After back-to-back close contests the last two Saturday's the UW football team returns to the road for a night game in the desert on Saturday against Arizona State.
The game opened with ASU as a three point favorite and has increased to as much as seven at some of the houses in Las Vegas. A couple of clues for the run up is the proximity of Vegas to Phoenix and the obvious edge ASU holds in the stats in comparison to Washington this season. What the stats don't explain is strength of schedule but the odds makers and gamblers seem to be ignoring that key factor.
I really don't blame them because if I was an impartial gambler I would take ASU. The game is in their home stadium. The game is on a grass field. Most importantly those defensive numbers even held together in losses to two respectable opponents...OSU and Georgia.
I picked Washington because of a few different factors. Locker is a mobile QB that will challenge the Devil defense a lot more than the big immobile QB's at Georgia and Oregon State. Washington has been tough in the red zone all season and that isn't likely to change on Saturday night. ASU's field goal kicker is every questionable because of a groin injury and the replacement missed two PAT's last week at WSU. ASU won't get into the red zone as much as Arizona did and zero's rather than three's can be fatal in a game like this.
Even more important is the propensity of ASU to turn the ball over. They turned it over six times against WSU last week. If they turn it over half as much against Washington they are going to be in serious trouble. The other side of the story is ASU is just as adept at getting the opposition to turn over the ball. They have an incredible plus 7 ratio in the department despite turning the ball over six times last week. Washington has to minimize the errors to beat the Sun Devils. Yards will be tough enough to get without giving an anemic Sun Devil offense the advantage of a short field by turning the ball over.
Like every game left on the schedule this season it is going to be a grind it out, sit on the edge of your seat type of affair. Like we have said since the LSU and USC games...Washington has the ability to beat every team left on the schedule. They also have the ability to lose every game except for WSU.
Quarterback - Washington - Jake Locker is the best QB in the conference and Danny Sullivan is in danger of losing his job to a true freshman. Sullivan will benefit from a short passing game on Saturday. The question is how long will it take him to throw a pick six with one of his wild throws? A bigger question is how long will Erickson wait to put 6'8 Brock Osweiler in the game?
Running Back - Even - ASU has been able to run the ball this season when they have wanted to. Washington struggled to get a running game going last week against Arizona. The ASU front seven is just as good as the one Washington faced last week. ASU needs to work on eliminating errors. They need to hang onto the ball. The return of Johri Fogerson gives UW a little more depth and creativity at the RB spot.
Wide Receivers - Washington - ASU potentially could have its two leading receivers out on Saturday. Both McGaha (Flu) and Williams (Hamstring) have had big games recently. Washington has more overall depth and everyone is healthy this week. ASU had to activate a true frosh this week to gain some depth. Devin Aguilar had two TD passes against Arizona and has the team's second-best per-catch average at 15.0. Last years leading receiver D'Andre Goodwin returns this week after sitting out the Arizona game with a concussion. Jordan Polk is out for a couple weeks with a cartilage tear.
Tight End - Washington - Kavario Middleton has had two strong games in a row for Washington. ASU lost their starting TE last weekend for six weeks with a broken jaw. Kavario has seven catches for 73 yards and one touchdown in the last two games.
Offensive Line - Washington - This is one of those rare times when I give the UW OL a decided edge. ASU has one of the worst lines in the conference. Washington's line has been serviceable so far this season. They seem to give Locker enough time and Polk seems to be able to get his yards when they go to him. The big question of course is how they will cope with one of the best front 7's they have seen this year. Could that negate the advantage?
Defensive Line - Arizona State - This is a really good front four that is coming off a 12 sack game. Does Washington even have close to that number all season? The UW defensive line needs to get pressure on the QB this week and force some errors. The Huskies are tough against the run. Stanford was the only team to expose so far this season. ASU will come after Locker all day long.
Linebacker - Even - Washington has matched up and played well against every team on the schedule with this experienced unit. Nixon and Burfict are having great seasons for ASU. This is pretty much of a tossup. The power factor is ASU has the better defensive line at this point. You put both the front units together and you have an excellent front seven.
Secondary - Arizona State - Omar Bolden hasn't been healthy this season but is a possibility this weekend. His lack of health has held back this unit. If he was healthy I would rank the ASU secondary in top four of the conference. I think UW and ASU are pretty even back here but I hesitate to give UW the edge with Justin Glenn out for the season. The return of Nate Williams and Jason Wells are a big plus for Washington. UW should have more scheme options this week to battle the short passing game.
Special Teams - Washington - ASU missed a couple of PAT's last week and are auditioning kickers. ASU PK Thomas Weber (groin) is listed as questionable. The 2007 Lou Groza Award winner has missed the past four games. Washington has a decent coverage game and Erik Folk has been rock sold when called upon. Chris Polk gave the return game a boost last week. Now if only Will Mahan can catch all his snaps this weekend. His miscue in the third quarter almost cost Washington the game.
Game Match ups
Washington running game versus the Arizona State defense
Nobody has been able to run on Arizona State this season. Both Georgia and Oregon State which sport pretty good rushing offenses were held under 100 yards by the Sun Devil defense. Washington has seen some pretty good front seven's this year. They will spend the time it takes to try to establish a running game. Chris Polk is one of the toughest backs in the conference. He carries people with him after contact for important extra yards.
Jake Locker who didn't run much this season till last weekend again will be called upon to run the ball this weekend. The Devils are aggressive and like to blitz which means the opportunity is there for Locker to anticipate that, step up, and take off. When Jake gets into the secondary it is tough to catch up with him since he is the fastest player on the field.
Washington Passing Game versus the Arizona State defense
Jake is the top QB in the Pac 10 this season. He is a playmaker that can make things happen at any time. This week he is going to have the opportunity to burn the Devils deep. If he can hit his receivers in stride early when the Devils are exposed by the blitz it could give Washington a few early lightning strikes. The ASU offense does not perform well while trailing.
The key for Washington is avoiding the pass rush and scheming around it. These guys sacked WSU 12 times last weekend. We all know WSU sucks but that is still pretty impressive. Locker's mobility is a big plus but as we have seen on past games it is possible to sack Jake Locker. The offensive line really has to bring their A game on Saturday.
The Huskies have to open up ASU's defense enough to get some play-action going. If Jake has the time he has the potential to light up ASU with both his arm and his feet.
Arizona State rushing game versus the Washington defense
Arizona State is proficient at running the ball but Washington should be able to control this portion of the game forcing the game onto Danny Sullivan's shoulders. I really don't expect the Devils to run that much on Saturday night. Erickson has seen the film from last week’s game and I think he will choose to move the ball with a short and wide high percentage passing game.
The coaches have been happy with Alameda Ta'amu lately. They think he did a pretty good job plugging the middle last week against Arizona. Everrette Thompson is also getting good marks after moving inside. The coaches like the speed he is bringing to the middle this season.
Erickson primarily runs a lot of one back stuff. He spreads the field and that usually gives his running backs some room to move. Expect Thompson's speed to be a factor. UW will have to substitute liberally because of the early heat.
Arizona State passing game versus the Washington Defense
Danny Sullivan gets a lot of the blame for a tepid Sun Devil offense. Sullivan threw three interceptions against the Cougars last weekend and Brock Osweiler fumbled a snap. If the Devils continue to make the same mistakes against a much tougher Washington defense they are going to be in for a long night.
Like I said earlier Erickson is likely to opt for a short passing game to help take the pressure off his maligned QB. It worked well for Arizona last week and in this conference once a weakness is exposed teams will continue to prey on that weakness until you prove you can stop it.
A big reason Arizona had so much success last week with the bubble screen was the fact that UW was shorthanded in the secondary. The Calvary arrives in the form of Nate Williams and Jason Wells this week. Having Williams available gives Washington a lot more options. Wells isn't back to full speed yet in fact he may never get back to full speed. If UW can get 15-20 or so quality snaps out of him this week it will be a big plus.
ASU likes to split things out three wide and go to the sidelines. UW had a tough time defending that type of stuff last week so they need to come up with an early answer for it. Sullivan will work out of the shot gun quite a bit to avoid the rush and will be called on to release quickly.
Playing on the road at Sun Devil stadium isn't easy when it is packed. The Huskies are in luck this week. The Devils haven't been drawing that well this season. Washington travels well to the desert and there are plenty of Husky fans who live in the area who will show up at the game.
ASU committed six turnovers against WSU last week. Washington needs to take advantage of that.
The possible return of place kicker Thomas Weber could be crucial to the Sun Devil hopes of winning this game. Washington has been shutting down opponents in the red zone this season and limiting them to field goals. ASU missed two PAT's against WSU last week. If Weber isn't ready to go the potential of those three's turning into zeros in the red zone is very possible.
Chris Polk and possible Curtis Shaw are going to be the primary kickoff return men this week.
This isn't Dennis Erickson's first rodeo. He is one of the best collegiate coaches in the nation. He knows how to put his team in a position to win.
Curtis Shaw on how he feels being left out of the offense so far this season:
"Sometimes it just happens this way," Shaw said. "There’s always someone better than you out there. We’ve got a running back that’s doing good right now, and he’s hot. We just want to keep it going until the flame runs out - hopefully it doesn’t. You roll with what goes. Right now we’re going with him because we’re getting good results: We just got a (win over Arizona). It doesn’t really matter (who plays). As long as we win, it doesn’t really matter. A ‘W’ is a ‘W’ no matter what."
Coach Steve Sarkisian on the possibility of a Rose Bowl:
"I think of it that way, in the fact we still have an opportunity for it. In reality, I like our guys thinking about this game (against ASU)," Sarkisian said after practice Wednesday. "But when there’s something still sitting there for you to accomplish, it’s nice to look at it to know, ‘Man, the hard work I put in today might help us accomplish something down the road.’ "
Redshirt freshman Chris Polk is third in the conference in carries (115) and has 486 yards rushing. No running back in the league makes up more of his team’s rushing totals than the Redlands, Calif., product.
ASU has a young team. On this week’s depth chart for the game at Arizona State, half of the 22 starters are either sophomores or freshmen.
The Huskies give up 161.3 rushing yards per game, second-to-last in the conference. Their 418 total yards given up per game also is ninth in the Pac-10.
The Huskies are averaging more return yards on punts (18.5, best in Pac-10) than on kickoffs (18.3, worst in Pac-10). That is a big reason that Chris Polk has stepped in the the KO return role.
Daniel Teo Nesheim has 21 career sacks rank No. 7 all-time for Washington in that category with at least six games left in his college career.
CB Quinton Richardson is in danger of losing his starting to Adam Long who has had the majority of snaps with the first unit the week.
Offensive tackle Nick Scott (shoulder) and defensive end Kalani Aldrich (knee) are iffy to play against ASU. Both are listed as day to day.
In three consecutive games, the UW has scored a touchdown on defense. The UW sports information department, which has access to records that go back to the mid-1940s, discovered earlier this week that the three-straight-game feat had never before been done at the school.
UW opponents are 17-for-17 on field goals this season.
ASU CB Omar Bolden may have to sit out on Saturday with a knee injury. That would be a blow for the Sun Devil secondary.
ASU is first in the conference in total defense (221.8) and second in scoring defense (15.8 points per game).
ASU QB Danny Sullivan is 93 of 174 for 1,008 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions so far in 2009.
Dimitri Nance is the leading Sun Devil ball carrier. He has 89 carries for 366 yards and five touchdowns.
UW holds a 15-13 edge in the all-time series with ASU. Arizona State won 39-19 last year in Seattle.
The Huskies currently rank fifth in the nation with a third-down conversion rate of 53.33 percent (48-of-90). Their 48 successful conversions are the second-most of any team in the country. In the red zone, Washington has scored 19 of 21 times this season, with only a lost fumble and a loss of downs marring a perfect record. That 19-for-21 mark (.905) rates 28th (tied) in the country.
On defense, the Huskies have also had remarkable red-zone success. While opponents have scored in 25 of 30 attempts, they’ve been held to a field goal on 14 of those 25 scores, meaning that opponents have scored a touchdown on only 11 of 30 (.367) trips inside the UW 20-yard line.
UW's first six opponents are 22-5 excluding games against the Huskies -- only Virginia Tech and Florida State have faced opponents with a better combined record.