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Pac-12 struggles to open inaugural season

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PHOENIX>> Oregon went looking for one of the big kids on the playground in its opening game and got pushed around.
Star running back LaMichael James had one of the worst games of his career, Oregon had four turnovers and LSU’s big front lines pushed the Ducks around for a second straight loss to an SEC power that had Oregon coach Chip Kelly a bit prickly during the Pac-12 teleconference on Tuesday.
“They have good players, they’re well-coached,” snapped Kelly, whose team dropped nine spots to No. 13 in The Associated Press Top 25 after the loss. “Sometimes the other team deserves credit.”
Kelly wasn’t the only Pac-12 coach feeling a little frustrated after an inaugural weekend that included some disheartening losses, shaky wins and troublesome injuries.
It at least started off well.
Arizona State easily handled UC Davis at home Thursday night and Utah, despite laboring offensively after building a 24-0 lead, beat Montana State by 17. More good news came off the field with the revival of rumors that Texas and Oklahoma were again interested in heading West, re-opening the super conference possibility.
Saturday brought a few good wins.
Stanford, behind Heisman Trophy favorite Andrew Luck, crushed San Jose State in coach David Shaw’s debut, Cal rolled over Fresno State and Arizona, after a shaky second quarter, pulled away to rout Northern Arizona.
The rest of it didn’t go so well.
Headlined by Oregon’s loss to LSU at Cowboys Stadium, it was, for the most part, a Pac-12 plop in its opening weekend.
UCLA couldn’t keep up with Houston, a team it beat last season, and Colorado had its road losing streak extended to 18 games — 19, if you include the 2007 Independence Bowl.
Even some of the wins fell into the not-so-great category.
Washington needed a late interception to hold off FCS Eastern Washington by three, USC labored to beat rebuilding Minnesota by two and Washington State lost quarterback Jeff Tuel for six to eight weeks with a broken collarbone in the Cougars’ 64-21 rollover of Idaho State.
The worst of the weekend, though, came in Corvallis, where Oregon State was stunned by Sacramento State, an FCS school from the Big Sky Conference. 
Already too close to a team they were supposed to steamroll, the injury-riddled Beavers lost in overtime when Sac State quarterback Jeff Fleming hit Brandyn Reed for a touchdown pass and found him again when they went for a two-point conversion in the 29-28 win.
The Hornets swarmed the field after the big win and the Beavers left their own stadium tail tucked, searching for answers with a road game against Wisconsin next.
“We’ve got a big, big opponent this week and we’ve got to try to find a way to compete to win that game,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said.
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel entered the season on the hot seat and last weekend’s loss to Houston likely won’t help.
The Bruins pulled away from Houston last year and knocked out quarterback Case Keenum in the process, but had no answer for him this time around. Playing with a sixth year of eligibility, Keenum picked UCLA apart, throwing for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Cougars’ 38-34 win.
UCLA also lost quarterback Kevin Prince to a concussion and has a tough schedule coming up, including games against Texas and Stanford.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t play fast on defense,” Neuheisel said. “These are kids that are fast, are athletic and we did not play that. I don’t know if it was indecision with first-game stuff, but we did not look as quick as we did a year ago playing against the very same team.”
USC, picked to win the Pac-12 South Division, got record-breaking days from Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, yet still had trouble shaking Minnesota.
Barkley completed a school-record 34 passes for 304 yards and Woods had a record 17 catches for 177 yards and three touchdowns, but the Trojans didn’t score in the second half and didn’t seal the 19-17 win until Torin Harris’ interception with 53 seconds left. 
The tighter-than-it-needed-to-be win knocked USC out of the Top 25 with its Pac-12 opener against Utah coming up next.
Washington also needed a late interception — by Desmond Trufant in the end zone with 29 seconds left — to get by Eastern Washington. The Huskies gave up 504 yards to an FCS opponent and have a lot of work to do in a short timeframe with high-flying Hawaii and quarterback Bryant Moniz coming in on Saturday.
“I think the mentality of the team was off,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “For us to play a cautious game like that is disappointing to me. That is something that is the last thing I want our teams to play with, a cautious mentality. We should be aggressive. We should be relentless. We should be going for it. For a team that I’m coaching to play that way is one of the most disappointing things that I’ve seen around here.”
Sarkisian isn’t alone. Coaches all across the Pac-12 are searching for answers, too.

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