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Ranking the 2009 Pac-10 Football MVPs: Part II

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Continued from a few weeks ago. Here's the next ten as we approach the best players and units of the Pac-10. Leave your thoughts, disagreements, omissions, or guesses to the top 10 in the comments.

#20--Arizona State front seven (Travis Goethel, Vontaze Burfict, and Mike Nixon)
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via asunews.asu.edu

Forgtten in the wreck that was Arizona State's season was the power of their linebackers and D-line. These guys shut down the run against everyone but Oregon (and even the Ducks had to slog for their usual 40 point performance). Their linebackers were especially a force: 199 combined tackles, 132 solos, 23 sacks from the front seven, 62 tackles for a loss...pretty fierce unit to play, especially in the desert. 

They did have some dents in their armor: Oregon and the Furd barrelled them over (but they did that to everyone), and they lucked out with an incredible -54 yard performance against the hapless Cougars (-54 is still incredible). What does work for them is they shut down the Rodgers brothers, Best and Vereen, contained Grigsby and Antolin and McKnight. Can't get much better than that. It's too bad their offense was lost in the desert.

(Note: If this award was the MVPF (Most Valuable Personal Fouler), we'd already be preparing Burfict's Hall of Fame speech.)


On the one hand, Luck had some horrible games this year--he was awful against Oregon State and Cal, throwing at a horrid 40% and below--and those were BAD pass defenses.
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via www.stanforddaily.com

 On the other hand, he was a huge upgrade from Tavita Pritchard--he didn't throw picks (although two ended up being huge swings in losses), he threw a great deep ball that burned thin secondaries (8.9 YPA, 8th in the country), and the Cardinal ended up with a top 25 passer rating (in 2008 they were 91st). Considering how the Cardinal defense kept on getting mowed over whenever they suited up, and how opponents always had to stack up against Gerhart, that change was good enough for two or three extra wins. He was instrumental in the Oregon and USC abilities, with his scrambling abilities to pick up big first downs, either via the zone read or his own intuition, keeping the Cardinal going in big-time upsets over Oregon and USC.


Gerhart might have been their most imposing players, but without Luck the Furd win five games, maybe six.

Cal--6 catches, 56 yards
USC--4 catches, 54 yards
Furd--5 catches, 66 yards, 1 TD
Arizona--12 catches, 114 yards, 2 TDs
Oregon St--6 catches, 138 yards, 1 TD

He also had only 1 catch against UCLA from Costa...but it was for 20 yards and a touchdown. Those sound like pretty clutch numbers, don't they? This list loves the clutch.

Can't really put him in the top 10 on this list because Washington only went 5-7, but can't penalize him too much either (it's not his fault his team had a serious talent curve). But they did beat three Pac-10 bowl teams, and Locker had a lot to do with all of them. He made huge 3rd down throws against the Trojans, he dueled Nick Foles and Jimmy Clausen to a standstill, won his first Apple Cup as a starter, then lit up a porous Cal defense. He was super good on 3rd down conversions, he picked his spots to run with the ball and was still plenty successful there, and he could be on his way to the #1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Not a bad season for a guy who was completing less than half his passes coming into 2009.

(Am I surprised he's coming back? Well, a lot of people who follow this stuff better than me are uneasy about it--he might not be ready to make all the NFL throws he needs to be a good QB and needs another year of development before being pro-polished, but he's risking a lot since it's almost a lock he gets drafted in the top 10. Football Outsiders was more blunt: At this point he's Ryan Leaf redux. So I think it's a smart move to come back...if he can stay healthy. The Huskies could be returning to the top half of the conference, and Locker can finally go bowling in December.)

#16 Taylor Mays and USC's secondary
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via www.latimes.com

I'm not going to knock Mays that much--we didn't emphasize this enough, but the Trojans lost their ENTIRE FRONT SEVEN, and then suffered another half-dozen or so injuries to their defense to boot. If the best player on your defense is your free safety, even if you're USC, your team is probably in big, big trouble against good offenses. The warning signs were all on display against Oregon State, and then the Ducks and the Cardinal blew the doors open. You also have to factor in how hamstrung he was by the scheme; Carroll didn't want Mays to take many chances and wanted him to stay in his area. 

He still did his part. He finished with 91 tackles, 3rd in the conference. He only had one interception this season...but it did happen to swing one game totally in USC's favor. Although out of favor with some Trojan fans, Mays did what he could in a no-win situation. He remains a high first round draft pick, so it's not like he cares how low he's ranked on this stupid list either.

USC's pass defense by the way? 12th in completion percentage16th in YPA and passer rating. Definitely the most valued unit for the Emerald Bowl-bound Trojans (man, it's pretty sweet to say those words together).

#15 Oregon State front seven (led by Keaton Kristick and Stephen Paea)
Underrated season for Kristick, who arguably had the most solid season at linebacker in the Pac-10. On the surface, his season seems like one you shrug at (87 tackles, 4th in the Pac-10) and don't really give noteworthy status. While he didn't have as many tackles as Mohamed,  his team's front seven wasn't as hamstrung as the Prophet's. You can't really measure his impact by stats; the Beavers lost a lot of good defenders to the NFL, and Kristick had to shoulder the load a lot more than his previous teams.

Plus you can't ignore the hilarity of articles like this. Sounds like a Cal linebacker we used to know, right?
Kristick has zero compassion for quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs who whine about getting hit too hard, and it shows.
  
   "At the start of the year, guys talk about wanting to be all conference, or having this many tackles, but I really thought it would be neat if at the end of the year people were calling me the most feared, most violent player in the Pac-10,’’ said Kristick.
  
   "And to my surprise, somebody mentioned that during a TV telecast.''
  
  Kristick has been mentioned many times in TV telecasts, sometimes in less than flattering terms.

Is it any coincidence that the only big running play in the Civil War (the James 52 yard streak) took place with Kristick taking his only snap off?

As for Paea, well, anytime you get the Morris Award as the conference's best defensive linemen you probably deserve your props. It's one of those things were the stats don't recognize what a force he was all season. If Paea was playing anywhere but Oregon State, people would be raving about him...

#14 Oregon's secondary 
What a surprise: The one season Oregon's secondary doesn't come in heralded is the one season they rip it up. The Ducks didn't miss a beat all during conference play. They lost their senior corners (Walter Thurmond III & Willie Glasper) to season-ending injuries in the fourth and fifth games; Talmadge Jackson III and Javes Lewis stepped into the void.  T.J. Ward struggled with injury early on; freshman John Boyett stepped in and became their leading tackler. Add in Paysinger, Pleasant and Rowe being versatile LBers  who played their coverage well, and you had a solid pass D that clamped down on offenses late (like against USC and in the Civil War).  

22nd best passer rating defense in the country; 68 passes defended (10th in the country), and another hyped season for the Ducks secondary forthcoming. Which can only be a good thing for the rest of the conference, right?

#13 Arizona offensive line
For all the hype about Foles and the Airraid attack, Arizona was a surprisingly good running team, finishing 16th in YPAand a modest 47th in YPG. This was without a running back hitting even 600 yards--Grigsby and Antolin were always getting hurt and Nwoko was just a frosh. Their benched quarterback Matt Scott was their third leading rusher...and he only played four games. Give credit to the O-line to making what wasn't much of a running game to begin fairly potent enough for Pac-10 defenses to pay attention to.

They earn most of their points for their pass protection though. Only 11 sacks allowed all season, some of it due to Foles's quick release, and a lot of that thanks to the play of their offensive line. Bad news for next season? Wildcats are losing three seniors, including their starting tackles. Could be a little bit rougher for the Wildcats offense to hum as efficiently as last year.

#12 Oregon front seven, led by the linebackers

Rob Moseley explains how important Oregon's linebackers were this year
But the two linebackers have been lynchpins for the Ducks this season. They coordinate communication between the defensive line and secondary, and their improved athleticism has kept them on the field in passing situations. Also, their versatility has been a key to Oregon’s disguising its coverages and presenting multiple fronts without changing personnel. 
We shouldn't forget the unsung heroes up front.

These guys play a thankless position.  You won't see their stellar play show up in the box score much (you don't get noticed for taking on a double team of 300 pounders all day).  Much has been made of our undersized D-line, but these guys have been nothing short of spectacular all season.  One of the main reasons Rowe was able to make the plays in the backfield he did all year, is because of Blake Ferras.  You think Ward, Lewis or Boyett are going to be top five in tackles on this team if Tukuafu isn't keeping O-linemen from being able to get a block on them?  I love Eddie Pleasant, but his speed is irrelevant if Bair isn't forcing a guard to help the center keep him out of the backfield.  Their conditioning has been amazing, their tenacity relentless, and their pressure constant from the first game to the last.

These defense wasn't outstanding, but they were pretty good all over the board.

#11 Arizona front seven
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via www.azstarnet.com

Name one guy on their front seven. Here, I'll even take a break and come back.

Alright, click here. Recognize ANY of these names? Probably not. Credit goes to the third Stoops brother for his defense putting up these stats with an unheralded unit
  • 34 sacks, most in the Pac-10
  • rushing yards allowed, 2nd in the Pac-10
How many defenders got named to the All Pac-10 team? Four...but all of them were on the second team. Ricky Elmore (who?) led the Pac-10 in sacks and didn't even get named to either team. It's kind of the perfect way to describe this team--never discussed by college football pundits, just did their job and notched wins.

The Wildcats were in every game in the 4th quarter thanks to their defense, only getting severely torched by Washington and the Furd and doing their best to hold down every other team they faced. Although they sometimes gave up a lot of yards, they rarely gave it up in bulk--they made teams grind to win it. It paid off with an 8 win Holiday Bowl appearance.

Mark Stoops's defense wasn't outstanding and won't get a lot of props, especially with no spectacular individual defenders outside of maybe Elmore. But as a unit they meshed better than any of the individual standouts on this list, and they made all the right plays to get the Wildcats on the winning track. Stoops definitely earned his ticket to Tallahassee--working on a steep curve compared to the traditional Pac-10 powers, he found underappreciated talent and made them a fierce fighting force, as every team in the conference can attest to.

Note: Arizona's pass defense was fairly good (3rd down defense, 3rd in the Pac-10; Pass defense, 4th in the Pac-10), just not as good as the front seven. Plus Danny Sullivan lit them up, which confuses me.

Coming tomorrow: The Top 10.