National football notebook: Bowling with the Pac-10

In a down year for Pac-10 football when only four teams were invited to bowl games, the Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal carry the torch into two tough BCS matchups.

The Stanford Cardinal will meet the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Orange Bowl on Monday, and the Oregon Ducks will face the Auburn Tigers in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 10.

No. 1 Auburn Tigers (12-0) v. No. 2 Oregon Ducks (12-0)

Tostitos BCS National Championship Game – Jan. 10, 8:30 p.m. EST

Two undefeated teams, Oregon and Auburn, will meet in what is expected to be a shootout and a showcase for two of the top players in the country. LaMichael James and Cam Newton look to lead their teams to their first BCS championship. For Oregon, it would be its first national championship, period.

Here is a break-down of these two championship contenders:

Offense

Cam Newton, the Heisman trophy winner, leads Auburn’s sixth-ranked offense (42 points per game).  In his first year with Auburn, Newton burst onto the college football landscape amassing 4,000 yards of offense and 49 touchdowns.

His pass efficiency rating (188.16) leads the nation, and he will likely break the single-season national record.  Newton is only the third player in college football history to throw and run for 20 touchdowns in the same season, joining Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007 and Nevada’s Colin Kapernick this season.

Oregon’s nation leading scoring offense (49.3 points per game) is led by its rushing attack featuring Heisman trophy finalist, LaMichael James. Averaging six yards per carry, James rushed for a nation leading 1,681 yards and 21 touchdowns this season.

Overshadowed by Newton, Oregon’s sophomore quarterback, Darron Thomas is flying under the radar.  Thomas has completed 60.7 percent of his passes and thrown for more than 2,700 yards and 28 touchdowns — the same number as Newton — to just seven interceptions — just one more than Newton.

Advantage:  Auburn

Defense

Auburn’s defense, which ranks 61st in the nation in points allowed (24.5 per game), has forced only 20 turnovers in 13 games and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.7 percent of passes attempted.

The Tigers do have some defensive playmakers, like rising star tackle Nick Fairley, but they have allowed at least 24 points in eight of their 13 games.

While Oregon’s offense has received most of the accolades this season, the team’s defense ranks 14th in the nation in scoring defense (allowing 18.4 points per game) and has 35 takeaways this season (third in the nation).

The Ducks defense stiffens late in games.  It has allowed just 77 points in the second half this season — that’s just 6.4 points allowed per game after half-time.

Advantage:  Oregon

Special teams

Although this game is not likely to feature much punting, Oregon’s punt returner, Cliff Harris, is one of the top in the nation, averaging 17 yards per punt return and 25 yards per kick return.  He has found pay dirt four times this season.

Harris is a definite X factor in this game, and Auburn will likely avoid kicking Harris’ way when possible.

On the other side, Auburn’s special teams is average at best.  Auburn’s punt returners have averaged 5.5 yards per punt, and Auburn punter Ryan Shoemaker only averages 39 yards per punt.

Advantage: Oregon

Coaching

When Gene Chizik was named Auburn’s head coach two years ago, many questioned the hiring, mainly because of his 5-19 record in two years at Iowa State. Coach Chizik has silenced his critics, leading the Tigers to a 21-5 record in his two years at Auburn.

Known for being a defensive coach, this year, Chizik realized early what he had in Cam Newton and rode his offense to a birth in the BCS Championship game.  Equally impressive, Chizik did so while his team was immersed in a media frenzy surrounding questions regarding Newton and his father’s role in the recruitment process.

When Chip Kelly joined Oregon as the offensive coordinator in 2007, he turned the Duck’s offense into an elite powerhouse in the Pac-10.  When Mike Bellotti stepped down as Oregon head coach after the 2008 season, Kelly stepped in and has led the Ducks to a 22-2 record.

Kelly has masterminded Oregon’s fast-paced, spread offense, which put up 37 or more points in every game but one this season and put up at least 50 points in six of those.

Advantage: Oregon

Prediction

In what is sure to be a shoot-out, despite a huge statistical game from Cam Newton, the Oregon Ducks ability to create turnovers is the difference.

Oregon 48, Auburn 38


No. 4 Stanford Cardinal (11-1) v. No. 13 Virginia Tech Hokies (11-2)

Discover Orange Bowl – Jan. 3, 5:30 p.m. EST

The Stanford Cardinal and Virginia Tech Hokies will meet in Miami in the Discover Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.  This game features two of the country’s top quarterbacks, Andrew Luck of Stanford and Tyrod Taylor of Virginia Tech.

The Cardinal have flown under the radar this season, their only loss coming at the hands of the Oregon Ducks.  Coach Jim Harbaugh has done an impressive job turning around a program that went 1-11 in 2006.

The Hokies sputtered to start the season losing to Boise State on Labor Day and then shockingly to James Madison five days later.  Since then, Tech went undefeated en route to the ACC championship.

Andrew Luck, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, may be playing in his last collegiate game as the experts have pegged him as the consensus first pick in the upcoming NFL draft.


Washington Huskies 19, No. 18 Nebraska Cornhuskers 7

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl – Dec. 30, 2010

The Washington Huskies (7-6) sought redemption after a humiliating 56-21 defeat to the Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-4) on Sept. 18 in Husky Stadium.

The two touchdown underdogs got just that as the Huskies dominated the Huskers in every phase of the game in an improbable 19-7 victory in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.

Washington never allowed Nebraska’s vaunted rushing attacked – which had averaged 259 yards, fifth in the nation – to get going, holding the Huskers to only 91 yards rushing and 189 total yards.

“I felt like we had definitely got better throughout the season,” said linebacker Mason Foster, named the defensive most valuable player. “We knew we had to be more physical in the run game and get them into pass situations and we would be all right. I just felt like everybody played extremely hard all night across the board. We just wanted to win this game really bad.”

On the other side of the ball, the Huskies imposed their will, rushing for 268 yards.  Sophomore running back Chris Polk led the Huskies with 177 yards rushing and went over the 100-yard mark for the sixth time this season.

“This is the experience I came back for,” said UW quarterback, Jake Locker, who gave up millions of dollars from the NFL last year for a chance to return to school for one more season.

Locker, while not having his best game statistically, did not have a turnover and made key plays with his feet when it really counted.  Locker finished with 83 yards rushing and a touchdown.

After starting 3-6, the Huskies won their final four games and finished with their first winning record since 2002.  For a team that was 0-12 only two years ago and that had not been in a bowl for eight years, this was more than just a bowl victory.

It was an indication that the Washington football program is back and poised to reclaim its spot atop the Pac-10 in the years to come.


No. 14 Oklahoma State Cowboys 36, Arizona Wildcats 10

Valero Alamo Bowl – Dec. 29, 2010

In a game featuring both the ninth- and first-ranked passing offenses in the country, the Valero Alamo Bowl was primed to be a shoot-out.  Sloppy play by the Arizona Wildcats (7-6) turned the game into a blowout early as the Oklahoma State Cowboys (11-2) ran away with a 36-10 victory.

Oklahoma State Cowboys’  stand-out wide receiver, sophomore Justin Blackmon, set the tone early and often, racking up two touchdowns and 117 yards receiving. Blackmon, the Biletnikoff Award winner and the Big 12 offensive player of the year, set an NCAA record with his 12th straight game with at least 100 yards and a touchdown.

It is hard to point to anything positive that Arizona can take from this game.  The Wildcats turned the ball over four times, were penalized eight times, blew coverages, including a 71-yard touchdown pass to Blackmon, and missed two field goals.

For Arizona, this defeat was an exclamation point on a disastrous second half of the season. After being ranked 13th in the nation following an impressive 7-1 start, the Wildcats lost five straight including a crushing 30-29 double overtime loss to rival Arizona State on a missed extra point.

Head coach Mike Stoops promised wholesale changes to the program.

“We have to do some things to get better as a program, and that’s universal,” he said.  “That’s not just me. That’s the players. This is a philosophy that it takes to win in big-time athletics.”

If the past two bowl games are any indication — Arizona was blanked in a 33-0 shellacking by Nebraska in 2009’s Holiday Bowl — Arizona fans may be in for more of the same mediocrity as long as Stoops is at the helm.

Scott Jamieson is a staff writer for The Juice Online.

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