Pac-12 coaches teleconference: The fight to become elite
Every Tuesday, all 12 Pac-12 head football coaches jump on a conference call with the media to look back at the week past and look ahead to what's next. This week:
No matter Stanford's loss to Utah this past week, the Cardinal remains with Oregon as the class of the Pac-12. But who's joining them? Washington wants to rebound from consecutive losses to the two Pac-12 North elites this week at Arizona State. Meanwhile, UCLA faces a likely irked Stanford team. The theme in the Pac-12 coaches teleconference call was about which teams in the Pac-12's second tier can make the leap. The Huskies, Bruins and even the Sun Devils have confidence they'll continue their respective rises.
Washington's Steve Sarkisian
Don't fault the Washington Huskies for losing two games in a row. Against Stanford and Oregon, Sarkisian liked his team's efforts. Without reason to panic, the UW coach said he's not looking to change the Huskies' approach moving forward. “We don't have to be different. We can bottle up the same energy, enthusiasm, focus, determination and, ultimately, execution,” Sarkisian said.
Though Sarkisian isn't worried about the mental aspect of losing two in a row, he did foresee injuries becoming a factor after two very physical games against the Cardinal and the Ducks. “I think we're fine. We have a couple guys that are decently banged up but not anybody lost for the year. Getting us fresh and healthy for this game is probably the biggest hurdle for us (after playing Stanford and Oregon),” Sarkisian said.
Like many opponents of the Sun Devils, Sarkisian can take a while to list off Arizona State's offensive weapons from quarterback Taylor Kelly, to running back Marion Grice, to receiver Jaelen Strong. Washington knows that it can't let ASU's offense get cranked up. “It's almost like they start going downhill,” Sarkisian said.
Arizona State's Todd Graham
Surprise! Graham said he's always valued the back-shoulder pass that quarterback Taylor Kelly and transfer wide receiver Jaelen Strong have developed. At Rice, Graham coached quarterback Chase Clement and receiver Jarett Dillard – the duo owns the FBS record for most touchdown hook-ups in history – with the same pass in mind. The Sun Devils work on the play before practice and after practice, not to mention the play-calls within practice. “We really believe in that throw,” Graham said. “They have really connected but they're not even close to being on the same page with that throw.”
The Arizona State run defense has improved since last season, in the eyes of Graham. The Wisconsin game was a good example. ASU gave up 231 yards on the ground but a very large chunk of it came via sweep plays. “We are a lot better against the run than we were last year. Most of it has been perimeter runs, which has been the issue,” Graham said.
ASU will need to corral UW running back Bishop Sankey. The key to stopping the versatile runner? “He's not going down because you hit him,” Graham said. “He's going down if you tackle him.”
Oregon's Mark Helfrich
Oregon hosts Washington State this week, and Helfrich's eyes are on the Cougars' defense that kept last year's game respectable through a half – OU led 23-19 – before the Ducks ran away with it in the third quarter. “Any time you're playing somebody again, you kind of have a little bit of their M.O. Their defensive line is playing outstanding,” Helfrich said.
On WSU safety Deone Bucannon, who last week saw his streak of four games with an interception come to an end: “Bucannon is a game-changing type of safety.”
Helfrich said quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Ducks' offensive line played their best game of the year in a 45-24 win at Washington on Saturday. Mariota passed for 366 yards and three touchdowns while running for another touchdown and 88 yards on 13 carries. Helfrich said the team isn't going to push for any marketing campaigns to help Mariota's Heisman candidacy. “I think the best thing anybody can do is to play well as a team,” the coach added. “I think he understands that.”
UCLA's Jim Mora
The Bruins' next opponent, Stanford, did something that the Cardinal couldn't. They went into Salt Lake City and beat the Utah Utes. This week, Stanford and UCLA clash in Palo Alto, Calif., with the Bruins now ranked ninth, four places above Stanford. Mora can take some pointers from the Utes. “They're very much like Stanford,” Mora said. “I think what Utah did (against Stanford) is Utah limited their mistakes. They were solid, they didn't give up big plays other than their kickoff returns. That's what we need to be able to do.”
For fans who appreciate linebackers, UCLA's visit to Stanford should be one of the more intriguing games of the college football season, Mora said. Shayne Skov of the Cardinal and Anthony Barr of UCLA might be two of the best in the nation. Mora also wasn't shy about how important linebacker coach and former NFL linebacker Jeff Ulbrich has been for the Bruins' success.
On Stanford's weaknesses: “You see no weakness in their team. They're a team that always gives themselves a chance to win. You've got to respect that. It shows they have a very smart football team that's well coached.”
Stanford's David Shaw
Stanford suffered its first loss of the year against Utah on Saturday but coach David Shaw didn't see any major issues with his Cardinal in the loss. “They played extremely well,” Shaw said of the Utes. “That's the hard part of losing when everybody says you're supposed to win. That's the natural feeling: something had to have gone terribly wrong. They played better and smarter.”
One of Stanford's biggest challenges against the Bruins will be amping up the run game facing one of the most physically gifted run defenses in the country. UCLA's front seven impresses Shaw. “A lot of the things they do are really, really subtle. I have been saying all along, (Oregon quarterback) Marcus Mariota is the best player in the nation. It's a tie to me now,” Shaw said. “The guy who wears No. 11 (Anthony Barr) ... they do a lot to get him freed up. You get excited when he doesn't rush, but then he does a good job in pass coverage.”
On what a playoff selection committee for a new FBA postseason format should do: “I would love for them to be able to watch the games and watch the teams and have discussion amongst themselves … it can't come down to rankings, it can't come down to stats, it can't come down to things coming off a computer. There has to be an objective discussion.”
USC's Ed Orgeron
USC won its first game in the Orgeron era by finding that traditional, balanced Trojan attack. Orgeron liked the way the offensive line opened up the holes for running backs – the return of Silas Redd helped the depth – but also credited the deep ball for beating Arizona 38-31 on Thursday. “I think the play at quarterback (helped),” Orgeron said. “The ability to throw the deep ball … mixing calls, getting the ball downfield, no turnovers.”
On what issues have popped up over the last few weeks: “The spread teams have given us problems. We've had some busted coverages; the deep balls have gotten behind us.”
The Trojans face Notre Dame on the road this week, and the offensive and defensive line play by the Fighting Irish are among the biggest concerns for Orgeron. Additionally, he said special teams will be a point of general emphasis – the Irish have dangerous weapons in the return game.
Oregon State's Mike Riley
Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion has 2,511 passing yards, more than 200 more than the next-closest quarterback in the nation. Maybe that's because Mannion is just behind WSU's Connor Halliday in total attempts. And that just makes his 25 touchdowns and three interceptions all the more impressive. Riley said it's a combination of Mannion's diligent study habits and experience. “The tangible parts,” Riley said, “he's making good decisions quickly and he's accurate with the football.”
Poor defense led to the Beavers' loss to Eastern Washington in the first game of the year, but Riley said that his team is improving as it readies to face the Golden Bears this weekend. He cited last week's win against Washington State as evidence – OSU only allowed two plays that went for 20 yards or more. “I think it's just, simply, we're sounder and we're tackling better,” Riley said. “We're in better position. That's where we've gotten better: our position in pass rush and in coverage and we're tackling better.”
The loss to Eastern Washington in week 1 might have had a silver lining for the Beavers, who are now 5-1 and 3-0 in Pac-12 play. Riley said it was evidence that any team can lose if its guard is down. “I think that was a great punch in the nose reminding everyone of that,” he said.
Cal's Sonny Dykes
It's never easy to come off a 37-10 loss, but the Golden Bears are doing just that. The defeat at the hands of UCLA dropped Cal to 1-5 on the year, but Dykes said his team isn't showing signs of throwing in the towel. “Our kids have really held together well," he said. "I've been very impressed with them in that regard. It's something that's been hard for us to deal with. The difficult thing about changing a culture, building a program – however you want to say it – the last thing you see are the wins coming Saturday.”
Freshman quarterback Jared Goff went 26-for-43 for 215 yards and an interception last week. A lot of his misses had to do with UCLA's pass rush and defensive back play. But Dykes said it was also about the quarterback timing, route running and general preciseness. “We had some guys open and they broke on the ball well,” Dykes said. “Their defense really runs well. They have great defensive speed.”
On if Dykes thought the Bruins deserve to be mentioned among the elite Pac-12 teams like Stanford and Oregon: “I think UCLA is not far away from those teams at all. I certainly think when they start playing Oregon and when they start playing Stanford – I think Washington is in that mix as well – they're all good football teams.”
Utah's Kyle Whittingham
Utes kicker Andy Phillips joined the team having experience only as a skier who had dreams of making the U.S. Olympic team. Whittingham said Phillips' mental toughness has helped him. So far, Phillips has made all 11 of his field goal attempts – four have been more than 40-yard kicks – and all 27 of his extra points. “I think a lot of that derives from the slopes,” Whittingham said.
Utah plays Arizona this week, and Whittingham knows the Wildcats' passing attack has progressed. Still, the Utes' head coach isn't overlooking the run game that last season saw Ka'Deem Carey surpass the 200-yard mark against Utah. “I think he's one of the best backs in the country,” Whittingham said. “He's a physical runner who's got good size – about 210 pounds – has great quickness, has great vision. If we've got any chance to win this Saturday we're going to have to slow him down.”
Arizona's Rich Rodriguez
Quarterback B.J. Denker threw for 363 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-31 loss to USC last Thursday. It was surprising considering Denker looked one bad game from being on the hot seat. “We had seen it at times coming out of practice and knew he was capable of doing it,” Rodriguez said. “I think he got in rhythm and he made some throws … anticipated them getting open instead of waiting for them to be open.”
Rodriguez said earlier this week that the Wildcats weren't tackling well, and that won't be good against Utah's confident offense this weekend. “I think sometimes it's a strength issue … tackling as well,” Rodriguez said. “In that last game, we did not do a good job of wrapping our arms. It didn't happen in any other games.”
On Utah quarterback Travis Wilson improving since his freshman season: “Now you can see he's obviously comfortable in their system. He's a big, strong, physical guy. I think he's a tremendous talent and he's playing really well right now.”
Washington State's Mike Leach
Two roads wins by the Cougars might allude to the improvement of Leach's team. With a date this weekend at Oregon, the WSU head coach isn't singing the praises of his team for a few victories. “I think we've improved,” Leach said. “We're just a group that needs to be a little more consistent. And yeah, I think (the roads wins are) definitely a positive sign. We need to focus on being the best team we can be and do it over and over … for consistent periods of time.”
Leach, on playing the mathematics game by going for more – or all – fourth downs and only two-point conversions: “I'm not willing to go that far with it. The thing that you got to keep an eye on that … I think if you went for two every time, I think in the end you'd come away with more points, but they wouldn't be as steady of points.”
Colorado's Mike MacIntyre
Though the Buffaloes got rolled over by the Arizona State Sun Devils last week, they did use the game to make a change at the quarterback position. Sefo Liufau took the starting job from Connor Wood, and the freshman impressed MacIntyre enough to give Liufau the start against Charleston Southern this Saturday. Liufau went 18-of-26 for 169 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Sun Devils. “He had a tipped pass that led to one interception … busted route on anther interception,” MacIntyre said. “He was really calm, saw the field really well and was able to handle himself.”
At 6'4" and 215 pounds, Liufau isn't a dual-threat quarterback, MacIntyre said, but he's not exactly a traditional pocket passer, either. “He's more like – I'm not saying he's this guy – he's more like Andrew Luck. He can throw it but he'll surprise you in how he runs. He has escapability, but he's a big kid,” the Buffs' coach said.