Blog on vacation (sort of)

No, I haven't been avoiding posting because of the Cougs' loss to Arizona -- things just have been exceedingly busy at work. The kids went to newspaper deadline last week, and I'm leaving tomorrow with 17 of them for a scholastic journalism convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Needless to say, there hasn't been a lot of time to write.

I'll try and check in when I return, probably Monday or Tuesday. I've got some topics I'm mulling over in my head already; it's just going to be finding the time to try and do them justice.


What's left to say? Seahawks' pitiful D leaves me at a loss

Truth be told, I had a lot of things I wanted to say about the Seahawks' horrific performance yesterday. Most of them centered around the defense's abysmal performance. But I need to be honest -- there's not a whole lot that can be said that hasn't been said better by guys who actually get paid to do this stuff.

So, I figured I'd just link to some of the stories I found that sum it up best. Happy reading. Maybe I'll figure out something unique to say as we lead up to Monday Night Football. Maybe something along the lines of, "Boy, those people who thought the offense could be just as good without Shaun Alexander the past couple of years sure look stupid now!"

But right now, I'm just not in the mood.


Sizing up the Pac-10 bowl picture: Cougs headed for the Sun

And now, for the interactive portion of the blog. Thanks, Swanny, for the inspiration -- ask and ye shall receive! And sorry about the size of the graphic below, those of you over 18 years old; click on it, and it will appear full size on another page. Blogger won't do it any bigger on the main page.

The assumption by most yesterday was that Oregon State's upset over USC has thrown the Pac-10 race into disarray. This is not true. Either Cal or USC still will win the conference and go to the Rose Bowl.

The only thing it really has done is all but assured that the Pac-10 -- once again -- will not be able to figure out a way to get two teams into BCS bowl games in the same year. (It's only happened one time in eight years -- 2003, when the Cougars went to the Rose Bowl and USC went to the Orange Bowl.)

While it might not seem like that big of a deal, consider this: Each team earns anywhere between $14 million and $17 million for its conference when it appears in a BCS bowl game. In the Pac-10, that money is split evenly among conference members after the individual team's costs of going to the game are subtracted.

Forget about the other benefits of getting an extra team in the BCS -- television exposure, marketing, etc. -- you think that extra million dollars or so wouldn't help every school in the conference become even more competitive?

Since we no longer have to worry about BCS scenarios, here's my look at how the Pac-10 bowl games could shake out. One thing to remember, college football fans: The bowl system is a screwy one that ain't always fair. It's marred by back-room deals and good ol' boy networks, and is driven, most of all, by the almighty dollar, which pretty much means television contracts.

Save for the Rose Bowl, just because a team finishes ahead of a team in the standings -- for example, WSU is ahead of Oregon in the standings, thanks to the Cougs' head to head victory over the Ducks -- doesn't mean it will go to the better bowl game. "Pac-10 No. 2" means that the Holiday Bowl gets the second pick of bowl eligible Pac-10 teams, the Sun Bowl the third pick, etc. Things such as ticket sales and television ratings are more important than fairness; just keep that in mind ...

January 1, 2007
Pac-10 Champion vs. Big Ten Champion (or BCS at-large)
The contenders:
Cal (7-1 overall, 5-0 Pac-10), USC (6-1, 4-1)
The darkhorses: None.
The skinny: The reason USC's loss to Oregon State means little in terms of the Pac-10 race is because both Cal and USC still control their own destiny. Cal is undefeated in the conference, and USC has just the one loss. Assuming neither is upset in the next two weeks -- obviously not a safe assumption at this point -- their matchup on Nov. 18 likely will determine the conference champ. Cal clearly has the inside track; besides having no conference losses, the Bears' remaining schedule features UCLA, Arizona and Stanford (combined record: 3-12). Should USC figure out a way to beat the hottest -- and freshest, given the bye this week -- team in the Pac-10, it's still entirely possible that USC might lose another conference game with Oregon and rival UCLA on the dockett.
The prediction: California.

December 28, 2006
Pac-10 No. 2 vs. Big 12 No. 3
The contenders:
Cal, USC
The darkhorses: Washington State (6-3, 4-2), Oregon (6-2, 3-2), Oregon State (5-3, 3-2)
The skinny: The most likely scenario here has the loser of the USC/Cal game traveling to San Diego for the Pac-10's No. 2 game. After all, Cal already has beaten both WSU and Oregon, and USC has a chance to do the same in two weeks by beating Oregon. If that happens, Oregon will be completely out of the picture, and WSU probably will be too. Oregon could find its way to the Holiday Bowl if it can beat the Trojans, get some help from Cal, and defeat suddenly resurgent Oregon State. WSU or Oregon State could get there under a scenario where it wins out, while USC beats Oregon and loses to both Cal and UCLA. Neither scenario is likely. And even if USC loses to just Cal, the Holiday Bowl poobahs will take the Trojans long before they take Oregon, WSU or Oregon State, tiebreakers be darned.
The prediction: USC.

December 29, 2006
Pac-10 No. 3 vs. Big 12 No. 4/Big East No. 4/Notre Dame
The contenders:
Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State
The darkhorses: Arizona State (5-3, 2-3), UCLA (4-4, 2-3)
The skinny: This is where it gets messy. Really, really messy. There are a litany of plausible scenarios under which either WSU, Oregon or Oregon State go to this game. It probably boils down to this: The team that wins out goes. Washington State is the most likely to do that, having only three conference games left: Arizona and Washington at home, and Arizona State on the road (combined conference record: 5-11). Given that the Cougs already have beaten Oregon at home and Oregon State and UCLA on the road, I like their chances to beat three teams in the bottom half of the conference. Oregon State has a good shot to do it too, with the biggest hurdle being Oregon at home in the Civil War. If both win out, look for the Sun Bowl to take the higher ranked team, which will be the Cougs. Oregon could win out, but it's less likely; the Ducks have to travel to both USC and OSU.
The prediction: WSU.

December 21, 2006
Pac-10 No. 4 vs. Mountain West No. 1
The contenders:
Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State
The darkhorses: Arizona State, UCLA
The skinny: Still messy. Again, there still are a lot of plausible scenarios for all three teams, but it'll probably be the team that loses only one game the rest of the way. Oregon State strikes me as a team that is rolling and still getting better; I like their chances to either win out or lose only one game. If that one game is Oregon -- and the Ducks beat USC -- OSU will be headed for the No. 5 bowl, while Oregon ends up in the Sun Bowl and WSU probably ends up here. ASU or UCLA could squeeze their way in here, by winning out, but it's tough to imagine either team doing that.
The prediction: OSU.

December 27, 2006
Pac-10 No. 5 vs. ACC No. 5 or 6
The contenders:
Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State, UCLA
The darkhorses: None.
The skinny: Still messy. Any one of these five teams could land here. The most likely scenario is the worst finish among WSU, Oregon and OSU, but either Arizona State or UCLA still could jump up here with a strong finish. Unlikely. Oregon losing to both USC and Oregon State is most likely to me, landing the Ducks at this San Francisco bowl. It's a far cry from the season they had envisioned when they were ranked near the top 10.
The prediction: Oregon.

December 24, 2006
Pac-10 No. 6 vs. WAC No. 3
The contenders:
Arizona State, UCLA
The darkhorses: Washington (4-5, 2-4)
The skinny: The stronger finish between ASU and UCLA likely secures this bid. Both are close to becoming bowl eligible. Arizona State clearly has the easier finish, as UCLA still must face both Cal and USC. The Huskies could find themselves here if they can figure out a way to win out, but with road games against both Oregon and WSU, that seems pretty unlikely.
The prediction: ASU.

So, there you have it. UCLA and Washington still could both find their way into a bowl at this point, but it gets tougher. With everyone in college football playing 12 games this year, there will be a lot of bowl eligible teams. The Poinsettia Bowl will take an at-large team, and any bowl that doesn't get enough bowl eligible teams from a conference -- such as the Motor City Bowl, which gets the No. 7 Big Ten team, which really becomes the eighth team because both Ohio State and Michigan will be in the BCS -- could take a Pac-10 team. But I wouldn't count on it.

I'll try to update this feature each week.


Third and Long + Inexperienced QB = Offensive Troubles Sunday

Not to state the completely obvious, but Seahawks fans can agree on this much as the team prepares to take on the Chiefs this weekend: Life gets harder for the offense with Matt Hasselbeck out.

Up for debate, however, is just how much harder it gets with Seneca Wallace at the helm of the offense.

Although Wallace has just 52 regular season passes to his credit -- by contrast, Hasselbeck has 74 career starts -- there are those who believe he possesses the skills and knowledge to hold down the fort until the three-time Pro Bowler returns from his knee injury.

I'm here to tell you that if everyone else on the offense doesn't step up their game, Wallace doesn't stand a chance of leading this team to victory against what has turned out to be an underrated Kansas City defense.

The woes of the team's running attack are well documented, as the Seahawks are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry this season, 26th in the NFL. What's not as well documented is the effect that this has on the offense, and just how much having an All-Pro-caliber quarterback running the offense has helped to cover up the unit's many deficiencies.

The inability to run the ball on first and second down has led to the Seahawks needing to convert a disproportionate amount of third-and-long attempts. You can put the third down attempts into three categories: Third-and-short (1-3 yards), third-and-medium (4-6 yards) and third-and-long (7 yards or more). Check out the breakdown of attempts by third down category: (Special thanks to Seahawks Insider Mike Sando, who compiled the stats, which can be found here.)

  • Third-and-short: 14 attempts
  • Third-and-medium: 18 attempts
  • Third-and-long: 57 attempts! (Of those, 32 are from third-and-10 or longer.)
The striking thing is that this has not had a significant impact on the team's ability to convert on third down. Overall, the team is converting 41.6 percent of its third down attempts, good for ninth in the NFL. In fact, the Seahawks are converting 38.6 percent of those third-and-longs -- better than the overall conversion rates of 18 NFL teams (including such solid offenses as St. Louis, Chicago, Jacksonville and Cinicinnati).

At first blush, these numbers just don't seem to jive. Normally, poor performance on first and second down -- typically rushing downs -- leads to poor performance on third down. Of the six teams below the Seahawks in rushing yards per attempt, only two teams are even ranked in the top half of the league in third down conversion rate (Kansas City, 12th, and Houston, 14th). Yet, the Seahawks have been able to survive and even be productive on offense despite the improbability of the situations they put themselves in.

The only viable explanation? Hasselbeck.

All you need to know is this: On third-and-long situations where the Seahawks have passed, Hasselbeck has been responsible for converting of 17 of 29 attempts -- an astounding 58.6 percent.

In light of that, let me ask you this question: Is it reasonable to expect Seneca Wallace to produce similar numbers? If not, how can this team expect to be successful in Hasselbeck's absence?

The answer, of course, is that it can't ... unless it starts to run the ball significantly more effectively on first and second down.

The bottom line is that this team must put Wallace in manageable down and distance all afternoon if the Seahawks are to have a chance to score some points. For all of Wallace's athleticism, he's not likely to convert a lot of those long third down chances like Hasselbeck did -- he just doesn't possess the moxie, and it's a bit too much to expect him to consistently scramble for upwards of 10 yards.

Give him third-and-medium or third-and-short, however, and that will allow the coaches to put Wallace's full repertoire to use and give him a shot to lead the staggering Hawks to a much-needed win on the road.


Lost season? Hardly -- let's all try to keep just a little perspective

I've often wondered what it is about the NFL that arouses such passion in its fans, what it is that has allowed it to become the dominant sport in America over the past decade.

Personally, I think it's the festival-type atmosphere that surrounds every game. After all, unlike the NBA or Major League Baseball, a football game is special, a once-a-week occurrence. There are six days of build up, six days of hype ... six days of guys like me trying to figure out just what's going to happen on Sunday.

And while this is what makes football so special, it's also why it is so darn difficult for fans to maintain perspective after just one poor game: Six days of questioning, six days of trying to figure out just what went wrong and how the team will fix it.

As you know, one of my favorite sites on the Internet is Mike Sando's Seahawks Insider blog. If you needed evidence as to just how reactionary fans can be in the face of a colossal meltdown, here is just a sampling of some of the comments left in the wake of the loss ot the Vikings:

  • "Kiss the home field advantage goodbye."
  • "Season over. "
  • "This season is probably over. Seattle is, in effect, playing with a second team offense. Matt at best will probably be out 2-3 weeks. Based on the depth of NFC east and NFC South (and with the Rams and Saints playing well) - it'll likely be enough to keep Seattle out of a wildcard. Hope Branch was worth what is now looking like a top 15 pick."
  • "I have ABSOLUTELY had it with Holmgren's inability to flex within a game. For goodness sake, why does he insist on sticking with 'the game plan' when NOTHING in the real life game is as it was when he planned the stupid game? Other coaches in the league make significant adjustments...as should Holmgren, when things change on you dramatically. ... I think Holmgren is the one holding this team back today....this one he needs to step up and take credit for."
  • "I think it is time we all come to the realization that this is just not going to be the Hawks year. You can just tell when things aren't going to go your way. "

Conversely, here's what was being said the week before after the comback win against the Rams:

  • "What an incredible win. Maybe a season-saver."
  • "OK, I'm impressed! We finally looked like last year's Seahawks! We overcame injuries, the dreaded 10am road game, the post bye week sindrome, and even the down too far too early trap. Thanks coach for not giving up on the running game. This was a statement game! This could begin a long winning streak just like last year's game. What a game!!!"

Now, I'll be the first to tell you the Seahawks stunk, and that there are problems. But a season does not go from back on track to go to the Super Bowl to the toilet in one week, with or without your Pro Bowl quarterback.

But that's the nature of the beast when there are a full six days' hype in building up to a game. When it lives up to your expectations, it's the greatest feeling in the world. When it doesn't, nothing makes you feel quite as low. That's where Seahawks fans find themselves today.

It doesn't help that in today's snap-decision, instant information media climate, everyone wants everything right now -- including some sort of meaningful analysis from some talking head who has 60 seconds to fill on SportsCenter. As I'm writing this, the teaser for the show's next segment is, "With Matt Hasselbeck out and Shaun Alexander still on the sidelines, has the Seahawks' run as NFC champs come to an end?" It's enough to make me want to find the nearest garbage can and vomit.

Unfortunately, it's simply not "controversial" enough for Mark Schlereth or Sean Salisbury, in their role as quasi-journalists, to says, "Hey, it's one game. Let's see how it plays out." Apparently, ESPN thinks their viewers want analysts to either confirm their greatest dreams or worst nightmares on a weekly basis with no room for moderation, which, it appears, doesn't sell advertising.

While there is clearly cause for concern, let's put this in perspecive. Bad loss? Sure. But the team still is in first place, still holds the tiebreaker against the Rams, and has one of the weakest schedules in the NFL coming up. Matt Hasselbeck did not rip up his knee (a la Carson Palmer) -- he'll be back in a few weeks, and Shaun Alexander will be back before then.

In other words, if this team can figure out a way to survive the next month, going at least 2-2 against Kansas City, Oakland, San Francisco and Green Bay, Seattle should be able to get healthy and cohesive enough to make a push to just get into the playoffs, where clearly anything can happen.

And while not having home field advantage won't help this team get to the Super Bowl -- let's face it, earning the best record in the NFC looks like a grim proposition at this point -- there's a team in Pittsburgh that won a championship last year without the benefit of even one home game in the playoffs.

Remember, the Steelers lost three consecutive games last season without Ben Roethlisberger to slip to 7-5, and, if memory serves, most every "expert" wrote the Steelers off at that point. He came back, Pittsburgh won four consecutive games to finish out the regular season, and the rest, as they say, was history.

The kind of history the Seahawks clearly still have the opportunity to make.

What to expect this week

I'm hoping to be on and writing a bunch this week, and this is what you (tentatively) have to look forward to:

  • Wednesday: What the statistics say about why the Seahawks might really be in trouble without Matt Hasselbeck -- unless Seneca Wallace gets some serious help on offense.
  • Thursday: The key to the Cougars' chances of winning their last four games and booking a trip to the Holiday Bowl.
  • Friday: What the Seahawks need to do defensively to win, both before and after Hasselbeck comes back.
  • Saturday: Game previews for the both WSU and UW.
  • Sunday: Game preview for the Seahawks.

If I get a chance, I'll throw in some World Series analysis, too. For the record, I think Rogers cheated.


Ah, those mighty Cougs! Right where I hoped they'd be right now

The groudwork has been laid. Now all that remains is for the Cougars to finish the job.

Three weeks ago, after WSU nearly knocked off No. 3 USC, this is what I said in this spot:

"Now, they've got to go out this weekend and beat a not very good Oregon State team on the road. If they can do that, they've really got something going. Splitting the next two home games against Cal and Oregon after that is not an unreasonable proposition, leaving WSU 5-3, 3-2 in the Pac-10, and squarely established in the second tier of teams heading into a favorable final month."
Well, now they've got something going. After playing pretty well against Cal but having little to show for it in the scoring department, No. 16 Oregon came into Martin Stadium in what the Cougs had to look at as the defining game of their season.

WSU seized the opportunity, ambushing the Ducks in a game that wasn't as close as the 34-23 final margin.

The defense continues to prove it's one of the best in the conference after completely shutting down the potent Ducks. At first blush, the score doesn't knock your socks off, but only one of Oregon's touchdowns was of the legitimate offensive variety. One of the TDs came off a fumble return, and the other on a long bomb very late in the fourth quarter when the game was already well out of reach.

Before giving up a Brady Leaf touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter -- yes, it's his younger brother -- WSU had not allowed an offensive touchdown since the second quarter against Cal. That's five quarters of no touchdowns against the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in the conference.

The most striking statistic? Oregon came into the game rushing for more than 200 yards a game, and things didn't look good for the Cougs when defensive tackle Aaron Johnson went out early in the game with an injury, leaving the already banged up line without its top three interior linemen. Yet, WSU held Oregon to just 104 total rushing yards with that patchwork line.

And I know what the defense will smile most about: Super soph Jonathan Stewart -- a one-time blue chip recruit who chose Oregon over WSU late in the recruiting process -- was held to just 28 yards rushing on 11 carries, a paltry 2.5-yard average. You think the defense didn't want to send a message to the kid? In the least malicious way possible, I'm sure they enjoyed sending him back to Eugene with a resounding loss ... and in fourth place in the Pac-10.

Indeed, the unit that kept this team from realizing its potential a year ago is the biggest reason the Cougs have their eye on the Holiday Bowl if both USC and Cal can figure out a way to get into the BCS. The final four games of the season are imminently winnable for this team -- at UCLA, vs. Arizona, at Arizona State, and vs. Washington -- and we Cougs can't help but catch ourselves California dreamin'.

If that happens, maybe I can convince my wife that we should travel to San Diego for the second time in our marriage; after all, it was in 2003 that the Cougs last went to the Pac-10's No. 2 bowl game, beating Texas.

I was there.

On my honeymoon.

I still think the Huskies suck, but ...

As a die-hard Coug, nothing irritates me more than when Husky fans say, "I love the Huskies, but I root for Washington State to do well whenever they're not playing the UW!"

My usual response?

"Oh, that's nice. Personally, I hope the University of Washington loses every game in every sport for the rest of eternity."

However, just because I don't like them doesn't mean I can't respect them, and I'm finding with each passing week that I respect Tyrone Willingham and his overachieving group more and more. That was never more evident than Saturday, when the Huskies -- 23.5-point underdogs on the road -- nearly pulled off the upset of the weekend against mighty Cal.

In my mind, Isaiah Stanback was virtually the only reason the Huskies were playing as well as they were up until this point in the season. With the news that he was going to miss the rest of the season, I figured they were sunk for sure.

After all, their starting quarterback is Carl Bonnell, who left Washington State because he was never, ever, ever going to see the field for the Cougs. And their backup quarterback is Johnny Durocher, who left Oregon because he was never, ever, ever, EVER going to see the field there. And while their third string quarterback is Jake Locker, the greatest quarterback in the history of Washington football -- just ask most of the fans -- the coaches are desperate to not burn his redshirt.

I'm still baffled as to how they're doing it, as no logical explanation makes sense. This is basically the same bunch of guys who stunk the last three years. Yet, their guts -- dare I say heart? -- really defy explanation. How do you rationalize Carl Bonnell throwing four interceptions, yet the Huskies still holding a lead late against the Bears? How do you explain a receiver who had caught just one pass in his UW career reeling in the game winner on a miraculous Hail Mary pass?

Here's how: Tyrone Willingham is a great coach with a great coaching staff.

The guy has the goods. He's been successful everywhere he's been, and the only reason he lost his job at Notre Dame is because most of the powerful people in that program never wanted him there in the first place. He expects excellence, and somehow, some way, he gets his players to expect it, too.

See, a lot of coaches miss the fact that the key to developing a successful program that can be competitive year in and year out is developing strong young men who have the heart, maturity and talent -- in that order -- to succeed. (Larry Coker, take note.) Willingham has started to do that, and while I initially resisted the assessment about four games ago that the Washington program had turned the corner, I'm now as convinced of that as I ever will be.

Tyrone Willingham is a great coach, and the Huskies would do well to lock him up for a very long time.

Does that scare me as a Coug fan? Nah ... until the Huskies actually pull of a big win -- something similar to the beatdown the Cougs put on No. 16 Oregon in Pullman -- or figure out a way to win an Apple Cup, I'll still revel in our superiority.

Besides, it'll mean a lot more to beat a decent team in the Apple Cup for once!


Seahawks rediscover their mojo, showing us all they still have 'it'

I can only speculate as to what was going through the Seahawks' minds when they were down 21-7 midway through the second quarter, but I know what was going through mine.

Like a lot of Seahawks fans, last year's improbable run and this year's 3-0 start had me feeling a little bulletproof. I began to wonder if this team was ever going to lose a game, feeling like no matter what they did, they were always going to find a way to win.

The loss two weeks ago to the Bears didn't just dent that feeling of invincibility -- it evaporated it. And as if to prove that we fans weren't the only ones feeling that way, the Rams came out and smacked the Seahawks so hard in the mouth, it's hard to imagine they didn't feel that way, too.

Seattle suddenly was mortal.

Which is what makes today's comeback that much more impressive, the kind of win that can define a season. In a game which many wondered whether the Rams could seize this opportunity, it turned out the Seahawks were the ones who did the taking.

I have to admit -- down by two touchdowns, on the road -- I wondered if this wasn't the team I thought it was. After Tory Holt made one of the most spectacular catches of the season, I wondered even more if this team still had it.

Not just it ... but it. It makes sure that you remain composed in the face of great adversity. It is what you have when you win 14 of 15 games on your way to the Super Bowl. It is what champions are made of.

When Josh Brown's 54-yard field goal split the upright, the Seahawks proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they most definitely still have it.

(Although, Mo Morris might want to put a little more it on his hands in the fourth quarter. So might Michael Boulware ...)

To me, the defining moment of it in this game really came about midway through the third quarter. The Rams had been all over Matt Hasselbeck in the first half, continuing a trend that has become disturbing in its frequency this season. But, all of sudden, it seemed like something clicked.

The line started blocking better, and Hasselbeck started getting more time. And when he gets time, he's the most dangerous quarterback in football not named Peyton Manning. It allowed him to find open receivers. It allowed him to find guys that weren't open, but draw pass interference penalties anyway.

Additionally, this pretty much coincided with the defense figuring out how to get some pressure on Marc Bulger and start to shut down the Rams offense. The most stunning aspect of this was the way Bryce Fisher absolutely dominated Orlando Pace, beating the All-Pro tackle three different times to force sacks, and a number of the other times to hurry passes. The biggest, of course, was the sack to end the first half that took the driving Rams right out of field goal range. Think he didn't want to show the old hometown fans what they're missing?

The bottom line is this: Faced with adversity on the road, this team had the option to fold the way it did against Chicago. It didn't. Instead, the Seahakws did what they had to do -- not once, but twice -- to beat a quality division opponent in their house. That's huge.

Husky fans should have seen this one coming, because I sure did

I was absolutely kicking myself on Saturday for not taking the time to write the previews for the WSU and UW games like I usually do.

I wouldn't have been on with the Cougs -- who I expected to keep the game close -- but I told more than one person on Friday that I thought the Huskies were ripe for an upset and were going to lose to Oregon State.

The Beavers played really well the week before against the Cougs, showing a good defense and a strong running game -- precisely the two things that could give Washington some trouble. Additionally, I just had a feeling that all these Huskies were getting just a little too full of themselves after really having not beat anyone.

Turns out I was right -- only there's no record to prove it, other than a pair of off-hand comments to friends.

Oh, well ... I guess I'll just have to take satisfaction enough in the Huskies losing to a team the Cougs beat (on the road).

Other things I noticed on Saturday ...

  • I'm not sure whether to be encouraged or discouraged by the Cougs' loss to Cal. Yes, they matched the Bears yard-for-yard on offense, and their defense was the first team in nearly two months to hold them to under 40 points. But I can't help but feel like the game should have been a lot closer than 21-3. Turnovers, stalls in the red zone, a complete and total inability to convert on third or fourth down -- 2-for-17 between the two -- all contributed to their demise. Now, they're faced with the challenge of Oregon. Win that, and the prospect of eight or nine wins becomes a lot more reasonable. This weekend will say a lot about where this season will end up.
  • Saturday merely confirmed what I suspected about Cal -- that the Bears are the best team in the Pac-10. What surprised me, however, was their defense, and I think that has become the key to their season. There's no doubt they can score points. If Cal can continue to play as good of defense as it has the past few weeks, it will run to the Pac-10 title without so much as a bump -- and that includes USC.
  • Things don't get easier for the Huskies, either, after losing Isaiah Stanback to a foot injury. While the extent of the injury hasn't yet been made public, the consensus is that it's not good and that the Huskies might be without their best player for a while. If that's the case, a season that started with so much promise could spiral back into what it was supposed to be in the first place -- another rebuilding year. Stanback means that much to this team. To most UW fans, six wins seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now, those two wins seem a long way away, especially with road games against Cal, Oregon and WSU still on the docket.
  • Tommy Tuberville took a lot of flak for his comments about the SEC needing a playoff to compete for a national championship, especially after his team's loss to Arkansas. Now, he's looking prescient. Florida, Auburn and LSU -- all considered national championship contenders before the season started -- each now have at least one loss, and that Auburn loss to the Razorbacks suddenly doesn't look so bad. And what about one-loss Tennessee? Anyone think USC, ranked No. 2 in the intial BCS standings, is a better team than any of those? I don't. Kudos to Tuberville for having the guts to stand up and say what we already knew: Winning all your games in a season doesn't necessarily mean you're the best team, or even the second-best team.
  • Speaking of the BCS, how about no love for Cal? Three of the computer rankings have them ranked sixth, while the other three have them at eight, eight and nine. Yet the Bears are ranked 11th in every human poll, actually getting dropped a spot after beating Washington State. Their only loss is to Tennessee (who, by the way, has risen to No. 7 in the polls), and they've obliterated everyone but WSU. I know that it's only the first week, and I know that things tend to shake themselves out as the season goes along, but let's get real -- this puts the Pac-10 at a significant disadvantage in trying to get two teams into the BCS. Forget about the prestige that brings to a conference; that's $15 million out of the conference coffers. And people wonder why conspiracies continue to abound ...


Random musings on the world of sports: A's are finished

It's been a crazy busy week for me, and while I've neglected writing since Saturday, I haven't neglected watching and observing.

Has anybody else noticed that the Tigers look like a carbon copy of the 2005 Chicago White Sox?

Up 2-0 heading back home against the A's, the parallels are striking. Many people forget how the White Sox nearly collapsed last season after building a massive lead -- needing to win a few games down the stretch to hold off the surging Cleveland Indians. The Tigers' fall was even more pronounced, as a 12-16 finish resulted in them dropping to wild card status on the final day of the season.

Now, they look practically unbeatable against a team that looked unbeatable itself against the Twins.

From my perspective, the A's are finished. The Tigers are a terrible matchup for them, and here's why: If you're familiar with the concept behind "Money Ball," the basic idea is to create scoring opportunities by getting on base as often as possible -- whether that be through a hit or a walk or a hit by pitch. Consequently, the A's are great at working counts, something that's much easier to do against pitchers who don't have great stuff, pitchers who don't attack the strike zone on a consistent basis.

Good pitching beats good hitting, and the Tigers have precisely the kind of pitchers that give the A's fits. They're young, they throw heat, and they're not afraid to challenge hitters with strikes. Guys like Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney don't afford Oakland's hitters the opportunity to wait for their pitch. The only notorious nibbler on Detroit's staff is Kenny Rogers, and he's been effective against Oakland, going 6-0 in seven starts over the last two seasons.

Combine that with Detroit's ability to beat up Oakland's two best starting pitchers -- on the road -- and it looks like the Tigers are putting together a White Sox-like run to a world championship taken against a sub-par National League team.

Other things I've noticed ...

  • I was watching the St. Louis/San Diego series this past weekend, and up comes Scott Spiezio. You know, Scott Spiezio -- the guy who the Mariners gave $6 million a year to hit .200 and eventually be released? Well, he now plays for the Cardinals. As he walked to the plate with runners in scoring position, Fox announcer Thom Brenneman says, "And here comes Scott Spiezio. How many times has he been clutch this year!" What followed was a montage of his big hits throughout the course of the season. I about fell off the couch. If Scott Spiezio has become a key cog for a team heading to the World Series, I can only conclude that the National League has, indeed, become a minor league.
  • As I'm watching this Stephen Jackson story develop, I actually have a little different take on it than most. Did anybody else notice the fact that ALL of the Indiana Pacers who were at the strip club were carrying guns? ALL OF THEM? Forget the fact they all were registered -- is this a problem for anyone else? Why are all of these guys packing? Are they trying to get killed? Don't they have enough money to hire some other guy to carry the gun? Maybe they thought it might scare someone off in the event that person tries to punch them and run them over. Yeah, that clearly worked ...
  • How much of a piece of crap is Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hanson? The conference owns the worst television contract in the country, and that was never more evident than when only part of the country saw No. 16 Cal defeat No. 11 Oregon last weekend on ABC. If you live in a Big 12 state -- Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, parts of Iowa -- you saw No. 22 Nebraska and unranked Iowa State. It's no wonder the Pac-10 is the only conference to never get two teams into the BCS. So few people get to see the product -- compared to the other major conferences that appear regularly on the four-letter network -- that it's virtually impossible for our teams to get their due. One game not on the television dockett this weekend? Cal at WSU. A game that features what might be the best team in the conference and the dominant defensive player in the conference isn't on TV. What a joke.
  • I'm tempted to try to and weigh in on who's going to win the St. Louis/New York NLCS, but I find myself wondering ... who cares? The winner is going to lose the World Series. Convincingly.


Saturday Preview: Cougs will whip Beavers on the road

Big weekend in the Pac-10. Not a lot will be decided tomorrow, but one game will go a long way toward setting up the rest of the conference race. Oregon travels to Berkeley to take on a Cal team that has come back awful strong after getting embarrassed in the season opener at Tennessee.

Additionally, I think the cream of the conference will begin to separate itself tomorrow. The Cougs take on Oregon State, and a convincing win there will cement the Cougs clearly in the upper echelon of the Pac-10. Meanwhile, Washington has a chance to try and show the country that it is deserving of the "Others receiving votes" recognition it received after a good-looking road win at Arizona last Saturday. Here's betting they don't.

Here's my take on how the WSU game shapes up: (Sorry Husky fans, no time to write two previews after going to see "The Departed" last night. FABULOUS movie, by the way ...)

Washington State (3-2) at Oregon State (2-2)

Line: Cougs by 3.

How we got here: The Cougars nearly pulled off the stunner of the season last Saturday, giving USC all it could handle before Alex Brink's game-winning hail mary attempt was intercepted at the goal line. In their first five games, Washington State now has three wins against pretty marginal competition and losses to the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country. The defense continues to prove it is improved, as it gave the team a chance to win by holding the Trojans to "just" 28 points. Probably the most underrated aspect of the game was the play of the offensive line, which kept Brink from getting sacked even once and paved the way for 131 yards rushing. (Find a great story about it here.)

Oregon State is about to play for the fourth time in five games at Reser Stadium, yet the Beavers only have two wins to show for it. Perhaps the most disappointing loss was a 42-14 drubbing at Boise State. The game was close initially before the Broncos blew it open in the second quarter and never looked back. The Beavers had a chance to get back on track last weekend against Cal, but got spanked again. Yvenson Bernard has rushed for over 400 yards at tailback, but only about 40 percent of that came against BSU and Cal.

Key matchup: So much of fans' criticism (and occasional praise) falls on Brink, but the Cougs ultimate success today will rest on how well they're able to run the ball against a suspect OSU rush defense. Cal was able to rush for 134 yards last week, and Boise State rushed for 300 yards against the Beavers. If the revamped WSU line plays like it did last week against USC, and Dwight Tardy continues to develop into a star, the Cougs will control the clock and control the game.

Prediction: How good are these Cougs, really? Are they the team that took USC to the wire? Or are they the team that barely beat Baylor? I tend to go with the former, simply because this is a team that seems to be getting better with each week -- something Vegas clearly hasn't figured out yet. The Cougars genuinely are unhappy that they let an opportunity slip through their hands against the Trojans, and I think that's because this is a pretty darn good team that has high expectations for itself. I said this last week, but if I was a betting man, I'd bet the house on the Cougs and laugh all the way to the bank. WSU 31, OSU 10.


Weekend analysis: Bye week comes at a good time as Seahawks regroup

Sorry about the late weekend analysis! Things have been busy at school, and it's been tough finding time to write. That said, here we go ...

One of the great things about having been a full time journalist in the past is that it's often easier for me to step back and look at the big picture when it comes to bad things that happen to my favorite sports teams.

Take, for example, my weekend, which involved a narrow loss by the Cougs to No. 3 USC and the Seahawks getting their, ahem, backsides handed to them by the Bears. The temptation is to second-guess Bill Doba, or panic about the Seahawks looking not just bad, but outclassed.

I'll resist both urges.

Mike Sando of The (Tacoma) News Tribune I think put it best when it comes to the Seahawks, which obviously was the most disturbing of the two losses:
"You cannot manufacture the 'edge' Chicago brought to this game. The Seahawks certainly could not. This seemed to be a case of only one team being on a mission. This happens on occasion. It probably happened with New England at Cincinnati on Sunday. Are the Patriots better than the Bengals? Perhaps. Are the Bengals as bad as the score from that game indicated? No way. The Seahawks need to fix some things. The bye week probably comes at a good time. A year ago, this team was 2-2 and answering questions about its third-down defense (and play-calling) at Washington. That team responded. This team has a chance to do the same. We'll see if it does."
The Bears clearly viewed this game as more important than the Seahawks did, and both teams played like it. The Seahawks simply looked unispired -- save for Hasselbeck, who turned his personal angst into a pair of ill-advised passes that were intercepted. Were the Bengals as bad as their final score Sunday? New England that good? Are the Giants as bad as they played in Seattle last week? The Seahawks that good? The truth usually is in the middle, especially in the NFL, where the difference between winning and losing on any Sunday can sometimes be just emotion.

The only thing that I found a bit disturbing was the way our lines got manhandled -- on both sides. That's something you cannot simply chalk up to intensity. For the first time, our lack of athleticism on parts of the offensive line was a major flaw, and our lack of size on the defensive front was exposed.

As for the offensive line, I think time will cure most of what ails it. Chris Gray looked just physically overmatched last night, a fact that cannot be helped by recovery from a knee injury. Sean Locklear also still is recovering from a knee injury. Walter Jones has been banged up since the preseason; I think he's more hurt than he's letting on. And Chris Spencer -- who appeared to be primarily responsible for at least two sacks -- will only get better with time and experience. In battles between young, athletic offensive linemen and young, athletic defensive linement (such as Tommie Harries), the advantage almost always goes to the defense. The bye this week certainly will help all of these issues.

As for the defensive front, I think the solution is clear: Undersized, speedy defenders cannot be on the field for 60 percent of the game, as they were on Sunday. They will wear down in the face of constant pounding when the offense can't move the ball. While it's a good defense, this unit clearly is not a defense on par with Chicago, Baltimore or San Diego. It is not going to be able to carry this team should the offense falter for extended periods as it did on Sunday.

The good news is, that shouldn't happen to the offense again for a good, long while, if at all. There still is loads of time left in the season, and that's something to keep in perspective right now. (Scoop Jackson wrote a nice column about that here.) It's just one loss, and if last year showed us anything, this team has heart, and the coaches are good enough to fix the flaws and build momentum as the season continues.

Cougs must continue momentum by beating Oregon State

As for my beloved Cougs, I hate moral victories, but you gotta like what we saw out of the team on Saturday. WSU did just about everything right but win the game, a far cry from last year, when the team found itself repeatedly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This, however, nearly was one for the annals.

Quarterback Alex Brink played marvelously, completing 26 of 46 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. His lone interception came as time expired on a hail mary pass. Here's to hoping Coug fans finally recognize this guy for what he is -- a pretty darn good quarterback who continues to improve with each passing week. He had one bad game against Auburn -- a team I think might be the best in the country (yes, better than Ohio State) -- and since then has led the team to three wins and a near upset of the dominant team in the Pac-10. Sounds pretty good to me.

By the way, for all the fanfare that DeMaundray Woolridge received after his good season opener at Auburn, it's become pretty clear who the best running back on the team is -- and it ain't Woolridge. Dwight Tardy is showing why the coaches were so dead set on redshirting him last year to preserve four years of eligibility, as he carried the ball 11 times for 65 yards. He is a tough runner who reminds me of someone in the Curtis Martin mold: Not the biggest back, not the quickest back, not the fastest back ... but he has great vision and does all of those things well enough to be effective. I'm excited to see him continue to develop.

I hesitate to second-guess coaches after such an inspired performance, but if I could find fault with anything in the game, I would wonder why the Cougars seemed to be in basic defenive personnel groupings on so many of those critical third and fourth down situations. USC converted eight of 14 third down opportunities and both fourth down chances.

While I don't have any hard evidence, it sure seemed like a lot of those were converted by wide receivers who were being covered by linebackers. The nickel package often seemed nowhere in sight. However, it could just be a situation of pick your poison -- do you want to give up 3rd and 4 on a pass with base personnel, or on a run with pass defense personnel?

I know the Cougars were unhappy that they let an opportunity slip through their fingers, and that impresses me. This team played very well, and showed me that they expected to win that game. Now, they've got to go out this weekend and beat a not very good Oregon State team on the road. If they can do that, they've really got something going. Splitting the next two home games against Cal and Oregon after that is not an unreasonable proposition, leaving WSU 5-3, 3-2 in the Pac-10, and squarely established in the second tier of teams heading into a favorable final month.

Get all three of those, and we'll be talking Holiday Bowl. Lose to OSU, and all the good things that have been built up will be gone, and the questioning will begin anew.

Speaking of big Pac-10 road wins, the Huskies came up with one on Saturday. As I mentioned in my preview, as Isaiah Stanback goes, so go the Huskies, and if Stanback keeps going like this ... well, the rest of the Pac-10 (and nation?) better start taking notice. Granted, his last two performances have been against two teams that will be in the bottom half of the conference at the end of the year, but let's be real: The Huskies were supposed to be at the bottom of the conference themselves, and the biggest reason they're now 2-0 is Stanback.


Gameday diary: Seahawks at Bears

As the game goes on tonight, I'll post my thoughts on how the game is unfolding. Your thoughts encouraged! Just click on "comments" below to leave your own analysis.

5:14 p.m.: Just settling in here to catch the kickoff, and I know everyone wants to imitate Monday Night Football, but you'd think NBC could do a bit better Hank Williams Jr. impersonation than Pink. Let's just say it's a bad thing when your hip lead-in singer leaves you wishing for the upcoming booth shot of John Madden. It's like they're trying to be edgy, but she just ends up looking like an ugly stripper on top of a building that can't sing. The NFL rocks on NBC? This broadcast has nowhere to go but up at this point ...

5:35 p.m.: Good to see the Seahawks get on the board first, but it sure would have been nice to get a touchdown that deep. One of Tacoma News Tribune beat writer Mike Sando's favorite indicators of defense strength is red zone defense. It's how the Seahawks defense gave up so many yards last year, yet was strong enough to lead the team to the Super Bowl. For Chicago, that's now five times opponents have traveled inside their 20 yard line, and the fourth time they've forced a field goal. Look for that to be a deciding factor as the game goes on: The Seahawks must score touchdowns when they get the opportunity.

5:47 p.m.: Speaking of red zone touchdowns ... Bears 1, Seahawks 0. It came off a blitz, which is a bit surprising to me. It tells me the Seahawks were thinking the exact same thing I was before the game, trying to force Grossman into a mistake. No mistakes so far -- he's made the right decision at every turn. Now that he's proven he'll stand in there, I look for the Seahawks to try to generate pressure more exclusively with their front four.

6:03 p.m.: Did Al Michaels just say "Good as Gould"? C'mon Al! You're better than that! (Incidentally, Seahawks just got their first red zone stop. They look a little flustered at the moment; a decent drive from the offense here would stem some of this momentum.)

6:07 p.m.: Four minutes later ... so much for that. Three and out.

6:17 p.m.: OOOOOOooooohhhhh boy. We were counting on Grossman to make the mistakes. Manning jumped that slant like he saw something he recognized from film sessions. Good job to keep that from being a TD, I suppose, but this has to be the Seahawks worst nightmare so far. The Bears are doing exactly what Seattle hoped to do.

6:24 p.m.: For a while there, I felt like I was watching the Cougs against USC all over again. Before the Hawks stopped Chicago on third-and-goal, they had given up first downs on four of the previous eight third down opportunities. That will be a major problem if not corrected. By contrast, the Seahawks are 0-for-4 on third downs ... Again, holding Chicago to a field goal on first and goal from the one is an accomplishment, but let's be real: This team cannot continue to give up points, even field goals, when the offense is struggling this much against the stout Chicago defense.

6:28 p.m.: Faithful readers of Sports Illustrated will recognize this: This Week's Sign of the Apocolypse -- The Washington Huskies actually received votes in this week's Associated Press top 25 poll. What is this world coming to?

6.31 p.m.: This is an unmitigated disaster. I'm going to take a break for a bit ... I need to keep my head from exploding. Hasselbeck is trying to win this game all by himself, just like he did in the Super Bowl. And we all know how that turned out. I thought he had outgrown this. Maybe not ...

6:36 p.m.: OK, so I lied. Anyone else see Bryce Fisher get blown up by a tight end on that touchdown run? That was pitiful. The defense looks tired and slow and completely out of air. They shouldn't need the Seattle crowd to get them up for this ...

6:50 p.m.: Halftime analysis

Well, it's gut-check time for the Seahawks. We'll find out if this team has what it takes to mount a comeback against what sure is looking like the best defense in the league. The first half hardly could have gone worse for Seattle. The interesting thing for the Seahawks is that they've only been outgained by about 30 yards total, but the difference has been obvious: Two trips inside the 20 for the Seahawks have yielded only two field goals, and the defense has forced no turnovers. Conversely, in four trips into the red zone, the Bears have two touchdowns and two field goals. Ten of those points came off two very, very bad Matt Hasselbeck passes that were intercepted. Not what we've come to expect in the last year from him.

I think the Seahawks are playing right into the hands of the Bears defense. They seem to have completely abandoned the run; Maurice Morris has only six carries, and they didn't even try to run once on that final first and goal from the five.

I don't think the game plan changes much in the second half; I just think the Seahawks need to do what they set out to do initially. I'd like to see them run the ball a little more, trying to get Morris out in space. I'd like to see them take advantage of the Bears' aggressiveness with some screen passes. And I'd like to see the defense step up and make a play. That's the only chance they have.

7:24 p.m.: You know, somebody should tell Matt Hasselbeck that every defense has now seen that little check-down handoff to Mack Strong enough time on film that they're ready for it now. I mean, we've now done it twice on third down and neither time have we come close to converting. This is becoming incredibly frustrating to watch. We look completely outclassed and outcoached at this point. It's like the Bears know what's coming on virtually every play. Every time Hasselbeck checks off to a pass, the Bears back out and have every receiver absolutely swarmed. This is embarrassing. No other way to put it.

7:27 p.m.: Do you realize that that deep incompletion to Berrian was the first ball thrown Marcus Trufant's direction that wasn't completed or a pass interference penalty? Yuck.

7:34 p.m.: My buddy Jo-Jo just weighed in with this thought:

"I have a hard time with the fact that it looks as if no one is open, ever. Hasselbeck looks like he is short of options every time he drops back to throw."
What's frustrating is that we haven't been able to make any plays. It's like the Super Bowl all over again -- when there actually is a big play to be made against a tough defense, we can't seem to make it happen. Case in point: Wide open Darrell Jackson, streaking down the sideline; Hasselbeck throws the ball too close to the sideline and it rolls off his fingertips. Typical of tonight, and seeming to be typical of our team in hostile environments, taking into account the Super Bowl, the opener and Detroit, and tonight.

7:38 p.m.: Can't stop the run? Put 12 guys on the field! Just don't get caught like Seattle did.

7:41 p.m.: You know, if you're going to commit a penalty, you might want to make sure he doesn't catch the touchdown. Incidentally, anyone notice that it was once again our third string safety getting burned? Celestin, Pruitt, it doesn't matter ... the third safety on every team sucks. It's just that ours only seem to make their way onto the field in big games.

8:22 p.m.: Well, mercifully, it's over. Good thing it's just one game ... although that one game will really be like two games if it comes down to that for a home field advantage tiebreaker. I'm disappointed, but I'm also prepared to keep it in perspective. Yes, it sucked. Yes, it was embarrassing. But, yes, it's only one game. After four games last year, the Hawks were 2-2 coming off a tough loss to Washington. They won 11 of their final 12, a streak no one could have imagined at the time. Here's to keeping the faith.

Sunday Preview: Seahawks will edge Bears behind opportunistic defense

Big Sunday night matchup in the Midway! Here's my look at how it shakes out:

Seahawks (3-0) at Chicago Bears (3-0)

Line: Bears by 3.5

How we got here: The Seahawks have gotten better each week of the season, coinciding with the emergence of their offense. After an uninspired performance against Detroit and an uneven performance against Arizona, everything came together last week against the Giants. Set up by an opportunistic defense and a crowd loud enough to make your ears ring, the Hawks used an array of offensive sets to take advantage of the Giants’ weak defensive secondary. The result was perhaps the most dominating half of football in Seahawks history, building a 42-3 lead early in the third quarter against a team many thought would give Seattle a run for its money. By the time New York mounted some semblance of a comeback, the game was all but over.

While Chicago’s defense has lived up to its reputation as one of the most dominating units in the NFL, it’s been the Bears’ passing game, led by Rex Grossman, that has been the catalyst behind their fast start. It’s a good thing, because their running game has been positively woeful, averaging only 83 yards per game. Second-year running back Cedric Benson – the first round pick of a year ago – has just 58 yards on 21 carries in the two games. Thomas Jones hasn’t been much better. No matter, as the Bears have won two of their first three on the road, all against divisional competition.

Key matchup: Much has been made about the Seahawks offense facing the Chicago defense, but I don’t believe that will decide the game. The key matchup here is Grossman and the rest of the Bears passing attack against the vastly-improved Seahawks defense. If Chicago can continue its success through the air, the Bears have a chance to win. If the Seahawks can force Grossman – who has a bit of a gunslinger mentality – into some poor decisions and possibly a turnover or two, the advantage definitely tilts into the Seahawks’ favor.

Prediciton: Observers around the country, who believe the Seahawks will be crippled by the loss of NFL MVP Shaun Alexander, will find out just how dynamic this offense is and just how good Matt Hasselbeck is. Maurice Morris will more than adequately fill in for Alexander. And while no one is pretending Morris is as talented as Alexander, I think a 100 percent Morris is better than a 60-70 percent Alexander, which is what we’ve seen for the past two weeks. Grossman will be forced into some errors, and the Seahawks defense finally will start to get the pub it deserves. Seahawks 17, Bears 13.


Time to go to bed, but I just gotta say, I'm proud of the boys

I just got done watching the second half of the Cougs on my TiVo, and, even though I'm tired, I just had to get on here and say: It never feels good to lose, but I'm darn proud of the Cougs for the way they fought USC tonight. This is the first Cougar loss in a long time that I haven't walked away wondering "what if." The reality is that we just got beat by a better team.

And I'm OK with that.

I'll have a full breakdown of the weekend in football up on the site on Monday -- including the Seahawks matchup with the Bears -- but in the meantime, I've just got to say my boys did me proud. I'm excited for what the rest of this season holds.

Way to go, Cougs.

Saturday Preview: Cougs will come close against USC, Huskies 2-0?

Big weekend for football fans in Washington state! The Cougs get to find out if they're contenders, or just merely pretenders, while the Huskies look to continue playing with house money by picking up a Pac-10 road win. Here's a look at today's games:

No 3. Southern Cal (3-0, 1-0 Pac-10) at Washington State (3-1, 1-0)

Line: Trojans by 17.

How we got here: The Cougs' season continues to move ahead according to form after a 36-10 thrashing of Stanford last week that wasn't even that close. WSU rolled up 238 yards on the ground against the Cardinal, moving the Cougars up to No. 2 in the Pac-10 in rushing at 189.8 yards per game. That rushing game is what has driven WSU so far, using a three-headed attack to keep defenses off balance. Sophomore DeMaundray Woolridge still leads the team with 211 yards (5.6 yards per carry), but redshirt freshman Dwight Tardy is right on his heels with 205 yards (4.9 yards per carry). Transfer Darrell Hutsona has been a great change of pace, reminiscent of Jerome Harrison in his first season. The defense has been spectacular at times, albeit against weaker competition than USC, including Mkristo Bruce's five sacks last weekend. The Cougars' secondary -- the major weakness of the team last year -- has comported itself surprisingly well so far, ranking second in the league in pass defense efficiency.

Meanwhile, USC continues to prove that Trojans don't rebuild, they just reload. Many questioned how Southern Cal would cope with the loss of 11 players drafted by the NFL, including Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Well, the answer is very well, thank you. Playing two of their first three games on the road, the Trojans have yet to really be tested. It was close through most of the first three quarters last week against Arizona, but the Wildcats never showed enough offensive gumption to make you believe that they actually could pull off the upset. John David Booty is showing why he was so highly recruited in the first place, although his 6.34 yards per attempt is below what you would expect out of what is supposed to be a big-play offense.

Key matchup: I think WSU will be able to score some points, although the rushing attack will not roll the way it has the past three weeks. And I think the Cougs' front seven is good enough to contain the Trojan rushing attack. The real test will be if this defensive secondary truly is improved, or if it's a mirage created by playing Idaho (a run-oriented team for the time being), Baylor (a spread offense mostly looking for five-yard dump-offs), and Stanford (a team down pretty much to walk-ons at wide receiver). All indications are that Dwayne Jarrett won't play, so that will be a boost to the Cougs. If they can continue to stay away from giving up the big plays that plagued them last year, they've got a shot at the upset.

Prediction: Even without Jarrett, USC will get its points. Although the Cougs will be able to keep it close, I look for a couple of key mistakes -- a fumble, a Brink interception, or a big pass play on defense -- to be the difference. It will feel like WSU is in it the whole way, but just can't do enough to get over the top. If I was a betting man, I'd take the Cougs plus the 17 all the way to the bank. USC 31, WSU 24.

Washington (3-1, 1-0) at Arizona (2-2, 0-1)

Line: Arizona by 3.

How we got here: Washington is flying high right now, fresh off a stunning comeback upset of UCLA last weekend at home. The Huskies outscored the Bruins 22-3 in the second half -- including 15-0 in the fourth quarter -- to give the UW faithful reason to believe that this team just might be able to pull off three more wins and sneak into its first bowl game since the 2002 Sun Bowl. Isaiah Stanback, a frequent target of Husky fans' ire, seems to be getting better with each game; he, without a doubt, was the difference against UCLA, throwing for 202 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another 46 yards. Make no mistake: This is a game the Huskies would have puked away in the past.

Arizona, meanwhile, has to be both encouraged and discouraged by last week's performance. Encouraged by the fact that the game was so close for so long, but discouraged that sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama just doesn't seem to be able to get that cannon arm untracked. After a spectacular freshman season, Tuitama has been pedestrian, throwing just two touchdowns against four interceptions. He'll be looking to get it rolling against a UW pass defense that had been thought to be pretty weak, but only gave up 187 passing yards to the Bruins.

Key matchup: I don't know of any other team in the country whose success or failure is more determined by just one player. Everything the Huskies do -- or don't do -- rides on the arm and legs of Stanback. Period. If he plays well against a defense that was good enough to beat USC for most of last week, then the UW has a chance. If he reverts back to the inexplicably poor decisions that have cost the Huskies so many times in the past, look out. Because when he makes mistakes, they're not just little mistakes. They're colossal ones.

Prediction: For the reasons just mentioned, I wouldn't bet on this game if my mortgage depended on it. In my mind, Stanback is still just way too unpredictable, and I don't see the Huskies winning any games this year (save for maybe Stanford) that Stanback doesn't play well in. That said, I think Arizona's offense is pretty bad, and I think that's the difference. Washington 17, Arizona 14.


Breaking down the loss of Shaun Alexander

Today's announcement that Shaun Alexander has a broken bone in his foot merely confirms what I've suspected for a couple of weeks: That his foot was bothering him a lot more than he was letting on all along, and was, in fact, the biggest factor in the running game's woes this season.

Nobody knows for sure exactly when Alexander sustained the break, but I have a sneaking suspicion it came part-way through the first quarter. Check out Alexander's first four runs of the game:

  • 1-2-NYG2(12:44) S.Alexander up the middle for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
  • 1-10-NYG47(10:49) S.Alexander left tackle to NYG 43 for 4 yards (A.Pierce).
  • 3-2-NYG39(9:44) S.Alexander left guard to NYG 27 for 12 yards (G.Wilson).
  • 1-12-NYG12(7:42) S.Alexander right tackle to NYG 12 for no gain (B.Cofield).
Added up, that's four carries for 18 yards and a touchdown. That's 4.5 yards per carry -- the kind of numbers we've been used to seeing from Alexander. Those four carries showed me that he was feeling pretty good up until then. His touchdown run was a hard run right into the heart of the defense, while the 12-yard gain was vintage Shaun Alexander -- taking a third and two run and turning it into a big gainer. He looked strong and aggressive.

However, his next carry looks like this:
  • 2-10-NYG27(5:44) S.Alexander left tackle to NYG 26 for 1 yard (A.Pierce, M.Strahan).
If I remember right, this was a play where he stretched out to the left, then planted with his left foot to try and cut upfield. He went down only a stride or two after that plant, got up slowly and gingerly jogged off the field. It's at this point that I think he got hurt, because he simply wasn't the same after that. Take a look at this:
  • He carried the ball 15 times after that run.
  • He gained just 28 yards -- a 1.86 yard average.
  • Of those 15 runs ...
    • Seven went up the middle (46.6 percent)
    • Six went to the right (40 percent)
    • Just two went to the left (13.3 percent)

If the Giants were looking for tendencies -- and I know they were, since that's what coaches do -- they noticed exactly what I did: That he absolutely could not cut on that left foot without any pain, something you need to do on a run to the left. This also could also help explain why his production declined so dramatically the rest of the game. In fact, of his last seven carries, only three went for positive yards, the longest a three-yard gain.

Alexander gave it his best effort and kept running hard, as he converted a 4th-and-1 and a 3rd-and-2 before leaving for good in the third quarter, but he was fighting an uphill battle with that foot. (Here's to hoping this is the last we hear of Alexander being soft, or not gaining yards because he got that fat contract.)

So, what does this mean for the Seahawks? Well, it sounds like there's an outside possibility that Alexander could only miss a couple of weeks. Mike Holmgren said the fracture is non-displaced, which is a great sign and could mean that Alexander is only out a couple of weeks. (For more on exactly what non-displaced means, click here. The site is geared toward broken collarbones, but it does explain the key components of a fracture.)

If that is indeed true, it's possible he could only miss one game, since the bye week follows this Sunday's huge matchup with the Bears -- that would give him three weeks from the day he suffered the injury to get well enough to play again. Holmgren mentioned Monday that Alexander didn't want to come out of the game when he did; I'm sure they'll have a similarly difficult time keeping him off the field in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I'm sure Maurice Morris will do a capable job as his replacement; there's even a line of thought that Morris is a better fit for the running game at the moment because of his quickness to the hole. What scares me is if anything happens to Morris, since the injuries are starting to mount up. We're one snap away from Josh Scobey being our running back, and the myriad injuries are making it more difficult to add a guy like Marquis Weeks from the practice squad.

Not to look past the Bears, but in terms of the health of the entire season, the bye week is coming along at the perfect time: Besides the potential return of Alexander, tight ends Jerramy Stevens and Itula Mili should both be ready to return to full-time action, as should guard Chris Gray. If the Seahawks can somehow figure out a way to beat Chicago -- on the road, no less -- they'll be playing with house money on their way to home-field advantage once again.

Media watch: Theismann turning out to be a bad fit on Monday Night

My dad mentioned to me yesterday that he can't stand the new Monday Night Football broadcast crew of Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser. I agreed that it just doesn't seem to be working yet, and as I'm sitting here watching the Saints thump the Falcons, I haven't been dissuaded.

His main issue is with Tirico, who I think actually is doing a pretty decent job making the transition to the NFL. Gone is the propensity to shout that he (appropriately) displayed on his college broadcasts; in is an understated style that has the more professional feel appropriate for a professional game. I think he'll continue to get better, especially when he realizes that it's OK to open up the vocal cords when a big play does happen. (There was a fabulous play by Michael Vick where he eluded three rushers only to flip a pass to his fullback to pick up a first down; Tirico seemed unimpressed.)

My main issue is with Theismann. His egomaniacal style fit pretty well in ESPN's old Sunday night crew with Mike Patrick and Paul Maguire, mostly because I think he viewed Maguire -- anothe former football player -- as a worthy adversary, Maguire was never afraid to call BS on Theismann, and Patrick was exceptional at playing referee. However, I think this is the reason he and Kornheiser just aren't meshing.

Kornheiser -- who has refused so far refused to indulge Theismann's need for a foil -- has become a great addition to the crew. After initially seeming tentative and afraid to step on Theismann's toes, he's opened up with witty and insightful analysis of the games and -- more imporantly -- the people in and around the games. He's doing exactly what ESPN execs brought him in to do.

Theismann, on the other hand, seems intimidated by Kornheiser's eloquence and quick wit from time to time, and has a propensity to repeat himself over and over and over again. I didn't count exactly how many times Theismann talked about the new turf in the Superdome, but it had to be at least 10 over the span of the first half. It was borderline ridiculous, and I found myself shouting at the TV, "Enough! I get it! The rubber hasn't settled yet, and it's comparable to a muddy field! ... And it's not the reason why Atlanta is losing!"

What this crew really needs is a hardcore X's and O's guy, somebody who seems comfortable enough with himself to let Kornheiser do what he was hired to do and who doesn't seem to constantly feel the need to assert his manhood. I know FOX would be reticent to let ESPN get their greasy mitts on him, but Troy Aikman would be the perfect fit for that booth. He's smart and confident and has an air of professional about him that I believe would fit in nicely with Tirico's understated style.

Following up on BALCO

  • You already know how I feel about a federal judge in California ruling that two San Francisco Chronicle journalists must break promises to confidential sources and reveal their identities or go to prison. (By the way, I want to be clear that I don't necessarily blame the judge, who is there to execute the law; I blame the overzealous prosecutors who had the option to not subpoena the reporters in the first place, but chose to anyway.)

    Here are just a couple of more perspectives I ran across. I mentioned that this kind of a ruling can set a dangerous precedent; at least one columnist thinks that we're already heading that direction. I also found this transcript of an interview with Mark Fainaru-Wada conducted back in June, in which he explains in detail why he and Lance Williams did what they did. Pretty long, but also gives a lot of insight.


Beautiful day in Palo Alto made better thanks to WSU domination

SAN FRANCISCO -- Given the Cougars' history the last two years against terrible Stanford teams, I wasn't taking anything for granted heading into today's game, even though WSU was a 10-point favorite.

As it turns out, I could have taken plenty for granted -- and then some.

The Cougars ripped Stanford, 36-10, in a game that really wasn't even that close. WSU completely dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage, highlighted by Mkristo Bruce's school-record five sacks and 240 rushing yards for the offense.

Bruce was unstoppable. The few times he actually was stopped usually were the result of a stiff double team or an outright hold. However, he owes a big high-five to the defensive secondary, which absolutely put the clamps down on Stanford's young receivers, allowing him time to get to the quarterback.

Offensively, Stanford had absolutely no answer for the Cougars. WSU marched up and down the field all day, and if it weren't for three lost fumbles, the game might have been more like 45-3. As it was, the Cougs did pretty much anything they wanted all day.

Coming in, WSU knew Stanford's rushing defense was suspect, and they rotated all three of their running backs effectively to keep fresh legs running the ball hard. The best move of the game was a cut off the edge of the line by Darrell Hutsona, who did his best Reggie Bush impersonation by faking like he was going wide then cutting up into the hole to leave a safety wondering where he left his undergarments.

Much to many WSU fans' chagrin, Alex Brink again looked steady. He drew fans' ire in the first quarter when he fumbled a QB sneak on Stanford's 1-yard-line on the team's first drive. However, he was solid thereafter, throwing for a pair of touchdowns and sneaking another in (this time, without fumbling). He finished 21-of-33 for 228 yards, taking only one sack. Those numbers again included a few drops. Incidentally, Gary Rogers did not play, save for a couple of handoffs and a kneeldown at the end of the game.

The most surprising thing of the day had nothing to do with the game itself; it had to do with the lamest atmosphere I've ever been around for a college football game. The attendance was announced at 37,498 in the brand spanking new 50,000 seat Stanford Stadium, but the actual attendance was probably about half that. There was no band; apparently, the bandies got themselves in trouble when they ripped apart some school property earlier this summer and are now on double secret probation. Overall, I think the Coug fans in attendance were much louder.

All in all, it was an awesome day, made better by getting to hang out with my brother.


Saturday previews: Cougs should handle Stanford, UW not ready for primetime

SAN FRANCISCO -- Well, I'm on the ground here in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, hanging out in the humble abode of my brother and his wife. I'll be heading off to Palo Alto for the WSU-Stanford game in the morning, and should have a first-hand account of the game to give you tomorrow night. In the meantime, here are my takes on the two teams that matter most to you:

Washington State (2-1) at Stanford (0-3)

Line: Cougars by 10.

How we got here: The Cougs roll into Palo Alto, Calif., with the record most everyone thought they’d have. Lackluster performance against Baylor in Seattle last weekend aside, the season is shaping up pretty much according to script, with a whipping of Idaho sandwiched between the Bears and a predictable loss at No. 2 Auburn. The offense still has yet to really get synced up, not uncommon for this time of year. But WSU fans seem to be even more impatient than usual as they call for junior starting quarterback Alex Brink to be replaced by sophomore gunslinger Gary Rogers, despite decent stats from Brink and a sharp fourth quarter performance that led to the game-winning field goal against Baylor. The defense has been good, holding its own against the Tigers for a half before the heat and humidity wore the unit out. Since then, however, the Cougars have allowed just two touchdowns, using a mix of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts to suit offensive matchups.

Meanwhile, Stanford comes in beat up and beaten down. The Cardinal’s 0-3 record includes a pair of embarrassing losses, one to San Jose State and one to Navy in the debut of their brand spanking new stadium. (Their first loss came on the road at Oregon. No allegations that the officials had anything to do with the 48-10 drubbing.) The defense has been putrid, giving up an average of 343 yards on their ground in their three games, easily worst in the Pac-10. On the other side of the ball, the Cardinal practically are down to walk-ons at wide receiver after being hit with myriad injuries, and also will be without their starting fullback.

Key matchup: Stanford has beaten WSU the last two years in Pullman, and the main reason has been the performance of quarterback Trent Edwards. While he’s been good with his arm, he’s been even better with his feet. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Edwards isn’t especially fast; it’s just that he did an exceptional job taking advantage of an overaggressive defensive front for the Cougars last year to rush for 92 yards on 12 carries, many of those right up the middle and for back-breaking third down conversions. It will be interesting to see if the Cougars go with the 3-4 front they used almost exclusively against Baylor; 6-foot-8, 278-pound Ropati Pitoitua was a one-man wrecking crew at nose tackle, consistently blowing up the pocket by forcing his way through double teams. If WSU can keep Edwards in the pocket and force him to throw to a bunch of young and inexperienced wide receivers who will have trouble getting open, it should be a good day for the Cougs.

Prediction: The fact that WSU is a 10-point favorite on the road says less about how good the Cougs are and more about how terrible everyone thinks Stanford is. Then again, everyone thought Stanford was pretty terrible last year when they lost to I-AA UC Davis before the matchup. The Cougs coasted into that game expecting to walk all over the Cardinal and got shocked. Here’s betting they don’t let that happen again. WSU 24, Stanford 10.

UCLA (2-0) at Washington (2-1)

Line: UCLA by 3.

How we got here: Washington is riding high after equaling its win total from a year ago thanks to a big special teams play last Saturday against Fresno State. The defensive front seven has looked pretty good, and the team has been able to make just enough plays to win a couple of games that they probably would have lost in the last couple of years. It's got the Huskies dreaming for six -- the six wins they'd need to squeeze into a bowl game.

UCLA travels away from the Rose Bowl for the first time this season, albeit after a week off. The Bruins have looked solid if unspectacular in their first two games, picking up wins against Utah and Rice in games that never were in doubt. Having a sophomore at quarterback isn't such a bad thing when he's 23, and UCLA has a good one in Ben Olson. Although he's only thrown for an average of 221 yards, he's rated No. 1 in the Pac-10 in quarterback efficiency (172.4). He seems to be making the Bruins forget about all those NFL draft picks from a year ago -- for now.

Key matchup: Olson's ability to throw against Washington's secondary -- the weak links of weak links the last few years -- likely will be the deciding factor in the game. The Huskies have yet to face a team that throws the ball particularly well, so this will be the first true test of that revamped secondary. That said, Oklahoma was able to move the ball through the air from time to time, something they didn't do much of before or since. Washington will need to stop Olson if it wants to have any chance to win.

Prediction: Olson's arm will be too much for a Husky defensive secondary that still has major flaws. However, I think Washington has made big strides, and this Saturday they'll keep it close before folding late. UCLA 28, UW 24.