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October 6, 2011

Week 6 preview in the Pac-12

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Washington State has not been in football purgatory forever. It just seems that way.

With an offense featuring a big-play receiver, an improved defense and a confidence-building come-from-behind victory a week ago, the Cougars (3-1) already have equaled their win total of the past two seasons combined and have a realistic shot at a bowl.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
California at Oregon, 9 p.m.
SATURDAY
Arizona at Oregon State, 3:30 p.m.
Arizona State at Utah, 4:30 p.m.
Colorado at Stanford, 7:30 p.m.
Washington State at UCLA, 10:30 p.m.
Suddenly, people are remembering major-college football is played in Pullman, Wash.

"It feels different," fourth-year coach Paul Wulff said. "But you want your players to understand that though you've got a lot of people patting you on your back, we haven't accomplished a lot yet. We've got to keep grinding and moving forward.

"We've by no means reached our potential. We have a lot of room for growth, and that's our focus."

The Cougars are striving to get back to where they once were.

Washington State posted three consecutive 10-win seasons from 2001-03. The Cougars were one of only two teams to beat Texas with Vince Young as the Longhorns' starting quarterback. They're also the last team to beat Boise State in a regular-season game on the Broncos' blue turf.

All those remarkable feats have been forgotten in the mire of seven consecutive seasons without a winning record. The Cougars managed just five wins in the past three seasons, one of the most futile stretches for a program that's had quite a few futile stretches in its history.

But change is - quite literally - in the air.

Senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, thrust into the lineup when starter Jeff Tuel broke his collarbone, has thrown for 1,333 yards and 13 touchdowns. Going into this season, he had passed for 1,287 yards and seven touchdowns in his career.

The Cougars are averaging 379 passing yards per game to rank fourth in the nation. They've thrown 16 touchdown passes. Last season, Washington State was 42nd in passing offense and had 19 touchdown passes.

One big difference is that the protection is better. In 2010, the Cougars allowed 51 sacks - the second-most in the country. They've given up 10 sacks this season, a significant improvement.

In addition, opponents must be cognizant of the run. Last season, Washington State averaged just 91 rushing yards per game. This season, the Cougars are averaging 139.5 yards.

A big reason the passing attack has improved is the continued development of sophomore wide receiver Marquess Wilson, one of the best - but least-known - big-play threats in the country.

Wilson - a former three-star recruit from Tulare, Calif. - already has six career touchdown catches of at least 50 yards, including a winning 63-yarder with 1:10 left to lift the Cougars over Colorado 31-27 last week.

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"Without question, he may be one of the best I've seen in a long time," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.

The defense has gotten much better, too. True, the Cougars allowed 42 points to San Diego State on Sept. 17, but last season, they gave up at least 42 points in five games.

The Cougars must play strong run defense against UCLA on Saturday. If they can slow the Bruins' running game, the Cougars will have a great chance to post back-to-back conference victories for the first time in five seasons.

That would give the Cougars four victories. They likely will be favored in a Oct. 22 home game against struggling Oregon State, a team they hammered by 17 points last season in Corvallis.

Triumph in those games and Washington State would need just one more victory to achieve bowl eligibility. That's not as impressive as winning on the blue field, but it's a start. Or, maybe, it's a restart.

"We haven't accomplished a lot yet," Wulff said. "There have been a few really good things, but we still have a lot of work to do. But I like the direction we're headed."

Best matchup: Oregon RB LaMichael James vs. California's run defense. James leads the nation with an average of 153.3 rushing yards per game. He has gained 492 yards and scored five touchdowns in the past two games. In contrast, Cal is allowing 78.3 yards per game to rank ninth in the nation in rushing defense. The Bears have not allowed an opposing running back to reach 100 yards. In their last game, they held Washington's Chris Polk to 60 yards on 20 carries; that's the only time this season Polk has been held to less than 100. James was limited to 91 yards in Oregon's 15-13 victory over Cal last season.

Player on the spot: Utah QB Jon Hays. A shoulder injury to starter Jordan Wynn thrusts Hays, a junior college transfer, into the starting lineup. Hays originally signed with Division II Nebraska-Omaha out of Butte College in Oroville, Calif., but landed at Utah when Nebraska-Omaha dropped its program after last season. Hays will make his first start against a solid Arizona State defense in a game which figures to be pivotal in the South Division race. Hays also could be the key to Utah's bowl hopes if Wynn is out more than two or three weeks.

Keep an eye on: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor. Not surprisingly, Stanford opponents pay a lot of attention to QB Andrew Luck, but that's one reason to beware of Taylor. He's rushed for 265 yard, at an average of 6.8 yards per carry, in the past two games. He could be productive against a Colorado defense that has to be preoccupied with Stanford's passing game.

Numbers game: Don't blame QB Nick Foles for Arizona's struggles. He's thrown for at least 398 yards in four of the Wildcats' five games. Foles has passed for 1,877 yards and 14 touchdowns, with two interceptions. He ranks among the nation's top three in passing, passing yards per game and total passing yards. He also is at a disadvantage compared to many other Pac-12 passers in that he doesn't face Arizona's defense, which is ranked 110th in the nation against the pass.

Quotes of the week

"We're better than maybe it would look like." - Monte Kiffin, USC's assistant head coach for defense, on a defense that has allowed 84 points in the past two games

"I'm moving on. The consequence was served and I took responsibility for what happened." - Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, who was suspended for a game last season after instructing players to fake injuries in an effort to slow Oregon's offense

"He is the Peyton Manning of college football right now. He's probably the best player in college football." - Colorado coach Jon Embree, on Stanford QB Andrew Luck

Poll watch: No. 4 Stanford is the highest-ranked of three Pac-12 teams in the coaches' poll. Oregon is ninth and Arizona State is 24th. Washington received a significant number of votes, but doesn't figure to enter the poll for at least two weeks because the Huskies are idle Saturday. Pac-12 teams are 0-6 against teams currently ranked among the top 25. That could be an issue in upcoming BCS rankings and could be problematic for the national championship aspirations of Stanford and Oregon.

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Etc.: Injuries keep piling up for Arizona State. LT Evan Finkenberg (torn meniscus) is expected to miss three or four weeks. C Garth Gerhart (sprained ankle) is questionable for this week's game against Utah, too. He would be replaced by sophomore Kody Koebensky if he's unable to play. Finkenberg may be replaced in the lineup by senior Aderious Simmons, a former starter who has missed the past three games with a sprained ankle. G Adam Tello, who recently left the team because of recurring back pain, has returned. DT Will Sutton (concussion) is expected to play. ... Oregon's LaMichael James needs 110 rushing yards to become the sixth player in conference history to reach 4,000 for his career. He could join USC Heisman recipient Charles White as the only players to reach 4,000 before their senior seasons. ... Arizona has been outscored 55-3 in the first quarter in the past four games. ... Washington QB Keith Price has thrown at least three touchdown passes in all five games and has thrown 17 scoring strikes on the season. Only Baylor's Robert Griffin III (18) has thrown more. ... Washington State WR Marquess Wilson is averaging 26.2 yards on 21 catches. That's the highest average in the country for players with at least 20 receptions. ... USC WR Robert Woods has 55 catches in five games to lead the nation in receptions per game. He also leads in receiving yardage with 747. ... Arizona State's defense has forced nine turnovers in the past two games. ... Cal's practices typically are open for the first 20 minutes, but coach Jeff Tedford closed them Monday. ... Oregon LB Michael Clay (sprained ankle) has missed two games and remains doubtful for the game with Cal. Several other players, including FS John Boyett and K Rob Beard, are also slowed by injuries, but are expected to play. ... Stanford has committed only one turnover thus far. ... UCLA S Alex Mascarenas (concussion), S Dalton Hilliard (shoulder) and CB Sheldon Price (knee) are questionable, and their availability will be game-time decisions. UCLA K Kip Smith (hip flexor) has been out of action for three weeks, but he's expected to play this week. ... Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton is averaging eight catches per game and is on pace to break the school single-season record of 91 receptions set by James Rodgers two years ago. ... Colorado's secondary is depleted. CB Brian Lockridge, who moved from tailback last week, is slowed with a sprained ankle. Injured DBs Parker Orms, Arthur Jaffee, Travis Sandersfeld, Paul Vigo and Will Harlos are questionable for Saturday's game, and DB Ayodeji Olatoye remains suspended for violating team rules ... Arizona sophomore DT Justin Washington (knee, turf toe) will miss his second consecutive game. Either true freshman Saneilia Fuiamaono or junior Jowyn Ward will take his place in the lineup. ... Cal sophomore WR Keenan Allen needs 12 receiving yards to equal DeSean Jackson as the fastest Cal player to reach 1,000 career receiving yards (16 games). ... Oregon has posted 18 consecutive victories in Autzen Stadium. ... Utah LB Griff Robles has moved to quarterback to boost depth there. Robles switched from quarterback to linebacker during spring drills. ... Washington's defense received a big (literally) boost with junior DT Semisi Tokolahi back in the starting lineup. Tokolahi, a 334-pounder, has been feeling the effects from a broken ankle suffered last season against Washington State. The Huskies are 4-0 with him in the starting lineup. ... Colorado is among the most penalized teams in the nation. The Buffaloes are averaging 9.6 penalties per game. ... Oregon State RB Malcolm Agnew (hamstring) remains doubtful, but G Josh Andrews (knee) returned to practice for the first time since he was injured against Wisconsin on Sept. 10. ... UCLA TE Joseph Fauria has caught a touchdown pass in five of the past seven games. ... USC has committed twice as many turnovers as it has forced (10-5).

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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