If you're looking for reasons the Pac-10 is down this year, start under center.
It's been a rough year for quarterbacks in the conference that has produced a long line of star signal callers, from Norm Van Brocklin to Jim Plunkett and John Elway to Drew Bledsoe.
Injuries are a problem in some places, ineptitude in others. Uneven quarterback play has caused many coaches to scale back their gameplans, and that's bad news for a freewheeling, offensive-minded league.
``There's no question it's having a huge impact,'' said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, forced by injuries to start a third-string transfer in the season opener. ``Teams are having to not so much change who they are but certainly eliminate a lot of their inventory on offense, just because the guy who goes in next doesn't have all the benefit of the reps of the guy you just lost.''
The quarterback situation has become so muddled that Dr. Phil ought to be moderating the Pac-10 coaches teleconference with the media. Every week, it seems, a coach comes on to kvetch about his woes at quarterback.
ll, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti sighed and said, ``We're playing with our third-string or fourth-string or fifth-string depending on the game.''
For the record, the Ducks have played four quarterbacks this year - and that doesn't count preseason No. 1 Nate Costa, who injured his surgically repaired knee in training camp. The Ducks were ranked 21st in August but dropped from the rankings after two losses.
Washington State has played three quarterbacks. The Cougars are 1-5 and average 16.3 points per game, last in the league. Last week, new coach Paul Wulff held an open tryout to find a scout-team quarterback somewhere on campus.
UCLA opened the season with Kevin Craft calling signals after its top two quarterbacks went down with injuries. The Bruins are 2-3 and rank last in Pac-10 total offense at 286 yards per game.
Winless Washington lost starter Jake Locker four weeks into the season and will go with a redshirt freshman, Ronnie Fouch, until he returns.
Even California, tied for first with Arizona in the early conference race, has issues. Coach Jeff Tedford, known as a QB guru, became so frustrated with starter Kevin Riley that he declared the job open in practice last week. Nate Longshore, who is often booed in Berkeley, took over and threw for three touchdowns in a victory over Arizona State.
es, both may be forced to go with back-up quarterbacks.
The Trojans' Mark Sanchez, ranked seventh in national passing efficiency, has a bone bruise in his left knee. ASU's Rudy Carpenter has a sprained ankle, putting his streak of 36 straight starts in jeopardy.
The eighth-ranked Trojans are a 26 1/2 point favorite, so oddsmakers apparently aren't too worried about whether Sanchez will play. Mitch Mustain, who played at Arkansas before transferring to USC, would step in if Sanchez can't go.
In most cases, when a team has to turn to its No. 2 quarterback, the entire offense has to adjust. Receivers have to develop timing with the new guy. Offensive linemen have to figure out whether he'll hang in the pocket or bolt at the first sign of pressure.
Asked how much quarterback issues had contributed to the perception that the Pac-10 is down, Arizona coach Mike Stoops replied, ``I think that's a big part of it. The quarterback play, it's been so strong in this league for so many years.''
Stoops is a rarity: a Pac-10 coach who doesn't have to worry about his quarterback. Senior Willie Tuitama has 13 touchdown passes and two interceptions and ranks 16th in national passing efficiency. With Tuitama guiding Arizona's versatile attack, the once-lowly Wildcats are 4-1 overall and poised to end a nine-year bowl drought.
om needing a replacement, Stoops has played freshman Matt Scott in four blowout victories.
That's sort of experience is critical in college football. Unlike their NFL counterparts, college teams can't turn to the waiver wire when a starter is hurt. Nor can they offer Vinny Testaverde a scholarship in midseason.
Limited practice time also makes it difficult to prepare back-ups for game action.
``It is always something we talk about and try to prepare for,'' Beavers coach Mike Riley said. ``It's something you don't want to cross, but last year in our conference, seven teams had to go at least to their No. 2, so you have to be ready for it and you have to do a good job in it, because if you don't it's really going to hurt your team.''
Riley is lucky because his starter, Lyle Moevao, has thrown all but two of the Beavers' passes this year. The junior leads the Pac-10 with 1,402 passing yards, and he guided Oregon State to an upset of then-No. 1 USC on Sept. 25.
The injury trend began last year, when USC quarterback John David Booty broke his finger, California's Longshore sprained an ankle and Oregon's Dennis Dixon, the nation's third-ranked passer, tore up his knee.
Before those players got hurt, the Trojans, Golden Bears and Ducks all harbored serious national title aspirations.
epth Chart.
This year has been every bit as painful. The bright side is that some of the youngsters may eventually benefit from being rushed into action. But for now, as the quarterbacks go, so goes the Pac-10.
``There's a group of guys that, hopefully, we all thought would be able to redshirt or learn, not quite in a starring role, and just be able to absorb some things,'' Bellotti said. ``And they're forced right now to the forefront.''

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