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September 29, 2011

Week 5 preview in the Pac-12

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Asked about the defense, Washington third-year coach Steve Sarkisian started to gush.

"They play hard," he said. "They play with amazing effort. They fly to the football and that's why they create so many turnovers. The thing that jumps out at you is how hard they play. That's a great trait to have as a defensive football team."

Unfortunately for Washington, that praise was directed at Utah, the Huskies' next opponent.

Arizona at USC, 3:30 p.m.
Washington State at Colorado, 3:30 p.m.
Washington at Utah, 7 p.m.
UCLA at Stanford, 10:30 p.m.
Oregon State at Arizona State, 10:30 p.m.
Defense hasn't been the subject of much praise in Seattle. Yes, there was a clutch goal-line stand to secure last week's 31-23 victory over California, but defensive highlights have been few and far between.

"We need to get better, we need to play better and we will," defensive coordinator Nick Holt said last week.

Then, the Huskies gave up 457 yards to Cal. They've allowed more than 330 passing yards in three of their games and are 117th in the nation in pass defense.

Yet, Washington also is 3-1 and potentially could post eight, nine or even 10 victories, which would be an amazing accomplishment considering they were winless in 2008, the season before Sarkisian's arrival.

The Huskies have compensated for their defensive deficiencies with an explosive offense that has received excellent play from sophomore quarterback Keith Price.

Washington entered the season set with two-time 1,000-yard rusher Chris Polk at running back and a good group of receivers.

But there was some hesitancy about Price. He had little playing experience and was replacing Jake Locker, a first-round selection in the NFL draft. Yet through four games, Price looks to be a much better passer than Locker. Price is ninth in the nation in passing efficiency, has thrown at least three touchdown passes in every game and has 14 touchdown passes with only three interceptions.

Last season, Locker threw 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

Price has shown a knack for making clutch plays, too.

"I'd like to say we taught it all to him," Sarkisian said. "The reality of it is this guy has got that unique quality to his game. It's been that way for him since grade school, and into high school and into college. He's obviously made a few plays for us early this season."

If Price continues making big plays, the Huskies could have their best season in a decade.

Washington doesn't figure to seriously challenge Stanford and Oregon for supremacy in the Pac-12 North Division, but an 8-4 finish is a legitimate goal. The Huskies may even do better than that if the defense comes around.

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BEST MATCHUP: UCLA run offense vs. Stanford run defense. For all of UCLA's issues, the Bruins have a strong rushing attack. They average 214 yards per game to rank second in the Pac-12; TBs Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman average more than 5.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Stanford leads the nation in run defense at 36.0 yards per game. Thus far, no Stanford opponent has managed more than 51 rushing yards.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Stanford LBs Jarek Lancaster or A.J. Tarpley. That's the way they're listed on the Cardinal depth chart at inside linebacker, the position previously filled by All-America candidate Shayne Skov. Skov, the emotional and physical leader of the defense, sustained a season-ending knee injury in Stanford's most recent game. Lancaster or Tarpley (or both) face the daunting task of replacing his productivity.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Washington State WR Marquess Wilson. Wilson, a sophomore, leads the country by averaging 143.0 receiving yards per game. He's also averaging an astounding 28.6 yards on 15 catches. He has had at least 91 receiving yards and one touchdown in all three games and most recently had 236 receiving yards and two touchdowns against San Diego State. He'll be facing a Colorado secondary that is hobbled by injuries at cornerback.

NUMBERS GAME: Oregon RB LaMichael James has exceeded 200 rushing yards in each of the past two weeks and gained a school-record 288 in a 56-31 victory over Arizona. James now leads the nation with 613 rushing yards and is averaging 9.4 yards per carry. He also set a school record against Arizona with 363 all-purpose yards.

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"All I can say on that is that the alleged incident, I had no knowledge of, or knowledge of a relationship at all. I have always been committed, wherever we've been, to doing things the right way and cooperating with the NCAA, so that's all I've got on it." - USC coach Lane Kiffin, on allegations brought forth by Yahoo! Sports that former USC assistant Willie Mack Garza gave prospect Lache Seastrunk and his mother $1,500 to make an unofficial recruiting visit while Garza was on Kiffin's staff at Tennessee

"At this point, if Jeff is healthy, he'll be our starting quarterback. We haven't got to that point yet." - Washington State coach Paul Wulff, on the status of injured QB Jeff Tuel

"It's about focusing. It's not a reason to sound the alarm. We'll get it fixed." - Stanford QB Andrew Luck, on the Cardinal having to settle for field goals on two red zone opportunities in their most recent game.

POLL WATCH: No. 4 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon are the only Pac-12 teams in the coaches' poll. Stanford figures to maintain its ranking with a home game against UCLA, while Oregon is idle. Arizona State, Utah and Washington received votes and could show up in next week's top 25 if they post victories.

ETC.: The conference office reprimanded USC QB Matt Barkley for comments he made about Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict being a dirty player. ... Arizona State star CB Omar Bolden, who tore an ACL in spring drills, may be ready to play for the second half of the season. ... Arizona's defense has produced just one sack in the past three games. That was attributed to the "team" because Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden fell down on the play. ... UCLA CB Sheldon Price (knee) and SS Dalton Hilliard (shoulder) missed practice early this week, but are expected to play Saturday. FS Tony Dye (shoulder) is also expected to play after sitting out last week. ... Washington DE Hau'oli Jamora (knee) will miss the rest of the season. He'll be replaced in the starting lineup by redshirt freshman Josh Shirley. ... Arizona QB Nick Foles has thrown 183 consecutive passes without an interception. ... Colorado coach Jon Embree says that more starters must be used to improve special teams. The Buffaloes are last in the country in kickoff coverage. ... Although Stanford has scored on all 16 of its red zone possessions, coach David Shaw only grades the Cardinal a B-minus in that category. Why? Because the Cardinal has settled for four field goals. ... Oregon's open week comes at a good time. The Ducks are hopeful LB Michael Clay (lower leg) and K Rob Beard (quad) will be sufficiently recovered from injuries when they face Cal on Oct. 6. ... Washington State QB Jeff Tuel, who has missed several weeks because of a broken clavicle, is throwing again, but there is no word when he'll be back in the lineup. ... Arizona State already has two victories over ranked teams - their most since 1997, when they had three. ... Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is 6-0 in games after bye weeks. ... Last season, Arizona DT Justin Washington was a freshman All-American. This season, he's having a sophomore slump. He has just 10 tackles in four games and did not start last week. ... Rodney Stewart needs 56 yards to surpass '94 Heisman recipient Rashaan Salaam for second place on Colorado's career rushing list. ... Oregon State freshman RB Malcolm Agnew (hamstring) has missed three games, but he is expected to play Saturday. ... USC RB Marc Tyler rushed for 149 yards against Arizona State, with 123 coming in the second half. ... Washington is seeking to start 4-1 for the first time since 2006. ... Utah is tied for the national lead with eight fumbles recovered. ... Persistent back injuries have led Arizona State G Adam Tello to give up football. ... California coaches have indicated freshman CB Stefan McClure will get more action as the Bears try to upgrade their pass defense. ... Oregon State is 119th in pass efficiency defense.

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Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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