Pac-12 football notes: Washington prepares for another top-five opponent
Published: October 8, 2013 04:37PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:35PM
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Washington quarterback Keith Price throws a pass against Stanford during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)

Ever since Stanford’s upset of Oregon last November, Pac-12 followers have anticipated this year’s meeting, scheduled for Nov. 7.

In the meantime, Washington is serving as a gauge of the two top-five teams. The Huskies battled Stanford to the end of a 31-28 loss last weekend and “beat ’em up statistically,” as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham observed, with 489 yards to the Cardinal’s 279.

The Huskies’ showing was so impressive that they dropped only one spot in the polls. Oregon’s visit to Seattle this week means “we don’t have time to sulk,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.

ESPN’s “GameDay” crew will be in town to promote a rivalry that the Ducks have dominated for nine years, winning by at least 17 points each time. Washington’s potential edge is the experience of playing tough games against Arizona and Stanford, while Oregon has dominated all five opponents without having to concern itself about the fourth quarter. That factor may have contributed to the Ducks’ loss to Stanford last year.

Regardless, this will be a very tough test for Washington’s defense. The Huskies were much improved last season, yet they gave up 52 points and 497 total yards to Oregon, which led 35-7 at halftime. And Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is playing “spectacular” football, said Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, whose defense allowed 755 yards to the Ducks last week.

Washington quarterback Keith Price also is having a phenomenal year. Stanford coach David Shaw made sure to emphasize that point Tuesday during his response to Sarkisian’s accusation of the Cardinal’s faking injuries.

Third-down deficiency

Offenses have only three downs instead of four in the Canadian Football League. That system would suit Utah.

The Utes have recorded 38 first downs in the last two games vs. BYU and UCLA, but only three of those advancements have come via third-down conversions (in 27 attempts). So the Utes often are doing very well on first and second downs. Other times, they’re creating too many third-and-long situations, according to Whittingham, resulting in their low conversion percentage.

That’s partly true. Among those 24 failures, the average distance to go was 8.3 yards. But that statistic is skewed by some extreme cases. The Utes have come up short nine times on third and 5 or fewer yards, including five failures with 1 or 2 yards to go.

Fresh start for Trojans

Ed Orgeron will make his debut as USC’s interim coach Thursday when the Trojans host Arizona. His impact in relief of the fired Lane Kiffin will be worth watching, especially because Utah visits USC next week.

Orgeron, the Trojans’ defensive line coach, once resurrected his own career after off-field legal issues forced him to leave Dennis Erickson’s Miami staff in the early 1990s. He’s now tasked with salvaging USC’s season, using a strategy of making football more fun for the players.

“These guys have been through a lot,” he said, adding that the new approach seems to be working because the Trojans are laughing and smiling more.

As for the ongoing search for Kiffin’s replacement, Orgeron labeled USC’s position “the best job in the country.”

The process has resulted in some apparent hoaxes, with ex-NFL coach Tony Dungy and members of the Denver Broncos’ staff fielding calls from purported USC administrators. Athletic director Pat Haden issued a statement saying no such contact had been made.

The best, Barr none

Asked specifically about UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr on the Pac-12’s media teleconference, Whittingham labeled him “the best defender we’ve played this year, without a doubt.”

That naturally evokes a comparison to BYU’s Kyle Van Noy. The statistics support Whittingham’s analysis, in terms of impact plays. Against the Utes, Barr was credited with five solo tackles, including three tackles for loss (two sacks). Van Noy registered five solo tackles and five assists, with 1.5 tackles for loss (no sacks), a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. Utah scored 20 offensive points against each team.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com