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September 15, 2011

Week 3 preview in the Pac-12

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As is the case with most teams, the goal at Arizona State is winning a championship.

That doesn't change.

Yet, what appears different in Tempe are the issues that could prevent the Sun Devils from reaching that goal.

THE SCHEDULE
Colorado vs. Colorado State in Denver, 1:30 p.m.
Washington at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m.
Texas at UCLA, 3:30 p.m.
Missouri State at Oregon, 3:30 p.m.
Presbyterian at California, 5:30 p.m.
Washington State at San Diego State, 6:30 p.m.
Arizona State at Illinois, 7 p.m.
Syracuse at USC, 8 p.m.
Utah at BYU, 9:15 p.m.
Stanford at Arizona, 10:45 p.m.
In recent seasons, Arizona State often has been foiled by inconsistent quarterback play and lackluster offensive lines. But the Sun Devils have had solid defenses.

This season, with the emergence of quarterback Brock Osweiler and an improving offensive line, those problems seem solved. After two games, the Sun Devils are averaging 504.5 yards to rank 16th in the country in total offense.

But there now are doubts about the Sun Devils' defense, which allowed 501 yards in last week's 37-30 overtime victory over Missouri, a team that gained only 291 yards of total offense against Miami of Ohio the previous week.

Arizona State coaches counted 28 missed tackles that resulted in 180 rushing yards against Mizzou.

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"We've shown some good things in the last couple of games, but at the same time we've been inconsistent," senior linebacker Colin Parker said. "We had some poor tackling at times in the last game and missed some assignments. But at the same time, we tied some plays together and got some three-and-outs."

Missouri quarterback James Franklin passed for 319 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 84 and another score against the Sun Devils. That's especially concerning because Arizona State next faces Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase, another dual-threat quarterback.

"He's not as big as Franklin, but he's probably a little more evasive, a little faster." Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "Not as big, but he is a very accurate thrower."

Franklin's performance is only the latest concern for Arizona State's defense. The first came April 2, when star cornerback Omar Bolden tore an ACL and was lost for the season. On Aug. 13, Brandon Magee, perhaps the most consistent linebacker, tore an Achilles tendon and was lost for the year.

Still, this remains a potentially powerful defense featuring intimidating linebacker Vontaze Burfict and a stout line headed by tackle William Sutton and end Junior Onyeali. Plus, the Sun Devils' defense has the peace of mind that it doesn't have to carry the offense.

Once a liability, the offensive line now is a strength. Osweiler, a junior who started one game in 2010, has turned potential into production. He already has passed for 615 yards and five touchdowns.

The Sun Devils have scored at least 37 points in each of their first two games. In 2009 -- the year before offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone arrived - the Sun Devils exceeded 30 points just twice all season while stumbling to a 4-8 finish.

That season, Arizona State was ranked 90th in the nation in total offense, while the defense ranked 13th. The disparity in production caused a rift between the units.

The offense was ranked 100th in the nation in 2008. That season, in a 28-0 loss to USC, the Sun Devils' defense forced USC turnovers (a fumble and three interceptions) on four consecutive series. But the Sun Devils couldn't turn any of them into points. In fact, on three ensuing possessions, they actually lost yardage.

"The last couple of years it was frustrating and did cause problems," said Parker, who replaced Magee in the starting lineup. "The defense was playing well and the offense wasn't always doing their part.

"Last year there was a huge improvement on the offensive side. This season, it takes a lot of pressure off the defense knowing that the offense can put up points and it's not three-and-out all the time. It helps the defense to relax a little bit and just go out there and play."

The Sun Devils had better improve. After facing Scheelhaase, the Sun Devils take on Matt Barkley and USC, and later face Oregon's Darron Thomas and Arizona's Nick Foles. Each is among the country's top 30 in passing.

"It's early in the season. We're still getting our feet wet," Parker said. "We need to come together as a group."

They'd better. After all, the offense is doing its part.

Best matchup: Utah vs. BYU. Forget about individual or position matchups; the "Holy War" between Utah and BYU is one of the most intense -- and sometimes nastiest -- rivalries in the country. Though it traditionally has been the final regular-season game, it has been moved because of Utah's move to the Pac-12. That won't affect the intensity. Twelve of the past 14 games in the series have been decided by seven of fewer points; seven have been decided by three or fewer points, and two went into overtime. This season's game figures to be equally competitive.

Player on the spot: Colorado OT Sione Tau. A fifth-year senior, he is expected start for the first time in his career against Colorado State because of injuries. David Bakhtiari is questionable with a sprained knee, Jack Harris is out with a broken ankle and Ryan Dannewitz is questionable with a sprained knee. Tau had not even seen action as a collegian until this season. Once one of the top-rated recruits from Hawaii, Tau redshirted in 2007, was academically ineligible in '08, was suspended for violating team rules in '09 and did not play as a backup to Nate Solder last season. Just to make things more interesting, Colorado State DE Nordly Capi already has 4.5 sacks.

Keep an eye on: Washington RB Chris Polk. One of the most underrated players in the country, Polk has exceeded 100 rushing yards in five of his past six games. That includes a 177-yard performance in a 19-7 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, this week's opponent. The Huskies have won the past six games in which Polk rushed for 100 yards. He was held to 55 yards in a regular-season loss to Nebraska last fall. If Polk has a productive rushing performance the Huskies could upset the Huskers again. If he doesn't, it's not likely.

Numbers game: Not only is Washington State off to a 2-0 start, but the Cougars are leading the nation in scoring offense. They've beaten Idaho State 64-21 and UNLV 59-7 and have scored 123 points. That's the highest two-game point total in more than a century. Washington State scored 132 points in the first two games of the 1907 season, including an 86-0 win over Blair Business College. This year's lopsided victories mark the first time Washington State has scored at least 50 points in consecutive games since 1996.

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Quotes of the week

"Obviously, I have great confidence in myself. What happened Friday night [against Missouri] wasn't a surprise to me at all. Like I said, nothing beats hard work. And a lot of hard work went into this offseason, and that's what this football team expected to do last Friday." - Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler, on his 353-yard passing performance in a 37-30 victory over Missouri

"Being 0-2, we've got to get one, we've got to get one. Going into Ohio State 0-3 isn't going to be good for us. We have to get a victory this weekend." - Colorado QB Tyler Hansen, on why he views this week's game against Colorado State as a "must win"

"It has gone overboard in some situations, to say the least, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail this year and we'll be able to have uneventful situations in the stands and on the field and keep it in perspective. It's a great rivalry, it's a great game, it's intense, but there's that line you cross over, and hopefully we don't cross over this year." - Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on the "Holy War" game against archrival BYU

Poll watch: No. 6 Stanford, No. 12 Oregon and No. 22 Arizona State are the only Pac-12 teams in the AP poll, but the Cardinal and Sun Devils must go on the road to maintain their status. Stanford travels to Arizona, while Arizona State faces Illinois in Champaign. USC is on the cusp of breaking into the poll, and Washington received some votes. The Huskies likely would receive enough to join the top 25 if they can upset No. 11 Nebraska on the road.

Etc.: Arizona QB Nick Foles leads the nation in passing. Through two games, he's thrown for 810 yards and six touchdowns. WR Juron Criner remains questionable for Saturday's game. Criner missed last week's game against Oklahoma State after having an appendectomy Sept. 5. Coach Mike Stoops said Criner will play if he's healthy. In his past two games against Stanford, Criner has had 21 catches for 250 yards. ... Oregon State WR James Rodgers, trying to come back from a knee injury sustained last season, has been practicing with the second unit and could play against UCLA on Sept. 24. ... Redshirt freshman Sean Mannion has been named Oregon State's starting quarterback over incumbent Ryan Katz. ... UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel hasn't announced whether Kevin Prince, who is trying to return from injury, or Richard Brehaut will start at quarterback against Texas. ... TEs Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz have accounted for five of Stanford's seven touchdown catches this season. Going back to the Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, they have accounted for nine of Stanford's past 11 touchdown catches. ... Arizona State has entered the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 22. It's the first time the Sun Devils have been ranked in that poll since Sept. 7, 2008. ... Junior RB LaMichael James, already Oregon's leading career rusher, is closing in on some more school records. He has 37 career rushing touchdowns and needs five more to set a record. He has 42 overall touchdowns and needs four more to set that record. Speaking of Oregon records, QB Darron Thomas set one last week with five touchdown passes in the first half. ... Utah QB Jordan Wynn acknowledged that he is not yet 100 percent after offseason shoulder surgery and that his throwing motion has been slightly altered. ... Washington State is seeking the 500th win in program history when the Cougars face San Diego State. ... Cal QB Zach Maynard has completed fewer than half of his passes, but his receivers have been charged with 10 drops thus far. ... Arizona State starting OT Adarious Simmons (ankle) remains doubtful. He was forced to sit out the Sun Devils' previous game. ... Colorado QB Tyler Hansen is coming off a career-best performance in which he set a school record with 474 passing yards. And Colorado sophomore WR Paul Richardson is coming off a career-best 284-yard receiving game, with two touchdowns. ... USC OT Matt Kalil has blocked a field goal in both games this season. He blocked Utah's tying attempt on the final play last week. ... Knee injuries have prevented Cal freshman RB Brendan Bigelow from playing in two years, but he could see action this week. ... Oregon figures to be without its leading tackler this week. LB Michael Clay left practice earlier this week on crutches. With Clay out, Kiko Alonso is the likely starter in the middle and Dewitt Stuckey will move to Clay's spot on the weakside. ... Oregon State G Josh Andrews, originally expected to miss up to four weeks with a sprained MCL and contusion in his right knee, is now out indefinitely. ... Stanford is allowing 28.5 rushing yards per game to rank second in the nation in run defense. ... Dating to last season, Utah LB Chaz Walker has posted four straight double-digit tackle totals. He had 11 last week against USC. ... Washington ranks seventh in the nation in run defense, but that's because opponents would rather pass. The Huskies are last in the nation in pass defense having allowed 806 yards in two games. But this week's opponent, Nebraska, is averaging just 177 passing yards per game. ... USC freshman Marcus Martin practiced earlier this week with the first-team offense at left guard in place of Martin Coleman, who has a shoulder injury.

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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