NCF Nation: Desmond Trufant

Unlike last year, there aren't nearly as many questions surrounding the Washington defense as the Huskies head into the final stretch before fall camp.

Last year a new scheme and new coaches were being installed, headlined by new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Huskies' defense was abysmal in 2011 -- so head coach Steve Sarkisian blew it up and started from scratch.

Now the Huskies are looking to build off of the momentum they gained in 2012 when they made huge strides in one year under Wilcox & Co.

"The numbers don't lie," Sarkisian said.

They certainly don't.

The biggest advances were in the secondary, where the Huskies jumped from 87th to 27th in pass efficiency defense, 106th to 31st in total defense, 108th to 39th in scoring defense and 116th to 23rd in pass defense. They had 17 interceptions last year compared to 10 the year before.

"Our secondary really had a very good season for us last year," Sarkisian said. "I thought Justin Wilcox, Keith Heyward, our secondary coach, really came in and did a great job. ... You look at the increase in play we had in the secondary -- our pass defense numbers, our ability to create turnovers -- I think really speaks volumes to their coaching and their ability to develop our players."


That's what Sarkisian is banking on in 2013 -- player development. More specifically, at the cornerback spot where they have to replace first-round draft pick Desmond Trufant. Sarkisian called the competition "healthy" this spring, but isn't anywhere closer to declaring anyone as the leader in the clubhouse for that starting spot. And it might end up being by-committee or which player has the hot hand that week. A few defensive backs have switched positions or spent time at safety and corner in an effort to make the defensive backfield deeper and more versatile.

With Marcus Peters, who started the final eight games opposite Trufant last season, back on one side, the competition heated up over spring between Travell Dixon and Greg Ducre. Sarkisian said that redshirt freshman Cleveland Wallace has also made a big push. Dixon is a JC transfer (once committed to Alabama) and Ducre had 15 tackles while appearing in 13 games last season.

"Desmond Trufant was a great player for us," Sarkisian said. "Anytime you have a first-round draft pick at corner it tells you the quality of player you have. But I think we've got some really capable guys that are stepping in."

If the Huskies can shore up that spot, expect the secondary to make even bigger strides in 2013. Sean Parker, who started all 13 games at safety, returns as the unquestioned leader of the secondary. Will Shamburger, who started two games last year, will see a larger role. But there's some good competition there as well. Tre Watson (who can pitch in either at corner or safety) is in the mix, and early enrollee Trevor Walker had a strong first spring. Brandon Beaver, who converted from corner to safety late last season but was limited in the spring, is also going to press for playing time.

Lots of names. But that also means lots of depth.

"We've got a good amount of talent back there," Sarkisian said. "It's about finding the right combination of those guys. For some of those guys who were redshirt players for us last year, Travell, Brandon, Cleveland, fall camp is going to be big for them. This spring was good to get the terminology and fundamentals and techniques after spending all year on the service team last year. There is a healthy competition going on back there and the end result is we're fortunate to have good depth and good coaches and we feel good about our pass defense when the fall rolls around."
Five Pac-12 players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.

Here's the chart:


So... what's our take?

Thanks for asking.

Kevin Gemmell: I must say, very, very interesting first round. And one that I think most Pac-12 fans can be relatively pleased with. The five players drafted Thursday night are the most since the league sent six in 2008. So that's progress.

Two things really stood out as surprising to me. First, it's not that Dion Jordan went third overall to the Miami Dolphins. It's that he went to a 4-3 defense. Perhaps Jeff Ireland is a huge fan of the Pac-12 blog and was reading our Take 2 from a few weeks ago. And if that's the case, you're welcome, Jeff.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 in the first round to select Oregon's Dion Jordan.
Jordan is pretty good at stopping the run -- but it's not the strength of his game. As every draftnik in the world noted before and after the selection, he's a beast at speed rushing off the edge, but has some work to do in other aspects of his game. They also made the apt comparison to former Dolphin defensive end Jason Taylor. Fitting since both players have similar frames and skill sets. He had an OK career, so maybe it all works out.

The second thing that surprised me was that Star Lotulelei was not the first defensive tackle taken. We figured he could go pretty much anywhere in the top 15 -- most mocks had him where he landed at No 14 to the Carolina Panthers. One pick earlier, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson went at No. 13 to the New York Jets. I admit I don't know a ton about Richardson. I just know that Lotulelei graded out higher, had a comparable 40 time (though it was inconsistent because it was at a pro day, not the NFL scouting combine) and he had eight more reps on the bench. Maybe it's just personal preference, but I was pretty surprised he wasn't the first defensive tackle off the board.

Liked the pick of Oregon's Kyle Long by the Bears. They are getting a versatile player who could really fit in at any position across the line after he gets a little seasoning. We've seen him slowly creep up in mock drafts -- starting several months ago in the third-round range -- and that buzz was legitimized with his pick at No. 20.

And I liked that Atlanta had Desmond Trufant targeted and they traded up to get him. It was a need position and they jumped at the chance to get an NFL-ready starter. Good pick.

Datone Jones is a guy Ted and I have been talking about for a couple of years now -- how we just kept waiting for him to breakout. And then UCLA switches to the 3-4 and he blows up. He could be a real solid player for years in Green Bay's 3-4 front.

Overall, I'd call it a fair-to-good first day for the Pac-12.

Ted Miller: Of course, the big question many will ask is how did the Pac-12 compare to the other conferences.

Here are the first-round numbers. Yes, there will be SEC crowing, with some justification.

  • SEC – 12
  • ACC – 6
  • Pac-12 – 5
  • Big 12 – 3
  • Independent – 2
  • MAC – 1
  • C-USA – 1
  • Big East - 1
  • Big Ten - 1

The SEC's 12 picks ties the record set by the ACC in 2006. Don't forget the SEC now has 14 teams. Or, for that matter, the Big 12 has 10.

My first-round takeaways? Well, the above numbers are meaningful.

The SEC? Well. I'll let you guys try to explain those away. (Good luck with that.) I tweeted this story the other day, and I think it well relates how SEC dominance, once a chimerical creation from a region that often doesn't fret the truth getting in the way of a good story, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The bottom, however, is almost as telling -- see the Pac-12's Rose Bowl partner, the Big Ten with just one selection. That certainly validates the perception that conference has slipped, something we've seen on the field in recent years.

As for the five Pac-12 picks, I had a nice conversation with Jordan at the Fiesta Bowl about how his fortunes had turned. He seemed genuinely awed by it. And grateful. After the game, I was standing there when his mother worked here way through the crowd to give him a hug. Apparently it was raining inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

One of the things I always think about on draft day is how through-the-looking-glass strange it's got to feel for guys, at least the reflective ones. Sure, most top picks get fronted money by their agents, so they've been living the life for a few months. But when it becomes official, a guy in his early 20s suddenly become certifiably rich.

The third pick last year, Cleveland's Trent Richardson, got four years at $20.4 million. Just imagine yourself at 23 having a conversation about $20 million. And how it's a bit low.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMatt Barkley could be the next Pac-12 alum off the board.
As for the rest, the Panthers got a steal with Star Lotulelei at No. 14. The Panthers just put a checkmark in the box for the middle of their defensive line. And I think Jets fans will remember in a very Jets fans way that the Jets took Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson a pick before the Panthers.

Oregon O-lineman Kyle Long at No. 20 was a mild surprise, but the Bears probably swooned over his obvious upside. You can't beat his bloodlines either.

The Trufant pick clearly validates the Pac-12 blog at the expense of Washington fans. See... we told you he was good.

Wait. I may not be recalling that accurately. Two words: Kevin's fault.

And Jones, whom we've been touting pretty much since he arrived at UCLA, obviously found his rhythm over the past year.

As Kevin noted, there are a lot of good Pac-12 players left on the board, including a substantial handful who figure to get selected in the next two rounds. Things should continue to be interesting, starting with who steps up and picks USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
It didn’t take long for there to be some drama in the 2013 NFL draft. And former Oregon Duck Dion Jordan was right in the middle of it.

Jordan, the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, was selected by the Miami Dolphins with the No. 3 pick ... much to the surprise of the ESPN draft coverage crew. And Jordan.

After offensive tackles went first and second, Jordan was the first defensive player taken in the draft when the Oakland Raiders traded the pick to the Dolphins.

Jordan’s selection was met with mostly positive, yet still mixed responses. Mel Kiper Jr., Jon Gruden and Chris Berman praised Jordan’s athleticism and ability to rush off the edge. But they also questioned whether that’s worth the No. 3 overall pick. Obviously, the Dolphins thought it was.

Many believed that former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, now the head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, was going to take Jordan with the fourth pick. Instead, the Dolphins moved one spot ahead, leaving Kelly to take Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson.

“I was surprised ... I wasn’t expecting that,” Jordan told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. “I’m very blessed. I’m going to bring tremendous athletic ability … I’m ready to get in there and work with the guys.”

Jordan, Oregon’s highest drafted player since Joey Harrington went No. 3 overall in the 2002 draft, was the first of what turned out to be five first-round picks for the Pac-12 on Thursday night. It was the most first-round picks since the league had six in 2008.

After the Jordan selection, things quieted down for the league until the 14th pick, when the Carolina Panthers selected Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He was the second defensive tackle taken in the draft after Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson went at No. 13 to the New York Jets.

“He is a space-eater,” said Kiper after the selection. “He’s a stay-at-home type defensive tackle. He won’t give you a lot of pass rush. But he’s strong. He’s quick. He’s a tough kid. I thought a very good player, but the pass rush wasn’t there.”

ESPN's Pat Yasinskas has a good breakdown of what this means for the Panthers.

The second “surprise” pick of the draft also involved a Duck – when the Chicago Bears drafted Oregon offensive guard Kyle Long.

Said Kiper: “He has the kind of skill set you want. [But] he needs a lot of coaching ... he’s a developmental prospect … [His] versatility and mean streak intrigued a lot of people.”

Just two picks later, the Atlanta Falcons traded up to get Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant at No. 22. After posting a 4.38 at the NFL scouting combine -- third fastest among the defensive backs -- his stock jumped from early second round to first-round selection.

Said Kiper: “He’s an instinctive ball hawk. A guy I think really got better as his career moved along … this is a need area and [Atlanta] went up aggressively to get him.”

UCLA defensive end Datone Jones became the league’s fifth selection when the Green Bay Packers took him at No. 26. ESPN's Jon Gruden was a fan of the pick.

“If you’re into combine workouts, you’re into Datone Jones. Because he dominated the combine,” Gruden said. “The arrow is going up on this kid. He’s my sleeper of the first round. He has NFL movement skills ... he can play on a tight end. He can play inside. And the Packers need a dominant inside defender. Good pick.”

There is still plenty of intrigue looking ahead with names like Zach Ertz, Robert Woods, Matt Barkley, Keenan Allen, Matt Scott, Brian Schwenke, Steve Williams, Markus Wheaton, Jordan Poyer, David Bakhtiari, Chase Thomas, Kenjon Barner, Johnathan Franklin and about a dozen more from the league still on the board.

Settle in for a draft-filled weekend.
When you ask Washington's second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to describe his base scheme, his answer comes down to "somewhere in between a 4-3 and a 3-4," which means it's got a little bit of everything.

"This day and age, I think all defenses are multiple," he explained.

Wilcox turned in one of nation's best coaching jobs last fall. He took a defense that was among college football's worst in 2011 and made it more than respectable.

Improvement? The Huskies surrendered nearly 100 fewer yards and 12 fewer points per game than they did the previous season under Nick Holt. A unit that had been ranked 106th in the nation in total defense, ranked 31st. A unit that had been ranked 108th in the nation in scoring defense, ranked 39th.

And you could make a case that the Huskies talent was not appreciably better in 2012 than in 2011.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe Washington defense saw marked improvement under Justin Wilcox last season.
That said, it was far from perfect. The Huskies got pushed around by more physical teams (LSU, 41-3) and were worn out and outrun by up-tempo, spread teams (Oregon, 52-21, and Arizona, 52-17). And they turned in an execrable fourth quarter against Washington State, surrendering 18 points in a shocking overtime defeat.

In the other nine games, they yielded an average of 15.3 points per game.

So when you ask Wilcox what didn't please him, he goes general: "Consistency," he said.

Just like his defensive scheme, that encompasses a lot. For one, the Huskies still need to get bigger and faster and deeper. They have solid talent on defense but they won't yet be mistaken for Alabama or Stanford. To be consistent on defense, starters need to win one-on-one battles and there can't be a significant drop-off when the first-team guy is getting a necessary breather.

The Huskies also seemed to get overwhelmed at times, mentally as well as physically, particularly on the road. Washington played timidly in the first half at LSU, and both Oregon and Arizona had 21-point quarters at home to put those games away in the first half.

With eight starters back and improving depth, as well as a year of seasoning under Wilcox's coaching and schemes, Washington should take another step forward in 2013. It has two big questions: 1. Improving the pass rush, one of the few numbers that was statistically worse in 2012 compared to the previous fall; 2. Replacing cornerback Desmond Trufant, the most significant of two voids in the secondary and the defense as a whole.

The latter won't likely get done. While Trufant's play fell off a bit over the final third of the season due to his playing hurt -- "Dinged," Wilcox called it -- he's still a likely first-round NFL draft pick next week.

"I don't know if we have a guy on our roster who can replace what Desmond Trufant did," Wilcox said. "You try to get guys -- it might be one guy, it might be three guys -- to try and gain the productivity at the position he gave us."

Wilcox did say that cornerback Marcus Peters, who struggled at times opposite Trufant as a redshirt freshman starter, "has flashed." Senior Sean Parker is established at one safety spot, but the competitions at the other two secondary voids remain wide open as the Huskies prepare for their spring game on Saturday, Wilcox said.

As for the pass rush, that starts with junior rush end Josh Shirley, who Wilcox believes played better than was commonly thought among the Huskies fan base.

"He did a good job rushing the passer last year," Wilcox said. "He had six and a half sacks last year but he had the opportunity to have 12 or 13 if he would have finished better."

Shirley also forced six fumbles, tied for first in the conference.

It would be a huge boost if defensive end Hau'oli Jamora is able to come back in the fall after knee injuries killed his past two seasons, but that's not something Wilcox can count on. Jamora looked like a budding star as a true freshman starter in 2010.

"I love the guy. He works and is studying," Wilcox said. "He's doing everything humanly possible to get back ... that would be huge."

The idea, of course, is to "effect the quarterback with a four-man rush." Over-reliance on blitzing and rushing five or six guys is where a defense gets into trouble -- see the 2011 Huskies. It's also not just about sacks. It's about making a quarterback move and adjust and feel uncomfortable.

The challenge of every Pac-12 coordinator is the variety of Pac-12 offenses. There are a wide variety of up-tempo spreads that don't particularly resemble each other -- the Huskies are even going mostly no-huddle this spring -- and then there are pro style offenses such as Oregon State, Stanford and USC. A defensive coordinator in the conference can't scheme -- or recruit -- only one way.

So even with a year under his belt at Washington, expect to see some tweaks from Wilcox next fall.

What's his scheme?

Said Wilcox, "It's identifying what we think we can be good at and catering the scheme as best we can to fit the players were have."
With the NFL draft exactly one month away, the buzz is starting to heat up around several Pac-12 players -- including Washington defensive back Desmond Trufant.

The San Diego Chargers website is counting down potential draft picks each day leading up to the draft -- and Trufant might be on the Bolts' wish list, writes Ricky Henne, managing editor of Chargers.com.

Trufant already established himself as one of the premier athletes in the draft with his strong showing at the NFL scouting combine -- posting high marks in the 40-yard dash, bench press and 20-yard shuttle.

But it might be his instincts and football IQ that are attractive to the Chargers, who draft 11th overall.

Writes Henne:
According to some scouts, his best asset may be his pure football intelligence. Some players have a knack for diagramming plays and possessing natural instincts, and Trufant is such a player. He’s able to play zone, man or press coverage, and that flexibility is a major asset. Throw in a strong build (6-foot-0, 190-pounds) and elite speed and you get a player who has made a strong impression on NFL decision makers.

... Still, Trufant’s versatility and impressive overall skill set have him poised to be an early selection as one of the best cornerback prospects available this season.

In his most updated top-five player rankings, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. rates Trufant as the No. 2 cornerback in the draft behind Alabama's Dee Milliner.

A top-15 pick might seem a bit high for Trufant -- especially since he didn't start catching more buzz until after the combine. In their most recent mock drafts, both Kiper and Todd McShay have Trufant as a first-round pick. In his most recent Top 32, released last week, McShay projects Trufant as the No. 22 player -- up from No. 32.

Writes McShay:
We always liked Trufant's game. He does just about everything well, though his ball skills could be a little more consistent. His tape didn't indicate elite speed, but he was good enough at the combine. His combination of speed and arm length is impressive. Trufant has good size, and in a league starved for good cover guys, his production could move him into the first round.

Kiper has him at No. 28 to the Denver Broncos.
You might have noticed a theme this week. We kicked off the "Biggest Shoes" series and had two polls (North and South) on replacing departed players. So that means it's now time for your Pac-12 bloggers to weigh in on which two players we believe leave the biggest holes. Given our penchant for quarterbacks, you might find our two choices surprising. Read on.

Ted Miller: I do not know what size 6-foot-3, 320-pound Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's shoes are, but I'd bet they are among the biggest in the Pac-12 -- in more ways than one.

The thing about replacing a dominant interior defensive lineman is that it's difficult to measure what you're losing. An All-America receiver or running back or even cornerback leaves, and you feel fairly comfortable quantifying what is lost and must be replaced. Lotulelei, however, was more than the sum of his stats -- 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and a very important blocked kick.

Lotulelei changed what an offense could do. He changed blocking schemes. He demanded specific attention from an offensive coordinator and a line coach. He made sure the interior of the opposing offensive line -- even if the offense was winning the overall battle -- wanted to ask for its check.

He was a unique presence. An anomaly. A college center could start 48 games in his career and face a guy like him just once. That's why Lotulelei will be a first-round NFL draft pick, even with a heart condition. He could get picked in the top five if a team deems him healthy.

But his shoes are even bigger because Utah, after a disappointing defensive campaign in 2012, is replacing three of four defensive linemen. Moreover, the Utes were unhappy with their linebacker play last fall, even with all the protection Lotulelei provided. Opposing offensive lines, unencumbered by the need to double-team Lotulelei every play, will get a lot more hats on those linebackers in 2013. Not what coach Kyle Whittingham wants.

[+] EnlargeSam Schwartzstein
Charles Baus/CSMCenter Sam Schwartzstein was a huge piece of Stanford's recent offensive success.
The cupboard isn't empty. The Utes are high on Tenny Palepoi, a 305-pound senior who played well as the backup to defensive tackle Dave Kruger last season. And there are other big bodies: LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be in the mix.

Yet the Utes defensive coaches won't even pretend one of those guys will fill Lotulelei's shoes. They are just too big.

Kevin Gemmell: This is a tough one. I've been going through a bunch of players all week long trying to come to a conclusion on which one I wanted to write about (and Lotulelei was already taken). All of them are important -- Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes, Robert Woods, Jordan Poyer, Travis Long, Markus Wheaton, Brandon Magee, Desmond Trufant, Stepfan Taylor, Johnathan Franklin, Zach Ertz, Dion Jordan and … (insert name I unintentionally omitted and now you feel wildly offended).

There really is no wrong answer here. Each player is a major contributor to his team in his own way. But the one name that kept coming back to me is Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein. I know, not as exciting as Kenjon Barner or glamorous as Matt Scott. But in terms of sheer contributions to the team that will be tough to replace, Schwartzstein has to be in the conversation.

In 2011, he was regarded as having the second-best football mind on the team -- behind only Andrew Luck. And he didn't lose any of that in 2012.

After the quarterback, there is no more important position on Stanford's offense than the center. He makes all of the scheme and protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He even calls plays in the huddle when the Cardinal go into the Wildcat.

Schwartzstein started every game since taking over for All-American Chase Beeler, and twice he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in Taylor. The Cardinal played 14 games in 2012 and allowed just 20 sacks. In the 12-game regular season, they had allowed a conference-best 17. The year before that? Just 11 in 13 games. I know for a fact that there were zero quarterback-center exchange fumbles in 2011. And none comes to mind in 2012.

Khalil Wilkes, who started almost every game last year at left guard (one start at left tackle) moves over to compete with Conor McFadden for the gig. Maybe the transition from Schwartzstein to one of those guys will go as smoothly as the handoff from Beeler to Schwartzstein. After all, the new center will have one bona-fide All-American at his side and potentially a couple more on the line.

But they won't be the ones making the calls. That falls on the center -- and Schwartzstein was outstanding at it. He was second-team all-conference and honored with the school's leadership award. Not Taylor, not Ertz. Not Shayne Skov nor Ryan Hewitt nor the aforementioned All-American David Yankey. The center … the most crucial position in Stanford's offense that you never hear about.

Tough shoes to fill, indeed.
ESPN NFL draft guru Todd McShay has updated his top-32 draft list Insider, and it now features five from the Pac-12.

The big upward movers were Oregon outside linebacker Dion Jordan and Washington CB Desmond Trufant. Both improved their stock with good 40 times at the NFL combine.

Jordan moved up from 11th to seventh. Writes McShay:
Jordan posted a 4.60 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which helps his stock a bit, but it's his athleticism and versatility on tape that are his biggest assets. He has fluid feet and hips and good upper-body power and lower-body explosiveness, and he can play multiple roles along the front seven. It's easy to envision him coming off the board in the top 10 overall.

As for Trufant, he made his first appearance in the list at No. 32. Writes McShay:
We always liked Trufant's game. He does just about everything well, though his ball skills could be a little more consistent. His tape didn't indicate elite speed, but he was good enough at the combine. His combination of speed and arm length is impressive. Trufant has good size, and in a league starved for good cover guys, his production could move him into the first round.

McShay did drop one player, as his former No. 1, Utah DT Star Lotulelei, after doctors discovered a heart issue that prevented him from working out. McShay didn't write off Lotulelei, but he did drop him to sixth, noting:
Lotulelei was flagged with a heart condition by doctors at the NFL combine, but his current ranking continues to reflect only what we think of him as a player. His condition is being evaluated and it hasn't been decided whether he will work out at Utah's pro day or at a later date, but we won't drop him significantly in the rankings until we have definitive answers about his long-term prognosis. As for Lotulelei on the field, he could use some polish as a pass-rusher but has a good overall skill set with strong hands, nimble feet, good range and the ability to quickly discard blockers.

As for the rest of his Pac-12 players in the top 32, McShay rated California receiver Keenan Allen 21st and Stanford TE Zach Ertz 28th.

Pac-12 sees 38 invited to NFL combine

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
10:00
AM ET
The official list of college players invited to the NFL combine is out and 38 from the Pac-12 made the cut. At least one player from every team in the conference was invited. A total of 333 players were invited and workouts begin Feb. 23. You can see the complete list here.
No big debate today. Instead, your Pac-12 bloggers thought it would be fun to look back fondly on the favorite games they covered in person during the 2012 season.

Kevin Gemmell: In January 2009, I covered the San Diego Chargers' wild-card playoff game at home against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Chargers won 23-17 at Qualcomm Stadium in the loudest football environment I've ever experienced.

The previous season, in 2007, I covered the Chargers on Christmas Eve against the Denver Broncos: holiday game, "Monday Night Football," AFC West rivals -- things got pretty loud. But that game didn't even come close to the audio assault from the Washington faithful at CenturyLink Field for the Huskies' upset over Stanford back in Week 5.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Stepfan Taylor
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWashington's defense held Stanford's Stepfan Taylor to 75 yards on 3.6 per carry on Sept. 27.
I was on the sidelines for the final five minutes -- and deafening doesn't begin to describe just how loud it was. It was great!

And this isn't just me spouting hyperbole. A few days after the game, Stanford coach David Shaw told me it was the third-loudest game he'd ever experienced. One of them was an NFL game, and the second was at Oregon's Autzen Stadium a couple of years ago.

The Stanford-Washington game itself was a bit of a clunker. Neither offense looked particularly sharp -- save Huskies RB Bishop Sankey's 61-yard touchdown run, which came on a fourth-and-1. Stanford's only touchdown was an uber-athletic pick-six from linebacker Trent Murphy.

The Cardinal were the talk of the college football world after knocking off No. 2 USC a week and a half earlier. Of course, at the time, USC was still believed to be one of the true juggernauts of the 2012 season. And given Stanford's recent history against Washington, we figured we'd be watching the Winter Olympics from Satan's backyard before Washington had any hope of upsetting the Cardinal.

But the Huskies' defense shut down Stepfan Taylor and the M.A.S.H.-unit offensive line kept Stanford's vicious front seven at bay as best it could -- enough to pull off a 17-13 victory.

No doubt, Washington was a much different team at home than it was on the road in 2012. And you can probably attribute a lot of that to The CLink and its boisterous 12th man.

I was fortunate enough to witness three top-10 upsets this year: Stanford's win over USC, Washington's win over Stanford, and Washington's win over Oregon State. Even Stanford's victory over Oregon State was technically an upset, since the Cardinal were No. 14 at the time and OSU was No. 11.

But nothing came close to those closing minutes in Seattle. And when Desmond Trufant intercepted Josh Nunes to clinch the win -- followed by a good old-fashioned field storming -- it was a pleasant reminder of just how cool college football is.

Ted Miller: My favorite game that I covered this year also made me a sourpuss.

[+] EnlargeJordan Williamson
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJordan Williamson's 37-yard field goal handed Oregon its lone loss and ended its BCS title chances.
When Oregon lost 17-14 in overtime to Stanford -- Jordan Williamson hit a 37-yard field goal for the red-letter victory -- I turned to a couple of guys in the press box and said, "You know what just happened? The Pac-12 blog won't get to go to South Florida for a week and the SEC just won a seventh consecutive national title."

We now know more fully that this overtime loss probably prevented the Ducks from claiming the program's first football national title. You'll find few people today who would pick Notre Dame to beat Oregon, and that would have been the title game if the Ducks hadn't been smothered by Stanford.

And, of course, that was it, too. Stanford played brilliantly. It was perhaps the best performance by a Pac-12 team against the Ducks in four years under Chip Kelly. The defensive game plan and execution were darn near perfect, but the performance of redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan shouldn't be forgotten. He shined in the Pac-12's toughest venue and did what Andrew Luck was unable to do: beat Kelly and the Ducks.

Of course, Stanford's defense was what left everyone with an open mouth in Autzen Stadium. Oregon entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring, at 54.8 points per game. No opponent had been within double digits of the Ducks. Heck, just two foes had been within three touchdowns. But Stanford held a team that had been averaging 562.6 yards per game to 405, 77 of which came on a Marcus Mariota run that led to no points.

Want a number? The Ducks were 4-of-17 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth.

After the game, I took my tale of woe to Cardinal coach David Shaw: "You know what you just did? The Pac-12 blog won't get to go to South Florida for a week and the SEC just won a seventh consecutive national title."

He seemed less concerned about that than I was.

SEATTLE -- The Washington Huskies pulled another stunner at CenturyLink Field over a top-10 team from the Pac-12 North. Here’s how their 20-17 upset went down:

It was over when: Washington kicker Travis Coons connected on a 30-yard field goal with 1 minute, 26 seconds left, giving the Huskies a 20-17 advantage. The Beavers were able to move to the Washington 38 but couldn’t convert on fourth-and-19 with 25 seconds left in the game.

Game ball goes to: Washington running back Bishop Sankey, who rushed for two touchdowns and 92 tough yards against one of the best run defenses in the country.

Stat of the game: 8 -- total interceptions on the season for Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who entered the game with four. You do the math. After the fourth, he was replaced by Cody Vaz.

Unsung hero: Washington’s Desmond Trufant led all players with 10 tackles, including nine solo stops and a tackle for a loss.

Second-guessing: Was this the right game to bring back Mannion? He looked hesitant and shaky most of the game. And while credit is due to the Washington defense for nabbing four interceptions, they were also bad throws from Mannion -- who looked much more like the 2011 Mannion than the 2012 model who had been efficient and took care of the ball.

What it means for Oregon State: The Beavers might still be in line for the Rose Bowl -- especially with USC losing today -- but they’ll take a big hit in the BCS standings for losing to an unranked team. Moving forward, do the Beavers (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) have a quarterback controversy?

What it means for Washington: The Huskies’ Jekyll-and-Hyde season continues. The last time they won a game, it was upending a top-10 team on Sept. 27. They had gone a month between wins, but now they’ve beaten another top-10 team. The offensive struggles continue, but Washington (4-4, 2-3) is back to .500 and a decent bowl game is still within reach.

Mailbag: Rethinking Arizona State

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
6:30
PM ET
Greetings. Welcome to the mailbag.

You can follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter here.

To the notes!

Kevin from San Antonio writes: With the first half of the season in the books, Arizona State sits at 5-1, 3-0 in the Pac-12. What is your updated prediction on how they'll finish and where they'll end up during bowl season?

Ted Miller: Can we wait until next Friday?

The reaction of Arizona State fans has been interesting. My mailbag is full of excited fans. And some oddly angry and profane trolling. But it's clear the fanbase is raising a hopeful eyebrow at the Sun Devils.

First off, welcome back.

Second, you might want to put a "cautiously" in front of your optimistic. Just to be safe.

Arizona State has looked great so far, other than the loss at Missouri. A 5-1 start has been impressive, and it might get the Sun Devils into the top-25 this week.

But there needs to be some qualification here.
  • The Sun Devils have not only not beaten an FBS opponent with a winning record, they haven't played one. Missouri, which didn't have its starting quarterback against ASU, is 3-3, 0-3 in the SEC and coming off a loss to Vanderbilt.
  • The combined record of the five teams the Sun Devils have beaten: 10-19.
  • The second-half schedule is far more taxing. It features four teams with a winning record -- three that are presently ranked in the top-11 -- as well as 3-3 Arizona.
  • The combined record of the six teams the Sun Devils have yet to play: 23-10.


Further, the Sun Devils were 5-1 last season against a far more difficult first-half schedule -- recall wins against USC and Missouri. They finished 6-6 and Dennis Erickson got fired.

So the eggs are there. Just don't call them chickens yet. If for no other reason than karma. The football gods hate overconfidence and premature celebrations.

All that said ... how can you not be impressed? So far this has been a disciplined, efficient unit that is playing well on both sides of the ball. Moreover, the future looks bright when many of your best players aren't seniors.

As for the schedule, other than the poor outing at Missouri, the Sun Devils have taken care of business by treating inferior foes with ruthlessness. I view the blowout against Utah and 10-point road win at California as quality victories, no matter the Utes and Bears present records.

So where do I think the Sun Devils end up? I'd say 8-4 or 9-3. I'd say that probably gets the Holiday or Sun Bowls. And, obviously, if Arizona State upsets No. 2 Oregon on Thursday, that projection would change in an upward direction.

It's fair to say that new coach Todd Graham is well-ahead of schedule with his reclamation project.

Now, changing gears a bit, I know it is typically hopeless to try to answer the gadfly element of the Pac-12 blog. But I will try on one issue.

The idea that at any point Kevin or I trashed Todd Graham, as some have noted in the comment section, is not just wrong, it's absurd. The opposite is actually true. The Pac-12 blog has been the biggest apologist for Graham since the day he left Pittsburgh after a single season amid national recrimination.

Here's some reading. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.




Nicholas from Pullman, Wash., writes: do you think that Mike Leach and Washington state can turn the season in the right direction. If so how?

Ted Miller: To be honest, no, I don't see Leach and the Cougars turning the season around. The schedule isn't getting any easier, and this team has issues on both sides of the ball.

Many of us -- yeah, me -- thought Leach's offense would be a great fit for the returning personnel. But it hasn't been for whatever reason, see an offense that ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring and ninth in yards per game.

In some ways, Leach's first year stands in stark contrast to Graham. Whereas Graham's culture change seemingly has been embraced in the locker room, Leach's apparently has been resisted. Whereas Graham's schemes have seemed good fits for the Sun Devils' returning -- and new -- talent, that hasn't been the case for Leach in Pullman.

Leach, it appears, is going to need some time to recruit his sorts of players to fit his schemes. That surely is disappointing to hear for Washington State fans. But Leach's strong track record should be some consolation. He's going to get things going. It just might take three seasons to see a big step up in the Pac-12.




Jason from Portland writes: I have to take issue with how great BYU's rushing defense is being presented. I get that they may be solid, but when you take a look at the competition they have faced and the running games of those teams, it's a little hard to justify being overly awed of the Cougars. They are 4-2, with losses to Utah and Boise State, and wins over Wazzu, Hawaii, Utah State and Weber State. Weber is a FCS school. Utah State is 64th in the nation in rushing. Boise? 78th. Utah? 112th. Hawaii? 114th. Wazzu? 118th. Hardly a pack of rushing powerhouses, yes? On top of that, Weber is 0-6 on the season with two losses to FBS schools and four more to FCS schools. Scoring points of any kind is not their forte. This doesn't mean BYU doesn't have a good rush D? It just provides a little perspective that they haven't been remotely close to challenged by a running game of any kind. This isn't to say they won't shut down OSU's running game (ranked 106), but they also haven't been tested by quality runners of any kind. Just saying.

Ted Miller: Fair enough. I still think the BYU defense is pretty salty.




James from Portland writes: For a long time I was deeply mystified as to why Darron Thomas would make such a risky move as to declare for the draft. That was before Mariota took the field. Given what we know about Chip Kelly and how Mariota's season has been so far, do you think that DT took his chances in the draft because he didn't think he could win the starting QB job back?

Ted Miller: I know where you're coming from, but I don't think so. If Darron Thomas had returned, I'm pretty certain he would have been the starting quarterback this fall.

Thomas led the Ducks to an unbeaten regular season and the national title game as a first-year starter in 2010. He won the Rose Bowl the following year. While he certainly was a flawed quarterback, the Ducks' offense thrived with him behind center. My impression is that Chip Kelly liked his moxie.

Might Kelly have created packages for Marcus Mariota (or Bryan Bennett, for that matter)? Possibly. That's the sort of thing he does. But it's hard for me to believe Thomas would have been beaten out.




Chris from Illinois writes: Bro, you are usually so good about not only giving me optimism but keeping me grounded with my Oregon State Beavers... But I am so disappointed with you.. You, being the unbiased, well rounded writer you are, failed to even mention an Oregon State defender on you Pac-12 DPY watch list. And well, it's a shame, because arguably the two best defenders in the conference play for the orange and black and you didn't even give them a mention. Scott Crichton has 6 sacks this season, and has essentially dominated in every game. Jordan Poyer... I could probably stop there, but for the sake of my argument 4 INTs, 1 sack, maybe best cover corner in the nation, and certaintly worth consideration in the Pac-12 DPY. Ted... My man, what happened?

Ted Miller: You are probably right and I am probably wrong.

While I'm trying to keep the number of players on the list down, both Crichton and Poyer should have been included. And Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, too.

And Oregon linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso.

See. Hard to keep the number of names down.

Huskies shock Stanford, not themselves

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
2:48
AM ET


SEATTLE -- Thursday night, with a full moon hanging over CenturyLink Field, the Washington Huskies howled.

It was primal. It was piercing.

Fifty-thousand-plus fans howled along with them, bringing deafening decibel levels to Washington's temporary home field. It reached a fever pitch when Desmond Trufant intercepted Josh Nunes in the closing minutes to lock up a 17-13 victory over the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal.

For the second time in three weeks, a top-10 team in the Pac-12 has fallen. And the strange week of football that CenturyLink Field has seen continued when the students overflowed into the center of the NFL stadium.

“I love our fans. They bring it, man,” said Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian. “They were patient with me on offense. I think? They knew what kind of game we were in. Part of me thinks that our fans probably appreciate these types of games more so than 48-45. There is something gritty about our mentality here. This was a black-and-blue type of game and I think our fans appreciated that.”

Well, it certainly wasn’t a beauty contest. Through the first three quarters the teams had combined for just 250 yards of total offense and 16 first downs. There were 18 total punts and 13 combined three-and-outs. Drops stalled drives for both teams. Penalties negated what few big plays there were. By the end of the game, neither Stanford (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) nor Washington (3-1, 1-0) did much to advance the stereotype that the Pac-12 is the conference of offenses.

But none of that matters to Sarkisian and Co.

“I was talking to the team last night, the ultimate goal for tonight was to lay down in bed tonight and be 1-0 in Pac-12 play,” he said. “I just wanted to be 1-0 and start off on the right foot. And how we did it and the final score didn’t matter to me. It was more of playing the way we were capable of playing, playing disciplined football. I didn’t know what we would hold them to. I didn’t know any of that stuff. It was hard to tell before the game. What I do know is this game was a heavyweight bout.”

And when push came to shove, the Huskies landed more haymakers.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenSteve Sarkisian celebrates Washington's first victory over Stanford since 2007.
Running back Bishop Sankey, running behind a patchwork offensive line, crossed the 100-yard mark for the second consecutive game and finished with 144 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

No carry was bigger than his 61-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter. With the Cardinal holding a 13-3 advantage -- Stanford’s lone touchdown coming on a fantastic 40-yard pick-six from linebacker Trent Murphy -- Sarkisian opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the UW 39. It was a gamble that paid off.

The Cardinal sold out to stop the run with three players storming one gap. But it was the wrong gap and Sankey found a hole, broke into the second level and sidestepped a pair of tackles. The huge play swung the momentum in Washington’s favor to start the fourth quarter.

“My first thought was just to get the first down and get positive yards,” Sankey said. “And then the hole opened up so fast. Before I knew it, I stepped out of a tackle and it was off to the races.”

Washington’s go-ahead touchdown came with 4:53 left in the game when Keith Price went to Kasen Williams on a quick hitter. Williams was able to break a tackle and then went streaking down the sidelines for a 35-yard score. Price finished 19 of 37 for 177 yards with an interception and a touchdown. Williams had 10 catches for 129 yards and the score.

This was Washington’s first win over a top-10 team since knocking off No. 3 USC in 2009. The Huskies had been 0-5 since -- including a 41-3 loss at LSU earlier this season.

Conversely, Stanford was coming into the game with a heap of confidence after knocking off the then-No. 2 Trojans two weeks ago. The Cardinal had won four straight and six of the previous seven against the Huskies.

“The bottom line is we didn’t make the plays we needed to make on the offensive side of the ball,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “We didn’t keep the defense off the field like we usually do. We kept putting the defense out there too long, and every team in our conference, if you give them enough shots on offense, they’re going to hurt you.”

Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor was held to just 75 yards on 21 carries and the Cardinal were held without an offensive touchdown for the first time since October of 2007. Nunes was 18 of 37 for 170 yards.

“I thought it was not his best effort,” Shaw said. “I think he can play much better. I think we can all do a much better job.”

Nunes had a chance in the final minutes, driving the Cardinal down to the Washington 34. But on fourth-and-4, he was intercepted by Trufant, sealing the win for the Huskies.

Instant analysis: Wash. 17, Stanford 13

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
12:42
AM ET


Washington pulled off the shocker against a team that had dominated it of late, notching an upset 17-13 win over the nation's No. 8 team.

It was over when: On fourth-and-4 from the Washington 34-yard line, Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes attempted a fade route to tight end Levine Toilolo. Desmond Trufant grabbed the interception at the Huskies' 8-yard line with 1:46 left, and the Cardinal didn't get the ball back.

Game ball goes to: The Washington defense. THIS is why Steve Sarkisian hired Justin Wilcox to coordinate his defense. After three years of getting run over by Stanford, the Huskies held the Cardinal to just 235 total yards. Stanford rushed for 446 last year.

Stat of the game: The Huskies outrushed Stanford 136 yards to 65. Anyone see that coming?

Unsung hero of the game: Huskies receiver Kasen Williams caught 10 passes for 129 yards, with a 35-yard touchdown that gave the Huskies their go-ahead points. It was a short toss into the flat on which Williams did nearly all the work on his own. By the way, the Huskies passed for just 177 total yards.

Worst call: Stanford opted to go big with the fade route on fourth-and-4. The play works, it's brilliant. But it didn't this time.

What it means: The problem for the Pac-12 with the Huskies' victory is that LSU stomped Washington 41-3 on Sept. 8. That will resonate nationally when folks compare conferences. As for the Pac-12 picture, the Huskies take a step forward and Stanford takes a step back. And this further diminishes USC, which lost 21-14 at Stanford on Sept. 15.

Proving grounds: Pac-12 North

June, 19, 2012
6/19/12
12:00
PM ET
Some players come in with plenty of hype, but never quite seem to match it. Others have a great season, then slip the following year, leaving many to wonder if they were one-year wonders. Still others, have to bounce back from an injury and show they aren't shells of what they used to be.

Either way, there are plenty of players in the Pac-12 with something to prove in 2012.

Monday we took a look at six players from the South Division. Today our focus shifts to the North.

[+] EnlargeZach Maynard
AP Photo/George NikitinZach Maynard led the Golden Bears to a 7-6 record last season.
Zach Maynard, QB, Cal: Is there any quarterback in the conference more maligned than the guy in Berkeley? No doubt, he hit a low point midway through last season with a three-game stretch against USC, Utah and UCLA where he had one touchdown to seven interceptions. His completion percentage was one of the lowest in the conference last year (57 percent). But all accounts are that he had a solid spring and gained a stronger control of the offense. He has pieces in place this year -- an A-list receiver, a solid running game, a very good defense behind him -- so if he's going to silence his critics, this will be his best chance.

Josh Huff, WR, Oregon: On the surface, the obvious pick here is Kenjon Barner with the oh-so-obligatory "can he be the featured back" question. Let's go ahead and address that right now. Yes, he can. There, that was easy. Huff, however, has yet to really show what he's capable of. Last year he was partly hampered by injury (31 catches, 430 yards, two touchdowns) and Lavasier Tuinei was the preferred target. No doubt, the potential is there (see how he made Stanford defenders look silly on his 59-yard touchdown catch). Huff's status remains up in the air pending next month's trial for a DUI citation, so we'll have to see how that plays out. The Ducks have so much offensive potency that they don't need him to be great. But wouldn't it be a whole lot better if he was?

Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State: The beauty of football is that it's not a stat-driven, individual game. A wide receiver can be a great blocker or decoy and never get the statistical credit, but his teammates and coaches know his contributions. With that said, if Wheaton wants to be counted among the elite wide receivers in the conference -- and he absolutely should be -- he'll need to have more than just one receiving touchdown, which was the case in 2011. The fact that Oregon State's running game should be better helps, and Sean Mannion's continued growth is also a plus. He's an underappreciated talent around the conference who's out to prove he belongs in the conversation with the league's elite receivers.

Wayne Lyons, DB, Stanford: When your coach says you'll be up for the nation's top defensive back award by the time your career is through -- before you've put together a complete season -- that's his way of not-so-discreetly applying pressure. David Shaw expects big things out of Lyons -- and the highly touted defensive back will have to deliver. He's fully recovered from a foot injury he suffered last fall that nagged him for two games before shutting it down for the year. Stanford's secondary was dreadfully exposed against Oregon and Oklahoma State. The pressure is on Lyons to produce immediately (say, Week 3 against USC?).

Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington: And Baylor just scored again ... Haha. Didn't we all have a nice little chuckle at that one on Dec. 30. Well, the joke was stale by New Year's Eve. However, the lasting image of what Baylor's offense did to Washington is still very much fresh. The Huskies defense got an overhaul in the offseason -- and it's up to a veteran like Trufant to give the unit more punch and less punch line. Not easy, considering the Huskies allowed a whopping 35.9 points per game last year. But Trufant isn't alone in his efforts. He has good support in the secondary with safeties Justin Glenn and Sean Parker (the three combined for 207 tackles last season) and Trufant added a pair of picks. He's a very good defender who is going to have to become a great defender in 2012 to not only prove he can play at the next level, but to show it's time to stop cracking wise about Washington's D.

Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State: Outside of new head coach Mike Leach, no name coming out of Pullman, Wash., this spring has been uttered more than Jeff Tuel. A prototypical NFL quarterback with the arm and the arsenal to boot, all of the pieces are in place for Tuel to have a big season. But injuries have prevented him from reaching his true potential. This offense, which puts the quarterback center stage like no other, should go a long way in helping him reach it. He's picked it up quickly, which should come as no surprise. But there are still Connor Halliday advocates ready to take their shots at Tuel. He's got to prove he deserves to be the guy. Provo, Utah, seems like a good place to start.
Stanford and Oregon were a combined 24-2 last year and both are presently ranked in the nation's top-10. They are the top of the Pac-12 North. The number of people who don't think one or the other will win the division is 17, and six of them are Norwegian, folks who as you well know are notoriously contrarian when it comes to college football analysis.

Looking up at the Ducks and Cardinal are four other the North teams, but the two top candidates for the three-hole will be in Seattle on Saturday scrapping it out for the right to become a "maybe" contender that could make the Norwegians look like giants of prognostication: California and Washington, neither of whom enjoy hearing about how great Stanford ("Blech," say the Bears) and Oregon ("Pfffftt," say the Huskies) are.

These two combined for 12-13 record last fall, with the Huskies managing to win seven games only because they pried No. 5 away from Cal on what suddenly -- wham! -- became the final play of the Bears season.

[+] EnlargeChris Polk
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezChris Polk's 1-yard touchdown with no time left lifted Washington past Cal last season.
That dramatic finish -- a fourth-down, 1-yard TD plunge from Huskies running back Chris Polk as time expired on a 16-13 victory -- was the cornerstone of what is supposed to be a transformative season for Washington.

It was not greeted so warmly in Berkeley, where the Bears found themselves saddled with their first losing record in nine years under coach Jeff Tedford. Bears fans, suffice it to say, grumbled a bit, and the Bears themselves weren't exactly clicking their heels over the program's slide, either.

Tedford, however, is only willing to obliquely note that Cal might come to Seattle with an added chip on its collective shoulder.

"It was motivation through the whole offseason and the summer time, but this is a different team and they're a different team," Tedford said before adding. "It was odd how that game ended. It was somewhere we've never been before."

As if last year's game isn't enough of a poke in the eye, Cal adherents also might recall that the last time the Bears were inside Husky Stadium, they got bombed 42-1o, perhaps Jake Locker's career-best game.

These teams will come at each other with similarities: New starting QBs who have mostly exceeded expectations. And differences: Cal's defense ranks among the conference leaders; Washington's among the conference laggards.

As for Cal's Zach Maynard, this will be his SECOND -- not first, SECOND -- major road test. He mostly passed his first during an overtime win at Colorado, but Husky Stadium is notoriously tough on visiting foes, though it doesn't appear the house will be full.

"I think Zach is on track to become a very good player," Tedford said. "He has a lot of ability. He probably can use his legs better than any quarterback we've had here, so that is an added dimension to our offense."

While Maynard has been solid, sophomore Keith Price has been stellar for the Huskies. He leads the conference with 11 TD passes and ranks fourth in passing efficiency, ahead of some notables such as Arizona's Nick Foles and USC's Matt Barkley.

"He's playing phenomenal football for us right now," coach Steve Sarkisian said. "He's been lights out."

But Price will be playing against a tough Cal defense that has 11 sacks and ranks second in the conference in pass-efficiency defense.

Maynard will face a defense that ranks last in the conference in scoring (36.7 ppg) and 11th in total defense (452.0). Still, a review of the Huskies depth chart -- defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu, defensive end Hau'oli Jamora, middle linebacker Cort Dennison, cornerback Desmond Trufant -- suggests this crew should be playing better.

Which is why much of the muttering in Seattle this week has been about well-compensated coordinator Nick Holt.

"I trust Nick Holt," Sarkisian said. "I believe in Nick Holt. I believe in our defensive staff. They are tremendous coaches. I've seen them coach for years. And we will get better."

How? Simple. Freaking stop dithering and go hit somebody.

"We're playing with some hesitation," Sarkisian said. "We're not letting loose and letting go. We're a little bit afraid to make a mistake."

The winner Saturday immediately announces itself as a top-half of the division team. And that is a necessary first step toward challenging Oregon and Stanford, who have finished one-two in the conference the previous two seasons.

The Norwegians have high hopes.

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