A letdown after Stanford's emotional, Pac-12 control-seizing defeat of Oregon would certainly be understandable, but head coach David Shaw's Cardinal are simply too busy to suffer one Saturday at USC.
"Don't have time for that," Shaw said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. "This conference is too tough."
"Motivation won't be a problem," Shaw said, with his team facing a budding rival and fast-rising opponent in USC. The Pac-12 showdown is the nation's marquee matchup of Week 12, with ESPN's College Gameday en tow and an ABC broadcast sending the action out nationwide.
Emotional letdown might not trouble the Cardinal Saturday in the Coliseum, but the Trojans certainly could. USC is finding its stride in the second half of the season, winning four straight conference games since interim head coach Ed Orgeron replaced fired Lane Kiffin on Sept. 29.
Shaw said he is anticipating "a barn burner," and recent precedent in this series certainly supports his theory.
Last year's 21-14 Cardinal win was the third straight installment decided by single digits. With the two teams entering Saturday's encounter with similar makeup—both are built on aggressive defenses and power running games—expect more of the same.
Defense, Not Offense, Plagued Oregon at Stanford
The easy assessment of Oregon's 26-20 loss at Stanford was that for all their points scored and offensive flash, the Ducks' style simply wouldn't fly for championship contention. Much has been made of Oregon restructuring to address Stanford's power brand of football, but head coach Mark Helfrich doesn't see it that way.
"From a game with not a lot of snaps...with three red-zone turnovers...everything's magnified," he said Tuesday.
Indeed, Oregon ran just 58 plays against Stanford, about 20 fewer than the Ducks came in averaging. Capitalizing on the few opportunities such a dearth of snaps provided was paramount, but Oregon's ultimate offensive failing.
The issue wasn't on offense, but rather the Oregon defense's inability to make stops, particularly on third downs. Whether it was running back Tyler Gaffney or a scrambling quarterback Kevin Hogan, the Cardinal deflated the ball with sustained possessions.
"They did a good job playing goal-line formula offense," Helfrich said.
Can UCLA Thank Steve Sarkisian and Washington for Jim Mora?
Save one year as a graduate assistant under Washington legend Don James in 1984, UCLA head coach Jim Mora's football life was cultivated exclusively in the NFL.
But after his split from the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010, Mora suffered a skiing injury that required what he described as "five days a week, three hours a day for about six months" of rehabilitation. His therapy was conducted at the University of Washington, where he was exposed to the college game.
"It was a different environment than I'd been around the last 25 years of my life," Mora said, adding that the relationships with young players transcended schematics.
Though he said he didn't spend great lengths of time around the Washington football program, the exposure Mora did have "gave [him] a real hunger for [coaching at] this level," he said Tuesday.
"[Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian] was generous enough to let me be around," Mora said. "He's always been like that. He's a good man."
Mora also praised Sarkisian's coaching credentials. The two face off Friday in a pivotal, Pac-12 tilt at the Rose Bowl. UCLA's conference title hopes rest on a win, while Washington is pursuing its best finish since Sarkisian became head coach in 2009—the same year rumors of Mora being a top candidate for the job swirled.
Mora made an offhand comment about the Washington head coaching position being a dream job in 2006, while he was with the Atlanta Falcons. His throwaway line became an oft-recited talking point for the last seven years.
"That was a joke that cost me my job," Mora said. "I was trying to pay compliments to my alma mater... obviously a misjudgment by me."
UCLA fans have to be happy Mora didn't land at Washington, but the Huskies did just fine with their hire of Sarkisian, the Bruins head coach said.
"They've got the right man in Steve Sarkisian," Mora said.
Battle in the Basement
Cal and Colorado haven't a Pac-12 win between them, but that changes Saturday in Boulder, Colo. The Buffs host the Golden Bears, and it's the best opportunity either has to avoid a goose egg in the league's win column.
While Colorado has the dubious distinction of going the longest without a Pac-12 win—it's last was on Sept. 22, 2012, against Washington State—Cal is on the conference's longest overall drought with nine straight losses.
So is Cal looking like a must-win opportunity for the Buffaloes, which have 13 straight conference losses dating back to last year?
"If we’re thinking that way, we shouldn’t be playing," Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre said Tuesday.
Likewise, Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said his team is maintaining a positive attitude and operating under the philosophy of competing every week.
"We haven't played as well as we're capable," Dykes said.
While 2013 isn't a banner year for either program, both of which are under first-year head coaches, Saturday is an opportunity to build positive momentum into the offseason. Fittingly, both are starting freshman quarterbacks: Cal with season-long starter Jared Goff and Colorado with Sefo Liufau, who stepped in for Connor Wood midway through the campaign.
Brandin Cooks vs. Osahon Irabor
Though consecutive losses to Stanford and USC may have taken some of the spotlight off of Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks, his stock hasn't fallen among opposing Pac-12 coaches. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham's Sun Devils face Cooks on Saturday, and he had high praise for the junior.
"The most explosive player in our conference, because he does so much," he said. "He's lethal on wide-receiver screens...and one of the best route runners in our conference."
Slowing down the nation's top wideout requires a special effort from the Arizona State secondary. Fortunately for the Sun Devils, it's been just that for much of the season.
Cornerback Osahon Irabor is likely to line up opposite Cooks on several occasions, making for one of the most exciting matchups-within-a-matchup in the Pac-12 this season.
"We play a lot of bump coverage with our corners, and Irabor's as good as I've ever coached there," Graham said.
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