The race for the roses gets early start

Times Staff Writer

As the new guy at Washington State, Coach Paul Wulff sounds a bit overwhelmed, as if he needs a few more weeks to get his team ready.

“It’s a little surreal,” Wulff said. “Still feels like things aren’t completely settled.”

But football waits for no man. Not when the schedule lists a full slate of games from Thursday night through Monday, the start of the Pacific 10 Conference’s 93rd season. Complete story, D8.

On your marks

No time for easing into shape, no chance to scout the competition -- the race for the Rose Bowl gets off to a Le Mans start for four teams scrambling directly into conference play.

Oregon State plays at Stanford on Thursday and Washington visits Oregon on Saturday. The coaches don’t sound entirely thrilled.


“It wasn’t my idea, to be honest with you,” Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said.

Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh said he would prefer to schedule “a cupcake or two” but added: “If it’s a Pac-10 game, then it’s a Pac-10 game . . . does that make any sense?”

Early conference matchups can arise for several reasons. There might be scheduling conflicts, teams needing to fill open dates.

More often, television wants attractive games for the opening weekend.

Television means exposure. Television means money.

“That’s probably it in a nutshell,” Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said.

In the pocket

Fifteenth-ranked Arizona State starts at home against Northern Arizona, a cushy start for highly touted quarterback Rudy Carpenter.

The senior out of Westlake High has started 31 consecutive games, passing for 3,202 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2007.

Yet Coach Dennis Erickson appreciates that no quarterback -- no matter how experienced or talented -- can throw from flat on his back. That’s why Erickson finds himself answering questions about an offensive line that must improve.

“That’s the biggest thing when people talk about our team,” he said. “It isn’t the 10 wins [from last season], it’s the 55 sacks.”

Not again

For Oregon, last season was part dream, part nightmare.

The Ducks made a serious run at the national championship, then watched their chances slip away when quarterback Dennis Dixon suffered a mid-November knee injury.

This season, they did not have to wait nearly as long for bad news.

Nate Costa, the heir apparent at quarterback, damaged cartilage in his left knee during camp and will miss an estimated eight to 10 weeks. That leaves sophomore Justin Roper with the starting job.

“Last year, I would hope, was very atypical,” Bellotti said, despite evidence to the contrary.

Harbaugh might be envious

In each of the last two seasons, Arizona won three of its last four games. The problem? The Wildcats have been notoriously slow starters and needed those victories to finish around .500.

That hasn’t been good enough to keep Coach Mike Stoops off the hot seat.

Stoops is banking on the maturation of quarterback Willie Tuitama and his relatively new spread offense, but the team might have found an even stronger cure for its early doldrums.

The first three games?

Idaho, Toledo, New Mexico.

Big win

California will start at home against Michigan State, a tough game that nonetheless brings back fond memories for Coach Jeff Tedford.

In 2002, his first season, the Golden Bears launched their resurgence with an upset victory over the 15th-ranked Spartans in East Lansing, Mich.

Needing to bounce back from a 7-6 record in 2007, Tedford would like to create another happy memory on Saturday.

“You definitely want to start with a win,” he said. “That’s huge.”