October 18, 2011 in Sports

Pac-12 notes: WSU, UW among surprises

By The Spokesman-Review
 

PULLMAN – It’s basically the halfway point of the college football season, which seems to be a good time to assess what’s happened since early September in the Pac-12.

There have been easily foreseen story lines.

Stanford and Oregon, ranked seventh and ninth, respectively, were expected to be good, possibly great, and they haven’t disappointed.

The conference’s two newest members, Colorado and Utah, were expected to face a tough learning curve, and they have.

The stars – Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Chris Polk, et al – have shined.

But there have been some surprises, some positive, some negative, among the conference’s 12 schools.

Asked to list the biggest ones, Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson pointed due north.

“I would say Washington and Washington State,” Erickson said. “Both of those teams are playing very well right now as far as what was expected of both teams.”

The Huskies started slowly but seem to be hitting their stride, posting a 5-1 record and, at 3-0, joining Oregon and Stanford as the North Division’s undefeated teams.

“I think that we are a better football team today than we were six weeks ago, a year ago, two years ago,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I think we have steadily improved in all three phases of the game. … I think we’ve got a football team that has learned how to excel on the road and play well on the road regardless of the environment.”

A big part of that comes from the play of sophomore quarterback Keith Price. The Huskies were a bowl-winning team last season, but lost Jake Locker to the NFL. Price needed to step up and he has.

“It’s two big things,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Price’s success. “One is talent and the other is coaching. He can move in the pocket, and not just escaping out to run it, but being able to bide a little time sliding in the pocket and keeping the ball in throwing position.

“He’s a talented passer, an accurate passer with a nice release. I know Steve (Sarkisian’s) history with quarterbacks and he’s got a good one that’s going to be good for a while.”

As for Washington State, coach Paul Wulff sees its 3-3 record (1-2 in conference play) as a culmination of a few years of program building. But he’s also quick to point out the Cougars aren’t where they want to be just yet.

“We have all the right things (in place) to do well,” Wulff said. “We may not do it all the time just yet, but the ingredients for rapid growth (are here). And the long-term cultural expectations within the program have definitely changed. … This group has changed that.”

Four from the Pac-12

1. A big part of Stanford’s success has been the Cardinal’s stable of tight ends. The three they play most often, led by starter Coby Fleener, are tough to handle, as WSU found out last week. But their success is no accident. “Since we got here more than four years ago, we’ve always been searching for tight ends,” Shaw said. “We look for big receivers that show signs of toughness, and you hope they can get bigger and put weight on.”

2. The Arizona Wildcats will play their first game in eight years Thursday night without former coach Mike Stoops on the sidelines. It’s been a tough week for interim coach Tim Kish. “A week ago (Monday) was a tough day for all of us in the program,” said Kish, who was the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator. “There was a grieving process in there. But we couldn’t sit on that and we had to get the healing process started as soon as possible.”

3. There is one difference this season for the conference and that’s the schedule. No longer does everyone play everyone. So how’s that playing out? “You can never predict how (such changes) are going to unfold,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “But I think it’s been rather seamless, actually. … It just seems like business as usual – except we’re not going to see everybody. That initially was the big disappointment for me. I thought the way we had it set up before was ideal.”

4. Although California is struggling a bit – the Bears have lost three consecutive conference games and are at the bottom of the North Division standings – the pass defense has been pretty good. But not good enough for coach Jeff Tedford. And that’s despite the group leading the Pac-12, giving up just 222.8 yards per game. “We’ve been a little up and down, we need to be a bit more consistent,” he said.


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