Thrown For A Loss

Quarterback injuries have wreaked havoc in the Pacific 10 Conference this season and the teams affected have paid a significant price

November 21, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The words are basically the same, only the scenery and faces change.

A week ago, it was Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti telling tall tales in the Northwest, brushing aside concerns about quarterback Dennis Dixon's knee.

"Dennis is going to be fine," Bellotti said even as tests were being conducted that would show Dixon was anything but fine after suffering a torn knee ligament against Arizona State on Nov. 3.

This week, there's a desert wind blowing from Arizona State.

Sun Devils' Coach Dennis Erickson, asked about the injured thumb on quarterback Rudy Carpenter's throwing hand, said, "He's fine."

But although Carpenter has practiced this week, his condition won't be confirmed until the Sun Devils play host to USC on Thursday.

The power of positive thinking is being severely tested by coaches in the Pacific 10 Conference, where injuries to quarterbacks have caused detours on the road to the Rose Bowl and put up roadblocks to the national title game.

"Man, I don't think I have ever seen a [conference race] affected by so many injuries to quarterbacks," Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said. "The injury factor at that position is so big and how you handle that is a major factor in how your team does. It has been an unusual year."

Just follow the bouncing X-ray to see how unusual.

Oregon will take the field against UCLA on Saturday without Dixon, making the Ducks the seventh Pac-10 team to play at least one game without its starting quarterback. Of course, you can ratchet that number up a notch if Carpenter can't go against the Trojans on Thursday.

Oregon was ranked No. 2 and had national title hopes before Dixon's left knee buckled and he tumbled to the turf untouched against Arizona on Thursday. He'd been injured in the Ducks' previous game, nearly two weeks earlier, but was hopeful of getting by using a knee brace. When he fell, Oregon's Rose Bowl hopes also took a dive, putting Arizona State in the conference driver's seat.

How long the Sun Devils can hold that position, though, depends heavily on how well Carpenter can grip a football.

"The problem is, if you lose your No. 1 guy, your whole offensive philosophy is not prepared for the drop off," said Steve Clarkson, a private quarterbacks coach who has tutored several top college and professional players.

"Quarterback is such a difficult position to fill that it's an oddity to find more than one guy who possess the same skills, especially when you have someone special like a Dixon. You end up with a guy 180 degrees different."

For example, Clarkson added, "It's hard to duplicate what a Tim Tebow does [for Florida]."

That has been proven across the country as conference races, national title aspirations and even Heisman Trophy dreams have been altered.

Dixon was a Heisman candidate, and so was Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan, who because of a concussion sat out most of the team's 28-26 victory over lowly Nevada on Friday. The win was a nail-biter that didn't help Hawaii's efforts to move up the Bowl Championship Series standings.

A concussion also sidelined Oklahoma's Sam Bradford during a loss to Texas Tech on Saturday that removed the Sooners from national-title talk.

Long before, a thigh bruise had knocked West Virginia's Pat White out of the South Florida game, the Mountaineers' only loss this season. Also, Chad Henne's shoulder problems were a root cause for Michigan's meandering season and Florida struggled while Tebow nursed a sore shoulder.

"You notice throughout the country, when a quarterback goes down and you don't have a lot depth or a lot of experience in your depth, those injuries have a greater affect than at [other positions]," California Coach Jeff Tedford said.

In the Pac-10, long a quarterback-driven conference, those injuries have done damage.

Tedford's Cal team was sailing along after beating Oregon Sept. 29. But quarterback Nate Longshore suffered a sprained ankle in that game and sat out the next game, on Oct. 13, when his team was a victory away from being No. 1 in the nation.

That victory never came. The Golden Bears lost to Oregon State when the clock ran out after backup quarterback Kevin Riley chose to scramble instead of ditching the ball to allow for what might have been a score-tying field goal.

USC, preseason favorites to win the national title, has lost twice in conference play -- against Stanford, when starter John David Booty played with a broken finger; and against Oregon, when a late rally faltered because backup Mark Sanchez had a pass intercepted.

UCLA opened 4-0 in conference play, then lost not only starter Ben Olson but also backup Patrick Cowan in falling to 4-3.

"Teams don't develop backups," Clarkson said. "As a coach I'd never practice a backup, figuring we'd lose anyway if had to play a backup."

Said USC Coach Pete Carroll: "You have limited reps and you have to get your starter ready. We never had played a backup quarterback in seven years we've been here and now we've had to go through that."

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