Comments from various precincts around the league on the weekly coaches football call:
ASU’s Saturday visit to UCLA puts the Sun Devils in the Pac-12 title game if they win.
Coach Todd Graham was candid in previewing the matchup of his veteran defensive front against the young UCLA offensive line, saying, “That’s where we think we have the biggest advantage. Our guys have to play extremely well. That’s where we need to dominate, up front. I think our key to success is impacting the line of scrimmage on defense – try to give those guys a multitude of looks.”
Asked about Marcus Mariota (who still hasn’t thrown an interception) and a Heisman candidacy that has flagged after the Stanford upset Nov. 7, Mark Helfrich said, “It’s unfortunate how we played in the quote, unquote marquee, big game of the year. A lot of that was not his doing. Marcus is phenomenal. All you have to do is look at the tape.”
Mariota, while not running much, played well in the victory against Utah, proving his toughness. Said Helfrich, “That’s never been a question around here. That guy is a warrior.”
Mike Riley was more upbeat Tuesday than the downcast mood he portrayed Saturday night after a loss at Arizona State. Said Riley, “They’re disappointed, but this is a good group. They came back yesterday and practiced well. They’re going to be fine. We’ve competed hard, we just haven’t played well enough to win all the way around.”
Both Washington, the opponent Saturday night in Corvallis, and the Beavers have had some ringing disappointments after high hopes. Asked how that usually plays out with two jilted teams, Riley said, “It’s all how you respond to it. I made that comparison to our team about Washington. I said, ‘This is a good football team, that just kind of like us, hit a lot of good football teams (on the schedule). They had kind of a murderer’s row in there. They had a chance to beat Stanford, just like we did.’ It’s just how you respond to it.”
Riley said both teams are “fighting now for lots of stuff – a good season, playing in a better bowl game, trying to position yourself in the conference.”
David Shaw had a testy answer to a question about Stanford’s red-zone offense, which misfired with an interception at USC.
“We don’t answer questions about play-calling,” he said. “When play-calling works, we’re smart, and when it doesn’t, we’re dumb. We’ve been as good as anybody in the nation, for the most part, in red-zone efficiency. We threw an interception and got a field goal blocked. As far as the plays called and the players we have, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve had success.”
Stanford is No. 6 in red-zone offense this year in the Pac-12 with 32 conversions in 37 trips, but its yield of 16 touchdowns in those opportunities is below average.
The game Saturday at the Rose Bowl with Arizona State will go a long way toward determining the Pac-12 South participant in the league-title game (if ASU wins, it’s in).
But ASU starts 13 seniors (eight on defense) and “they’re a much older team” than UCLA, says Jim Mora, who has played 18 true freshmen this year, seven of whom started against Colorado a couple of weeks ago.
Mora says that after the Bruins lost to Oregon Oct. 26, “We kind of started talking about having to get in a playoff (single-elimination) mode.”
Adam Schulz, now the Utah starting quarterback in Travis Wilson’s injury absence, played in a wing-T system in Wisconsin and hardly threw the ball, but sent a tape to Utah and eventually walked on there, says Kyle Whittingham.
“He’s got by far the strongest arm on our team,” said Whittingham. “He’s a pocket passer, not a great runner, but an adequate runner.”
WSU has trimmed its sacks allowed to 22 with Connor Halliday getting the ball out quickly, but Utah has 36 sacks to lead the nation. That puts onus on the Ute secondary, in which Whittingham says he’s seen steady improvement until it stalled in the Oregon game. But Utah still continues to confound in its inability to intercept; the Utes have picked off just two passes, easily last in the league, and Whittingham says, “I’ve never been through it. This year is ridiculous. We’ve missed on so many opportunities to intercept the football.”
WSU is among the national leaders in interceptions thrown with 21.