Pac-12 Football: 8 Head-to-Head Matchups to Watch for in Week 2
With Week 1 of the Pac-12 football season in the books, it's time to gaze ahead at a Week 2 slate that, while mild on the whole, contains two monster matchups that could have major implications in the four-team College Football Playoff at the conclusion of the season.
There are some intriguing games to watch outside of USC-Stanford and Oregon-Michigan State, but these two contests will dominate our discussion considering the four squads each have the talent to stay among the title contenders throughout the year.
Texas-San Antonio-Arizona could bring some drama after the Roadrunners blasted Houston 27-7, and Washington better be ready for Eastern Washington after slipping past Hawaii, 17-16.
But out of all the games, which individual matchups are you most excited about? Which player performances will we be talking about in the offseason?
Take a look at eight head-to-head matchups to watch for in Week 2.
8. QB Vernon Adams, EWU vs. DE Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington
Washington opened up the Chris Petersen era with a whimper, just barely escaping the Hawaiian Islands with a 17-16 victory over the Rainbow Warriors. Unfortunately for the Huskies, heading back home to face an FCS squad won't be any easier.
In fact, playing against dual-threat dynamo Vernon Adams and the Eastern Washington Eagles should provide an even greater challenge, which is why we've targeted Adams' matchup against defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha as one to watch.
Against Hawaii, Kikaha had five tackles, including a sack. That's about par for the course, but he should be licking his chops in anticipation of facing an offensive line nowhere near the caliber of those in the Pac-12. On the flip side, Vernon Adams is coming off a 27-of-30 passing effort with 360 yards and five touchdowns, just one week after throwing for 302 yards and four scores against Sam Houston State.
If Adams can find a rhythm and elude Kikaha in the pass rush, the Eagles will put up points. The Huskies struggled with Marcus Mariota last year, and though Adams isn't the same player, he plays the same brand of football, which makes this head-to-head matchup must-see television in Week 2.
7. QB Anu Solomon, Arizona vs. UTSA Secondary
Can we say that Arizona has found its quarterback after a 58-13 win over UNLV? Probably not just yet, but Anu Solomon sure looks like someone who fits perfectly in Rich Rodriguez's offense after throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 50 yards on the ground.
We'll learn something new about Solomon every week, and while the name "University of Texas at San Antonio" doesn't strike fear into anyone, the Roadrunners are coming off an impressive 27-7 win over Houston in which the secondary had four interceptions.
Coached by former Miami head man Larry Coker, it's safe to say that UTSA will provide a stiffer challenge than the Runnin' Rebels did. We label the matchup as Solomon versus the entire secondary because four different players had picks.
There's also a strong chance that Solomon will escape into the open field at some point. When that happens, can the defensive backs make the play and prevent a long run? In any case, the Wildcats' freshman signal-caller will see better players across the line of scrimmage on Thursday, and it starts in the secondary.
6. LT Chad Wheeler, USC vs. DE Henry Anderson, Stanford
Now we dive into the heart of the Week 2 matchups, starting with a key battle along the line of scrimmage in the USC-Stanford contest.
Much has been made about the Trojans' revamped offensive line, which includes freshmen Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn. On the other side is left tackle Chad Wheeler, a redshirt sophomore who impressed in 2013. He'll be tasked with neutralizing one of Stanford's best, end Henry Anderson.
The fifth-year senior likely would have made an NFL roster had he declared for the draft, but the 6'6, 290-pound Anderson chose to return to Palo Alto. He's on nearly every major watch list you can think of, but if the USC offense is as good as we saw on Saturday, he'll need to use every bit of talent that put him on the national radar.
Not only do the Trojans boast a stable of backs led by Javorius Allen, but quarterback Cody Kessler is a completely different player than the one who trotted out at the beginning of the 2013 campaign.
Anderson will have to get off Wheeler's blocks and do his best to get around the big left tackle in passing situations. If he can't, the Trojans should have success moving the ball.
5. LB Rodney Hardrick, Oregon vs. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
If there's one area to criticize following Oregon's 62-13 win over South Dakota, it's the defense—specifically the linebackers. The trio of Rodney Hardrick, Derrick Malone and Tyson Coleman combined to make 10 tackles, and that's not including the bagel put up by drop-end Tony Washington, often considered the fourth linebacker.
We know these guys can play, and the improvement the group showed over the course of the 2013 season was remarkable. But running back Jeremy Langford is a different type of back than the Ducks normally face, and hitting the right holes and wrapping up will be huge.
Against the Coyotes, the linebackers often found themselves in the wrong position, which allowed backs to gash Oregon up the middle. South Dakota had 172 yards on the ground at nearly 4.5 yards per carry. Yes, the backups played quite a bit, but the defense wasn't exactly suffocating when the starters were in.
Langford had 1,422 yards in 2013 and broke tackles as well as anyone. It's going to take a guy like Hardrick to step up and stop those runs before they get started. Whoever has the upper hand in this matchup will likely be on the winning team.
4. S Jordan Richards, Stanford vs. QB Cody Kessler, USC
Now we really begin to dive into the USC-Stanford matchup by taking a look at quarterback Cody Kessler versus safety Jordan Richards. Though the two will rarely make physical contact, how they affect each other's play on the field will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.
Richards is one of the best players in the game at his position, and no one would say the same about Kessler. However, the Trojans junior is vastly improved from a year ago, and his 394-yard, four-touchdown effort against Fresno State on Saturday suggests he's shed the game-manager tag.
At this rate, he will be one of the nation's best by season's end, but how he does against the Cardinal defense will have a huge say in where we rate him next week—or in December. If Richards can bait him into making questionable throws leading to interceptions, USC will have no chance.
But the Trojans receivers make up one of the few units that can actually have an edge against Stanford's secondary, so you've got to believe the throws will be there.
Will Richards be able to make the big plays when the time comes, or has Kessler improved so much that even one of the best secondaries in the country will succumb to USC's passing attack?
3. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon vs. S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
You can almost copy and paste the previous slide into this one, but instead of a quarterback who's improving and just starting to make national noise, we're talking about perhaps the best in the land. That would be Oregon's Marcus Mariota, and the safety in question is Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond, a 6'1", 200-pound senior who won't shy away from the big stage.
One difference between this matchup and the one from the USC-Stanford game is the fact that Mariota and Drummond may actually meet up a time or two in the secondary if the Ducks' dual-threat signal-caller can elude pressure and escape.
Not only will we be watching to see if Drummond has an effect on the passing game, but if the play is there to be made against a streaking Mariota, will he be able to do it?
On the one hand, a physical, heady player like Drummond could see something develop and meet Mariota near the line of scrimmage preventing an "explosion" play. Or Mariota could do what he usually does and simply outrun anyone and everyone.
Another difference between this particular matchup and the one between Kessler and Richards is that Mariota doesn't have the same caliber of player to throw to at receiver. Or rather, the talent is there but the experience is not. Can Drummond take advantage?
2. DE Leonard Williams, USC vs. RT Kyle Murphy, Stanford
If Stanford's offensive line isn't the best in the country, it's still probably the most talented. Andrus Peat is a monster at left tackle, and Joshua Garnett is no slouch at guard. But the man with the toughest task on Saturday will be Kyle Murphy, who will face USC defensive end Leonard Williams, a potential top-five pick in next year's NFL draft.
Like any head-to-head battle in the trenches, if this thing is dominated by one player, that will probably indicate which team wins the game. But Murphy's task is to make sure Williams doesn't terrorize the backfield.
He's going to get off blocks and make plays, because that's what the best players in the country do even against top-notch talent. But if he proves able to slip by Murphy with ease or constantly finds himself in on tackles near the line of scrimmage, Stanford will have a difficult time moving the football.
Conversely, the USC defense relies heavily on Williams' ability to wreak havoc at the line. Should Murphy gain the edge in the matchup, Stanford's entire playbook will open up and the rest of the Trojans defense will suffer.
You don't want safeties keeping an eye on the backfield when Ty Montgomery is liable to go streaking by on any given play. If Williams puts those worries at ease by dominating up front, USC will win the game. If he's ineffective against Kyle Murphy, the odds of Stanford coming out on top go way up.
1. DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State vs. LT Jake Fisher, Oregon
When Oregon left tackle Tyler Johnstone was lost for the season with an ACL injury, the biggest worry about the Michigan State game immediately shifted to what the Ducks could possibly do to slow down defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
To be fair, Calhoun had to be a point of emphasis even before the injury, but without Johnstone, the Ducks were left with questions about how backup Andre Yruretagoyena would fare against perhaps the best defensive player in the country.
Instead of Andre Y getting the assignment, experienced right tackle Jake Fisher switched over to the left side, and though this may have had more to do with protecting Marcus Mariota's blind side throughout the season than anything else, the move should make Calhoun's assignment a little tougher.
That's not meant to belittle Yruretagoyena, an experienced junior who will fill in just fine for Johnstone, but you want your best player possible in charge of blocking Calhoun. Look for Fisher to be on the opposite side of Calhoun regardless of where he lines up on Saturday.
If the Spartans' top defender can get his hands on Mariota and bring the Ducks running backs down behind the line of scrimmage on multiple occasions, the offense will stall. If Fisher brings his A game and neutralizes Calhoun, Oregon's high-powered offense should continue to rumble.
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