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Led by its unheralded, unflappable sophomore quarterback, Washington has suddenly become a contender in the Pac-12

The most surprising player on the Pac-12's most surprising team doesn't have people asking, "Jake who?" quite yet. But he does have them asking, "Who is Keith Price?"

Price is the smiling, imperturbable sophomore quarterback for the 4--1 Washington Huskies, who were expected to struggle to replace first-round NFL draft pick Jake Locker.

A little-known quarterback at St. John Bosco High in the L.A. suburb of Bellflower, Calif., Price was eclipsed by USC-bound Matt Barkley, who played in the same league. In 2009, Barkley was's top-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect. Price was judged by the Contra Costa Times to be the 80th-best player ... in California.

While Barkley is having a fine season, Price has the higher quarterback rating (173.7 to 162.0) and has thrown more touchdown passes—his 17 scoring strikes are tied for second in the nation. Price has played at such a consistently high level that Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was surprised to see him jittery and out of rhythm in the first half at Utah on Oct. 1.

"He wasn't seeing things as clearly," Sarkisian recalls, "and I wasn't calling as good a game as I should have." With the Huskies nursing a 10--7 halftime lead in hostile Rice-Eccles Stadium, the coach asked Price to stand on a stool in the locker room. With the entire team looking on, expecting ... what? Fireworks? A dressing down?—Sarkisian asked, "Can we get back to playing Keith Price football? Is that O.K.? Can we do that now?"

"Sure, Coach, we can do that now," said Price with a smile. The squad erupted, "and away we went," says Sarkisian. A more relaxed, patient Price threw three second-half touchdowns in Washington's 31--14 victory.

Price has been the beneficiary of the talents of junior tailback Chris Polk, who rushed for 189 yards on 29 carries against the Utes, and a vastly improved defense that forced five Utah turnovers. Washington didn't play last week. Seldom has a bye come at a better time for a quarterback: Price had been playing with two sprained knees and a twisted left ankle.

That made the grit he displayed at Nebraska on Sept. 17 all the more impressive. The Cornhuskers won 51--38, but fans of the Huskies learned a lot about their quarterback, who, despite his limited mobility, led three fourth-quarter touchdown drives. "[Keith is] loose and happy-go-lucky," says Sarkisian, "but under that he's a warrior and a competitor."

After hosting struggling Colorado (1--5) this Saturday, Washington faces seventh-ranked Stanford, No. 9 Oregon and USC in a four-week span. The Huskies will be underdogs to the Cardinal and the Ducks. But they might surprise you too, especially if they're playing Keith Price football.

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DEEP PURPLE Price once played second fiddle to USC's Barkley, who starred at a rival high school; now he's tied for second in the nation with 17 TD passes.