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Opponents' gap plays work against Trojans

Experienced coaching staffs, improved talent levels help conference teams catch up to Pete Carroll's program.

November 18, 2009|GARY KLEIN | ON PAC-10 FOOTBALL

It's not yet clear who will supplant USC as the Pacific 10 Conference champion, the scenarios still needing to play out over the next 2 1/2 weeks.

But you don't have to look at this week's conference or Bowl Championship Series standings to realize that most of the teams sometimes referred to as the Nine Dwarfs have closed the gap -- in recruiting and on the field -- with USC.

Trojans Coach Pete Carroll acknowledged as much Saturday after Stanford walloped his team, 55-21, at the Coliseum. Before that, Oregon routed USC at Autzen Stadium.

On Tuesday, Pac-10 coaches credited Carroll for forcing them to become better.

"SC set the bar and everybody's working like crazy to rise up to that standard," Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh said during a Pac-10 coaches' conference call.

Oregon State Coach Mike Riley, whose teams defeated USC twice in the last four seasons, cited the current stability of Pac-10 staffs as one reason for the recent surge.

Riley and California's Jeff Tedford have been in their jobs nearly as long as Carroll. Oregon's Chip Kelly was on the Ducks' staff before succeeding Mike Bellotti.

Arizona Coach Mike Stoops, in his sixth season in Tucson, also has "entered right into the picture and just muddied the waters," Riley said.

"A few years back, if people didn't rise up, we were just going to fall further and further behind," Riley said. "There's stability, it seems like, so people have had time to recruit to their systems."

First-year Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian spent seven seasons at USC. The former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach said Carroll molded teams that ran the ball, played tough defense and took shots with the passing game to create big plays.

Other programs have followed suit, said Sarkisian, whose team defeated USC in September. "Everyone does it with their own style and their own flavor . . . but at the end of the day, teams are relying more on running the football, playing good defense, being sound on special teams and being more physical," he said. "And I think that, in and of itself, has closed the gap."

UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said the Pac-10 was stronger than at any time he could remember as a former player and assistant coach. He also said California high schools and junior colleges were capable of stockpiling the entire conference with enough talent to continue making it successful.

Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson agreed that the distance between USC and the rest of the conference has narrowed, but he is not convinced that it's permanent, especially on the recruiting front.

"I still think SC has a gap on everybody," he said.

Notes

Toby Gerhart's possible run to the Heisman Trophy could hinge on Stanford's ability to win the Pac-10. "That's my experience -- you have to have great team success," said Carroll, who coached Heisman winners Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. "There has to be a lot of visibility for that guy coming up."

Neuheisel said Gerhart "absolutely" deserves to be in New York for the awards ceremony. "The question is whether the media machine will allow that to happen."

The Big Game between Stanford and California has a slightly different look than in recent years with the Cardinal sporting a better Pac-10 record than the Golden Bears. Both are 7-3 overall, but Stanford is 6-2 in conference play, Cal 4-3. "They're one of the hottest teams going right now," Tedford said. "That definitely gets our attention."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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