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November 10, 2011

Week 11 preview in the Pac-12

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | MWC | SEC | Others

UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has a new lease.

For another week, anyway.

THE SCHEDULE
Arizona at Colorado, 2:30 p.m.
Washington at USC, 3:30 p.m.
Oregon State at California, 6:30 p.m.
UCLA at Utah, 6:30 p.m.
Oregon at Stanford, 8 p.m.
Arizona State at Washington State, 10:30 p.m.
COMING FRIDAY
Oregon-Stanford is our national game of the week, and we will have a complete breakdown of that game on Friday.
Once hailed as the savior of UCLA football's future before he'd even coached a game for the Bruins, Neuheisel has spent most of this season on the proverbial hot seat.

That seat became engulfed in flames after an embarrassing Thursday night loss (complete with a brawl) to Arizona three weeks ago. But it has cooled since then.

A couple of victories will do that. Suddenly, the Bruins are surging and control their destiny in the Pac-12 South race.

So what happened? How did UCLA rebound from a 36-point loss to the 2-7 Wildcats to post consecutive victories over teams with winning records (5-4 California and 6-3 Arizona State)?

"A lot of soul-searching, I think, on the part of everybody in terms of what it takes to be successful at this level," Neuheisel said earlier this week. "We can be a good team when we play as hard as we can. And that's what's at the core of what's taken place. We've made some adjustments, but really what it comes down to is playing with that fervor.

"If we're going to have a chance, we have to have that as part of our game-day strategy."

After the Arizona game, Neuheisel appeared as good as gone. Now, he seems to be regaining support as the Bruins gain momentum.

Of course, supporters can turn faster than a rabid dog. You've heard the saying, "We're behind you coach win or tie." And with the adoption of overtime, ties are no longer an option.

[Video: Better unbeaten: Oklahoma State or Stanford?]

So, Neuheisel, who is 20-26 in Westwood, must keep winning to keep his job. At the least, he must keep winning to keep the more unforgiving critics at bay. That won't be easy.

UCLA on Saturday travels to face Utah, which seems to be finally making progress since losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn for the rest of the season five weeks ago. The Utes have posted consecutive victories over Oregon State and Arizona, and need one more win to clinch bowl eligibility.

After facing Utah, the Bruins are at home against woeful Colorado, then close the season against archrival USC, a game that could end up determining Neuheisel's future.

That is, unless his future is determined before then. So, Neuheisel won't let the Bruins look that far ahead.

"Our future is Saturday," he said. "Nothing else matters. We've made that mistake before."

Best matchup: Oregon vs. Stanford. They were the top two teams in the Pac-10 last season and are the top two in the Pac-12 this season. Stanford is second in the coaches' poll; Oregon is sixth. Stanford is third in scoring offense; Oregon is fifth. Featured are 2010 Heisman finalists Andrew Luck of Stanford and LaMichael James of Oregon. The winner likely goes on to win the conference championship and either reaches the BCS national championship game or at least the Rose Bowl.

Player on the spot: Oregon QB Darron Thomas. Thomas hasn't shown the form of 2010, when he helped the Ducks reached the BCS national championship game. Injuries have been an issue, but he just hasn't been consistent. He was even pulled at halftime from an Oct. 29 victory over Washington State. He has minus-2 rushing yards in his past two games and now faces a Stanford defense that statistically is the best in the Pac-12.

[Heisman Watch: Andrew Luck leads the way | Video: Luck's to lose?]

Keep an eye on: Stanford QB Andrew Luck. The Cardinal relies heavily on Luck and that dependency will be greater than ever against Oregon. Stanford's national championship aspirations are a stake in what looks to be the de facto Pac-12 championship matchup with the Ducks. This also is the defining game in Luck's Heisman campaign. He has done everything asked so far to win the Heisman: He's led his team to a undefeated season, posted impressive numbers, came through in the clutch and led his team to a come-from-behind victory on a big stage against USC. All that's missing is beating a top-10 opponent. Here's his chance. Last season, Luck threw two interceptions in a loss to Oregon. That's the last game Stanford has lost and the last time Luck threw multiple interceptions in a game.

Numbers game: Stanford allows an average of 78.9 rushing yards per game to rank third in the nation (tied with Florida State) in rushing defense. But six of Stanford's opponents are among the country's bottom 20 in rushing offense. The strongest statistical rushing team that Stanford has faced is UCLA, which is 32nd. UCLA ran for 141 on Stanford. The Cardinal defense clearly has something to prove against Oregon, which is fifth in rushing offense and averages nearly 300 yards per game.

Quotes of the week

"If I'm an NFL head coach right now, I'd pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck." - Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who faces Barkley and USC on Saturday. Stanford beat Washington 65-21 in a game in which the Cardinal rushed for 446 yards

"I'm too old for all that. It's another game that these guys have to win to be bowl eligible, and I'm serious about that." - Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow, about having extra motivation to play UCLA, where he coached last season

"We could play this on sand. They're fast." - Stanford coach David Shaw, on whether the playing surface is an issue against Oregon's speed

Poll watch: Only two Pac-12 teams are ranked and they face each other Saturday. Stanford is fourth in the BCS standings and Oregon is seventh. The Cardinal could move up to No. 3 with a victory. Oregon needs a victory to keep their long-shot national championship hopes alive.

[Week 11 viewer's guide: Best games to watch]

Etc.: Stanford WR Chris Owusu (concussion) is out and TE Zach Ertz (knee) is doubtful. Freshman Ty Montgomery will replace Owusu in the Cardinal lineup, while Ryan Hewitt would replace Ertz in Stanford's three tight end sets. Oregon RB LaMichael James has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season. He's the first Oregon player to rush for 1,000 yards in three seasons. Arizona WR Juron Criner is slowed by a sore knee that has limited his effectiveness. He needs just one touchdown catch to match the school career record of 30. Cal G Brian Schwenke was hospitalized last week with an unspecified illness, but he has returned to practice and is expected to play Saturday. Colorado's pass defense gets a boost with the returns of CBs Parker Orms and Paul Vigo from suspensions. Utah RB John White has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. Utah is 5-0 when White has rushed for 100 yards. Washington RB Chris Polk had a streak of four consecutive 100-yard rushing games snapped last week. Washington State sophomore WR Marquess Wilson needs 26 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the second consecutive season. Senior RB Rodney Stewart has set a Colorado record for career all-purpose yards with 4,466. Oregon posted six sacks against Washington last week and leads the Pac-12 with 29. Injuries have been a major problem for Oregon State. Beavers starters have missed 45 games thus far. Arizona freshman LB Tra'Mayne Bondurant has posted eight tackles in each of the past three games. . Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson says he hasn't lost confidence in freshman K Alex Garoutte, who missed three field-goal attempts in last week's loss to UCLA. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero announced that the Bruins will play in Cowboys Stadium against a "marquee" opponent in the future, but the opponent has not yet been named. USC RB Marc Tyler (shoulder) is expected to play against Washington, but LB Dion Bailey (concussion) is questionable. Colorado WR Toney Clemons has 13 catches for 209 yards and three touchdowns over the past three games. UCLA S Tony Dye (neck) has returned to practice after sitting out six weeks, but is only participating in non-contact drills. He remains doubtful. Arizona QB Nick Foles has thrown five interceptions in the past two games. Arizona State junior RB Cameron Marshall leads the Pac-12 with 13 rushing touchdowns. He's also looking to build on last week's career-high 168-yard rushing performance. Bruins RB Derrick Coleman has 11 touchdowns, which is UCLA's most since Maurice Jones-Drew had 20 in 2005. USC QB Matt Barkley set a school single-game record last week with six touchdown passes. QB Jon Hays is 3-2 as Utah's starting quarterback. He has thrown five touchdown passes and no interceptions in the three wins.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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