense's improvement probably won't match the regression of the defense, and combined with their 3-0 record in games decided by a possession or less in '07, you get the impression that this really isn't going to be a good team in 2008.

Oregon (5-4)

Actually, I'll use this pic...

Oy...anyway...

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense, close games
  • Run Blocking (i.e. line yards), close games
  • 1st Down Offense
  • Rushing Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Offensive Q1 Rushing S&P+
#1: Offensive Line Yards+ (close games)
#1: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+
#2: Defensive Redzone S&P+, Defensive Redzone Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#103: Defensive Q2 Rushing S&P+
#93: Defensive Q4 Line Yards+
#86: Defensive 1st Down Passing S&P+
#82: Defensive Q1 Passing S&P+

It's hard to draw anything too deep from UO's 2007 offensive stats.   They were pretty much unstoppable for 2/3 of the season, averaging 44 points per game and sporting only a small lost-to-Cal-by-two-inches blemish, when the Ducks' luck made a swift, violent U-turn.  Dennis Dixon tore up his knee, the offense was amazingly bad with Brady Leaf, Justin Roper and Cody Kempt at the reins, and Oregon fans went from staring a national title in the face to trying to get excited about a Sun Bowl bid.  Granted, they looked great in the Sun Bowl, but a) I try not to take bowl performances any more seriously than the other games near the end of the season, b) Jonathan Stewart rushed for 250 yards in the game, and he's not a Duck anymore, and c) they'd been #2 in the country three games earlier, so...yeah...was probably still relatively hard to be happy with a big Sun Bowl win.

Seeing the difference between the Dixon-led Ducks and the Leaf/Roper/Kempt-led Ducks, I think it's safe to say that Oregon's 2008 success will lie really really heavily on the QB position.  Sophomore Justin Roper did well in the Sun Bowl, but it appears that it's sophomore Nathan Costa's job to lose.  Costa could have been a lot of help last year, only he had also been lost for the season to a torn ACL.  Everybody seems pretty excited about the prospect of a Costa-led offense.

At RB, they do have to replace Stewart, but Jeremiah Johnson and Andre Crenshaw combined for 759 yards, 9 TDs, and over 5.5 yards per carry in 2007, and besides...when was Oregon lacking for a big-time RB?

So if the offense is solid, it will come down to the defense.  Seven of the Ducks' top 9 tacklers (including potential stud DBs Patrick Chung and Jairus Byrd, solid LB Jerome Boyd, and an all-around strong D-Line) return from a strange 2007 unit--they struggled defending the pass in Q1/Q3 and defending the run in Q2/Q4, but they were pretty decent overall, giving up 7 points to Michigan, 17 to USC and 23 to Arizona State.  If they're scoring 30+ points per game, the defense is good enough to win the game.

Verdict: It's hard to think this team can be as good as it was for the first 2/3 of 2007, but Nate Costa really does seem like a potential star at QB, and if that position is in a comfortable place, the Ducks should thrive off of their multitude of potential skill position stars, a strong O-line, and an above-average defense.  They probably won't win at USC, obviously, but every other game on the schedule is extremely winnable.

UCLA (5-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Defensive Passing Success Rates
  • Offensive Rushing Success Rates
  • Overall Defense, 1st downs/Non-Passing Downs
  • Q2 Rushing Offense

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#2: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#2: Defensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#2: Defensive 1st Down Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#122: Offensive 3rd Down Passing S&P+
#120: Offensive Passing Downs S&P+
#117: Offensive Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#115: Offensive Q2 Passing S&P+

Here's another team where it's really not worth looking too deeply into last year's offensive stats.  And for UCLA fans, that's a very good thing.  For the last two seasons under Karl Dorrell, the Bruins had one of the best defenses in the country...and had a 13-13 record to show for it.  Their offense was a fatal combination of too conservative and not nearly talented enough.

Well, all that changes in 2008.  Well...maybe not 2008, but soon.  Skippy Neuheisel is now in charge, and well, his teams aren't known for conservative offenses.  His teams tend to peak early in his regime--in two four-year stints at Colorado and Washington, he's averaged 8.5 wins his first season, 10.5 his second, and 7.0 over his third and fourth.  Without looking at a single roster spot, it's easy to make an assumption that things will improve slightly in 2008 (and possibly quite a bit more in 2009).  Does the roster coincide with that assumption?

More or less, yeah...especially the "2009" part.  A rash of injuries (Patrick Cowan is lost for the season, Ben Olson for 8 weeks) means Skippy will start his first season back in LA with a less-than-ideal QB, likely either JUCO transfer Kevin Craft, QB-turned-WR-turned-QB Osaar Rasshan, or RSFr Chris Forcier.  This isn't the best situation for UCLA, but then again with a QB guy in Neuheisel at the helm, the winner of this battle should be at least as competent as last year's QB committee was.  Meanwhile, the RB battle between Kahlil Bell, freshman Aundre Dean, and whoever else is involved, should produce a pretty competent starter as well.  Unfortunately there are no proven receivers, and the O-line has to replace 3.5 starters.

The defense will be a bit of a work in progress as well.  The Bruins must replace their three leading tacklers, along with their sack and INT leaders.  There is likely some decent talent waiting in the wings, especially in the form of DT Brigham Harwell and LBs Kyle Bosworth and Reggie Carter, but still...the defense is thinner, and the secondary could be a pretty significant issue.

Verdict: UCLA should be able to duplicate last year's record at the very least, but "2009" is the watchword for UCLA and the Rick Neuheisel era.

Arizona (4-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense, Non-Passing Downs
  • Q1 Offense
  • 3rd Down Offense
  • Overall Defense, Non-Passing Downs

Top Ranks

#6: Defensive Q3 Line Yards+
#8: Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+
#16: Offensive Q2 Rushing S&P+
#21: Defensive Q3 S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#123: Offensive Q3 Line Yards+
#119: Offensive Line Yards+
#118: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#117: Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+

So what does it mean for my "Q2/Q4 = talent quarters" theory when Arizona's offense finished #16 in Q2 rushing and #118 in Q4 rushing?  I don't know the answer to that, but I do know one thing: the offensive line is going to have to improve in a hurry if Mike Stoops is going to get off the hot seat.  And for that to happen, they'll be relying on some JUCOs, most notably J'Marcus Webb...and by now you probably know how I feel about the JUCO gamble.  It's possible that it'll work out...but not probable.

If the line does manage to improve somewhat, the skill positions should be stocked with a deeper amount of talent.  13-year starter Willie Tuitama is back at QB, and speedy (and skinny) sophomore Nicholas Grigsby is back at RB.  Tiny (5'8, 195) all-conference WR Mike Thomas returns at WR, and Rob Gronkowski is an explosive option at TE.

I think it's clear that marginal to moderate offensive improvement is possible here, but here's why improving the O-line is so important: the defense has been decimated.  Arizona has to replace 9 of its top 13 tacklers, including six starters in their front seven and two draft picks in CBs Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot.  Mike Stoops isn't going to put a bad defense on the field, but he's going to be working quite a few new players into the rotation.  The secondary should be okay with a strong pair of safeties in Cam Nelson and Nate Ness, and Ronnie Palmer anchors an LB corps filled with guys who were at least pretty decent recruits, but the depth on the D-line is pretty disconcerting.

Verdict: The gains they made on offense are offset by the losses on defense.  Arizona was 2-4 in games determined by a TD or less in '07, so they don't really have to improve much to end up with a better record...which is good, because they probably won't improve much.

Part Two tomorrow.

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