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PACIFIC 10 CONFERENCE FOOTBALL

Tailbacks will have the run of the place

Five players who rushed for at least 1,000 yards return to the conference, including California's Jahvid Best and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers.

September 03, 2009|David Wharton

Just ask the linebackers and the safeties, the guys who have to make the tackles.

Across the Pacific 10 Conference, the land of the forward pass, defensive players are talking smash-mouth football, worried about plugging holes at the line of scrimmage.

It's as if they woke up and found themselves in a sunnier version of the Big Ten.

"You'd better bring your lunch pail and work hat to the job," Arizona State linebacker Mike Nixon says.

The reason for their concern?

As the Pac-10 embarks on the 2009 season with an early conference matchup between Stanford and Washington State this weekend, all eyes will focus on a host of top-notch running backs.

The speedy Jahvid Best at California and the shifty Jacquizz Rodgers at Oregon State. Toby Gerhart at Stanford and LeGarrette Blount at Oregon. USC's tailback-by-committee.

"It makes the game plan a little bit harder with those guys," Arizona safety Cam Nelson says.

Consider that only two Pac-10 quarterbacks passed for more than 3,000 yards last season, and both are gone. No fewer than five 1,000-yard rushers have returned.

"It's going to be a physical conference," Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh says. "You'd better be ready to stop running games."

This supposed shift toward three yards and a cloud of dust is but one of the issues hovering around the Pac-10 this fall.

It remains to be seen if anyone can stop USC from winning an eighth consecutive title.

Or if Oregon can survive a brutal early schedule and make a national championship run under newly promoted Coach Chip Kelly.

Farther north, another first-year coach, Steve Sarkisian, is trying to bring respectability back to woebegone Washington.

As for the most important questions -- wins and losses, who finishes where -- they will be answered in a series of key games that figure to shape the conference standings from top to bottom:

USC at California, Oct. 3

The Pac-10 title could be decided early.

The Trojans start the season ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press and can take the pressure off freshman quarterback Matt Barkley with tailbacks Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, et al.

No. 12 Cal, coming off a 9-4 season, has a fairly simple mandate. "We have to be more consistent with the passing game," Coach Jeff Tedford says.

Quarterback Kevin Riley must show improvement from previous seasons to keep USC's defense from crowding the line against Best.

Stanford at Arizona, Oct. 17

This is a pivotal matchup for two middle-of-the-pack programs intent on moving up.

Last season, Arizona reached its first bowl game in a decade but now must replace quarterback Willie Tuitama. The Wildcats need tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Nic Grigsby -- another 1,000 yard rusher -- to carry the load. They also have Coach Mike Stoops' relentless defense.

At Stanford, Harbaugh seems poised to guide his team into the postseason. The Cardinal takes its cue from Gerhart's physical, straight-ahead brand of running.

Arizona State at UCLA, Nov. 21

The Sun Devils began last season with great expectations but lost key games early and struggled home at 5-7.

"We're very disappointed in what happened," Coach Dennis Erickson says. "That motivates you."

With Danny Sullivan replacing Rudy Carpenter at quarterback, defense figures to be a strong point. Dexter Davis is a menace at end and freshman linebacker Vontaze Burfict should have an immediate impact.

That doesn't bode well for a UCLA team that continues to rebuild -- especially on offense -- under second-year Coach Rick Neuheisel.

The Bruins and Kevin Prince -- yet another newcomer in a conference populated by inexperienced quarterbacks -- must find their rhythm quickly.

Washington State at Washington, Nov. 28

The Huskies went 0-12 in 2008 and most predictions have them staying near the bottom of the pile.

But Sarkisian and his staff -- including former USC defensive coordinator Nick Holt -- have brought a much-needed spark. Even better, mobile quarterback Jake Locker returns from a broken thumb and has been working to become a more traditional passer.

Across the state in Pullman, Coach Paul Wulff's offense surrendered 43 sacks in 2008 and the defense gave up more than 43 points a game. A bright spot: The top four rushers return.

Senior center Kenny Alfred says: "We've got running backs who can really hit the holes as long as we open them up."

Oregon State at Oregon, Dec. 3

Here's another game that could determine the Pac-10 championship, with two teams in the mix with USC and Cal.

At Oregon, Blount and double-threat quarterback Jeremiah Masoli lead the spread offense. Kelly adds this prediction: "I think our defense is really going to surprise people."

Oregon State has some uncertainty at quarterback and an inexperienced offensive line, but Rodgers has shown an ability to take control of games.

In a season when the Pac-10 looks thoroughly grounded, that's enough to scare opposing defenses.

"This year," Arizona State's Nixon says, "you'd better be able to stop the run if you want to compete."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Top rushers

Top 10 returning rushers in the conference:

*--* Name Team Yr P Yards Avg TD Yds/G Jahvid Best California JR RB 1,580 8.14 15 131.67 Jacquizz Rodgers Oregon St. SO RB 1,253 4.84 11 113.91 Toby Gerhart Stanford SR RB 1,136 5.41 15 94.67 Nic Grigsby Arizona JR RB 1,153 5.39 13 88.69 LeGarrette Blount Oregon SR RB 1,003 7.27 17 77.15 Joe McKnight USC JR RB 659 7.40 2 59.91 Jeremiah Masoli Oregon JR QB 718 5.65 10 59.83 Shane Vereen California SO RB 715 5.04 4 55.00 Stafon Johnson USC SR RB 705 5.11 9 54.23 C.J. Gable USC SR RB 617 5.77 8 47.46 *--*

Source: cfbstats.com

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