WSU a sleeper pick? Pac-12 notables weigh in

CULVER CITY, Calif. – Despite being picked by the media to finish last in the North Division, there were players and coaches in the Pac 12 Conference here who believe Wazzu might be the one team flying under the radar.

"Probably," UCLA coach Jim Mora said when asked if the Cougs are underrated. "Mike Leach does a great job. He's a guy that knows how to maximize his talent and he's got a great offensive mind. They might sneak up on some people."

If the experts in the media are to be believed, the Cougs will have a chance to sneak up on everyone. Wazzu dropped eight in a row before knocking off rival Washington in a 31-28 overtime victory in the 2012 season-finale to finish 3-9 overall, 1-9 in conference.

Mora said he's pleased the Bruins don't have to play WSU this season.

"That was a wild one last year," he said regarding UCLA's 44-36 win last season, a game in which the Cougs trailed 37-7 at halftime before rallying behind five touchdown passes by quarterback Connor Halliday. "They took the ball and drove in down our throats a couple of times. We blocked a couple of kicks. But I think we snuck out of there with a lucky win quite frankly. It was a great game. I love their resiliency."

Oregon is the pick in a preseason poll of media members who cover the conference. Fourteen of the 25 voters picked the Ducks over Stanford to finish first in the North Division, with Oregon also receiving the nod to win the Pac-12 title game.

Oregon State (91 points) was pegged to finish third in the division, while Washington was fourth (81 points). Cal was picked fifth (45 points), as voters predicted the Cougs will finish in the cellar.

"They've got a lot of great players, so I feel like they can be a lot better than a lot of people expect them to be," said Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who will make his first trip to Pullman when the Beavers visit on Oct. 12. "They're a good team."

Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, who threw four touchdown passes in a 46-7 rout over Wazzu last season at Tempe, says he expects a hostile atmosphere when the Sun Devils visit on Oct. 31. Kelly said the memory of Arizona State's 37-27 loss in Pullman in 2011 remains a vivid one.

"I'm excited to go play up there on Thursday night on Halloween," Kelly said. "We played in the snow a couple of years ago and that was a fun experience. It was crazy. Their fans are fun. They remind me of our fans. Just crazy, particularly the student section. It's funny to hear what they have to say and the signs they make."

ASU All-American nose tackle Will Sutton agreed with Kelly regarding the atmosphere. But the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year last season and one of its most feared defenders added the Sun Devils need to win at Pullman. He said it won't be easy.

"Oh man, the last time we went to Pullman they got us," Sutton said. "Seven-thirty game. Snowing. Oh man. I embraced it though. I had fun. But we lost. We've got to go there again, though. The main thing (our) coaches are harping on is this ‘red light, green light' thing, meaning everything in the red light is something you can't control like weather, the time of the game and what someone else can do. You can control what's in the green light like yourself and executing your plays."

"You just have to put a long sleeve on and go play. Stay warm and stay loose and play. They've got those heated benches now. A lot of times you get the guys who don't play a lot who take up the benches so you have to get them up off them. But I'm looking forward to it."

So are Coug fans.

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