This is the seventh entry in an ongoing series between Ryan Priest and Alex Hyres. Each week, we'll look at the matchup between Washington and their opponent, give predictions for the game's outcome, and hopefully have a little fun along the way. Up this week is Stanford. Our previous chats can be found here: Boise State, Illinois, Idaho State, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon.
Ryan: Losing to your most hated rival is bad. Losing consecutive games to your most hated rival is worse. Losing ten consecutive games to your hated rival, whose fans are then permitted to refer to their streak as the "Decade of Dominance" ... well, I'm not sure there's a word in the English language that adequately conveys how that feels.
Saturday's 24–45 loss to the Ducks was hardly a surprise. Oregon is ranked as the No. 2 team in the nation for a reason: They have a multitude of weapons on offense, including perhaps the greatest quarterback currently playing college football in Marcus Mariota; they play a suffocating defense, especially in the secondary; and perhaps most importantly, they don't make mistakes. Washington has leaped innumerable hurdles and overcome legions of challenges to arrive as one of the two or three best 4–2 teams in the country, and their losses against No. 5 Stanford on the road and No. 2 Oregon at home are nothing to be ashamed of, but damn—it would have been nice to have pulled off the upset on a weekend in which the Dawgs were ranked No. 16 and hosted ESPN's College Gameday crew.
If Washington and Oregon both win out, though, Oregon will go to the national championship game, leaving UW, Stanford and UCLA to likely duke it out to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. If that came to pass, I can't imagine too many Washington fans would hate that arrangement.
Now that the visceral reactions to Saturday's loss to Oregon have died down, what are your takeaways from the game, and how can they be applied to this week's opponent in the Arizona State Sun Devils?
Alex: The Decade of Dominance mantra is certainly grating and annoying, yet it's true. The Huskies will not have returned to the top of college football until they manage to defeat the Ducks. Fortunately for the Huskies, when that does happen it means they have knocked off not only a top team in the Pac-12 but also a top team in the nation. While the loss to Oregon was extremely frustrating, there are some positives to take away from that game for now.
The first that comes to mind is the scenario you mentioned with Washington amongst a group of teams eligible to represent the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl. I have a hard time imagining the Stanford staying with the Oregon this year, based on the way that the Huskies manhandled the Cardinal fronts on both sides of the ball. UCLA's defense may be able to stop the Oregon offense in spurts, but—as the Huskies found out last Saturday—Oregon takes advantage of turnovers and empty possessions like no one else in the nation. So if the Huskies win out, including a game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, all the teams could finish with a 10-2 record before the Pac-12 Championship Game. In this scenario it seems likely that UCLA would represent the South Division against the North Division's representative Oregon. If Oregon beats UCLA and ends up in the National Championship, then the Rose Bowl officials would have their choice of Pac-12 team. The Huskies need to re-focus quickly against a good Arizona St. team to give this scenario a chance. All of this is hypothetical, but it should be a reminder to Husky fans that not all is lost after two consecutive losses to highly-ranked opponents.
Another positive from the game is the play of Bishop Sankey. Sankey's production since the second half of last season has been nothing short of remarkable, even at a school with a storied history of running backs. Some will take issue with his poorly timed fumble, but it is unreasonable to believe that a back will make it through the whole season without a fumble especially considering that the ball was knocked loose by a helmet on the ball. The Bishop proved again against the Ducks that he produces against bad defenses, good defenses, or great defenses—no matter what, he's going to get his. The Huskies can expect that this midseason All-American will continue to produce, wearing down opponent defenses late in the game against teams with fast-tempo offenses such as Arizona State. No one can stop the Bishop.
The final positive from the game was the Husky defense's ability to handle the pace of the Oregon offense. While the defense gave up too many explosive plays—especially in the passing game—they managed to handle the Oregon offense pace into the fourth quarter. There will not be a team for the remainder of the season that will operate with that pace or efficiency. Arizona St. will try to play the game at a similar pace; however, UW matches up better with their athletes and I have a hard time believing that Taylor Kelly will play a better game than Marcus Mariota.
What do you think are the keys to a UW victory against Arizona St.?
Ryan: The Huskies winning Saturday's game will be contingent on many factors, but two leap to the forefront of my mind: The offensive line's ability to shake off a couple of mediocre performances against high-level competition and again play technically sound football, and the ability of the coaching staff to properly motivate the squad.
Last year, Washington finished a tough three-game stretch against Stanford, Oregon and USC by going 1-2 in those games and 3-3 overall in the season's first half. Faced with an opportunity to begin their second-half schedule that featured decidedly easier competition with a convincing win, the Huskies went to Arizona and instead got their doors blown off in a 52–17 laugher. Fast forward one year, and the Huskies are again coming off two tough losses with a chance for redemption in the desert, this time against Arizona State. If Washington again lays an egg and completes a three-game losing streak for the fifth consecutive time under Steve Sarkisian, we'll again start to hear murmurs of a hot seat, which would have been unthinkable just two weeks ago.
Of course, one major factor in Washington's embarrassment in Tucson last year was the horrific play of the offensive line, which allowed Arizona to sack Keith Price four times (the Wildcats had just 16 sacks during the entire season) and make seven tackles for loss, more than they had against any team not named Toledo. This year, UW's line has played much better, though they've struggled against the elite front sevens of Stanford and Oregon, due in no small part to the ability of the starters to play healthy. Starting left guard Dexter Charles is banged up and questionable for Saturday's game, but he's backed up by a multi-year starter in Eric Kohler, who is himself recovering from chronic foot and knee injuries. UW needs to play a statement game in which they make it clear that their No. 20 ranking is no fluke.
Also, before I sign off, I couldn't agree with you more regarding Sankey. The kid is an absolute treat to watch, and we'd better appreciate him while we can: At this rate, I'll be amazed if we see him return to Washington for his senior season.
My question for you regards Washington's pass defense. They entered the Oregon game as one of the nation's elite units (at least statistically), and proceeded to get shredded, diced, dissected and any other adjectives you can think of by Marcus Mariota and his receivers Josh Huff and Bralon Addison. Did Oregon provide a blueprint for teams to attack the Washington secondary? How do you think they measure up against a pass-first ASU offense this weekend?
Alex: The only blueprint that Oregon provided for teams to attack the Washington secondary is to recruit mobile quarterbacks that don't turn the ball over and multiple receivers with speed, speed, and more speed. There is not a team in the Pac-12—let alone the nation—that has Oregon's combination of a future NFL quarterback and a plethora of playmakers that operate at such a rapid pace between plays.
While I don't believe there is a blueprint for beating the Washington secondary because they will have superior athletes to the offenses they will play for the remainder of the season, I do think it is essential for the secondary to maintain good eye discipline. Arizona State will attempt to move the eyes of the Washington defenders using pre-snap motion and play-action. As long as the Husky defenders stay disciplined with their eyes, there is no reason they can't hold the Sun Devil offense in check.
I'm not sold on the Sun Devil offense, especially against a Husky defense that has been excellent outside of the game against Oregon. After playing Oregon, Washington will feel like they're playing a junior varsity squad. This game will be a statement for Husky defense and Justin Wilcox.
Ryan: Alright, it's time to put our (figurative) money where our (literal) mouths are. In the past, I would have been hesitant to call this game a win for Sarkisian's Huskies. Arizona State is a team that has flirted multiple times with a top-25 ranking this year, and has played much better in at home this year than they have on the road, to the tune of scoring 50.8 points at home versus 31 away from Tempe. Conversely, Washington is fighting two stigmas, those being their failure to play well on the road in previous years and their inability to be competitive against ranked teams (Washington is just 7-17 against reams ranked in the top-25 under Sarkisian).
UW fans have waited years for Washington to turn the corner on both of those bugaboos, and I think that this is the year that they do so. Consider, for example, that Washington has been ranked for six consecutive weeks for the first time since 2002, and that they have turned in strong road efforts this year against an improving Illinois team and a Rose Bowl contender in Stanford. UW finally has the horses, the coaches and the conditioning to compete with the best in the conference, even if they're not ready to take the championship for themselves.
Sarkisian has long stated that his ultimate goal is elevating this team back to the pinnacle of the Pac-12, and there's no way to do that without winning games like Saturday's. I think that Washington comes out firing on all cylinders and does exactly that, and in convincing fashion. Washington 48, Arizona State 28.
Alex: Steve Sarkisian has done a lot to rebuild the Washington football program. His greatest work has been restoring player confidence and belief in the program. Not only are the Huskies a more athletic and better conditioned team, but I believe they are also a more mentally-tough team. Their mental toughness has been tested over the past few weeks.
In the past few seasons, the Huskies have suffered three game losing streaks that have ruined promising starts. If the Huskies are going to show growth in the fifth year of Sarkisian's tenure, they must show mental toughness and win this game.
I predict that the Huskies will win behind a career game from Bishop Sankey, with good games from Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kasen Williams taking advantage of the play-action game. The defense will be dominant and assert themselves as one of the best units in the Pac-12. I'll call it Washington Huskies 42, Arizona State Sun Devils 21.