February 7, 2009

Pac-10 Plus/Minus Report

Pac-10 Plus/Minus Report: Media Overkill on Carroll-Sanchez Is the Real Shame

Was Pete Carroll upset? Yes. Did Mark Sanchez make a questionable choice based on all available information? Likely. Did the media create a much bigger firestorm than warranted? Without a doubt.

Let me apologize in advance, but I've yet to see the much-discussed footage of Pete Carroll ordering three USC Department of Public Safety officers to waterboard Mark Sanchez in front of the assembled media on January 15, moments after the junior quarterback made public his decision to declare his availability in the upcoming NFL Draft. I also must admit that I haven't had time to YouTube the now legendary viral video of Carroll playing Sir Laurence Olivier to Sanchez's Dustin Hoffman in their send-up of 1976's "Marathon Man." My bad.

Of course, once I get a chance to view these brutal episodes for myself, I'm sure that my opinion of what transpired in Heritage Hall might change. Until then, based merely on what I heard and saw during and since Sanchez's announcement that he will forego his senior season (and let's make this clear, no matter how anyone wants to spin it, if you have a year of eligibility remaining, you're leaving early), I'm trying to figure out how Carroll sharing his honest opinion during the event - as well as sincere good wishes and offers to help Sanchez - warrants the media's (and some fans') wrath.

Was Carroll his normal engaging, smiling self? No, he wasn't - he was direct, straightforward, clear. According to most sources, there was next to no one in the NFL, in Sanchez's family or who has passed through the USC football program with experience in such decisions who concurred with the star quarterback's choice to give up his final year of college football.

Nor is this the first time Carroll has been direct about his feelings in such a situation. On Feb. 26, 2004, Carroll was quoted in the Los Angeles Times about star wide receiver Mike Williams' choice to test the NFL Draft rules. He said, "I'm disappointed that's his decision, because I think there's a lot of information that says [leaving early] is not going to help him out as much as he thinks." Sound familiar?

Still, while Carroll was clear, concise and - perhaps - abrupt in his thoughts on the decision, it's gone widely overlooked that the head coach wished Sanchez well, offered the university's services in helping Sanchez prepare for the draft and said - directly - that Sanchez would always be a welcomed and beloved member of the Trojan Family.

But, for the sake of saving face, apparently some would have Carroll merely shine this on and put a big smiley face and bright red bow on Sanchez's choice. Why? Some believe that Carroll was trying to downgrade his quarterback in the eyes of the NFL. To what end? Doesn't USC become more successful if more USC players are successful in the NFL? Carroll's experience with this process - from both sides - makes him about as much of an expert in it as anyone. And having seen the successes of many of those who stuck around compared with the struggles of a number of those who opted to leave early, it's hard to see where Carroll's opinion on Sanchez's choice can be questioned.

Clearly peeved, Carroll was definitely not at his best during the conference, but nothing he said strained credulity. And his honesty about the process, the decision and the history of such choices was refreshing. Some schools are reportedly using the media-inflated "episode" in an effort to negative recruit against USC. Talk about straining logic. I'm not sure exactly how Carroll could show he cared more about his players than working so hard to present the best information for such a crucial decision, being honest (yet balanced) about disagreeing with the final choice, and yet still offering full support for the player's efforts after the fact.

How exactly was Carroll not trying to do his very best for Sanchez and every player to come through the program by fighting for what he felt was right for that player? How was he hurting any of his players by making clear just how strongly he believes in the power of the USC program to send the best prepared players on to the NFL by working hard to make Sanchez understand that he hadn't truly reached his peak potential?

I'd rather have a coach who cared enough about my decision to enumerate his reasons for honest disagreement with me, both to my face and publicly, yet still avowed support for me in reaching my goals now that the decision is past. Carroll didn't sell Sanchez down the river. He merely made clear that Sanchez is stepping up against the grain (which all NFL teams already know, I guarantee you) in his choice. It was a display of strength for Carroll to show that, at USC (like in any family), there can be honest disagreements, each side can have its say and then everyone moves forward. And, in that spirit: good luck Mark. May you succeed in every way and bring honor to USC in the process.

Amazingly, Sanchez was just one of three Pac-10 players to apply for early consideration by the NFL, joining Arizona offensive lineman Eben Britton and Cal tight end Cameron Morrah. What was Coach Jeff Tedford's reaction to Morrah's choice to forego his senior season after enjoying just one top-notch season in Berkeley? According to the breaking AP story on Jan. 19, Tedford said, "We work with NFL candidates to educate them on their prospects for the draft as well as the benefits for staying in college. I don't necessarily agree with the decision, but I am supportive of Cameron and hope that he is successful at the next level."

Whew, coach. Why so harsh?

Now, on to the final "Pac-10 Plus-Minus" for the recently completed 2008 campaign.

Arizona
Plus: Not only did Arizona go bowling for the first time in a decade, but the Wildcats also won their first bowl game since 1998, upsetting a ranked BYU squad in Las Vegas, 31-20, on Dec. 20. In the process, receiver Mike Thomas set the Pac-10 all-time receptions record as Arizona finished 8-5. The Wildcats have some solid talent returning in 2009 at receiver, running back and on the defensive line, giving Mike Stoops hope for a second consecutive bowl bid.

Minus: There are some key losses for Stoops to consider, not the least of which is quarterback Willie Tuitama, who became an excellent signal-caller over his four years in Tucson. Losing Britton from the offensive line leaves a fairly green group to battle for spots in 2009, and linebacker Xavier Kelly and cornerback Devin Ross will see most of their units rebuilt around them. The schedule in 2009 is quite unkind, including road trips to Cal, Oregon State, USC and Arizona State.

Arizona State
Plus: Expected to challenge for a conference title, the Sun Devils struggled mightily to a 5-7 finish, including a final game defeat to rival Arizona. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter was tough to the finish, but without a running game and with an offensive line that struggled to pass block for just about his entire career, his toughness was tested all-too-often. There is plenty of talent back in 2009 at receiver and on defense, and the offensive line group should improve with another off-season of practice. The schedule is a shade kinder for ASU next season, as well. USC, Oregon State and Cal all visit Tempe, while the Devils toughest conference road tests will be at Oregon and, likely, Stanford.

Minus: The Sun Devils really, really need to find a go-to running back to take some of the heat off of their passers. ASU's struggles to find a top-notch back have hurt their efforts to build any kind of year-to-year consistency. Of course, any great running back can always use a solid offensive line - another issue the Devils must remedy immediately. Replacing Carpenter will also be tough, but Dennis Erickson does have a few decent candidates. Free safety Troy Nolan is a big loss to the Devil defense.

California
Plus: Jahvid Best got his 2009 Heisman campaign off to an early start in Cal's 24-17 Emerald Bowl win against Miami (the Pac-10's only bowl win over an unranked opponent). The Bears did a nice job of stemming what could have been another negative closing tide, finishing the season 9-4 with three consecutive wins after stumbling horribly down the stretch a season earlier. Cal has great skill position talent returning, and has a solid core of players returning on a defense that played well at season's end. The Bears also host Arizona, Oregon State and USC in 2009.

Minus: Jeff Tedford is still looking for answers at quarterback. Kevin Riley returns in 2009, but expect him to be pushed for a job that he couldn't even keep from the erratic Nate Longshore. Cal has to replace three seniors from its offensive line, including stud center Alex Mack, as well as three solid senior linebackers and free safety Bernard Hicks. Many will pick the Bears to make 2009 a three-way race for the Pac-10 crown with Oregon and USC, but if Cal doesn't find consistent quarterback play and replacements on the offensive line and at linebacker, they will fall short of those expectations.

Oregon
Plus: Boy, once Jeremiah Masoli figured out throwing the football in Chip Kelly's offense, the Ducks just started overpowering opposing defenses. Oregon put up 162 points in its final three games against Arizona, Oregon State and Oklahoma State - none of which would be confused with Washington State in any way. At the same time, it appeared Masoli ended any quarterback debate in the off-season, running through and over the Oklahoma State defense in the nationally televised Holiday Bowl. A 10-3 mark netted the Ducks an unexpected top-10 finish, and with Cal, USC, Arizona State and Oregon State all visiting Eugene in 2009, you can go ahead and rev up the hype machine.

Minus: The Ducks' conference-worst pass defense loses its best playmaker, safety Patrick Chung, and pass rusher, Nick Reed, to graduation. In fact, Oregon is losing six seniors who played key roles on defense this year. And, while Oregon was lighting up the scoreboard in its final three outings, that defense was allowing 45, 38 and 31 points. Not exactly lights out. If Oregon is to avoid getting caught up in shootouts in 2009, it will be on the Ducks' defensive group to make vast improvements in the off-season.

Oregon State
Plus: The Beavers completed their third-consecutive nine-plus-win season with a shutout of Pitt in the Sun Bowl. Clearly unbeknownst to most college football "experts" who keep terming USC's losses to Oregon State as some sort of baffling embarrassment on the level of the Trojans' actual recent embarrassing losses to Stanford and UCLA, the Beavers are 28-11 in the past three seasons and are second only to USC with a 19-8 mark in Pac-10 games. One had to be heartened by the Oregon State defense's effort in bouncing back from an embarrassing effort in the 65-38 Civil War loss to Oregon that cost the Beavers a Rose Bowl berth. Oregon State's starting backfield will return intact in 2009, while receiver James Rodgers is likely to become more of a combo pass-rush threat.

Minus: The Beavers lose a lot of talent at receiver, on both lines and in the secondary. Quarterback Lyle Moevao will be looking at a lot of inexperienced targets in spring practice and doing so behind a green (in game experience) front five. Losing star pass rushers Victor Strong-Butler and Slade Norris is troubling, especially considering the Beavers are also losing three key seniors from their secondary. The schedule for 2009 isn't pretty either - Oregon State has to visit Cal, USC and Oregon.

Stanford
Plus: Stanford continued its steady improvement under Jim Harbaugh in year two. Moving from 4-8 to 5-7 was just a small measure. The Cardinal were seconds from salting away a bowl bid in Oregon in early November, but saw the opportunity slip away with a late loss there and losses to USC and California. Still, the Cardinal created an identity as a bruising rush-oriented offensive team that was not afraid to punch opponents in the mouth on either side of the ball. Record-setting running back Toby Gerhart returns for his senior season after a breakout 2008 campaign and a young receiving corps showed signs of growing up late in the year. Stanford does get Oregon and Cal to visit the Farm in 2009.

Minus: Missing out on that bowl opportunity has to hurt the Cardinal players. Last-minute losses at UCLA and Oregon showed that Stanford wasn't quite there yet. Harbaugh loses a lot of experienced linemen from both sides of the ball, as well as playmaking linebackers Clinton Snyder and Pat Maynor. Two key members of the Stanford secondary are also gone - cornerback Wopamo Osaisai and safety Bo McNally. Stanford has to visit USC and Oregon State on next season's conference slate.

UCLA
Plus: Well, they made it through the transitional year, at least. With major losses on defense and a quarterback situation that could generously be termed as troubled, realistic observers could not have expected much more than a 4-8 campaign from the Bruins in Rick Neuheisel's first season. The Bruins don't lose too much talent to graduation this year - the biggest losses being defensive tackle Brigham Harwell and running back Kahlil Bell - so there will be a lot of experience taking the field in 2009. The Bruins are challenging for some big-time players in recruiting - one of Neuheisel's key tasks upon taking over - and winning here and there. UCLA gets Cal, Oregon and Arizona State at home, making the schedule slightly less daunting.

Minus: Right now, Kevin Craft remains UCLA's starting quarterback. I know there are other options that Neuheisel and Norm Chow are expecting to step up, but even then, UCLA will be starting a first-year quarterback behind what is still a very questionable group of offensive linemen. No skill position player made any kind of move to become a go-to guy in 2008. It's good that Neuheisel is making some inroads in recruiting, no matter how slight, because UCLA's offensive talent just doesn't seem to measure up to recent editions. And the defense lost its leader when DeWayne Walker took the New Mexico State head-coaching job. Visits to Oregon State, Arizona and USC (UCLA hasn't won in the Coliseum since 1997) balance the schedule.

USC
Plus: Another year, another Rose Bowl pasting of the Big Ten. The second quarter of USC's not-that-close 38-24 whipping of Penn State showcased the Trojans at their best - and was likely the best single quarter played by any team in any bowl. USC now has had seven consecutive: 11-plus-win seasons, top-4 national finishes, Pac-10 championships and BCS bowl appearances. Carroll's 6-1 mark in BCS games is stunning. The Trojans return nine offensive starters in 2009, as well as one of the nation's best defensive secondaries, headed by All-America safety Taylor Mays. Oh, yeah, and Carroll, who is 88-15 at USC, is still the head coach.

Minus: The unexpected loss of Sanchez puts junior Mitch Mustain and sophomore Aaron Corp at the head of what should be a spirited competition to replace him. Whoever wins out will start his second career game at the Horseshoe against Ohio State, a tall order for anyone. The new QB will also be joined by a new offensive staff in the wake of Steve Sarkisian's departure to Washington. Still, the bigger losses come on defense, where USC loses the past three Rose Bowl defensive MVPs from its starting linebacker corps, plus key defensive ends Clay Matthews and Kyle Moore, plus stud safety Kevin Ellison. And the road schedule doesn't end in Columbus - USC also visits Cal, Oregon, Notre Dame and Arizona State. If the Trojans win an eighth consecutive Pac-10 title, they will have earned it.

Washington
Plus: The worst season in Husky history is finally over and the breath of fresh air that comes from hiring a young turk like Sarkisian seems to be invigorating Seattle. UW fans are excited by the prospects of Sarkisian and his bevy of former Trojan assistants bringing a winning mentality back to Lake Washington. Jake Locker will be back at quarterback in 2009, which is good news enough, but the Huskies also return the vast majority of players who made any positive impact in 2008. This was a young team in 2008, and the hard knocks they took plus a new coaching regime should bode well for the Huskies motivation come spring and summer.

Minus: There is no way to spin a 0-12 season, especially one that includes a loss to your also historically poor rival. The Huskies 16-13 defeat at the hands of Washington State left me more stunned than I could have ever imagined. How UW lost to a team that, at times, looked like it would struggle in a middling high school league, is beyond me. The answer is that Washington's talent level is as low as it's been in decades, so Sarkisian not only has a big motivational job ahead of him to rid the culture of losing, but a big recruiting job to find some Pac-10 level talent to put around Locker.

Washington State
Plus: It comes down to this sometimes - if things are bad, you just hope the rival is worse. So, on the plus side, Wazzu did not go 0-12. The Cougars won their rivalry game and then, for good measure, went to Hawaii for some sun and even played a reasonably competitive game in losing to bowl-bound Hawaii. Some of the Cougars inexperienced skill position players even made a few key plays in those late outings, giving Coach Paul Wulff hope for something to build upon.

Minus: Wulff is in a similar spot to Sarkisian - he just doesn't have Pac-10 talent and depth. But Sarkisian has a tradition and a venue that can help him. Wulff doesn't. While the victory against the Huskies was a welcome respite from a truly dismal season, the Cougars are facing a long climb back to respectability. Graduation and other turnover are also taking its toll on the roster. And a schedule that features 2009 trips to USC, Arizona, Oregon, Cal and Washington looks pretty daunting for those hoping for even just baby steps in the right direction.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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