Tuesday marked the weekly Pac-12 football coaches teleconference. Some highlights (alphabetically by school), with some interesting observations by Washington State Mike Leach on his defense, which is allowing 38.7 points a game, tied for 10th with Colorado:
It was a dramatic comedown from Arizona’s usual offensive productivity when the Wildcats scored seven points at UCLA. Coach Rich Rodriguez said he’s pleased overall, though, with quarterback Anu Solomon, saying, “I’ve been proud of how he’s played. For a redshirt freshman, I’ve thought he was outstanding. (Against UCLA), we had more drops in that game than we’ve had all season. We had a couple of breakdowns in protection. There were a multitude of reasons.”
Taylor Kelly, the ASU quarterback who returned 10 days ago against Washington, “wasn’t full speed” for that game in his comeback from a foot injury, said Todd Graham. “He was probably about 80 percent last week (against Utah).”
The Sun Devils host Notre Dame Saturday in a game with big implications both for them and the Pac-12 profile.
The Bears have a ghoulish defensive average of 525.9 yards per game yielded, worst in the conference, but they made a couple of key plays late in the 45-31 victory at Oregon State.
“It’s been a strange year for us defensively,” said Sonny Dykes. “If you look at our numbers, we’ve defended a lot of passing plays. People have thrown at almost a 2-to-1 margin more than they’ve run it. It’s led to some strange things. We are getting better. We are making progress. You can see the improvement, day in and day out. We’ve started to understand how important getting stops on third down is, how important the red zone is.”
The Buffs, 0-6 in conference play, continue to encourage and frustrate, says Mike MacIntyre. “When you have the youngest team in the Pac-12, and fourth-youngest in America – and I guarantee you we have the youngest defense in America . . .” MacIntyre said, trailing off. “I can’t wait until I’m coaching 20-year-olds instead of 18-19 year olds.”
The Ducks meet Utah in what shapes up as a stark contrast in styles, sleek Oregon against the grinding Utes.
“Their defense, being in our backfield,” said Mark Helfrich, talking about his concerns. “How much penetration they create, in the run game and the pass game.”
Oregon has by the far the worst third-down defense in the league, allowing 46.9 percent, and Helfrich said, “That’s something we need to improve upon.”
Mike Riley wasn’t happy with the defense against Cal, saying, “We really got hurt on the edge, both with the quarterback escaping and the perimeter run game. We got defeated on blocks, we didn’t stay on our feet.”
As for a recent slide to a 4-4 record entering a home game with WSU Saturday, Riley said, “I think the main thing (going forward) is just pride in what you’re doing – self-pride, team pride. This is a pretty good group; I haven’t noticed any downturn. They buy in and we go practice. That’s the way it’s got to be done.”
David Shaw, looking back at the Oregon loss, said, “They were just better across the board. When you have a player like Marcus (Mariota), there’s going to be four or five plays he can make in a game” that spell the difference. “His last two touchdown passes were throws not a lot of guys can make – second, third and fourth reads. And they were healthier than the last couple of times we played them.”
Amid a lot of questions about his return to Washington, his alma mater, I asked Jim Mora what the Bruin defense did best last week in the 17-7 win over Arizona.
“We played within the system with much more consistency,” Mora said. “There was a higher level of trust and execution and accountability, to do what the individual was supposed to do. And it contributed to a really good defense.”
Steve Sarkisian has been around some promising two-way players, having coached Shaq Thompson at Washington, recruited UCLA’s Myles Jack when he was at the UW, and now coaching defensive back Adoree Jackson at USC.
As for Thompson and Jack, Sarkisian says, “You could have argued both of them were better offensive players than defense (coming out of high school). You could have said the day you show up in camp, ‘You’re going to be a running back.’ But both those guys had an interest in playing defense. We kicked that idea around a year ago with Shaq and did some things in practice. But we really didn’t need to. If I was going to take Bishop Sankey off the field, there had to be an (option).”
With high-scoring Oregon dead ahead, the Utes are desperately searching for a passing game, which has been a season-long endeavor.
“It’s a combination of things,” says Kyle Whittingham. “We haven’t done a good job getting separation on the outside, we haven’t been accurate enough in our throws, we haven’t been sound in our protection. Here we are in the last third of our season, and we’re pretty much one-dimensional.”
Oddly, Travis Wilson hasn’t been intercepted this year, the only FBS quarterback with his level of throws (165) to say that. But Wilson is completing a modest 56.4 percent of his passes and his rating is an average 129.5.
Chris Petersen is getting a lot of questions about the concept of two-way players these days, with the success of Shaq Thompson. Said Petersen, referring to early in the season, “We had a little package for him, we got him a few plays. We just kind of dabbled in it and got mediocre results. Especially at that position, you’ve got to give guys a chance to get into a rhythm.”
Petersen said the sophistication of offenses requires a lot of preparation time if you’re going to use a defensive player in a wholesale fashion on offense. He mentioned the knowledge of pass-protection schemes, as opposed to simply inserting a player to have him carry the ball for a few plays.
Mike Leach was pointed in some comments on his defense, saying, “We need more of an identity on defense. I feel like defensively, we don’t entirely know who we are. From one series to the next, a different defense may show up. Some of that may exist with youth, where you’re bringing in young guys. Some of it’s, it doesn’t matter if you’re a young guy, play like you belong. Some of it is, we need to select better – what are we going to do, what are our core beliefs, what’s going to be kind of the signature things we run that we’re effective at.”