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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '94 / Season Previews : PAC-10 CONFERENCE PREVIEW : Spotlight Shines on Quarterbacks, but Defense Is Key

August 28, 1994|DAN HAFNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of the preseason talk about Pacific 10 Conference football has been about the abundance of quarterbacks, and rightly so.

As many as half a dozen of them figure to be among the best in the country. Some are genuine Heisman Trophy candidates and a number are on the NFL's "most-wanted" list.

But as Rob Johnson, Steve Stenstrom, Danny O'Neil, Dave Barr, Wayne Cook and others figure to take over the spotlight, let us not forget that another reason for the Pac-10's return to national prominence in recent years has been defense.

When Washington opened the '90s with its powerhouse teams, the Huskies were especially strong on defense. That prompted the rest of the teams to shore up their defenses, and it is becoming a tradition.

NCAA violations have hurt the Huskies, but Arizona has taken up the slack. However, it was not until the Wildcats humiliated Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, 29-0, that Pac-10 hitting received its proper recognition.

During the regular season, the Wildcats were No. 1 in the nation against the run--giving up a mere 331 yards in 11 games--and No. 2 in overall defense.

But it took the drubbing of Miami to put Arizona and Pac-10 defense into the limelight.

"As badly as we wanted to go to the Rose Bowl, the performance against Miami gave us credibility we never would have gotten by going to the Rose Bowl," Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said. "Allowing Miami to cross midfield only once was an eye-catcher for the rest of the nation. Now we have to prove it was not a fluke."

The Fiesta Bowl victory, in which quarterback Dan White proved that Arizona also had an offense, gave Arizona a 10-2 record, the finest in its 90-year history.

With six regulars from the powerful defense returning, the Wildcats are favored to win the title this season and earn their first trip to the Rose Bowl.

Their key player may well be free safety Tony Bouie, a senior from New Orleans who readily accepts the challenge of facing an outstanding passer every week.

"I think it's great," he said. "If you can do your job against the likes of Rob Johnson, Dave Barr, Steve Stenstrom, Danny O'Neil and the rest of them, you will know you're something special. It will be like going up against an NFL quarterback every week."

Although Arizona is the choice, competition is deep, largely because so many teams have quarterbacks capable of taking a team all the way.

Washington is once again ineligible, Oregon State is still rebuilding and Washington State may have run out of outstanding passers. But all the other schools think they have an offensive leader who can take them to the Rose Bowl.

Here in alphabetical order is the rundown on the Pac-10 teams, except USC and UCLA, with overall and conference records in 1993:

* ARIZONA

(10-2, 6-2, tied for first)

The Wildcats no longer are a one-dimensional team, but they still are impressive defenders.

Besides Bouie, an all-conference free safety, five other starters from the group that held highly rated Miami to 35 yards rushing are back: end Tedy Bruschi, a second-team All-American; linebacker Sean Harris, strong safety Brandon Sanders, tackle Jim Hoffman and cornerback Claudius Wright.

Hoffman could be the best defensive lineman Arizona has had in his eight seasons at Arizona, Tomey says. Apparently, the Wildcats don't expect to miss Outland Trophy winner Rob Waldrop, the two-time consensus All-American nose guard.

The Wildcats' only tough nonconference game figures to be the opener against Georgia Tech. In conference play, they don't meet Washington. The key to the Rose Bowl could be their Nov. 12 game against USC at the Coliseum.

* ARIZONA STATE

(6-5, 4-4, tied for fourth)

The media tabbed the Sun Devils for seventh place in their third season under former Cal coach Bruce Snyder, but Snyder thinks quarterback Jake Plummer might lift the Sun Devils into contention.

As a freshman last season, Plummer became the starter in the Oregon game and took the Devils to a 4-2 finish, including a 41-0 rout of California and a 9-3 victory over UCLA.

"I don't know if I got better, but I know I got smarter," said Plummer, who completed 102 of 199 passes for 1,650 yards and nine touchdowns. "I learned some things that I think helped a lot."

To improve on last season, however, the Sun Devils will have to find replacements for Mario Bates, who ran for 1,111 yards, and first-round draft choice Shante Carver, a premier pass rusher.

* CALIFORNIA

(9-4, 4-4, tied for fourth)

The Bears have only two players back from the group that led the conference in offense last season and averaged 31 points a game. But one is Dave Barr, who has passed for 40 touchdowns the last two seasons.

How important is Barr? Before he was hurt last season, the Bears were 5-0. But Barr sat out all or parts of the next four games and the Bears lost all of them. When he got back in to stay, the Bears finished 4-0, including a 37-3 romp over Iowa in the Alamo Bowl.

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